Ultimate Dialogicality

Timothy Bewes

Near the end of the astonishing first chapter of Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Mikhail Bakhtin quotes a passage from the work of his contemporary, the critic Viktor Shklovsky. It’s a passage Bakhtin admires, despite reservations concerning its biographical and historical emphasis. Shklovsky’s great insight, according to Bakhtin, was that even Dostoevsky’s imperfections are important to his work; indeed, the failure of his works to present coherent wholes is a constituent element of his achievement:

I assume [writes Shklovsky] that Dostoevsky had too little time not because he signed too many contracts or because he himself procrastinated with his works. As long as a work remained multi-leveled and multi-voiced, as long as the people in it were still arguing, then despair over the absence of a solution would not set in. The end of a novel signified for Dostoevsky the fall of a new Tower of Babylon.1

“This is a very true observation,” comments Bakhtin. However, for all its suggestiveness, he rejects Shklovsky’s explanation. Dostoevsky’s reluctance to finish his works, according to Shklovsky, is bound up with the complexity of his age — with, as Bakhtin paraphrases, “the conflict of historical forces and voices of the epoch — social, political, ideological…a conflict running through all stages of Dostoevsky’s life and creative activity, permeating all events of his life and organizing both the form and the content of all his works.”2 Underpinning Shklovsky’s brilliant reading of Dostoevsky is something like a standard Marxist ideology-critique, a commitment to referring formal elements to their “material conditions,” and thereby to attaining a form of critical closure. If the open-endedness of Dostoevsky’s works is a symptom of his epoch, that verdict is the surest way to slam them shut.

Bakhtin was hardly the first thinker to break with this tendency within the Marxist critical tradition; the second edition of Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (where this discussion appears) was published only in 1963, long after the major contributions of, say, Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin.3 For Bakhtin, the unfinished quality of Dostoevsky’s works cannot be contained by the issue of contemporary political and ideological “conflict”; nor can it be solely due to issues of Dostoevsky’s biography and personality; nor is it possible to extract from it any direct social, philosophical, or existential significance. What, then, is the explanation for Dostoevsky’s difficult relation to completion? What, furthermore, does Bakhtin’s methodological “break” amount to? What is the relation between Bakhtin’s own method and the account of Dostoevsky in which it was first developed? And how is it possible, finally, to derive a critical practice from a reading that seems to insist at every moment on the impossibility of a critical reading?

The break that Bakhtin effects, within Marxism, has everything to do with the qualities that he locates in Dostoevsky’s work, the implications of which, however, he refuses to enclose there. This in itself is already a distinct methodological departure: that the reading of a work should have dramatic implications for the critical approach; that the two should be so mutually entwined that it is impossible to say which precedes which. The explanation for the break, in fact, is Bakhtin’s greatest critical innovation, even though he attributes it to Dostoevsky: the discovery of polyphony. For Bakhtin, polyphony (or its near-synonym, “heteroglossia”) is not a formal quality of particular works nor even of the novel as such. Polyphony is a propensity, one that is immanent within the novel form; a condition towards which everything in the novel gravitates:

In Dostoevsky’s polyphonic novel we are dealing not with ordinary dialogic form, that is, with an unfolding of material within the framework of its own monologic understanding and against the firm background of a unified world of objects. No, here we are dealing with an ultimate dialogicality, that is, a dialogicality of the ultimate whole.…Dostoevsky’s novel…is constructed not as the whole of a single consciousness, absorbing other consciousnesses as objects into itself, but as a whole formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses, none of which entirely becomes an object for the other.…Everything in the novel is structured to make dialogic opposition inescapable. Not a single element of the work is structured from the point of view of a nonparticipating “third person.”4

