The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin 
by Caryl Emerson.
Princeton, 312 pp., £19.95, December 1997, 9780691069760
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Up until the late Fifties, Mikhail Bakhtin was completely unknown in his own country. Then a group of graduate students at the Gorky Institute of World Literature, who had come across the first version of his book on Dostoevsky (1929) and wondered about his fate, discovered to their astonishment that he was still alive and teaching at an obscure institute in the Russian provinces. They went on a pilgrimage (the word is apt) to pay him a visit, urged him to reissue his Dostoevsky study, and rescued from oblivion a thesis he had written on Rabelais that was mouldering in the files of the Gorky Institute. It was the translation of these two books into Western languages (the Dostoevsky in a very much expanded version) that launched Bakhtin’s astonishing career on the world cultural scene. Very soon his work introduced a new vocabulary into the study of literature, especially of the novel, and resulted in a much more positive evaluation of the importance of popular culture, particularly in its orgiastic and carnivalesque manifestations.

One of the anomalies of Bakhtin’s reputation is that most of the early responses to his work came from Western admirers. The first reliable biography, based on archival research and extensive interviews, was that of the American Slavists, Michael Holquist and Katerina Clark, which for years circulated in a samizdat translation in the Soviet Union. Nor was this at all surprising: the resolutely non-Marxist Bakhtin (though he was obliged for professional reasons to grind out an occasional article on ‘The Language and Style of Literary Works in the Light of I.V. Stalin’s Linguistic Studies’) was too heterodox and idiosyncratic a thinker to be handled with impunity in his own country. But when censorship began to ease with Gorbachev, and then collapsed completely, the Russians were free to catch up and work out their own view of Bakhtin, which in many respects differed from that of his Western acolytes. One Western view was that Bakhtin could somehow be used to support a more supple and flexible Marxism, one capable of coping with the latest, bewilderingly fractured products of Post-Modernism. As Caryl Emerson remarks, this idea, ordinarily associated with figures such as Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson, could hardly be explained to her Russian colleagues at various Bakhtin conferences and colloquia. They simply could not comprehend that ‘the debased Leninist and Trotskyite versions of Marxist aesthetics can still command attention in Britain, France and the United States at the end of the 20th century.’

For the Russians themselves, Bakhtin

offers something for every camp. Neo-humanists detect in him a liberal spirit and a patron saint of the new plurality and tolerant-nost; philosophers of religion have discovered a ‘vertical hierarchy’ in his thoughts and a commitment to absolute values; Russian nationalists locate his roots in Orthodox spirituality. Even nostalgic Marxist-Leninists, disillusioned by Russia’s post-modern slide into chaos, have found reassurance in the fact that the corruption and disintegration of daily life has also been named by Bakhtin – for do not the ugly everyday phenomena recall the ‘debasings’ and ‘decrownings’ of carnival?

Nonetheless, Russians resist attempting to enlist Bakhtin for any social-political cause, and value him most of all because he resolutely attempted to remain ‘apolitical’ all his life, in conditions where such manifest lack of interest could lead to very dire (or even fatal) consequences. Russian intellectuals, in Emerson’s extremely well-informed view, now ‘argue that there is no greater honour than to be genuinely marginal, out of the way, not part of a powerful institution, your own person, alive’. This helps us to understand why Georgii Gachev, one of the initial group who brought Bakhtin back from oblivion, is supposed to have thrown himself at Bakhtin’s feet during one of these early visits and exclaimed: ‘Mikhail Mikhailovich, tell us how to live so that we can become like you.’

