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.
The case for attributing these works to Bakhtin is strongly (and, I believe, conclusively) refuted in Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson’s new study, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. They note the ambiguity of the anecdotal evidence for Bakhtin’s authorship (a point conceded by Holquist and Clark), and observe that the case for understanding Bakhtin’s work as a disguised Christian Marxism is based on little more than the fact that he knew some of the religious groups of the Twenties. The disputed texts have been used by other critics to reconcile Bakhtin’s ideas with other “isms,” such as structuralism, semiotics, and Freudianism; but, as these two authors argue, Bakhtin elsewhere attacks all these theories as attempts to codify (and thereby “finalize”) the individual and culture. Based on a close reading of those works that are indisputably Bakhtin’s, their study seeks to demonstrate that he was fundamentally opposed to many of the current critical trends that claim him as a precursor.
This question of authorship is not just an obscure academic dispute; it has wider implications. As Morson and Emerson point out, the various theories with which Bakhtin’s thought has been identified deal with culture, language, and the psyche as systems; but Bakhtin, like his hero Dostoevsky, believed that the human personality is free precisely because it cannot be systematized. Why then the current distortion of the spirit of his work? The status that a cult figure confers on a discipline may partly explain the rush to appropriate his ideas; an even stronger motive, in an age of ideological confusion, is the need for new prophets and certainties.
Morson and Emerson believe that Bakhtin’s thought has been trivialized by attempts to demonstrate its conformity to some prior ideology. Their reinterpretation of his ideas concentrates on his principal terms as they evolve, and in particular on his own central concern: the insights of great writers into the way freedom is expressed in daily moral choice.
Bakhtin’s interest in philosophy was primarily ethical (two of his earliest essays were called “Art and Responsibility” and “Toward a Philosophy of the Act”).5 He condemned the philosophical traditions that taught that freedom and self-fulfillment were achieved by comforming to some underlying structure of existence (whether the Universal Consciousness of German Idealism, or the Universal Reason of the Enlightenment). Emphasizing how both individuals and their historical situation were unique and could not be repeated (“What can be accomplished by me cannot be accomplished by anyone else, ever”), he argued that moral responsibility was threatened by all forms of “theoretism”—by which he meant (as Morson and Emerson put it) a kind of thinking that always understands events as instances of universal rules and principles. He insisted that, although rules can be helpful, we develop as moral beings by increasing our responsiveness to the irreducible particularities of each case.
Hence the novel’s enormous potential as a source of moral education. As its characters make choices in situations that cannot be represented neatly in laws and systems, it sharpens our moral sense of the particular. The novel is distinguished from other genres by its “diversity of voices”: the characters express their beliefs and values in their individual styles and in “heteroglot” social environments where no view is incontestable. In novels, as in the real world, some characters (like Tolstoy’s Levin) are obsessed with the search for timeless truth; but their moral stature and creative potential emerge through their ability to respond meaningfully to what Bakhtin called the “unfinished” ambivalence of everyday existence.
Bakhtin describes the distinguishing feature of the novel form as “prosaic wisdom.” By this he meant (in Morson and Emerson’s words) its ability to convey the fundamental “messiness” of the world, the flux of events that cannot be reduced to any set of explanatory principles. They use the term “prosaics” to describe, first, Bakhtin’s theory of literature, which gives the novel preeminence over “poetic” genres, and, secondly, a form of thinking that presumes the importance of the everyday, the prosaic, as a source of individual creativity and social change.
Bakhtin has been compared with philosophers of “otherness” such as Emmanuel Levinas; but Bakhtin’s work has no philosophical rigor. Like most Russian thinkers, he approached philosophy as a warehouse to be ransacked when necessary for information on how one should live. Much recent Western writing on Bakhtin makes inflated claims for his thought, placing him in traditions where he does not fit. In contrast, stressing his lifelong preoccupation with problems of practical ethics, Morson and Emerson’s illuminating study situates him where, I believe, he belongs: among those Russians who sought answers to the “accursed” questions of Dostoevsky’s heroes. In particular, they place him among a small number of thinkers whose voices, little heard in their own time, have begun to resonate more clearly in ours.
