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Bakhtin and the Classics

Bakhtin and the Classics

by R. Bracht Branham

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Mikhail Bakhtin's critical and theoretical experiments have inspired original work in the humanities and social sciences, but Bakhtin and the Classics is the first book to focus on the relationship between Bakhtin and classical studies, the discipline in which Bakhtin himself was trained. Clearly demonstrating the fundamental importance of classical


Mikhail Bakhtin's critical and theoretical experiments have inspired original work in the humanities and social sciences, but Bakhtin and the Classics is the first book to focus on the relationship between Bakhtin and classical studies, the discipline in which Bakhtin himself was trained. Clearly demonstrating the fundamental importance of classical literature in his work, Bakhtin and the Classics expands our understanding of both Bakhtin's thought and the literary and cultural history of antiquity. 

The authors, eminent classicists and distinguished critics of Bakhtin, put Bakhtin into dialogue with the classics—and classicists into dialogue with Bakhtin. Each essay offers a critical account of an important aspect of Bakhtin's thought and examines the value of his approach in the context of literary or cultural history. Beginning with an overview of Bakhtin's notion of carnival laughter, perhaps his central critical concept, the volume explores Bakhtin's thought and writing in relation to Homer's epic verse. Catullus's lyric poetry, ancient Roman novels, and Greek philosophy from Aristotle's theory of narrative to the work of Antiphon the Sophist. The results are of interest and importance to Bakhtinians, theorists, and classicists. 

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"An extraordinarily rich collection. It will be indispensable to classicists interested in Bakhtin's theories and approach as well as to literary critics and students of ancient literature generally. It is first-rate, and there is nothing else like it available."
—David Konstan, Brown University

David Konstan
An extraordinarily rich collection...It is first rate, and there is nothing else like it available.

Product Details

Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Rethinking Theory
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Truer Story of the Novel?

The novel, from the very beginning, developed as a genre that had at its core a new way of conceptualizing time. -Mikhail Bakhtin, "Epic and Novel" (1941)

It has been over forty years since Ian Watt argued in his persuasive and influential book that the novel was a cultural creation of the emerging English middle classes and that its salient formal feature was a new, more rigorous kind of realism - "formal realism." By now his thesis has been repeatedly criticized on both logical and empirical grounds, but it still provides the most common point of reference for discussions of the origins of the novel. Watt's claim that the novel is as uniquely English, at least in its origins, as it is distinctively modern in its methods still underlies the most ambitious attempts to revise or replace his account. Later refinements on Watt's thesis have traced the novel back to other literary sources and areas of culture such as journalism or an assortment of popular and ephemeral forms (L.J. Davis, J.P. Hunter, W. B. Warner) or grounded his account more thoroughly in the evolution of pre-eighteenth century culture and society (M. McKeon). Even those scholars (like Reed and McKeon) who have acknowledged the inconvenient fact of novelistic fiction written in other languages in earlier centuries have balked at the idea that such fiction appears before the time of Cervantes. Now M.A. Doody has come along and cut the Gordian knot of origins by annulling the fundamental distinction between novelistic and other forms of fiction such as romance.1 With that old can of worms out of the way the history of the novel stretches right back to Chariton. What I would like to do here is to sketch an alternative Bakhtinian account of the genre that will do justice to the insights underlying the theses of both Watt and his critics, namely, that 1) something novel emerged in the fiction of the eighteenth century duly reflected in a new terminology (novel vs. romance) but that 2) these texts were far from being as unprecedented as the English department thesis suggests, since novelistic forms of fiction had appeared at least twice before, not only in Renaissance Spain but also in the Roman empire.2 While the varieties of fiction that appeared in the 18th century have become canonical examples of the genre of the novel in English, they do have a genealogy that can be traced back to antiquity, which illuminates what is distinctive about the novel as a form of discourse as well as what is and isn't distinctively modern about it. As part of this genealogy, the ancient examples of novelistic fiction (e.g., Apuleius and Petronius) can be systematically or generically distinguished from the heroic romances written in Greek. In other words, novelistic fiction has been invented more than once and, while its earliest examples are still intimately related to romance and other pre-novelistic and oral forms of storytelling, they also provide interesting precedents for what have usually been considered some of the modern and early modern novel's distinguishing features -such as contemporaneity and certain kinds of realism.

There are many ways of worldmaking. Genres are one of them. As Nelson Goodman has argued; "The many stuffs-matter, energy, waves, phenomena-that worlds are made of are made along with worlds. But made from what? Not from nothing, after all, but from other worlds. Worldmaking as we know it always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking."3 And so it is with genres. "Where do genres come from? Quite simply from other genres," or so argues Todorov4: "A new genre is always the transformation of an earlier one, or of several: by inversion, by displacement, by combination."

But how does something new enter this system? Of course Bakhtin staked out a position in the 20's in opposition to Russian Formalism that rejected the idea of genre "as the recombination of ready made elements."5 Instead, he argued that the category of genre be understood not simply as "a specific grouping of devices with a defined dominant"6-as the Russian Formalists had defined it-but more dynamically as a form of utterance, i.e., not as a set of repeatable rules or conventions that can be specified linguistically; thus by genre Bakhtin does not mean only the hierarchy of literary genres-the usual meaning of the term; his concept is much more capacious embracing the whole spectrum of verbal experience-spoken, written, and thought-as expressed in utterances whether called literary genres, speech genres, inner genres, or behavioral genres.7 In The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship the authors argue: "One might say that human consciousness possesses a series of inner genres for seeing and conceptualizing reality. A given consciousness is richer or poorer in genres, depending on its ideological environment."8 Similarly, in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language Voloshinov observes: "Any utterance, no matter how weighty and complete in and of itself, is only a moment in the continuous process of verbal communication. But that continuous verbal communication is, in turn, itself only a moment in the continuous, all-inclusive generative process of a given social collective. . . verbal communication can never be understood and explained outside of this connection with a concrete situation."9 On the next page he clarifies the point: "The process of speech broadly understood as the process of inner and outer verbal life goes on continuously. It knows neither beginning nor end. The outwardly actualized utterance is an island rising from the boundless sea of inner speech; the dimensions and forms of this island are determined by the particular situation of the utterance and its audience."10 All these formulations are attempts to deny that we can explain the genesis of genres solely by reference to 1) social conditions; 2) to language as a system (langue) or 3); to the individual psyche-as opposed to the utterance in which all three factors inevitably intersect.

Meet the Author

R. Bracht Branham is an associate professor of comparative literature and classics at Emory University.

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