Mikhail Bakhtin | Critical Essay by Ann Shukman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Mikhail Bakhtin.
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Critical Essay by Ann Shukman

Outstanding among scholars who survived the decimation of the Leningrad intelligentsia in the late twenties and thirties is the literary historian, theorist and philosopher, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin. By the time of his death at the age of eighty in 1975, Bakhtin's reputation as an original thinker in the semiotic-structuralist manner was rapidly growing, both abroad and in his native land. Eulogies from, among others, Julie Kristeva (1970) and the Soviet semiotician Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov (1973) spoke of Bakhtin as a man before his time by virtue of his ideas on the notion of text, on the communicative functions of language, and on the binary structures of culture. As a literary scholar his work was already widely known through his studies of Dostoevsky (1929/1972) and Rabelais (1965). The year of his death saw the publication in the Soviet Union of an important collection of papers, for the most part previously unpublished, Questions of Literature and Aesthetics (1975). These papers … concentrate for the most part on problems of the novel and of discourse in the novel, topics that have been central for Bakhtin's literary studies since the 1920s. There is also an English translation of the volume, The Dialogic Imagination, edited by Professor J. M. Holquist.

For a major thinker so close to us in time much about Bakhtin still remains unknown: the circumstances of his leaving Leningrad in 1929 immediately after the publication of the book on Dostoevsky, of the six years spent in remote Kustanai, of the loss in the early days of the war of a major work on the European novel; it is not clear why the publication of the study on Rabelais was delayed for twenty years, nor how he came to live and work in Saransk. Finally, and most importantly, there still remains the problem of the Bakhtin canon. When in 1973 Ivanov published his long and appreciative study of Bakhtin's contribution to semiotic thinking, he made the claim that Bakhtin was in fact the author of, or at least very largely responsible for, the books known as V. N. Voloshinov's Freudianism (1927) and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929) and P. N. Medvedev's The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928), as well as several papers published under Voloshinov's and Medvedev's names. Voloshinov and Medvedev, both established scholars in their own right who perished in the thirties (Voloshinov disappeared in 1934, Medvedev was 'illegally repressed' in 1938), were, according to Ivanov, close associates and pupils of Bakhtin. Bakhtin, possibly because of the onset of what was to become chronic osteomyelitis, seems to have had no established employment in Leningrad in the twenties, though he was associated with the State Institute for the History of the Arts, and with the State Publishing House. Voloshinov and Medvedev, both evidently enthusiastic Marxists, could, so the argument goes, have lent their names and status to get Bakhtin's work published. The main source of information on Bakhtin's life to date merely notes the friendship and scholarly associations among the three men, which dated back to the early twenties when all three were in Vitebsk. Bakhtin himself during his lifetime neither denied nor confirmed Ivanov's claims publicly. The question is no doubt more complex than Ivanov gave his readers to understand, and until the publication of more of Bakhtin's archive the question remains an open one….

Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1929/1972) is Bakhtin's best-known work and the first to be widely translated. As a profound and original reading of Dostoevsky's fictional writings and an epoch-making investigation of types of discourse in the novel, the book is still essential reading for anyone concerned with the theory of the novel, or with Dostoevsky studies. Julia Kristeva's preface to one of the two French versions (1970) claims Bakhtin as a pioneer thinker in the theory of the anti-representational text, and of language as a self-creating process. Although Bakhtin's theory of the novel is based on discourse rather than on represented world, for him behind each 'voice' that makes up the plural novel-text is a 'consciousness' which is an ultimate reality; and Kristeva's epistemological void is alien to Bakhtin's personalism, steeped as it is in Western humanist values.

Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics is the cornerstone of Bakhtin's later thinking and, although his ideas were added to, modified, and rephrased, the essential is already here. The book is divided into five substantial chapters. The first considers previous Dostoevsky criticism and puts forward the notion of the 'polyphonic' text. It was Dostoevsky's genius, according to Bakhtin, to be the first writer to come to a new manner of artistic thinking that presented human consciousness in all its fullness and thereby broke out of the shackles of 'monologic' artistic thinking:

The originality of Dostoevsky lies not in the fact that he monologically proclaimed the value of the personality (others had done this before him), but in that he was able to see the personality objectively-artistically, and to show it as another, someone else's, personality, without making it lyrical, without fusing his voice with its, and at the same time not reducing it to a reified psychic reality.

The polyphonic work is constructed on the principles of dialogue, so that there is no one dominant voice, but a plurality of voices (consciousnesses) of equal validity, among which the author's may be one.

The second chapter discusses characterization in Dostoevsky's works and authorial attitudes to character. The Dostoevskian character, Bakhtin suggests, is presented through his own self-awareness: all the fixed objective qualities of the character, his social position, his personal characteristics, his environment, even his appearance, are presented through the character's own reflections. In novels before Dostoevsky's the self-awareness of the character was usually one element only in the construction of the character. In Dostoevsky's works the author does not 'reserve anything for himself', the character lives himself in endless ideological confrontations and discussions with himself and with others. The third chapter, 'The Idea in Dostoevsky', discusses the treatment of ideological material in the novels and how it is essentially bound up with characterization.

The fourth chapter looks at Dostoevsky's works from the perspective of classical and West European literature and suggests that the novels belong to the genre of Menippean satire and 'carnival' literature. In later works, discussed below, Bakhtin looks to these sources as the originators of the genre of the novel as a whole, and these ideas are the basis for his study of Rabelais.

The final chapter entitled 'The Word in Dostoevsky' is the key section for the understanding of Bakhtin's theory of discourse in the novel. By 'word' (slovo) Bakhtin means 'language in its concrete and living totality' as against the abstract and systematized language studied in linguistics. This is language in its essentially dialogic functioning, the 'discourse' of actual communication. One of the central notions running through Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics is that of dialogue, understood in the widest sense as the continuous flow of verbal communication in which man thinks, enters into social relations, and out of which he builds his literature and ideologies. 'For dialogic relationships are … an almost universal phenomenon that permeates all human speech and all relationships and manifestations of human life, in general everything that has sense and meaning'. Closely connected with the notion of dialogue is the notion of consciousness. The ultimate reality that lies beneath all human activity is the individual personality and its self-awareness in consciousness. Consciousness is itself dialogic, is in dialogic relationships with other consciousnesses, and can be revealed only through dialogue.

For there to be dialogue (or polyphony) there must be awareness of the 'other's' voice, the 'you' which is neither 'I' nor 'he'. A key concept in Bakhtin's thinking about language is the opposition 'own voice'/'other's voice'. This concept can be neatly expressed in Russian (svoi: 'own'/chuzhoi: 'other's') but translates more clumsily into English where chuzhoi has been variously rendered as 'someone else's', 'another's', even 'alien', or 'reported' (as in the English version of Voloshinov 1929). Bakhtin's typology of prose discourse distinguishes three main types, of which the third type, two-voice discourse, the most important type for the novel, is based on the own/other's distinction.

1. Discourse focused directly on to its referent which expresses the speaker's ultimate meaning.

2. 'Object discourse' (the speech of a represented character).

3. Discourse that focuses on 'another's discourse' (chuzoe slovo) or 'two-voice' discourse. This, the largest category, is further subdivided into:

(a) Unidirectional two-voice discourse (for example, first-person narrative, narrative by a narrator, stylization);

(b) Multidirectional two-voice discourse (this group includes all kinds of parody, and any reporting of another person's speech with a change of accent);

(c) The active type (or, reflected 'other's discourse')—this group includes: hidden internal polemic, polemically coloured autobiography, any discourse 'that glances round at another's discourse'; it includes also any replique in dialogue, as well as hidden dialogue.

Bakhtin points out that these schematic categories are in no way mutually exclusive, and in reality merge into one another, but a study of discourse 'from the point of view of its relationship to another's discourse has, it seems to us, exceptionally important significance for the understanding of literary prose' a view which many literary scholars today would agree with.

