Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2488

The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin was born in 1895 and died in 1975. Although an earlier version of the volume currently entitled Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics had been published in 1929, Bakhtin was little known either inside the Soviet Union or elsewhere until the 1960’s. Falling under the cloud of ideological suspicion during the paranoid Stalinist era, he was compelled to live in personal obscurity in a succession of provincial towns for most of his adult live. At the same time, the book that he had written on Dostoevski was totally withdrawn from circulation. His fortune, however, improved markedly during the post-Stalin period as a result of emergence of a less repressive intellectual climate within the Soviet Union. A revised and greatly expanded edition of his treatise on Dostoevski was published in 1963, and a previously unpublished book called Rabelais and His World appeared in 1965. Both of these works were translated into English and other Western European languages shortly thereafter, and Bakhtin’s preeminence as a literary scholar was soon recognized by an international body of scholars. More recently, four of his essays were published in English translation under the title The Dialogic Imagination (1981). In addition, a long-standing need has finally been fulfilled with the publication of the biographical study Mikhail Bakhtin (1984), by Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist. Issued concurrently is a newly translated version of Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. The present edition of this work should completely supplant the one previously published in 1973 by virtue of its extensive critical apparatus and its superior translation of the original text. Caryl Emerson’s efforts on both counts can only be described as definitive. In the introduction, Wayne C. Booth, for his part, seeks to clarify Bakhtin’s analysis of the role of narration in the novel by relating it to the position that he himself had formerly espoused in works such as The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). In the process of making this comparison, Booth freely concedes that he has modified his views significantly as the result of having studied Bakhtin’s arguments pertaining to the form of the novel.

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The most important critical proposition to appear in Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics is the claim that Fyodor Dostoevski was the first truly “polyphonic” novelist in literary history. In essence, Bakhtin contends that the fictional characters created by Dostoevski have been endowed with autonomous voices to such an extent that the reader can no longer discern any authorial control over their utterances or actions. The genesis of original ideas is ultimately an inexplicable phenomenon, but Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony must stem in part from the cultural stimulation that he experienced when his family moved from Orel to Vilnius. He was born in Orel, a Russian city of some sixty thousand inhabitants located several hundred miles due south of Moscow, and spent the first nine years of his life in an environment of linguistic and religious homogeneity. Upon moving to Vilnius, where his father had been reassigned as a bank manager, Bakhtin was exposed to cultural pluralism for the very first time. Approximately sixty percent of the 200,000 people who lived there used Polish as their mother tongue, and more than a quarter of the inhabitants were Yiddish-speaking Jews. At the same time, the city served as the capital of the Baltic province of Lithuania, and its official language was Russian. The city was called “Vilnius” by the Lithuanians, “Wilno” by the Poles, and “Vilna” by the Russians and the Jews. None of these disparate groups had much inclination to communicate with one another and were content simply to coexist, but the five years that Bakhtin spent in Vilnius opened his eyes to the advantages of cultural polyphony in society. A subsequent move by the family to the port city of Odessa on the Black Sea only served to reinforce Bakhtin’s appreciation of the ethnic and religious diversity to which he had been exposed in Vilnius.

Bakhtin remained in Odessa for four years before deciding to join his elder brother as a student of classical philology and history at Petrograd University in 1914. Suffering from chronic osteomyelitis, he was physically unfit for military service and was therefore permitted to continue his studies after the outbreak of World War I. The severe economic hardships that followed in the wake of the October Revolution obliged Bakhtin to seek employment in the provinces. From 1918 to 1924, he earned his livelihood as a teacher in educational institutions in Nevel and Vitebsk. In addition to writing several important essays dealing with problems in aesthetics during these years, he managed to convince his landlady’s daughter in Vitebsk to marry him. Bakhtin was less fortunate in terms of personal health, however, for his osteomyelitis gradually worsened to the point where he qualified for a state pension as a handicapped person. (The inflammation of the bone marrow in his right leg eventually became so acute that he agreed to have it amputated in 1938.)