Bakhtin’s notion of polyphony is not, as it has often been understood to be, a proposition about the proliferation of viewpoints, voices, or perspectives in the novel, but a proposition about the quality of the novelistic voice. Polyphony does not concern what the novel is able to represent or say, but what it is not able to say, what the novel is. The novel is not a form for the expression of points of view, plural or otherwise. Insofar as such expression takes place in the novel, it is as an interruption of its inherent logic.5 In one of his clearest elaborations of that logic, Bakhtin writes: “[t]he development of the novel is a function of the deepening of dialogic essence.…Fewer and fewer neutral, hard elements (‘rock bottom truths’) remain that are not drawn into dialogue. Dialogue moves into the deepest molecular and, ultimately, subatomic levels.”6 Dialogue, here, has nothing to do with communication. “Dialogue” is Bakhtin’s term for that quality in the novel that resists monological explanation. What Bakhtin means by the “deepening of dialogic essence” is the internal development of this discursive and aesthetic formation in which words will no longer designate or transmit circumscribed meanings. The effect of a novelist attempting to police or control the transmission of meaning in the work — if the work is a novel in Bakhtin’s sense — will be nothing other than a further molecularization of its essence. (At the end of this essay I will briefly discuss a recent example of a work in which this cycle is apparent.)

For Bakhtin, then, the very category of the “uncompleted” work is monologic. The problem with Shklovsky’s reading of Dostoevsky is not its commitment to ideology critique, but its limitation of Dostoevsky’s works in the service of that critique. That limitation is accompanied, in Shklovsky, by a clear demarcation between the critic and the work. “Uncompletedness” is the verdict with which Shklovsky establishes that closure and that relation; and it presupposes the solidity of other categories: the sovereignty of the author and the identifiability of the author’s intentions; the necessary conformity of a completed work with those intentions; the critic’s understanding of the work as determined by such qualities of completion and closure; the work’s organization by linear temporality — such that a work of literature might be said to have a point of origin and a point of termination — and by spatial integrity, such that the work remains an object of the critic’s knowledge, contemplation, and (potential) understanding.

Such “rock bottom truths,” existing “four-square,” to adopt an image from Elizabeth Bowen — like “houses in a landscape, unrelated and positive” — are for Bakhtin inimical to the world of “multi-leveledness and contradictoriness” that the novel ushers us into.7

That world is far more than the world interior to literature or to the novel. If polyphony means anything at all, especially politically, it must extend to the practice and exercise of literary criticism, to the world in which such criticism is undertaken, and to the relation between them. When we ask theoretical or methodological questions that presuppose the activity of a critic with respect to a literary work, or that conceive the qualities of a particular work in “formal” terms that require translation into critical or theoretical language, we foreclose the kind of relation to the literary object that is implied in Bakhtin’s fullest understanding of polyphony, according to which the work is no longer an object of knowledge, a vehicle of extrinsic meaning, but a participant in the critical dialogue.

In an introduction to the English translation of Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Wayne Booth offers a summary of these larger implications of Bakhtin’s work:

[W]hat is at stake, in reading Bakhtin, is far more than the question of how we read, or even how we evaluate, fiction. The effort to transcend the author’s voice in this book is not a handbook treatment of the technical means to specific artistic effects; it is rather part of a lifetime inquiry into profound questions about the entire enterprise of thinking about what human life means. How are we to know and to say anything to each other about what our lives mean, without reduction to destructive or irrelevant simplicities? When novelists imagine characters, they imagine worlds that characters inhabit, worlds that are laden with values. Whenever they reduce those multiple worlds to one, the author’s, they give a false report, an essentially egotistical distortion that tells lies about the way things are. Bakhtin’s ultimate value — full acknowledgment of and participation in a Great Dialogue — is thus not to be addressed as just one more piece of “literary criticism”; even less is it a study of fictional technique or form (in our usual sense of form). It is a philosophical inquiry into our limited way of mirroring — and improving — our lives.8

The concepts of monologia and polyphony explored in Bakhtin’s work, then, issue a challenge to us as readers (that is to say, as critics): how to read without “monologizing” the text, or the position of the critic, or the results of the research, or the context in which, and to which, both work and critic can be said to be speaking?

