Algirdas Julien Greimas

(March 9, 1917 – February 27, 1992)

Algirdas Julien Greimas was born on March 9, 1917. He was part of the first generation that grew up in the independent Republic of Lithuania of 1918 and was encouraged to acquire a Western education. According to Greimas himself, he was an “ordinary Lithuanian student” of his time, who wanted to overthrow the president Smetona and liberate Vilnius, who looked for non-existent love and experienced the universal Weltschmerz or world-weariness.

Having graduated from the gymnasium, Greimas studied law at the Kaunas Vytautas Magnus University and philology at the University of Grenoble in France. During the war, he lived in Lithuania and worked as a teacher, translator and state official. He also took part in the anti-Soviet and the anti-Nazi resistence. While living in Kaunas, he met his first wife Ona Bagdonaitė. During the first Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Greimas’ parents were deported. With the second occupation approaching towards the end of the war, he fled to the West.

Throughout his live, Greimas was an active parcitipant in the Lithuanian expatriate movement, and cultivated relations with artists and intellectuals of Soviet Lithuania. In 1971 and in 1979, he gave lectures at Vilnius University, and after Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, he encouraged his students to come and read lectures, wrote a critical column in a local paper, proposed projects for a possible state politics.

A. J. Greimas, circa 1985. Photo from the family archive.
A. J. Greimas in Kaunas, 1935. Photo from a private collection.

Greimas described the experience of absurdity during the war as a “psychological background” for his scholarly activity of inquiry into meaning. Choosing to stay in France after the war, Greimas and Ona Bagdonaitė got married. In 1948, he successfully defended his doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne. Afterwards, he held a post in Alexandria, Egypt for almost 10 years. There, he got acquainted with Charles Singevin (whom he later referred to as his “teacher of thought”) and semiotician Roland Barthes, his long-time collaborator, as well as with various structuralist works that became the basis for his own principles of research. Later he spent several years teaching in Ankara, Turkey, and Poitiers, France.

Since 1965, Greimas was a director of studies at the Practical School for Advanced Studies in Paris and remained there for almost 25 years. He took part in the founding of several important structuralist journals and the International Association of Semiotic Studies, as well as the journal of his own group of researchers, Actes sémiotiques. He directed a semiolinguistic research group comprised of representatives of various disciplines. His seminars were attended by researchers from all over the world. Greimas incited constant novelty in research by founding workshops for different fields, thus securing the development of research projects initiated by him.

At the end of his life, Greimas married his second wife Teresa Mary Keane. He died on February 27, 1992, in Paris, and was buried next to his parents in the Kaunas Petrašiūnai Cemetery.