Mikhail Bakhtin: Another Powerful Influence

I received positive response to my last blog post, “Imagination and Hard Science”—a piece in which I referred to a number of “hard science” books I’d read in the hope of acquiring information on how our minds and bodies work, or function (or fail to function). I tried to keep the tone of the post as light (as in a “lite” beer: fewer calories?) as I could manage, yet substantial in content. One of the nicest responses I received said the post was “a great read,” focused on “all that stuff” that person thinks about “all the time,” and he felt I’d provided “some wonderful new sources to explore”—which is exactly what I hoped the piece might be and do.

In this post, I am going to stick with fortunate discoveries by way of authors and books, but turn from “hard science” to a philosopher, literary critic, semiotician, and scholar (literary theory and history, ethics, and the philosophy of language) whose writing has truly “changed my life,” my own thinking: Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian writer who spent his life under continually harsh conditions during the Soviet era, but produced prose (a brilliant theory) on the “dialogical nature of artistic creation,” as opposed to the “monological.”

In the Introduction to Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Wayne C. Booth summarized Bakhtin’s elaborate belief that a genuine artist achieves “a kind of objectivity quite different from that hailed by most Western critics,” focused on “the essential, irreducible, multi-centeredness, or ‘polyphony’ of human life.” In freeing us from “narrowly subjective views”, the best works of art achieve “a universally desirable quality” … a “sublimity of freed perspectives,” in Bakhtin’s own words.

Here are photos of Mikhail Bakhtin and his subject, Fyodor Dostoevsky (Photo credits: Memim.com; nndb.com):

bakhtin  dostoevsky

“From the beginning,” Booth writes, paraphrasing Bakhtin’s intricate insights, “we are ‘polyglot,’ already in process of mastering a variety of social dialects derived from parents, clan, class, religion, country. We grow in consciousness by taking in more voices as ‘authoritatively persuasive’ and then by learning which to accept as ‘internally persuasive.’” Finally we acquire, “if we are lucky, a kind of individuality,” but it is a “we,” not an “I.” Polyphony, “the miracle of our ‘dialogical’ lives together, is thus both a fact of life and, in its highest reaches, a value to be pursued endlessly.”

Booth states that commentators on Bakhtin argue over just how large, how extensive his views of dialogic life are—that is, they dispute about the degree to which his “unsystematic system is religious or metaphysical,” but Booth himself feels Bakhtin’s overall view “rests on a vision of the world that is essentially a collectivity of subjects who are themselves social [italics mine] in essence,” and that–because he does not rely on religious language–anything resembling a “God-term” in Bakhtin tends to be an abstract phrase like “sympathetic understanding” or “comprehensive vision”–always seen in terms of the “multi-voicedness” or “multi-centeredness of the world as we experience it”; our language “permeated with many voices—a social, not a private language.”

Thinking of what might be religious or metaphysical in Bakhtin’s overview: whereas Wayne C. Booth hedges on the issue, is skeptical or ambivalent about it, I’d like (and here comes another Bill’s Blog baroque diversion, folks!) to say I feel a genuine polymorphic view of life (with all the altruism that entails, our individual selves as empaths, and given its “view of the world superior to all other views”) must be religious or metaphysical. Such a totally inclusive and transcendent view renders the life and work of any genuine artist (whether literary, dramatic, visual, or musical) religious, by nature (Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: and come before his presence with a song.”)—an act of praise and artful prayer.

At the heart of our dialogic lives an inevitable paradox, or duality, resides. Another author (Roger S. Jones, in his book Physics as Metaphor, commenting on Ernest Becker’s book The Denial of Death—so we’ve got four writers on our hands now, and I intend to get as dialogic as I can!), describes the condition this way: “Fated to exist as a paradoxical dual, a symbolic spirit imprisoned in a material body, a human strives, through countless heroic activities, to deny the raw facts of his or her existence and to create personal meaning and value.” One such heroic activity is “art,’ and, for me, personal meaning and value are the goals of art—and should be the goals of existence itself.

