26 April 2010

Mikhail Bakhtin: The Man


Although I am early for his birthday and late for the anniversary of his repose, recent comments have led me to a decision to write a post or two on the Russian philosopher and literary critic, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975). According to Alexandar Mihailovic, ‘In both Russia and the West, Bakhtin has become a revered figure, an almost mythic sage whose gnomic utterances have been pored over with a talmudic zeal.’ [1] Yet many Orthodox Christians, even intellectuals with an interest not only in theology but in literature and philosophy, remain unfamiliar with him. This despite the fact that, as Mihailovic argues, ‘Bakhtin’s own dialogue with the philosophical legacy of Orthodoxy’ is ‘instrumental in shaping the spirit of dialogism that almost all scholars agree is the enduring idea of his work.’ [2] I shall offer first an overview of his life, taken from Tzvetan Todorov’s brief but rigourous study, and then discuss very briefly his relationship to Orthodoxy, biographical and intellectual. I shall reserve a real discussion of Bakhtin’s thought for a second post. First, Todorov:

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was born in 1895 in Orel, in an impoverished aristocratic family; his father was a bank clerk. He spent his childhood in Orel, and his adolescence in Vilnius and Odessa. He studied philology at the University of Odessa and later in Petrograd, graduating in 1918. He taught elementary school, first in the small provincial town of Nevel’ (1918-1920), and then, after 1920, in Vitebsk, where he was married in 1921. In Nevel’, a first circle of friends was formed; it included Valerian Nikolaevich Voloshinov . . . , a poet and musicologist; Lev Vasilievich Pumpian’ski . . ., a philosopher and literary scholar; the pianist M.B. Yudina . . . ; the poet B.N. Zubakin . . . ; and the philosopher Matvei Isaevich Kagan . . . . The last-named began to play the role of initiator; he had just returned from Germany, where he had studied philosophy in Leipzig, Berlin, and Marburg; he was a disciple of Hermann Cohen, and had attended Cassirer’s lectures. Kagan organized an initial informal group that took on the name of ‘Kantian Seminar’. In addition to this private activity, the members of the circle participated in public debates and gave formal talks. . . .

After Bakhtin’s move (and Kagan’s departure, first for Petrograd and the[n] Orel), the circle reformed in Vitebsk, with Voloshinov and Pumpian’ski as well as some new additions: the critic Pavel Nikolaevich Medvedev . . . ; the musicologist I.I> Sollertinski; the painter Marc Chagall belongs to the same milieu. Bakhtin taught literature and aesthetics. Afflicted since 1921 with a chronic osteomyelitis that eventually required the amputation of a leg in 1938, Bakhtin returned to Petrograd in 1924 where he took up again with his friends Voloshinov, Pumpian’ski, and Medvedev. A third circle was formed; it included this time the poet N. Klinev; the novelist K. Vaginov; the Indic scholar M. Tubianski; the musicologist I. Tubianski; and the biologist and historian of science I. Kanaev. The ‘Kantian Seminar’ resumed its activities. Bakhtin supported himself from odd jobs. In 1929 he published a book: The Problems of Dostoevsky’s Work; it is known that an early version, probably quite different from the published one, had been completed as early as 1922. In the same year, 1929, Bakhtin was arrested, for reasons that remain unknown but were most likely related to his ties with Orthodox Christianity. It was indeed for such a reason that his friend Pumpian’ski was arrested in 1928; in 1926, writing to Kagan, who lived then in Moscow, he described the meetings of the circle thus: ‘All these years, and especially this one, we have kept busy dealing with theology. . . .’. Bakhtin was condemned to five years in a concentration camp to be spent in Solovki; for health reasons, however, his sentence was commuted to exile in Kazakhstan. From 1930 on he worked at clerical jobs in various institutions in the small town of Kustanaj on the border of Siberia and Kazakhstan. In 1936 he was given an appointment to the Teachers’ College at Saransk. In 1937, he settled in Kimr, some hundred kilometers from Moscow, where he taught Russian and German in the local secondary school. Occasionally, he participated in the workings of the Literary Institute of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He returned to Saransk Teachers’ College in 1945 and remained there until his retirement in 1961. His book on Dostoevsky, somewhat enlarged was republished in 1963. The book on Rabelais, actually a thesis completed in 1940 but defended, with many a difficulty, in 1946, finally appeared in 1965. His health declining, Bakhtin settled in Moscow in 1969. The last years of his life were spent in a retirement home in Klimovsk near Moscow. He died in March 1975, at the age of eighty; his funeral followed Orthodox rites. [3]

