Mikhail Bakhtin

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Unknown in the West until fairly recently, the great Russian humanist and theoretician of literature Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin is finally coming to be recognized as one of the most significant thinkers of the twentieth century. He is the subject of two excellent new works, Mikhail Bakhtin (1985), by Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, and the present study, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, by Tzvetan Todorov. Todorov’s book is not intended to be exhaustive, being rather an introduction to Bakhtin’s thought. It serves as a corrective to critics in the West, particularly Structuralists, who have incorporated undigested segments of Bakhtin’s thought into their own systems and appropriated him as one of their own. Todorov segments Bakhtin’s work into linguistic, literary, philosophical, and anthropological categories, demonstrating how these seemingly disparate groupings are actually mutually dependent and interrelated. While Bakhtin’s writing cannot be narrowed to one single field of study, it nevertheless provides a methodological bridge across the gaps which unnecessarily and arbitrarily divide human knowledge and thought.

The intricacies and difficulties of the Soviet system of censorship, coupled with Bakhtin’s own idiosyncracies, have burdened scholars with additional problems, for work written during the 1920’s was often hidden away for years. He published his famous book on Fyodor Dostoevski in 1929, yet it was only with the second edition, in 1963, that Western scholars became aware of its existence. Similarly, his book on François Rabelais was finished in the 1940’s but published only in 1965. Bakhtin was in part reluctant to publish because the very concept of a finalized, completed text was antithetical to his conception of dialogue in flux as the basis for human expression. The above difficulties are compounded still further by the probability that several of his theoretical works were published under the names of his associates, P. N. Medvedev and V. N. Voloshinov. It is only now that scholars are beginning to sort out the writings of Bakhtin himself from those of his colleagues.

Bakhtin was born in Orel in 1895, the son of an impoverished aristocratic family. While teaching elementary school in Nevel’, he was part of a circle including Valerian Voloshinov, the literary scholar Lev Pumpian’ski, the musician M. Yudina, the poet B. Zubakin, and the philosopher Matvei Kagan. Because Kagan had been a student of the philosopher Hermann Cohen (the mentor of Boris Pasternak as well), the group met to discuss philosophy and give lectures. In time, the circle regrouped in the town of Vitebsk, where they were joined by the literary critic Pavel Medvedev and the musicologist I. I. Sollertinsky. After Bakhtin’s move to Petrograd in 1924, the third circle included Voloshinov, Pumpian’ski, Medvedev, as well as the novelist K. Vaginov and the poet N. Klinev.

It was at this time that Bakhtin brought out the first edition of Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (the revised version of which is reviewed in this volume). Bakhtin was arrested in 1929, because of his links with Orthodox Christianity. Because of his poor health, his prison sentence was commuted to exile in Kazakhstan. He moved to the town of Kimr, near Moscow, in 1937. Bakhtin’s absence from Moscow and Leningrad during the period of the great purges undoubtedly saved him from arrest and internment, since he was removed from the immediate notice of the political apparatus. His final years were enhanced by the appearance of the second edition of the book on Dostoevski and by the long-awaited publication of his work on Rabelais, Rabelais and His World.

Over the course of his career, Bakhtin tended to return repeatedly to those questions that had intrigued him in his youth. He developed a consistent system for analyzing literature, approaching a work from the perspective of those linguistic principles that he deemed central to all communication. Literature represented one sort of communication for Bakhtin, and communication was itself based on the utterance. Utterance is the primary component of dialogue, in turn the basis for the novel. Bakhtin insisted that utterance could not exist in a vacuum, for it is always determined by the interlocutor to whom it is addressed and has, of necessity, always to be addressed to someone. Utterance adapts itself to circumstances; it is a social phenomenon, displayed not only in literature but also in other so-called “human sciences,” history, anthropology, and sociology.

Human utterances, be they oral or written, take the form of discourse; in the human sciences, utterances taken together comprise texts transmitted from author to interlocutor. It is in this very use of the text that the human sciences are differentiated from the mathematical and natural sciences, for the latter rely upon data rather than discourse. Every discourse, every text,...

(The entire section is 2027 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Journal of Modern History. LVI, June, 1984, p. 301.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, February 10, 1985, p. 32.