Ernest Becker himself writes: “Out of the ruins of the broken cultural self there remains the mystery of the private, invisible, inner self which yearned for ultimate significance, for cosmic heroism. This invisible mystery at the heart of every creature now attains cosmic significance by affirming its connection with the invisible mystery at the heart of creation. This is the meaning of faith.” Cosmic heroism is, admittedly, a massive undertaking. In the words of another of my favorite philosophers, Miquel de Unamuno: “For the present let us remain keenly suspecting that the longing not to die, the hunger for personal immortality, the effort whereby we tend to persist indefinitely in our own being, which is, according to the tragic Jew (Spinoza), our very essence, that this is the affective basis of all knowledge and the personal inward starting-point of all human philosophy.”

“To persist indefinitely in our own being.” Wow! Jones is a physicist who refuses to adopt “a dualistic framework,” although, when it comes to cosmic heroism, he acknowledges that by facing the human condition “without pretenses and illusions, the very terror it strikes in our hearts can become the source of new and ultimately sustaining metaphors and faith”—and I agree. He finds encouragement in what he considers Becker’s “stoic and ironic approach to life … defiantly optimistic in the face of inevitable tragedy. There is no escaping the human condition, but there is the possibility of the creative and heroic use of it.”

Here are: Jones’ enlightening Physics as Metaphor, and a photo of Becker, whose book, The Denial of Death, has been cited as “one of those rare masterpieces that will stimulate your thoughts, your intellectual curiosity, and last but not least, your soul.” (Photo credit: Encyclopedia of Death and Dying):

physics-as-metaphor    ernest-becker-2

Both men, sharing an uneasy ambivalence (which I, at times, in conversations or dialogues with myself, share with them too) when it comes to pure “faith,” concede that the goal of cosmic heroism may well be “a mad self-deceptive activity,” but they regard human creativity as “the homage we pay to creation beyond our capabilities, a creator more extensive than ourselves.” I am grateful for the “leap of faith” I first encountered in Meister Eckhart, Miquel de Unamuno, Kierkegaard, Carl Jung, Thomas Merton, and even William James’ “salvation through self-despair”; and Jones does acknowledge that, by way of such despair, “we destroy the vital lie of projects and transferences” in order to “make room for a new life, for death and rebirth.” He cites Paul Tilloch’s “courage to be,” and the Hindu Creation Hymn on primal cosmologies “prior to any manifestation … pure unalloyed being—timeless, spaceless, featureless, prior somehow even to existence”—such as that primordial state celebrated in Osip Mandelstam’s poem “Silentium.” The poet sees Aphrodite as foam: both the soul and original foundation of life, simultaneously. Here’s my own translation of “Silentium”:

It is the unborn, still— / She and the music and the word / Sustaining, unbroken /The living coherence. / Let my lips discover / What they cannot say: / Some crystal note / In pure birth!

For Mandelstam, ocean foam symbolized primal chaos, but not as a “negative value, an evil, or a threat.” Chaos, like silence, was “a collection of all possibilities, a prenatal anxiety, a formless proto-unity.” It was precisely this proto-unity that made it possible for the word to be “united with music.”

O Aphrodite, remain foam! / Let words return to music, / Heart, stay heart, ashamed /If not coupled, always / With where and how you began.

Here are: the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (around the time he wrote “Silentium”), and Botticelli’s painting of Aphrodite rising on her half shell from primal foam:

mandelstam  aphrodite-1

If a bit grudgingly, Jones acknowledges “transferences to the greatest of all beyonds” [and to my mind and soul: withins] to the most transcendent [and to me fully “present”] thing imaginable.” In line with a classic existentialist position, Jones asserts: “Humans are the creators, or at least the participant-creators, of their own world and … they must take full and honest responsibility for it”—what Becker calls “the living drama of [their] acceptance as a creature,” becoming “part of such a larger and higher wholeness as religion has always represented” [or attempted to–in light of our own current era, or history).

Both men reflect on “grace”; Becker stating, “The jump doesn’t depend on us after all—that’s the rub: faith is a matter of grace”—which Jones qualifies with: “An ideal is never attainable; it is faith that gives us the will to keep striving. Seeming contradiction is the nature of the beast.”  (Miguel de Unamuno: “Love is a contradiction if there is no God”; Meister Eckhart: “The Generosity of Infinite love in an act of love, creates us in the image and likeness of love for love’s sake alone, moment by moment, moment by moment.”). Jones turns his speculation back to our responsibilities (on earth) as human beings: “What matters is to be more conscious of our myths and metaphors, to recognize that they are the only reality we have, and to learn how we participate in creating them”—which brings me back (after an admittedly lengthy digression or diversion) to my man, Mikhail Bakhtin.

