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Bakhtin on Poetry, Epic, and the Novel: Behind the Façade



Mikhail Bakhtin has gained a reputation of a thinker and literary theorist somehow hostile to poetry, and more specifically to the epic. This view is based on texts, in which Bakhtin creates and develops a conceptual contrast between poetry and the novel (in "Discourse in the Novel") or between epic and the novel (in "Epic and Novel"). However, as I will show, such perceptions of Bakhtin's position are grounded in a misunderstanding of Bakhtin's writing strategy and philosophical approach. Bakhtin often draws such conceptual contrasts as the ones between epic and novel, but does so not in order to characterize pre-given phenomena (in this case, the epic and the novel as two groups of literary works), but to construct a conceptual space which he in turn uses to explicate elements of his philosophy.
Bakhtin on poetry, epic, and the novel: Behind the façade
Sergeiy Sandler. 128
MLA Convention, Boston, January 6
, 2013.
Contact the author at:
Interpreting the work of a thinker is rarely a straightforward task. Still, Mikhail Bakhtin’s
writings, more than those of most 20
-century authors, pose significant methodological
challenges for their reader, challenges which have misled many a scholar.
Bakhtin’s difficulty stems from a convergence of several factors, some have to do with the
cultural traditions to which he belonged, while others resulted from the political
environment in which he lived and worked; some are extraneous to his own writings (caused
by editors, publishers, translators), while others are intrinsic to the way he writes.
Since our panel deals with Bakhtin and poetry, I would like to focus in this talk on one
particular group of misconceptions that is quite widespread in the literature on Bakhtin, at
least in English-speaking countries. The misconception in question is about Bakhtin’s use of
extended conceptual contrasts, such as the one between poetry and the novel, discussed in
the second chapter of “Discourse in the Novel” or the closely related contrast between epic
and novel. Of these two examples I would actually like to focus more on the latter, because it
allows bringing more colorful evidence, but everything I will be saying here will equally be
applying to the contrast between novel and poetry, which is our more immediate topic today.
The longest and most developed discussion Bakhtin devoted to the contrast between epos
and novel appears in a paper titled “The Novel as a Literary Genre,” based on a lecture
delivered at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow in March 1941. Plans to
publish the paper as a chapter in a collected volume fell through because of the War. The
paper was published in 1970 with some omissions (crucially, without its original opening
paragraph) under the title “Эпос и роман (о методологии исследования романа)”,
reprinted in Bakhtin’s first (posthumous) collection of papers in 1975, and translated into
English under the title “Epic and Novel.” In volume 3 of Bakthin’s collected writings, the
article is reproduced in full, under its original title, together with Bakhtin’s lecture notes and
a record of the discussion that followed the lecture.
To summarize the distinction Bakhtin makes in this article in brief (and somewhat
simplistically), the epic and the novel are presented as radically different from one another in
their representation and evaluation of time. While the epos recounts and valorizes the events
of the heroic past, separated from the present time—the time of the epic poet and his
contemporaries—by an absolute distance, the novel takes place in the author’s and readers’
present time, and valorizes the future.
Now, this contrast between epos and novel drew some fire from, mostly Western,
commentators for being too rigid, and especially for damning epic poetry as a whole with
some characteristics found, at most, only in Homer (to be fair, some members of the
audience of Bakthin’s original lecture seemed to have exhibited a similar misunderstanding).
Bakhtin’s discussion of poetry received a similar treatment: I think most of us here have
come across papers, whose authors find dialogic, polyphonic, or novelistic features in this or
that poem, epic or lyric, and claim this to be a counterexample to, or refutation of, Bakhtin’s
thesis. Scholars have imputed to Bakhtin a “theory of poetry,” and had then criticized that
theory; one author called it “somewhere between naïve and outrageous” (Scanlon 1).
But, as I shall now explain, such critiques, while perhaps serving the purposes of their
authors in developing their own theses, miss Bakhtin’s point. When contrasting between
epos and novel, Bakhtin clearly does not mean to offer a general characterization of all epic
poems on the one hand and of all novels on the other. Similarly, when contrasting the novel
and poetry, Bakhtin is not thereby offering a theory of poetry.
Bakhtin has no problem referring to the novel genre itself as a sub-category of the epos on
several occasions, including in the discussion that followed the lecture in which he
introduced the contrast between the two:
I would like to thank Stephen Pierson for bringing that nice quote to my attention.
[In my lecture] I have in mind the epopee as an absolutely real historical genre. I have in
mind, first and foremost, Homer, as far as antiquity goes, but not quite epos in general.
The novel is an epos too. The epic sequence includes the epopee, the novel, and a whole series
of other genres, which at times tend toward the epopee, and at other times—toward the novel
(Bakhtin, “The Novel as a Literary Genre—Discussion,” Collected Writings 3: 647, emphasis
Nor did Bakhtin have any qualms when he changed the title of his book on Dostoevsky to
Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.