The theoretical quandary opened up by Bakhtin’s work, and especially by his insistence on “Dostoevsky alone” as the creator of polyphony, is whether the transformation in the organization of the literary work announced by the category of polyphony is a real historical development or merely the effect of a particular literary practice, to be subjected in its turn to critical analysis.9 Are we entitled, on the basis of Bakhtin’s work (or similar observations in the works of other thinkers), to embrace the full implications of the shift from monologue to dialogue and apply them in our own critical practice; or is doing so to abjure the responsibility of the critic?

This quandary has, in one form or another, divided critics within the Marxist tradition since its inception (as it does Bakhtin and Shklovsky). Theodor Adorno and Georg Lukács, perhaps, are its emblematic figures. In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno praised Samuel Beckett’s works for their “obsession with a meaninglessness that has developed historically.” Beckett’s nothingness, says Adorno, is a “positive nothingness” and therefore “merited.”10 For Lukács, by contrast, such declarations help to establish Adorno, along with “a considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia,” as a resident in the “Grand Hotel Abyss…a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity.”11 Bakhtin doesn’t help to resolve this quandary, which remains, strictly speaking, undecidable; for how would it be possible to adjudicate over whether the “contradictoriness” of the world is subjective or objective? Even to ask the question is to predetermine the answer by assuming a separation (between subject and object, critic and work) that polyphony, in Bakhtin’s sense, makes radically ambiguous.

The fact is that when Bakhtin uses the words “monologize” and “monologic,” it is almost always in reference to interpretations of Dostoevsky by other critics, rather than to works of literature by writers other than Dostoevsky. Polyphony is a critical practice as much as a feature of literary works; it is, in Wayne Booth’s words, “an enterprise of thinking about what human life means.” And yet, in notes that Bakhtin made in 1961 prior to his “reworking of the Dostoevsky book,” Bakhtin himself is in no doubt that the transformations registered in his book and in Dostoevsky’s writing are changes “in reality itself”; Dostoevsky is prophetic, he says, insofar as he “succeeded in revealing [them] earlier than the others.”12

What are the implications of Bakhtin’s study, and his discovery of polyphony, for contemporary literary criticism? We might begin by considering the critical terms that have frequently been used to make sense of certain experimental features in so-called “postmodern” and contemporary literature. For terms such as “metafiction,” “double-coding,” and “intertextuality,” while apparently indebted to Bakhtin’s theory of the novel, depart from Bakhtin when they present themselves as forms predicated on the loss or the irreducible mediation of experience — for example, as demystifying or otherwise complicating the “simpler” forms of fiction, referential meaning, and intersubjectivity. What Bakhtin teaches us is that the currents named by such terms are part of a dynamic that is inherent to the novel form itself — a dynamic that has continued through and alongside, but also despite, the historical period called the postmodern.

Take, for example, the poetic effect or textual feature known as “intertextuality.” For theorists of the postmodern, including Fredric Jameson and Linda Hutcheon, intertextuality is the symptom of a crisis of meaning and of discourse, what Jameson in Postmodernism calls a situation of “discursive heterogeneity without a norm,” that affects advanced capitalist societies. “The postliteracy of the late capitalist world,” he writes, “reflects not only the absence of any great collective project but also the unavailability of the older national language itself.”13 As in his formulation “the waning of affect,” Jameson’s work on postmodernism participates in the discourse of crisis, break, and interruption.14 The questions it asks concern the perceived arrival of literature and society at the limits of representation (“postliteracy”). In a similar mode, Hutcheon explains the practice of intertextuality in postmodern literary production: “A literary work can actually no longer be considered original; it if were, it could have no meaning for its reader. It is only as part of prior discourses that any text derives meaning and significance.”15