Bakhtin earned his insights, his philosophy, his verbal acuity the hard way–living through a sequence of “voices” (each characteristic of an era) and surviving long enough to sort them out, make sense of each, and put them “all back together again” in his concept of the dialogical self. Bakhtin was born in Oryol, Russia, to (source: Wikipedia) “an old family of the nobility. His father was the manager of a bank and worked in several cities.” For this reason Bakhtin spent his early childhood years in Oryol, in Vilnius, and then in Odessa, where in 1913 he joined the historical and philological faculty at the local university (Odessa University).

His major study of the work of Dostoevsky, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art (at which he’d been at work since 1921), was published, and caused (in the words of translator/editor Caryl Emerson) “considerable stir in literary circles”—and political, for he was arrested (perhaps in connection with an “underground church”). Ironically, Bakhtin escaped being sent to a death camp (“on the plea of poor health,” although his leg was amputated), and was sentenced to exile in Kazakhstan, where (according to Emerson) he “lived and worked in relative obscurity” for thirty years. His book on Dostoevsky was discovered in the 1950s by a group of young literary scholars in Moscow, and he himself found alive, teaching at the University of Saransk. In 1963, “after some ominous delays in publishing houses,” a second edition of his book appeared, and Bakhtin was “back in print in the Soviet Union. The publication of other long-delayed manuscripts followed.”

Here are two of Bakhtin’s important works: The Dialogic Imagination and Rabelais and His World:

bakhtin-the-dialogic-imagination    bakhtin-rabelais

I have read Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (the book’s current title in English), The Dialogic Imagination, Rabelais and His World, and Speech Genres and Other Late Essays—but would like to focus, here, on the work on Dostoevsky (from which I have quoted from Wayne C. Booth’s Introduction). I’ll include one last important observation Booth makes: “It is in Dostoevsky and Dostoevsky alone that Bakhtin finds the polyphonic ideal realized. The greatest of all contrapuntalists genuinely surrenders to his characters and allows them to speak in ways other than his own … Characters are, in short, respected as full subjects, shown as ‘consciousness’ that can never be fully defined or exhausted, rather than as objects fully known [by their authors], once and for all, in their roles—and then discarded as expendable.”

Bakhtin wrote that Dostoevsky treated a character as “ideologically authoritative and independent … perceived as the author of a fully weighted ideological conception of his own, and not the object of Dostoevsky’s finalizing artistic vision … Dostoevsky, like Goethe’s Prometheus, creates not voiceless slaves (as does Zeus), but free people, capable of standing alongside their creator. Capable of not agreeing with him and even of rebelling against him … a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels … Dostoevsky is the creator of the polyphonic novel. He created a fundamentally new novelistic genre.”

Bakhtin found Dostoevsky’s world “profoundly personalized … He perceives and represents every thought as the position of a personality … Through this concrete consciousness, embodied in the living voice of an integral person, the logical relation becomes part of the unity of a represented event.” For Bakhtin, the epoch Dostoevsky lived in (and through) made the polyphonic novel possible. “Subjectively, Dostoevsky participated in the contradictory multi-leveledness of his own time: he changed camps, moved from one to another, and in this respect the planes existing in objective social life were for him stages along the path of his own life, stages of his own spiritual evolution. This personal experience was profound, but Dostoevsky did not give it a direct monologic expression in his work. This experience only helped him to understand more deeply the extensive and well-developed contradictions which coexisted among people—among people, not ideas in a single consciousness.”

