Bakhtin´s Poetics

     The rediscovery of Bakhtin upon the attribution and publication of work concealed under pseudonym due to its conflict with official Soviet literary dogma, first in Russia and then, upon translation, in the English speaking world has brought w ith it a drastic raising in Bakhtin's reputation. His classic work on Dostoyevsky, Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics, in its new conscientious translation by Caryl Emerson, brings to light the contradictory impulse in Bakhtin to both analyse Dostoy evsky and to create his own epistemological theory of polyphonic character of the relation between the individual consciousness and the idea. What emerges upon even a cursory reading of the Poetics is Bakhtin's use of Dostoyevsky's work to illumina te his own epistemology, so that a "space" between critic and author evolves when Dostoyevsky fails to maintain the purely polyphonic voice that Bakhtin attributes to him. The Poetics should be read, as should its ancestor, the Poetics of Ar istotle, not only as literary analysis, but as a philosophical treatise on man's methods for ordering and understanding reality -- which for Bakhtin involves a structuring not on the first level, the level of privileging a particular idea or consciousness , but on the higher level of structuring the free discourse (polyphony) between contradictory ideas and interacting conciousnesses.

     In the opening pages of the preface to the Poetics, Wayne Booth remarks upon the relative inattention previously paid Mikhail Bakhtin among academic circles. Indeed Bakhtin remained almost entirely unnoticed, until very recently, by the English speaking academic community, in part because of a lack of a sensitive translation. Except among a very factional set of sp ecialists, who sided with either Bakhtin's Rabelais or Dostoyevsky studies, Bakhtin's name during the period before the publishing of a collection of his essays The Dialogic Imagination was almost unknown.

Yet after the initial publication of his early essays, Bakhtin's reputation grew steadily from that of a groundbreaking critic to that of a major thinker of the twentieth century. Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics certainly does not disappoint in t his respect: Emerson's excellent translation with comprehensive footnotes detailing the exact connotations of Bakhtin's word choice allows the English reader to get at the sophistication of Bakhtin's use of metonymy and pun, and to begin to appreciate Bak htin's adroit combination of academic rigor with the urgent drive to communicate to not only his fellow critics but the general public his radically new vision of Dostoyevsky's poetics. His development of the concept of novelistic polyphony, his reanalysi s of authorial position in relation to the characters and ideas present in a novel, and his brilliant genealogy of Dostoyevsky's tradition that includes not only purely novelistic works such as, say, the novels of Richardson, but others such as Dante's Inferno and the Platonic dialogue combine to present a refreshing contrast to the traditional monologic analyses of Dostoyevsky as Tolstoyian moralist.

 As noted by many of Bakhtin's critics, Bakhtin's analysis in its enthusiasm to present an unco mpromising vision of Dostoyevsky as a writer entirely distinct from the others of his time loses in critical accuracy what it gains in philosophical neatness. The critic's identification of his own philosophy with Dostoyevsky's may be perhaps a little too close for an entirely accurate evaluation of Dostoyevsky qua Dostoyevsky. It is better, and also appropriate given both Bakhtin's thesis of polyphony, and, as Booth's introduction notes, its polyphonic presentation, to say instead that the geniuso f Bakhtin's Poetics lies not in its close analysis of Dostoyevsky's work, but in the ideas that emerge from the dialogue between Bakhtin, a philosopher of the word, and Dostoyevsky, the artist of its image.

    Bakhtin's Poetics opens with his theory of polyphony, presented as an idea successively approximated by previous critical literature on Dostoyevsky's short stories and novels, and as a necessary paradigm of interpretation that sensitive readers will out of necessity construct for them selves. Throughout the text, Bakhtin uses the terminology of his predecessors to show how his own theory of polyphonies the presence of a plurality of voices free to contradict the author has evolved from the theories of the past, although he feels free t o alter, many times significantly, the meaning of the terms he appropriates. Vyaileslav Ivanov, who perhaps has come closest to aspects of Bakhtin's thesis, receives a detailed treatment, as does Askoldov, whose term "personality" comes to mean for Bakhti n the self-contained, autonomous character who achieves parity with the author to act as both a participant and mediator in the novel's multilayered dialogue.

Bakhtin's relation to the formalists is, while close, always a little uneasy, and the forma lists mentioned in his analysis of the development of polyphony as an idea in critical literature receive a varied treatment. While Bakhtin is also far more willing than his formalist colleagues to consider the socio-historical environment of the texts he analyses, he differs most radically from the formalists in his struggle against the reification of a text under consideration. Following modernists such as Wallace Stevens, he places ultimate emphasis on the living word, the dynamism of a sentence , a chapter, a "personality" or an idea that stands "on the threshold of a final decision, at a moment of crisis, unfinalizable." In a beautiful synthesis of his objections to the dogmas of formalism -- disengagement of a novel from its contemporary histo rical context and the struggle against reification -- Bakhtin writes in his second essay of Dostoyevsky's political philosophy and his assessment of capitalism and Western socialism as forces to be fought against in the struggle against the reifyin g devaluation of man. Man, according to Bakhtin, can only transcend his "thingness" to become a man-in-man by entering the eternally unfinished realm of the idea, by adopting to his view of reality polyphonic structures that allow such dynamism.

