Scott McLemee
Bakhtin
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The Nation, 29 December 1997

The practice of literary criticism is seldom the stuff of legend; reading a book with a pen in your hand is just not that heroic an enterprise. But there are two notable exceptions. One is Walter Benjamin; the other, Mikhail Bakhtin. They share an aura of heroism that derives, in part from working amid disaster (fascist Europe and Stalinist Russia, respectively). Benjamin's thought moved, with grace, back and forth between revolutionary Marxism and Jewish mysticism, between the mandarin culture of the German intelligentsia and the democratic pulse of modernity. Yet this tightrope-walk would not, in itself, have rendered Benjamin the terrifically romantic figure he has become in recent years. For that, the movielike circumstance of his death was indispensable: In flight from the Nazis after the fall of Paris, stranded in the Pyrenees, unable to continue on to the boat that would have taken him to the United States, he took a suicidal overdose of heart medication.

That act does not make his writings on tragedy, fascism or the loneliness of the solitary wanderer any more brilliant or profound than they might be otherwise. Or does it?

The fascination exerted by the great Russian critic Bakhtin likewise comes, in large part, from his misfortune -- including an element of really bad timing. Bakhtin's first book, Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics (1929), appeared while some of the more desperate characters from The Possessed were consolidating their hold on state power. And he defended a thesis on Rabelais (endorsing his satirical and scatological vision) during World War II -- while culture was under the watchful eye of Zhdanov, a man not known for his sense of humor.

By the late fifties (just about the time Benjamin was being-rediscovered) a few young Soviet literary scholars began reading Bakhtin's work with great excitement. The theory of language in the Dostoyevsky study was, perhaps, a bit more subtle than Stalin's essays on linguistics. And between the lines of Rabelais and His World, one could detect an Aesopian criticism of Soviet culture. His readers threw themselves into the posthurmous rehabilitation of Bakhtin with a true sense of mission.

The only thing was, Bakhtin wasn't dead. He spent time in prison, but survived, and now taught at a provincial university. His writing, over the years, had been done mainly for the desk drawer. This internal emigration only enhanced a mystique that grew as word of his persona and history spread. Bakhtin was a legless amputee. He talked amid a cloud of tobacco smoke, his brilliance fueled by endless cups of tea. Besides the few essays and books available under his own name, he had co-written a number of works published by members of an intellectual circle around him in the twenties: studies on psychoanalysis, critical method and the theory of language. And then there was the fate of Bakhtin's lost masterpiece, a study of the Bildungsroman. During a paper shortage, he had been obliged to use the manuscript to roll cigarettes.

A legend was born. The Dostoyevsky study was reissued, and the dissertation on Rabelais finally appeared in print. A new volume of essays was extracted from the desk drawer. By the time of his death in 1975, claims of Bakhtin's importance were swelling to enormous dimensions. The Soviet semiotician Yuri Lotman (by no means a disciple) sardonically greeted "the birth of a new science: Bakhtinology." Nor was this mere hyperbole with patriotic overtones: The rich veins of philosophical, anthropological and historical implications of his thought were being mined by scholars around the world. Yet an aura of extreme hero-worship attended this revival. In The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin, Caryl Emerson repeats a story from the early sixties, when some Bakhtinians finally got an audience. After fifteen minutes, one member of the party threw himself on his knees before the grand old man, crying, "Mikhail Mikhailovich, tell us how to live so that we can become like you!"

This, for all its poignancy, is cultism -- though neither he nor his disciples invented the Russian critic's sense of prophetic vocation. (By the 1830s, literary commentary had emerged as an important genre of social analysis, even a form of spiritual counsel, to the secularized intelligentsia.) Yet he had adopted the vatic tone from the start: "We have freed our study from the superfluous ballast of citations and references," Bakhtin announced in an early essay, adding, "For the qualified reader, they are unnecessary, and for the unqualified, useless." His charisma flowed from his focus not on epistemological questions about language but on the ethical implications of the fact that, as he wrote, "the word in language is half someone else's." In his quiet if reckless way, Bakhtin was the declared enemy of critical approaches that forced the interpretation of literature into a given system or method. That certainly put him at a distance from the stultifications of Marxist-Leninist criticism -- for which, say, Dostoyevsky's novels were simply manifestations of their author's ideology, and therefore no less reactionary.

