John Sturrock

  • Handbook of Russian Literature edited by Victor Terras
    Yale, 558 pp, £25.00, April 1985, ISBN 0 300 03155 6
  • Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time by Roman Jakobson, edited by Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy
    Blackwell, 208 pp, £25.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 631 14262 2
  • Historic Structures: The Prague School Project 1928-1946 by F.W. Galan
    Croom Helm, 250 pp, £22.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 7099 3816 0
  • Mikhail Bakhtin by Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist
    Harvard, 398 pp, £19.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 674 57416 8
  • The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics by M.M. Bakhtin and P.M. Medvedev, translated by Albert Wehrle
    Harvard, 191 pp, £7.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 674 30921 9
  • Dialogues between Roman Jakobson and Krystyna Pomorska translated by Christian Hubert
    Cambridge, 186 pp, £15.00, August 1983, ISBN 0 521 25113 3
  • The Dialogical Principle by Tzvetan Todorov, translated by Wlad Godzich
    Manchester, 132 pp, £25.00, February 1985, ISBN 0 7190 1466 2
  • Rabelais and his World by Mikhail Bakhtin, translated by Hélène Iswolsky
    Indiana, 484 pp, $29.50, August 1984, ISBN 0 253 20341 4

Roman Jakobson and Mikhail Bakhtin agree on so little as theorists of literature that they must count as alternatives. To read one and then the other, preferably Jakobson first and then Bakhtin, as a sort of anti-Jakobson, is a literary theoretical education. Where Jakobson is dry, Bakhtin is convivial; where Jakobson is technocratic, Bakhtin is impulsive; where Jakobson is magisterial, Bakhtin is a groundling. Jakobson’s theories are known about, because he came to the West to work on them; Bakhtin’s we are only now starting to learn about, because of the shocking obscurity in which they were kept in his lifetime.

These two Russians led lives as different as their philosophies – after the Revolution at least. Jakobson’s life went much better than poor Bakhtin’s. Jakobson was the younger by a year, born in 1896 to a father who was a chemical engineer and an industrialist in Moscow. He studied languages and what then went with them, notably folklore, and in 1915 was one of the creators of the Moscow Linguistic Circle, whose advanced and contentious ideas did a lot to shape the course of Russian Formalism in the Twenties. He was also close to the local avant-garde, a sophisticate who rode the new wave of abstraction in the arts and was a friend of Russian Modernists, both painters and writers. By the time of the Revolution he had his first teaching job at the university and was one of those free-thinkers who had much to hope for intellectually from the desecration of the old order.

But Jakobson soon gave up his country. In 1920 he was sent to Prague by the new regime as an official translator. He never went back to Russia. Why, I have not seen explained; all that one finds in his large and enthusiastic entry (written by his widow) in Yale’s informative Handbook of Russian Literature is that he left the Soviet service ‘in order to resume his studies at Prague University’. But he still didn’t return home even when his new studies were finished. Those were the years when the frost was settling over intellectual life in Russia and when Jakobson’s friends and collaborators there had begun to suffer. He was well out of it: but there seems to have been no precise break with the regime. He is not very political in his writings even when he has cause to be. His lament for his friend, the poet Mayakovsky, who committed suicide in 1930 – this piece is reprinted in Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time, and is the best thing in the book, which is an otherwise random and insufficient selection of his essays – is more fatalistic than angry: for Jakobson, Russia has always been a society too gross to support such fine geniuses as Mayakovsky. Rather than dwell on the poet’s fate, Jakobson turns to the characterisation of his poetry.

Jakobson remained in Prague until the Nazis came, teaching, writing and, along with Jan Mukarovsky and others, helping to create Prague Structuralism, whose history and doctrines are thoroughly and intelligently traced in F.W. Galan’s Historic Structures. After Czechoslovakia, his next, and final, home was the United States. He arrived in New York in 1941, by way of Scandinavia. There, he taught linguistics at the university in exile started by the Free French and Belgians. One of his first New York friends was a fellow teacher, Claude Lévi-Strauss: the two of them went to one another’s lectures. Listening to Jakobson’s still revolutionary ideas on phonology made Lévi-Strauss realise for the first time that he himself was a structuralist, and that he had been given the model he had been missing on which to found his theory of human culture. The exquisite if suspect binarism on which Lévi-Strauss’s system came to rest was there, waiting, in Jakobson’s analysis of the phoneme into its ‘distinctive features’. Jakobson was a ‘dazzling’ lecturer, according to Lévi-Strauss (he is not a dazzling writer), and a tiring friend, because he wanted to talk and to drink all night. Lévi-Strauss took in the ideas, but without the vodka – this proved a let-down to his exuberant associate.

