In the later period of the mainstream Russian formalists’ activity, another school of criticism, led by Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), shared some of their concerns, at the same time attempting to reconcile formalism with a socio-historical approach. Bakhtin’s writings aroused less interest in his active years than they were to receive later on when the time of formalism was long overdue. His stature has risen highest in critical milieus especially in the last 3-4 decades, that is since his studies were published (some of them for the first time) in Soviet Russia and were translated in the main Western languages. It is hard to assess whether his spectacular late career is due in the first place to the innovatory nature of his concepts and critical analyses or to his sensational biography that came to be known to the public as late as the 1960s. Indeed, there were quite a few spicy detective story ingredients attached to it: a bone disease in his youth which led to the amputation of one leg, his internment in a Soviet death camp in the 1930s - a sentence that was then commuted to internal exile, his de facto disappearance from public life for several decades (which may have saved his life during the Stalin years), the discovery by the literary students in the late fifties that the author of the reputable book on Dostoevsky was not dead and lived somewhere in the provinces, his low profile to the very end despite the growing popularity his studies were enjoying.

            Bakhtin did not belong to either of the formalist circles in Soviet Russia, but was claimed by some of their members, including Jakobson, to be in their ranks. In actual fact what his studies do share with formalism is the attempt to define the specific devices which articulate a literary genre as different from others: Bakhtin was first and foremost the theorist of one genre, the novel, which he contrasted with poetry (as in music polyphonic compositions differ from monophonic ones); also he was interested in the literary structure per se, analyzing its dynamic function within the historical traditions, particularly its subversive roles. Yet, his field of inquiry extends well beyond the formalist concerns, as he researched not only the literary language, but also other socio-ideological forms of expression, such as the carnivalesque one. The sweeping cultural preoccupations of this literary theorist and philosopher of language explain why he was described in turns as a formalist, Marxist, phenomenologist, proto-deconstructionist, or even as an orthodox Christian militant by some Slavists.

           Bakhtin could not have been a Marxist proper, although here and there he criticized the formalists for neglecting the sociological factors. His main principles and concepts surpass by far the reductionist determinism of classical Marxist tenets. However he associated himself with two avowed Marxists, Valentin Voloshinov and Pavel Medvedev, and the paternity of several orthodox Marxist articles is hotly disputed even today by commentators between the three authors: one of these studies is a sharp attack against the Formalist School (the 1928 book The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, written either by Medvedev or by Bakhtin), which may have contributed to the definitive banning of the movement.

            Out of Bakhtin’s plentiful and seminal contributions to the philosophy of language and of culture as well as to literary theory we will focus our attention, within the framework of our study, on his insights which are more closely connected with the formalist issues, such as the dialogic mode and the uses of language in prose writings, particularly in the novel .

            In the first phase of his career Bakhtin’s interests were mainly retained by the complex relationships between ethics and aesthetics, between self and other: he propounded a “philosophy of the act” which relied on Kantian categories. His studies written in the second phase of his activity (about 1924-1930) are hallmarked by the discovery of the dialogic potential of the word and the “polyphonic” mode of writing. His cornerstone study, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, came out in 1929.

            In the following two decades, despite the obstacles which life in an entirely ideologized country set before an independent intellectual like Bakhtin, he produced the most substantial concepts for a “prosaic” description of the novel, such as novelistic consciousness and the chronotope. “Discourse in the Novel”, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”, and “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel” were written in that period. THE CHRONOTOPE is Bakhtin’s term for the specific sense of space and time (in other words the social and the historical components) which characterizes every genre, according to its specific ideology. If in the ancient works the social element played a background role, in the novel it has a direct, molding impact upon the characters: they and the society influence and change each other as it happens in actual history, and this accounts for Bakhtin’s interest in the dialogic consciousness of the novel.

            Another direction of investigation which he pursued in the 1930s belongs to the sociology of culture: in Rabelais and His World, a book which could be published only in 1965, Bakhtin celebrated the “joyously ambivalent carnivalesque” mood in Rabelais’s writings, indirectly referring to the life conditions and the constraints in an authoritarian state: this form of social manifestation, having its own norms and rituals, subverts the official ideology, overturns the established hierarchies, mixes up the opposites and provides an escape valve for discontent. Upon literary genres, such as the novel, the carnivalesque mood, with its insistence on body and bodily functions, has a molding effect, resulting in a parodic or grotesque style. Owing to his emphasis on the socially liberating role of laughter and the carnivalesque forms of manifestation, typical of low culture, Bakhtin is claimed today by the advocates of “cultural studies” as one of their predecessors.