I’m quoting a lot, but it’s Mikhail Bakhtin: and I would love to make the insights of this man of genius fully accessible, available to every writer I know, including myself! In Dostoevsky’s novels, Bakhtin states, “Every act a character commits is in the present, and in this sense is not predetermined; it is conceived of and represented by the author as free … What is important to Dostoevsky is not how his hero appears in the world but first and foremost how the world appears to his hero, and how the hero appears to himself.” And Bakhtin offers the following in a section called “Conclusion”: “We consider the creation of the polyphonic novel a huge step forward not only in the development of novelistic prose, that is, but of all genres developing within the orbit of the novel, but also the development of the artistic thinking of humankind … A newly born genre never supplants or replaces any already existing genres. Each new genre merely supplements the old ones, merely widens the circle of already existing genres.”

Reading this (and thinking of much that I am surrounded by at the moment in the year 2016), I thought of something Schopenhauer said: “There are two ways of not keeping on a level with the times. A man may be below it; or he may be above it.” Mikhail Bakhtin rose well above his time—and ours.

Here are two novels by Dostoevsky in which Bakhtin’s theory of the polyphonic novel appears very well put into practice–thoroughly:

brothers-karamazov-2               dostoevsky-crime-and-punishment

Some final thoughts on this philosopher, literary critic, semiotician, and scholar who genuinely has had a profound influence on my life (and writing): I will not attempt to resolve the issue of whether or not Bakhtin was “religious” or “metaphysical,” but he certainly–somehow–has given me a sound sense of what those qualities (when they are genuine) might entail, or be. When it came to translating Bakhtin, Caryl Emerson, who edited and translated Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, states: “One of Bakhtin’s major premises, in fact, might be called the vitality of nonequivalence. Multilingual environments, he argued, liberate man by opening up a gap between things and their labels … Nonequivalence is not a matter for despair but is rather the impulse to life. In fact, the interaction of two different, discrete systems is the only way a true event ever comes to pass … In place of the comfortable patterns of synthesis and Aufhebung (to “lift up” or remove abnormal growth), Bakhtin posits a dualistic universe of permanent dialogue.”

Mikhail Bakhtin coined the Russian word raznomirnost: “the condition of containing many separate and different worlds.” According to Caryl Emerson: “A voice, Bakhtin everywhere tells us, is not just words or ideas strung together; it is a ‘semantic position,’ a point of view on the world, it is one personality orienting itself among other personalities within a limited field … How a voice sounds is a function of where it is and what it can ‘see’; its orientation is measured by the field of responses it evokes. This understanding of voice lies at the base of Bakhtin’s nonreferential—that is, responsive—theory of language. An utterance responds both to others without, and others embedded within itself.”

And, O Lord, how I wish I could hear a few more voices such as that in our world just now (rather than slogans, political proselytizing, confrontation, outright antagonism and invective)! I’ll let Caryl Emerson have the last word: “For Bakhtin ‘the whole’ is not a finished entity; it is always a relationship. An aesthetic object–or for that matter any aspect of life–acquires wholeness only when an individual assumes a concrete attitude toward it. Thus, the whole can never be finalized and set aside … That one aspect of Bakhtin’s style most inseparable from his personality is the developing idea. Its subtle shifts, redundancies, self-quotations—ultimately, its open-endedness—is the genre in which, and with which, he worked.”

Here are: Caryl Emerson, and another of Bakhtin’s works she translated (Photo credit: Princeton.edu):

caryl-emerson  bakhtin-other-books

I changed my mind. Mikhail Bakhtin himself should have the last word: “Nothing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.”

Such as my next blog!




Author: William Minor

I am a writer and musician who has published twelve books: most recent: Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems; also The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, a comic novel (Trek: Lips. Sunny, Pecker and Me); three books on jazz (most recent: Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within), and seven books of poetry. A professional musician since the age of sixteen, I have released three CDs (most recent: Love Letters of Lynchburg--spoken word and original musical score commissioned by the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia). I was educated at The University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, The University of Hawaii, UC-Berkeley (MFA in Painting and Drawing), and San Francisco State College (MA in Language Arts). I taught for thirty-two years (English, Creative Writing, Humanities at The University of Hawaii, Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, and Monterey Peninsula College). Originally trained as a visual artist, I have exhibited woodcut prints and paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution. I have been married to Betty for fifty-nine years and we have two grown sons: Timothy and Stephen. We live in Pacific Grove, California where, retired from teaching, I just write and play music, both of which I love.

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