Jakobson lived, taught and published in the United States for forty more years after this, first at Columbia and later at Harvard. He made constant raids out of linguistics and into literary theory, putting his case that if the study of literature was ever to be specific, and empirical, then it must codify the language of which literature is made. This was the Formalist argument at its most domineering; Jakobson never really changed his literary views after the early Twenties. He died at the age of 86, much honoured as both a Slavist of great range and scholarship and a theoretical linguist who had rewritten the laws of phonology.

This was not at all Bakhtin’s story. He, like Jakobson, was well-born, into what Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, in their clumsily written but valuable biography, call the ‘landless nobility’; his father was an itinerant bank manager, which meant that the Bakhtins were used to living in the provinces. In the winter of 1917/8, aged 22, Bakhtin was in St Petersburg, a graduate like Jakobson in philology. But he had no job and he did not stay on in the city to watch or to encourage the Revolution. Instead, he went off to teach in a school three hundred miles to the south. Bakhtin had political ideas but not, in any unequivocal form, a political line. He was good above all at lying low, and had none of the metropolitan instincts or tastes of a Jakobson. This canniness didn’t run in the family, however: it was not shared, for example, by Bakhtin’s elder brother, Nikolai, whose life was such an unlikely mixture of the academic and the madcap that I digress to give a brief account of it. Brilliant student though he was, Nikolai joined the lancers as a volunteer during the First World War. After the Revolution, he was briefly a White Guard, and left Russia when the Whites were beaten. He next became a sailor, joined the French Foreign Legion, got wounded in North Africa, and at last went back to his Classical studies, first at the Sorbonne and later, in the Thirties, at Cambridge. There he dabbled in Tolstoyism with Wittgenstein before going to teach Classics at the University of Southampton. In 1939 he moved to Birmingham, where he died of a heart attack in 1950. At this point he was head of the linguistics department, a member of the British Communist Party and an admirer of Stalin.

Mikhail was the quiet brother, who craved uneventfulness. He was a most successful teacher but only ever able to teach in third-rate institutions; he was also, for all his reclusiveness, a talker, a memorably formal man for whom dialogue with others was the be-all and end-all of intellectual life; and he was able to publish some at least of his remarkable ideas, on what one could call the ‘anthropology’ of literature, from the early Twenties onwards, although his books were not widely known or well understood while he was alive. He did not keep wholly free of trouble. In 1929 he was arrested, and sentenced to six years’ exile in Kazakhstan. The main reason for his arrest appears to have been the links he had kept with various crankish and progressive religious groups throughout the Twenties and into the years when atheism had become militant. What Bakhtin really believed, in religion as in politics, is indeterminate; a man so open to argument was no doubt fortified by uncertainty. His intellectual tolerance was total.

He survived the harshnesses of Kazakhstan because he was a simple enough soul to live adequately anywhere. He had no idea of home comforts or of ordinary practicality – he never found out how to use a telephone. His health was bad – he had osteomyelitis all his adult life and his leg was amputated in 1938 – but sitting down suited him. What he needed was a desk to write at, a great deal of tea to drink and a great many cigarettes to smoke. A sad little story told by Clark and Holquist is of Bakhtin in wartime Moscow slowly rolling the manuscript of a book by him on Goethe into cigarette papers and puffing his way through the entire draft, starting at the end. It was the only manuscript. After the war he returned to teaching and lecturing in the provinces, remembered by a few only for the books he had published in the Twenties. In the mid-Fifties Jakobson, visiting Russia, spoke flatteringly about him and helped a little to restore his name. In 1969 Bakhtin finally got back to Moscow. Yuri Andropov’s daughter brought this about: she was the pupil of a leading Bakhtinite teacher of literature in Moscow and she talked her father, then head of the KGB, into moving the ailing Bakhtins, husband and wife, to the Kremlin hospital. Bakhtin died in Moscow in 1975, aged 80. By that time his major works had been reprinted and it was starting to be realised what an original thinker he was. Through decades of terrible intellectual pettiness his ideas were in eclipse as much perhaps because they were too ambitious as because they were obviously dangerous. He was no orthodox Marxist, but he was no orthodox anti-Marxist either. He simply thought that the more ideas and beliefs there were about, the fuller and saner life became. He has, very properly, a long entry in the Handbook of Russian Literature: longer than Turgenev’s, I note, which will disgust the traditionalists – the editors have smiled on literary theory.