            In the last two decades of his life, the Russian scholar revised and added some earlier studies, and returned to the broader philosophical themes of his early writings, extending his concerns to the humanities and the interpretation theory in general.s

            Critics have identified three overall concepts which subsume Bakhtin’s theoretical findings. The first one is PROSAICS, as opposed to poetics: the term, coined by his commentators, describes his mistrust of “theoretism” (i.e. the belief that everything can be explained through wide-ranging systems, such as Saussureanism, Freudianism, Marxism, formalism), the importance he attaches to small, “prosaic” facts of life instead of the dramatic, catastrophic events, and as concerns the novelistic genre, the emphasis he lays on its complexities: the novel cannot be analyzed with reference to tropes, like poetry, but insisting on its dialogic nature. DIALOGUE, the second global term, refers to the fact that authentic consciousness can be revealed only by presenting the interaction of at least two voices: truth resides in conversation rather than in a set of sentences. The third basic concept in Bakhtin’s thought is UNFINALIZABILITY:in dialogic prose the world appropriately appears as an unfinalizable, open, creative space; in his Dostoevsky study Bakhtin states that

  /n/othing conclusive has yet taken place in the world, the ultimate word of the world and about the world has not yet been spoken, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.[1]  

With Bakhtin, not only is the literary work open (Umberto Eco’s opera aperta), or writerly (le texte scriptible, with Roland Barthes), but the world it creates is never to be finished.

            The most seminal finding of Bakhtin’s research as concerns the novel is its polyphonic (or dialogic) nature. In order to understand the meaning in which the Russian scholar used these terms, it is yet necessary to dwell first on the related concept of HETEROGLOSSIA[2](REZNORECHIE). The term “heteroglossia” belongs to linguistic theory, just as “polyphony” does to fictional studies. It is meant to reveal the way in which meaning is produced by discourse through the use of a “social diversity of speech types”, as Bakhtin observes in his renowned 1935 essay “Discourse in the Novel”. [3] There are numberless discursive strata in every language, such as


social dialects, characteristic group behavior, professional jargons, generic languages, languages of generations and age groups, tendentious languages, languages of the authorities, .... languages that serve the specific sociopolitical purposes of the day, even of the hour, for, says Bakhtin, each day has its own slogan, its own vocabulary, its own emphasis. (32)


            It is even possible to speak of a family jargon, with its special vocabulary and its unique accentual system, as in the case of the Irtnevs, in Tolstoy. At any moment in history, language is heteroglot from top to bottom. Bakhtin’s dynamic perspective on language can be described as in vivo, a Romanian scholar has observed, in contradistinction to the in vitro view of the formalists. [4]

                      In “Discourse...” Bakhtin claims that some of the best instances of heteroglossia at work can be found in the English comic novel, where there is a “re-processing of almost all the levels of literary language, both conversational and written, that were current at the time”, (36) from parliamentary eloquence, to the language of the speculators’ dealings. For instance, in one of the excerpts he supplies from Dickens’s Little Dorrit, “the speech of another” (in a highly ceremonious tone) is inserted for the sake of parody into the author’s discourse, in a concealed form, that is without any formal markers such as quotation marks. Bakhtin observes that this is not a mere case of another’s speech in the same language, but “another’s utterance in a language that is itself ‘other’ to the author”. (38)

             He commends mostly those writers and literary forms which exemplify heteroglossia, that is a “Galilean” language consciousness: Dostoevsky as compared with Tolstoy, the novel versus poetry. After a long tradition of prose writings of a monologic type (revealing a “Ptolemaic” consciousness), such as the Greek and chivalric romance, the pastoral, the sentimental novel, heteroglossia, with its subversive and liberating potential, began to be foregrounded in prose with Rabelais and Cervantes, reaching a climax in Dostoevsky’s novels.

             Although the Russian theorist did comment on the place of heteroglossia in the novelistic genre, the proper term that describes the dialogic nature of the novel is POLYPHONY (a concept derived from music) or DIALOGISM as such. Actually heteroglossia is a linguistic reality, whereas polyphony is just a possible (and desirable) fictional mode, to be contrasted with the monologic one. The first detailed references to novelistic polyphony appeared in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics; yet Bakhtin reformulated the concept several times in his studies.