If the Russians have no patience with the appropriation of Bakhtin by Western Marxists, neither do they accept any attempt to assimilate him to the latest developments of deconstruction or Post-Modernism (though his thought lends itself more easily to this second adaptation than to the first, which runs counter to his expressed convictions). Such ideas as ‘the death of the author’ or ‘the disappearance of the subject’ have not caught on in Russian criticism because, as Emerson puts it, ‘Russians have a long tradition of dead – really dead, that is, murdered – authors and disappeared subjects’; for them, such ideas are all too familiar realities, not philosophical flourishes. They also have an unaltered respect for their literary canon, which has done so much over the last two centuries to express the vital problems of their society when they could not be discussed freely in any other form. The tenets of Western multiculturalism strike Russians the wrong way because its ‘ecumenical motifs’ sound exactly like those of Soviet Communism – which ‘brought in its wake massive inequality, universal impoverishment, and a monstrous legacy of flattening out cultural particulars, both good and evil’.

The Russians thus ‘reclaimed’ Bakhtin in their own terms, a process Emerson traces in a chapter devoted to his gradual entrance into literary self-consciousness. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Russian criticism slowly revived from the years of terror, and a good deal of archival research was done on Bakhtin, which is still continuing. Several early works, notably his remarkable essays on the novel, and a philosophical treatise concerned with ethics and aesthetics (translated as Art and Answerability) were published. Claims were also made that three books published in the Twenties by V. Voloshinov and P. Medvedev (on a Marxist philosophy of language, on Freudianism and on the theories of the Russian Formalists) had actually been written by Bakhtin and published under the names of two members of his circle. Controversy over this claim continues, and Emerson does not accept it; but she concedes that the majority of ‘Russian Bakhtinists’ believe it to be valid, and these texts are now being reissued under the collective title Bakhtin under a Mask.

Much more has now become known also about Bakhtin’s teaching years, during which he disregarded the blizzard of directives issued by the Ministry of Education, despite being reprimanded for his insouciance. There is a promise of even more unpublished material in the offing: for example, his major book on the German Bildungsroman, which had been thought irretrievably lost. Its printed edition was destroyed in a bombing raid before distribution had begun, and the only copy of the manuscript was mostly used by Bakhtin during the war in order to roll cigarettes (an incident recently mentioned in the film Smoke, though Bakhtin was not referred to by name). However, early drafts have been found in the files of a close friend of Bakhtin’s, and the text, as yet unpublished, has been reconstructed by a Canadian scholar.

A planned edition of Bakhtin’s complete works has begun with the mysterious appearance of Volume V, in keeping with the erratic history of the publication of all his texts. Meanwhile, as his influence mounted and references to him became almost as frequent as those to Stalin and Lenin had been, a reaction set in on the part of scholars who felt that the loose application of his sweeping generalisations and rather imprecise terminology was undermining the rigour of Russian literary studies.

After summarising the East-West divide over Bakhtin, Emerson focuses on his critical reception during his lifetime. The first Dostoevsky book was given a laudatory review by Lunacharsky, then in his last year as Commissar of Education – a review that literally saved Bakhtin’s life. He was then under arrest for belonging to a religious group that had fallen foul of the authorities, and he might have been sent to certain death in Arctic exile; he was dispatched instead to the much more livable Kazakhstan. Lunarcharsky was impressed by Bakhtin’s discovery ofthe ‘autonomy’ of Dostoevsky’s characters, which allowed them to develop their own point of view, but he compared this to characterisation in Balzac and Shakespeare and did not at all consider it to be the epochal new development in the history of the novel that Bakhtin proclaimed. Emerson takes the view that Lunacharsky ‘misreads polyphony’ when he criticises the notion of an absolute autonomy of characters – a notion he finds unconvincing because, by apparently eliminating authorial control, it also obviates the possibility of producing an organised work of art. Bakhtin insisted later, to be sure, that the author is present in a polyphonic novel, though in a new and unprecedented way; but he could never explain satisfactorily – at least my view – what this way was, or how it could function in relation to a Dostoevsky novel as a whole.