Since he no longer had to work, Bakhtin returned to Petrograd (present-day Leningrad) and devoted himself to various research projects. There, as elsewhere, he formed a circle of like-minded intellectual friends. During this period, several important studies of Freudianism, Formalism, and Marxist linguistic theory were published under the names of members of the so-called Bakhtin Circle; among these works was The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics, which was published in 1928 under the name P. M. Medvedev and appeared in English translation in 1978 with Bakhtin and Medvedev both named on the title page. The authorship of this book and other works of the Bakhtin Circle is a matter of ongoing critical debate; some scholars believe that these works were written entirely by Bakhtin, while others argue that they merely reflect his influence or, to a greater or lesser degree, his collaboration. In any case, Bakhtin’s treatise on Dostoevski, published in 1929 under the title Problems of Dostoevsky’s Creative Works, was his first book to appear in print under his own name.

Bakhtin claims to be the first literary critic to have grasped the essential polyphonic structure of Dostoevski’s fictional works, and he attempts to establish this priority at the very outset of his treatise by conducting a survey of the views propounded by several of the foremost contemporary specialists on the Dostoevskian novel. In each case, he permits these literary scholars to speak with their own voices by quoting them directly at length. This exercise in polyphony concludes with a summary judgment to the effect that these critics have been so overwhelmed by the ideological content of Dostoevski’s novels that they eventually select a single voice from all of the competing points of view as being the true surrogate for the author and relegate the others to an unjustifiably inferior status. For Bakhtin, on the other hand, the hallmark of Dostoevski’s major novels lies precisely in the fact that each of the protagonists within any given work has been endowed with a full quotient of self-consciousness and that the ensuing dialogues are thereby analogous to conversations in real life. While some characters may express opinions that are actually shared by Dostoevski himself, those holding opposing ideologies are allowed to argue their own cases so fully that the reader cannot detect any authorial manipulation or supervision of their discourse whatsoever. There are, Bakhtin observes, no disembodied ideas in Dostoevski’s fictional universe: Two ideas call for two persons. Clearly, Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony is simply a synonym for dialogism. Despite the fact that he devotes much space to classifying the various forms of discourse to be found in Dostoevski’s narrative writings, the basic form for dialogue in these works is quite simple: It is the opposition of one person’s consciousness to another’s. So strong is the opposition of “I” to “the other” in Dostoevski’s writings that it even manifests itself in the monologues that he puts into the mouths of his characters. As a case in point, Bakhtin calls attention to part 1 of Dostoevski’s Notes from the Underground, where the nameless protagonist delivers a lengthy diatribe to a nonexistent audience from the isolation of his own humble abode and is constantly responding to imagined objections.

In establishing the nature of the polyphonic novel, Bakhtin underscores the extent to which many of its qualities were anticipated in two ancient Greek genres: namely, the Socratic dialogue and the Menippean satire. In the case of the Socratic dialogue, such as those written by Plato and Xenophon, he contends that the essence of the genre lies in its systematic search for truth by means of a free-spirited exchange of ideas or opinions among individuals. This distinguishing characteristic is, in Bakhtin’s view, to be found only in those dialogues that Plato wrote during his early and middle periods. During the late period, he goes on to argue, Plato uses the figure of Socrates solely as a teacher of truth rather than as someone actively engaged in an open-minded search for it. What impresses Bakhtin most about the early and middle dialogues is the way that Plato uses a cast of characters whom he invests with autonomous voices as the bearers of ideologies, in much the same manner that Dostoevski does in his major novels.

When Bakhtin revised his treatise on Dostoevski for publication in 1963, he added much new material pertaining to the Menippean satire as a forerunner of the polyphonic novel. None of the writings of Menippus, who founded this genre during the first half of the third century b.c.e., has survived. The characteristics of the genre are best preserved in the satires by the Latin writers Varro (116-27 b.c.e.) and Seneca (4 b.c.e.-65 c.e.) as well as those by the Greek writer Lucian (c. 120-180). Even though these imitations of Menippus’ satires differ greatly in terms of form from the Socratic dialogues, both genres have the common goal of testing ideas and their carriers. One of the qualities that Bakhtin most admires in the Menippean satire is the seriocomic mockery of conventional wisdom and social custom. Although he cites many specific examples of Menippean episodes in the works of Dostoevski, Bakhtin makes no claim that the Russian novelist had any direct knowledge of this genre; instead, he asserts that these parallels are largely the result of the fact that both Menippus and Dostoevski lived in historical epochs during which their respective cultures were experiencing profound crises of confidence and that their works accordingly reflect the intense rivalry between competing religious and philosophical systems.

