Mikhail Bakhtin’s Idea Of The Modern Novel As A Combination Of Literary Genres Of The Past

Mikhail Bakhtin’s essay ‘The Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse’ is meant to bring forward the attempt to define the modern novel as a contribution of literary genres of the past.

In the first part of the essay, he talks about the 5 stylistic approaches to a novelistic discourse:

  1. The analysis of the author’s words alone;
  2. Neutral linguistic of the novelist’s language;
  3. The novelist’s specific literary tendencies are isolated;
  4. The language is analyzed as an individual style of the novelist;
  5. The perception of the novel as a rhetorical genre and the analysis of its devices.

Those characteristics, as they are remote from the traits that define the novel as a genre, take the language of the novelist as an expression of a specific individual artistic personality, so as to cover up the genre itself, therefore Bakhtin doesn’t rely on them, but rather on the correlation between the elements that characterize the novel.

Then, he highlights the difference between novel and other poetic genres, bringing forward the idea of direct imaginary acquirement of non-direct functions exemplifying it by using a fragment from Pushkin in which he describes Lensky’s poetry. He states the different use of metaphorical elements in poetics, drawing the conclusion that the author is “being almost completely outside Lensky’s language”, the “image” being in fact a mix of character’s language and the author’s parodic and ironic remarks (interanimation of two languages). The author pinpoints some characteristic traits of the novel, namely the “The image of another’s language and outlook on the world, simultaneously represented and representing”, along with its complex dialogized structure dependent on language and his attribute not as “object of representation”, which all, to his mind contribute to the defining of the novel as a genre.

He goes back to his initial belief that the novel has been born as a result of the contribution of all literary genres of the past. He offers us an historical background of thenovelistic discourse which goes back thousands of years and proceeds from conversational folk language and some low literary genres, developed on the boundary line between cultures and languages. Throughout time two important factors emerged from this discourse, precisely, laughter (ridiculing one’s language) and Pollyglossia, which represented the act of invocation in the novel of different world views through different languages which interanimate each other).

II. In his second part of his essay Bakhtin has as main subject the parody, as a form of the direct discourse. He discusses the parodic sonnets present in Don Quixote, which only have the form of sonnets but could never be assigned as so, therefore we have only an image of a sonnet which he considers an “object of representation rather than a form of a whole”. This is the case for Homer’s poem ‘War between the Mice and the Frogs’ that can’t be classified as an epic poem but rather as an image of the “Homeric Style”.

He also talks about the variety of methods of ridicule and how not everything is exhausted by parodying and travestying. However, these methods have barely been studied in school, excepting the very late form of literary parody such as Scarron’s Enéide travestie or Platen’s ‘Verhängnisvolle Gabel”, which, however, were limited as they were retroactively applied to previous ages.

Bakhtin accentuates the idea of duality, in case of straightforward genres which had its own parodic-travestying doubles, that were just as condemned and canonized as their authentic model. He demonstrates this matter by means of debating the problem of satyr play as “the fourth drama”, as it retrieved the mythological and narrative organization of the proceeding trilogy and gave a parodic interpretation of the myth, rather than tragic as initially. The critic exemplifies his idea though Aeschyulus’ satyr play, “The Bone-Gatherers”which gives a parodic view of the Trojans War, focusing on the comic image of Odysseus. He points out the motif of madness, when Odysseus pretended to be mad in order to avoid being involved in the war, moment that marks his transition to the comic plane of parody and travesty.

Following Odysseus’ comic figure, now Bakhtin brings forward Hercules who stands out throught the motifs that lent a comic aspect to his image : Hercules the monstrous glutton, the playboy, the drunk, etc., but especially Hercules the madman All those traits provided the character a comic facet, which diminished his heroic aspect along with its ability to draw laughter. He was a very popular and influential character in Greece at that time and his popularity spread over Byzantium where it became an important component of the marionette theatre and but it has recently made a comeback on the Turkish stage.

Therefore, taking into consideration comic figures such as Odysseus and Hercules, Bakhtin draws the conclusion that the Greeks did not associate the parodic-travestying reworking of national myth with profanity. The direct and serious word was revealed only after it had become the laughing image of that “word”, not being discredited in the process. So, Greeks weren’t bothered by the fact that Homer wrote a parody of the Homeric style. He goes back to the direct discourse which becomes the object of parodic travestying “mimicry”. The author pinpoints a very important fact about mimicry, its ability to separate the word from its meaning, therefore imposing on us two interpretations of the object that are not present in a given genre.

Next, he discusses the aspect of the parodic-travestying literature which introduces the corrective of laughter and life as being always richer, more fundamental and above all, too contradictory and heteroglot to be classified as a straightforward genre. He makes reference to the tragic heroization of the main characters as as being the only parodic element. The genre, the style and the language were all placed in opposition to a contradictory reality “that cannot be confirmed within their narrow frames”.

At the end of the second part he figures out that the parodic-travestying forms crucially paved the way for today’s novel by ripping the word away from the imprisonment of language, destroying the power of myth over the language and liberating consciousness from the power of the direct word.

In the latter part of his essay, Bakhtin discusses a parodying form of the direct word, linguistic consciousness that appeared as result of one’s decision to view things from an objective perspective, from the point of view of another potential language. This mode analyses the direct word outside its expressive representation, testing its limits and absurd interpretations.

Next, approaching a fragment of Wilamowitz-Moelledorff’s book on Plato, Bakhtin accentuates the fact that only by acknowledging another way of viewing the world through another language, can one truly understand the knowledge of one's own language. He goes deeper into the process of literary creation, talking about the interanimation between languages when one side of the language embodies the world view, the axiologically system that it makes reference to. As for the literary consciousness, it is present in an area illuminated by another’s language, it’s not the phonetic system, the distinctive feature or its abstract lexicon that stands out, but the feature that makes its language complete and the worldview untranslatable, namely: “the style of the languages as a totality.”

Hereinafter, he debates the problem of Heteroglossia which is an inseparable part from Pollyglossia, that mainly stands for the variety of languages within a language, more precisely its internal differentiation and stratification, that make possible the understanding the modern European novel. In the latter, he revealed the struggle between the two tendencies of European language: the centralizing and decentralizing tenancy that made him agree upon novel’s placement between the completed, dominant literary language and the ones that know Heteroglossia. Therefore, he reached the conclusion that novel has the role of furthering the still-developing centralizing tendencies or paradoxically, fighting for the restoration of the ancient literary language remained outside the centralizing influence.

Bakhtin ends the essay underscoring the importance of the history in the formation of the novel that man needs to learn from his past in order to grow and evolve.

09 March 2021
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