Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics by Mikhail Bakhtin

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Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

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 At the same time, the book that he had written on Dostoevski was totally withdrawn from circulation.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 A revised and greatly expanded edition of his treatise on Dostoevski was published in 1963, and a previously unpublished book called Rabelais and His World appeared in 1965.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.

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...

(The entire section is 2,501 words.)