Mikhail Bakhtin: Chapter Three: The Idea in Dostoevsky in Problems with Dostoevsky's Poetics

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NB: This entry is still very much in process...

Bakthin, Mikhail. "Chapter Three: The Idea in Dostoevsky." In Problems of Dostoevskys Poetics, Translated by Caryl Emerson 78-100. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Monologic_Novels Dialogic_Novels
author and hero Only recognizes the authors ideas. The hero is the author. The hero is subordinated to the author.(mouth piece) Hero: personal life and worldview are merged; she is acutely self-conscious; discourse about the world is expressed through confessional discourse. The result: Personal life becomes uniquely unselfish and principles and lofty ideological thinking becomes passionate and intimately linked with personality (Bakhtin, 79). Bakhtin therefore describes the hero as an ideologist (see note below regarding his specific understanding of ideology). There is distance between the hero and the authorenough distance to give the hero (dependent) autonomy. The hero and the author are on the same plane. Like a real person, the hero is unfinalized
dialogue Genuine dialogue is not possible because anything individual is understood as error." Genuine dialogue is possible only when the world is understood from a constructivist rather than positivistic perspective.
worldveiw It is transformed through its representation in to a voiceless object of deduction. Said differently: its objectified. Bakthins term: objectivized sphere. It is not represented so much as directly expressed. (Show not tell) The direct signifying power of the heros self-utterance greatly strengthens its internal resistance to external finalization (79). Bakthins term: sphere of principle.
thoughts Affirmed thoughts: Square with the authors worldview; characters parrot these thoughts. Repudiated thoughts: Dont square with the authors worldview; dead on the page. Monologized thoughts have an abstractly theoretical and finalized quality aligned with a single consciousness (89) These ideas are degenerate if not dead (88) Truth requires a plurality of consciousness, one that cannot in principle be fitted into the bounds best psychic readings of a single consciousness; it is born at the point of contact among various consciousnesses. Dialogized thoughts have a contradictory complexity about them; they are propelled by multi-facedness idea forcebeing born, living and acting in the great dialogue of the epoch and calling back and forth to kindred ideas of other epochs (89). These ideas are constantly tested, verified, confirmed repudiated and so on(89)
consciousness Faith in the self-sufficiency of the single consciousness Truth requires a plurality of consciousness, on that cannot in principle be fitted into the bounds of a single consciousness; it is born at the point of contact among various consciousnesses.

Part Two: The second section of this chapter considers a question put by Bakhtin in his text: What are the conditions that make possible in Dostoevsky the artist expression of an idea?

Dostoevksy conjures the image of an artist of the idea as early as 1846-47 when, in The Landlady, he posits a young scholar developing his own creative system. He is a hero transfixed with birthing a dim vague, but marvelously soothing image of an idea, embodied in a new, clarified form.." (as quoted in Bakthin, 85).

What makes this statement noteworthy for the purposes of my research that it opens up an extradisciplinary understanding of art. If the scholar is an artist in science and Dostoevsky is an artist in literature, it seems conceivable that one could, according to both Bakhtin and Dostoevsky's logic, be an artist is just about anythingprovided, of course, this "anything" is approached with an artistic sensibility. This begs the question: what, according to Bakhtin and Dostoevsky, constitutes such an approach?

The_Hero The hero in Dostoevskys works must be understood as a man in man. This is to say that like a real man, he must be unfinalized, still becoming.

The man in man must be unselfish insofar as he gives himself over to an idea. Over and over again, Dostoevskys heroes are preoccupied with their own thinking, obsessed with getting a thought straight (87).

The_Thought Human thought and the nature of the idea must be understood as dialogic. The idea is inter-individual and inter-subjective.

The idea lies not on one persons isolated individual consciousnessif itremains there only, it degenerates and dies. The idea begins to live, that is to take shape, to develop, to find and renew its verbal expression to give birth to new ideas, only when it enters into genuine dialogic relationship with other ideas, with the ideas of others (88).
The_Event The idea is a live event played out at the point of dialogic meeting between consciousnesses (88). Instead of expounding a idea in monologic form (telling), Dostoevsky puts them into action through dialogic exchange (showing)and does so, moreover, with the express purpose of charting an inter-individualized zone of intense struggle among several individuals consciousnesses, while the theoretically side of the idea is inseparably linked with the ultimate positions on life taken by the participants in the dialogue (98).

