Dostoevsky Studies     Volume 8, 1987

Bakhtin, Dostoevsky, and the Status of the "I"

Barbara Z. Thaden, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Mikhail Bakhtin has been given a place in the canon of modern literary theory because, according to Julia Kristeva, he began the deconstruction of character and mimesis, thereby invalidating Russian Formalism's assumptions of representation and transcendence and becoming a precursor of poststructuralism. The semiotics of Kristeva and the deconstruction of Derrida have as one of their main tenets the decentering or break-up of the unified "I" or transcendental ego, based on the theories of Freud, Nietszche, Lacan, and others. Both Kristeva and Derrida wish to expose the fallaciousness of Husserl's transcendental Being and ego, a last remnant of metaphysical idealism, because this is a product and prisoner of logic, law, theology, and the masculine - hence the term "phalologocentric," denoting the law/logic of the father, which is seen by both Kristeva and Derrida as tyrranous. Kristeva writes that Western individualism "is linked to the substantialist, casual, and atomistic thought of Aristotelian Greece and has strengthened throughout centuries this activist, scientistic, or theological aspect of Western culture."(1) To this she opposes the semiotic, or preverbal, feminine and maternal communication between mother and infant, which is not yet a prisoner of phalologocentrism. To Derrida, "Consciousness is the experience of pure auto-affection. It calls itself infallible and if the axioms of natural reason give it this certitude, overcome the provocation of the Evil Spirit, and prove the existence of God, it is because they constitute the very element of thought and of self-presence... God's infinite understanding is the other name for the logos as self-presence."(2) The assumption of presence and of the transcendental ego has, for Derrida, been the foundation and the error of Western metaphysics. Kristeva links Bakhtin with this movement to deconstruct the transcendental ego, which for both Kristeva and Derrida is equivalent to escaping phalologocentrism, or the tyranny of the masculine, the theological, and the transcendential.

According to Kristeva, Bakhtin shows that Dostoevsky is one of the first authors to break up the unified "I" by presenting nonintegrated speaking subjects, such as the narrator in Notes from Underground; the character is not objectified, and the author offers no final solution to the contradictory ideologies that clash in the novel. Kristeva writes, "There is no third person to bring unity to the confrontation between the two; they do not culminate in a stable "I" which would be the "I" of the monologic author."(3) For this reason, Dostoevsky's texts are no longer ideological, because there is no unity of mind to validate any ideology.

This decentering of the "I", which takes into account unconscious as well as linguistic forces, causes us to rethink our conception of authors and characters. The author no longer has


complete control over the work, as the result of unconscious forces and the "slipperiness" of language. Characters are no longer unified and defined, but become disunified speaking subjects; the author no longer presents the character as a whole, because neither characters nor persons are unified, definable entities, but are rather fragmented clusters of contradictory desires which have no "meaning." Modern fiction therefore no longer presents characters but presents the language of disunified "speaking subjects." For Kristeva, "this is a split subject, divided between unconscious and conscious motivations, that is, between physiological processes and social constraints. It can never be identified with anything like Husserl's transcendental ego."(4)

Bakhtin claims that Dostoevsky was the first author of the polyphonic novel which presents speaking subjects instead of defined characters, and in which the author's voice, instead of controlling the discourse from above, descends into the polyphony of clashing ideologies and sounds with no more authority than the voices of characters with different views. Critics such as Roland Barthes see in this polyphony the "death" of the author and the birth of the reader. The author is no longer the "father" of the work, dictating its meaning, but simply another character, another voice in the polyphony, "another figure sewn into the rug; his signature is no longer privileged and paternal, the locus of genuine truth, but rather, lucid. He becomes a 'paper author'...(5) The author no longer explains or judges his characters, or tries to fit them into some moral framework, but merely presents them and lets them speak for themselves.