Bakhtin also brings examples of novelized literature and does so in the very lecture in
question. These examples include: “Drama (for example Ibsen, Hauptmann, the whole of
Naturalist drama), epic poetry [poema] for example, Childe Harold and especially Byron's
Don Juan), even lyric poetry (as an extreme example, Heine’s lyrical verse)” (Bakhtin, “Epic
and Novel” 5–6; Russian Original: “The Novel as a Literary Genre”, Collected Writings 3:
Indeed, almost all particular examples of the epic Bakhtin analyzes are noted for their
deviation from the essence of the epos. Thus, The Tale of Igor’s Campaign and The Song of
Roland, and even Hesiod, are said in his notes from the early 1940s to play a role in “The
process of the epopee’s disintegration and the creation of new epic genres.”
The only “pure”
example of an epos that Bakhtin discusses is, as we just saw, the Homeric epos. But then he
also adds the following:
As for the completeness [zavershennost’] of this epopee, let me say that I know no work more
perfect than Homer’s epopee. I am a passionate fan of it, I know it by heart, and no novel can
bring me one percent of the pleasure I derive from this epopee (Bakhtin, “The Novel as a
Literary Genre—Discussion,” Collected Writings 3: 647).
Which refutes the commonly-held view that Bakhtin, who was as keen as any Soviet
intellectual to cite and analyze poems and poets, somehow had a preference of personal taste
for the novel over the epic or poetry in general. Moreover, in another context he remarks:
“There are almost no immortal novels (without caveats – only Rabelais, with caveats—
Cervantes and Dostoevsky)” (Bakhtin, “On the Stylistics of the Novel,” Collected Writings 5:
What’s going on here? To understand this, we should first realize the purpose Bakhtin
pursues by making such contrasts. Focusing on the contrast between epos and novel, we can
first of all now reconstruct the scholarly context in which this contrast was made. As the
working notes published in Bakhtin’s Collected Writings (3: 557+, 583+) show, the lecture in
question grew out of a critical discussion of a claim made in the mid 1930s by Georg Lucács,
wh0, following a remark made by Hegel, argued that the novel is a bourgeois epos, i.e. that it
is somehow capitalist society’s equivalent of what the epos was for earlier social formations.
Bakhtin, of course, felt he had to stress the essential functional difference between the two
This is not to say that the contrast between epos and novel can just be restricted to the
context of this specific debate with Lucács. Bakhtin clearly uses this contrast to make a
All translations from Bakhtin’s Collected Writings are my own (when there is a published English
translation, it is cited directly). For the original Russian, see: (Bakhtin, Sobranie Sochinenii, Sobranie
Here’s the quote in its original context: “The process of the epopee’s disintegration and the
creation of new epic genres. The role of Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, of The Song of
Roland and of The Tale of Igor’s Campaign in this process. Elements of narrowly-literary and
generally-ideological polemics (religious, political). The Tale of Igor’s Campaign is not a song of
victory, but a song of defeat (as is The Song of Roland). For this reason it contains significant
elements of slander and opprobrium (the defeat in question is not of the enemy, but of one’s own
side)” (Bakhtin, “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign in the History of the Epopee,” Collected Writings 5:
For the relevant references and further discussion, see Sergey Bocharov’s and Vadim Liapunov’s
commentary to these notes, in Bakhtin, Collected Writings 3:809.
broader point. But as the now recovered opening paragraph of Bakhtin’s lecture paper clearly
shows (and as is also clear from several points in the discussion that followed the lecture),
this broader point he is making is a philosophical point. He describes his lecture as a
contribution to what he calls “the philosophy of genres.”
But then as a philosopher, Bakhtin is working in a distinctly continental, and specifically
German, tradition, which significantly reflects on his understanding of genre and of typology
more generally. Typology, in this tradition, is not a matter of classification or categorization,
but rather a historical or archaeological affair. Bakhtin draws this contrast himself, when
replying to a comment on his lecture:The genre of the category often betrays us precisely in
the places in which the most interesting elements reveal themselves to the historian”
(Bakhtin, “The Novel as a Literary Genre—Discussion,” Collected Writings 3: 653).
So, when characterizing the epos and the novel in the way he does, Bakhtin does not make
statements that aim to be descriptively correct of all epic works or of all novels. To describe
what he does aim at he sometimes uses the term первофеномен, a Russian rendition of the
German term Urphänomen, usually translated to English as “archetypal phenomenon” (or
just “archetype”), which originates in Goethe’s scientific works. An archetype in this sense is
rather a principle of development, expressed in different ways and to different degrees in
members of a given category of phenomena, than a direct characterization of the phenomena
or the category. It is not so much that a particular literary work is an epos or is a novel;
rather, it can follow, to some degree, and always in its own unique way, the “logic” of the
epos or that of the novel (or even of both, in different respects).
