Dostoyevsky’s greatest critic explains why everyone should read his novels

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Many Russian writers owe at least part of their success to the scholars who first discovered them. In the 19th century, the accolades of publisher Vissarion Belinsky could turn an inexperienced hobbyist into a bestseller overnight. This was the case with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose first novel Poor people Belinsky declared mandatory reading in his enthusiastic review of it.

What Belinsky was in the 19th century, literary critic and theorist Mikhail Bakhtin portrayed him in the 20th century. Born in Tsarist Russia in 1895 as the heir to a noble family, Bakhtin witnessed the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik uprising that followed. A prodigious writer and even more prodigious smoker, he burned his own uncopied manuscripts when World War II caused a shortage of rolling paper.

Despite this act of self-sabotage, Bakhtin’s legacy has survived. Criticism approached criticism the same way writers approached writing. What interested him most in literature was not its form but its content; through fiction, writers could get closer to the truth than they could through the reality that originally inspired them. The more convincing the ideas presented in a novel, the more attention that novel should receive.

During his career, Bakhtin revolutionized our understanding of renowned authors, most notably Belinsky’s champion Dostoyevsky. His book with a misleading name, The problems of Dostoyevsky’s poetics, provides one of the most compelling arguments as to why his writing was unlike anything that has been published before or – in fact – has been published since.

Polyphony versus monophony

Despite the title of their post, literary critics hardly bother to point out flaws in a specific text. Rather academically, they are concerned with elucidating the otherwise elusive genius of the writers they study. Bakhtin says the same in the introduction to his Problems, where he promises to show, through “theoretical literary analysis”, how Dostoyevsky’s fiction created a new outlook on the world.

In short, Bakhtin argued that Dostoyevsky wrote polyphonically or in multiple voices. Where other writers, such as his contemporary Leo Tolstoy, used thinly veiled figures as spokespersons to discuss their own ideas, Dostoyevsky treated his fictional creations as if they were completely independent of him, driven by thoughts and ideas. feelings that were entirely theirs.

In Russia, critics like Bakhtin were as popular as the authors they studied. (Credit: nevelikc / Wikipedia)

Writing in this way, deeply involved in the world of fiction but fundamentally disconnected from it, requires enormous emotional maturity. This polyphonic style, Bakhtin continues, had not been seen since the death of William Shakespeare who, according to the critic, was able to reinvent himself with each piece and, as such, created an opus in which each work was philosophically and ideologically distinct from the previous one.

The advantages of polyphony (as opposed to monophony) are many, but perhaps its biggest advantage is that it most faithfully simulates how ideas are exchanged in the real world. When you read a conflict in a Tolstoy novel, you find Tolstoy arguing with a straw man. Dostoyevsky’s conflicts, on the other hand, are entirely dialogical: a fair and equal confrontation between two equally viable points of view.

The carnival

If polyphony were Dostoyevsky’s greatest strength as a writer, his aptitude for carnivalization would fall behind. This literary term is not as simple as polyphony. Derived by Bakhtin from a long study of Greco-Roman culture and its poetic arts, the concept of carnivalization requires a much longer explanation than the reviewer patiently provides.

Simply put, carnival stories are like carnivals. During these ancient events, traditional norms were temporarily dissolved to make way for a frenzied festivity. Dressed in costumes or hidden behind masks, people from different social classes interact on an equal footing. This coordinated chaos, in turn, arouses powerful emotions that allow individuals from different backgrounds to establish authentic relationships.

Dostoyevsky's Karamazov brothers
Even in his early days, Dostoyevsky The Karamazov brothers turned reality into a carnival madhouse. (Credit: Wikipedia / Public domain)

The fact that Dostoyevsky’s work is often described as a circus or a madhouse indicates that Bakhtin is not far off in his assessment. In the author’s greatest works, the nobles eat at the same table as the beggars. The purest emotions frequently interact with odious thoughts. In The Karamazov brothers, Dostoevsky tries to show the goodness of God by telling the story of some of the most vile specimens of mankind.

“Carnival,” Bakhtin writes, “is how past millennia perceive the world as one great collective performance.” By “bringing the world as close as possible to one person and by bringing one person as close as possible to another,” these festivities can protect humanity from the kind of absolutist worldview that Dostoyevsky saw as the root of injustice and justice. human suffering.

The problem with the problems of Dostoyevsky’s poetics

Perhaps more than any other text, that of Bakhtin Problems revitalized the study of Dostoyevsky in Russia and abroad. In addition to this, his theories on polyphony, carnival, and the historical significance of the novel as a unique art form in the 19th century appear frequently in critical theory and comparative course curricula.

But while Bakhtin’s interpretation of his country’s literary canon has received much praise, it has not proved infallible to outside criticism. Discovering flaws in the great critic’s personal worldview, the articles written by his students add to the ongoing dialogue, offering new methods for studying literary masterpieces.

Dostoyevsky’s interpretation of Bakhtin was questioned by Isaiah Berlin who in his essay The hedgehog and the fox, argued that the allegedly polyphonic author was characterized by his unwavering belief system. Where Tolstoy, uncertain and curious, abandoned one view of the world for another, Dostoyevsky – at least after his release from prison – remained a devout Christian until death; his religious sentiment colored each of his novels.

This contradictory but equally convincing argument does not imply that Bakhtin was wrong. Instead, it is simply a testament to Dostoyevsky’s enduring genius. As the story unfolds and society takes on different forms, aspects of ancient texts that previously went unnoticed suddenly become visible to the reader. Thus, people like Bakhtin play a decisive role in preserving the legacy of people like Dostoyevsky.

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