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Mikhail Bakhtin (1895 - 1975)

Related: carnivalesque - Rabelais - literary theory - grotesque


Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (November 17, 1895 (new style)-1975) wrote influential works in literary theory and literary criticism. He was born in Orel, Russia.

Key concepts associated with Bakhtin's works include dialogism, heteroglossia, the carnivalesque, and chronotope.

Much of Bakhtin's work centered on interpreting the novel form. For many years he had problems publishing due to the repressive political reality of the USSR. His work therefore only gradually became known outside of Russia.

As a literary theorist, Bakhtin emerged out of the school of Russian Structuralism, but attempted to understand the method of literary meaning in dialogue as a series of structures inherent in the text and culture surrounding the text. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Bakhtin [Mar 2005]

The grotesque is essentially physical

"Feejee Mermaid" from the New York Sunday Herald

For Bakhtin-and one finds it difficult to disagree with him-the grotesque is essentially physical, referring always to the body and bodily excesses and celebrating these in an uninhibited, outrageous but essentially joyous fashion. The carnival, that favourite popular arena for the indulging of physical excess, is seen by Bakhtin as the grotesque event par excellence, the place where the common people abandoned themselves to exuberantly obscene excesses of a physical kind. One can see a whole popular tradition of the grotesque here, ranging from the ancient satyr-plays to the commedia dell'arte (cf. Jacques Callot's marvellously grotesque illustrations of commedia dell'arte characters and scenes), with important links with dramatists as far apart as Aristophanes and the 'pataphysicist' Alfred Jarry, creator of the monstrously grotesque Ubu figure. It might be objected that Bakhtin's view of the grotesque is idiosyncratic and narrow (he develops it principally in connection with Rabelais, to whom it applies very well), but his insistence on the physical nature of the grotesque and on the primitive delight in what is obscene, cruel and even barbaric is quite justified. We would only wish to add that this delight constitutes only one possible aspect of the response to the grotesque.

The often intensely physical nature of the grotesque is logical when one recalls that the term was originally applied to the visual arts. Although the extension of 'grotesque' to the verbal arts occurred fairly early, the word has always been applied to the visual rather than the purely verbal. There is nothing abstract about the grotesque. I do not know of a grotesque piece of music, nor does it seem likeley that the term could be legitimately applied to music, except in a very extended sense. But that possibly most visual of all art-forms, the film, there are countless examples of the grotesque. Among the well-known contemporary film-makers (who are, collectively, as given to the grotesque as their writer colleagues), Federico Fellini perhaps stands out: his Satyricon, for example, is an outstandingly and consistently grotesque film. --Philip Thomson via http://mtsu32.mtsu.edu:11072/Grotesque/Major_Artists_Theorists/Theorists/Thomson/thomson4.html [Mar 2005]

See also: grotesque - carnival - Mikhail Bakthin - Body

Contemporaries: Max Horkheimer - Paul Éluard - Aldous Huxley - Alfred Kinsey - Jean Renoir - Edogawa Rampo - Josef von Sternberg - Antonin Artaud - Dziga Vertov - André Breton - André Masson


  1. Rabelais and His World (1940) - Mikhail Bakhtin, Helene Iswolsky (Translator) [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    This is simply the best analysis of the "Carnivalesque" and is a valuable preface to Rabelais' novel itself. Bakhtin's book alerts the reader of Rabelais to his (Rabelais') masterful use of language and explores the sources of medieval popular culture that served his purposes. I have enjoyed Rabelais with much deeper understanding having first read Bakhtin.

    Bakhtin and Rabelais both negotiated cultural minefields to produce their works. Both deserve to be more widely read. --thekets via amazon.com

  2. Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism, and Film (Parallax: Re-Visions of Culture and Society) - Robert Stam [Amazon US][FR] [DE] [UK]
    Subversive Pleasures offers the first extended application of Mikhail Bakhtin's critical methods to film, mass-media, and cultural studies. With extraordinary interdisciplinary and multicultural range, Robert Stam explores issues that include the "translinguistic" critique of Saussurean semiotics and Russian formalism, the question of language difference in the cinema, issues of national culture in Latin America, and "the carnivalesque" in literature and film. He discusses literary works by Rabelais, Shakespeare, and Jarry and treats films by Vigo, Bunuel, Wertmuller, Imamura, Mel Brooks, Monty Python, Marleen Gooris, and others. Now in paperback, Subversive Pleasures is a splendidly lucid introduction to the central concepts and analytical methods of Bakhtin and the Bakhtin circle.

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