Mikhail Bakhtin

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

The problems of writing a biography of Mikhail Bakhtin are formidable, and this book has only partly solved them. It is difficult to speak in a clear, readily understandable manner about Bakhtin. What field was he in? For many years he had no institutional or academic affiliation at all. Was he what might be called vaguely a “thinker,” or, as the authors suggest, was he a “philosophical anthropologist”? Was he primarily a literary critic? Or was he a linguist, religious philosopher, Marxist theoretician, folklorist, psychologist, or social scientist? One of the most fascinating aspects of Bakhtin’s writings is that he resists all these pigeonholes. Above all he is synthetic, forging new, original, and convincing unities.

This would seem to point toward a biographical approach that follows Bakhtin’s intellectual growth and evolution, charting the strands of these different syntheses during Bakhtin’s life. Instead of this format, however, Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist alternate chapters about Bakhtin’s life with chapters explaining his works. The authors have done thorough research into Bakhtin’s life, and this material is as abundant as that of the interpretive chapters—the proportions are about equal. This is not only biography but also a scholarly investigation of texts. Unfortunately, the abrupt alternations between the two reduce the sense of development and flow that a genuine intellectual biography is capable of giving. Why did the authors decide against a uniform, consistent approach? Perhaps they thought some problems had to be cleared up first.

There is the problem of the “disputed texts.” According to Clark and Holquist (and others—the contention is not theirs alone), several of Bakhtin’s writings were published under the names of friends: “Voloinov” and “Medvedev.” A reader unacquainted with the texts in question might think, perhaps this is true, but in the view of the present writer, even a cursory examination of the disputed texts shows that they differ from Bakhtin’s works both in form and in content. For example, Voloinov was a committed Marxist while Bakhtin was a Neo-Kantian. Why do the authors make this rather doubtful claim? It is true that Bakhtin and Voloinov were friends and members of the same discussion group. They were influenced by similar books and lectures; possibly they shared notebooks. Yet they remain far apart. The Voloinov books are fascinating, their intellectual and literary quality is high, but this is not in itself a reason for attributing them to Bakhtin. The thesis of Clark and Holquist has already received some sharp rejoinders in specialized publications; the balance of evidence does not yet favor it, and it remains speculative.

One of the problems with this book is that the chapters devoted to the explanation of texts tend toward paraphrase and are far too uncritical, making few distinctions between what is original in Bakhtin’s thought and what is derivative or opportunistic. Much is strikingly original. Bakhtin might well have been one of the more interesting philosophical minds to survive in Russia in the postrevolutionary period. The authors’ practice of explaining all of Bakhtin’s ideas together, however, of identifying with him too closely and failing to assume critical distance, undercuts the higher claims that might be made for him. A more critical, nuanced interpretation of Bakhtin will have to wait for a future study.

The chapters on Bakhtin’s biography are easier to read and clearer than those on the texts, and the investigation of his life is probably the most valuable part of the book. The authors did much original research in the Soviet Union, interviewing friends and acquaintances of Bakhtin. (There is a tantalizing reference to Yuri Andropov, who took an interest in Bakhtin.) The Soviet authorities seem to have been quite forthcoming in aiding Clark and Holquist with their research. Bakhtin’s life was an interesting one. He had the misfortune to live in the least auspicious of times—at some points the book almost seems to be about madness, or about the madness of a period. Bakhtin’s coming of age coincided with the revolution. He lived most of his life in complete obscurity, and as Clark and Holquist make clear, this was largely his own fault: “Bakhtin’s problem in publishing continued to be his phlegmatic nature and his inability to bring any text to completion.” He had almost none of the aggression, or narcissism, that writers often have. During World War II the publishing house that was to print his manuscript on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was destroyed by a German bomb, and his manuscript was lost. He had one carbon copy, but paper was scarce and he used most of this copy for rolling cigarettes. It was difficult to publish without an institutional affiliation, and later, after his arrest and exile to Kazakhstan, he was an “undesirable.” It seems that Bakhtin did not have a highly developed sense of individuality or a unique personalized style. This corresponds to his philosophical position, which was highly skeptical of the role of the individual, which he tended to denigrate as “subjective.” Some of his essays read like a string of highly generalized assertions with few links between them. Often they lack the apparatus of orderly, gradual development; clearly made, careful distinctions; and a regular appeal to persuasion, analogy, evidence, and professional authority that the Western reader might expect. Further, Bakhtin did not respect the divisions between disciplines—his interests shifted numerous times during his life, with the result that his writings cannot have an impact on any single “field.” He had a unique personality: absorptive and synthetic, accepting, modest, not rebellious—it is claimed that he loved disguises. Bakhtin believed that meaning is always a function of two or more consciousnesses: “Creativity is in essence...

(The entire section is 2421 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Choice. XXII, April, 1985, p. 1148.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, December 1, 1984, p. 1129.

The New Republic. CXCII, April 8, 1985, p. 38.

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

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, December 14, 1984, p. 47.

Science and Society. XLIX, Fall, 1985, p. 373.

Times Literary Supplement. June 14, 1985, p. 675.