Anyone who wants to understand just how far and how interestingly the linguistic philosophies of Bakhtin and Jakobson are opposed should read The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, the definitive critique of Russian Formalism first published at the end of the Twenties. What Bakhtin – or Bakhtin/Medvedev, because the book was to some unknown degree collaborative – thought was wrong in Formalism was its insistence that literary language was somehow peculiar to literature. Formalists went in joyful pursuit of what Jakobson, I think, was the first to call ‘literariness’, or that peculiar property of literature which makes it literary. But you can’t have ‘literariness’ unless there is also a non-‘literariness’ from which to discriminate it: the literary is literary only because it isn’t something else. What it isn’t, inevitably, is an ‘everyday’ use of language. There is snobbery at work here, for the language which serves well enough to get us through the working day will not, apparently, do to write literature in. Literature is a special and a higher use of language. Formalism is exclusive in separating literary from everyday language and in trying to identify the conventions or ‘devices’ on which literature relies to distinguish itself.

Exclusive is precisely what Bakhtin thinks literature must not be. To the patrician attitudes of such as Jakobson he opposes his own boisterous populism. He is fair to the Formalists, unlike their other critics at the time, who jumped on them for opportunistic reasons and with non-arguments supposedly derived from Marxism to the effect that the new Formalism was also the old ivory-tower decadence in vaguely scientific disguise. Bakhtin thought Formalism was to be admired for having tried to see the literary as literary, and not as a branch of psychology, history or sociology. That was new, in Russia, and an advance. Bakhtin will have nothing to do with the simple-minded Marxism which debases literature by using it as direct evidence for the state of society at the time of its writing. That he finds insultingly naive: what literature reports on is not social facts but social idioms, because it is linguistic through and through. And each idiom to be found in a particular literary work is evidence of an ideology – the only evidence of ideology there can be, according to Bakhtin, because ideology is not private, it is expressed in the commerce between one person and others.

The Formalists were quite wrong to decide that literature was linguistically a practice apart. This Bakhtin finds undemocratic, as if there were restrictions on what may be seen as ‘literary’. Anything in a language is ‘literary’ if it occurs in a literary work. So the ‘literary’ language is on absolutely equal terms with the ‘everyday’ language where both can be found to have entered literature. But the effect on the two languages of their reception into literature is what the Formalists had not remarked: they now show themselves to be two different idioms among others, two participants in the linguistic jamboree. The glory of literature, for Bakhtin, is its sheer linguistic inclusiveness. The best literature is that which contains the most language, or the greatest number of dissonant ideologies.

Bakhtin and Jakobson agree on one main thing only: that in literature the ‘poetic’ function of language is uppermost. This is another of Jakobson’s coinings. The ‘poetic function’ takes precedence over other functions of language on those linguistic occasions when language draws attention to itself, when it becomes ‘intransitive’, as Roland Barthes preferred to put it, and is relieved of its referential and instrumental duties. Bakhtin is as attentive to the language of literature as any Formalist could wish, but he comes to radically different conclusions about its nature. The Formalists had thought that the great aim of literature was to spring-clean the language and to rid it of its stale and debilitating associations. Formalism celebrates, in the Mallarméan phrase used by Viktor Shklovsky, the ‘resurrection of the word’. The point of literature is to make things ‘strange’, and you cannot do that if the language of literature is so familiar that no one notices it. This, says Bakhtin, is a false materialism of the word. The fact that language is so ‘dirty’ when it comes into literature is our very reason for esteeming it. To rid it of its vastly many connotations is to rid it of its life and its virtue; to claim that such a semantic purge is actually a ‘resurrection’ of the word is too much – in Bakhtin’s book, it is murder.

