Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Bakhtin as a Literary Critic: A Sad Joke of History

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Second Edition) just came out. It's a huge volume of 2,500 pages that offers selections from the writings of 150 major theorists of literature. Many changes have been made since the first edition, and for the most part, these changes are welcome. Sometimes, the editors go a little overboard in their wish to be less Eurocentric in their selection of important theorists, but overall, this is a useful volume. In an ideal world, graduate students in literature programs would get this book as a welcoming gift from their universities on their first day of grad school.

One thing that I always ask myself when I see such anthologies, though, is when will Mikhail Bakhtin stop being included in them as a legitimate literary critic. Bakhtin is a tragic and, in many ways, truly admirable scholar. He worked hard to preserve the possibility that people of the Soviet Union would have a chance to hear the names of Cervantes, Rabelais, and other major European writers. Bakhtin realized that the only way to save these authors from being blacklisted by the Soviet censors was by attaching some ridiculous pro-Soviet interpretation of their works. He managed to "prove" that these writers were proto-Communists of sorts, and as a result, we had a chance to read their works.

Bakhtin wrote at a time when there was hardly anything more dangerous in the Soviet Union than being a scholar in the Humanities. By origins, he belonged to the Russian nobility, and his father managed a bank before the revolution of 1917. During the years of Stalin's rule, Bakhtin was accused of participating in a clandestine movement of the Russian Orthodox Church. Anybody who has any familiarity with the history of Stalinism must realize that all these things mean that Bakhtin lived in a mortal fear for his life.

We can hardly blame a person for creating highly ideological works of criticism to save his life. This is obviously what Bakhtin did. So it seems like some kind of a nasty joke when people quote Bakhtin's theories as legitimate criticism. We will do a greater honor to this tragic figure by recognizing the degree of coercion to which he was subjected on a daily basis. Time has come to let Bakhtin rest in peace.

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

Or to discuss the subtexts as an exercise in interpreting the writing of someone under the constraints of political correctness in a totalitarian state.