Fragments from the Burning Archive: Mikhail Bakhtin

I plunged again into my white box of old handwritten index cards today, and pulled from the archive, laid down in my twenties and thirties, a fragment from Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), the Russian literary critic and philosopher. The text comes from a late work of Bakhtin, Speech Genres, although I took the text from Clark and Holquist’s biography, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), which, unlike most of Bakhtin’s own texts, I then had access to through the libraries of the University of Melbourne and Australian National University. The card reads:

“There is neither a first word nor a last word. The contexts of dialogue are without limit. They extend into the deepest part and the most distant future. Even meanings born in dialogues of the remotest past will never be finally grasped once and for all, for they will always be renewed in later dialogue. At any present moment of the dialogue there are great masses of forgotten meanings, but these will be recalled again at a given moment in the dialogue’s later course when it be given new life. For nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will someday have its homecoming festival.”

Mikhail bakhtin, speech genres

Bakhtin was a fascinating figure to me when I was a student, as I struggled to find a form of historical writing that preserved the enigmas of literature, resisted the drudgery of rational academia, and yet did not become the indulgence of fiction. I was intrigued by his idea of the polyphonic voices in Dostoyevsky’s novels and the carnivalesque in Rabelais. I never studied his ideas systematically – perhaps the very idea of such an approach to Bakhtin is grotesque – but his ideas were a provocation, and an invitation to see the world dramatically, as a storm of events and perspectives, and not only from the tyrannical single perspective of the cogito.

In an interview near his death in 1975, later published in the New York Review of Books and quoted here, Bakhtin said:

“In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding—in time, in space, in culture. For one cannot even really see one’s own exterior and comprehend it as a whole, and no mirrors or photographs can help; our real exterior can be seen and understood only by other people, because they are located outside us in space, and because they are others.”

mikhail bakhtin

This is a challenging thought for a recluse, and yet also true. It is why I believe , to step away from literature for a moment, that governing requires talking to strangers – for only then will the glimpses of a new reality appear in the theatre of public discussion. Yet I wonder also if looking back after thirty years on these cards is a way to get a perspective on the real exterior, and to see these traces of my life with new insight. If nothing else, I noticed two odd coincidences between this fragment of Bakhtin and my later writing.

First, Bakhtin was sent into internal exile in 1929, due to his errant mind in the Stalinist purges, and, while my punishment is not nearly as severe, yet still I have long felt myself to be a dissident in our decaying regime, and only recently wrote, in my year in review post, of the freedom of internal exile. Perhaps, this dim awareness led to my affinity with Bakhtin.

Second, reading this card from my box archive after all these years surprised me because there, lurking in that quotation transcribed thirty years ago, was the idea of the infinite conversation. For Bakhtin, the dialogue of literature, or less grandly writing, is infinite. They can never be fully grasped, and can always be renewed like an unquenchable burning that a succeeding reader or writer may always enflame by breathing into the embers. I absorbed that lesson from my fellow internal exile, my fellow scorned intellectual, and I found in that lesson an enduring hope – “nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will someday have its homecoming festival.

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