17 December 2009

MCT: Mikhail Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin (wikipedia entry) (1895 - 1975) was a Russian theorist whose work suffered under the Soviet state until near the end of his life, but is, apparently, growing in status now. The piece in MCT, "From the prehistory of novelistic discourse" is one of the longest in the book, but it seems generally easy to follow.

In the first part, he looks at extracts from Eugene Onegin to make the case that there is something different about the use of language in a novel. (He approaches the work as a novel, rather than a poem of any kind, which I'll accept for now, but might need more convincing that you can clearly separate it from the genre of epic poem, or that there are not shared features.)

Using close and sensitive analysis he suggests that the work brings together several languages, without even specifiying them as dialogue. So, passages about Lensky have a different style from passages about Onegin or Tatiana. This is detailed: he even compares usage of the Church Slavonic mladoj and the Russian metathesized form molodoj (which mean young - but the connotations of the two forms differ). He describes this as creating different "voice-zones", separated by "intonational quotation marks" (which is nicely put).

It's a similar process to parody, he says, in which not the character but the character's language is parodied. Similarly, mock-epics don't mock the hero (often Hercules) but mock the epic treatment.

While the novel form is fairly recent, Bakhtin says earlier forms provided much of the same interplay of languages.

He talks about the "fourth drama" or the "satyr play" which would customarily follow tragic trilogies in ancient Greek theatre; a parodic treatment of the subject matter would follow the production, providing an acknowledgement that the dramatic treatment itself cannot do justice to every aspect of the subject.

This continued in Roman culture:
The literary and artistic consciousness of the Romans could not imagine a serious form without its comic equivalent. (p246)
 Parodies and travesties don't fit into the genre they refer to, and are too diverse to be a single genre of their own. But:
Each separate element in it - parodic dialogue, scenes from everyday life, bucolic humor, etc - is presented as if it were a fragment  of some kind of unified whole. I imagine this whole to be something like an immense novel, multi-generic, multi-styled, mercilessly critical, soberly mocking, reflecting in all its fullness the heteroglossia and multiple voices to a given culture, people and epoch. (p247)
Apart from anything else, that's a fantastic love letter to the novel! But there's a potential weakness: he is holding up a predefined ideal of the novel, without checking whether this is what novels must be like. Anyway, this collection didn't become a novel. "The ancient world was apparently not going further than these."

Adam Thirlwell has obviously read this. Bakhtin quotes Wilamowitz-Moellendorff:: "Only knowledge of a language that possesses another mode of conceiving the world can lead to the appropriate knowledge of one's own language" (p248/9), which is similar to Thirlwell's remarks I quoted earlier. But here, he means the Romans, who at a literary level were bilingual: everything written in Latin was open to comparison with a real or imagined Greek equivalent. Romans were aware of style - a bit like knowledge of good and evil (my simile, not Bakhtin's). And this pattern is widespread. The Orient was already multilingual. The loss of monolingualism meant that the forms of epic, lyric and drama had to give way to a more prosaic, novelistic writing, as the national myth that sustains those forms becomes untenable.

Bakhtin says that heteroglossia exists within a single language: there is the official, literary language and all the variants. The novel thrives where these languages (dialects?) meet, but it is a richness that owes a lot to the polyglossia of the middle ages, to the realisation that one language isn't enough.

Part III of the essay takes up the story in the middle ages. Bakhtin says that parody was a way of life, actually part of the way modern languages developed. Which is why parody wilted: the new languages are the parodies (of Latin). I think one of his arguments may be contentious. He says that Virgilius Maro Grammaticus was writing parody in his detailed analysis of Latin grammar, and says other scholars are fools for not seeing this. Obviously, I don't know, but it does remind of C S Lewis's view of courtly love, where (I think) he missed the joke entirely.

But again he says that the object or target of parody is the language:
The sacred, authoritative, direct word in another's language - that was the hero of this entire grand parodic literature, primarily Latin, but in part macaronic. The word, its style, and the way it means, became an object of representation: both word and style were transformed into a bounded and ridiculous image. (p257)
In the renaissance, Latin became unsustainable as a living language, precisely because the classicists of that time found current Latin unbearably debased (another big assertion!) and so modern languages thrived, and with that came Cervantes and Rabelais, and the novel as we know it. In conclusion, Bakhtin says the prehistory of the novel is part of the history of language development in Europe, not merely a literary question.

This is a terrific piece to read. Bakhtin clearly was extraordinarily well-read, but displays his scholarship in relatively simple ways, not afraid to repeat points when necessary. He is prone to making large statements as if they were generally known and agreed, but that's actually quite refreshing. It's another essay that shows that translation theory isn't an added extra to literary theory; it's right at the heart of it.

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