According to Tocqueville, "Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with petty interests,—in one word, so anti-poetic—as the life of a man in the United States." Far from being a defect, this resistance to poetry may be an important source of American democracy's strength and stability; dogged attention to the everyday inures Americans to the seduction of sweeping grand schemes and all-encompassing historical and political theories. In their new study of Bakhtin's career and legacy, Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson claim the Soviet literary critic as a proponent of just this prosaic worldview. Theirs is a uniquely American Bakhtin, strikingly different from the Bakhtin presented by Todorov, Kristeva, and even Clark and Holquist.
Bakhtin's career, this new study tells us, should be read as a conversation among three "global concepts": unfinalizability, dialogue, and prosaics. The first two terms are familiar to Bakhtin's readers; the third, accorded particular emphasis by Morson and Emerson, is their own creation. Prosaics is not only "a theory of literature that privileges prose in general and the novel in particular over the poetic genres" but "a form of thinking that presumes the importance of the everyday, the ordinary, the 'prosaic'" In this second, broader, meaning, "prosaics" has ethical as well as aesthetic import. Prosaics demands that in reading, writing, and living we pay attention to everyday details rather than simply to [End Page 531] cataclysmic, obviously important events. "Bakhtin," we learn, "wants to link the ethical with every ordinary moment of our lives."
Bakhtin uses the word "prosaic" [prozaicheskii] sparingly; in fact, Morson and Emerson are forced to return repeatedly to a single paragraph in "Discourse in the Novel" where Bakhtin—in the course of a discussion of the novel's penchant for the representation of fools—refers to "prosaic wisdom" and "prosaic intelligence." (The authors neglect to cite more problematic uses of the word, such as Bakhtin's reference in "The Problem of Content, Material, and Form in Verbal Art" to "a prosaic deviation" [prozaicheskii uklon] which necessarily lurks behind every poetic word and has the potential to deaestheticize art when a reader regards an aesthetic text as nothing more than material for cognitive insight.) Nevertheless, Morson and Emerson argue that "prosaics" is a worldview inherent in nearly all of Bakhtin's work. In effect, they educe the concept from a creative interpretation of many of Bakhtin's writings. Readers may be disturbed by critics declaring as Bakhtin's essence an "ideology so complex that [Bakhtin] apparently decided not to proceed directly to discussing the [novel] in terms of it" or by their "extending Bakhtin's logic" to pursue a "potential argument." Yet the authors' critical move cannily follows one of Bakhtin's own precepts: that productive criticism understands texts "creatively" by exploiting textual potential. As Morson and Emerson put it, "authors intend their works to mean more than their intended meanings."
Just how representative (or "potential") a concept is prosaics for Bakhtin's oeuvre? Morson and Emerson preface their study with an extremely interesting survey of the defects of previous approaches to Bakhtin, but here they identify critical-biographical pitfalls into which they themselves then proceed to fall. Thus Morson and Emerson criticize Todorov for "insisting on an underlying structure in Bakhtin's thoughts" and for "blaming" Bakhtin when his texts fail to fit Todorov's Procrustean bed, but then they attack Bakhtin's concept of carnivalization in precisely these terms. (In devising "this concept [which], for all its current vogue, is one of Bakhtin's weaker formulations" Bakhtin "succumbed to exaggeration and idealizing" in a moment of weakness that produced "extreme," "often hyperbolic" ideas "ultimately not as durable" as his other principal insights.) After deploring "teleological" studies of Bakhtin which read early works through later ones, Morson and Emerson proceed themselves to rely extensively on late essays and on late reworkings of earlier texts to justify their reading of Bakhtin's "global concepts." ("In his final period, Bakhtin seems to have set himself the...