Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Reading :: Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (second reading)

Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics
By Mikhail Bakhtin

I posted my original review of this book 15 years ago. In my recent reading, I took supplemental notes that focused on Bakhtin's dialogism as opposed to Engelsian and Stalinist dialectics. These notes are in Kindle, so I won't provide page numbers.

Bakhtin tells us early on that "A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky's novels" and what unfolds in his novels is "a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world" (his emphasis). Dostoevsky sought to destroy the monological European novel. Criticizing previous literary critics' characterization of Dostoevsky, Bakhtin argued that "In their attempt to squeeze the artist's demonstrated plurality of consciousness into the systematically monologic framework of a single worldview, these researchers were forced to resort to either antimony or dialectics," resulting in the gravitation toward a single authorial consciousness. Indeed, the relationships among the characters "are the last thing that can be reduced to thesis, antithesis, and synthesis." Nor are these novels to be "understood as the dialectical evolution of the spirit," which, "understood in Hegelian terms, can give rise to nothing but a philosophical monologue."

Indeed, for Dostoevsky, "in every voice he could hear two contending voices"—"But none of these contradictions and bifurcations ever became dialectical." "They were, rather, spread out in one plane, as standing alongside or opposite one another, as consonant but not merging or as hopelessly contradictory, as an eternal harmony of unmerged voices or as their unceasing and irreconcilable quarrel." Thus "it is futile to seek in [Dostoevsky's world] a systematically monologic, even if dialectical, philosophical finalization—and not because the author has failed in his attempts to achieve it, but because it did not enter into his design." Bakhtin goes on: "For Dostoevsky everything in life was dialogue, that is, dialogic opposition."

Turning to the individual in Dostoevsky's works, Bakhtin argues, "a living human being cannot be turned into the voiceless object of some secondhand, finalizing cognitive process. In a human being there is always something that only he himself can reveal, in a free act of self-consciousness and discourse, something that does not submit to an externalizing secondhand definition." He argues: "In the ideal a single consciousness and a single mouth are absolutely sufficient for maximally full cognition; there is no need for a multitude of consciousness, and no basis for it." And "In an environment of philosophical monologism the genuine interaction of consciousness is impossible, and thus genuine dialogue is impossible as well. In essence idealism knows only a single mode of cognitive interaction among consciousness: someone who knows and possesses the truth instructs someone who is ignorant of it and in error; that is, it is the interaction of a teacher and a pupil, which, it follows, can be only a pedagogical dialogue."

For Dostoevsky, an idea can't just live in a single consciousness: "Human thought becomes genuine thought, that is, an idea, only under conditions of living contact with another and alien thought, a thought embodied in someone else's voice, that is, in someone else's consciousness expressed in discourse. At that point of contact between voice-consciousness the idea is born and lives." And "even agreement retains its dialogic characteric, that is, it never leads to a merging of voices and truths in a single impersonal truth, as occurs in the monologic world."

Later, in discussing genre, Bakhtin adds: "The dialogic means of seeking truth is counterposed to official monologism, which pretends to possess a ready-made truth, and it is also counterposed to the naive self-confidence of those people who think they know something, that is, who think that they possess certain truths. Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction."

In these quotes, Bakhtin does not directly go after dialectic. Rather, he attempts to demonstrate that dialectic and other monologic approaches do not adequately address what Dostoevsky was trying to do. The application of this analysis to dialectic is only implied (or perhaps inferred?).

In any case, I was glad to reread this book, and I'll have to reread Bakhtin's other books soon as well.

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