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Revealing Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics

by Gary Saul Morson, by Caryl Emerson
Stanford University Press, 530 pp., $14.95 (paper)

In the mid-1960s, a book called Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, by an unknown Russian then in his seventies, came to the notice of literary critics in the West. His other two main works, a book on Rabelais and a volume of essays on the novel, were then soon translated. Two decades later, in many academic circles in Europe and the US, Mikhail Bakhtin is regarded as one of the leading thinkers of this century. His work is at the center of sophisticated critical debate, which seems often to lose sight of what, to most of Bakhtin’s readers, is its main interest: the freshness and originality of his reading of Dostoevsky and Rabelais. If there is such a thing as “Bakhtinism,” it is here that one should begin to look for it.

Bakhtin did not seem destined to become the object of a cult. Born in 1895, to a cultivated gentry family in the provincial town of Orel, he studied philosophy and classics at St. Petersburg University. After the Revolution, plagued by severe ill health, he devoted himself to philosophical discussion within a small circle of friends, and to writing. The climate of the time made publication difficult. In 1929 his book Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics appeared; a thesis on Rabelais, completed in 1941, was published only twenty-four years later. Arrested in 1929 in a roundup of intellectuals, Bakhtin was exiled to Kazakhstan, where among other odd jobs he taught bookkeeping to collective farm members, while working on the theory of the novel. After the war he taught literature at the Teachers’ College (later University) of Saransk, a remote town east of Moscow.

He emerged from obscurity in the 1960s when a group of young Moscow scholars who admired his book on Dostoevsky were amazed to discover that he was still alive. That book was republished in an expanded edition and, together with Rabelais (published in 1965), it caused a sensation in Russian literary circles for its originality and independence from the ideological orthodoxy of the previous three decades. Brought back to Moscow, Bakhtin was treated as a celebrity by literary scholars. Confined by illness to his apartment in his last years, he continued to write until his death in 1975. Meanwhile, his work had become well known in the West through translations, and, later, through Michael Holquist and Katerina Clark’s pioneering biography published in 1984.1

Bakhtin’s book on Dostoevsky is an assault on two common critical approaches. One presented Dostoevsky as a great but undisciplined artist and deplored the lack of artistic coherence in what Henry James called his “loose and baggy monsters”; the other claimed that the unity of his works consisted in their Christian message. Bakhtin argued that Dostoevsky’s works were coherent, but in a new way. Their underlying artistic principle, he wrote, was “polyphony.” The traditional nineteenth-century novel was “monological,” that is, its characters were interpreted through a single evaluating consciousness—the omniscient author. But the Dostoevskian hero has a special sort of autonomy: “We see not who he is, but how he is conscious of himself.” Details of character and appearance—normally part of the author’s presentation of his hero—are frequently, for Dostoevsky’s characters, the subject of introspection and debate.

According to Bakhtin, Dostoevsky’s “Copernican revolution” in depicting character began with Makar Devushkin’s protest, in the novella Poor People, against Gogol’s dehumanizing portrayal of downtrodden clerks like himself. The hero of Notes from Underground is obsessed by the threat of being stereotyped: he anticipates virtually every view that might be taken of him; he attempts to keep one step ahead, to retain the ability to surprise. All Dostoevsky’s major heroes “do battle” with the definitions of them by others; their every thought is a rejoinder in a debate with themselves and others on the values by which they live. The unbeliever Ivan Karamazov and the monk Alyosha, each drawn to the other, epitomize a world where “everything exists on the border of its opposite,” where all live “on a threshold,” in a state of permanent crisis.

Bakhtin maintains that in this general polyphony, no single voice is the bearer of a definitive truth. He denies that this open-endedness is an artistic failing: Dostoevsky’s portrayal of characters takes the form of “discourse about someone present who is capable of answering.” The artistic logic of this task demanded that he present with the greatest possible conviction even those views, such as Ivan Karamazov’s, with which he profoundly disagreed.

Bakhtin often overstates his case: none of the great nineteenth-century novelists was “monological” in his sense of the word, and Dostoevsky’s intervention as an evaluating voice in his novels was far greater than Bakhtin concedes. But his work is revolutionary in its perception of a central aspect of Dostoevsky’s writing. As Joseph Frank has observed in these pages,2 no other critic has approached with such insight the distinctive way in which Dostoevsky creates the impression of “subliminal psychic interweaving” among his characters.

In describing Dostoevsky’s creative method as a “dialogic penetration” of the personalities of his heroes, Bakhtin launched a term which has been frequently misunderstood. In his thinking “dialogue” represents not just a literary technique, or a way of connecting the isolated person to the outside world, but a reinterpretation of the nature of the self. He held self-hood to be intrinsically “dialogical”: the self cannot be understood or expressed except in relation to an audience whose real or imagined responses continually shape the way in which we define ourselves.

Bakhtin approached language not (as was the tendency in linguistics) as a formal system, but as “utterances,” whose meaning is contingent on relationships of “intense interaction and struggle” between the points of view of speakers, readers, and writers in socially specific circumstances at particular historical moments. Each word, he wrote, “tastes of the…contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life.”

But if all existence is dialogical in this sense, it still can be falsely “monologized” by authoritarian discourse—political, religious, or moral dogma—whose semantic content, Bakhtin wrote, is “dead,” because it is incapable of expansion or reinterpretation. All advances in knowledge are preceded by a “sharpened dialogic relationship” among concepts and values, from which new meanings emerge. The more differentiated and highly developed a society, the greater importance its members attach to others’ values as the subject of “interpretation, discussion, evaluation, rebuttal, support, further development.” “There are no limits to the dialogic context”: it includes the remote past as well as the present. With each historical epoch, images created in the past (such as Cervantes’s Don Quixote) are “reaccentuated,” revealing meanings hidden from the author.

