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Mikhail Bakhtin

Some folks asked in response to my introductory post for an explanation of why the great Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin has been so important to me. I will probably return to this later, but for now I’m going to post an except from an essay I wrote a long time ago for Books & Culture. (I don’t think the whole essay is online.) This might be sort of inside-baseball for some readers, and if so, my apologies. I start with a passage in which I try to explain Bakhtin’s great love of Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky wishes with all his heart to overcome Ivan Karamazov’s rebellion against God, yet he wishes also to understand that rebellion and to be fair to the pain which prompts it. Therefore he does not refute Ivan; he merely juxtaposes to Ivan’s words and actions the words and actions of his brother Alyosha, and the saintly elder Father Zossima, and the sometimes-repentant “fallen woman” Grushenka. In their lives rebellion is not dismissed but rather transcended, overcome by a love greater than rebellion; but Dostoevsky never says as much. The reader is left to hear for herself. (Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.) As a result, some unbelievers come to understand the folly of their rebellion; but some Christians, it is also true, have their faith tested or even broken by Ivan’s genuine agony at the evil in the world and his consequent decision to return God’s “entrance ticket” to Heaven. Bakhtin cannot sufficiently applaud Dostoevsky’s willingness to take this risk, because as a novelist Dostoevsky has the power to speak (as Tolstoy does) in a single authoritative voice, but refrains from doing so. He allows Ivan to be heard, and heard fully.

It is better to do so, Bakhtin argues, because Ivan’s outcry at the suffering of innocent children is part of the truth — a truth so “contradictory and heteroglot” that it cannot be contained within the scope of a single voice. (The term “heteroglossia” is the usual English translation of a coinage of Bakhtin’s: the word refers to the multiplicity of factors and conditions that go into the voicing, and the hearing, of every human utterance.) This is why, Bakhtin repeatedly argued in his work from the mid-Thirties on, the medieval Church not only allowed but encouraged and sponsored carnivalesque practices like the parodia sacra (parody of the holy liturgies) during certain festival seasons: such laughter provided a necessary reminder to all Christians that even the holiest of words and actions cannot carry the whole truth about God’s relations with His people. We will laugh at those holy words today, not to discredit them, but so that we might embrace them with renewed vigor tomorrow.

Bakhtin often implies that the medieval church could permit, even mandate, such silliness largely because it was confident in the devotion of its people. It follows, then — though Bakhtin could never say this openly in Stalin’s Russia — that those who insist on monologue, on speaking with one voice always and only, are motivated largely by fear: fear of losing dignity, fear of losing power, fear (perhaps this above all) of being laughed at. If the devil, that “prowde spirite,” “cannot endure to be mocked” — as Thomas More said, a statement C. S. Lewis quoted as one of the epigraphs for The Screwtape Letters — the same is true of Stalin. The Stalinist persecution of Christians, and indeed of anyone who did not perfectly echo the Immortal Leader, was an attempt to impose upon people, from above, an absolute monologue. In one sense Stalin could achieve this: he had the power to compel outward assent, or at least silence. It seemed as though the People spoke with one voice. But because language is always dialogical — because “meaning is personal: there is always within it a question, an appeal to, and an anticipation of, the answer; there are always two subjects in it (the dialogical minimum)” — the apparent monologue was delusory. Bakhtin, and millions of others like him, may have been silent; but inwardly they repudiated their oppressors, and sometimes, inwardly, they laughed.

… When Bakhtin was studying at Petrograd University during the years of the Great War, academic philosophy everywhere in Europe understood its highest task to be that of creating (in the great Hegelian fashion) a complete philosophical system. Likewise, the Russian Formalists devoted most of their energy to describing the governing system of human language. And when the Bolsheviks took over in 1917, their leader Lenin would soon make it clear that Marxism offered the System of Systems, the philosophy which could explain all other philosophies and pass judgment on their shortcomings. All such dreams Bakhtin repudiated. Throughout his career he argued, sometimes overtly but often covertly, that no system can ever live up to its own claims. Like Kierkegaard before him, he understood that system is finality: if it is not final, if it is not complete, it is not a system. Yet how can our account of any human being ever be complete? Can we know everything about anyone? Clearly not; too many factors have gone into each person’s making — mine, for instance — for anyone to claim to have understood them all. If we claim to have an explanation for “Man in general,” we must face the problem that I am not (none of us is) “Man in general”: I am a particular historical person. Moreover, even if by some miracle it were possible to know everything, absolutely everything, that constitutes who I am, there remains the troublesome fact that I am still alive, still encountering new situations, and hence still capable of going in directions no one can predict. For all of these reasons Bakhtin concludes that we are all — an ugly word for such a beautiful thought — unfinalizable. After system has done all that system can do, after its laws and procedures have been applied, there remains a remainder, a residue that cannot be canceled out or made to disappear — and that inexplicable residue, for Bakhtin, is what makes us human. Therefore, no final word about us can be uttered; we remain in ever-shifting dialogical relations with the world.

Bakhtin ever went so far as to say, in one of his very last notebooks, that we are unfinalizable in the fullest sense, that the dialogue in which we participate is literally endless:

There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). . . . At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in new form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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