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Rene Wellek Bakhtin Dostoevsky

Rene Wellek Bakhtin Dostoevsky

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A bakhtinian reading of Dostoevsky's work.
A bakhtinian reading of Dostoevsky's work.

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Published by: Asif Iqbal on Aug 10, 2013
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Renй Wellek, Princeton University
Mikhail Bakhtin's "Problems of Dostoevsky's Creation" (1929), renamed "Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics" in the second, considerably revised and enlarged edition in 19631 is rightly considered one of the most stimulating and original books of the enormous literature on Dostoevsky. It comes to grips with a central task of criticism: it asks what is peculiar to Dostoevsky's art, how and why it differs from that of other novelists. Bakhtin's book has nothing to say about the biography of Dostoevsky, and very little about the ideological content of his works or of its setting in time and place. It deliberately focuses on a few questions: the role of the hero in Dostoevsky's novels, the way ideas are presented in the novels, the question of the genre tradition to which Dostoevsky was indebted or is supposed to belong and finally the special use of language and dialogue in the novels. It would be a mistake to call these questions simply formalist. As early as 1924 Bakhtin rejected the approach of the Russian formalists as "material aesthetics,"2 and in Pavel Medvedev's "Formal Method in Literary Scholarship" (1928), of which Bakhtin is supposed to be the author or at least the dominant co-author, we find a sharp criticism of the early Formalists from a point of view which is outwardly Marxist but actually phenomenological in its rejection of the mechanistic presuppositions of the early Formalists. Bakhtin has, mainly since his death, acquired a great reputation as a literary theorist and early semiotician. He is now considered to be the author of Valentin Voloshinov's "Marxism and the Philosophy of Language" (1928). Medvedev's "Formal Method" is clearly inspired by him though his exact share in the text seems to me debatable. Bakhtin's book on "Rabelais" (1965) has attracted international attention for the way he derived Rabelais from the tradition of medieval folk humor playing down his affiliations with scholasticism and humanism. A new collection of Bakhtin's articles, "Questions of Literature and Aesthetics" (1975), published in the year of his death, is now accessible to readers ignorant of Russian in French translation (1978) and, I hope, soon also in English thanks to the efforts of Michael Holquist who is also working on a biography of Bakhtin. Let me say at the outset that I admire Bakhtin's acumen, analytical power and historical erudition but that here, in the time at my disposal, I want to voice my

misgivings about two points of Bakhtin's interpretation: the polyphony and the carnivalesque. I shall leave his "metalinguistics" 32 severely alone» partly because I do not feel competent to discuss matters requiring a native knowledge of Russian and partly because a proper discussion would lead me far afield into questions of linguistics and semiotics. Bakhtin asserts that Dostoevsky created a totally new kind of novel he calls "polyphonic": i. e., it consists of independent voices which are fully equal, become subjects of their own right and do not serve the ideological position of the author. He is undoubtedly right in emphasizing the dramatic nature of Dostoevsky's novels, the sense of conflict Dostoevsky created, the power of empathy he shows with the most diverse ideological points of view and attitudes to life but, I think, Bakhtin is simply wrong if he pushes this view so far as to deny the authorial voice of Dostoevsky, his personal angle of vision. ""Polyphony" is, after all, only a metaphor, an analogy when applied to the novel, as it is in the nature of a literary work to occur in a linear time sequence. The application to literature is quite old. It occurs, as far as I know, first in the reflections of Otto Ludwig sometime before 1865 which contains a whole section called "Polyphoner Dialog,"3 Bakhtin himself refers to V. Komarovich (28) using the term and to "counterpoint" used by Leonid Grossman, which says much the same thing with a slightly different metaphor. But these terms, "polyphony" and "counterpoint" (59), as well as the comparisons with the symphonies of Gustav Mahler and what not, merely refer to the indubitable fact that Dostoevsky's novels are "scenic" rather than "panoramic," to use the terminology common since Percy Lubbock's "Craft of Fiction" (1920). Dostoevsky probably went further than anybody I can recall before him in building his novels around scenes in dialogue, on conversations, debates and arguments between three or more persons. Nobody would want to deny the general impression of richness, density and multiplicity of conflicting voices. He represents the trend toward the drama in the novel, toward "objectivity" and "impersonality," toward the doctrine of "exit author." Writers quite independent of Dostoevsky such as Henry James in "The Awkward Age" (1899) or less clearly Conrad Ferdinand Meyer demonstrate this. In Spain Perez Galdos wrote completely dialogized novels appealing to the precedence of the late 15th-century "La Celestina". His "Realidad" (1890) is an extreme example. Stories such as Hemingway's "The Killers" are practically all dialogue. Dostoevsky has not gone so far (and there is no reason why he should have). There are long stretches of expository and panoramic narration in his novels, for instance, in the beginnings of "The

