Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle
Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics
Twenty years ago, the name of Mikhail Bakhtin would hardly have been known outside Russia except to Slavic scholars, and even then only to those with a special interest in Dostoevsky. At the present time, however, the works of Bakhtin are exercising a considerable influence among literary critics and cultural historians not only in his native land but in Europe and the United States as well. Bakhtin is the only Soviet Russian scholar one can think of whose writings have radiated so far and so extensively beyond their native borders; and the phenomenon is all the more surprising because Bakhtin, though hardly a conventional Marxist-Leninist, did all he could to avoid conflict with the Soviet state while maintaining his intellectual independence.
The prestige his work enjoys in the West thus does not derive from any overt political dissidence or opposition to Soviet authority. It is purely a product of the appeal of his ideas and the insights they offer into issues that occupy his Western admirers. The situation is somewhat different in the Soviet Union, where his belated fame does originate, at least in part, from his struggle to evade the straitjacket of Soviet official thinking, and to keep alive some of the élan of the apocalyptic and millenarian Russian culture of the early part of this century and the immediate post-Revolutionary years—the culture that was suppressed by Stalinism. But if Bakhtin can be considered to have been unhappy with the narrowness and dogmatism of the Soviet cultural establishment, there is not the slightest reason to believe that he ever doubted the wisdom and ultimate validity of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Bakhtin, however, is not a product of the Revolution itself; he was formed in the ferment of the years immediately preceding this great upheaval. Very little about him personally was known until very recently; but thanks to the researches of the husband-and-wife team of Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, readers of their pioneering and enthusiastic critical biography now have more information at their disposal than the Russians themselves possess (at least in public print). Indeed, the work of Clark and Holquist, which is based on research in obscure Russian archives, and on personal interviews in the Soviet Union with people who knew Bakhtin personally or had the opportunity to obtain information about him, uncovers a hidden corner of Russian cultural life that continued to survive through the 1920s. In addition to Bakhtin himself, his milieu will prove of great fascination to all students of Russian culture; and since no work of this kind is likely to appear in the Soviet Union in the foreseeable future, one would not be surprised to learn eventually that it had been translated and was circulating in samizdat. By contrast, Tzvetan Todorov’s book is a slighter but valuable and scrupulous attempt to scrutinize Bakhtin’s thought in a more systematic fashion, and the two works complement each other very neatly.
Born in 1895, Bakhtin sprang from an old noble family that had deigned …