The resurrectionism of the Formalists is asocial and ahistorical: it is an unhealthy abstraction, typical of the Jakobsonian linguistics that Bakhtin found miserably impoverished because it ignores the environments in which language is always used. Traditional linguists, in their rigour, allow an unreal independence to words and sentences which, when they are actually used, are inserted into contexts already saturated with language. The concrete utterance invokes history and invokes a society, it comes out with a particular ‘intonation’; and it is the intonations that Bakhtin himself is after. As he states the case in his fundamental essay on ‘Discourse in the Novel’, ‘any concrete discourse (utterance) finds the object at which it was directed already as it were overlain with qualifications, open to dispute, charged with value, already enveloped in an obscuring mist – or, on the contrary, by the “light” of alien words that have already been spoken about it. It is entangled, shot through with shared thoughts, points of view, alien value judgments and accents. The word, directed towards its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment.’ Bakhtin’s manner invariably supports his argument: ‘dialogically agitated and tension-filled’ is a description of his own writings. But the manner is in the end seductive. Bakhtin reads, in English, not well or easily, but powerfully. He calls for a linguistics of the concrete speech or writing-act, and that we should recognise the dialogic nature of all resort to language. When we choose what to say or to write, we do so knowing that much has been said or written on the same subject before, and that there will also be a linguistic response from others to what we now contribute. ‘Answerability’ is a key Bakhtinian theme. Authorship is a form of social action and selfhood the product of such action, to be defined only in terms of the exchanges of one individual with others. The sense of human differences and of the community that must contain them is Bakhtin’s ultimate inspiration.

So his theory of literature is really a theory of life. The literary work is a unity, a creation, but it is full of competing ‘voices’; to read it intelligently is to try to recognise and sort out the cacophony. The interpretative task is one of ‘social evaluation’. This is semiotics and not, of course, hard science. Bakhtin’s method, if we are socially-minded and knowledgeable enough to be able to use it, makes the interpretation of literature fairly personal, since there won’t be a consensus as to the values or ideologies that texts display. But it is not subjective or capricious because the evaluations it makes are social and not psychological ones. Bakhtin is not an individualist. If the evaluators fall out among themselves, that is all to the good, because the disharmony in the interpretative community then mirrors that of the text itself.

All this is poles apart from the peremptory scientism of Jakobson, who scorns as ignoramuses those who fail to agree with him. He is to be met with in querulous vein, talking over his life and ideas with the ever-present Pomorska, in the useful Dialogues, where he at one moment ‘regrets having to say that the specific objections of my critics plainly reveal insufficient familiarity with even the most elementary questions involved in an analysis of linguistic material.’ Jakobson always had a sense of hierarchy; the notion of ‘dominance’ plays a large part in his literary theory – in each work of literature one ‘device’ is said to be the ‘dominant’; likewise in each use of language one linguistic function (in literature, the ‘poetic’) is ‘dominant’. When it comes to the system of poetics itself it is only natural that the ‘dominant’ there should be Jakobson.

A good way to point up the difference in temperament between him and Bakhtin is to consider the genres they practised on. Jakobson is the theorist of poetry, and poetry is the literary form which declares itself most openly to be literary. There is not much call for it in everyday life, and its devices show. His way with poetry is rough: a new brutalism. The highroad into it lies willy-nilly through grammar. ‘The essential literary-critical question of the individuality and comparative characteristics of poems, poets and poetic schools can and should be posed in the realm of grammar.’ Jakobson wrote that, not as an insolent young Formalist in 1921, but as a Harvard dignitary, in 1961. The poems he had in view at that moment were two lyrics by Pushkin.

Jakobson’s exhaustive parsings of individual poems are virtuoso efforts at grammatical and syntactical description – to his fellow grammarians perhaps themselves things of beauty. But they are abortive, because when it comes to the point at which Jakobson should pass from the grammatical ‘realm’, where he is king, to the semantic realm, where a certain democracy obtains, he fizzles out. He asks us to believe that through the grammar of a poem we have a prime access to the sense, but he never proves it.

