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This review is taken from PN Review 33, Volume 10 Number 1, September - October 1983.

UNDERSTANDING ALL, DOING NOTHING Tzvetan Todorov, Symbolism and Interpretation, translated by Catherine Porter (Routlege) £12.50

Books cross the Channel slowly. This book by Tzvetan Todorov, reaching us now in translation, was first published in 1978. We have heard much recently of post-structuralism and deconstruction, but Todorov is associated with the earlier, 'scientific' project of structuralism, and this work shows a fondness for descriptive classification, especially in terms of binary distinctions, which is, we may feel, typically structuralist. Todorov acknowledges, however, that his classifications and distinctions allow many overlaps and interfusions.

Symbolic interpretation, in Todorov's model, has two, obviously interrelated stages: the decision to interpret and the application of an interpretive strategy. In general, Todorov argues, the decision to interpret relates to a 'principle of pertinence': the less pertinent an utterance appears to be, the more necessary is interpretation. Two kinds of indices trigger interpretation: syntagmatic, relating to the context within which an utterance occurs, and paradigmatic, relating to prevailing cultural models of coherence, plausibility and propriety. Todorov subdivides syntagmatic indices into those based on lack - for example, an apparent contradiction between two segments of a text, exposing a gap that interpretation must fill in - and those based on excess - on verbal redundancy (tautology, for instance) that the interpreter must account for. Notable examples of paradigmatic indexes, in our secularized, science-dominated age, are the miracle stories of the Bible.

Todorov contends that modern literary criticism bases its interpretive practice on the paradigm of 'organic form'; interpretation strives to integrate the elements of a given work into an 'organic whole'. Thus, 'we are ill equipped to read ...


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