Emerson then discusses two hostile reviews by party-line critics, who immediately judged Bakhtin’s references to ‘capitalism’ to be protective coloration (thus displaying more insight than Western Marxists, who have taken it straight), and rightly saw his assimilation of Dostoevsky’s the matics into the self-consciousness of his characters as evidence of a reprehensible ‘idealism’. The best early review was that of an émigré critic, V.L. Komarovich, who had made major contributions to Dostoevsky criticism with classic and still valuable articles on the novelist’s literary-cultural formation and its relation to his work. While appreciative of the originality of Bakhtin’s categories and of many of his aperçus, Komarovich could not accept the idea of the ‘polyphonic novel’; his objections, as summarised by Emerson, seem to me right on target. ‘Polyphony,’ he wrote, ‘illustrates only local dynamics not structure at all, and even these insights draw largely on the shorter works. Such dynamics of consciousness are not unique to Dostoevsky ... being adaptations of the familiar European genres of the confession and epistolary novel. Furthermore, the “idea” cannot be said to be the hero in Dostoevsky’s work. Human fates are the hero – and both catastophe and resolution are of the utmost moment.’

Bakhtin’s book on Rabelais and the folk culture of the Middle Ages, which was greeted with such ‘naive enthusiasm’ in the West, was received much more warily in his homeland when finally published in 1965. Submitted as a PhD dissertation in 1940, and coming up for approval only six years later (the record of his doctoral examination became available in 1993), Bakhtin’s manuscript was subject to the usual party-line sniping, but serious objections were also raised by scholars who were neither personally nor politically hostile. Bakhtin, they charged, had considered Rabelais only as the poet of ‘the grotesque body’, and of ‘joyful obscenities and indecencies on the carnival square’ – which to his questioners seemed to present a severely truncated and distorted view. He was accused of neglecting ‘the spiritually serious side of humanism’; of wrongly claiming that ‘medieval carnival or comical laughter’ was always carefree and eternally ‘cheerful’; of making ‘grotesque realism’ the property only of the masses, when in fact all classes threw themselves into the carnival high jinks; and of portraying the masses only as laughing and cavorting, when in fact ‘they clearly broke their backs with work, suffered, and thirsted to believe.’ All these cogent criticisms were to be repeated when the book appeared.

Bakhtin of course had defenders and admirers, to whom Emerson gives their due, but one aspect of their articles is especially striking. None of them claims that Bakhtin’s ideas about Dostoevsky or Rabelais, or those elaborated in his extremely valuable historical poetics of the novel, should be accepted at face value, as being supported by unimpeachable evidence or resting on a solid factual foundation. On the contrary, he is praised rather for the boldness of his hypotheses and the scope of his ingenious theories, which offered new and suggestive ways of looking at the literary-historical problems he was concerned with. ‘Bakhtin’s thought,’ wrote one of his champions, the noted classicist Sergei Averintsev, ‘sought broad heuristic perspectives, but not “scientific or scholarly results” in the usual sense.’ A medieval specialist, after listing objections to Rabelais, nonetheless writes that Bakhtin is not Curtius, he is ‘not an annotator of details but an innovator, a stimulus, a prompt’; ‘after Bakhtin appeared, it became difficult to study medieval culture from the old position.’ It would seem that the very exaggerations and over-emphases of Bakhtin’s writings served to focus attention on issues that had been scanted or overlooked before he brought them so glaringly to light.

No doubt this is one reason ‘Literature Fades, Philosophy Moves to the Fore,’ as Emerson puts it in the title of Part II of her book. Bakhtin was no longer considered a literary critic or a cultural historian in the traditional sense by a new generation of scholars, but was now taken as a ‘culturologist’, or as he preferred to call himself, a ‘philosopher’. This is the term he used in the course of six interviews in 1973, when he was asked whether in the Twenties he had considered himself ‘more of a philosopher than a philologist’. ‘More of a philosopher,’ he answered, ‘and such I have remained until the present day.’ In an earlier conversation, he remarked to Sergei Bocharov, one of his student-discoverers, that in his Dostoevsky book he had unfortunately been unable to tackle ‘the philosophical question that tormented Dostoevsky his whole life, the existence of God. In the book I was forced to prevaricate ... the moment a thought got going, I had to break it off.’ Some of the difficulties and anomalies with the Dostoevsky text, when regarded from a purely literary or narratological point of view, can probably be attributed to Bakhtin’s lack of interest in such matters. He was not really attempting to provide a new commentary on Dostoevsky’s creations, but rather to express through them his own philosophical and theological ideas.