Possessed" and "The Brothers Karamazov", and there is plenty of direct authorial comment sometimes put into the mouth of a chronicler or narrator. In some cases such as the epistolary novel, "Poor People", or the first-person narration as in "The Raw Youth", the very form precludes an overt interference of the author. Bakhtin does not seem to see that the problem of independent voices arises in these forms as it does in any drama. But who can mistake the voice of Racine, Schiller, Kleist and Ibsen, or even that of Shakespeare? Bakhtin quotes Chernyshevskij with apparent approval: "Othello says 'yes,' Iago 'no.' Shakespeare says nothing" (89). But Shakespeare said "no" to Iago very clearly.

33 The true observation made by Bakhtin and others that Dostoevsky allows "each of the contending viewpoints to develop to its maximum strength and depth, to the maximum of plausibility" (93) does not refute the fact that Dostoevsky makes a clear judgment about the values of the points of view presented by the speakers. He is "objective" in the sense that he knows how to expound ideas of which he disapproves (as every dramatist must) but there cannot be any doubt that, for instance, in "Crime and Punishment" we know what Dostoevsky considers good and what evil, that he agrees with the Biblical command: "Thou shalt not kill" even a "louse," even an old useless and even harmful usurer. Dostoevsky would not be an artist if he merely stated his ideas; he enacts, embodies them in characters and situations. We should acknowledge that novelists before and after him did exactly the same, maybe less well and with ideas of less pertinence today. To give an example: Dickens in "Hard Times" (1854) presents the points of view and arguments of Utilitarianism and "rugged individualism" in the pronouncements and behavior of his characters, Gradgrind and Bounderby, and subverts them with the figure of the girl Louisa and the scenes with the travelling circus. He falls far short of Dostoevsky in dramatising these ideas: he is, in this book at least, far more schematic and overtly didactic, but the aesthetic problem is exactly the same. There may be doubts in detail, but in general the relations of Dostoevsky to his characters and their ideas are clear enough. Bakhtin admits that Dostoevsky wrote articles in which he "expressed his own approved ideas in monological form" (122) but he tries to make the difference between an overt