They note that Bakhtin’s thinking ran counter to that of the Messianic idealists who dominated the Russian intellectual tradition from the mid-nineteenth century until the Revolution, and who—including both revolutionary populists and Marxists, and romantic conservatives such as the Slavophiles—all believed in some all-embracing system of ideas which would put a permanent end to human conflict. But there were dissenting voices, writers and thinkers who defended the claims of the particular against the tyranny of systems, maintained that not all values could, or should, be harmonized, and warned of the dangers of final solutions to open problems. Morson and Emerson see Bakhtin as among the most important of these dissenters, who included such writers as Chekhov and Turgenev, and also Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, at any rate as novelists—Tolstoy’s religious tracts and Dostoevsky’s political journalism belong to the dominant tradition.
The brief treatment of this “countertradition” of anti-ideological thinkers in the current book is expanded in a recent essay by Morson, 6 who claims that its “prosaic” vision of reality was summed up in the Land-marks symposium of 1909: the famous collection of essays by writers such as the philosophers Nikolai Berdyaev and Semyon Frank, and the liberal theorist Petr Struve, which condemned the radical intelligentsia’s dogmatic narrowness and worship of abstractions. He argues that this “countertradition” is of great significance to the Russians who are now attempting to deal with the disastrous results of the majority tradition. It is also the most durable Russian contribution to European thought; of interest not least as a source of revealing commentaries on varieties of self-deception current among intellectuals in the West.
Morson and Emerson are right to point to Bakhtin’s affinities with the Landmarks thinkers, but the Russian “countertradition” is more ambivalent than they suppose. The idea of such a tradition was first advanced by liberal historians such as Leonard Schapiro to support their view that Russia before World War I had alternatives to revolution. They argued that for more than a century a few distinguished thinkers, notably the nineteenth-century legal historian Boris Chicherin and the authors of Landmarks, had attempted to convince the Russian left of the virtues of liberal pluralism. But in stressing the prescience of their criticism of the left, Western historians have said little about other less liberal tendencies. Chicherin, for example, believed that Russia would become Westernized because such was the path prescribed by the Hegelian Absolute; while some of the Landmarks authors (such as Berdyaev and the future priest Sergei Bulgakov) yearned for a religious utopia.
Isolated and adrift between a despotic government and the uncomprehending masses, many Russian would-be pluralists were also drawn, like the thinkers on the left, to some all-encompassing vision which would give sense and direction to the chaotic reality around them. To use Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, inside nearly every pluralistic fox in the Russian countertradition there lurks a monological hedgehog. The author of distinguished books on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Morson is well aware of how these critics of radical utopias wrestled with their own visions of earthly harmony; yet he and Emerson seem reluctant to acknowledge a similar fundamental ambivalence in Bakhtin, an ambivalence that, in my view, makes him more relevant to the problems of our own time.
The two authors do not deny that Bakhtin has utopian tendencies that conflict with his “prosaic” aversion to absolutes; but they claim that these are significant only during one period and in one work—his book on Rabelais, in which he hints that the spirit of “carnivalistic” revolt will eventually, in some unspecified way, destroy all oppressive social systems. They argue that this apocalyptic rhetoric was an aberration, not present in his other essays on Rabelais.
