Philosophy of the Novel VI: Ethics of the Novel in Bakhtin

(Summary of a research project unlikely to be realised in the form articulated, but which is guiding current projects. For earlier posts in this series, see posts of October 7th, 6th,  3rd and  27th August)

A view of the ethical and interpersonal aspects of the novel can be found in Bakhtin’s essays on Rabelais, Dostoevsky and so on, which focus on the novel as a genre containing a variety of contending voices and a carnivalesque concern with pushing boundaries, destruction, and inversion.

Bakhtin’s thought on Dostoevsky’s novels continues the interests in the the ‘carnivalesque’ that he brings to his study of Rabelais. Carnival laughter appears in Dostoevsky in a reduced form, where the laughter is contained in the confrontation of voices not as direct laughter explored in the work on Rabelais.  Anyway, in Dostoevsky, the world is open and free, everything is still in the future and will always be in the future.

In Dostoevsky the fates of people, their experiences and ideas are pushed to their limits, everything is passing over into its opposite in fusion of opposites, laughter and de-crowning, thresholds to appear as places of crisis. Narrative and experiential time are explore as crisis time in which a moment is equal to vast amounts of time. Dostoevsky relativises everything that disunifies people and gives a false seriousness to life.

Carnival time appears in Dostoevsky as the time of a day, which is not the time of tragic unity but is close. It is even further from biographical and historical time, it is a time of an unlimited number of radical shifts and metamorphoses. All that is lacking in unity and distant is brought together at a single spatial and temporal point.

Bakhtin thought the novel could be traced back to Menippean satire, that is the literary form associated with the the third century BCE Greek writer Menippus. Bakhtin did so because he thought of the novel as a multi-voiced and scandalous form. It is  form concerned with parody and breaking down the distance of earlier genres. Scandal breaks out as conventions are defied. Tragic dismemberment followed by celebration suggests some elements of Nietzsche, a transformation of the tragic, and a recurrence of the Dionysian at the heart of the novel.

An epic time of continuity and flow, where the passing of time is not much of an issue is dissolved, and the novel appears to combine elements of comedy as well as tragedy in its universalist concerns. The kinds of dramatic disruptions that Bakhtin focuses on in Bakhtin and Dostoevsky provide ways of understanding those novels where the disruptions are not extreme, so that we can understand the form of the novel as a way of containing and channelling issues of extreme conflict, extreme disturbance of consciousness, and extreme transformations.

The extreme situations structuring Bakhtin’s analysis do not suggest for him a brea down in human communication and ethical consensus, but rather a deeper understanding. The novel is inherently polyphonic, containing many voices with no obvious hierarchy, and that is an ethical situation, the situation in which there can be ethics because different voices express themselves and interact. The ethics is to some degree in tension with dangers that Bakhtin sees in parody and the carnivalesque, which might turn entirely destructive, but the kinds of unity to be found in the novel around discourse and around time, resist such possibilities.

There must be two voices at least for there to be life and therefore there cannot be complete destruction of all points of views except one, except as an act of self-destruction. One character does not just have one voice, the polyphony is not just in the interaction between characters, but in the voice of any one character. That multiplicity of voice though depends on interaction between characters, so all the time it is a question  of many individuals who in the richness of interaction develop multiple voices. It is this which enables ideas to appear and the novel should not be analysed as the ideas of a single authorial voice.

The novel cannot exist as the expression of  a single set of ideas and a single voice supposedly expressing the views of the author, but in the capacity of the author to withdraw before the multiplicity of voices or divide between that multiplicity. Bakhtin provides in some degree a corrective to the more rigid Idealist aspects of the view of the novel in Lukács and Benjamin.

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