Reflection: The hero, the thought and the event: through the interplay of these elements emerges what Bakhtin affectionately calls the image of the idea. In this interaction resides, I think, tremendous potential for dialogic art as an extradisciplinary approach to makinga way of understanding the collaborative constitution of creative expression, a way of mapping it, a way of perceiving it in terms of dynamic ideas.

Ultimately, it seems, Bakthin and Dostoevsky's notion of "the artist" turns on resource management, with resource being understood here as a both human and intellectual. Increasingly, I understand Dostoevsky's project in terms of trafficking ideas, about moving them between people and places in order to compare and contrast how they resonate in/from/among these different sites.

This reminds me of something MA said at the last Research Narratives steering meeting. (Expand on this thought.)

I want to return, for a moment, to Bakhtins assertion that ideas in Dostoevskys novels appear before us in an inter-individualized zone of intense struggle among several individuals consciousnesses, while the theoretically side of the idea is inseparably linked with the ultimate positions on life taken by the participants in the dialogue (89). (Connect this to Mouffe--agonism)

Part Three: This section looks at the relationship between form and function in both Dostoevsky's novels and his journalistic work.

Effusive as ever about Dostoevskys project, Bakhtin claims he is especially well skilled at hearing dialogues past, present and future in the "great dialogue" of his day. Part of this "listening" involves what Bakthin calls prototyping: Dostoevsky wrestles with preexisting "idea-forces" by drawing out and exploring contemporary desires, anxieties, assumptions etc. embodied in the experiences of real-life people. Raskolnikov, for example, is based on Max Stirner; the ideas propounded in Stirners treatise Der Einzige und seign Eignetum provide a psychic base for Roskolnikov as a hero in Dostoevsky work.

To develop this psychic base and expand the idea-images comprising his heros, Dostoevsky confronts these individuals with various trials and tribulations. This is tantamount to a kind of scenario thinking or simulation role-playing, a way of testing the potential of ideas under various conditions. As they move among characters, through time and across space, the idea-images grow, shrink and morph in response to their immediate context. What strikes me about this approach is Dostoevsky's emphasis on the ideas rather than the heroes. While literary narrative development typically includes trials and tribulations through which characters grow and develop, Dostoevsky explores the growth and development of ideas as they move among his heroes. According to Bakhtin:

The ideaas it was seen by Doestoevsky the artistis not a subjective individual-psychological formations with permanent resident rights in a persons head; no, the idea is inter-individual and inter-subjectivethe realm of its existence is not individual consciousness but dialogic communication between consciousnesses. (88)

Dostoevskys sensitivity to context finds alternative expression in his journalistic writing. His articles for Time, Epoch, The Citizen and Diary of a Writer express definite philosophical, religious-philosophical and socio-political ideas in what Bakhtin describes as a systematically monologic or rhetorically monologic (in fact, journalistic) form (91). In this way, Dostoevsky demonstrates two very distinct modes of address. If idea-images creatively evolve through his polyphonic novels, Dostoevskys own monologic opinions about these ideas find voice in his journalistic work. To repeat: the treatment of these ideas is context specific which is not to say, however, that polyphony never appears in his articles and monologues never figure in his novels. In the case of the article The Environment, for example, Bakhtin notes that Dostoevsky interrupts his own voices with the voices and semi-voices of others in a kind of imaginary dialogue (94). Elsewhere, he juxtaposes other orientations to construct his own point of view. For this reason, Bakthin cautions against collapsing Dostoevskys journalist and novelist work into the same project. Engaging with his texts begins with considering the function(s) of ideas in each specific context.

Reflection: Context and function: Bakthins distinction between Dostoevsky the artist and Dostoevsky the journalist has immediate resonance for the relationship between art and exegesis in art research. (expand this idea)

Part Four: The final section of this text considers Dostoevskys form-shaping ideology in relation to four key concepts: human orientations, whole points of view, the ideal human and the dominating idea.