But Bakhtin's anti-reductionist temper also made him critical of other approaches outside the Soviet mainstream, including Russian formalism (which taxonomized the varieties and devices of "literary language") and French structuralism (with its array of binary oppositions, the girders underlying all language and culture). The system-builder's mentality revealed anxiety at messiness and confusion -- the realities not only of life but of literature. And especially of the novel, which for Bakhtin was more than one literary form among others. It was the genre that revealed, like no other, the heteroglossia lurking beneath any imperial dream of order: "the internal stratification of any single national language into social dialects, characteristic group behavior, professional jargons, generic languages, languages of generations and age groups, tendentious languages, languages of the authorities, of various circles and of passing fashions, languages that serve the specific sociopolitical purposes of the day, even of the hour (each day has its own slogan, its own vocabulary, its own emphases)."

So Bakhtin wrote in 1934-35, when every day really did have its own slogan. Later, he became less emphatic about the uniqueness of the novel as embodiment of discursive heterogeneity. But the same principle underlies his point that genuine creativity contains a necessary element of multiculturalism. As he wrote in response to a questionnaire from a leading intellectual journal during the early seventies: "The most intense and productive life of culture takes place on the boundaries of its individual areas and not in places where these areas have become enclosed in their own specificity."

Now, the last thing on Emerson's mind is co-opting the Russian thinker for multiculturalism: Her digressions on feminism, academico-Marxism and the culture wars read like boilerplate from The Weekly Standard. But that hardly detracts from the value of her new book -- one of the three or four most important works on the theorist now available in English. Emerson, a leading translator and interpreter of Bakhtin's writings, has prepared a detailed report on the state of Bakhtinology in the former Soviet Union. She assumes familiarity with the major works; the reader should also know Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) by Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist.

"The Bakhtin industry" is an international enterprise, with academics in the United States playing an important role. That a couple of American Slavists wrote the first biography seems to have inspired Russian scholars to new heights of archival diligence, oral history and memoir writing. But the core of Emerson's book lies not in the addition of new details about Bakhtin himself but rather in her precis of the debates and discordant readings his work has inspired over the years.

At one level, it is a familiar story. Someone lives and works on the fringe of culture, writing and thinking in eccentric terms; the resulting texts are, for all practical purposes, inaccessible -- in more ways term one. At a crucial moment a cohort of readers forms. What had previously been obscure suddenly becomes richly meaningful. The disciples apply and explain the work, and a canon forms. The thinker's ideas, forged in an effort to defy the system-building impulse, become the object of scholarly reconstruction; they turn out to be strikingly coherent and cohesive -- systematic, almost.

By this point, the once-marginal figure has a certain cachet. ("A name that ought to have resounded as the decisive antithesis of all frivolity and vulgarity," wrote a frustrated devotee in the early eighties, "was entered as a consumer item into every `gentleman's toilette': a leather jacket, a ticket to the Taganka Theater, a few citations from Bakhtin.") Soon, the anti-establishment thinker has become an institution, with its own orthodoxies, heresies and renegades. Eventually the entire process -- marginality, cultism, faddishness, schism -- becomes part of intellectual history. Younger scholars examine the thinker's legacy and wonder: What was that all about?

By 1995, when the centenary of his birth was celebrated with scholarly conferences and a flood of new publications, the field of Bakhtin studies in Russia had run through all of these phases. Emerson's book would be of interest if only for its chronicle of how his work has been received over the decades: from the review of the Dostoyevsky study by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Bolshevik literary eminence (probably saving Bakhtin from death in Siberia), through the new generation of critical theorists, nurtured under Gorbachev, who found in him a post-structuralist avant la lettre (though also badly in need of deconstructing).