Bakhtin also regards the Socratic dialogue and the Menippean satire to be, in large measure, literary manifestations of the perennial carnival tradition that has its roots among the common people. As he perceives this tradition, the carnival is a season when the masses can escape the regimentation of the official order and enjoy a brief period of variety and change in which social roles are reversed and dominant ideologies challenged. Although the phenomenon of the carnival is examined more fully in Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin uses his treatise on Dostoevski as an occasion to connect the carnival spirit with many disparate genres, including the early literature of Christianity and the narrative works of Dostoevski. Like the carnival itself, the Christian Gospels and the novels of Dostoevski are seen as violating generally accepted social norms. Hence, in his view, they lead readers to the ultimate questions in life. In a number of essays written during the 1930’s and 1940’s, Bakhtin carries his admiration for the Socratic dialogue, the Menippean satire, and the carnival tradition to its proper conclusion and insists that a work does not even qualify as a novel unless it tests the limits of the doctrines that society regards as sacrosanct. True novels, such as those of Dostoevski, force the reader to confront a reality that is incomplete and imperfect. Those novels which seek to depict a world that is complete and perfect are, in his view, really epics.

To the extent that the polyphonic novel is based on dialogue, it would appear to have many of the formal properties which are found in the dramatic genre. In view of his thorough background in classical literary theory, it is surprising that Bakhtin never makes any attempt to address the arguments set forth in Aristotle’s Poetics. There is a decided need to do so, for Aristotle himself attaches a major significance to the aesthetic consequences of the narrative factor (that is, one’s awareness of the authorial presence in a literary work). In his analysis of the epic and dramatic techniques in the Poetics, Aristotle argues the case for the superiority of the drama chiefly on the grounds that it is able to dispense with narration entirely and that it thereby permits the characters to interact among themselves directly. It must be emphasized, moreover, that the superiority of this genre is, for Aristotle, in no way dependent upon properties derived from its staging. Students of the Poetics, for some strange reason, frequently fail to take note of two passages in chapter 26 where Aristotle explicitly states that plays still retain their dramatic vividness in reading as well as in actual performance. It is, accordingly, tempting to conclude that the dramatic genre is inherently polyphonic by virtue of its formal structure. Without challenging the authority of the Poetics directly, Bakhtin, for his part, simply asserts that drama is by its very essence incapable of achieving genuine polyphony since it can never be truly multi-voiced. From his perspective, it is the hero of each play who supplies the only valid voice. He even goes as far as to deny that any of William Shakespeare’s plays may in itself be deemed polyphonic, although he is willing to concede that the entire body of the bard’s dramatic works may possess this quality if viewed collectively. While such notions may be correct, they clearly stand in need of validation.

Bakhtin was arrested sometime around January 7, 1929, for reasons unrelated to his views on literature. It was his involvement with a number of religious associations which caused the Soviet authorities to regard him as an enemy of the state. His treatise on Dostoevski was actually published several months after his arrest, and the fact that it received a favorable review from Anatoly Lunacharsky, a high-ranking scholar in the Bolshevik bureaucracy, was instrumental in influencing the courts to impose a lighter sentence than otherwise might have been the case. He was, consequently, sent into exile—first to Kazakhstan and later to cities lying to the west of the Ural mountains. Once having been politically rehabilitated during the late 1960’s, Bakhtin was allowed to settle in Moscow and he lived there until his death on March 7, 1975. Perhaps the supreme irony of his life was to have preached the virtues of polyphony in a society attuned solely to monophony.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13

Book World. XIV, July 8, 1984, p. 12.

Choice. XXII, December, 1984, p. 564.

Commentary. LXXVIII, November, 1984, p. 39.

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