Moreover, again, Bakhtin was interested not so much in the study of genres per se, as he
was in the philosophical import of that study. In a text from the mid-1940s, Bakhtin notes:
“The archetypal phenomenon of poetic discourse is the name. The archetypal phenomenon
of prosaic discourse is the nickname” (Bakhtin, “Additions and Changes to the Rabelais
Book,” Collected Writings 5: 103, emphasis in the original). But, looking at Bakhtin’s
discussion of the name and the nickname—another contrast—in the context of which this
aphorism appears, we can see that he characterizes the name and the nickname in terms of
the basic tones of praise and invective, which are, according to Bakhtin, the basic building
blocks of a person’s evaluation of the world, and especially of a person’s relation to others.
This in turn leads back to the architectonics of self—other relations, first discussed in
Bakhtin’s explicitly philosophical works from the 1920s. So, in the end, the contrast between
poetry and novel serves to illustrate and develop aspects of Bakhtin’s original philosophy.
Summing up, the notion that there should be something contrary to Bakhtin’s own
position in talking about dialogic poems may largely reflect a misunderstanding, an
extension to Bakhtin’s texts of some reading habits that we developed for coping with
scholarly works belonging to our own academic environment. And I’m not only talking about
the fact that our publish-or-perish world rewards taking cheap shots at our colleagues,
ignoring complexities in their positions. Bakhtin belongs to an intellectual tradition that
Anglo-American academia had always had difficulty understanding, and moreover, Bakhtin’s
own focus was on many issues that fall exactly into our blind spots.
Here’s the opening paragraph in full: “Genre theory, as a historically systematizing science,
should rely on a philosophy of poetic kinds and genres. But, regretfully, we do not have such a
philosophy, which would satisfy the demands of Marxism-Leninism and of the current state of literary
science, with all the richness of historical material that it has accumulated. Hegel’s philosophy of
genres cannot satisfy us, not only due to its idealism, but also as a result of the limitedness and
obsoleteness of the historical material, on which it relied. Presently, in our study of the nature of
genres, we lack a solid and well-developed philosophical anchor. This makes our work very difficult,
and frequently forces it to stray into a systematizing description and registering of disparate,
intrinsically unconnected facts. In the present talk, devoted to the rudiments of the theory of the
novel genre, we therefore had to allocate a lot of space to the preliminary development of some issues,
belonging directly to the field of the philosophy of genres” (Mikhail Bakhtin, The Novel as a Literary
Genre [Epic and Novel], Collected Writings, Vol. 3, p. 608, emphases in the original.).
We assume, when we encounter such genre labels as “epos,” “novel,” or “poetry,” that
these are names of categories, or of genera in the original Aristotelian sense, that they refer
to groups of literary works. But, as we saw, that is not what Bakhtin has in mind.
We expect stark conceptual contrasts to be used to make extreme claims, to be painting a
picture in bold lines, and to be open to refutation by counterexample. But Bakhtin belongs to
a tradition which rather uses such contrasts to construct a conceptual space, not to describe
a preexisting one.
We expect a discussion of literary genres to be about literature, but for Bakhtin literature
itself is a philosophical matter, and such discussions are there to make a philosophical point.
Last but not least, we expect scholars to use their terms much like mathematicians use
variable labels in equations: consistently. We expect them to stand by their terminology. But
Bakhtin cared little for words and for fights over words. He used his terms opportunistically,
sometimes even in quite opposite senses in different contexts, in order for his text to convey
the meaning he wanted it to convey.
When Bakhtin contrasted the novel with poetry and with epos, he distinguished between
them according to how they reflect one’s awareness of otherness and sense of time. We
should realize that in drawing these conceptual contrasts, Bakhtin was actually talking not
about poetry, epos, and novel, but about otherness and time.
Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich. “Epic and Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed.
Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist. 1981. 3–40. Print.
---. Sobranie Sochinenii [Collected Writings]. Ed. Sergey Georgievich Bocharov & Liudmila
Archirovna Gogotishvili. 6 Vols. Moscow: Russkie slovari. Print.
Scanlon, Mara. “Ethics and the Lyric: Form, Dialogue, Answerability.” College Literature 34.1 (2007):
1–22. Print.
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The publication of this volume was assisted in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency whose mission is to award grants to support education, scholarship, me-dia programming, libraries, and museums in order to bring the results of cultural activities to the general public. Preparation was made possible in part by a grant from the Translations Program of the endowment.
The purpose of this essay is double—to counter Mikhail Bakhtin's contention that all poetry is necessarily monologic and therefore unethical (and, in doing so, to challenge also common assumptions about the lyric that presume a singular, personal, unified voice) and to make this claim by employing Bakhtin's own theories of dialogue in reading contemporary African American poet Robert Hayden's lyric "Night, Death, Mississippi." Hayden's powerful lyric about lynching, at once beautiful and horrifying, provides a rich site to trace some strategies of form and style—for example, the use of free indirect discourse, multiple lyric voices, and a modified call-and-response structure—that enable heteroglossic dialogism within the poem itself and also self-consciously evoke and even perform the reader's answerability to and for it, establishing the participation of the lyric in the ethical encounters of dialogue.