 On the other hand, Bakhtin certainly shares the formalist sympathy with close linguistic analysis, and indeed, the linguistic techniques of highly structural analysis lead him to propose in the final essay of the Poetics an analytical analogue of the ph oneme, the chronotope, as a unit of development in a polyphonic novel where two or more personalities meet. Such scenes, often, but not always, under the rubric of the Scandal, take place in places unshielded by social convention -- the debased living roo ms in Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, for example, or a crowded platform at a station where people of all social classes are thrown together by the arrival of a train -- and often are physical analogues of the threshold, "unfinalizable" conditions under w hich the meetings take place.

 The disconnection between Bakhtin's analysis and the actual material of Dostoyevsky's text becomes apparent in his third essay on the position of the idea in Dostoyevsky. His analysis, following a similar path of reasonin g to that in the second essay which explicitly dealt with the new authorial position with respect to a hero of a polyphonic novel, here shows how Dostoyevsky avoids the traditional dichotomy between accepted and rejected "truths." While most authors treat ideas with which they are in sympathy as somehow "blessed" and allow them to control the nature of reality within which the novel takes place, Dostoyevsky has, in Bakhtin's vision, an entirely new manner of relating to ideas within a novel's structure. I n keeping with his new realism that sees depths outside himself (in contrast to the old romanticisms such as Goethe's that views a novel's proper development as dealing with the solipsistic psychological development of a character in sympathy with the aut hor), he is able to structure his novel without giving primacy to his own point of view. High praise indeed, although it is doubtful if Dostoyevsky would have been so willing to abandon his own ability to guide the development of a novel according to his own vision. Both Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, while certainly dialogic in their presentation of the dynamic between, say Raskalnikov and Sonya or Ragozhin and Prince Myshkin can be said to be biased in their structure towards one side of the argument. Even without the epilogue (which Bakhtin dismisses quite rightly as a falling back into the cliché monologic interpretations) the scenes of religious revelation in Crime and Punishment, and Myshkin's similar experiences in The Idiot connected with his vision of Holbein's Christ are given ideological privilege outside of the dialogic structure by the tone of their phrasing.

 Such "biasing" of interpretation by the use of tone, such intervention of Dostoyevsky as jo urnalist and ideologist into Dostoyevsky as polyphonist can be seen as a movement along a philosophical continuum between Hegel and Kierkegaard. Bakhtin explicitly rejected the Hegelian concept of the ideological dialectic because it was too solipsistic, and derived its impetus from its internal structure, a concept in conflict with the chronotope and its vision of evolution as a function of interaction between unfinalized conciousnesses, and because it implied a movement towards finalization. Bakhtin him self lies somewhere between Hegel and Kierkegaard (and also somewhat out of their plane due to his emphasis on Vyaileslav Ivanov's "penetration" of conciousnesses against "objectified portraits of cognition"), still believing in the possibility of orderin g structure while denying the crisis-undermining implications of Hegel's dialectic. In many ways, he sees Dostoyevsky as a successor of the Platonic dialogues (and indeed, he mentions them explicitly in connection with his genealogy of genre in his final chapter.) But Dostoyevsky the ideologist, the man willing to sacrifice the dialogic principle to communicate what he feels is of urgent ethical and aesthetic importance, is closer to Kierkegaard than either Plato or Bakhtin, and Bakhtin departs from pure criticism when he denies Dostoyevsky's ability to direct and order the secondary structure, the structure of interaction, according to his (given his biography, firmly held) religious principles.

 Thus Bakhtin's Poetics should be read not as a t raditional guide to Dostoyevsky, but almost as a philosophical monograph based in part on Dostoyevsky's work but dealing in a larger sense with the epistemological question of how to depict an idea while retaining its relevance. Polyphony is an answer to the problem of how to convey a complex of contradictory ideas while averting the direct judgement, the forcing into schema, that invariably ignores the dynamic life of an idea when it is placed, not in the world of forms, but in the "dirty" world of indiv idual human consciousness. The emphasis on historical context and genealogy of the Dostoyevskian polyphony reads more as a history of philosophy than a literary analysis; Menippian satire's indeterminate state and unfinalizability, the aporetic Socratic d ialogues, Dante's formal polyphony, Goethe's extreme monologic work -- all these serve less as a history of the novel, which would have better been begun with an analysis of the novel's rebellion against tradition and anti-generic power, and more as a his tory of epistemology.

 Bakhtin's work was never fully accepted by the oppressive Soviet regimes under which he lived and wrote. The year that he first published his Poetics, he was exiled to Kazakhstan, and even when he returned, the Russian Com munist state never fully accepted what we can see through the passionate language of much of the Poetics Bakhtin's dangerous and sometimes subversive intellect. His denial of the formalist obsession with anti-historicism coupled with his refusal to adapt the dialogic principle to the Marxist conception of dialectical materialism -- indeed, his intense spiritualism, his locating of truth in the indeterminate state of crisis that can never be directly verbalized -- leading to his elevation of the ant i-structural Carnival genre, reads as literary analysis turned political rebellion. Yet while this veiled discourse is undoubtedly present, as it is in much of Soviet literary criticism, Bakhtin's primary emphasis is on a non-polemical analysis of Dostoye vsky's struggle for a true depiction of the idea and against the disembodied "dead" portrayal of personality, and in this the Poetics, both in Russian and English, deservedly raises Bakhtin to the status of a philosopher. He subverted the dominant paradigm of literary interpretation and to give to both the specialist and the general reader not only a new manner in which to see Dostoyevsky, but a new framework within which to view the novel, a framework that goes beyond the formalist desire to separ ate literature from the wider questions of philosophy and history and places the development of the novel back into the main current of the development of human thought.