Life of Mikhail Bakhtin

During his imprisonment, Bakhtin began suffering health problems caused by chronic osteomyelitis, a painful inflammation of the bone marrow, and while his exile to the frozen isolation of Kazakhstan was no doubt severe, it undoubtedly saved him from a certain death in prison. During exile, Bakhtin was prevented from teaching and instead supported himself as a bookkeeper. In 1936, he was released from exile and taught for a time in Saransk until renewed purges led him to resign and move to a small town outside Moscow.

There, his worsening osteomyelitis led to amputation of his right leg, and he was forced to use crutches or a walking stick the remainder of his life (Clark and Holquist 261). After his surgery, Bakhtin was unable to find formal employment, though he was invited on occasions to deliver lectures at the Gorky Institute of World Literature. He also used his free time to finish a book on the German novel of education and to work on a number of essays on the dialogic nature of the novel, most of which were based on material culled from his lecture notes.

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In addition, he began writing a doctoral dissertation on Rabelais for the Gorky Institute. However, the advent of World War II interrupted his work on the dissertation, and his book on the German novel of education literally went up in smoke. The publishing house to which Bakhtin sent this latter manuscript was bombed by the Germans during the war, and due to a cigarette paper shortage at that time, Bakhtin used the pages of the book’s prospectus to support his continual craving for nicotine (Clark and Holquist 273).

Though only a fragment of this work has survived, Bakhtin’s essays on the dialogic theory of the novel remained intact, yet were not published in the Soviet Union until 1973, well after Moscow graduate students had rescued him from obscurity. These essays were translated into English as The Dialogic Imagination. This collection of essays, written between 1934 and 1941, is undoubtedly the main work on which Bakhtin’s reputation in literary criticism has rested; it is cited by Bakhtin literary scholars more than any of his other works, with the possible exception of Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.

The collection as a whole deals mostly with historical development of the novel, but also elaborates on Bakhtin’s dialogics while introducing two new concepts — heteroglossia and the chronotope — that reflect his deepening awareness of how language operates over time. Heteroglossia is perhaps one of Bakhtin’s most misunderstood and misinterpreted ideas, often being confused with “polyphony” as meaning the multi-voiced nature of dialogic discourse. But this is not exactly what Bakhtin means.

In his essay “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” Bakhtin defines heteroglossia as the inherent diversity of unofficial forms of a particular national language — similar in nature to dialect. Bakhtin contrasts heteroglossia with “polyglossia,” which is the interaction of two or more national languages within a given culture, such as took place in the Hellenistic world: Closely connected with the problem of polyglossia and inseparable from it is the problem of heteroglossia within a language, that is, the problem of internal differentiation, the stratification characteristic of any national language.

This problem is of primary importance for understanding the style and historical destinies of the modern European novel, that is, the novel since the seventeenth century. This latecomer reflects, in its stylistic structure, the struggle between two tendencies in the languages of European peoples: one a centralizing (unifying) tendency, the other a decentralizing tendency (that is, one that stratifies languages).

The novel senses itself on the border between the completed, dominant literary language and the extraliterary languages that know heteroglossia. (67) These centralizing and decentralizing forces are referred to in another essay, “Discourse in the Novel,” as “centripetal” and “centrifugal” forces, which serve to promote the continual evolution of language and the novel.

The centripetal and centrifugal forces within heteroglossia are what change the “official” language of a culture over time, usually by infusing diverse, unofficial forms of language into official forms via the speech of various literary characters. In “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin also extends his description of dialogics and discusses the various obstacles any individual faces in attempting to forge an authentic, authorial voice when confronted with the dialogic nature of language.

Assimilating the disparate utterances we have heard or read in our early language experience into a solid tone of a confident writer is a difficult process, as Bakhtin well understood: The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes “one’s own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language . . but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one’s own . . . . Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated — overpopulated with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process. 294) Later in this essay, Bakhtin describes similar difficulties we face when forming our own opinions and ideas on a particular subject, a process he refers to as “ideological becoming” (342). In doing so, he contrasts the official language or “authoritative discourse,” which comes to us in the present from outside our consciousness, with “internally persuasive discourse,” which comes from within our consciousness through assimilated forms of both official and unofficial language (342).

Another essay in this collection, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel,” demonstrates what could be called Bakhtin’s final stage of philosophical development. In this essay, Bakhtin relates the space-time continuum of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to literary criticism, particularly as sort of a metaphor for the different ways in which the whole of literature — everything from the Greek romance to the European novel — has used various temporal and spatial features to express a wide variety of world views.

Bakhtin borrowed the term “chronotope” from the work of Soviet physiologist A. A. Ukhtomsky, whose lecture on the chronotope in biology Bakhtin attended in 1925 (85). While Bakhtin’s discussion is intriguing, what is most interesting about this essay is its conclusion, which he wrote in 1973 and in which he serves up the chronotope as a “bridge, not a wall” between the mind and the world (Clark and Holquist 279).

As Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist point out in their biography, Bakhtin’s interest in space and time was shared by many Soviet intellectuals of the 1920s, with Einstein and Bergson being particularly in vogue; but at the base of Bakhtin’s interest in the chronotope was his earlier reading of Kant and the Neo-Kantians, who saw time and space as essential to any cognitive understanding of experience (277). Still, Bakhtin seems to be one of the first literary critics and philosophers of language – though he preferred the phrase “philosophical anthropologist” — to shift from a narrow, Newtonian world view into the new philosophical paradigm created by Einstein’s theories. As Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson note in Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, Bakhtin’s dialogics seeks to overturn the “old, Newtonian, monologic view of the world” (57) and to replace it with a radically new view of language that takes into account its many paradoxes.

Similar to the way quantum physics has changed the way we view physical reality, there occurred during Bakhtin’s life a paradigm shift in philosophy of language, which Bakhtin comments on in his notes for the 1963 revision of the Dostoevsky book: Reified (materializing, objectified) images are profoundly inadequate for life and for discourse. A reified model of the world is now being replaced by a dialogic model. Every thought and every life merges in the open-ended dialogue. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics 293) Just as Werner Heisenberg and other physicists grappled with ways in which to describe the strange, new world of the quantum realm, Bakhtin seems to have been groping also for ways in which to express his new ideas on language. Bakhtin had a penchant for neologisms, which can be viewed as a necessity for describing the radically new concepts of language that came to mind in light of Einstein’s theory.

This also might explain Bakhtin’s peculiar use of Russian grammar, which Clark and Holquist noticed throughout their biographical research: The more we know about Bakhtin’s life, the clearer it becomes that he was a supreme eccentric, of an order the Russians express better than we in their word cudak, which has overtones of such intense strangeness that it borders on cudo, a wonder. And this peculiarity is reflected not only in the strange history of his texts . . . but in his style as well, if one may speak of a single style for one who was so concerned with “other-voicedness. Russians immediately sense this strangeness: again and again when we have gone to native speakers with questions about a peculiar usage of a familiar word or an unfamiliar coinage, the Russians have thrown up their hands or shaken their heads and smiled ruefully. (xvi) Such eccentricities, combined with dialogics’ challenge to the monologic, rationalist tradition, have opened Bakhtin to charges of being a relativist who takes no firm stand on important issues in philosophy of language. But in the Dostoevsky book, Bakhtin anticipates and counters such charges by arguing that polyphony “has nothing in common with relativism . . . [B]oth relativism and dogmatism equally exclude all . . . dialogue by making it either unnecessary . . . or impossible . . . ” (69). Following World War II, Bakhtin was allowed to return to his university position in Saransk, and it was from here that he set about reviving passage of his dissertation, which in the interim had become a politically sensitive subject. Following the war, a new wave of intellectual oppression swept through Russia, and Bakhtin’s dissertation was denounced on ideological grounds by several powerful scholars who found it “objectionable for its blasphemy and scorn of dogma” (Clark and Holquist 324).

Though Bakhtin was eventually granted a candidate’s degree, he was denied publication of his dissertation, which wound up collecting dust in the institute’s archives for the next 12 years. After Bakhtin was discovered by Moscow graduate students in the early 1960s, however, he revised the dissertation for Soviet publication, and it was later translated into English as Rabelais and His World. Rabelais was one of Bakhtin’s favorite authors, and he saw Gargantua and Pantagruel, with all its bawdy humor and veiled social satire, as “an encyclopedia of folk culture” (Rabelais 58).

Bakhtin touches on these carnivalistic folk genres in his earlier work on Dostoevsky, but in Rabelais and His World, he provides a detailed history of what he calls “grotesque realism” and sees Rabelais and other Renaissance writers consciously drawing from these literary forms as inspiration for their work. Central to grotesque realism is the principle of degradation, “the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract… o the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their indissoluble unity” (19-20). In ancient cultures, this degradation found its communal expression in times of carnival, when the people “celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order” by engaging in feasts “of becoming, change, and renewal” (10). Especially important in such carnival festivals was the inversion of official hierarchies through the uncrowning of kings and the elevation of fools to regal status.

But Bakhtin is quick to point out that carnival should not be confused with mere parody or subversive anarchy; while carnival does use degradation to subvert authority temporarily, “it revives and renews at the same time. Bare negation is completely alien to folk culture” (11). Rabelais and His World is a highly circular and diffuse work which is considered by many Bakhtin scholars to be one of his least important works, though it is generally seen as a major contribution to Renaissance literary scholarship.

When it was first translated into English, the New York Times Book Review called it a “windy, repetitive, disorganized and clumsily- translated mass, thick with sentences that hobble across the page burdened by non-meanings . . . ” (Miller). But through all its digressions, Bakhtin seeks to demonstrate that Rabelais was the last person to fully understand what carnival meant to Medieval man and how the world has since lost this understanding as carnival devolved into literary forms of satire.

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