statement in an article and the presentation of the same ideas in a novel so radical that he can deny any definite point of view or even any definite angle of vision to Dostoevsky as novelist. The argument that in an article in "The Diary of a Writer," "Milieu" ("Sreda," 1873), which Bakhtin quotes at length (125-6), Dostoevsky uses dialogues, questions and answers, imaginary conversations and debates speaks, on the contrary, strongly against a strict division. The evidence is overwhelming that Dostoevsky thought of his novels as serving the ideological struggles of his time. "Crime and Punishment" and "The Possessed" are anti-nihilistic novels of the kind described by Charles Moser,4 however far their artistic value exceeds the ephemeral products of the other writers. Bakhtin actually admits "a certain partiality sometimes felt in the novels" (123), for instance, in the "monological" epilogue to "Crime and Punishment" which he considers a blemish on the book. But this "partiality" is by no means confined to such extra chapters or appendices: it determines, as has been shown in detail,5 even the choice of adjectives about Myshkin and Zosima. As an artist Dostoevsky knows the difference between a philosophical statement and a dramatic enactment and therefore often avoided a too overt or blunt commitment. But this avoidance, defended in a letter to Pobedonoscev quoted by Bakhtin (129), is only a strategy of indirection in order to bring home his lesson or message more strongly and persuasively. Bakhtin is right in insisting on Dostoevsky's dramaticity or simply artistry and in his disapproval of reducing his work to a system of stated ideas and propositions, but he is wrong in denying him an authorial voice and personal angle of vision. 34 If we examine Bakhtin's arguments in detail it becomes obvious that he exaggerates the tendency toward drama unduly. Is it, for instance, true that Dostoevsky "does not retain for himself, that is exclusively for his own field of vision, a single essential definition, a single characteristic, a single trait of the hero" (62)? Many of Dostoevsky's heroes are highly self-conscious and selfreflexive but to take only one example, Myshkin is presented mostly from outside. There are traits of his behavior which are not clear to him and the same is true of Dmitrij Karamazov or of Alesha. I would even argue that this is a special feature of Dostoevsky's art that we often do not know what is going on inside of his characters and that we are left in the dark about their motivations. Bakhtin himself speaks of this lack of "finality" in Dostoevsky's heroes. Dostoevsky keeps plenty to himself. A study of the Notebooks, most recently and most fully that of Jacques Catteaux,6 shows how Dostoevsky

meditated precisely on this issue: what to say and what to withhold, and that he never lost control over his figures. I doubt also whether one can say that Dostoevsky's hero is a "pure voice; we do not see him, we hear him" (71). This seems to revive Merezhkovskij's contrast between Dostoevsky, the "seer of the spirit," and Tolstoj, "the seer of the flesh." Still, there are plenty of figures in Dostoevsky which are visualised. We all remember the Adam's apple of Fedor Karamazov, the curves of Grushenka, and we know roughly how Raskolnikov, Sonja, Myshkin, Kirilov and Nastasja looked. They are, of course, fictional figures, schemata, with "spots of indeterminacy" as Roman Ingarden would say, and we might be offended by concretizations in illustrations and films. But so would we with ail fictional figures. It is true that Dostoevsky is less concerned with the physical world and nature compared to many other novelists. But to say as Bakhtin does that in Dostoevsky there is "no objective representation of milieu, of manners and customs, of nature, of things" (133) is an exaggeration if we think of the image of Petersburg emerging from his writings, not only in the mind of his dreamers or of Raskolnikov, or think of the house of Rogozhin or even of the occasional landscapes or individual pictures objectively described by the author, not only seen through the mind of a figure. Similarly the statement that "Dostoevsky's hero is a man of an idea; not a character or temperament, not a social or psychological type" (133) is open to many exceptions. After all, we are told by Dostoevsky in his "Author's Note" that the Underground Man is "one of the representatives of a generation still living." Stefan Trofimovich is expressly called a man of the sixties and his son, Petr, a representative of a new generation of nihilists who descended from their fathers, the Liberals. The Raw Youth is presented as a social type. Dostoevsky even held an elaborate theory of literary typology. Nor is it true that in the novels of Dostoevsky there is "no causality, no genesis, no explications drawn from the past, no influences from surroundings or education" (40). It is sufficient to point to the careful chronology worked out in "The Possessed" to see that this is not always so. One need not accept a simple-minded "reflection of 35 reality" view of art and one cannot deny that he was deeply involved in his place and time, however far he transcended it as an artist of universal appeal. Bakhtin's assertion that Dostoevsky composes in a way never before attempted by "not speaking about the hero but with him" (86), by "removing the hero from his own field of vision," is belied by the evidence of "The

