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The Voices of Mikhail Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin

by Katerina Clark, by Michael Holquist
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 398 pp., $25.00

Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle

by Tzvetan Todorov, translated by Wlad Godzich
University of Minnesota Press, 132 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics

by Mikhail Bakhtin, edited and translated by Caryl Emerson, introduction by Wayne C. Booth
University of Minnesota Press, 333 pp., $14.95 (paper)


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 to soil its hands with commerce; his grandfather had founded a bank, and his father worked as manager in various branches. His parents were cultivated and liberal, and the Bakhtin children (he had three sisters and an older brother, Nikolai, who went into exile and ended his days as chairman of the linguistics department at the University of Birmingham1 ) were given a careful and superior education. Mikhail learned German at a very early age from a governess, who also instilled in the brothers a reverence for classical culture. Both eventually became classical scholars, and Bakhtin’s extensive knowledge of Greek and Latin literature is everywhere evident in his work. Clark and Holquist also note the influence of Nietzsche and of Russian Symbolism (particularly of the poet and scholar Vyacheslav Ivanov, whose writings on Dostoevsky anticipate Bakhtin’s own views). At age fifteen Mikhail also began to read Martin Buber and Kierkegaard, and was so impressed with the second that he tried to learn Danish.2

Bakhtin studied at the University of St. Petersburg between 1914 and 1918, and there came into contact with the person he called “the closest thing to a teacher I ever had.” He was referring to F.F. Zelinsky, a Polish-Russian classicist of international reputation, whose ideas, in some sense, Bakhtin can be said to have drawn on all his life, though he extended them in ways going far beyond the study of the past. Zelinsky had conjectured that “all types of literature were already present in antiquity,” and Bakhtin maintains that the modern novel (particularly beginning with Dostoevsky) is really a latter-day version of the Menippean satire, which goes back to the third century BC. For Zelinsky, the dialogue form was “the literary expression of philosophical freedom,” and Bakhtin elevated the notion of dialogue into the basis of a world view incorporating a metaphysics of freedom. Zelinsky also stressed the importance of the folk element in the culture of antiquity, and the subversive role of the satyr play in undermining the official culture—just as Bakhtin was to do with the folk elements in Rabelais that parodied and exploded the high culture of the Renaissance.

On graduating from the university in 1918, Bakhtin lived for two years in the provincial town of Nevel and then moved to neighboring Vitebsk, which had by then become a center of avant-garde art. Chagall, who was born there, had returned to found a museum and academy of art, which was then taken over by Kasimir Malevich and turned into a cradle of the Suprematist style. Sergei Eisenstein, who passed through Vitebsk in 1920, noted with astonishment that the walls of the houses had been whitewashed and were covered with “green circles, orange squares and blue rectangles.” Bakhtin and his friends (the first of the circles that were to form around him) read Kant and Hegel, Saint Augustine and Vladimir Soloviev, and Vyacheslav Ivanov’s books on the Dionysiac elements of Greek religion, which bore such strong and strange resemblances to the dying God of Christianity. To keep alive, Bakhtin taught in a high school, gave numerous lectures, and worked as a bookkeeper and economic consultant. Having suffered from a bone disease since childhood, he also received a small pension as an invalid, which was his only regular income for many years. Luckily, his devoted wife Elena Aleksandrovna, whose image appears in a touching photograph snapped shortly after their marriage, took charge of their finances and miraculously managed to make ends meet.

Four years later he moved to Leningrad, where most of his original circle were already living. Clark and Holquist’s chapters on these Leningrad years provide a more detailed account of the Bakhtin circle, which now included musicians, writers, natural scientists, and scholars in diverse disciplines, some of extraordinary gifts and considerable attainments. One member later became artistic director of the Leningrad Philharmonic; another was a famous pianist (whose talent, if rumor is right, was appreciated by Stalin), and who played Shostakovich, Hindemith, and Bartók when it was hardly politic to do so; a third translated Spengler and Wölfflin into Russian; and there was, as well, a petroleum geologist, a biologist, and a specialist in Buddhism and ancient Indian and Bengali literature. What united all these people, aside from friendship, was an intense spiritual need and intellectual curiosity that could not find nourishment in the prevailing cultural climate; and so they supplied what was lacking by their own efforts.

Here is one description of the activities of the group given by Clark and Holquist:

The Bakhtin circle was not in any sense a fixed organization. They were simply a group of friends who loved to meet and debate ideas and who had philosophical interests in common…. Usually one of the group prepared a short synopsis or review of a philosophical work and read this to the circle as a basis for discussion. The range of topics covered was wide, including Proust, Bergson, Freud, and above all questions of theology. Occasionally one member gave a lecture series to the others. The most famous of these was a course of eight lectures on Kant’s Critique of Judgment given by Bakhtin in early 1925.

