Who was Mikhail Bakhtin and what was his life and intellectual legacy in linguistics? Let’s see.
Mikhail Bakhtin’s name is not well known. In fact, he himself did not wish to become famous and always surrounded himself by an aura of mystery and anonymity, either by his own will and desire or because the political situation in his native Russia did not allow it.
Despite this, the truth is that in his time he became a great reference and, even, a group of intellectuals and artists was created that revolved around Bakhtin. In addition, after the fall of the Soviet Union, his work became better known and managed to become popular in the first world.
Of course, the figure of this philosopher of language, theorist and literary critic arouses great interest today, especially his theory of dialogism. In this article we see a biography of Mijaíl Bakhtin, with his life and his contributions to the study of language and literature.
Brief biography of Mikhail Bakhtin
Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (also spelled Bakhtin or Bakhtine) was born on November 17, 1895 in Oriol, the former Russian Empire. He was a member of an aristocratic family in decline. Due to the profession of his father, who was a bank manager, Bakhtin moved several times during his childhood, living in cities such as Vilnius and Odessa.
At the age of 9, he began to manifest the symptoms of osteomyelitis that would accompany him throughout his life and, which would cost him the amputation of a leg several decades later. This first experience with suffering, especially with the fact that his body was seriously affected, marked him for life and influenced his work.
Formation and post-evolution period
Bakhtin began his studies at the University of Odessa between 1913 and 1916, but later he moved to the University of Saint Petersburg / Petrograd to study philosophy and letters until 1918.
After the Russian Revolution, Bakhtin had the opportunity to establish contact with great characters of the culture of the time. He met with scholars, philosophers, thinkers and artists of various arts who, with the passage of time, would form what would be called “The circle of Bakhtin.”
This circle, as its name suggests, focused on the thought and work of Mikhail Bakhtin and united its members an interest in German philosophy. This group organized public lectures, evening dialogues, and plays.
In the circle the social and cultural problems that Soviet society was suffering were approached from a philosophical perspective. Although the Russian Revolution promised a great liberation for the proletariat at first, with the passage of time the new regime degenerated into the dictatorship of Stalin.
The work of Bakhtin and those who involved him focused on social life in general, emphasizing how artistic creation occurred at that time as a form of expression of the concerns and concerns of society. Particular importance was taken on how the language reflected the conflicts between the new social classes that emerged as a result of the change of government.
According to the circle, linguistic production is, or at least should be, dialogic insofar as it is a social interaction. In other words, in the same way as in a normal conversation between two people, who speak and listen to each other, the powers and the people should undertake a dialogic communication.
Traditionally, the most powerful classes, whether economically or politically, try to impose a single discourse, trying to define it as exemplary, which also implies trying to impose a single vision. Instead, the only thing that the less favored classes receive is a message given in the form of a monologue, an imperative. That is to say, they have neither voice nor vote as to how the government should be given or, in the most serious cases, they risk being “silent”.
Stalin era: exile and literary production
During the regime of Iósif Stalin several maneuvers were carried out to end any critic of the government of what was already the well-established Soviet Union. The Bakhtin circle was the victim of this persecution, and several of its members were executed. Mikhail Bakhtin himself suffered these interventions in his flesh, but for his “fortune” they simply exiled him to Kazakhstan.
Despite his prolific literary activity and great knowledge, the fact of having been persecuted by the Stalinist government caused him a great loss of prestige when he returned to public life in the 1940s.
During those years he worked on a thesis focused on laughter, which later became one of his most important works, Rebelais y su mundo. This work is one of Bakhtin’s great contributions towards a more parodistic type of literature.
Despite the bad reputation he had acquired for being critical of the regime, he regained his prestige and years of intense literary production loomed living in Moscow during the 1940s.
After living in Moscow, Mikhail Bakhtin moved to Saransk, another Russian city, where he had the opportunity to work as a teacher at an Institute specialized in pedagogy in the region. From 1957 to 1961 he worked as head of the department of Russian and world literature, until his health problems forced him to retire.
Bakhtin died on March 7, 1975 in Moscow, Russia, at the age of 79.
Work and thought
Bakhtin’s work is encompassed within the Russian formalism. During the 1920s, his work focused mainly on ethics and aesthetics.
Among the great works of this Russian theorist, it is worth highlighting four works that are crucial to read in order to understand Bakhtin’s complex theory:
1. Towards a philosophy of the act
Although this essay has not been fully recovered, it seems that in it Bakhtin explained his particular way of understanding how the human being understands the world around him and interprets it.
This work suggests what would later be characteristic in the ethical and moral vision of this Russian author. It defends what idea are those that explain the understanding of each human being that he is a unique being.
According to what has been recovered from the work, it is explained how people understand that we act both actively and passively in our own existence, whether physical or emotional.
It also stipulates that our perception of uniqueness exists only to the extent that we think about it and that as we are irreplaceable beings, we must actualize this idea that we are unique.
These premises are complex and, as his literary career evolved, he specified more precisely what all this meant.
2. Problems of Dostoyevsky’s poetics
In this work he exposes that, at an individual level, people are not completely definable on the outside. According to the idea behind this explanation, it is not possible to truly describe a person if you are not that person, since aspects such as their emotionality cannot be felt.
According to Bakhtin, Dostoyevsky, in his works, tried to portray the characters in his works contrary to the way many writers did, avoiding treating them as if they were approachable objects from different perspectives.
Furthermore, it is thanks to Dostoyevsky’s work that Bakhtin proposes the concepts of polyphony and dialogism.
Polyphony, referred to in the literary field, is the fact of exposing several characters in a novel and that they are in charge of explaining their internal world, without having to resort to the narrator or the main character, if there is one.
3. Rabelais and his world
It is a work in which he analyzes the social system of the Renaissance, focusing on language. His objective was to see what was the balance between the language that was allowed at that time and that which was not.
4. The dialogical imagination
This work, which is posthumous, is a set of essays by Bakhtin in which it deals with issues related to language. In it concepts such as heteroglossia, dialogism and chronotope are introduced and detailed.
The term dialogic, especially related to Bakhtin’s dialogism and which has become the most remarkable idea in his long professional career, is somewhat complex to explain. It refers to the fact that the information handled by two people who are having a conversation is not something static.
People, in their communicative interactions, modify jointly with the meanings of the words they use, either because the receiver wants to give it a specific meaning or the receiver misinterprets it. Also, words can be used in an alternative way to the meaning that they have been socially assumed to have.
Heteroglossia refers to the fact that there are different records between people. This is especially applicable to novels, in which the register of the characters and that of the narrator do not have to coincide in aspects of the use of colloquialisms, solemnity, use of the first and third person …
Finally, chronotope is how space and time references are made in language and discourse. That is, what are the terms and expressions that are used to describe and indicate the places and times, either from the novel or from an article about a real event.
- Todorov, T. (2010). “Jakobson and Bajtin”, in The totalitarian experience. Barcelona, Spain, Gutenberg Galaxy.
- Morson, GS and Emerson, C. (1990) Mikhail Bakhtin. Creation of Prosaics, Stanford, USA, Stanford University.
- Holoquist, M. (1991) Bakhtin and his World, London-New York, UK-USA, Routledge