Biography of Mikhail Bakhtin

Pages: 6 (2134 words) Published: December 19, 2010
During his imprisonment, Bakhtin began suffering health problems caused by chronic osteomyelitis, a painful inflammation of the bone marrow, and while his exile to the frozen isolation of Kazakhstan was no doubt severe, it undoubtedly saved him from a certain death in prison. During exile, Bakhtin was prevented from teaching and instead supported himself as a bookkeeper. In 1936, he was released from exile and taught for a time in Saransk until renewed purges led him to resign and move to a small town outside Moscow. There, his worsening osteomyelitis led to amputation of his right leg, and he was forced to use crutches or a walking stick the remainder of his life (Clark and Holquist 261). After his surgery, Bakhtin was unable to find formal employment, though he was invited on occasions to deliver lectures at the Gorky Institute of World Literature. He also used his free time to finish a book on the German novel of education and to work on a number of essays on the dialogic nature of the novel, most of which were based on material culled from his lecture notes. In addition, he began writing a doctoral dissertation on Rabelais for the Gorky Institute. However, the advent of World War II interrupted his work on the dissertation, and his book on the German novel of education literally went up in smoke. The publishing house to which Bakhtin sent this latter manuscript was bombed by the Germans during the war, and due to a cigarette paper shortage at that time, Bakhtin used the pages of the book's prospectus to support his continual craving for nicotine (Clark and Holquist 273). Though only a fragment of this work has survived, Bakhtin's essays on the dialogic theory of the novel remained intact, yet were not published in the Soviet Union until 1973, well after Moscow graduate students had rescued him from obscurity. These essays were translated into English as The Dialogic Imagination. This collection of essays, written between 1934 and 1941, is undoubtedly the main work on which Bakhtin's reputation in literary criticism has rested; it is cited by Bakhtin literary scholars more than any of his other works, with the possible exception of Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. The collection as a whole deals mostly with historical development of the novel, but also elaborates on Bakhtin's dialogics while introducing two new concepts -- heteroglossia and the chronotope -- that reflect his deepening awareness of how language operates over time. Heteroglossia is perhaps one of Bakhtin's most misunderstood and misinterpreted ideas, often being confused with "polyphony" as meaning the multi-voiced nature of dialogic discourse. But this is not exactly what Bakhtin means. In his essay "From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse," Bakhtin defines heteroglossia as the inherent diversity of unofficial forms of a particular national language -- similar in nature to dialect. Bakhtin contrasts heteroglossia with "polyglossia," which is the interaction of two or more national languages within a given culture, such as took place in the Hellenistic world: Closely connected with the problem of polyglossia and inseparable from it is the problem of heteroglossia within a language, that is, the problem of internal differentiation, the stratification characteristic of any national language. This problem is of primary importance for understanding the style and historical destinies of the modern European novel, that is, the novel since the seventeenth century. This latecomer reflects, in its stylistic structure, the struggle between two tendencies in the languages of European peoples: one a centralizing (unifying) tendency, the other a decentralizing tendency (that is, one that stratifies languages). The novel senses itself on the border between the completed, dominant literary language and the extraliterary languages that know heteroglossia. (67) These centralizing and decentralizing forces are referred to in another essay, "Discourse in the Novel," as...
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