The first of The Dialogic Imagination’s four essays, “Epic and Novel,” was written in 1941 and first published in 1970 (and in expanded form in the 1975 collection). It offers a succinct and relatively straightforward introduction to one of Bakhtin’s most important ideas, in effect defining one genre, the novel, by contrasting it with another, the epic. According to Bakhtin, what distinguishes the epic is the complete separation of its world from contemporary reality (the time of its narration) and by means of this separation, the creation of a valorized past: absolute, closed, complete, uncontaminated by the present, above all unchanging, and therefore both inhuman and ahistorical.
The novel is everything the epic is not. It is alive, liberated, and liberating; this is its aesthetic and its ethic. Anticanonical, unfinalized and unfinalizable, the novel is less a carefully defined genre than an antigenre, whose plasticity and formlessness define or constitute its form. The novel intersects with other genres, which it critically examines, using parody and other means to expose their limitations and conventionality. Freely absorbing other literary as well as subliterary and extraliterary forms, the novel proves itself the most omnivorous, fluid, and organic of the genres and therefore the most resistant to theoretical explanation. Written one year earlier (1940), and first published three years earlier (1967), the collection’s second essay, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” follows much the same line of thought. It traces the novel back to its roots in those forms (Socratic dialogue, Menippean satire, folklore, carnival, popular laughter) which, unlike the epic, emphasize what is low, present, contingent, and parodic. These are the forms that prepare the way for the novel as “the genre of becoming.”
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
“Epic and Novel”
3 the novel is the sole genre that continues to develop, that is as yet uncompleted.
7 [other genres, insofar as they resemble novels,] become dialogized, permeated with laughter, irony, humor, elements of self-parody and finally—this is the most important thing—the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminacy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality (the openended present). As we will see below, all these phenomena are explained by the transposition of other genres into this new and peculiar zone for structuring artistic models (a zone of contact with the present in all its openendedness), a zone that was first appropriated by the novel.
7 The novel is the only developing genre and therefore it reflects more deeply, more essentially, more sensitively and rapidly, reality itself in the process of its unfolding. Only that which is itself developing can comprehend development as a process.
11 I find three basic characteristics that fundamentally distinguish the novel in principle from other genres: (1) its stylistic three dimensionality, which is linked with the multi-languaged consciousness realized in the novel; (2) the radical change it effects in the temporal coordinates of the literary image; (3) the new zone opened by the novel for structuring literary images, namely, the zone of maximal contact with the present (with contemporary reality) in all its openendedness.
12 The new cultural and creative consciousness lives in an actively polyglot world. The world becomes polyglot, once and for all and irreversibly. The period of national languages, coexisting but closed and deaf to each other, comes to an end. Languages throw light on each other: one language can, after all, see itself only in the light of other languages. . . .
12 All this set into motion a process of active, mutual cause-and-effect and interillumination.
29 The world has already opened up, one’s own monolithic and closed world (the world of the epic) has been replaced by the great world of one’s own plus “the others.” . . . Cultural interanimation, interaction of ideologies and languages had already begun.
30 Through contact with the present, an object is attracted to the incomplete process of a world-in-the-making and is stamped with the seal of inconclusiveness.
37 One of the basic internal themes of the novel is precisely the theme of the hero’s inadequacy to his fate or his situation. The individual is either greater than his fate, or less than his condition as a man. He cannot become once and for all a clerk, a landowner, a merchant, a fiance, a jealous lover, a father, and so forth. . . . There always remains in him unrealized potential and unrealized demands.
37 There is no mere form that would be able to incarnate once and forever all of his human possibilities and needs, no form in which he could exhaust himself down to the last word, like the tragic or epic hero, no form that he could fill to the very brim, and yet at the same time not splash over the brim. There always remains an unrealized surplus of humanness, there always remains a need for the future, and a place for this future must be found.
39 . . . a genre that structures itself in a zone of direct contact with developing reality.
40 Such a reorientation [the concept of a future] occurred for the first time during the Renaissance. In that era, the present (that is, a reality that was contemporaneous) for the first time began to sense itself not only as an incomplete continuation of the past but as something like a new and heroic beginning. To reinterpret reality on the level of the contemporary present now meant not only to degrade, but to raise reality into a new and heroic sphere. It was in the Renaissance that the present first began to feel with great clarity and awareness an incomparably closer proximity and kinship to the future than to the past.
“From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse”
46 The author represents Onegin’s “language” (a period-bound language associated with a particular world view) as an image that speaks and is therefore preconditioned.
47 The author participates in the novel (he is omnipresent in it) with almost no direct language of his own. The language of the novel is a system of languages that mutually and ideologically interanimate each other.
48 It is impossible to lay out the languages of the novel on a single plane, to stretch them out along a single line. It is a system of intersecting planes. . . . Therefore, there is no unitary language or style in the novel.
49 Pushkin’s novel is a self-critique of the literary language of the era, a product of this language’s various strata (generic, everyday, “currently fashionable”) mutually illuminating one another. But this interillumination is not of course accomplished at the level of linguistic abstraction: images of language are inseparable from images of various world views and from the living beings who are their agents—people who think, talk and act in a setting that is social and historically concrete. From a stylistic point of view we are faced with a complex system of languages of the era being appropriated into one unitary dialogical movement, while at the same time separate “languages” within this system are located at different distances from the unifying artistic and ideological center of the novel.