Jakobson’s poetics follow rather too strictly from his phonology. There he had master-minded the splitting of the phonetic atom: the phoneme, hitherto supposed to be an entity and the smallest feasible constituent of any language. Jakobson analysed the phoneme into its ‘distinctive features’, which are not entities but relations. This is structuralism at its purest. The English phonemes d and t have the distinctive features ‘voiced’ and ‘unvoiced’ to tell them apart. They are the two terms of a relation and nothing more: they are not the ‘voiced’ and ‘unvoiced’ versions of some third, underlying term. The analysis of phonemes so conducted is most economical, because there are fewer ‘distinctive features’ in the sound-system of a language than there are phonemes, and it is this triumphant frugality which goes to Jakobson’s head when he comes to the analysis of literature, where he hopes, similarly, to explain much by means of little.

He assimilates poetics to phonology in another, more insidious way, too, by the thesis that much grammatical and syntactical patterning in literature will be subliminal, an effect of genre or of the structure of the language itself, and not of the will of the poet. Just as we almost none of us have the faintest notion of what the phonemes of English are when we speak it, or of how they might be analysed into their distinctive features, so the poet proceeds without full consciousness of how the structure of his verses is being determined – semantically as well as grammatically, we must conclude – by the fundamentally oppositional nature of language. In an essay called ‘Subliminal Verbal Patterning in Poetry’, also included in Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time, Jakobson shifts suspiciously quickly from modern poetry and poets, and the question of how far poets determine the form of their work and how far it determines itself, to discussing yet again formulaic genres such as folklore and proverbs, where there are no individual authors to be aware of anything at all. Jakobson’s temptation, which is that of all structuralism, is towards anonymity and towards a self-sufficient system which tolerates but hardly seems to need human operatives.

Where Jakobson favoured the closed literary form of the poem, as the most comfortable place to work, Bakhtin went to the other extreme – to the novel, construed by him as the form that must be open or nothing. The poem, the lyric poem at least, is somewhat alien to Bakhtin because it aspires to monologue. All that we are likely to hear from it is the one ‘voice’ of the poet: ‘The language of the poet is his own language; he is wholly immersed in it, and inseparable from it; he makes use of each word, form and expression ... as the pure and unmediated expression of his own intention.’ (This I quote from The Dialogical Principle, which is an excellent and well-arranged introduction to Bakhtin’s thought.) In the novel, on the contrary, we hear a chorus, because the novel aspires to be ‘polyphonic’. It is a genre higher and better than all others because it is infinitely capacious in the representation of language. Bakhtin never relapses into the simplicity of supposing that what the novel gives us is life in some raw, unprocessed form: it gives us life as mediated through language. Or rather through the plural, languages, because the gorgeous multiplicity of life is reflected in the novel by the gorgeous multiplicity of distinctive idioms.

Bakhtin has a horror of the abstractions and hierarchies dear to Jakobson. The Saussurean tradition in linguistics is for him barren, because it acts as if there were only one language in any speech-community, when there are, in fact, many languages, all of them different but – important stipulation – none of them merely idiosyncratic. Bakhtin is against authority and against centralisation. He prizes all the ‘unofficial’ idioms which the novel can contain and which could otherwise never ascend into literature. Cants, jargons, patois, cherished sociolects of every degree and from every part of society, are what Bakhtin delights in. Comic and parodic language is peculiarly estimable because it undermines serious, authoritarian language, and a language which explicitly makes fun of other language scores double for Bakhtin. He has literary heroes: Rabelais, the great laugher at life, whose writings are a uniquely honest, fundamental and sociable compendium of the languages of his day, as well as of the festive, humorous lore traditional for centuries among the lower, previously sub-literary orders of society; Dostoevsky, the most ‘polyphonic’ of novelists, whose novels Bakhtin extols as ‘never-ending, internally unresolved dialogues among characters ... and between the author himself and his characters’; Shakespeare and Cervantes, as others who, like Rabelais, used the low, the satirical and the grotesque in order to renew the scope of literature and give it the inclusiveness of life.

If Jakobson is the archetypal structuralist, grimly excavating down to the invariants of language and of literature, then let Bakhtin be the first post-structuralist, glorying in the endless and unstoppable human commerce in meanings. In 1929 he was already a Derridean, chiding the supposedly audacious Formalists for their timidity: ‘The fear of meaning which, with its “not here” and “not now”, is able to destroy the material nature of the work and the fullness of its presence in the here and now, is the fear which determines the poetic phonetics of the formalists.’ Bakhtin’s is an odd, robust and multitudinous theory of literature which, unlike most literary theorising, is on a par with its subject.