Russian thinker with a novel flair

The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin
October 9, 1998

Born in 1895, Mikhail Bakhtin has had a spectacular influence on modern critical thought, beginning in France in the 1960s. Since then his ideas have proved adaptable to every successive critical wave from structuralism onwards. This stimulating, dense but authoritative study in the history of ideas does not treat this western reception, but follows the development of Bakhtin's thought and writings from their original biographical, literary and intellectual context in the Soviet Union of the 1920s to Bahtkin's near-canonisation by Russian intellectuals in the 1990s.

But although Caryl Emerson is adept at elucidating key Bakhtinian concepts, she has not provided an introduction to Bakhtin. Instead, she concentrates on the response to Bakhtin's critical "word" at various stages of its reception.

The first chapter gives an overview of Bakhtin's re-emergence and current importance in the field of Soviet and post-Soviet literary study. From there Emerson moves back in time to look at the history of Bakhtin's most important writings, offering in the process numerous insights into his politics (monarchist rather than Marxist) and philosophical affiliations (particularly with Kant).

In part two, there is an analysis of individual ideas in the context of the debates of literary scholars in Russia, past and present. Bakhtin's writings on the theory of the novel cannot be divorced from certain of his philosophical views on communication and the psychology of art. His views on literary history and the concept of the Other have provoked incisive criticism from philologists and philosophers. But as Emerson points out with due respect for Bakhtin's better detractors, one source of his power as a humanist scholar lies precisely in his ability to energise discussion in a society that had for much of the 20th century lost the freedom to speak out. These chapters map the reaction to polyphony, dialogism, carnival and "outsidedness" on to the rapidly changing landscape of Russian intellectual life of the post-glasnost period. At times Emerson's concern to capture live dialogue about Bakhtin gives these chapters the character of an eyewitness account from the front. For the historian of Bakhtin's impact, such documentary reporting of conference debate and editorial decisions, together with a certain amount of annotated bibliography, will be of undoubted use.

In the later chapters Emerson surveys the current state of the argument over Bakhtin and carefully reviews individual critical positions. Some readers may possibly feel that there is a price to pay for putting novelistic polyphony into practice in scholarly discourse by letting an army of scholars have their say. Perhaps, being so much inside her subject, and at the centre of what she calls the Bakhtin "industry", has sometimes limited Emerson's range of reference. It seems a pity, for example, that the very full assessments of the Russian bibliography on Bakhtin's theories of carnival have nothing to say about Dmitri Likhachev's book on laughter in medieval Russian culture. Perhaps that connection will form part of Bakhtinian study during the next 100 years.

Andrew Kahn is lecturer in Russian, University of Oxford.

The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin

Author - Caryl Emerson
ISBN - 0 691 06976 X
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 293

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