             Polyphonic novels, such as Dostoevsky’s, make up a new novelistic genre, according to the Russian theorist’s initial views. In this kind of fiction the reader hears several contesting voices, which are not subject to an attempt at unification on the author’s part: these voices are engaged in a dialogue in which no point of view is privileged, no final word is heard. The author stands on the same level as his heroes, relinquishing his “surplus of vision”. He knows nothing more than they do and may be surprised by their words at any point:


Dostoevsky brings into being not voiceless slaves ... but free people, capable of standing alongside their creator, capable of not agreeing with him and even of rebelling against him,


states Bakhtin. [5] Conversely, in monologic novels, such as Tolstoy’s, the general perspective is solely the author’s one, and the characters’ points of view are orchestrated in accordance with his positions. (We can notice that there is a slight resemblance between Tomashevsky’s concept of skaz in the narrative, and Bakhtin’s polyphony.)

             In the polyphonic, non-Aristotelian plot, despite the plurality of independent and unmerged consciousnesses, the unity of "the given event” (5) is preserved, but this is a dialogic unity, based on the coexistence of spiritual diversity. The dialogic process is basically unfinalizable, unlike the closed product of the monologic whole: each thought of Dostoevsky’s heroes looks like a rejoinder in a never-ending tense debate.

             One particular aspect of polyphony is DOUBLE-VOICING - a case when in a single utterance two voices are meant to be heard as interacting: the words should be understood as if they were spoken with quotation marks. This mode of speaking reflects the fact that, according to Bakhtin, the language of communication is never free from the intentions of the other people socially involved in an event. Single-voiced verbal constructions can be found only in professional discourse, not in rhetorical or fictional language. In the cases of passive double-voicing the two voices may seem to be in agreement or in disagreement (as in parodic speech); when resistance or tension between them appear, the double-voicing is active: such is the status of the “word with a loophole”, in which there is included a statement, its rebuttal, the response to the rebuttal, and so on, possibly ad infinitum.

             EMBEDDING is a specific type of double-voicing form, in which the hero’s perspective on himself is infiltrated by “someone else’s words about him”.(209) Bakhtin illustrates this with a scene from Dostoevsky’s novel, Poor People, in which the protagonist is writing a letter to a woman, confessing he lives in a kitchen; his “sideward glance” and his recoiling as he thinks about her negative reaction to this embarrassing news are easy to imagine: his discourse is penetrated by the words of another and therefore it becomes distorted.

             If in Problems... Bakhtin claimed that Dostoevsky was the creator of the polyphonic novel, later on he slightly altered his views, stating that dialogism is more or less present in all novels, especially in those imbued with a carnivalesque mood. Thus in “Discourse...”, he defined the novel as “a diversity of social speech types, sometimes even diversity of languages and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized”.(32) There is polyphony even in some non-fictional prose, such as the early Platonic dialogues where Socrates appears not so much as the teacher, the owner of truth, but rather as a kind of grotesque midwife, one who incites to dialogue in order to search for truth. Or in satires such as the Menippean ones, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, and so forth.

             In its general sense, then, polyphony is not only a technical characteristic of the novel (related, yet not restricted to, the notion of dramaticism), but also a principle of the creative process and of moral philosophy, owing to its implications of unfinalizability.

             The Bakhtinian concept has made a significant career in the last decades. Contemporary critics have used the term mainly to refer to the modernist and postmodern fiction (Julia Kristeva, for instance), but others (such as David Lodge) have rightfully argued that polyphonic elements can also be found in realistic prose. Some feminists have appropriated it in reference to l’écriture féminine, and connections between the notion of dialogic speech and psychoanalytical or deconstructive approaches have also been established. Some even claim to discern a particular critical approach of late, DIALOGICAL CRITICISM, inspired by such concerns of Bakhtin’s as the polyphonic heterogeneity of the discourse, and the function of subversive, carnivalesque elements in prose narratives. Tzvetan Todorov, for instance, has made use of these concepts in La conquête de l’Amérique (1982), a study of the dialogue between the European, colonizing voices and the Indians’ colonized ones. [6]

[1]   M. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 166.

[2]   From Gk. heteros (other, different), and glossa (tongue, language).

[3]   M. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel”, in  J. Rivkin, M. Ryan, Literary Theory, 32. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[4]   Mihaela Irimia, The Stimulating Difference ..., 75.

[5]   Problems ..., 6. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

[6]   Todorov is, moreover, the author of a book dedicated to dialogism: Mikhail Bakhtin: Le principe dialogique (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1981).

Go to Contents 1. Russian Formalism: The Systemic Nature of Literariness 2. The New Criticism, or Formalism with a Human Face
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