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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 [1] 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 [2]. (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.

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14 Comments To "Mikhail Bakhtin"

#1 Comment By matt On September 23, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

Dostoevsky’s Ivan is a vivid and “full” picture of rebellion all right, but rebellion never gets a fair hearing in the novel (and why should it?). His “agony” about cruelty to children (whose stories he collects and curates) is not “genuine,” but highly motivated, even pretentious. As a novelist, Dostoevsky can “refute” Ivan not only by contrasting him with others, but by exposing the anxiety, pride, dishonesty and shame which are inseparable from rebellion in the concrete figure of Ivan.

#2 Comment By Alan Jacobs On September 23, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

Matt, the chief evidence that I’d give that rebellion does get a fair hearing in the novel is the thousands and thousands of readers who over the decades have thought that Dostoevsky is on Ivan’s side and that Ivan’s critique of God is unanswerably strong. You can find this in student responses and in a surprising number of professional writers. I don’t know how Dostoevsky could have given unbelief a fairer hearing.

#3 Comment By matt On September 23, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

You’re right about thousands of readers, but this has always seemed to me a serious misreading of the novel. It’s abetted by the unfortunate tradition of excerpting “The Grand Inquisitor.” Ivan showing off for his brother at the inn looks alot different when we have also seen his relationship with Lise, with Smerdyakov (who makes perhaps the key observation of the book when he says that Ivan resembles Fyodor most of all the sons), and of course Ivan’s conversation with “the Devil.” And Dostoevsky is certainly “fair” in the poetic sense that Ivan for all his flaws is unmistakably real, but not in the sense that he lets the careful reader take Ivan’s poses and arguments, such as they are, at face value. Ivan is ruined at the end of the book, and that’s because Dostoevsky had it in for him all along.

#4 Comment By Frank OConnor On September 23, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

Listen, Jacobs, these author recommendations have got to stop. You’ve only been here a week and after devouring with delight your “Original Sin” I have ordered up from Amazon Hill’s biography of Bunyan, O’Connell’s of Pascal, Uglow’s “Lunar Men” and three books by Auden, plus a biography, and noted on my iphone books on my “to buy but don’t have the time or money right now” list by Noll, Alter,Taylor, Cranston, and Greenblatt. (I am going to take a pass on Rosenstock-Huessy). In addition, after finishing your book, I waded into my bookshelf to find Marsden’s bio of Edwards which has been collecting dust there for a number of years.
And I drop by your blog today and you are touting Bakhtin! Thank God I at least have read Karamazov or you’d have me delving into thousand page Russian novels to boot!

#5 Comment By Alan Jacobs On September 23, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

Matt, I think that’s a pretty uncharitable reading of both Dostoevsky and Ivan — maybe I’ll even have time someday to explain why I think so!

And Frank: I’m really sorry. I know that there are few crueller things you can do to a person than to give him more good books to read. I’ll try to do better in the future, but old habits are hard to break, especially when they’re bad ones….

#6 Comment By matt On September 23, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

Ok, someday then. Though I think maybe Dostoevsky made Ivan more interesting, moving, and beautiful than charity might allow.

#7 Comment By Rod Dreher On September 23, 2012 @ 11:03 pm

Re: the unfinalizability (oof!) of humanity, I am reminded for some reason of Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem, a principle of mathematical logic holding that within any number system, there will be statements that are true but cannot be proved within the system. In other words, all mathematical systems are “unfinalizable.”

#8 Comment By Tim On September 24, 2012 @ 8:55 am

Unfinalizable. It is an ugly word for a beautiful thought…a positive stated negatively. It occurs to me that the word “alive” could describe the nuance Bakhtin was looking for if interpreted in this fuller, more beautiful sense.

#9 Comment By Dod On September 24, 2012 @ 10:35 am

Yes, Godel….also Augustine’s restless heart that will not find a (final?) rest until its search finds true quiet in the embrace of its Creator. With Bakhtin, worthy efforts to indicate, point to the power that elicits efforts to say what is beyond speech.

That would include the creation of an Ivan who is at once enormously intelligible, sympathetic and disturbing. Simply juxtaposing those elements is not difficult, making them cohere into a real character is.

#10 Comment By Rob S. On September 24, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

So this was a nice account of some helpful distinctions Bakhtin gives us.

But it seems to me that we should be careful about adopting his terms for our own use, and not just because we find them clunky. There’s a danger in making a too-ready identification between “finality” in the sense Bakhtin critiques — the finality of the Hegelian system, of the authoritarian state — and “finality” in an older, richer sense.

The schoolmen speak of human beings not as “unfinalizable” but as having a supernatural finality. We are creatures called, in their account, to find our completion (our finality) in receiving the gift of our infinite abandonment to divine love. Our supernatural finality doesn’t imprison us in the web of a monological system, but liberates into ever-further progress in love.

Like Bakhtin, thinkers in the scholastic traditions (and, let us presume, in others: but the scholastics are who I know) have resources to critique the pretensions of the philosophers. Pace Hegel, the Trinity is no Absolute, and the divine name refers to something that transcends every totalizing system. But unlike Bakhtin, our scholastics leave us with an account of human ends that’s rather thicker than “ever-shifting dialogical relations,” a description of life which to me sounds as gray as life under tyranny — the telos of humanity as, I don’t know, an eternal Seinfeld episode?

Up with finality … just not in the sense Bakhtin critiqued!

#11 Comment By Peter On September 24, 2012 @ 5:54 pm

Your description of kind of conservative temperament that Bakhtin prized – which prefers the peculiar, the quirky, the individual – is so appealing and human.

Why do you suppose there is so little evidence of it in great swathes of modern Conservatism? I’m thinking here of the realms of theology and politics, both of which, it seems, have been given over to the systematizers who sally forth into battle with certain answers about “man in general.”

I wonder how many systemic Conservatives would dismiss Bakhtin’s “ever-shifting dialogical relations with the world” as so much wooly-headed thinking on the road to postmodernism.

#12 Comment By Alan Jacobs On September 24, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

Peter, I think it’s really hard for people in general to resist big generalizations. Generalizations feel helpful as we navigate through life because they reduce cognitive load. It’s hard to resist that temptation, and I think that’s true across the political spectrum.

#13 Comment By Alan Jacobs On September 24, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

Rob, Bakhtin would say (and I’d agree with him) that being liberated into “ever-further progress in love” is precisely why human beings shouldn’t and won’t be finalized. Unfinalizability is an eschatological concept for him in just the sense you mean, so I don’t think you disagree with him at all. The reference to the Prodigal Son in the last passage I quote is key.

#14 Comment By Susan Malter On January 21, 2013 @ 12:07 am

A friend has referred to Bakhtin’s Dialogism with respect to the opening of a text I wrote. Having no knowledge of Mikhail Bakhtin, I am thrilled to find your well-written work as an introduction. A stronger mind would have gone to the original first, but I will have to be strong tomorrow.

Thank you!