Notebooks" and expressly rejected by Dostoevsky in his review of a play by D. Kishenskij, "Pit' do dna, ne vidat' dobra: "It appears to me," said Dostoevsky, "that it is too little to display all the given qualities of character; rather one should resolutely illuminate it by one's own personal artistic point of view. An artist must not remain on the same level with the characters he depicts."7 It is disconcerting to think that Bakhtin propounded a theory which renders Dostoevsky somehow harmless, neutralizes his teaching, makes him a relativist. Bakhtin even appeals explicitly to Einstein's theory of relativity (361). We know that Bakhtin embraced religion, at least, late in his life and suffered for it. But I don't think that Bakhtin's view of polyphony was motivated by a desire to render Dostoevsky harmless and possibly therefore more acceptable to the authorities when Dostoevsky was under an official cloud. Bakhtin's view rather follows from his commitment to the dogma of "objectivity." It is a mere unargued assumption of his that "if the umbilical cord binding the hero to the creator is not cut then we have before us not a work of art, but a personal document" (68). If you believe that, as Bakhtin apparently does, Proust's "A la recherche du temps perdu" is not a work of art, nor are dozens of great novels, not to speak of most lyrical poetry. The umbilical cord is not cut between Pierre Bezukhov and Konstantin Levin and their author and who would deny that "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina" are great works of art? The dogma also contradicts Bakhtin's own insistence on the tradition of "Menippean satire" into which he wants to fit Dostoevsky's novels. All the great examples he mentions - Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Diderot - know nothing of the dogma "exit author" nor does Dostoevsky, in spite of his efforts to enhance illusion by the devices of drama. It was Bakhtin's feat of scholarship to trace the early history of fiction since antiquity (most fully in a paper published in "Questions"8) to show how the different types and genres such as the Socratic dialogue and the Menippean satire continued through the Middle Ages up to Rabelais, constituting an artform which Northrop Frye much later, quite independently of Bakhtin, called "Anatomy" and claimed as one of the four basic modes of literature.9 Bakhtin's particular contribution was the way he linked this genre or combination of genres not simply with the rise of fiction or with the breakdown of the three levels of style (as Erich Auerbach did in "Mimesis") but with the carnival, the whole unofficial folk culture of the Middle Ages. Bakhtin shows that carnival or rather the attitude implied in the carnival exercised a deep influence on higher literature, a phenomenon he calls "carnivalization." 36

Dostoevsky, Bakhtin argues, revived the tradition of the "Menippean satire" which had gone underground since the 17th century. He singles out a sketch of Dostoevsky published in 1873 in "The Diary of a Writer", "Bobok," as "one of the greatest menippeas in all world literature" (184) and asserts that "the menippea takes root in all of Dostoevsky's larger works and sets the tone for Dostoevsky's entire work" (ibid.) Bakhtin shows very deftly that this scene in a cemetery with the dead talking underground to each other contains many central motifs of Dostoevsky's writings: the relativity and ambivalence of reason and insanity; the theme of the final moments of consciousness; the theme of sensuality which penetrates the loftiest sphere of consciousness and thought; the theme of the total 'impropriety' and 'unseemliness' of a life cast off from its folk roots and from faith, and so on. "Bobok," Bakhtin proclaims, is "one of Dostoevsky's key works, nearly a microcosm of his entire work" (193). This seems to me, however, an indefensible thesis: the sketch strikes me as a by-product, as a jeu d'esprit quite exceptional in tone and technique, setting and mood in Dostoevsky's work. If it uses themes common in Dostoevsky's other novels, they are, for obvious chronological reasons, rather echoes, repetitions of Dostoevsky's ideas formulated long before 1873. I have not found any evidence that Dostoevsky actually knew Lucian or Seneca or any "Menippean satire" in the strict sense 10 but one can grant that "Bobok" belongs vaguely to the genre of the "dialogues of the dead" though those Dostoevsky may have known, Fenelon's and Fontenelle's, are colorless and dull debates in the underworld which in no way anticipate the black humor and macabre atmosphere of Dostoevsky's sketch. Bakhtin's second example of the "menippea" in Dostoevsky is "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" (1877) which is utterly different from "Bobok" and can be assimilated to "Menippean satire" only by declaring that Utopia and dream visions are parts of menippea. It seems to me quite arbitrary to include a dream vision (a device, as Bakhtin knows, used in the most different contexts, in all times and places as dreaming is a universal activity of man) and a Utopia of a golden age in the category "Menippean satire." Bakhtin finds "menippea" everywhere. Raskolnikov's first visit to Sonja is called "an almost perfect Christianised menippea" (208). The dream of Svidrigajlov before his suicide, Ippolit's confession, Stavrogin's confession are all menippeas. The conversation between Ivan and Alesha in the tavern is called a "wonderful menippea." Into this "menippean satire" a second satire, "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor," is inserted and Ivan's conversation with the devil is another menippea. "All of Dostoevsky's work has elements of menippea: the Socratic dialogue, the diatribe, the soliloquy, the confession, and so on" (209). But if dialogue, soliloquy and confession are or belong to menippea, almost every