The emphasis in Russian discussions of Bakhtin has thus shifted to the more general implications of such notions as ‘polyphony’ and ‘dialogism’, which have been subjected to critical scrutiny in terms of what they might entail for human (not only literary) experience. This has led to a more hostile questioning of Bakhtin’s view of Dostoevsky’s creative universe. Emerson refers to the criticism of Yuri Kariakin, a noted dissident philosopher under Stalin and a personal friend of Bakhtin, who refused to accept ‘self-consciousness’ as Dostoevsky’s major theme, insisting that ‘self-deception’ was more apposite. Emerson asks whether ‘the feelings and reactions we experience when reading Bakhtin on Dostoevsky [are] at all compatible with our feelings on reading Dostoevsky’. The answer is obviously no, ‘because he remained consistently Formalist in his reluctance to pass judgment on the ideology and virtue of Dostoevsky’s plot.’

Critics have found that the lineaments of a world conceived in Bakhtinian terms fails to measure up to the dialogic ‘unfinalisability’ (one of Bakhtin’s favourite terms) that he envisaged. An American scholar, Natalia Reed, who makes a rather surprising appearance among the Russians, has been among the deadliest of anti-Bakhtinians (unfortunately the only citation given is to an unpublished Harvard dissertation). She argues that Bakhtin’s image of a ‘polyphonic’ world, in which each person only absorbs others into his own ‘dialogic’ consciousness, is in fact a ‘profoundly selfish internalisation of relationships – a removal of human relations from the realm of responsible outer actions (or reactions), involving unpredictable, unmanageable others, into the safer realm of inner worlds and domesticated verbal images’. In even broader terms, Emerson informs us that ‘the more thoughtful Bakhtin scholars now acknowledge [that] a pure and unalloyed polyphony challenges not just systematic thought but also the very integrity of the personalities it pulls in.’

Bakhtin himself was not unaware of some of these problems, and in a late note, obviously trying to face them, he referred to ‘the peculiarities of polyphony ... These dialogues are conducted by unfinalised individual personalities and not by psychological subjects. (?) The somewhat unembodied quality of these personalities (disinterested surplus).’ At this point even Emerson cannot suppress an ironical comment: ‘Disinterested, perhaps even “somewhat unembodied”, these “unfinalised individual personalities” constitute a wondrous population; secure, raised on the virtues, free of embarrassing dependencies. It is not easy to see ourselves in it.’ No, but it is perhaps relevant to recall similar remarks made about the population of peasant Russian communes by the 19th-century Slavophils, who also used a musical image, that of ‘a chorus’, to characterise their supposedly peaceful and remarkable unity in diversity. Dostoevsky enthusiastically cited a famous article by Konstantin Aksakov that contains this image, and one wonders to what extent it may have inspired Bakhtin to develop his own version of a deeply-rooted Russian ideal.

Caryl Emerson informs us, however, that Dostoevsky is now very far from being the central preoccupation of Russian Bakhtinians. At the Bakhtin Centennial Conference, for example, ‘not a single paper ... was devoted to Bakhtin on Dostoevsky,’ and his advocates took ‘his admittedly lopsided reading of the great novelist as simply “illustrative” of something else more important’ – like Freud’s reference to Oedipus. Of much greater consequence has been the controversy over the Rabelais book and the whole notion of ‘carnival’, which has proved to be ‘the broadest, the most appealing, the most accessible’ of all Bakhtin’s ideas. The array of responses and reactions called forth by his investigation of ‘the culture of laughter’ is staggering, and may partly be explained by the capacity of these ideas to inspire people in the most varied fields – the Russian Sinologist, for example, who had never studied anything except Chinese culture, and published a tributary article testifying that Bakhtin had helped him to understand Chinese festivals. By the Nineties, however, one thing was abundantly clear: ‘no one doubted that Bakhtin’s image of carnival was a utopian fantasy.’ The rigidities and repressions of Soviet society made Bakhtin’s image of unbridled licence immensely appealing, even though he ‘reads so much of Rabelais’s novel through the lens of preliterate (and arguably Slavic) folklore’. Whatever its scholarly failings, Bakhtin’s carnival world ‘was a “loophole” for the psyche and a concrete manifestation of hope in a world that otherwise knew little of it’.

