Revealing Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics

by Gary Saul Morson and 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…

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