But to treat this history as just another episode in the history of institutionalized dissent would be a disservice to Bakhtin and his interpreters alike. In the U.S., his work formed one of several bodies of cultural theory imported from the sixties through the eighties. His ideas were warmly received, but they never became the focus of quite the passionate attention (meaning, conflict) generated in the U.S.S.R.

The most telling instance would be the reception of Bakhtin's notion of "carnival." It is the aspect of his thought that has had the greatest influence among scholars around the world -- not only in literary criticism but in folklore studies and cultural history as well. It has also exercised a strong appeal for the left. Bakhtin's work on Rabelais stresses the festival of carnival as a crucial part of the historical context necessary for understanding Gargantua and Pantagruel. But considerations on "the carnivalesque" also show up in his readings of Dostoyevsky, so the concept is by no means limited to the medieval celebration. Traditionally carnival is the last blowout before Lent: a time of excess, when the prohibitions on carnal satisfaction are abolished and popular creative energy is given full expression in the form of costumes, masks, songs, dances, puppet shows, etc. Society is, in normal circumstances, ruled by the "head" (in medieval Europe, the court and the church). During carnival, hierarchy is not only suspended but inverted: The village idiot becomes king, sinners in priestly vestments preach nonsensical or blasphemous sermons. It is a space-time governed by what Bakhtin terms "the grotesque body" -- the joyously eating, drinking, screwing and odor-emitting regions of corporal existence, which the mind ignores or otherwise represses. Carnival is a reminder that the pope's shit stinks, too.

For Bakhtin, carnival is not simply the negation of "official" society, with all its rules and solemnity. It is the molten core of culture itself. Without the carnivalizing impulse, literature freezes into mere elegance (chivalric romances weren't carnivalesque; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were). By the late sixties, as Emerson reports, Bakhtin's ideas were stimulating work among Soviet anthropologists and medievalists. And at least one academician tried to show that Bakhtin's treatment of Rabelais was consistent with the needs of atheist propaganda -- a notion quite at odds with recent scholarship on Bakhtin, who was a Christian. The religious aspect of Bakhtin's celebration of the fresh and the word has been addressed by some critical writing in Russia, as has his appreciation of Martin Buber's I and Thou, an influence some of his more nationalistic disciples downplayed.

Now, whatever its use for other scholars or its esoteric meaning for the thinker himself, Bakhtin's notion of carnival is certainly appropriate to. post-Soviet culture: chaotic, babel-like, with established authority turned keister-up. This makes some of the implications of Bakhtin's work all the more troubling. The revelry of medieval carnival often included violence -- the slaughter of animals (and, when things got out of hand, people). The radically democratic essence of carnival is a cliche of academic discourse on Bakhtin, at least in the United States. But an essay by Boris Groys, "Between Stalin and Dionysus" (1989), suggests that things are not so simple: "One should not even speak of democracy here: no one is given the democratic right to shirk carnival, to not take part, to remain on the sidelines. On the contrary, precisely those who try to do so are the first to be subject to well-deserved `cheerful vilifications and beatings.' According to Bakhtin, this nightmare is transformed into carnival thanks to the laughter that accompanies it."

Of course, Emerson's painstaking reconstruction of these divergent schools of interpretation probably won't have much effect on the Americanized version of Bakhtin: a sort of New Left celebrator of popular culture, maybe with a little Richard Rorty thrown in. The theological Bakhtin has certainly played no role in his reception here. (Likewise, Walter Benjamin is understood as the comrade of Brecht or Adorno, but seldom as the friend of Gershom Scholem.) Textual scholars are busy rescuing Bakhtin's manuscripts -- the unsmoked ones, anyway -- from disintegration. Another volume of essays is being translated; so are the transcripts of taped interviews with Bakhtin, offering the closest thing available to an autobiography. In the meantime, we have The First Hundred Years, a book that makes the rereading of Bakhtin not one bit easier or less troubling, which is the highest praise I can think to give.