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  • The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin
  • Dmitry Khanin
The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin, by Caryl Emerson; xxi & 287 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, $29.95.

Emerson’s monograph is an epilogue to Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1895–1975) centennial, which generated a cascade of scholarly gala-carnivalesque events and fresh outbreaks of turf wars. Ironically, the convivial theory that proclaimed individuality to be a spin-off of a dialogical relationship with the other, [End Page 220] provoked fierce infighting among self-proclaimed apostles. An old war-horse herself, Emerson has fought many a battle in such inconclusive academic hostilities. Her new book, the festivities notwithstanding, is not a routine exercise in the memorial genre but rather a polyphonically executed hatchet job. In a surprise attack, Bakhtin’s follower turns on her mentor, whom she describes as a master compromiser, a cynical expert in the art of survival. In Emerson’s opinion, Bakhtin’s hallelujah to global dialogue and negotiation represented a familiar Russian way of escaping from having to take a political action.

The focus of Emerson’s book, as she defines it, is “Bakhtin’s reception by his own culture.” It has, however, a broader objective than scrutinizing the Russians’ attitudes toward their famous compatriot. Based on her research on Bakhtin scholarship in Russia, the author draws the far-reaching (though hardly novel) conclusion that Russia is not going to “endorse values that make sense to us rapidly and easily—if at all” (p. 8). What is the connection between this pessimistic prognostication about Russia’s future and a study of Russian scholars’ sundry reevaluations of Bakhtin? According to Emerson, Bakhtin scholarship in Russia, unlike Bakhtin scholarship in the West, does not have much scholarly value; it is hardly more than a series of contributions to a latter-day cult. This new-sprung apotheosis reveals, in Emerson’s opinion, the undying Russian proclivity for deification of Russia’s great men: “Russian cultural tradition tends to be agglutinative and embracing, more likely to idolize forerunners than to annihilate them” (p. 180). In Emerson’s view, the reemergence of such a traditional attitude toward Bakhtin proves that the Russians have not changed since the fall of communism. No wonder, she claims, since all the Russians are captives of their culture’s mentality. Even Bakhtin, she notes, could not overcome some intellectual limitations characteristic of his countrymen: “non-Russians can only wonder . . . at the awesome, identity-bestowing hold of Russian culture on its communicants” (p. 219).

Arguing that the Russians (apparently unlike other nations) are programmed by their culture, Emerson concedes, though, that not all Russian Bakhtinists are exactly alike. They fall, in her opinion, into three big camps: the old-fashioned “cultists,” who adulate Bakhtin as a flawless Russian scholar and man; the detractors, who debunk Bakhtin’s work as contaminated by totalitarian ideologies; and the judicious “neutrals,” who have no ideological axes to grind. The author commends the last group, whose principal merit, according to Emerson, is a ready display of a courteous attitude toward renowned Western Bakhtinists. For example, she gives a good grade to Vitaly Makhlin, who is “grateful for the groundbreaking Western work on Bakhtin” (p. 208), while spurning the book of an obvious ingrate, Vadim Linetsky, as both “mediocre and derivative” (p. 135).

With a touch of nostalgia, Emerson reminisces about the times when Russian scholars were not able to go to Bakhtin forums. Alas, she sighs, now they are [End Page 221] back with a vengeance. Aghast at the boisterous native comeback, Emerson (“a foremost Bakhtin authority,” the jacket says) sternly reminds the young Turks that they are Johnny-come-latelies in the academic El Dorado: much was accomplished there while they happily stagnated under Communism: “prosaics, dialogue, and unfinalizability are concepts isolated not by Russians but by Americans working on Bakhtin” (p. 38). Emerson proclaims that it was Gary Saul Morson and herself who unearthed “the three global concepts” and, in effect, created the Bakhtin canon. Her claim is, of course, far-fetched. Morson and Emerson did concoct the category of “prosaics,” but it seems odd that the author lays claim to the categories of dialogue and unfinalizability as...

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