Bakhtin's Life of Smoke and Carnival

Despite the intricate tangle of opinion and counter-opinion inspired by Mikhail Bakhtin's legacy, each strand of which is painstakingly un-picked here in Caryl Emerson's The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin, one very simple question prevails: How did a chain-smoking, obsessively private, one-legged old scholar from a provincial Russian backwater called Saransk, a man largely ignored during his lifetime, achieve such dazzling international fame?

Evidence of Bakhtinomania is everywhere. No academic paper these days is fully dressed without an attractive little hem of Bakhtin footnotes, many of which have been battered into context or just plain misappropriated. Scholarly conversation resounds with Bakhtinian buzzwords such as "dialogue" and "carnival" to a degree that even the most earnest disciples are beginning to find acutely embarrassing. And his two major works, "The Problem of Dostoyevsky's Poetics," a groundbreaking study that has recast approaches to creative processes in general, and "The Creative Art of Francois Rabelais," which marked the birth of Bakhtinian Carnival, have both achieved such breathtaking sales that, in comparison to other such scholarly tomes, they can only be considered blockbusters.

Bakhtin has even, as Emerson notes, made a breakthrough into contemporary culture via the film "Smoke," which retells the legend of how, during the rationing of World War II, Bakhtin was forced to raid the only copy of his monumental study of the Bildungsroman for cigarette papers.

"What's more important, a good book or a good smoke?" says William Hurt, expressing something of the spirit of Bakhtin if not the subtlety. "And so he huffed and he puffed, and little by little, he smoked his book."

Caryl Emerson's answer to the above question is to devote the first half of her new study to an exhaustive account of the development of the Bakhtin phenomenon, from the 1920s right up to the centennial year of 1995.

Displaying a peerless grasp of the gravitational forces that have distorted Russian scholarship in both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, she begins with an engaging account of the critical reaction to the original publication, in 1929, of "The Problem of Dostoyevsky's Creative Art." In the book, Bakhtin introduced some of his most perplexing concepts: the idea of the "polyphonic" writer who shared authorial rights with his/her own characters; a theory of novelistic "prosaics;" and the idea of "dialogue" as a liberating, "double-voiced" currency for life and literature.

With Stalinist cultural repression just around the corner, the book had everyone, from the soon-to-be-annihilated formalists to the Communist Party hacks, running for cover. The only support came from that old war-horse Anatoly Lunacharsky, the former Bolshevik commissar for enlightenment, responsible for defending many writers in the early 20s: "Lunacharsky's account of Bakhtin's book did the fledgling scholar an enormous service," says Emerson, "Modestly enthusiastic, politically correct, perhaps even cunningly naive, it was instrumental in saving Bakhtin's life." He was exiled to Kazakhstan instead.

Equally absorbing is the account of Bakhtin's defense, in 1946, of his Ph.D dissertation on Rabelais, in which the limping scholar beat off an apparatchik hoard of narrow-minded examiners to deliver his theory of liberating carnival to the world: "Laughter liberates us from fear," he told his tormentors, "In order to look at the world soberly, I must cease to be afraid. In this, laughter played a most serious role."

After this skirmish, Bakhtin gave up hope of seeing any more of his work in print and was effectively banished by the Soviet authorities to Saransk, where he continued to receive guests reluctantly, nod sagely at their pronouncements, drink tea and smoke like a chimney.

The thaw of the 1960s brought the reissuing in the Soviet Union of the Dostoyevsky book and the first appearance of his study of Rabelais, but the old scholar continued to cherish his imposed role as an eternal "outsider," transforming it into a creed that allowed him, as Emerson puts it, to "survive arrest, exile, and re-integration ... without compromising himself or endangering others, without hungering after higher professional rank or a Lenin Prize, and without giving in to the vanities of victimhood."

It is perhaps fortuitous, then, that Bakhtin, who died in 1973, did not live to see the rise of the enormous, monolithic edifice now known as the "Bakhtin Industry," with its childish bickering, tireless one-upmanship and endless intellectual scuffles over the master's work.

Emerson, herself very much a part of this world, conjures up a vivid and infinitely petty portrait of the various bitchy yearly conferences with everyone, from Western liberal Marxists to rabid Russian nationalists, attempting to claim Bakhtin as one of their own.

However, it is also precisely at this point that "The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin" begins to lose momentum as Emerson, in the second and concluding section, tries to tie together all of the strands of current thought on Bakhtin. We are then treated to a seemingly endless procession of anonymous Russian and Western critics, who shuffle sullenly through the chapters, branding Bakhtin at best a "deluded utopian" or at worst a "Stalinist fellow-traveller." During this painful process, Emerson hovers obsequiously in the background.

Sometimes she throws in a comment: "As a literary and cultural critic, Bakhtin was speculative, creative, controversial. As a philosopher, he was simply incomprehensible," she contends, but fails to substantiate the claim. Occasionally, Bakhtin's beautiful, beguiling ideas shine through all of this like the sun after long, overcast, groggy periods of cloud.

By the time Emerson is merrily outlining her "guides" for the book's afterword, it has become painfully obvious that she never intended to do anything more than collate the opinions of other scholars, making this, perhaps, the world's first truly polyphonic critical work. Eventually, she comes to the glaringly obvious conclusion that the power and the popularity of Bakhtin's work owe something to the fact that he himself was a creative artist, that he belongs "to the ranks of the poets." But this is reached only with the help of yet another anonymous Russian scholar and a quote from Pushkin. Even in the closing pages of "The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin," its own author does not have the final word.

"The First Hundred years of Mikhail Bakhtin" by Caryl Emersen, Princeton University Press; 287 pages; $29.95.