Dostoevsky Wrap-Up #3 (C) Bakhtin’s _Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics_ (from the bottom up)

Everything in Dostoevsky’s novels tends toward dialogue, toward a dialogic opposition, as if tending toward its center.  All else is the means; dialogue is the end.  A single voice ends nothing and resolves nothing.  Two voices is the minimum for life, the minimum for existence (Bakhtin, Mikhail, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 252).

 The problem I have (and, it turns out Mikhail Bakhtin has) with Joseph Frank’s way of reading Dostosevsky is, it fails to account for a very distinct sense one gets while reading these books – the complexity of the different perspectives (of the characters, the narrator, and the author) and also the interaction between those perspectives.  It is always a problem, in fiction, to discover the “views” of the author amidst the interplay of that author’s characters.  Sometimes, most often in bad or mediocre books, this is not a problem.  In John Grisham, for example, you always know whose side you’re on.  Books like A Time to Kill are what Bakhtin calls “monological.”  An author creates a hero, that hero encounters obstacles, and ultimately triumphs.

Not just to pick on John Grisham though – that’s too much like shooting fish in a barrel.  I don’t think Bakhtin thinks there’s anything inherently bad or uncreative about monological novels.  A good exemplar of great monological novel might be War and Peace.  It’s not monological in the most obvious sense actually.  It has three heroes, not one: Pierre Bezukhov, Andrei Bolkonsky and Nikolai Rostov are all cast as sympathetic main characters who undergo significant moral and psychological evolution as a result of the events of the story.  But what makes such a novel “monological” on Bakthin’s terms is that each of those characters maintains a kind of rhetorical integrity, a sort of privileged perspective vis-à-vis the narrator and the other characters.  The narrator itself also has a privileged perspective vis-à-vis all the characters and events of the story.  As Bakhtin puts it, there is always a “narrative surplus,” a space between the narrator and the characters that establishes a hierarchical relationship of perspectives.  In this way, when a shift in a character’s consciousness happens, it is in a sense regulated by that narrator.  Pierre’s time in the prison camp, for example, causes a certain sort of change in his mindset, and that change is regulated by the narrator’s words.  Or think about the sequence involving Napoleon.  He’s obviously preposterous, has zero narrative sympathy, and certainly we get no access to his thoughts.  Even the book’s final image – of Andrei’s (?) son brooding in his bedroom, clearly meant to prefigure the Decembrist uprising that was to come, is carefully stage-managed by the author to make a point.

Again, this is not to say that such books are bad.  Reading Tolstoy, to me, was incredibly intense and meaningful.  It was just substantially different from reading Dostoevsky.  I guess we talked before on this blog about the Apollonian and the Dionysian, that is, between the refined and the problematic, or the organized and the chaotic.  Dostoevsky is definitely the latter.  With Tolstoy, the “moral” is generally very clear.  To repeat: this does not mean it is bad.  The moral is clear but it is also artfully drawn: it’s not John Grisham.

There is a section of Bakhtin’s book that describes a Tolstoy story, one involving a man, a woman and a tree.  He goes on to illustrate how Dostosevsky’s version of that story would have gone.  Doing the same with War and Peace, when the action came around to Napoleon among his army, it wouldn’t have just been Pierre watching him pass by, it would have been Pierre loudly arguing with another prisoner, the prison guard would have gotten drawn in, he would have appealed to Napoleon to intercede, then Napoleon would have launched into an extensive argument with both of them, unexpectedly defending Pierre’s perspective against the guard’s, and then Napoleon himself would have ranted for pages and pages about the virtues of despotism, in such a way that you began to identify with it.

Or – such a scene as Napoleon walking among his troops would never happen in Dostoevsky.  Bakhtin has a section about settings in Dostoevsky, and he points out that many of the major scenes happen in transition spaces, like on thresholds or in hallways, in public settings where clear norms do not govern the interactions between the characters.  He actually says that’s where they always happen, which is a bit of an overstatement.  Bakhtin makes a lot of overgeneralizations, like that there is “never” authorial surplus in Dostoevsky, that it’s always dialogue and never monologue, it’s always polyphonic, never monophonic, and so on.  Frank, at one point, suggests that Bakhtin is too ideological about this.  I would say more that what Bakhtin is trying to show is that what’s distinctive about Dostoevsky is dialogue, polyphony, thresholds and the carnivalesque.

With Dostoevsky, I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that there is no moral.  At least not in the sense of pre-conceived moral content – “artistic form [for Dostoevsky], correctly understood, does not shape already prepared and found content, but rather permits content to be found and seen for the first time” (Bakhtin 43).  This is what I see as Frank’s biggest shortcoming in his readings of the various works.  He describes it like this: Dostoevsky sets out to illustrate X (and usually X is something like “atheistic socialism will inevitably end in disaster”) by depicting character C.  Then, because Dostoevsky was just such a subtle and sympathetic judge of human nature, the depiction of C living not-X becomes compelling, almost to the point where the reader starts to think Not-X.  This is why many of Frank’s readings end with a sort of doubt about whether Dostoevsky actually succeeds in proving X, and a tension arises between Dostoevsky the ideologist and Dostoevsky the artist.

Bakhtin, on the other hand, takes this tension as precisely the point.  But instead of seeing it as art getting in the way of pre-established normative content, he sees it as art being used in the service of generating new normative content.  Dostoevsky places different characters with different commitments and personalities in close proximity of each other, and their interactions generate new knowledge, knowledge Dostoevsky did not have until he created it through the “great dialogue” of the characters and their ideas.  This is the essence of what Bakhtin means when he calls Dostoevsky’s novels “polyphonic.”  There are distinctive tones to each character, tones with which they imbue everything that surrounds them (the prose in the paragraphs, the other characters’ thoughts and words, even the reader).  Those tones collide and combine the way that melodies or themes do in polyphonic music, producing unexpected and at times overwhelming coincidences and confluences.

An interesting word Bakhtin uses to describe Dostoevsky’s characters as they relate to real historical figures is to call them “prototypes.”  This sheds some light on what I’ve called Frank’s “line-drawing.”  Dostoevsky does draw on real-world figures to inspire his characters, but they are only ever as “prototypes,” not copies.  I mean something more than just that the characters are changed for the service of art.  The prototype, through the course of the novel, gets developed into something entirely different than where it begins.  The final result (though, as Bakhtin points out, it’s never “finalized” – never rounded off and settled) is thus quite a bit different from the real-life analogue, as are all the other characters.  Dialogue changes them, but not in narratively predetermined or controlled ways.

This accounts for why reading Dostoevsky sometimes feels like you’re reading a draft and not a finished product.  There is a genuine sense of exposure to new ideas, a dialogical sense to these books.  Bakhtin spends some pages talking about the influence of the Socratic dialogue as a genre upon D’s works.  He actually has a lot to say about genre, most of which was about things I just didn’t know the history of: Minnipean satire, the adventure novel, and the carnivalesque (and the world turned upside down – something I remember Charles Taylor spending some pages on in A Secular Age).

I would say reading The Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics was a pretty mind-expanding experience.  I can see why it’s one of those books you hear people talk about as innovative.  He more or less introduced (to me anyway) whole new categories to open up the understanding of these novels, and did so in a way that was quite unexpected.  It felt like what it might be like to take a great graduate seminar, and listen to someone’s real insights on things, as opposed to those things that had already become stale once they decided to write the book.  In that sense, Bakhtin’s and Dostoesvky’s style have a lot in common.

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