- Literature and Spirit: Essays on Bakhtin and his Contemporaries
Mikhail Bakhtin has been absorbed by many disciplines, but to my knowledge this book signals his debut in the popular theology market. As the jacket flap assures us, this "is not a typically cool and detached exercise in academic curiosity"; it "addresses an audience that goes beyond the ordinary academic categories." Very true. Whenever we as critics confront a thinker who desires to be taken ethically, who openly seeks to cross the boundary between art and life, we are tempted into an act of imitation. But the task is astonishingly hard to do well, and Patterson underestimates the difficulties involved. He appears earnest and well-meaning; he knows Russian and thus has access to important untranslated texts, but the problems with his approach to the material are many and, I fear, crippling.
Patterson desires to transcend "academic categories." But he offers us chapters on Bakhtin's affinities with several quintessentially "academic" philosophers, among them Foucault, Lacan, Levinas, and Heidegger. All of these thinkers deal with problems of self, other, responsibility, and language at a very high level of complexity and abstraction. Academics would demand rigor and subtlety in any treatment of these thinkers; nonacademics would require considerable mediation. Unfortunately, Patterson provides neither one nor the other: benumbing extracts from philosophical tracts alternate with a commentary that does not, on balance, make these extracts more concrete, precise, or compelling.
The chapter titles ("Bakhtin and Foucault," "Bakhtin, Berdyaev, Gide," "Bakhtin and Lacan") lead us to expect contrastive analyses. But in effect Patterson seeks the affirming and amalgamating norm that they all share, and at a level of extravagant generalization full of risk for critical writing. On some occasions such writing can inspire us. Such an approach rarely discriminates or generates a thesis, however, and Patterson's book is no exception. His argument moves [End Page 380] forward almost solely by juxtaposition. This strategy occasionally yields interesting things, but more often the argument is adrift in a sea of connective tissue provided by Patterson's own revivalist rhetoric: "Laughter is the sound and the fury of the soul on fire, and freedom is the flame with which it burns"; "With literature, indeed, everything begins and nothing ends." All this would be harmless enough if it were not for several important Bakhtinian concepts that Patterson appears to blur.
The trouble starts with the title itself, Literature and Spirit. Strictly speaking, there is no literature here at all: no literary texts or authors are invoked in any sustained way. And as regards spirit, for most of his text Patterson uses the word in the loosest possible way. Some of his formulations are very suggestive: "The spirit is a question mark, [truth] sets us free by setting us in motion"; "a poetics of spirit is a poetics of saying, of process." But Patterson gets to Bakhtin's definition of "spirit" only three-quarters into his book, much too late to be of any use as an organizing principle. For Bakhtin, dukh [spirit] is a specific, even technical term: that part of the conscious self that is "I-for-myself," I as I experience myself. Opposed to spirit is dusha [soul], the "I" that others see in me and that I see in others. Spirit, in short, can be cognized within a single consciousness; souls require a minimum of two. The distinction must have been clear to Patterson, for at several points he cites the relevant definition from Bakhtin's early manuscripts: "The soul is the gift of my spirit to the other." But its implications remain undeveloped, and this leads to further confusions.
In the first chapter, for example, devoted to "Bakhtin and Foucault," Patterson argues that madness—a topic central to Foucault but hardly touched by Bakhtin—is a part of dialogue. Madness is a "delirious discourse," "the void underlying the creative act" that laughter attempts to fill. Patterson is urged to this position, apparently, by swallowing whole Bakhtin's ecstatic hyperbole on carnival and its negating, derationalizing gestures. That carnival is...