Critics such as Rene Wellek have been understandably perturbed by this interpretation of Dostoevsky. Wellek writes that "Bakhtin is simply wrong if he denies... the authorial voice of Dostoevsky, his personal angle of vision... Dostoevsky makes a clear judgment about the values of the points of view presented by the speakers."(6) Wellek, like many critics, feels that Dostoevsky never loses control of his characters, and that his writing is not "carnivalesque" because Dostoevsky reveals himself in his work as "a man of deep commitment, profound seriousness, spirituality, and strict ethics".(7). My purpose here is to show how Bakhtin, although he can be seen as a precursor if modern semiotics and deconstruction, does not deny the authorial voice in Dostoevsky, does not claim that Dostoevsky has lost control of his characters, and does not completely deconstruct the "I." While Bakhtin does claim that Dostoevsky is "carnivalesque", critics such as Kristeva transgress Bakhtin by claiming the takes Dostoevsky out of the realm of ethics and into the realm of free play and "jouissance." A semiotic or deconstructive reading of Notes from Underground, for example, would find a series of contradictions with no resolution, Kristeva writes:

Dostoevsky's "model" lacks unity of speaker and of meaning: it is plural, anti-totalitarian and anti-theological. It. thus exemplifies permanent contradiction, and could never have anything in common with Hegelian dialectic. Its logic, Bakhtin tells us, is that of the dream: the continuance of contradiction and/or the coexistence of high and low, of


virtue and vice, of the true and the false, or faith and transgression, of the sacred and the profane."(8)

The author never enters the work to resolve these contradictions. He simply presents a voice, but offers no synthesis. Bakhtin does make this claim, but at the same time claims that Dostoevsky's intentions are apparent in the work.

Notes from Underground illustrates this contradiction. It has been variously interpreted, as, for example, the first neo-romantic novel of the alienated anti-hero, a precursor to such later neo-Romantic novels as The Stranger, The Immoralist, and Nausea, in which the author can be presumed to at least partially identify with his hero, or, as Rene Girard claims, as an indictment of the non-committed, isolated man, as a biting satire of a ridiculous man, more in the tradition of Swift than a precursor of Camus. Bakhtin places Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground somewhere between these two poles, in the tradition of Menippean Satire, whose most representative examples are Petronius' Satyricon and Rebelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, While Menippean satire does expose ideologies, its purpose is to deflate their excessive power without destroying them. In the same way, the carnival restores a balance, but does not overthrow hierarchies; at the end of carnival, all return to their prior positions. Kristeva overemphasizes the revolutionary character of carnival, while Bakhtin finds carnival is an integral part of a hierarchical and theological society, and has lost ground since society has become more fluid and secular.(9) Revolution takes itself much more seriously than carnival.

Thus Dostoevsky both sympathizes with and satirizes the Underground Man, because, as in carnival, his purpose is not to destroy a position, but to expose it; even though he does not agree with the Underground Man, he allows him to have his say. In Menippean satire the author is not above, but part of, the general derisive laughter. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin emphasizes that no one is excluded from the laughter of carnival; "everyone, including the carnival's participants" is within its scope.(10) While the negative satirist mocks from above, carnival laughter emphasizes the equality of all; those who laugh are also those laughed at. We are to laugh at the underground Man and at ourselves as well, to regain a balanced perspective on the human condition. Attempting to destroy a position assumes an unsympathetic superiority, while exposing its weaknesses does not.

But how are we to intuit that Dostoevsky does not agree with his first person narrator, and that what we have here is satire and not serious polemic? Does the author have control over the work, and can we understand the author's intentions, or, as Rene Wellek feels, is Dostoevsky's voice and personal angle of vision not apparent in the Bakhtinian interpretation of Dostoevsky?

Since all we have within the text is the Underground Man's vision, since we have no monological authorial voice to explain, interpret, and judge the character, how are we to


arrive at a "theme" for the work outside of the main character's thesis? A poststructuralist would deny a unified author who can somehow convey his intentions through the medium of language, which is always escaping the author's grasp and deflecting its own desires. There is no meaning outside and above textuality, and language itself cannot be chained down to one meaning, because meaning is context bound but context is boundless.(11) Thus to claim that Dostoevsky "means" something different from what his words mean is both correct and incorrect. It is correct in that the words themselves are inherently ambiguous, and one possible interpretation might happen to coincide with the author's purpose. It is incorrect in claiming that the reader can somehow phenomenologically connect with the author's mental intentions - poststructuralists reject the phenomenological view of reading, popularly expounded by Georges Poulet, in which the reader connects with the "consciousness" of the author through his work.(12)

However, more traditional critics such as Wayne C. Booth point out that irony, for example, does not depend on linguistic clues so much as on a "collusion" or understanding between author and reader. Only a mature reader will grasp irony because only she has the "necessary information."(13) We do not understand, for example, the irony of "crazy like a fox" unless we know something about the characteristics traditionally ascribed to foxes. While our knowledge of foxes is also a "text" it is not a linguistic feature of the work.

