Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1008

“What is difficult about Bakhtin,” his biographers, Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, have noted, “is the demand his way of thinking makes on our way of thinking, the demand to change the basic categories that most of us use to organize thought itself.” Wayne Booth clarifies the specific nature of that demand: “No critic of recent years [has] more effectively perform[ed] that essential task of all criticism: prodding readers to think again about critical standards as applied to various canons and anti-canons those standards lead to.” What Bakhtin does, at least in part, is to undermine those naive equations upon which so much of modern literary criticism rests: that the fictive world corresponds to the real world (naive realism), that the author corresponds to some actual man or woman (naive biographism), and that the reader corresponds to oneself (rather than to the role of reader which one adopts when reading a novel). Rather than simple correspondences, Bakhtin calls attention to simultaneous dialogic relationships. He posits “a dialogic both/and” rather than “a dialectic either/or.” In other words, the dialogism of language, of word and world and of self and other, is neither dualistic nor dialectical but is dialogical. (Bakhtin has a strong aversion to dialectics, which he faults for its desire to dissolve the specific in the abstract.)

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Bakhtin bases his theory of dialogism on the concrete utterance, on both what is said and what is assumed by addresser and addressee about what is said. All utterances, whether of speaker or of novelist, are directed toward a listener/reader and toward that person’s response. No utterance is therefore ever autonomous. The same holds true for the literary text, which may be construed as a macroutterance. Its meaning also depends on the dialogic, or intertextual, relationships among text, author, and reader.

The individual novel is therefore essentially dialogic, essentially open and indeterminate in its meaning. The same may be said of the novel as a genre. “The genre of becoming,” as Bakhtin calls it, is also incomplete, unformed and still developing. Implying “a world-in-the-making,” it is itself in the process of becoming what it is. Instead of asserting its own rigid identity, it seeks to liberate itself from convention, including the convention of assigning to the author the ultimate authority for the meaning of his or her work. Bakhtin’s author exists not above his characters, omnisciently, but in dialogue with them (this despite the fact that the author does not enter the novel directly; rather, he exists at the point at which all the novel’s languages/voices intersect). No one character (or voice or utterance) speaks for the author; all exist equidistantly from him. As Booth has acknowledged,The challenge of such views . . . about the author’s voice is clear and deep. Again and again I have sought, like most of my Western colleagues, to put into propositional form my summaries of what an author is up to, and of how a given character’s role contributes to the author’s overall plan.

In abolishing the autonomy of the text and the authority of the author, Bakhtin radically opens the novel to the plurality of intertextual possibilities. Such a gesture makes the novel into a perfect reflection of that quality which Holquist claims characterizes the mind of Mikhail Bakhtin: his “extraordinary sensitivity to the immense plurality of experience.” Bakhtin’s gesture, however, does more. In denying the validity of all direct expressions and all direct meanings and in stressing the determining factor of contextual relations, Bakhtin makes clear that a language is not only a means of communication but also a system of belief. Thus, to come to know language in its dialogical essence is...

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