Lunacharsky was impressed

Joseph Frank

  • The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin by Caryl Emerson
    Princeton, 312 pp, £19.95, December 1997, ISBN 0 06 910697 5

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’.

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