Dostoevsky's irony depends on this "collusion", of course, but he also provides at least one linguistic clue to his irony -his introductory note, which presents the Underground Man as a fictional, but inevitable, product of society. Some readers claim that this note identifies the author with the Underground Man, because of the similarities in their ages and circumstances; others claim that this "editor" is not Dostoevsky at all, but an "editor" similar to the "editor" in The Scarlet Letter, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Lolita. However, this note is signed "Fyodor Dostoevsky", which distinguishes it from such fictional introductions as that by the "editor" John Ray, Jr. in Lolita and the unsigned introductions to the other two novels; furthermore, the last three "introductions" imply that the work which follows is somehow true, whereas Dostoevsky's note identifies the work as fiction. Dostoevsky felt it necessary to differentiate himself from the narrator in Notes because naive readers had confused Dostoevsky's opinions with those of his previous first person narrators. He had written to his brother in 1846, after publishing Poor Folk, that the public didn't "understand anybody who writes in my way. They are used to seeing to author's phiz [face] in everything; I haven't shown mine. It doesn't even occur to them that it is Devushkin speaking, and that Devushkin can't speak in any other way."(14) Thus the note does not signal autobiography, nor is it part of the fictional "text." While Dostoevsky claims he is not writing in his own voice, "I haven't shown mine" does not necessarily mean he has not revealed his opinions on the subject; any satirist can reveal his opinions through those of a "naive" or idiosyncratic narrator.

Dostoevsky also controls his discourse, according to Bakhtin,


through the technique of double-voiced discourse, whereby the author uses another's speech in another's language to express authorial intentions - this is part of Bakhtin's basic tenet that discourse is always the product of a personality, a speaking subject, in a context. Discourse is the product of a speaking subject/narrator in a novel, and also a product of the author writing the novel. The fact that the narrator's discourse is transcribed by the author changes its meaning: "The speech of another, once enclosed in a context, is - no matter how accurately transmitted - always subject to certain semantic changes."(15} This double-voiced discourse creates "dialogic tension between two languages and two belief systems, and permits authorial intentions to be realized in such a way that we can accurately sense their presence at every point in the work."(16) The "speech" of the Underground Man is enclosed in the context of a fictional work, bounded by an introductory and an end note by the author (who in the end note does appear to have some characteristics of a fictional editor).

Bakhtin writes that we should be able to "sense" this second level of discourse, the intentions of the author as differentiated from the intentions of the narrator, and that if we fail to do this we have failed to understand the work. However, in Notes from Underground, the narrator is aware of his ludicrousness: "There is literally nothing we can say about the hero of 'Notes from Underground' that he does not already know himself"(17), writes Bakhtin, which adds another level of irony and is responsible for creating the "dialogic" nature of the novel - the author has an opinion, but he does not claim to be in possession of the truth about his character. The author and the character engage in a dialogue through the technique of double-voiced discourse, which is not resolved within the text itself.

Through the technique of double-voiced discourse Dostoevsky, according to Bakhtin, retains control of the work, but the novel does not become monological because the character is still free, in the sense that his ideas are not shown to be wrong by some authorial voice within the text, or even "above" the text, as in caustic satire. But how can a character who is satirized have any freedom? Bakhtin explains that Dostoevsky can write parody which does not destroy the other's language, but preserves it whole and intact, because the narrator's language was once "internally persuasive" to the author and so it "mounts a resistance to this process and frequently begins to sound with no parodic overtones at all."(18) While Dostoevsky 's biography will confirm that he once espoused several of the philosophical notions of the Underground Man, the idea that the other's language "mounts a resistance" is a psychological and not linguistic concept which claims that the author can so thoroughly control language as to express his intentions through the opposing language of a character who is not obviously wrong or naive. Perhaps because Bakhtin, like Dostoevsky, was subject to censorship and had to write indirectly, as when he published under the names of his friends and also (according to Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist in their 1984 biography), in formally aligning his theories to a certain extent with Soviet Marxism, he has more faith in the perceptibility of indirect intentions than critics in the West who deal with more


monologic works. Although this is a semantic concept which cannot be linguistically explained, Bakhtin does feel that Dostoevsky controls the text and that his intentions are evident throughout the work.