Bakhtin's ideas in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics give rise to at least two major objections, both of which Bakhtin was to some extent aware of and on which he commented. Firstly, if the polyphonic text is the open-ended self-revelation of a plurality of voices, then what gives the text its unity and actual finiteness? Bakhtin does no more than point to this problem in the Preface; but the problem is a real one and, being unresolved, leaves Bakhtin's theory a theory of discourse in the novel rather than a theory of the novel. The second objection is perhaps a weightier one: can one have any theory of literature, or theory of an aspect of literature, that ignores, as Bakhtin does, the boundary between fiction and life? The Dostoevskian character, we are told, 'rebels' against his literary embodiment, enters into 'free' dialogic relationships with the authorial voice. But this kind of 'life' of the character, his parity with the author, is in reality a fiction and an illusion, the 'own' and the 'other's' voice being both in fact the product of an author. Against this, Bakhtin argues as follows:

On this point we should forestall a possible misunderstanding. It might seem that the independence of the hero contradicts the fact that he is wholly given merely as an aspect of the work of literature and consequently is wholly, from beginning to end, created by the author. In fact this contradiction does not exist. We are arguing for the freedom of the hero within the bounds of the artistic intention, and in this sense, the freedom of the hero is just as much created as the unfreedom of the object- [i. e. reified] hero.

For, Bakhtin then argues, to create is not the same as to invent. Creation 'is bound both by its own laws and by the laws of the material with which it is working'; creation, in fact, 'merely reveals that which is given in the object itself'. These remarks should probably be interpreted to mean that art is a search for truth, and that truth is truth whether it is within the fictional world or without. One is left with the feeling that what Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics is ultimately about is a philosophy of man rather than a theory of literature. It is interesting to note in this connection how far Bakhtin is from the Formalist position: for them the starting point was the notion of literariness, the qualities which mark off literature from nonliterature.

These objections apart, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics is a seminal work: it not only laid the foundation for many of the key ideas in Bakhtin's later thinking, but it opened up a totally new way of considering the novel. In his subsequent writings on the novel Bakhtin moved on from the idea of the polyphony of the Dostoevskian novel to a view of the essential polyphony (or 'polyglottism'—mnogoyazychie was his later term) of all novels as compared with other genres. His investigations into the prehistory of the European novel led him to explore the binary nature of human culture and to give profound significance to the formative role of unofficial, 'carnival' or 'laughter' culture. He developed some original notions about the time structures of literature, and of the novel as compared with other genres, seeing the novel as essentially open-ended, concerned with the flow of time, and with contact with contemporaneity, as against the epic, for instance, whose time was distanced and closed. Through all his works is the underlying notion of man and of human values, as the hub of all literary activity.

The years spent before the war in remote regions far from the main centres of Russian cultural life were fruitful ones for Bakhtin. By the mid thirties he had completed 'The Word in the Novel' (1935), a book-length study of the stylistics of the novel…. This work, like most of Bakhtin's work from this period, was published only in 1975. It begins with a criticism of contemporary stylistics which, Bakhtin argues, has so far been unable to deal with the novel as such. This is because stylistics has been 'deaf to dialogue'. The second chapter explores the differences between the word in poetry and the word in the novel: unlike the essentially polyglot nature of novel-discourse, poetry-discourse is characterized by its unitary and incontrovertible nature:

The world of poetry, however many contradictions and hopeless conflicts are revealed in it by the poet, is always illumined by unitary and incontrovertible discourse. Contradictions, conflicts and doubts remain in the object, in the thought and experiences, i.e. in the material, but not in the language. In poetry the word about doubt must be a word without doubt.

Subsequent chapters discuss polyglottism in the novel, the 'speaking man' in the novel, and the development of the European novel.

