Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Reading:: Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

Originally posted: Tue, 30 Mar 2004 20:04:03

Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics

by Mikhail Bakhtin

I really can't do justice to this book in a short review. It seems deeper, better thought through, and more organic than the other books in the Bakhtin Circle. At the same time, those benefits come frequently at the price of clarity -- compared to Voloshinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, this book is quite indirect. But it does give valuable insights into the question of dialogics vs. dialectics that currently interests me.

A little background first. The book is largely the same as the 1929 book of (nearly) the same title, published by Bakhtin not long before he was arrested for membership in an underground church. A positive review by a high-placed official apparently saved him from the gulag, but he went into exile for a while. Much later, in the 1960s, a group of young scholars rediscovered Bakhtin's work and persuaded him to rework the book and republish it, which he did. This review is of the second version, which probably couldn't have been published under Stalin.

One of the reasons it couldn't have been published is that it makes an indirect but unmistakable attack on dialectics. Caryl Emerson's preface brings this out nicely, linking it to the famous fragment from Speech Genres and Other Late Essays in which Bakhtin compares the two. In Bakhtin's analysis of Dostoevsky -- and, it appears, in his analysis of language as a whole -- there is a permanent, necessary gap between speakers resulting in a permanent dialogue, a permanent array of differences that are discussed and negotiated but never finalized, synthesized, or eliminated. Oppositions are never cancelled out; they are not seen as contradictions to be overcome; every utterance expects an answer; differences are taken seriously. The truth, he says, is born between people searching for truth --it is not ready-made and waiting to be discovered. Two voices is the minimum for life.

Looking back at the paragraph above, I've culled some of the more memorable points and expressions from the Dostoevsky book. This is easy and boring. But the book is more interesting and harder to get than that. I think that it provides perhaps the sharpest critique of dialectics and the most direct discussion of dialogics and their implications -- even if couched in an abstract criticism of literature.

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