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Bakhtin Circle and Ancient Narrative (excerpt)

by edited by R. Bracht Branham

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975) has become a name to conjure with. We know this because he is now one of those thinkers everyone already knows - without necessarily having to read much of him! Doesn't everyone now know how polyphony functions, what carnival means, why language is dialogic but the novel more so, how chronotopes make possible any "concrete artistic cognition" and that utterances give rise to genres that last thousands of years, "always the same but not the same"? Like Marx and Freud in the twentieth century, or Plotinus and Plato in the fourth, a familiarity with Bakhtin's thinking is so commonly assumed, at least in the Humanities, as to be taken for granted. He is no longer an author but a field of study in his own right. As Craig Brandist (of the Bakhtin Centre at Sheffield University) reports: "the works of the [Bakhtin] Circle are still appearing in Russian and English, and are already large in number...There are now several thousand works about the Bakhtin Circle."

The problem is, the better we get to know Bakhtin, the less we seem to know. How can both Marxists and Formalists claim him? How do the early philosophical works bear on the groundbreaking studies of Rabelais and Dostoyevsky? Does he, like Auerbach, have a coherent story to tell about the whole of European literary history? How does he understand the relation of ethics to aesthetics, philosophy to literature, culture to politics? Whether we consider his biography, his relation to other members of the Circle and their sources in German philosophy and scholarship, or the meaning of his most influential terms and concepts, we find new questions being posed that will frame the debate for years to come. This debate will necessarily include the questions that give rise to this volume: what is the significance of Bakhtin's work for our understanding of ancient literary culture and its role in the history of European literature? And, conversely, how did Bakhtin's lifelong interest in the classics shape his thinking about the dialogic nature of language and the carnivalesque traditions in culture?

Pages: 36 - File size: 377k

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