50 Indirect discourse, however, the representation of another’s word, another’s language in intonational quotation marks.
60 These parodic-travestying forms prepared the ground for the novel in one very important, in fact decisive, respect. They liberated the object from the power of language in which it had become entangled as in in a net; they destroyed the homogenizing power of myth over language; they freed consciousness from the power of the direct word, destroyed the thick walls that had imprisoned consciousness within its own discourse, within its own language. A distance arose between language and reality that was to prove an indispensable condition for authentically realistic forms of discourse.
62 . . . in the process of literary creation, languages interanimate each other and objectify precisely that side of one’s own (and of the other’s) language that pertains to its world view, its inner form, the axiologically accentuated system inherent in it.
62 . . . that which makes language concrete and which makes its world view ultimately untranslatable, that is, precisely, the style of the language as a totality.
65 The role of polyglossia in this slow death of the myth and the birth of novelistic matter-of-factness is extremely great. Where languages and cultures interanimated each other, language became something entirely different, its very nature changed: in place of a single, unitary sealed-off Ptolemaic world of language, there appeared the open Galilean world of many languages, mutually animating each other.
67 [heteroglossia within a language & the novel since the seventeenth century] This latecomer reflects, in its stylistic structure, the struggle between two tendencies in the languages of European peoples: one a centralizing (unifying) tendency, the other a decentralizing tendency (that is, one that stratifies languages). The novel senses itself on the border between the completed, dominant literary language and the extraliterary languages that know heteroglossia . . . .
67-8 Of course all these processes of shift and renewal of the national language that are reflected by the novel do not bear an abstract linguistic character in the novel: they are inseparable from social and ideological struggle, from processes of evolution, and in the renewal of society and the folk.
68 the problem of quotation
69 is the author quoting with reverence or on the contrary with irony, with a smirk?
76 Thus every parody is an intentional dialogized hybrid. Within it, languages and styles actively and mutually illuminate one another.
77 an intense struggle and interanimation among languages
82 to what extent the old and new worlds were characterized precisely by their own peculiar languages, by the images of language attached to each. Languages quarreled with each other, but this quarrel—like any quarrel among great and significant cultural and historical forces—could not pass on to a further phase by means of abstract and rational dialogue, nor by a purely dramatic dialogue, but only by means of complexly dialogized hybrids. The great novels of the Renaissance were such hybrids, although stylistically they were monoglot.
“Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel”
84 In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.
“Discourse in the Novel”
271 We are taking language not as a system of abstract grammatical categories, but rather language conceived as ideologically saturated, language as a world view, even as a concrete opinion, insuring a maximum of mutual understanding in all spheres of ideological life.
272 Such is the fleeting language of a day, of an epoch, a social group, a genre, a school and so forth.
273 . . . all languages were masks and where no language could claim to be an authentic, incontestable face.
273 Stylistics has been likewise completely deaf to dialogue. A literary work has been conceived by stylistics as if it were a hermetic and self-sufficient whole, one whose elements constitute a closed system presuming nothing beyond themselves, no other utterances.
274 Linguistics, stylistics and the philosophy of language . . . have sought first and foremost for unity in diversity. This exclusive “orientation toward unity” in the present and past life of languages has concentrated the attention of philosophical and linguistic thought on the firmest, most stable, least changeable and most mono-semic aspects of discourse—on the phonetic aspects first of all—that are furthest removed from the changing socio-semantic spheres of discourse.
297-8 . . . the very movement of the poetic symbol (for example, the unfolding of a metaphor) presumes precisely this unity of language, an unmediated correspondence with its object. Social diversity of speech, were it to arise in the work and stratify its language, would make impossible both the normal development and the activity of symbols within it.
302 Against this same backdrop of the “common language,” of the impersonal, going opinion, one can also isolate in the comic novel those parodic stylizations of generic, professional, and other languages we have mentioned, as well as compact masses of direct authorial discourse . . . . Shifts from common language to parodying of generic and other languages and shifts to the direct authorial word may be gradual, or may be on the contrary quite abrupt. Thus does the system of language work in the comic novel.
304 . . . a typical double-accented, double-styled hybrid construction.
What we are calling a hybrid construction is an utterance that belongs, by its grammatical (syntactic) and compositional markers, to a single speaker, but that actually contains mixed within it two utterances, two speech manners, two styles, two “languages,” two semantic and axiological belief systems.
324 Heteroglossia . . . is another’s speech in another’s language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way. Such speech constitutes a special type of double-voiced discourse. . . . all the while these two voices are dialogically interrelated, they—as it were—know about each other (just as two exchanges in a dialogue know of each other and are structured in this mutual knowledge of each other), it as if they actually hold a conversation with each other.
330 If the art of poetry, as a utopian philosophy of genres, gives rise to the conception of a purely poetic, extrahistorical language, a language far removed from the petty rounds of everyday life, a language of the gods—then it must be said that the art of prose is close to a conception of languages as historically concrete and living things.