Once nobody cared any longer whether Bakhtin’s image of carnival had anything to do with Rabelais, the main issue became how the two god-terms of Bakhtin’s thought – dialogue and carnival – could be reconciled, if ai all. ‘Dialogue individuates, carnival absorbs and effaces; the speaking person is mortal, the grotesque body immortal’; the locus of dialogue is the intimacy of the novel, that of carnival the obscenities of the public square. Emerson distinguishes a number of responses to this question, one of the most unexpected of which is that Bakhtin, who is known to have been a believing Christian, was actually being reverential rather than scatological. The Eastern Orthodox Church has never seen matter as degrading or debased, since it is the site of the Incarnation, and Bakhtin was thus allegorically expressing its sacredness ‘under the convenient rubric of approved Marxist-Leninist materialism’. Others, however, were hostile because they saw the celebration of carnival ‘as destructive both of humanism and (in the post-Soviet context), of Russia’s nascent liberalism – upon which, they feel, rest all the fragile hopes for a rule-of-law state’. Still others claim that Bakhtin was well aware of these dangers, and that his book was ‘satirical and Aesopian’; he was ‘fully alert to the ghastly parallels between a collective body sustaining itself on individual death and the coterminous rhetoric of Stalinist Terror’. Some, of course, like the historian of aesthetics Aleksei Losev (a contemporary of Bakhtin who suffered a more severe exile, and returned to take up his career even though blind), are appalled and repelled by Bakhtinian carnival, with its glorification of the lower bodily functions and what is, in effect, mass hysteria. Treasures of ingenuity have been lavished by Russian philosophers on the attempt to reconcile these opposing polarities of Bakhtin’s thought but no solution has as yet been accepted as decisive.

It is impossible to do more here than give a very fragmentary notion of the wealth of material contained in Emerson’s book, which she presents not only with penetration but also with a responsive awareness of what it reveals about the present state of Russian culture. The rich heritage of Bakhtin – including his early philosophical writings, to which she devotes a concluding section – has become a lodestar by which various factions of the Russian intelligentsia are attempting to orient themselves in the chaos of their new freedom. Whatever shortcomings and limitations may be detected in his work, Bakhtin had the inestimable merit of preserving in his writings some of the richness and complexity of the Russian culture of the Silver Age in which he came to manhood – a culture which rivalled, if it did not surpass, Western Europe in literary, musical and artistic creativity. Present-day Russians sense the revivifying aura of that heady pre-Revolutionary period in his work; and it is a tribute to his stubborn courage and integrity that he managed to keep it alive through years of exile and obscurity during the dark night of Stalinism.

Caryl Emerson speaks of the ‘aristocraticism’ of his personal behaviour, his indifference to criticism, a certain weariness when it came to defending his ideas; he did not care finally what anyone else thought, and tried to deflect his critics rather than to answer them. He hated nothing so much as what he called ofitsialnost – that is, officialdom and ideas that were official and approved rather than free-ranging and unexpected. Emerson situates his personal philosophy among that of the post-Socratics he must have read as a classics student – the Stoics, Sceptics, Epicureans – who lived in an age ‘when the polis was in disarray’, and who thought ‘an individual’s primary moral responsibility was personal integrity, realised through a withdrawal from public life.’ Nothing could be further removed, as she comments, from ‘mainstream Russian revolutionary activism’; and this is one reason he was regarded practically as a saint in his last years, and continues to be at the centre of all the intellectual activity that Emerson has now so generously placed at our disposal.

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