Bakhtin denied that what he called his love for “multiplicity of focuses” implied a moral relativism: true dialogue was as alien to relativism as it was to dogmatism. Relativism made authentic dialogue about values and meanings pointless; dogmatism excluded it. He identified with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man in his polemic with the Socialists: the measure of human freedom is the personality’s resistance to all attempts to “finalize” it, all attempts to resolve its struggle between competing values and regulate its actions with reference to eternal norms.

Bakhtin’s fascination with the way Dostoevsky conveyed this insight by formal means as well as through the content of his writing inspired the study of literary genres which is at the heart of Bakhtin’s philosophy of freedom. In the expanded edition of Dostoevsky, he returned to two features of the novels that critics found artistically implausible: the frequent scenes of “scandalous” events (such as Nastasya Filippovna’s name-day party in The Idiot), and the assortment of heterogeneous materials and styles put before the reader—the rich mixture of Gospel texts and newspaper anecdotes, dreams and doubles, philosophy and melodrama, the drawing room and the slum. Opposites are often grotesquely juxtaposed in a single scene, as when the virtuous prostitute Sonya and the criminal intellectual Raskolnikov read the Gospel together in a sordid room, or when the monk Alyosha and the atheist Ivan debate ultimate questions of life’s meaning in a noisy tavern. Bakhtin argued that these features were not contrived: they were essential to Dostoevsky’s artistic purpose, which was to probe aspects of character seldom tested in everyday situations.

In this the novels represented a generic type, the serio-comical narratives with a mixture of styles and elements—philosophical dialogue, adventure, fantasy—that derived from antiquity and were rooted in what Bakhtin called a “carnival” sense of the world. By this he meant a grasp of the primal realities of existence—growth, decay, metamorphosis, rebirth, and, above all, the impermanence of all human structures and powers. He believed that throughout history such a sense of reality has been expressed in the rituals of the common people, particularly in the spectacles of the carnival—comic rites and pageants in streets and squares where official ceremonies were parodied and travestied, authorities mocked, and divinities profaned. During the carnival, the population lived a “life turned inside out,” their costumes and actions depicting grotesque contrasts and pairings of opposites: youth and age, noble and lowly, sacred and blasphemous. The laws and hierarchies governing everyday existence were temporarily suspended and symbolically overturned, as in the ritual performance of the mock crowning and subsequent uncrowning and beating of the carnival king.

Bakhtin observes that with the Renaissance carnival license—inspired, he believed, by the recurring dream of liberation from oppressive norms and taboos—began to permeate literature. Rabelais, in particular, drew on carnival traditions to parody the official ideology of his time and promote a new humanism. Gargantua and Pantagruel are carnival heroes; the gigantic scale of their physical functions mocks medieval asceticism and glorifies the earthy realities of life.

In his writings on the novel Bakhtin argues that “carnival laughter” caused a revolution in perception, helping to free creative thinking from the fetters of convention. In literature such laughter developed as parody and the grotesque; it was through the “muted laughter” of the grotesque that Dostoevsky demonstrated the capacity of human beings to elude all attempts to define them. Like the imagery of carnival itself, the improbable, unexpected, and absurd situations of his novels, the doubles (such as Ivan Karamazov’s Devil) who embody conflicting aspects of the heroes’ personalities, express what Bakhtin calls the “dialogical quality” of history and culture, in which no individual is self-contained, no idea definitively formulated, no possibility foreclosed.

Bakhtin’s ideas now permeate Western thinking in linguistics, literary theory, psychology, and cultural history. In the present ideological vacuum, some critics have shown intense interest in his concept of the “carnival sense” as the basis of a new radical theory of culture and society. Michael Holquist sees his ideas as capable of “renewing socialist thought”;3 and some other critics, such as Terry Eagleton, seem to have high hopes that “dialogue” can replace the dialectic as an instrument for exposing hidden authoritarianism in the institutions of Western societies.4

Such readings of Bakhtin draw on a number of texts that appeared in the late 1920s under the names of two of his disciples, Valentin Voloshinov and Pavel Medvedev. Holquist and Clark ascribed these texts to Bakhtin himself, relying principally on the reported testimony of Bakhtin and his wife. Their view has been widely accepted, despite the fact that the texts in question, principally three books (Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Freudianism: A Critical Sketch, and The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship), are all consistently Marxist, in contrast with the work published under Bakhtin’s name, which is anticollectivist in spirit and explicitly attacks the dialectical method. Holquist and Clark explain this anomaly by what they see as a hidden religiosity in Bakhtin’s work. They suggest that the “Marxist” works express a tendency, common in Russian religious circles at that period, to seek to reconcile communism and Christ.

  1. 1

    Mikhail Bakhtin (Harvard University Press, 1984).

  2. 2

    The Voices of Mikhail Bakhtin,” The New York Review, October 23, 1986.

  3. 3

    Robert F. Barsky and Michael Holquist, editors, Bakhtin and Otherness, International Research Papers in Comparative Literature, Vol. 3, Nos. 1 and 2 (McGill University Press, 1990), p. 4.

  4. 4

    See Graham Pechey and Terry Eagleton’s essays in Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd, editors, Bakhtin and Cultural Theory (Manchester University Press, 1989). See also Robert Barsky’s introduction to Bakhtin and Otherness, p. vii.

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