Friday, April 12, 2019

Bakhtin the Future

Yeah. That title isn’t like the pun that’s so bad you enjoy groaning. It’s just bad. I thought about finding a pun on the antiseptic spray, but even after watching some ridiculous old commercials on Youtube, I came up with nothing. So we’re left with this one.

Which at least connects Bakhtin with broad notions of time. I’ll let you look up all the biographical information on Makhail Bakhtin that you’d like. For my purposes, I put him on my reading list because he was a literary critic with a musical metaphor at the front of his most famous observation about novels. And as it turns out, that observation has everything to do with broad outlines of time.

I chose The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays to put on my plan because it sounded like a shortish introduction to Bakhtin’s literary theories. As it turns out, though, each essay was about as long as I thought the whole book would be. But I read the introduction and first essay completely and skimmed the rest and felt that I learned exactly what I was hoping to learn. Bakhtin’s main points are these:
(1) While the epic is a settled genre, the novel is constantly critiquing itself and evolving.
(2) The novel includes multiple types of language.
(3) The novelist lets characters speak for themselves in “polyphony” without always judging or correcting their views.
(4) The novel historically springs from humans laughing at themselves.
The first point seemed immediately obvious to me, but the details quickly became fresh and exciting. What intrigued me most was Bakhtin’s recursive analysis: the epic is a fixed genre about a story and values that are themselves fixed, while the ever-evolving novel is about characters who evolve and readers who evolve with them. With remarks like these, I gained a lot of insight during most of Bakhtin’s comparison of epic and novel.

I couldn’t quite go along with him, though, when he said that the epic’s fixed past is completely separated from us – that we neither trace lines to it nor wish to be in it. Let’s consider just a few prominent examples. Bakhtin says an epic is about origin stories: could we agree then to include among epics The Iliad, The Aeneid, Genesis, and Tolkien’s The Silmarillion? Bakhtin explicitly included the first three, and I think I can add the fourth by his definitions. All of these suggest links to our historical timeline. Many Greek and Roman families firmly believed they were descended from characters – whether human or divine – found in the poems of Homer and Virgil. Genesis (along with subsequent books of the Bible) uses genealogies to connect the reader to the record of nonepic histories. And Tolkien had a whole vision of geological cataclysms that turned Middle Earth into Europe and tried on multiple occasions to incorporate the medieval European Aelfwine into the narrative thread as the preserver and translator of the ancient books. Doesn’t the concept of origin story in fact come with its own connection? Such tales tell the origins of things the reader is familiar with: the earthly dominance of the Greeks and then the Romans, the existence of the earth and its inhabitants, the traveling motion of the morning star. (Ah! Eärendil, sailing the skies with the Silmaril upon thy brow!) And as for wanting to be there: I guess I wouldn’t want to be Hector getting dragged around Troy, but I would love to walk the streets of Priam’s city before the war, to see ancient Egypt in operation, and to rest under the light of the trees of the Eldar.

I’ll lump the second, third, and fourth points together and say that none of them made complete sense to me until Bakhtin started presenting concrete examples, which came, not from Dostoevsky as I expected, but from Dickens’s Little Dorrit. If Bakhtin's look at my favorite author made sense to me, clearly he must have been right about everything! He showed, with many familiar examples, Dickens’s narration flowing smoothly in and out of political cant, indirect quotations of “Society,” the language of advertisements, and more. He showed characters speaking in different socio-economic dialects, each representing a different view and set of values. He showed characters quoting each other, the same words carrying new connotations when placed in the mouth of another. And as the demonstration rose higher and higher, the master metaphor of polyphony became more and more perfect. I thought often of Palestrina quoting and reshaping a phrase of chant and then quoting his own new melody over and over in a thickening texture until (in my particular imagined example) five voices all sang together, each with distinct contour and rhythm, but all contributing to a single composition.

I love novels. I love to think about the genre developing over time. I love to follow the arcs of characters who grow with events. I love to think about how novels have shaped my own life. And I love to speculate how the genre, the characters, and myself might change in the future. Now Bakhtin’s views will help me with all that thinking, so maybe today’s title wasn’t so bad.

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