Bakhtin also seems to feel that double-voiced, or indirect polemic, may be more effective than monologic or direct polemic. For example, Dostoevsky leaves it to the reader to intuit that the Underground Man's greatest failure is his inability to relate to other people - that he is "monologic" and not "dialogic" in his relationships with others. The idea of accepting the other as a "thou" is central to both Dostoevsky and Bakhtin. While the Underground Man ceaselessly judges and/or manipulates those both above and below him, Dostoevsky does not allow us to so easily judge the Underground Man. The Notes are incomplete, and this incompleteness of the self, according to Bakhtin, "is the necessary condition of its freedom. 'I' exist as a project (zadannost') that can only be realized in the fullness of time by God's grace."(19)

While critics such as Kristeva have seen in this incomplete "I" the break-up of the idea of a central ego, Bakhtin seems to view this incomplete "I" in quite a different way. The character in Dostoevsky becomes a speaking subject, for Bakhtin, because for the first time the character is regarded, in Buber's terms, as a "Thou" and not an "It." Dostoevsky does not objectify the character, finish the character, or judge the character, because, as Bakhtin writes, "in a human being there is always something that only he himself can reveal... something that does not submit to externalizing secondhand definition."(20) The "character" disappears because to view a person, or a speaking subject, as a character is to be above him, to control him, judge him, and speak not only for him but about him in a superior way. Dostoevsky allows his characters to speak for themselves because of his profound respect for the other in his otherness; he presents a speaking subject because only a speaking subject, in all its unfinalizability, is a true "other." According to Bakhtin, Dostoevsky does not present "characters" but "pesonalities"; he discovered "a new integral view on the person"(21) and realized that "personality is not subordinate to (that is, it resists) objectified cognition and reveals itself only freely and dialogically (as thou for -I)(22). To present a character is to present a stasis, while a personality is open-ended. This Bakhtinian view of personality has less in common with materialistic than with transcendental views of the ego, such as that of Karl Jaspers, in which "the individual is seen as this unique existent, the being who freely transcends what he already is and creates himself, as it were, through the exercise of his freedom." (23)

Deconstructionists claim that because the self is constituted by language, and does not exist prior to language, the "cogito" of Descartes is basically an illusion. Man falsely imagines that concepts exist prior to language, that we create and control language, and that therefore some reality or "transcendental signified" exists outside of and prior to language, which is the basic fallacy of Western metaphysics. However, perhaps even the conception of the "I" as constituted by lan-


guage, which Bakhtin at least partially accepts (as does Dostoevsky, in Notes from Underground), does not have to take us outside the Judeo-Christian tradition and Western metaphysics. For Bakhtin, the self "never coincides with itself" because it is always in the process of becoming, because the final word has not yet been spoken, nor will it be spoken by man. To Bakhtin, the "I" is an act of grace, a gift from the other, in much the same way that this is true for Buber. Dialogue and interaction are necessary for the "I" to even exist, both for Dostoevsky and for Bakhtin. For example, Caryl Emerson has translated this passage from Bakhtin's Estetika Slovesnogo Tvorchestva:

No nirvana is possible for a single consciousness. A single consciousness is a contradiction in terms... I am conscious of myself and become myself only while revealing myself for another, through another, and with the help of another... Separation, dissociation, and enclosure within the self is the main reason for loss of one's self. Not that which takes place within, but that which takes place on the boundary between one's own and someone else's consciousness, on the threshold... Thus does Dostoevsky confront all decadent and idealistic (individualistic) culture, the culture of essential and inescapable solitude, the illusory nature of solitude. The very being of man (both external and internal) is the deepest communion. To be means to communicate... To be means to be for another, and through the other, for oneself.(24)