In part one, I talked about Bakthins use of the term ideology. Ill revisit this specific interpretation again here because it illuminates, I think, a Bakthins reading of what he calls Dostoevskys "form-shaping ideology." Pam Morris provides some helpful historical insight when she observes the following in The Bakhtin Reader:

The Russian ideologiya is less politically coloured than the English world ideology. In other words, it not necessarily a consciously held political belief system; rather it can refer to a more general sense of the way in which members of a given social group view the world. It is in this broader sense that Bakhtin uses the term. For Bakhtin, any utterance is shot through with ideologiya, the speaker is automatically an ideology. (249)

According to Bakhtin, what differentiates Dostoevskys form-shaping ideology is that it lacks two basic elements that characterize ideology in general:

  1. The separate thought
  2. The system of thought

This is because Dostoevsky does not think in thoughts so much as points of view, consciousnesses and voices (Bakhtin, 93). Moreover, he tries to perceive and formulate each thought in such a way that a whole person was expressed and began to sound in it; this is, in condensed form, [expressing his or her] entire worldview, from alpha to omega (Bakthin, 93). For Dostoevsky, art emerges through a concrete event made up of organized human originations and voices (Bakhtin, 93); as a novelist, he understands his role in terms of juxtaposition and organization. According to Bakhtin: "His path leads not from idea to idea, but from orientation to orientation. To think, for him, means to question and to listen, to try out orientations, to combine some and to expose others (95)."

Listening, questioning reorienting: these might well be the core methods of my own project. Indeed, the preceding quote is an important touchstone for my researchas is Dostoevskys preoccupation with whole points of view.

Whole points of view constitute big picture thinking. Sympathetic to this approach, Dostoevsky's heroes forgo arguing about separate points, opting instead to insert themselves and their entire idea into even the briefest exchange (Bakhtin, 97).

Bakhtin waxes lyrical about this approach when he writes:

And in the great dialogue of the novel as a whole, separate voices and their worlds are juxtaposed to one another as inseparable wholes, and not dismembered, not compared point by point or separate position by separate position. (96-97)

For ultimately, argues Bakthin, these whole points of view comprise the image of the ideal human being, which for both Bakthin and Dostoevsky is the Christ. This figure is not, however, the Christ of organized religion (if such a distinction can be made) but the simultaneously human an humane Christa (com)passionate Christ. This Christ, like Doetoevsky, disdains truthas-formula and truth-as-proposition, opting instead for a more flexible, less dogmatic and deeply loving worldview.

Certainly, much could and should be said about leadership in terms of arranging material and what this might mean not only in Dostoevskys novels but also in the world at large. Indeed, it almost goes without saying that a significant shortcoming of Bakhtins thesis is his failure to adequately account for the power of Dostoevskys decision making in his construction of the novel. And yet what emerges from Bakthins reading of Dostoevsky is a sense of the novelist as a kind of medium; that is, both an intervening substance through which impressions are conveyed to the senses and as a person claiming to be in contact with the spirits of the dead and to communicate between the dead and the living (Oxford American Dictionary). The competency as an artist like Dostoevsky is above all as an organizer of human orientations. Her creative expression emerges not so much from solipsistic and self-centered utterancesthrough dogmatic prescriptions of formas through her ability to facilitate the expression of various points of view within whole points of view.

To this end, Bakthin frames the function of the artist by asserting the follows:

A distrust of convictions and their usual monologic function, a quest for truth not as the deduction of ones own self-consciousness, in fact not in the monologic context of an individual consciousness at all, but rather in the ideal authoritative image of another human being, an orientation toward the others voice, the others world: all this is characteristic of Dostoevskys form-shaping ideology. (98)


Bakthin, Mikhail. "Chapter Three: The Idea in Dostoevsky." In Problems of Dostoevskys Poetics,    Translated by Caryl Emerson 78-100. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Miller-Pogacar, Anesa. "Introduction: Mikhail Epstein's Transcultural Visions." In ''Mikhail Epstein. After    the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture'', translated by    Anesa Miller-Pogacar, 1-16. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

Morris, Pam, editor. The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakthin, Medvedev, Voloshiov. New    York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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