In 1937–8, Bakhtin completed a large work on the European novel of education of which only a section, 'Forms of Time and of Chronotopos in the Novel', survives (1938). This study, to which Bakhtin added concluding remarks in 1973, is a masterly survey of the representation of time and space in the novel. Bakhtin argues that the chronotopos (lit. the time-space) has important genre-defining significance for literature: 'One can say directly that it is the chronotopos which determines genre and subtypes of genre … The chronotopos as a form-content category also determines (to a considerable extent) the image of man in literature. This image is always essentially chronotopic'. Bakhtin follows these ideas through in considerations of the Greek novel; the works of Apuleius and Petronius; biography and autobiography in ancient literature; historical inversion and the chronotopos in folklore; the books of chivalry; the functions of the rogue, buffoon and fool in the novel; the chronotopos in Rabelais and its roots in folklore; the idyllic chronotopos. The concluding remarks briefly survey the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel. This study must be classed as one of Bakhtin's finest works. As with the notion of dialogue in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, so here with the notion of the chronotopos, what could have been a mere technical device becomes the starting point for a rich investigation into the nature of man in literature and the function of literature in human culture.

By 1937 Bakhtin had returned from exile and was settled near Moscow at Kimry, and by 1940 he had completed his doctoral dissertation on Rabelais (this was not defended until 1946, when it was awarded not a doctor's but merely a kandidat's degree; it was published only in 1965). At this period, Bakhtin gave two lectures to the Institute of World Literature in Moscow, eventually published (in 1975) under the titles 'From the Prehistory of the Novel-Word' (1940) and 'The Epic and the Novel' (1941)…. These two papers admirably summarize Bakhtin's thinking about the novel. The first paper is in two parts, the first discussing the interplay of languages in the novel, and the second considering the origins of the novel which, Bakhtin argues, arises from two factors—laughter and polyglottism (mnogoyazychie). Bakhtin surveys the currents of parody and travesty in classical and medieval literature, which led to the great novels of the Renaissance period. He concludes:

At the end of the middle ages and at the time of the Renaissance parodic-travestying discourse burst all barriers. It burst into all the strict and closed direct genres … Finally there appeared the great novel of the age of the Renaissance, the novels of Rabelais and Cervantes. It is precisely in these two works that the novel-discourse which had been prepared by all the forms discussed above and also by the heritage of antiquity revealed its capabilities and played its titanic role in the formation of the new literary-linguistic consciousness.

In 'The Epic and the Novel' Bakhtin summarizes the principal differences between epic and novel. The novel, he says, is the 'sole genre in process of becoming, because it reflects more profoundly, more essentially, more sensitively and more quickly the becoming of reality itself'. The novel is distinguished by its 'three-dimensionality' which is bound up with the polyglot consciousness that is realized in it. The novel has radically different time-coordinates from those of other genres, by virtue of its central concern with the present and the process of becoming, and its images are radically different as befits its concern with contact with passing life. The epic world, on the other hand, 'is completed [zavershen] through and through not only as a real event of the distant past, but also in its purport and its values: it cannot be altered or reinterpreted or revalued … This is what determines the absolute epic distance'. Bakhtin goes on to discuss the role of memory and cultural values in the formation and preservation of literature, the opposition of official and unofficial literature, the role of carnival literature in the origin of the novel, and the particular importance of the Socratic dialogue and Menippean satire in this process, and he ends up with a discussion of the image of man in the novel.

In Bakhtin's study of Rabelais (1965) we find the fullest exposition of his ideas on the role of unofficial art, of the 'carnival' in culture. Carnival laughter is universal, everyone can and does laugh at everyone and everything including the sacred. This is laughter 'at the world'. But it is ambivalent laughter: 'It is merry and exultant and yet at the same time mocking and ridiculing. It negates and affirms, buries and resurrects'. All cultures have had their unofficial, carnival side, but in the Renaissance the laughter-culture came into the open: 'The Renaissance was, so to speak, the direct carnivalization of consciousness, world-outlook and literature'. Bakhtin's approach to Rabelais, unlike that of previous Rabelais scholars, was to show that his work stems from these traditions of popular 'laughter-culture', and he examined in detail how various forms of popular, unofficial art are reflected in Rabelais' work.