While the above can be seen as a Marxist position, a Christian position, or both, it is a vision which celebrates the "I" in communion with others, and this communion suggest a transcendent, spiritual sphere ("idealistic" is used as a synonym for "individualistic", not "metaphysical"). We can compare this to Dostoevsky: "After Christ's appearance, it became clear that the highest development of personality must attain to that point where man annihilates his own "I", surrenders it completely to all and everyone without division or reserve... When man has not fulfilled the law of striving toward the ideal, i.e. has not by love offered his "I" in sacrifice to people..., he experiences suffering and has called this condition sin."(25)

The similarity of these two passages should remind us that it is possible to criticize egotism without destroying Western metaphysics. While there are many reasons for aligning Bakhtin with modern critical theory, it is also possible to see in him a deep spiritual communion with the author he spent much of his life studying. Perhaps he is not stepping outside the Judeo-Christian tradition but taking it back to its roots in the communal vision of the New Testament. While Kristeva claims, for example, that carnival is "anti-Christian and anti-rationalist"(26), Bakhtin himself finds carnival elements in Christianity, with dialogism responsible for its birth and a characteristic of its basic texts.(27)

Similarly, the type of "moral relativism" which Bakhtin is accused of assigning to Dostoevsky, the moral relativism of the carnival spirit and of Menippean satire, may have more in


common with traditional ethics and metaphysics than at first appears. The Underground Man speaks "the word with a loophole" which "is the retention for oneself of the possibility for altering the ultimate, final meaning of one's own words"(28) because the refuses to become a character, an "it". Every one of his positions can be judged, and is judged, by the author just as in any ironic or satiric work; however, the total personality is not subjectable to any definitive judgment by the author. The Being who "can be neither objectified nor reduced to the conclusion of a demonstration or proof"(29) is, according to Jaspers, a transcendent being, not a "product" of language, ideology, unconscious forces, or social and economic conditions, but a "process" which transcends those forces.

Thus to link Bakhtin solely to the atheistic and anti-metaphysical movements of semiotics and deconstruction, or to dismiss him as antithetical to Dostoevsky's high moral seriousness, it to ignore Bakhtin's deep spirituality. Perhaps Bakhtin 's celebration of the "I" in communion with others can help to bridge the gap between the traditional and Bakhtinian interpretations of Dostoevsky, and show that dialogism 'and the carnivalesgue are not incompatible with moral purpose. We can remember the existential maxim that not to take a position is to take a position. Not to judge monologically is to make a serious statement about the worth and dignity of the individual and to celebrate the birth, not the death, of the "I", which is - or can be - the result of its spiritual communion with others.


  1. Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), p. 91.
  2. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 98.
  3. Julia Kristeva, "The Ruin of a Poetics", in Russian Formalism, ed. Stephen Bann and John E. Bowlt (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1973), p. 111.
  4. Leon S. Roudiez, introduction to Desire in Language, p. 6.
  5. Rolan Barthes, "From Work to Text", in Textual Strategies, ed. Josue V. Harari (New York: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 78.
  6. Rene Wellek, "Bakhtin's View of Dostoevsky: 'Polyphony' and 'Carnivalesque', Dostoevsky Studies 1 (1980), p. 32-33.
  7. Ibid., p. 37.
  8. Kristeva, "Ruin", p. 111.

  9. 207

  10. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 131.
  11. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1968), p. 111.
  12. Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 123.
  13. Georges Foulet, "Phenomenology of Reading", New Literary History 1:1 (Oct. 1969).
  14. Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 300-308.
  15. Jessie Coulson, Dostoevsky: A Self Portrait (London: Ox ford University Press, 1962), p. 36.
  16. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 340.
  17. Ibid., p. 314.
  18. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, p. 115.
  19. Dialogic Imagination, p. 348.
  20. Milton Ehre, "Review of M. M. Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination, Poetics Today 5:1 (1984), p. 174.
  21. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, p. 59.
  22. Ibid., p. 58.
  23. Ibid., p. 298.
  24. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy Vol. VII (New York: Image Books, 1963), p. 428-429.
  25. Caryl Emerson, "The Outer World and Inner Speech: Bakhtin, Vygotsky, and the Internalization of Language", Critical Inquiry 10 (Dec. 1983), pp. 311-312.
  26. Konstantin Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, trans. Michael A. Minihan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 261.
  27. Kristeva, Desire, p. 79.
  28. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, p. 135.
  29. Ibid., p. 233.
  30. Copleston, p. 429.
University of Toronto