work of literature can be said to belong to it. Obviously we must not take Bakhtin's term literally: it is an all-inclusive, all-absorbing genre, as Bakhtin's historical survey shows. We are treated to a long list of themes and tones supposedly belonging to the Menippean satire: comic elements, fantasy, symbolism, adventures, philosophical 37 debate, moral experimentation, scandalous scenes, oxymoric combinations, topical references, etc. (152-8) buttressed by an almost as inclusive roster of authors. At the same time the Menippean satire is supposed to combine with the carnivalesque which Bakhtin uses again so loosely that he speaks of the Socratic dialogue (which had no connection with a folk festivity) (176) or even the scene in the Gospels of the crowning of Jesus Christ as King of Jews as "carnivalesque" (181). The carnivalesque is found in almost any author: in Cervantes' "Don Quixote," called "one of the most carnivalesque novels of world literature" (171), in Rabelais, Scarron, Le Sage, Voltaire, Diderot, Sterne, Goethe, E. T. A. Hoffmann, E. A. Poe and others. Bakhtin finally claims that Balzac, George Sand and Hugo "had a profounder carnivalesque attitude toward the world" (213). He seems not to remember that Dostoevsky called "Don Quixote" "the saddest of all books" which can bring man to despair and excites not laughter but tears. 11 It is easy, then, for Bakhtin to find the carnivalesque all over Dostoevsky, as any scandal scene, any mass scene is considered "carnivalesque." Let us grant the carnival tone of the scene in "Uncle's Dream" of the exposure of the decrepit old Prince. We may agree that Dmitrij's orgy at Mokroe has elements of the carnival and so has the feast in "The Possessed." But the term seems to lose all definite meaning applied to the general tone and attitude of Dostoevsky. Bakhtin himself says that "Carnival belongs to the whole people; it liberates from fear, brings the world close to man and man to his fellow man" (214). Almost nothing in Dostoevsky implies a collective rapture or resembles the "joyous relativity" (166) Bakhtin finds in the "carnivalesque." He ignores the deep seriousness, the somber colors of a Dostoevsky novel, even if we grant that there is a bright Utopian hope at the end of the rainbow. But there is nothing in Dostoevsky of Rabelais' corporality, of the lust for life in the ancient saturnalia or the commedia dell'arte.In every way Dostoevsky seems to me to represent the opposite of the carnivalesque spirit. He was a man of deep commitment, profound seriousness, spirituality, and strict ethics whatever his lapses were in his own life.

