Form and Content
The Dialogic Imagination comprises four of the six essays originally published under the title Voprosy literatury i estetiki (1975; questions of literature and aesthetics). Made available for the first time in 1981 in competent, highly readable translations by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, the essays—“Epos i roman” (“Epic and Novel”), “Iz predistorii romannogo slova” (“From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”), “Formy vremeni i xronotopa v romane” (“Forms of Time and the Chronotope in the Novel”), and “Slovo v romane” (“Discourse in the Novel”)—all date from Mikhail Bakhtin’s middle period, the mid-1930’s through the early 1940’s. Nevertheless, the four provide an excellent introduction to Bakhtin’s overall critical method and larger theory of dialogism, to his characteristic style (at once repetitious, hortatory, and lucid), and to his familiarity with the full historical range of Western literature, from the earliest Greek writings through late nineteenth and early twentieth century novels.
The key to Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism is his concept of heteroglossia (literally, “other languages”), which Bakhtin defines as “the dialogue of languages as it exists in a given era.” This diversity of languages, which Bakhtin believes has largely gone unremarked by literary scholars, manifests itself in various ways, both covertly and, especially in certain novels (those of Fyodor Dostoevski in particular), more openly. In any given work or utterance it is possible to distinguish words which belong to, or derive from, the work or utterance of another, or, more accurately, several, or even many, others. Thus does Bakhtin come to identify the “polyphonic” quality of all speech, including the written or literary, and the fact that all discourse is double voiced. All discourse exhibits that quality which literary works tend to foreground to one degree or another: intertextuality (a term coined by Julia Kristeva in her seminal essay on Bakhtin and subsequently made fashionable by the deconstructionist critics and their followers). The polyphony which marks all discourse becomes especially noticeable and notable in the novel, for it is the novelist, Bakhtin believes, who “welcomes the heteroglossia and language diversity of the literary and extraliterary language into his own work not only not weakening them but even intensifying them.”
Clearly, the novel occupies a special place in Bakhtin’s thinking and is, as Bakhtin defines it, marked less by its similarities to than by its differences from the other literary forms—from, for example, drama, which Bakhtin paradoxically yet persuasively judges too monological; from poetry, which implies a Ptolemaic view of language; and from epic, which presents a static world that exists entirely in the past, complete in itself, without any future (in fact, outside of time entirely: chronologyless) and which presents the hero with only one possible destiny and the reader with only one possible attitude, reverence. Looking historically at the question of the novel’s development, Bakhtin locates its sources not in the recognized high literary forms just mentioned but instead in various low and even nonliterary forms: folklore, folk laughter, carnival, and Menippean satire. What all of these latter forms...
(The entire section is 1365 words.)