Concerning Bakhtin’s published works, a brief note explaining one much-debated question is in order. In the 1970s a close follower stated that Bakhtin was the real author of a number of works of the 1920s which had been published under the names of his friends Voloshinov and Medvedev. I won’t go into all of the details, but suffice to say that there is reason to believe there may be some truth to this, but the matter is very complex and likely cannot be resolved conclusively. When citing these works, Todorov proposed a convention to express the openness of the question: using the name under which they were published followed by a slash and Bakhtin’s name. [4] I like this a great deal, and used it myself in my big paper on Dostoevsky years ago.

Todorov mentions the probability of Bakhtin’s having been arrested for ‘his ties to Orthodox Christianity’, and there are some interesting connections to be noted here. Although he left off open religious activities and statements after his arrest, Bakhtin was associated during the early years after the Revolution with some of the circles of religious intellectuals that were active at that time. In their intellectual biography of Bakhtin, Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist note his connection to, though not necessarily membership in, such groups as Voskresenie (one of the leaders of which was George Fedotov), the Brotherhood of St Sophia, and Volfila. [5] But it is interesting to note that Bakhtin was actually charged, though it was later dropped, with being a member of the Brotherhood of St Seraphim of Sarov. [6] This Brotherhood was influenced by Fr Pavel Florensky, founded by Sergei Askoldov, a good friend of the New Martyr Fr Theodore Andreyev, and included among its members Ivan Mikhailovich Andreyev, who later taught at Jordanville. [7] Most of these men were also members of the Catacomb Church under the New Martyr Metropolitan Joseph of Leningrad, which bravely resisted Sergianism.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that Clark and Holquist are largely correct when they write that ‘Bakhtin was never a conventional Russian Orthodox in the sense of conforming to an organized religion’, but rather ‘a religious intellectual from the Orthodox tradition’. [8] He was very much along the lines of Solovyov and the latter's heirs in the Paris emigration. Clark and Holquist compare Bakhtin’s views to those of Fedotov and Fr Florensky, though he is found to be even less Orthodox than they are, and on the other hand they engage in an odd description of the limits of Bakhtin’s reverence for the ‘patron Saint’ of liberal Russian religious philosophers—St Seraphim of Sarov. As Fedotov once wrote, ‘[For this] generation of the Orthodox Renaissance, the last before the Revolution . . . St Seraphim was the prophet of the expected revelation of the Holy Spirit and the forerunner of the new form of spirituality which should succeed merely ascetical monasticism’. [9] Thus, according to Ruth Coates, Bakhtin ‘would refer to Seraphim as his “heavenly protector”’. [10]

Another brief point of dispute is Bakhtin’s relationship to Marxism. Fr Anthony Ugolnik writes that conversations with Bakhtin's ‘colleagues and contemporaries . . . revealed that to the end of his life Bakhtin was a confirmed socialist’. [11] But on the other hand, Mihailovic quotes acquaintances of Bakhtin as saying that he was ‘always categorically opposed to Marxism’ and that, in his own words, ‘I am not a Marxist [and] was never interested in Marxism in the slightest’. [12] In an analogue to the issue of Christianity and Orthodoxy in Bakhtin, critics dispute the importance of Marxism to his work.

Continued here.


[1] Alexandar Mihailovic, Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theology of Discourse (Evanston, IL: Northwestern U, 1997), p. 1.

[2] Ibid., p. 16.

[3] Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, tr. Wlad Godzich, Vol. 13 of Theory & History of Literature (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1984), pp. 3-5.

[4] Ibid., p. 11.

[5] Katerina Clark & Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1984), pp. 120-42.

[6] Ibid., p. 142.

[7] On these connections, besides Clark & Holquist, see Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), ‘Ivan Michailovich Andreyev: True Orthodox Convert from the Russian Intelligentsia’, Orthodox Apologetic Theology, by I.M. Andreyev, tr. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995), pp. 20-8. Unfortunately, however, Fr Seraphim was probably unaware of Bakhtin and makes no mention of him.

[8] Clark & Holquist, p. 120.