None of this was in accord with the Marxist ideas favored by the reigning authorities, and the pronounced interest in theology would of course have been particularly suspect. Indeed, it was Bakhtin’s theological orientation that soon led to his fateful brush with the power of the state.

Despite all their laudable efforts, which produce a good deal of quite interesting information about minuscule religious groups of the 1920s, Clark and Holquist are unable to turn up much solid material concerning Bakhtin’s religious convictions. Aside from the indisputable fact that he was known to be “a believer in the Orthodox tradition,” very little can be said specifically about the doctrinal nature of this allegiance. He was, however, associated with the Voskresenie group (the word means “resurrection”), one of whose animators was Georgii P. Fedotov, later a professor at Harvard, who wrote what is unquestionably one of the great modern analyses of Russian culture, The Russian Religious Mind (unfortunately left incomplete at the time of his death in 1951). This is not primarily a study of theology, but a brilliant example of what now would be called histoire des mentalités.

Fedotov believed at that time that “revolutionary Marxism [was] a Judeo-Christian apocalyptic sect,” and that it was inspired, particularly in Russia, by a “religious idea” that “hides a potential for Orthodoxy.” Bakhtin presumably felt much the same, though such a conclusion can only be inferential; and like Fedotov he probably “saw in communism the seeds of a superior social order.” Other members of the Bakhtin circle also attended meetings of the same group, whose social program “envisaged something like the communist ideal of the early church fathers” and was based on the Russian Orthodox conception of sobornost, or “togetherness”—a “true sense of community” whose initial Russian advocates, as Clark and Holquist fail to mention, had been the Slavophils. Bakhtin’s affiliation with such conventicles finally involved him in the Josephite schism of 1928, which refused to accept the decision of the Orthodox patriarch acknowledging the temporal power of the state over the Church. The October Revolution had freed the Church from the state control that had existed under czarism, and the Josephites did not wish to see it reestablished.

Arrested and sentenced to a prison term in the arctic Solovetsky Islands, which would have meant a speedy death, Bakhtin was saved by a series of circumstances. Mutual friends enlisted the aid of Aleksei Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky; and a favourable review of Bakhtin’s book on Dostoevsky happily appeared, written by no less a personage than the then commissar of enlightenment Anatoly Lunacharsky. A man of letters himself, about whom Clark and Holquist might have furnished a little more information, Lunacharsky could appreciate literary quality when he came across it and knew immediately that Bakhtin was no run-of-the-mill scholar. Since he had once written a large treatise on Religion and Socialism (1908), in which he had identified Marxism with true Christianity, Lunacharsky would have been especially responsive both to the underlying moral-religious implications of Bakhtin’s interpretation and his attempt to disengage Dostoevsky’s works from those particular ideological elements manifestly unacceptable to the Soviets.

  1. 1

    It is fascinating to learn that Nikolai Bakhtin was a friend of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein when they were together at Cambridge in the 1930s. Clark and Holquist report that Nikolai’s “conversations with Wittgenstein were one of the factors influencing the philosopher’s shift from the logical positivisim of the Tractatus to the more broadly speculative Philosophical Investigations.”

    Professor Brian McGuinness of Oxford University, an authority on Wittgenstein’s life, was kind enough to inform me that there is a solid basis for believing the influence of Nikolai Bakhtin on Wittgenstein to have been considerable.

  2. 2

    An article which appeared in an émigré journal simultaneously with the book of Clark and Holquist indicates that Bakhtin preserved his admiration for Martin Buber to the very end of his life. The author, who visited Bakhtin in a hospital sometime between 1969 and 1971 (the dates can be established because his wife was still present at his bedside) recalls another visitor asking him what he thought about Buber. The question was posed because a mutual friend, when queried about Bakhtin’s opinion of this thinker, had remained strangely silent.

    Bakhtin responded wearily that this mutual friend, being an anti-Semite, would not have wished to dwell on such a connection. But then he gave his own view: “Of Buber Mikhail Mikhailovich thinks that he—Buber—is the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, and perhaps, in this philosophically puny century, perhaps the sole philosopher on the scene.” Bakhtin then went on to explain that while Nicholas Berdyaev, Lev Shestov, and Jean-Paul Sartre are all excellent examples of thinkers, there is a difference between them and philosophers. “But Buber is a philosopher. And I am very much indebted to him. In particular, for the idea of dialogue. Of course, this is obvious to anyone who reads Buber.”

    See Mariya Kaganskaya, “Shutovskoi Khorovod,” Sintaksis 12, 1984, p. 141. I am greatly indebted to my colleague at Stanford University, Professor Gregory Freidin, for his kindness in having called my attention to this article and providing me with a copy.

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