Mikhail Bakhtin

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Introduction

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mikhail Bakhtin 1895-1975

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms P. N. Medvedev and V. N. Voloshinov) Russian critic, essayist, and literary theorist.

The following entry presents an overview of Bakhtin's life and works. For further information on his career, see CLC, Volume 83.

The significance of the contributions that Bakhtin made to the fields of philosophy, linguistics and cultural studies, as well as aesthetics and literary theory, were not widely known in the West until his work was translated posthumously. An unsystematic thinker whose work defies categorization, Bakhtin posited that the forms and meanings of language are constantly shaped by history and culture. Among Bakhtin's most influence concepts are “heteroglossia,” the idea that culture and its narratives, no matter how monolithic they appear, are comprised of a polyphony of competing voices; “dialogism,” which holds that culture is inherently responsive and interactive, involving individuals acting and reacting at a particular point in time and space; and “the carnivalesque,” a subversive mixing of high and low cultures that undermines social hierarchies and opens the way for change and new connections. Bakhtin's theories, which celebrate the parodic and fragmentary, have provided new ways of reading both canonical and marginalized or neglected literature.

Biographical Information

The second son of a bank manager who was descended from Russian nobility, Bakhtin was born in 1895 in Orel, a town south of Moscow, and grew up in Vilnius, Lithuania and Odessa, Russia. As a young man Bakhtin was influenced by the philosophy of culture advocated by the Russian Symbolist poets. A university student during the 1917 revolution, Bakhtin graduated from St. Petersburg University in 1918. Although many academics fled Stalin's regime, Bakhtin joined a group of intellectuals in famine-plagued Nevel, three hundred miles from St Petersburg. In 1920 Bakhtin moved to Vitebsk, where he taught Russian literature and religious philosophy. Suffering from typhoid and the bone disease osteomyelitis, he was nursed by Elena Aleksandrovna Okolovich, whom he married in 1921. Bakhtin published his early works pseudonymously to avoid the censorship, exile, or execution common to intellectuals under Stalin. Problemy tvorchestva Dostoevskogo (which may be translated as “Problems of Dostoevsky's Art.”), published under his own name in 1929, was immediately suppressed. That same year Bakhtin was arrested for his membership in a Christian organization and exiled to the Russian territory Kaziakh (now Kazakhstan), where he worked as a bookkeeper and began work on Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaia kul'tura srednevekov'ia i Renessansa (published 1965; Rabelais and His World). In 1936 Bakhtin taught for a year at the Mordovia Pedagogical Institute, but fled to avoid another Stalinist purge. Because of his bone disease, Bakhtin's leg was amputated in 1938. In 1937-38, Bakhtin wrote an analysis of the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, which was partially destroyed during a World War II paper shortage, when Bakhtin used the prospectus, introduction, and conclusion for cigarette wrappers and smoked them. The surviving fragment is included in Estetika slovesnogo tvorchestva (1979; Speech Genres and Other Essays). After the war Bakhtin was allowed to return to the Pedagogical Institute, where he remained until his retirement in 1961. With the lifting of political oppression, Bakhtin published a substantially revised version of his study of Dostoevsky in 1963, released Rabelais and His World in 1965, and issued the six-essay collection Voprosy literatury i estetiki (partially translated as The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays) in 1972. His health continued to fail; in 1969, his remaining leg was amputated. He died of emphysema in Moscow on March 7, 1975; his last words were “I go to thee.”

Major Works

Even Bakhtin's earliest writings, such as the essays “Iskusstvo i otvetstvennost” (1919; “Art and...

(The entire section is 101,465 words.)