But these essays, too, affirm what Bakhtin maintains is a “realistic” ideal, prefigured in Rabelais’s gigantic but earthy heroes: the future perfecting of the human species with the help of science. He looks forward to a world in which conflict (and presumably dialogue) is replaced by the fusion of the parts with the whole. This vision cannot be explained away by the desire to placate official ideologists. It accounts in part for a flaw in Bakhtin’s thought to which Morson and Emerson devote only a few sentences—the limitations of his reading of Dostoevsky. As the authors put it, “He interprets some of Dostoevsky’s most pathological characters and situations as benevolent, open-ended and thus ‘hopeful,’ ” exhibiting at times (like Prince Myshkin in The Idiot) “a failure to appreciate evil that cannot be laughed away.” I believe that Bakhtin was more than occasionally over-optimistic about the nature of the impulse to freedom: implicit in all his work is a faith that reason will prevent the unimpeded exercise of creativity from leading to anarchic destruction. It is because he did not believe that the free interplay of individuals could result in the clash of permanently irreconcilable values and demands that his dialogic idea of the psyche lacks a tragic dimension.
This shortcoming may seem trivial when compared with the force of Bakhtin’s defense of a pluralistic culture; but we can gain useful insights into the fragility of such a culture by observing how Bakhtin and others in the “countertradition” were, despite themselves, drawn by the attractions of ideological certainty. Few were as consistently antidoctrinaire as Chekhov was. For consistency, nevertheless, Bakhtin compares very favorably with Tolstoy, whose novels are quoted in the present book as models for “prosaic” ethics, but whose daily ethical life was regulated with a rigor that drove his wife to the verge of insanity, and whose most blinkered followers solemnly called themselves Tolstoyans with the master’s blessing. Morson and Emerson are right, I think, in rejecting interpretations of Bakhtin as a radical systematizer, but if Bakhtin’s thought is to be a model for undogmatic thinking in our own time, we need a more balanced view of its strengths and limitations. Here it is useful to compare him with the one Russian thinker who anticipated his most important insights into the dangers of “monological” thought while, unlike him, confronting the problem of its attractions. This was Alexander Herzen.
Clark and Holquist’s study of Bakhtin does not mention Herzen at all; Morson and Emerson cite him among the opponents of doctrinaire thinking. Yet Bakhtin himself points to a more specific affinity when, in a chapter in Rabelais on the history of carnival laughter, he acknowledges Herzen’s “profound thoughts” on the subject. In one of several passages that Bakhtin quotes at length, Herzen notes that laughter is no laughing matter. Authority has always feared its subversive force, and with reason: to smile before the ancient god Apis would have been to demote him to the status of a common bull.
Herzen and Bakhtin share a fascination with the outsider, whose ironic gaze exposes the impermanence and absurdity of other people’s gods. In the mid-nineteenth century, when Russian intellectuals en masse sought to escape their marginal position by identifying with whatever they perceived as the force of the future, Herzen insisted on the unique advantages of being on the fringe of the upheavals then taking place in Europe. An observer of the 1848 revolution in France, he noted that the intellectual left had shown itself as conservative as the ancien régime in its reverence for authority—a trait so rooted in the European cultural unconscious that the most radical revolutionaries had done no more than give old fetishes new names: the French Jacobins, he observed, had replaced the priest with the legislator; the Convention had claimed the divine right of kings. Russian intellectuals, on the other hand, exposed to European culture at second hand and in some of its most brutal forms, had, in his view, fewer such attachments. As he announced to the French historian Michelet, they might be slaves; but the response of their greatest writers to their masters’ morality was “wild laughter”—the sign of an inner freedom lacking in Europeans, with their filial respect for the past.
Bakhtin was the first to interpret Dostoevsky’s novels as being about this kind of freedom: they explored the new possibilities of the period when Russia’s transition to capitalism was just beginning, when traditional structures and beliefs were losing their hold and “the unfinalizable nature of man and of human thought…was laid bare.” Bakhtin’s personal experience of an even greater historical upheaval gave him a special insight into another turning point when marginality was a universal condition: the early Renaissance, which he celebrates as a time when a creative thinker could exist simultaneously in different cultures and value systems, approaching each from the perspective of an outsider. He was fascinated with such “border zones,” where norms and canons lose their force, and language sheds that “hidden dogmatism” which follows from the strict demarcation of vocabularies. At such points, he maintained, creative freedom and inventiveness reach their height and “the new, lucid and fearless image” is born.