But “intertextuality” is not a recent development; it originates not in the theory of postmodernity but in the work of Bakhtin. The term appears for the first time in Julia Kristeva’s 1966 essay “Word, Dialogue, and Novel” as an adaptation of Bakhtin’s term “heteroglossia.” Something happens in the translation of heteroglossia as intertextuality that is exemplary of the way the postmodern hypothesis came into formation primarily as a chronological one. In a passage that has been crucial for the precipitation of intertextuality as an element of a distinct postmodern poetic practice, Kristeva writes: “Any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another. The notion of intertextuality replaces that of intersubjectivity, and poetic language is read as at least double.”16

There is a world of difference, however, between the idea of the text, “any text,” as a “mosaic of quotations” and Bakhtin’s proposition of the “multi-leveledness and contradictoriness of social reality as an objective fact of the epoch.”17 To transpose the insights of Bakhtin’s work into the terms of a historically determined “crisis” in literary meaning, or to reconceive them as the basis of a creative practice, is to jettison its essence: the negative relation between voice and expression. In the name of such a postmodern break or “crisis,” heteroglossia becomes a positive rather than negative principle, enabling figures such as the architectural theorist Charles Jencks to use “intertextuality” in a celebratory way to mean something like “eclecticism,” a usage that seeped into the literary-critical discourse of the “postmodern novel.”18 In this way, intertextuality has functioned as a way of containing or reterritorializing the notion of polyphony, returning it to the text as a formal feature and thereby shoring up the boundary between the critic and the work.

Contrary to the theory of intertextuality, what we see in the contemporary novel is not a subjective crisis or break in the possibility of meaning but a continuation and deepening of the trajectory of “dialogism” (or heteroglossia) that, for Bakhtin, is tied to the emergence of the novel. When we interrupt this trajectory with the existential notion of the crisis in meaning — a notion that cannot help but subjectivize the question of literary form — or the proposition of a distinct school of “postmodern” poetics, or the question of what comes after the postmodern, we betray the inherent dialogism of the novel, which is inimical to all talk of schools, identities, trends, or breaks. The endpoint of this trajectory, and the fulfillment of its logic, is the disappearance of the novel from our inventory of critical objects; the disappearance, in fact, of the critical object as such.

At present, such a disappearance is only imaginable. For this reason, to name specific writers and works in which this development might be seen to play out is to risk losing a sense of the trajectory by turning dialogism into a writing practice, tied to the aesthetic of a particular period, or writer, or group of writers. For the inhospitality of the novel to monological reading is apparent in a great variety of contemporary writing, from the formally experimental works of Dennis Cooper or James Kelman, to the quasi-realist works of Ian McEwan or Alan Hollinghurst, to the autofictional narratives of Tao Lin, Amélie Nothomb, or Jean-Philippe Toussaint. To say that not a single element in the works of any of these writers is “structured from the point of view of a nonparticipating ‘third person’” is no doubt an exaggeration. Nevertheless, it is insofar as they depart from, betray, or fall short of their novelistic essence, as Bakhtin has it, that we are able to locate any paraphrasable utterance, communicable idea, or unframed predicate in their works.19 That essence cannot, in principle, be located in any work or group of works, nor can it be subjectivized as, say, an artistic motif or personal ethic of a particular writer.

In one of his few remarks on Bakhtin, the writer J. M. Coetzee appears to contradict this principle. In a 1995 review of the fourth volume of Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky in the New York Review of Books, Coetzee refers to Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism, opining that, in the novels of Dostoevsky, dialogism “is a matter not of ideological position, still less of novelistic technique, but of the most radical intellectual and even spiritual courage.”20 Coetzee seems aware that such an interpretation is not spelled out in Bakhtin’s work — but he talks of it as an omission that Frank’s account of Dostoevsky’s writing quietly makes good. “To the degree that Dostoevskian dialogism grows out of Dostoevsky’s own moral character, out of his ideals, and out of his being as a writer, it is only distantly imitable,” he writes.21