It is witness to Bakhtin's stature that in the darkest years of Soviet history and of his own personal life he could conclude this magnum opus with the words:

We repeat, every act of world history has been accompanied by a chorus of laughter. But not in every age has the laughing chorus had a coryphaeus like Rabelais. And although he was the coryphaeus of the popular chorus only in the age of the Renaissance, he revealed the original and difficult language of the laughing people with such clarity and fullness that his work sheds light on the popular laughter-culture of other ages as well.

To turn now to the works whose authorship is disputed, these are discussed here in what seems to the present writer to be the descending order of Bakhtin's involvement. Voloshinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language is in many respects nearest to the rest of the Bakhtin canon. It applies the notion of dialogue to a general theory of language, starting from the premise that 'speech interaction is the basic reality of language'. The book is divided into three sections. There is first an important, though sketchily worked out, semiotic theory. For Voloshinov there can be no sign without ideology (by this he means that no sign is without cultural significance or value), and conversely no ideology (scientific knowledge, literature, religion, ethics, etc.) that is not expressed in signs and sign systems. Signs, besides being ideological, are also material and social. Consciousness too is linguistic and hence sign-bound. These views show affinity with the ideas of C. S. Peirce (for instance, 'Man—a Sign'), with which Voloshinov was evidently not familiar, and with those of Ernst Cassirer (Philosophie der symbolischen Formen), with which he evidently was. For all three thinkers, man's mental activities are sign-creating and sign-bound. The particular originality in Voloshinov's thinking is the emphasis on the materiality and social nature of the sign.

The second part of the book, devoted to the philosophy of language, is a powerful criticism of current linguistic theories which Voloshinov treats under two main headings: 'individualistic subjectivism' (von Humboldt, Wundt, Vossler and Croce), and 'abstract objectivism' (Saussure and the Geneva school, whose origins may be found in the ideas of Descartes and Leibniz). Against these trends Voloshinov proposes a theory of language based on the utterance which is taken as 'a point in the continuous process of speech communication'. His is a sociological approach to language, which sees language as inextricably bound up with ideology, meaning as context-bound, and all essential language activity, even the process of understanding, as dialogic.

The third part of the book, which is of particular interest to literary scholars, is an application of these ideas to an area of syntax: the forms of direct, indirect and free indirect speech. The analysis uses the 'own/other's' opposition and is concerned with the various ways by which a second interlocutor's words are reported by a first interlocutor. This extensive and penetrating study of the two-voice discourse in literature complements and elaborates on the typology Bakhtin outlined in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Although in some respects superseded by more recent studies, Voloshinov's study remains a classic pioneering work. A recent elaboration of its ideas in the Soviet Union is Boris Uspensky's Poetika Kompozitsii (1970).

If Marxism and the Philosophy of Language is to be ascribed at least in part to Bakhtin, then at a rough guess one might ascribe the Marxism to Volshinov and the philosophy of language to Bakhtin. The emphasized materialism of the first part sounds like an intrusion of another's voice into Bakhtin's own discourse and it is hard to agree with the translator of the French version that 'There can, of course, be no question of doubting Bakhtin's Marxist convictions; the book is Marxist through and through …'. A sociological approach need not necessarily be a Marxist one, and an extension of Bakhtin's theory of consciousness based on dialogue into a sociological theory of language based on dialogue was a natural and logical one. Bakhtin's evidently deeply held personalist understanding of man would not necessarily commit him either to adopt or to reject any one particular doctrine: for the essential Bakhtin seems to have been a man of extraordinarily open mentality to whom all dogmatism was alien.

