Summary of Chapter 4: Characteristics of Genre and Plot Composition in Dostoevsky's Works
This lengthy chapter could possibly have been several chapters, as it travels from one subject to another. Several genres of the seriocomic are covered, in long lists of “aspects” which often seem they could have been combined into shorter lists. In the first part, Bakhtin discusses how Dostoevsky’s novels are similar and different from other novel forms of the day, including social and biographical novels, but also adventure and “boulevard” novels.
After this he starts talking about carnivalization, and goes back to the Menippean/seriocomic tradition of antiquity, in genres like Socratic dialogues, diatribes, etc. These are examples of ancient carnivalized literature and their influence on later ages is traced. He delineates the aspects of the seriocomic: 1) it is set in present as opposed to ancient or legendary time; 2) it relies on experience (the world around you) rather than legend/myth; 3) it is multi-styled and hetero-voiced.
He treats Socratic dialogue as a sub-genre of the above, with the following aspects:
1. an assumption of the dialogic nature of truth, which is something to be sought out through dialogue (an interesting connection to Detienne's thesis of the changing nature of truth at that time); an opposition to monologism
2. syncrisis (juxtaposition of views) and anacrisis (provocation, e.g. through plot or situation)
3 heroes as ideologists (meaning that the characters engage in explication of ideas)
4. (along with the above) idea is combined with a person, as the image of an idea.
The characteristics of Menippean satire, another seb-genre of the seriocomic:
1. more comic than Socratic dialogues, but this can take form of "reduced laughter"
2. fantastic plot/setting, which allows invention
3. the plot plays a role [as anacrisis?]
4. combination of the fantastic with "slum naturalism"
5. universal, ultimate questions
6. "three planed construction" of movement between earth, heaven, and hell, creating many "dialogues on the threshold"
7. "experimental fantasticality"
8. "moral-psychological experimentation"
9. "scandal scenes" and inappropriate behavior
10. contrasts, combinations, reversals, etc.
11. social utopias in dreams and journeys
12. "inserted genres" [probably akin to the relevance of reported speech in Volosinov]
13. multi-styled, multi-toned
14. concern with current and topical issues
Bakhtin distinguishes between the "objective memory" of genres as opposed to the "subjective memory" of individuals; this allows a tracing of the origins of the novel in carnivalization, whether or not the authors writing them are aware of these influences. However, these earlier genres do not fully develop polyphony: Dostoevsky's big improvement over these ancient sources will be his full use of polyphony, which they lack.
Bakhtin then talks about carnival and carnivalization, very similar to his Rabelais book which he was apparently revising for publication at the time he was rewriting this book. Carnivalistic senses: (numbering not quite clear):
1. upside down/reversal
3. "mesalliances" (indiscrete or inappropriate mixing of opposites/contrasts, like laughing corpses)
Perhaps the most important thing about carnival is its revolutionary potential:
Carnival is the place for working out, in a concretely sensuous, half-real and half-play-acted form, a new mode of interrelationship between individuals, counterposed to the all-powerful socio-hierarchical relationships of noncarnival life. (123)
Bakhtin next talks about the carnivalistic act of crowning/decrowning; the ambivalence of this is key. Ritual laughter is always aimed at that which is higher. The most important site of carnival is the public square; this appears in reduced or bourgeois forms as parlors, etc. He talks about the debasement of the sense of carnival in later ages, and its bourgeoisification (not in those precise words) or domestication as it becomes part of the novel etc.; then he goes back to Socratic dialogues and then again to Menippea. Finally he turns to a series of texts by Dostoevsky to discuss how they are menippean.
One important point Bakhtin makes is regarding catharsis: he supports a concept of this distinct from Aristotle's based on tragedy, what could be called an [ambivalent] catharsis, linked to ambivalent laughter; catharsis that implies that nothing is conclusive. [Arguably Bakhtin insists this is "catharsis" only because he believes in the "unity" of the work; it is catharsis by definition, and so Brechtian anti-catharsis could conceivably be called Bakhtinian catharsis.] He also includes notes on Dostoevsky as a responder to capitalist modernity, as his style of writing is designed for this and influenced by this context. Bakhtin ends the chapter with the observation that Dostoevsky is most important for bringing the polyphony, building something more out of the menippean tradition.
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