In this instance, of course, Coetzee is himself writing in the critical mode, the mode of explication. It is impossible to find such statements in Coetzee’s works of fiction — even when they do in fact appear, as in Diary of a Bad Year, the 2007 work made up, in part, of fictional essays authored by the novel’s protagonist, including a piece entitled “On Authority in Fiction,” in which the narrator argues, against the famous interventions of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, that the authority of the author can and “must be earned.”22 By such conceits, framing a series of indisputably monological opinions through fictional characters, Coetzee’s writing over the past decade has repeatedly seemed to want to scandalize the dialogic conditions of the novel. The effect of such gestures, of course, is precisely the opposite: to dramatize the inhospitality of the novel to monological opinion. The views put forward in a novel and the views of the novelist are radically heterogeneous, even when they are indistinguishable.23 It is surprising, therefore, to find the case made for the author as the “ultimate determining instance” in a critical essay by a writer who (against his own most concerted efforts, perhaps) has persistently explored and extended the dialogism of the novel form in his own work.

Coetzee’s 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello is the story of Elizabeth, a famous writer of fiction, who is periodically invited to give lectures on matters not directly related to her work — a sign, presumably, of the tendency of fiction to discard its dialogical quality in the transmission to a critical readership. In the book’s opening chapter, Elizabeth’s son John reflects on the predicament of fiction when it comes to the communication of ideas:

[W]hen it needs to debate ideas…realism is driven to invent situations — walks in the countryside, conversations — in which characters give voice to contending ideas and thereby in a certain sense embody them.…In such debates ideas do not and indeed cannot float free: they are tied to the speakers by whom they are enounced, and generated from the matrix of individual interests out of which their speakers act in the world…24

The observation, of course, is a Bakhtinian one; and yet the very context of this remark is just such a “situation” — in this case, a conversation in a hotel room in Pennsylvania between a famous writer (Elizabeth Costello) and her son John, whose private reflections these may be, presented as they are in free indirect discourse.25 Coetzee here turns the very incommunicability of ideas in fiction into an idea, moreover, a communicable one; but he does so precisely by means of its uncommunicability, for the idea itself provides us with the rationale according to which we are unable to take it as one. The moment is a pure reversal: the idea cannot survive its communication in the work; nor, however, can the impossibility of its communication survive its communication. The passage comes as close as possible to encapsulating the logic of the novel in an idea without thereby destroying it.

In such episodes, the contemporary novel participates in critical discourse and issues an injunction to it: to attend to the fact that the novel is becoming ever more dialogical, ever less suitable to the circulation of opinions; indeed, that the very logic of the novel may dictate its obliteration as an entity defined in merely formal or historical terms, or as the object of a critical “reading.”

