The Dialogic Imagination

by Mikhail Bakhtin

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What does Bakhtin say about medieval parody in The Dialogic Imagination?

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In a chapter called, "Discourse in the Novel," Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination discusses the significance of re-accentuation and how this process helped give rise to the parodic epic in the Middle Ages. He gives credit to the medieval parodic epic, for it "played such a crucial role in preparing the way for the novel of the Second Stylistic Line" (p.421).

To understand medieval parody and its relevance to Bakhtin's theory of the novel, we must first differentiate it from medieval satire.

Medieval satire is the body of literature produced during the Middle Ages that aims to reflect its immediate social context by way of criticizing the prevailing social conditions and attitudes. This is heavily influenced—if not primarily fueled by—class opposition, wherein lyric poetry was written for the high bourgeois class who were often the patrons of poets. In opposition to this was non-lyric poetry (though it did not remain stylistically exclusive to this) which was critical of the elite and explicit with middle-class/artisan sentiments of disenfranchisement and revolution. This latter subversive class was the source of medieval satire.

Medieval parody, on the other hand, concerns itself with the critique of prevailing literary practices, and the various representations that exist in the body of work produced during the Middle Ages. It is essentially a genre of literature that refers specifically to the literature—not society—of its time, enabling dialogic imaginations across different genres. In the case of Chaucer, for instance, while satire in the form of social commentary could be undoubtedly gleaned from his work (The Canterbury Tales), it exists more as parody than satire, for it anchors its critique of society on earlier literary representations of idealized attitudes rather than the social attitudes themselves. The romantic, heroic, saintly, or noble depictions in medieval literature then become the backdrop from which the parodic epic shapes itself. As Bakhtin states:

The process of re-accentuation is enormously significant in the history of literature. Every age re-accentuates in its own way the works of its most immediate past. The historical life of classic works is in fact the uninterrupted process of their social and ideological re-accentuation.

Now, what does Bakhtin mean by the Second Stylistic Line of the novel—which, according to him, medieval parody helped in ushering in? It is a style characterized by polyvalence and diversity as opposed to the conventionality of the First Stylistic Style (e.g. Greek). It considers dialogic attitudes that give credence to the fluid nature of discourse itself. Bakhtin states that this enables the novel to distinguish itself from other genres through heteroglossia, which is the rich intermingling of multiple cultural forces, contexts, and consciousnesses surrounding a text or utterance "bathed in a different light." Interestingly enough, he also mentions that a parody may likewise discharge such blinding brilliance that it blanches the parodic source and obliterates re-accentuation. This only gives testament to its endurance even as it tightens its tethers.

For the word is, after all, not a dead material object in the hands of an artist equipped with it; it is a living word and is therefore in all things true to itself; it may become anachronous and comic, it may reveal its narrowness and one-sidedness, but its meaning—once realized—can never be completely extinguished.

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