Mikhail Bakhtin

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Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (November 17, 1895 (new style)-1975), a Russian philosopher and literary scholar, wrote influential works in literary theory and literary criticism.



Bakhtin was born in Orel, Russia outside of Moscow to a middle class family. His father was the mangaer of a bank and Bakhtin grew up in Vilnius and Odessa until he moved to Petrograd to study at the university there in 1913. Bakhtin completed his studies in 1918, but the civil war that raged throughout that time made settling in the capital impossible. He moved first to Nevel and then to Vitebsk where he worked as a school teacher. An intellectual circle formed around him including Valentin Voloshinov and Pavel Medvedev. It was during this period that he married and contracted osteomyelitis in his leg, an illness which hampered his productivty and rendered him an invalid.

In 1924, Bakhtin considered Russia's situation sufficiently calm to move to Leningrad, where he struggled financially as his illness and lack of acceptable Marxist credentials made finding employment difficult. His position deteriorated even further in 1929, when he was swept up in one of the many purges of artists and intellectuals Stalin conducted during the early year of his reign. Bakhtin was accused of participating in the Russian Orthodox Church's underground movements -- a charge whose truthfulness is not clear even today. Bakhtin was sentenced to exile to Siberia but appealed on the grounds that, in his weakened state, it would kill him. Instead, he was sentenced to six years of 'internal exile' in Kazakhstan.

Throughout the 1930s Bakhtin remained in Kazakhstan, first as a bookkeeper on a collective farm and then, in 1936, in Mordovia State Teacher's College in Saransk. An obscure figure in a provincial college, he dropped out of view and taught on an off in Saransk, occaisionally moving to more distant villages to escape future purges. In 1938, his osteomyelitis had grown sufficiently serious that his leg was amputated. His condition improved, and he became more prolific. In 1941 he submitted the manuscript of his project on Rabelais -- now published as Rabelais and His World -- to the Gorky Institute of World Literature. The book's earthy, anarchic topic caused a scandal and Bakhtin was granted a lesser degree instead of a full doctorate. After the war, he returned to teach in Saransk, where he continued to teach until his death in 1975.

In the post-Stalinist period of the late 1950s, Russian scholars rediscovered Bakhtin's work, and his fame quickly grew. Even more surprising to them was the fact that he was still alive. In his later life Bakhtin was lionized by Soviet intellectuals and he continued to write. After his death in 1975 authors such as Julie Kristeva and Tzetan Todorov brought Bakhtin to the attention of the Francophone world, and from there his popularity in the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other countries continued to grow. In the late 1980s Bakhtin's work experienced a surge of popularity in the West, and he continues today to be regarded as one of the most important theorists of literature and culture to have written in the twentieth century.

Bakhtin's work and ideas

As a literary theorist, Bakhtin is usefully compared with Russian Formalists, as well as with the work of Yuri Lotman. His career is often described as being broken into four periods. During the 1920s, Bakhtin work tended to focus on ethics and aesthetics in general. Early pieces such as Towards a Philosophy of the Act and Author and Hero in Aethetic Activity are indebted to the philosophical trends of the time that Bakhtin followed as a student -- particularly the Marburg School Neo-Kantianism of Max Scheler and, to a lesser extent, Nicolai Hartmann. The second period of his thought -- most closely associated with his time in Lenningrad -- includes a shift towards the notion of dialogue and the beginning of his engagement with the work of Dostoevsky. Works from his third period during his exile include some of the key concepts associated with Bakhtin's works today, including dialogism, heteroglossia, and chronotope. His work on Rabelais, also associated with this period, focuses on the notion of the carnivalesque. Finally, his later work focuses not so much on the novel, but on problems of method and the nature of culture, concerns exemplified by the volume Speech Genres and Other Late Essays.

Disputed texts

Famously, some of the works which bear the names of Bakhtin's close friends Valentin Voloshinov and Pavel Medvedev have been attributed to Bakhtin -- particularly The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship and Marxism and Philosophy of Language. These claims originated in the early 1970s and received their earliest full articulation in English in Clark and Holquist's 1984 biography of Bakhtin. In the twenty years since then, however, most scholars have come to agree that Voloshinov and Medvedev ought to be considered the authors of these works. Although Bakhtin influenced these scholars and he (and others) may have had a hand in composing the works attributed to them, it now seems clear that if it was necessary to attribute authorship of these works to one person, Voloshinov and Medvedev respectively should receive credit.

Major works

Toward a Philosophy of the Act

Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics (1929)

Rabelais and His World (1968)

The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin

Speech Genres and Other Late Essays

Sources and further reading

  • Mikhail Bakhtin: A Biography. Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist. Harvard University Press, 1984
  • Mikhail Bakhtin: An Aesthetic for Democracy. Ken Hirschkop. Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson. Stanford University Press, 1990.
  • Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World, Second Edition. Michael Holquist. Routledge, 2002.

External link

hu: Mihail Mihajlovics Bahtyin pt:Mikhail Bakhtin ru:Бахтин, Михаил Михайлович zh:巴赫汀


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