Sunday, April 12, 2009

1935: “Discourse in the Novel” by Mikhail Bakhtin

The Author: Mikhail M. Bakhtin
Born in Orel, Russia in 1895, Bakhtin earned a degree in classics from the University of Petrograd in 1918 in the city (later Leningrad, now St. Petersburg) where Vladimir Lenin and his followers overthrew the Russian czar and installed a Communist government in 1917. After spending five years working as a teacher in western Russia (now Belarus), Bakhtin returned to Leningrad, and was imprisoned there in 1929 for alleged antigovernment activity. After spending six years in exile in Kazhakstan (recently made famous by Borat). Bakhtin moved to a small town north of Moscow in 1937, While there the worsening condition of the bone disease in his right leg forced doctors to amputate it. After World War II, Bakhtin joined the faculty at the Mordovian Pedagogical Institute in Saransk (391 miles southeast of Moscow) and completed a dissertation on Rabelais that championed the disruptive power of those "forms of unofficial culture (the early novel among them) that resist official culture, political oppression, and totalitarian order through laughter, parody and 'grotesque realism.'" (Leitch et al, 1187)

Considered by some to be "the greatest twentieth-century theorist of literature," Bakhtin produced much of his groundbreaking work in the 20s, 30s and 40s (including his dissertation), but many of these writings were not published until the 1960s. (1187) Bakhtin was just beginning to gain international reknown when he died in Moscow in 1975.

The Text: "Discourse in the Novel"
Written in 1934 and 1935 while Bakhtin was in exile in Kazakhstan, working as a bookkeeper,"Discourse in the Novel" was not published until 1973. In this essay, Bakhtin challenges the notion--he calls it "monological"--that authors can control their discourse and celebrates the contradiction, conflict and doubt produced by the dialogical quality of the novel.

"The novel can be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized. 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 . . . this internal stratification present in every languages at any given moment of its historical existence is the indispensable prerequisite for the novel as a genre." (1192) [The image at left, "babble" by Karen Rhiner, was given the Juror's Choice award, in a juried exhibition at San Diego Art Institute in July 2004.]

"And throughout the entire development of the novel, its intimate interaction (both peaceful and hostile ) with living thetorical genres (journalistic, moral, philosophical, and others) has never ceased; this interaction was perhaps no less intense than was the novel's interaction with the artistic genres (epic, dramatic, lyric). But in this uninterrupted interrelationship, novelistic discourse preserved its own qualitative uniqueness and was never reducible to rhetorical discourse." (1197)

"It is possible to give a concrete, detailed analysis of any utterance, once having exposed it as a contradiction-ridden, tension-filled unity of two embattled tendencies in the life of language." (1199)

"A literary work has been conceived by stylistics as if it were a hermetic and self-sufficient whole, one whose elements constitute a closed system presuming nothing beyond themselves, no other utterances. . . . Should we imagine the work as a rejoinder in a given dialogue, whose style is determined by its interrelationship with other rejoinders in the same dialogue (in the totality of the conversation)--then traditional stylistics does not offer an adequate means for approaching such a dialogized style. . . . Stylistics locks every stylistic phenomenon into the monologic context of a given self-sufficient and hermetic utterance, imprisoning it, as it were, in the dungeon of a single context; it is not able to exchange messages with other utterances; it is not able to realize its own stylistic implications in a relationship with them; it is obliged to exhaust itself in its own single hermetic context." (1201) [The depiction at right of St. Paul the Hermit, was painted in 1640 by Jose de Ribera.]

". . . this orientation toward unity [by traditional linguistics, stylistics and the philosophy of language] has compelled scholars to ignore all the verbal genres (quotidian, rhetorical, artistic-prose) that were the carriers of the decentralizing tendencies in the life of language ..." (1201)
"In the actual life of speech, every concrete act of understanding is active: it assimilates the word to be understood into its own conceptual system filled with specific objects and emotional expressions, and is indissolubly merged with the response, with a motivated agreement or disagreement. To some extent, primacy belongs to the response, as the activating principle: it creates the ground for understanding, it prepares the ground for an active and engaged understanding. Understanding comes to fruition only in the response." (1206)

“…there are no ‘neutral words and forms . . . All words have the ‘taste’ of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions.” (1214)

“The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!) but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one’s own. And not all words for just anyone submit equally easily to this appropriation, to this seizure and transformation into private property; many words stubbornly resist, others remain alien, sound foreign in the mouth of the one who appropriated them and who now speaks them; they cannot be assimilated into his context and fall out of it; it is as if they put themselves in quotation marks against the will of the speaker. Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process.” (1215)

“… an illiterate peasant, miles away from any urban center, naively immersed in an unmoving and for him unshakable everyday world, nevertheless lived in several language systems: he prayed to God in one language (Church Slavonic), sang songs in another, spoke to his family in a third and, when he began to dictate petitions to the local authorities through a scribe, he tried speaking yet a fourth language (the official-literate language, ‘paper’ language). All these are different languages . . . But these languages were not dialogically coordinated in the linguistic consciousness of the peasant; he passed from one to the other without thinking, automatically: each was indisputably in its own place, and the place of each was indisputable.” (1216)

“Diversity of voices and heteroglossia enter the novel and organize themselves within it into a structured artistic system. This constitutes the distinguishing feature of the novel as a genre.” (1219)

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