On Monday April 27, Natalya Nikolaevna Bochegova gave a talk entitled “Bakhtin’s Philosophy of the Humanities” as part of the Main Hall Forum lecture series. Bochegova is Dean of the Faculty of Philology at Kurgan State University in Russia. Her lecture discussed Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin and his contributions to twentieth-century literary theory in Russia and in the West. Perhaps best known for his work with the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Bakhtin published ******Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics******* shortly before his arrest in 1929. Like many of his Russian contemporaries in the 1920s and ’30s, Bakhtin was sent into exile following his dubious arrest for political crimes. Accused of participating in the underground workings of the Russian Orthodox Church, – an essentially illegal organization under Communist rule – Bakhtin was sent to serve time in remote Kazakhstan.
While in exile, Bochegova explained, Bakhtin continued to write and, in keeping with a Russian phenomenon that emerged under Stalin’s purges, managed to form a kind of scholarly network with other intellectuals in exile. During those six years, and following the amputation of his leg (after which Bakhtin’s productivity apparently improved significantly), he wrote the dissertation that would become *****Rabelais and His World,***** in which Bakhtin would introduce his idea of the “carnivalesque” in literature. Focusing on a medieval festival called the Feast of Fools and the sixteenth-century French writer Francois Rabelais, Bakhtin found a culture of laughter and parody that makes for what Bochegova called a “coded resistance” – parody that becomes something subversive within the context of literature.
In closing, Bochegova discussed the carnivalesque in relation to Bakhtin’s concept of literary discourse. She described Bakhtin’s use of the term “polyphony” to mean a continuous and changing relationship between author, text, and reader, which Bakhtin called “polyphony” because of the multiple and alternating voices in the “conversation” that is always taking place in literature. Said Bochegova: “Literature is highly dependent on time and place,” yet it can transcend the context in which it is written, becoming “fuller and richer” to a different audience. Ideas like these were embraced by post-structuralists and by the French feminist movement some thirty years later in the 1970s, and they sound familiar now. Bakhtin’s legacy lives on in the annals of Russian literary history, and in the papers of pretentious humanities students around the world.