For Bakhtin, Rabelais was what Herzen had hoped the Russian intelligentsia would become: the leader of a new humanism, who would speed up the demise of a view of the world that mankind had outgrown, by subjecting its “official earnestness” to ironic laughter. Despite persistent attempts to prove the contrary, Herzen’s and Bakhtin’s demythologizing mockery has nothing to do with Marxist dialectical negation, whose irony did not extend to Marxism itself. Bakhtin defines carnival laughter as a “specific ethical attitude to reality” that allows no ideal to “ossify in one-sided seriousness.” In a passage from which Bakhtin quotes, Herzen writes that any ideal at which we dare not laugh without fear of blaspheming is a fetish. A Socialist, Herzen refused to see socialism as the goal of history. It will, he predicts,
develop in all its phases, until it reaches its own extremes and absurdities. Then once again a cry of denial will break from the titanic chest of the revolutionary minority and once again a mortal struggle will begin, in which socialism will play the role of contemporary conservatism and will be overturned in the subsequent revolution, as yet unknown to us.
This was an astonishing prediction to make in 1849, the result of reflections on the nature of moral freedom that led Herzen, like Bakhtin, to condemn all dualistic systems that subordinated the particular to universal norms, the present to the future. Like Bakhtin, he too turned from philosophy to aesthetics in a search for new ways of understanding history that would not force the open-endedness of unpredictable existence into systems intended to realize a fixed goal. Both thinkers admired Goethe’s sense of historical becoming; Herzen cites the ideal of Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, where human relations are governed by an aesthetic sense of appropriateness in responses to specific situations.
Herzen campaigned against “formalism” (Bakhtin’s “theoretism”), insisting that history did not follow the laws of logic: “As well as reason, it has its romance.” In historical thinking, a sense of measure, a “poetic” love of diversity, and a capacity for inspired improvisation were far more important than theoretical consistency: “Thought must take on flesh, descend into the marketplace of life.” Bakhtin’s model for social analysis is the artist’s perception of reality, where “time…thickens, takes on flesh.” Herzen believed it pointless to debate about the ideal form of society; social forms were no more “absolute” than uniforms, which split apart when outgrown by their “living content.” In Bakhtin’s words, there is “no form that [the individual] could fill to the brim, and at the same time not splash over. All existing clothes are too tight, and thus comical, on a man.”
Herzen’s analysis of the social and political scene, with its unexpected juxtapositions, reversals of the accepted order of things, and profanation of the sacred bulls of right and left alike is very much in the spirit of carnival as Bakhtin defined it. A recurring character in Herzen’s political writing is a fictional country doctor who is struck by the resemblance between the behavior of the local townsfolk and the inmates of a lunatic asylum. He takes to reading world history and discovers that the collective historical behavior of mankind conforms to the textbook definition of madness: an internally consistent but fundamentally mistaken understanding of the nature of the external physical world, a determination to preserve this vision at all costs, despite its evident harmfulness, and an obsessive striving for nonexistent goals, along with contempt for those that are attainable.
To maintain, with Rousseau, that man is born to be free but is everywhere in chains, Herzen wrote, is as mad as to remark that “fish are born to fly, but everywhere they swim.” Or, “If progress is the end, for whom are we working? Who is this Moloch who, as the toilers approach him, only recedes, and…can give back only the mocking answer that after their death all will be beautiful on earth?” In images like these, Herzen indicts visions of reality that interpret the present from the perspective of a future ideal as a pathological condition, blinding its sufferers to the creative possibilities of the here and now.
