Summary on Mikhail Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics
FR 511 – Bakhtin (Day one) Summary The subject of our October 29th lecture was Mikhail Bakhtin and his text “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. ” To start the class, Dr. Wall reminded us that Laura talked about polyphony in her presentation the week before, and that that was where we would start the lecture on Bakhtin. To help the class better understand the concept of polyphony, we were shown a piece of music written by Bach: “No. 4 of 6 little preludes. ” In the piece, the right hand was singing something completely different than the left hand. There were in fact two completely different melodies happening at the same time.
We were told that, in Romantic music, there is one central melody, and the other instruments are there solely to accompany it. Their job is to reinforce the melody. But with older music, we see that it is possible to have more than one melody at a time, sometimes even four or five. You can listen to one melody at time or both at once, etc. This example of polyphony in music is basically a metaphor for the way that Bakhtin understood Dostoevsky. In classical literature, the text is dominated mainly by the voice of the narrator, and everything else simply reinforces what the narrator has to say.
With Dostoevsky, this is not the case. That is the first important point to remember in understanding Dostoevsky’s poetics. According to Bakhtin (not Amy), Dostoevsky is the author of the first polyphonic novel. At this point Dr. Wall stated that Dostoevsky is really just a foil and that other authors could be substituted (Diderot for example). Again, coming back to the first main point in understanding Dostoevsky’s poetics (or Diderot, etc. ), one has to imagine a type of literature where the narrators voice is no longer all powerful and no longer dominates the entire text.
Furthermore, Russian orthodox theology also had an influence on Bakhtin. In the same way that God created man to have free will, the author creates the literary character to have his own free will. In fact, one of the great splits in Christianity is over the doctrine of free will. Some believe that whether or not you will enter heaven after you die is not determined by you, but rather by fate or God, etc. On the other hand, there is the doctrine of free will which basically states that when God created man, he gave him the ability to be “bad” and to have his own free will, even if it destroys him.
This is the same idea as the literary character being free to disobey the author. The underground man is an example of the free will of the literary character. He contradicts everything, he says one and one makes three. From there, we talked about the importance of multiple voices in a novel. These other voices in are just as significant as the narrator, and can even at times contradict what the narrator says. This is what Bakhtin calls the Copernican revolution. Evidently, Copernicus knew that the earth revolves around the sun.
So what Bakhtin is saying is that the narrator is no longer the centre of the novel, but that there can be multiple centres. The second important point to know in order to understand Dostoevsky’s poetics is the concept of dialogism. Dialogism refers to the idea that in every utterance, there are other utterances that you may or may not hear, but that you have to learn to listen to. To illustrate this point, Dr. Wall started with the example of European languages such as German where you often use the second person to speak to yourself. An example is when Dr.
Wall says, “Great move Anthony. ” Bakhtin says that when we speak, there’s always a “tu” out there. Whether it is explicit or not, language is always a dialog. From there, we talked about how, for Bakhtin, language does not belong to anyone. The words we use to express ourselves are not our own, we are just one voice amongst the millions that language is. When we learn a language, we learn it from other people. When you express yourself, you are expressing yourself in a language that you borrowed from someone else. Naturally there will be traces of that someone else in what you say.
It is crucial to remember that in your own desire to express yourself, there are other voices inhabiting your own voice. Not just the words, but the whole idea of discourse. It is in the flow and use of language. When you hear a single utterance, you can sometimes here the other utterances that are hidden, or the traces that were there before. And when you speak, all of these voices are going on at the same time, like an orchestra. So in a polyphonic novel, underneath the words you read, you have to learn to listen to the other voices that are hidden.
So concerning this idea of dialogism, Bakhtin is interested in the interaction between voices, but not in dialog itself. For this reason, he hates theatre and lyrical poetry. He believes that they cover up what is really happening underneath. Theatre for him is too explicit because the actor is given one specific role or one single voice to play. This takes away the resonance that you have in a polyphonic novel. Another important point is that, for Bakhtin, the coexistence of multiple languages is crucial for the birth of the modern novel.
He grew up in Russia where about four languages were spoken in the same community, so he was very much interested in the phenomenon of periods of time where more than one language were spoken in the same community. After the break, we looked at specific examples from Bakhtin’s text. On page 197, he writes about the idea of hidden dialogicality. In other books he gives the example of a telephone conversation where you can only hear one half of what is being said. Even though you can only hear one person speaking, you have a pretty good chance of reconstructing what the other person is saying.
There are an incredible amount of words out there, and the actual sound prevents you from hearing the invisible sounds. The second necessity for the birth of the modern novel according to Bakhtin is silent reading. The most important characteristic of polyphonic prose is that it is meant to be read silently. For Bakhtin, when you read out loud, you are obliged to choose only one voice. Therefore, the other voices get lost. He encourages you to read a passage multiple times in order to hear all of the voices that are present. Parody is also a prime example for Bakhtin.
You think you are hearing a single voice, but there are actually at least two: the original and the parody. He says that that is what a great novel does all of the time, as opposed to theatre that he believes is more of a dialog. Of course, he was not familiar with modern theatre where actors play multiple roles. On page 187, Bakhtin writes about direct referentially oriented discourse. He explains that meaning for him (and Saussure as well) does not come from the referential relationships of what we say, but rather because other people have said it. In other words, everything we try to think about has already been said “15 times” before.
Then on page 195, we discussed the fact that when you hear a sound, it is physically not the same when you hear it alone as when you hear it with other sounds. It is the same thing with coulour. When you take it out of its context, it becomes artificial. Dr. Wall then gave the example of Obama versus Romney, and how they would twist the other person’s words to have a different perspective. The same thing is happening in the literary text and in regular discourse as well. For example, when someone says “the wall is such a beautiful shade of green” someone else might respond “beautiful shade of green!? The meaning of the utterance changes because of the question, but you hear the first statement at the same time. We concluded the lecture with this idea of the importance of the notion of the utterance. This helps us to understand that repeating utterances either adds or takes away from them. It is possible to repeat a word, but not an utterance. The repetition of madness for example, changes when you repeat it as an utterance (with the time period for example). The last thing mentioned was that, even with a machine meaning changes due to the simple fact that the utterance has been repeated. Joey Pihrag