Bakhtin and Dostoevsky…

Just listen to the name: Bakhtin. The –kh-, by the way, sounds like the “h” sound that Ernie the Muppet from Sesame Street makes when he laughs. If you are going to write what amounts to a nerdy fan letter to an author who has been dead since 1975, it helps that said author has the kind of name that belies the gravitas of his oeuvre.

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (Михаи́л Миха́йлович Бахти́н) wrote the kind of serious literary criticism that makes you know that you are engaging in no holds barred, honest to goodness, heavy duty intellectual pursuit. I remember when I first heard about Bakhtin in graduate school. We were introduced to two of his main concepts – chronotope, the intersectin of time and art, and the picaresque hero. The term “picaresque” comes from the sixteenth century Spanish narrative El lazarillo de Tormes. Bakhtin took the image of the underclass rascal who uses his wits to gain upward social mobility and applies it to novels at large. I always found his preference for French Renaissance, rather than Spanish narratives, when discussing this term rather disconcerting. His development of the concept, however, proved very useful.  There is, simply told, an intellectual world before Bakhtin and an intellectual world after Bakhtin. He wrote about ideas in a way that illuminated the relations between the real world and the world of creative prose. Never mind that he packed it in the form of linguistically scintillating neologisms, such as dialogic, heteroglossia, and chronotope, among others.

Bakhtin also gained the academic equivalent of “street credibility” through the extremes he endured to write his theory. Bakhtin’s works “came of age” during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev era. He lived a challenging professional life, and taught in a wide range of institutions. [i] His works were hard to come by, since he found himself teaching far away from the intellectual centers of (then) Leningrad and Moscow, and since his works were considered controversial during his time. This only added to the cache of clandestine Soviet writing that made Russian literature such a heady affair during the Soviet period.

Bakhtin took the time to explain the origins of literary forms – both as descendants from earlier forms and as originators of new forms. Which brings me – finally! – to the reading for the week. I have been skimming – for skimming is all one can do when closing the books on a four course load teaching semester – Bakhtin’s writings on Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, by himself, is another one of those Russian writers whose every piece of writing tries to challenge a reader’s conception of the world. His Grand Inquisitor, for instance, is still one of the most exhilarating treatments of free will.

Bakhtin saw Dostoevsky as what best be described as a “founding innovator.” The way that he took previously existing structures and metaphors and integrated them with specific philosophical content turned the novel into what Bakhtin considerd the most advanced literary form.

“Dostoevsky is the creator of the polyphonic novel. He created an essentially new novelistic genre. Therefore , his work cannot be fit into any kind of frame, does not obey any of the hiistorico-literary schemes, which we have become accustomed to attribute to the European form of the novel. In his works, a hero appears whose voice is constructed like the voice of the very author in a novel of the normal type, and not like the voice of his hero. The hero’s voice regarding himself or his world carries as much weight as the normal authorial word…” [ii]

One of the Dostoevskian heroes that Bakhtin analyzes is the one derived from Gogol’s works. One only need to compare Gogol’s Diary of a Madman to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground to see both Gogol’s influence on Dostoevsky, and how Dostoevsky could take what had by his lifetime become a classic literary figure and innovate the figure into a new generation, if that is not too egregious a rhetorical sin to express. Dostoevsky adapted Gogol’s grotesque characters and gave them a greater level of philosophical and moral depth, leading to his take on the Nietzschean superman in Crime and Punishment in the form of Raskolnikov.

Granted, Dostoevsky’s literature does not easily merit the adjective of “pretty.” If you want seductively pretty prose, look to Nabokov, who is constantly trying to show how rhetorical beauty and rot a moral soul from within. Dostoevsky’s universe leaves you unnerved as you wonder if there is any real beauty left in the world. His endings always prove reassuring in that they point to the face that morality can reappear even in the most unlikely souls. It does leave you wondering how out of place society can be if it can morally disorient people with such ease. All of this and more is reflected in Bakhtin’s discussion of Dostoevsky’s contribution to world literature, and why he sees him as the novelistic author above all other novelistic author.


[i] I usually try to avoid Wikipedia as a reference, but in this case the information is so general, and truth is stranger than fiction in Bakhtin’s case.

[ii] М. М. Бахтин «Бахтин под маской: Маска четвёртая: Проблемы творчества Достоевского.» Алконост: 1994 p. 7 Translation my own.