Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975) was the central figure of an intellectual circle that focused on the social nature of language, literature, and meaning in the years between World War I and World War II. Though his major works were not widely read until after the 1960s, his ideas were later adopted by many academic spheres and have contributed to new directions in philosophy, linguistics, and literary theory.
Although relatively unknown outside Soviet intellectual circles during his lifetime, the writings of Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin have a had a significant influence in the fields of literary theory, linguistics, and philosophy. In works such as Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1929, 1963), Rabelais and His World (1965), and The Dialogic Imagination (1975), Bakhtin outlined theories on the social nature of language, literature, and meaning. With the spread of his ideas in the Western academic world, Bakhtin has become one of the major figures of twentieth-century literary theory.
Bakhtin was born on November 16, 1895, in the city of Orel in the southern part of Russia. He was the third of five children in a family that had been part of the nobility since the Middle Ages, but no longer held land or title. His father was a state bank official, as his grandfather had been. Although the family relocated at various times throughout Bakhtin's childhood, he was provided with a thorough education. At home, he and his older brother, Nikolai, received lessons in Greek poetry from a German governess. After the family moved to Vilnius, Lithuania, when he was nine, he attended schools in the Russian-ruled city. At the age of 15, Bakhtin traveled with his family to Odessa in the Ukraine, where he graduated from the First Gymnasium and then studied philology (the study of literature and language) at the University of Odessa for a year.
In his early adolescent years, Bakhtin began to develop an interest in radical philosophical ideas. He immersed himself in a wide range of books, including the works of German philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He was encouraged in his pursuits and exposed to a developing spirit of revolutionary change by his brother and a circle of friends, with whom he would hold discussions and debates about new concepts. This early habit of questioning established ideas would become a lifelong practice for Bakhtin. Another important theme of his life first appeared during these years. At the age of 16, he was stricken with osteomyelitis, a disease that causes inflammation and destruction of bone tissue. This chronic condition and other bouts of poor health affected his work and activities for the rest of his life.
Bakhtin entered the University of St. Petersburg in Russia in 1914. There he studied philosophy and literature with a number of professors while sharing living quarters with his older brother. When the political turmoil of the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, Nikolai joined the White Army, the military group supporting Russian royal rule against the Bolshevik revolutionary forces. With the defeat of the royal forces, Nikolai left for England. Bakhtin, however, stayed in school throughout this time and graduated in 1918.
Over the next ten years, Bakhtin began to develop the ideas that would lead to his major writings. Having moved with his family to the Belorussian town of Nevel in 1918, Bakhtin began meeting with a group of intellectuals that would become known as the "Bakhtin Circle." The members of the group discussed such topics as the effects of the Russian Revolution on the social and cultural lives of Soviet citizens and the role of social reality in the meaning of artistic works and language. Bakhtin published his first paper the following year in a local journal. The two-page article was titled, "Art and Responsibility." He would not publish again for another decade.
In 1920, he moved to the town of Vitebsk, where he held a number of jobs, including a teaching position at the Vitebsk Higher Institute of Education. His intellectual work from this time included a number of unpublished writings, including the notebooks he kept. At Vitebsk, Bakhtin was joined by his friends from his circle in Nevel, including Lev Vasilyevich Pumpiansky and Valentin Nikolayevich Voloshinov. In addition, new people such as Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky and Pavel Nikolayevich Medvedev joined the group. In 1921, Bakhtin formed another important relationship. Suffering from his continued battle with osteomyelitis, his health declined even further when he contracted typhoid. A woman who nursed him through this period of illness, Elena Aleksandrova Okolovich, became his wife later in the same year.
From 1924 to 1929, Bakhtin lived in Leningrad (the name given to St. Petersburg after the Revolution). Prevented from working because of his poor health, his only income was a small medical pension. He did, however, continue to meet with the members of the Bakhtin Circle in their homes, where he would occasionally give lectures. Papers published by his associates during this time reflect many of Bakhtin's ideas; whether the critic was the sole author, co-author, or simply the philosophical inspiration for these writings is a matter of debate. Some of the works in question include the book The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, published in 1928 by Medvedev and the 1929 work Marxism and the Philosophy of Language by Voloshinov. These works reflect the basic idea of the Bakhtin Circle that language is fundamentally a sociological force. Just as society, or popular culture, is continually changing and growing with the exchange of experiences and ideas, so does the meaning of language take on new dimensions with every act of reading, listening, or responding. In this way, Bakhtin and his colleagues established the concept of the "dialogic," or social nature of language, which was also extended to all artistic acts and utterances. These works by Medvedev and Voloshinov were couched in the language and themes of Marxism, making them acceptable for publication in the young communist state.
In 1929, Bakhtin published his first major work, a study of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky titled Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Continuing the themes raised by Medvedev and Voloshinov, Bakhtin argued that in Dostoevsky's novels, the author does not use a single authoritative narrator to dictate the motives and meanings of actions and characters to the reader. Rather, characters are allowed to take on meaning through their interactions with others, gradually revealing their own world view, or ideology. This interaction of all the voices in the novel, including that of the narrator, is called a "polyphonic dialogue" by Bakhtin. He goes on to demonstrate this type of dynamic in other interactions of language, including the literary forms of parody and satire.