[9] George P. Fedotov, ed., A Treasury of Russian Spirituality (Vaduz: Büchervertriebsanstalt, 1988), p. 146. I have noted before the very perceptive comments on this statement in Ruth Coates’s fascinating article, ‘Bakhtin & Hesychasm’:

Fedotov’s description of the reception of Seraphim by the religious intelligentsia rings true, and betrays the arrogance and ignorance of that generation: so far from being the forerunner of a new form of spirituality, Seraphim was in his time the latest representative of an ancient tradition of Eastern Christian spirituality, a practising hesychast whose spiritual authority as a starets, or elder, derived from his direct mystical knowledge of God through prayer, as opposed to his position in the institutional Church’s hierarchy. Moreover, so far from succeeding ascetical monasticism, Seraphim was a hieromonk . . . who maintained close links with the monastery to which he was attached, in keeping with the hesychasts of old, and who continued to take part in the sacramental life of the Church. (Ruth Coates, ‘Bakhtin & Hesychasm’, Religion & Literature 37.3 [Autumn 2005], pp. 61-2.)

[10] Ibid., p. 60.

[11]Fr Anthony Ugolnik, The Illuminating Icon (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 159.

[12] Mihailovic, p. 3.

5 comments:

River Cocytus said...

With the glossia stuff - monoglossia, polyglossia, etc... I was ruminating this morning and I thought of dreams, and how generally dreams are kind of 'single voiced' in that the people in dreams are just complex ideas of those people you have in your mind. But every once in awhile, you have a dream where it feels like they are true 'others' - the dream is actually somehow being shared by more than one being.

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

Thank you for these labors of love - this is probably the third comment I've attempted, but many distractions have led to multiple deletions. Perhaps most intriguing to me is the observation by Clark and Holquist regarding Bakhtin as "a religious intellectual from the Orthodox tradition" - as far as I know, we have no record to indicate conventional piety on his part. Rather, he was deeply habituated to various streams which shape the mind of the Church and employed these with great creativity and insight in his critical work. I have my reservations about the Paris school and all that, but nonetheless have labored to separate the wheat from the chaff and appreciate some of their work. Not everyone who appreciates some of Bulgakov's homiletical insights becomes devoted to Sophiology! So also with Bakhtin - clearly he was deeply influenced by Western Modernism in many ways, and yet not imprisoned in the ethos of the Enlightenment. And St Seraphim as the patron saint of liberal Russian philosophers? God bless Ruth Coates for reorienting that observation! Perhaps another example of a pre-modern traditionalist being misconstrued as a hip post-modernist!

Christ is Risen!

Fr M

aaronandbrighid said...

River> Yes, this reminds me of Bakhtin's comment about Raskolnikov that his consciousness 'teems with the consciousness of others'.

Fr Mark> Thank you very much. Obviously, I wrote these for those who have little to know familiarity with Bakhtin, so it's nice to get an appreciative comment from a fellow Bakhtinian!

The more I read of Clark & Holquist (sometime during my junior year of college, probably), the more disappointed I became with the nature of Bakhtin's Orthodoxy. But such seem to be the facts. At least he kept his faith through persecution & years of consignment to negligible posts, & was finally sent off with an Orthodox funeral.

As for Ruth Coates's observation, I nearly let out a 'whoo-hoo' when I first read it! And she's not even Orthodox.

brittany_paige said...

Thank you so much for your posts on Bakhtin--as a budding Bakhtin scholar, it was wonderful to read a summary of his ideas from drawn from so many of the best resources on him. In regards to your comment about being disappointed by Clark & Holquist's conclusion of his Orthodoxy--I think it is certainly clear that we will likely never have conclusive answers to the question of his 'conventional piety.' However, I think the deeply Orthodox nature of much of his projects--his rejection of much of Kant, his love of Dostoevsky, his commitment to the work of art as a event in which we learn to love the Other--is irrefutable, and moreover, much clearer in the Russian than the English. Alas, while Clark and Holquist have done an excellent translation of him in many regards, there is a growing camp of Slavicists that agree that the English Bakhtin is a writer corresponding to late 20th century literary theory in a way that the Russian Bakhtin hardly does. While my own Russia is still under construction (at least for the task of Bakhtin's nearly impenetrable early works), I think the work of A. Mikhailovic and others will start to show how translation--as much as interpretation--has obscured (the Russian) Bakhtin's Orthodox temperament.

aaronandbrighid said...

Brittany> Thank you for your kind words! It is unfortunate that my Russian is not strong enough to read someone as challenging as Bakhtin, or the vast Russian scholarship on him. But I hope what I have done points readers in the right direction.