Long before Bakhtin, Herzen dismissed as absurd the idea of immutable moral norms: “What was admirable behavior yesterday may be abominable today.” Like the novelists whom Bakhtin admired, he presents moral choice as a response to the demands of specific situations. His memoirs (My Past and Thoughts) describe the rise of political dissent in Russia, and the European revolutions of 1848, through vivid images of individuals responding to events. In From the Other Shore he presents his own views in dialogues with an imaginary radical idealist on the moral and political choices posed by the failure of 1848. As Dostoevsky admiringly remarked, Herzen made his opponent so clever that he allowed him more than once to drive him into a corner.
It is a pity that Bakhtin never wrote about From the Other Shore, which influenced Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and is much more genuinely polyphonic than that work. It would have required him to confront an issue that he never discussed: the fear of freedom. In Bakhtin’s conception, carnivalistic license, by demonstrating the “joyous relativity” of all forms of existence, anticipates the “truly divine freedom” we shall all enjoy when we shed our unnatural fear of transcendent authority. Herzen, however, maintains on the basis of empirical evidence that most people love authority and fear liberty. From the Other Shore stresses the general human reluctance to assume the burden of full responsibility for distinguishing right from wrong without recourse to absolute authorities and universal goals. He admits the considerable price to be paid for this freedom: if history has no predetermined path, we must accept that contingent factors may prevent our ideals from being realized in the way we hope, or being realized at all. When this happens, the only consistent course is to take one’s stand in the hope of touching a chord in others. As he puts it in another essay—if history’s libretto is not written in advance, then each one of us is free to insert his own verse into its “tattered improvisation”; “if it is sonorous, it will remain his verse, until the poem is torn up, as long as the past still ferments in its blood and memory.”
This passage recalls Bakhtin’s famous remark that “every meaning will have its homecoming festival.” But if both thinkers believed that mankind’s deepest insights are never lost, they differed on the question of how easily these could be made into the basis of social relations. At their most exaggerated, Bakhtin’s hopes for the liberating potential of the carnival spirit recall the anarchist Bakunin’s aphorism, “The urge to destroy is a creative urge.” In a response to Bakunin (his Letters to an Old Comrade), Herzen declares that inner freedom is not achieved through revolutions or coups d’état; nor can it be prescribed from above. It can only be preached, in a painfully slow effort to wean people away from the cherished supports that most prefer to freedom.
Bakhtin’s popularity in some radical circles is understandable, but, as Morson and Emerson have shown, it is based on a selective reading of some texts and a misattribution of others. Compared with Herzen, he lacked moral realism, but they were ultimately on the same side. Despite hints of Bakunin in his writings, Bakhtin was more like Kropotkin, combining a deep individualism with a naive faith that the urge for cooperation was fundamental to all rational beings. But Kropotkin saw through the Bolshevik utopia when it came, and (for all his inconsistencies) so did Bakhtin. The reasons he did so are clear from Creation of a Prosaics. This important and timely study shows why “prosaic” ethics are ultimately incompatible with the self-deceptions of utopian thought.
Paraphrasing Freud, Stephen Jay Gould observes that “we are forced to pay an almost intolerable price for each major gain in knowledge and power—the psychological cost of progressive dethronement from the center of things, and increasing marginality in an uncaring universe.”7 The recent events in Eastern Europe have increased our knowledge of our common social nature at the cost, for a great many, of a devastating loss of faith in the march of human progress. But we do not have to choose between a moral relativism and a return to comforting delusion. The counter-tradition of Herzen and Bakhtin shows that other choices exist.
September 24, 1992
Mikhail Bakhtin (Harvard University Press, 1984). ↩
“The Voices of Mikhail Bakhtin,” The New York Review, October 23, 1986. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
For some of his essays on these subjects, see Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, edited by Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov, translated by Vadim Liapunov, supplement translated by Kenneth Brostrom (University of Texas Press, 1990). Another exceptionally well-edited and translated edition of important essays is The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (University of Texas Press, 1981). ↩
Gary Saul Morson, “Bakhtin and the Present Moment,” The American Scholar (Spring 1991), pp. 201–222. ↩
Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (Norton, 1989), p. 44. ↩