The trouble with Bakhtin's theories is that he is committed to an almost Platonic or at least "realist" conception of genre. He seems to assume that there is such a thing he calls "menippea" or "the carnivalesque" which enters into all kinds of relationships, transforms itself, combines with other genres but stays the same throughout history. He says, e. g., that the "menippea lives in such dialogized and carnivalized medieval genres as 'arguments, debates', morality and miracle plays and later in the mystery and s o t i e " (182). He believes in the "essence" of a genre (183). He can say that Dostoevsky was working in "the objective memory of the genre" (162), whatever that may mean, and that "the Menippean satire has the capacity of insinuating itself into larger genres" (161) and that it "absorbed the diatribe, the soliloquy and the symposium" (160). I do not agree with the nominalism of Croce but cannot believe in the realism of Bakhtin: "realism" here is used in the medieval sense. Genres, as I have argued long ago, are like institutions; they are conventions, challenges to 38 form, stylistic traditions, but they cannot be anything like an "essence" which subsists, transforms itself, revives and lives in the objective memory. All these reifications in which Bakhtin indulges can be defended only on the grounds of a theory which believes in universalia ante res, instead of what I and most others think of as universalia in rebus. If we look at Dostoevsky's major novels from the point of view of the novelistic tradition we have to come to the conclusion that he cannot be taken out of the main stream of the Western novel, out of the company of Balzac and Dickens, with Gogol the early master. This tradition differs from the other line of the Russian novel: Turgenev, Goncharov, Tolstoj and Chekhov. One can describe Dostoevsky's difference from his immediate predecessors and contemporaries but one cannot isolate him and claim for him an absolute innovation called "the polyphonic novel" nor put him into the continuity of the remote "Menippean satire" or ascribe to him a "carnivalesque" attitude to life. Bakhtin's book has the merit of raising the question of Dostoevsky's dramaticity in a radical manner and suggesting contacts with older genres. But in both cases, he grossly overstated his case. NOTES 1. "Problemy tvorchestva Dostoevskogo" (1929) and "Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo" (1963). The first edition has nothing about Menippean satire and the carnivalesque but devotes a chapter to Dostoevsky's


3. 4. 5.

6. 7. 8.

relation to the adventure novel. In the second edition the discussion of "polyphony" is changed only in details. The page references in parentheses refer to the 1963 edition. In the text the translation by R. W. Rotsei (Ardis, 1973) is quoted. I corrected a mistranslation from p. 182. "Problema soderzhanija, materiala i formy v slovesnom khudozhestvennom tvorchestve" (The Problem of Content, Material and Form in Literary Artistic Creation) in "Voprosy literatury i estetiky" (Moscow, 1975), pp. 6-71. "Werke", ed. A. Arthur Eloesser, Vol. IV, p. 229. Written between 1845 and 1865, the date of the author's death. First published in 1871. "The Anti-nihilism in the Russian Novel of the 1860's" (The Hague, 1964). V. E. Vetlovskaja, "Ritorika i poetika (utverzhdenie i proverzhenie mnenij v Bratjakh Karamazovykh" in "Issledovanija po poetike i stilistike" (Leningrad, 1972), pp. 163-84, and "Otnoshenie avtora k rechi personazhej (Brat'ja Karamazovy)" in "Izvestija Akademii Nauk SSSR, Serija literatury i jazyka," Vol. XXVIII (Moscow, 1969), pp. 328-29. "La Crйation littйraire chez Dostoievski" (Paris, 1978). I owe this quotation to G. M. Fridlender, "Realizm Dostoevskogo" (Moscow, 1964), pp. 190-91. "Iz predistorii romannogo slova" in "Voprosy literatury i estetiky" (Moscow, 1975), pp. 408-46. 39

9. “The Anatomy of Criticism" (Princeton, 1956), passim. 10. Neither the four volumes of Dolinin's edition of Dostoevsky's "Letters" Dostoevskomu" (Moscow, 1922) contains these names. An early letter to Dostoevsky's brother Mikhail (1 January 1840), in “Pisma,” ed. Dolmin, Vol. nor the list of the contents of his library in Leonid Grossman's Seminarii po 1, p. 59, refers briefly to Seneca's drama praising Corneille. "It is good that Corneille took the form of his plan from Seneca." This is obviously secondhand knowledge from a textbook of French literature which shows no knowledge of the "Moralia." 11. In “The Diary of a Writer” (1877), “Dnevnik Pisatelja” (1877), YMCA Press ed., n.d., pp. 341-342.

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