Mikhail Bakhtin Biography

Biography

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Bakhtin had an impact on literary theory, especially on point of view in the novel; on the philosophy and interrelatedness of language and society; on the extension of areas of linguistics and schools of literary theory; and on modern philosophy, presenting an alternative to systems based on Greek philosophers.

Early Life

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was born November 16, 1895, in the provincial capital of Orel, Russia. Untitled and unpropertied, he came from a noble family who, like their city, dated back to the late Middle Ages. His father and grandfather were owner and manager, respectively, of state banks. The third of five children, Mikhail was closer to his elder brother Nikolai than to his three sisters or his parents. A German governess taught the boys Greek poetry in German translation.

When Bakhtin was nine years old, the family moved to Vilnius, the Russian-ruled capital of Lithuania. In this multiethnic center, his outlook was broadened even though the schools and church that he attended were Russian. He was influenced by new movements such as Symbolism and by the spirit of revolutionary change. A lifelong process of debate and dialogue was begun between Bakhtin and his brother and with others. Bakhtin’s extensive reading included among others Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Six years later, Bakhtin’s family moved to Odessa, a major city of the Ukraine. Bakhtin attended and finished the school known as the First Gymnasium; he then attended the University of Odessa for one year, studying with the philological faculty. At sixteen, he contracted osteomyelitis.

From 1914 to 1918, Bakhtin attended the University of St. Petersburg, rooming with his brother Nikolai. Of several professors, the most influential was Faddei F. Zelinsky, credited with laying the foundation for Bakhtin’s knowledge of philosophy and literature. Bakhtin’s graduation in 1918, following Nikolai’s departure for the White Army in 1917 and eventual self-exile to England, marked the end of the preparatory stage of his life.

Life’s Work

During the years 1918 through 1929, Bakhtin established lifelong friendships with artistic and intellectual people, developed and expressed his own ideas, did extensive work on his own writings, married, and saw his first works published. He became the center of a series of informal groups comprising people from a wide variety of backgrounds, areas of achievement, and political and ideological persuasions. At Nevel, where he and his family moved in 1918, members of the Bakhtin circle included Lev Vasilyevich Pumpiansky, Valentin Nikolayevich Voloshinov, and the musician Maria Veniaminova Yudina. Bakhtin maintained his personal and philosophical commitment to Christianity at a time when all religions were suppressed in the Soviet Union. His first known publication was a two-page article in a local periodical in 1919 entitled Iskusstvo i otvetstvennost (art and responsibility). The ideas he expressed in this article were later developed into those of his mature works.

In 1920, Bakhtin moved to nearby Vitebsk, where the circle re-formed and expanded to include new members such as Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky and Pavel Nikolayevich Medvedev. In addition to writing and keeping notebooks, Bakhtin taught at Vitebsk Higher Institute of Education and held several other positions. The worsening of his osteomyelitis was complicated by typhoid in 1921, and he was nursed by Elena Aleksandrovna Okolovich; their fifty-year marriage began later that year and ended with her death in 1971.

Bakhtin spent the years 1924 through 1929 in Leningrad, where he lived on a progressively reduced medical pension. His health prohibited public activity, but he was able to meet with members of his circle and to lecture in private apartments. Works published by his friends contained his ideas but their Marxist ideology, thus making them politically acceptable for publication. Opinion varies as to authorship of these collaborative works. Some scholars believe that Bakhtin wrote them in their entirety; some believe that he composed the bulk of these texts, with his friends adding the requisite ideology; others are convinced that the works were actually written by those under whose names they were published, and merely reflect the influence of Bakhtin. One work signed by the scientist Ivan Ivanovich Kanaev questions the claims of vitalism. Of the four works attributed to Medvedev, the best known is Formal’ nyi metod v literaturovedenii: Kriticheskoe vvedenie v sotsiologicheskuyu poetiku (1928; The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, 1978). One of Voloshinov’s seven titles...

(The entire section is 1939 words.)