In 1929, Bakhtin and several members of his circle were arrested. The official reasons for Bakhtin's arrest included his religious practices—he had retained his Christian practices and beliefs even after all expressions of religion had been banned in the Soviet Union. He was sentenced, without a trial, to ten years of exile in the northern Soviet region of Siberia. With his health problems, such a severe sentence was a serious threat to Bakhtin's life. Several prominent political and cultural figures sympathized with the author's plight and lobbied for a reduced sentence. Due perhaps in large part to a favorable review of his Dostoevsky book by the Commissar of Enlightenment, Bakhtin's sentence was eventually reduced to six years in Kazakhstan. In 1930 he received permission to travel to the city of Kustani and find work himself, rather than being assigned a job by the government. He secured a position as an accountant in a local government office; he also helped train workers in the area in clerical skills. Although his exile officially ended in 1934, Bakhtin opted to remain in Kustani for another two years.
He returned to Russia in 1936, settling in Saransk and taking a teaching job at the Mordovian Pedagogical Institute. In 1937, he moved to the town of Savelovo; being only a hundred kilometers outside Moscow, he was able to once again appear in intellectual and academic gatherings. But the coming years were filled with a number of frustrations and disappointments. His physical health suffered another blow in 1938 when his right leg was amputated. Professionally, he seemed assured of success when a number of his papers were accepted for publication. But with the start of World War II, these works were not printed.
This adversity seemed to spark a period of great productivity in Bakhtin. He gave lectures on the novel at Moscow's Gorky Institute and completed a dissertation on sixteenth-century French satirist Francois Rabelais for the institute in 1940. This work, which was expanded and published in 1965 as Rabelais and His World, stands alongside Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics as one of Bakhtin's most important writings. In this work, Bakhtin examines the cultural and political hierarchies that existed in European society in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance period. He postulated that popular culture embraced an earlier way of life that stressed communal living and working that directly clashed with the increasing power of central governments and noble classes. The tension between the "official" world of power, government, and religion and the unacknowledged world of popular culture was only free to be expressed, according to Bakhtin, in the environment of the carnival—a holiday atmosphere in which all things held sacred and mighty were free to be subjected to laughter and satire, a time when all boundaries were temporarily dissolved. Bakhtin finds this kind of carnivalesque subversion in the novels of Rabelais, whom he credits with heralding the modern era and a new philosophy of history.
Although he began working as a German instructor in the schools of Savelovo in 1941, Bakhtin continued to concentrate on his writing, turning out articles on the novel that were later collected in The Dialogic Imagination, published in 1975. Bakhtin worked in Savelovo from 1942 to 1945 as an instructor in Russian. He returned to the Mordovian Pedagogical Institute in Saransk in 1945, where he attained the rank of department chair. After submitting and defending his dissertation in the late 1940s, he was finally awarded a degree of candidate in 1951. When the institute became a university six years later, Bakhtin's scholarship and reputation as a teacher earned him the position of head of the department of Russian and foreign literatures.
Despite these advancements, Bakhtin's ideas were little known outside his academic and intellectual circles of friends. Beginning in the mid-1950s, his work began to earn a limited amount of recognition elsewhere. His book on Dostoevsky was mentioned in articles by American Vladimir Sedeno in 1955, Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky in 1956, and literary critic Roman Jakobson in 1959. This increased interest by younger intellectuals resulted in a demand for publication of other works by Bakhtin, bringing about a revised version of the Dostoevsky book in 1963 and the first printing of his dissertation on Rabelais in 1965.
At this time of rising acclaim, Bakhtin continued to publish, but once again ill health limited his activities. He and his wife—who was also unwell—moved to Moscow in 1967 and then to Grevno in 1970 for medical care. After his wife's death in 1971 from a heart condition, Bakhtin settled in an apartment in Moscow. He spent his last years fighting both emphysema and his osteomyelitis, but he did not abandon his writing. He died in Moscow on March 7, 1975. After his death, more of his works were published and his influence gradually spread throughout the world, due in great part to the interest of Western academics. In this way, his own work took on a life of ongoing growth and interpretation—the kind of existence that Bakhtin had claimed for all acts of language. Long after the moment of writing and years after the death of the author, the works of Bakhtin have been the subject of numerous readings and responses that have added new dimensions to fields concerned with language and the nature of meaning, including linguistics, philosophy, and literary criticism.
For more information see Brandist, Craig, "The Bakhtin Circle, "The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1997; Clark, Katerina, and Holquist, Michael, Mikhail Bakhtin, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1984; Morson, Gary Saul, editor, Bakhtin Essays and Dialogues on His Work, University of Chicago Press, 1986; Morson, Gary Saul, and Caryl Emerson, editors, Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges, Northwestern University Press, 1989; and Patterson, David, Essays on Bakhtin and His Contemporaries, University of Kentucky Press, 1988.