Another work that appeared under the authorship of Voloshinov is a slender volume on Freud (1927). This too has been ascribed to Bakhtin, but here the evidence would seem to be more slender. A fairly superficial reading of Freud's main ideas with certain notable omissions (as Neal Bruss points out in his excellent commentary), the book's main interest probably lies in the extension of the theory of discourse and the criticism of Freudianism for its neglect of linguistics, a criticism that sounds rather hollow today. The main thrust of Voloshinov's criticism is directed against Freud's ignoring the social reality of human discourse, the fact that 'self-consciousness in the final analysis always leads us to class consciousness … Here we have the objective roots of even the most personal and intimate reactions'. This is a fairly pedestrian work and one which it is hard to ascribe to the pen of Bakhtin.

Another alleged contender for inclusion in the Bakhtin canon is P. N. Medvedev's The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928). This is an extraordinarily uneven work. It starts (Part One) with a cogently argued programme for a Marxist theory of literature, one which would get away from the crude content/form approach and look at the work of literature as an ideological unit of form and content in which the structures of socioeconomic life are refracted. It argues against an oversimplified reflectionist theory of literature. The book then goes on in Part Two to an erudite and sophisticated account of Formalism in West European (mostly German) art scholarship, and an overview of the Russian Formalist movement. The rest of the book (Parts Three and Four), however, shows a marked change of tone as specific items of Formalist thinking are brought under review. The selection here is biased in the extreme: attention is focused almost exclusively on the earliest, Opoyaz works; Tynyanov, one of the most brilliant of the Formalist theorists, gets scant mention; Jakobson hardly figures at all. Those topics that are chosen for discussion are criticized in a naive and clumsy way: the plot/story (fabula/syuzhet) opposition is treated in a crudely reflectionist way; Shklovsky's fruitful ideas on the laws of plot-construction (elaborated by Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of the Folktale, published in the same year as Medvedev's book) are dismissed in a scant two pages. It is perhaps unfair to operate with hindsight, but from Medvedev's clumsy polemic it would in no way be possible to envisage the enormously fruitful heritage of Russian Formalism in modern structuralist and semiotic thinking. It is hard to resist the impression that two hands were involved in this book, and if one of them was Bakhtin's then the temptation to ascribe Part Two to him is overwhelming, and if Part One also then the presentation of Bakhtin as non-Marxist will have to be revised. If he is really responsible for the whole book, then he must also be the author of the pre-run (1925) and the re-hash (1934), neither of which has so far been ascribed to Bakhtin.

The problem further arises of how to fit in Bakhtin's own earlier critique of Formalism, written in 1924 and published only in 1975. In this work, Bakhtin criticized the Formalists on three main counts: for their ignoring of aesthetic considerations, for their isolation of literature from the totality of culture and cultural values; and for their overemphasis on material, especially language material. This early work shows the main line of Bakhtin's thinking:

Artistically-creating form gives form above all to man, and to the world only as to the world of man … As a result, the relationship of form to content in the unity of the aesthetic object has a special personal character, while the aesthetic object is a kind of special realized event of action and reaction of the creator and the content.

This work is a plea for a fuller understanding of the work of literature as the bearer of aesthetic and personal values. It shares with Medvedev (1928) a criticism of the overemphasis on language (and the use of linguistics in literary criticism), but it differs from Medvedev in not having a sociological approach, still less a Marxist one.

The canonic face of Bakhtin was always turned against two tendencies in contemporary linguistic and literary scholarships: against any kind of monologic tendency, that is, any attempt to make language or literature into a static, reified, object; and against all attempts to deprive language and literature of their rightful burden of ideology and values. In place of these tendencies Bakhtin offered a conception of language and literature that emphasized process and open-endedness, that saw language and literature as inseparable from cultural values, and dialogue, in the widest sense, as the natural medium for man's cultural life. It is Bakhtin's too long neglected genius that he put forward these new conceptions, and offered a methodology for their application.

Ann Shukman, "Between Marxism and Formalism: The Stylistics of Mikhail Bakhtin," in Comparative Criticism, Vol. 2, 1980, pp. 221-34.

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