  1. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1984) 9.
  2. Bakhtin, Problems 38.
  3. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics is an extensively revised edition of Bakhtin’s 1929 text Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art. The remarks on Shklovsky’s book on Dostoevsky, which was published in Moscow in 1957, obviously date from the later revision. For details of the differences between the 1929 and 1963 editions see Caryl Emerson, The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997) 75-93.
  4. Problems 18.
  5. This dimension of Bakhtin’s notion of polyphony has often caused problems for critics tasked with explicating his ideas. Such problems are exacerbated when otherwise insightful and penetrating readers of Bakhtin have tried to locate an “ethics” in his work, a task that implies one of wresting an ethical subject out of the “unfinalizability” of polyphonic discourse (Problems 53). In Social Formalism: The Novel in Theory from Henry James to the Present (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998), Dorothy J. Hale writes that in Bakhtin’s critical project “the author of the ‘polyphonic novel,’ whose dialogic consciousness is represented through — but is still greater than — the multiplicity of his characters’ voices, becomes the new Bakhtinian ideal” — this while acknowledging that Bakhtin makes it “impossible to identify the ‘point’ in the [Bakhtinian] subject’s unique ‘point of view’” (164). What we learn from Dostoevsky’s works, Hale continues, is that “the best point of view is that which is plural and not singular” (174). Yet the claim that the “dialogic consciousness” of the author stands over and above the voices of his characters does not have a discernible basis in Bakhtin’s work. The monologic formulation “the best point of view” interrupts the dialogicality of the novel with the unifying principle of the author. Likewise, Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan, whose recent work Between Philosophy and Literature (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2013)rereads Bakhtin’s work in light of his ethically-tinged early essays, is keen to extract an ethical quality from Bakhtin’s later work. To this end, she redefines the term “loophole,” which Bakhtin uses to characterize the “double-voiced” discourse of Dostoevsky’s narrators and heroes, and gives it an explicitly ethical inflection deriving from its appearance in Bakhtin’s essay “Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity” (ca. 1920-23). Thus, the “word with a loophole,” which in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics is a mode in which (say) the Underground Man retains “the possibility for altering the ultimate, final meaning of one’s own words,” becomes for Erdinast-Vulcan “a precondition of ethical freedom,” predicated on a distinction between the author and hero, and between the “ontological” and the “phenomenological”: “[t]he invisibility of the subject to itself…generates the need for the enframing gaze of the authorial other.” This too is a non-Bakhtinian conclusion insofar as it depends on distinctions that do not survive the appearance of an “ultimate dialogicality” in Bakhtin’s thinking (127-28, 132). Ruth Coates puts it well: “The clear implication of ‘ultimate’ dialogicality is the inadmissibility, in theory, of any kind of observing or controlling discourse whatsoever” (Christianity in Bakhtin: God and the Exiled Author [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998] 92).
  6. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U Texas P, 1981) 300.
  7. Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September (New York: Anchor, 2000) 53, and Problems 27.
  8. Wayne C. Booth, “Introduction,” Problems xxiv-xxv.
  9. Problems 34.
  10. Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1997) 153.
  11. Georg Lukács, “Preface,” The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge: MIT P, 1971) 22.
  12. Mikhail Bakhtin, “Toward a Reworking of the Dostoevsky Book” (Appendix II, Problems) 285.
  13. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke UP, 1991) 17.
  14. Jameson, Postmodernism 10.
  15. Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988) 126.
  16. Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia UP, 1980) 66.
  17. Problems 27.
  18. See Graham Allen, Intertextuality (London: Routledge, 2000) 185 and following.
  19. Problems 66, 68.
  20. J. M. Coetzee, “Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years,” Stranger Shores: Essays 1986-1999 (London: Vintage, 2002) 145.
  21. Coetzee, “Dostoevsky” 145-46. I am grateful to Carrol Clarkson’s book J. M. Coetzee: Countervoices for alerting me to this and several other references to Bakhtin in Coetzee’s work. For Clarkson too, Coetzee “departs from Bakhtin” in this moment (J. M. Coetzee: Countervoices [Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009] 9, 105).
  22. “Dostoevsky” 149.
  23. In Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin addresses the question of how we should regard ideas that we may encounter in Dostoevsky’s essays, letters, and diary entries — that is to say, “straightforward monologically confirmed ideas” — when they happen to coincide with ideas that we later find expressed by characters in his novels. Bakhtin answers as follows: “[i]n exactly the same way we regard the ideas of Napoleon III in Crime and Punishment (ideas with which Dostoevsky the thinker was in total disagreement) or the ideas of Chaadaev and Herzen in The Adolescent (ideas with which Dostoevsky the thinker was in partial agreement): that is, we should regard the ideas of Dostoevsky the thinker as the idea-prototypes for certain ideas in his novels” (92). Similarly, perhaps we should consider the idea of the “moral character” of Dostoevsky’s dialogism put forward by Coetzee in the 1995 essay to be simply an “idea-prototype” for the idea of “authority in fiction” that we later find inhabiting the consciousness of the writer-protagonist in Diary of a Bad Year.
  24. J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (New York: Viking, 2003) 9.
  25. “We must remember,” writes Bakhtin, “that the image of an idea [in Dostoevsky] is inseparable from the image of a person, the carrier of that idea. It is not the idea in itself that is the ‘hero of Dostoevsky’s works’…but rather the person born of that idea” (Problems 85).