Mikhail Bakhtin: Notes on “Epic and Novel” (Part 1 to Conclusion)*

For Mikhail Bakhtin, the novel as a genre is as “yet uncompleted” and “continues to develop” (3) and that is why it is hard to clearly explain its generic characteristics. Bakhtin’s this essay/book chapter aims to provide a methodology of the novel in comparison with the “completed” and finished genre of the epic.

While discussing the complexities of a theory of the novel, Bakhtin also makes the following, now slightly dated, claim:

Of all the major genres only the novel is younger than writing and the book: it alone is organically receptive to new forms of mute perception, that is, to reading. But of critical importance here is the fact that the novel has no canon of its own. . . . only individual examples of the novel are historically active, not a generic canon as such. (3)

Obviously, by now the novel does have a certain canon, but it still is the only genre that continues to develop and its consumption is still primarily related to the act  of reading. Despite its late arrival and provisional generic status, Bakhtin asserts, the novel also affects and causes a novelization of other genres. In way, then, “parodic stylizations of canonical genres and styles occupy an essential place in the novel” (6). Here is how Bkhatin recounts the way the novel impacts the other “completed” and canonized genres:

They [the other genres] become more free and flexible, their language renews itself by incorporating extraliterary heteroglossia and the “novelistic” layers of literary language, they 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 indeterminancy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still evolving contemporary reality. (7)

Thus, since the novel itself is in touch with the contemporary and fluid, it forces the other genres to become open to change. Novel, thus, is not only a “novel” genre in itself but also causes innovation and change in other older and “completed” genres. This happens, partly, because the novel is grounded in the contemporary reality and being an open and developing genre “it reflects more deeply, more essentially, more sensitively and rapidly, the reality itself in the process of its unfolding” (7). Being a genre of the new and a changing world, the novel, for  Bakhtin,  affects the other genres and since it anticipates its own development and the “development of literature as a whole” (7) it makes the novel the most important genre “as an object of study for the theory as well as the history of literature” (7)

While further discussing the novel’s impact as a new genre, Bakhtin points out the following important aspects of the novelistic mode of writing:

  • The novel parodies other genres (precisely in their role as genres). (5)
  • It exposes the conventionality of forms and their language. (5)
  • It Squeezes out some genres and incorporates others into its own peculiar structure, reformulating and re-accentuating them. (5)

Of “particular interest,” Bakhtin suggests, “are those eras when the novel becomes the dominant genre, for “all literature is then caught up in the process of ‘becoming,’ and in a special kind of ‘generic criticism’” (5). Theses eras include “Hellenic period,” “the late Middle Ages,” and the “Renaissance” (5), but the most important era is the “beginning” of “second half of the eighteenth century” (5). This is the time when, according to Bakhtin, the novel “reigns supreme” and all other genres are, in one way or the other, “novelized” (5).

Novelization of other Genres

They [the other genres] become more free and flexible, their language renews itself by incorporating extraliterary heteroglossia and the “novelistic” layers of literary language, they 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 indeterminancy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still evolving contemporary reality. (7)

Thus, since the novel itself is in touch with the contemporary and fluid, it forces the other genres to become open to change. Novel, thus, is not only a “novel” genre in itself but also causes innovation and change in other older and “completed” genres. This happens, partly, because the novel is grounded in the contemporary reality and being an open and developing genre “it reflects more deeply, more essentially, more sensitively and rapidly, the reality itself in the process of its unfolding” (7). Being a genre of the new and a changing world, the novel, for  Bakhtin,  affects the other genres and since it anticipates its own development and the “development of literature as a whole” (7) it makes the novel the most important genre “as an object of study for the theory as well as the history of literature” (7)

Problems with Traditional Explanations of this Generic Struggle

Bakhtin sees the traditional explanations of this impact of the novel on other  genres as faulty. As the literary historians, Bakhtin suggests, “usually reduce this struggle between the novel and other already completed genres . . . to the actual real-life struggle among ‘schools’ and ‘trends’” (7). Thus, according to Bakhtin, the current theory is inadequate when it comes to explaining the novel as a genre. Bakhtin explains the inability of current theory to theorize the novel as follows:

The utter inadequacy of literary theory is exposed when it is forced to deal with the novel. In the case of other genres literary theory works confidently and precisely, since there is a finished and already formed object, definite and clear. . . . Right up to the present day, in fact, theory dealing with these already completed genres can add almost nothing to Aristotle’s formulations. Aristotle’s poetics, although occasionally so deeply embedded as to be almost invisible, remains the stable foundation for the theory of genres. (8)

Having discussed the inability of existing theory in dealing with the novel, Bakhtin also, briefly discusses in the basic problems and flaws in the theory that does try to explain the novel an its basic characteristics. Bkahtin sums up these flawed attempts as follows:

The Generic Definitions of the Novel: Bakhtin suggests that “the experts have not managed to isolate a single definite, stable characteristic of the novel–without adding a reservation, which immediately disqualifies it altogether as a generic characteristic” (8). Some examples:

  • “The novel is a multi-layered genre (although there also exist magnificent single-layered novels)” (8).
  • “The Novel is a precisely plotted and dynamic genre (although there also exist novels that push to its literary limits the art of pure description) “(9).
  • “The novel is a complicated genre (although novels are produced as pure and frivolous entertainment)” (9).
  • “The novel is a prose genre (although there exist excellent novels in verse)” (9).

Normative Definitions of the Novel: Here Bakhtin points out the flaws in the normative definitions of the novel as offered by the novelists themselves. Bakhtin suggests that the problem with such normative definitions of the novel by the novelists themselves is that they “produce a specific novel and then declare it the only correct, necessary and authentic form of the novel” (9). He also acknowledges some of the attempts made by the eighteenth century novelists, which presents a sort of theory of the novel in its different stages. Some salient points of this:

  • “The novel should not be poetic, as the word poetic is used in other genres of imaginative literature” (10). “The hero of a novel should not be ‘heroic’ in either the epic or tragic sense of the word. . .” (10). The hero “should not be portrayed as an already completed and unchanging person but as one evolving and developing, a person who learns from life” (9).
  • “The novel should become for the contemporary world what the epic was for the ancient world.” (10)

Treating all of these defined traits as a positive development, Bakhtin still finds them less satisfactory. While these definitions do provide a criticism of a the novel, they do not, however, “provide a theory of the novel” (10). And that brings us to Bakhtin’s main project: to articulate and explain a viable theory of the novel. Bakhtin explains his main project, articulating a viable theory of the novel, as follows:

I will attempt below to approach the novel precisely as a genre-in-the-making, one in the vanguard of all modern literary development. I am not constructing here a functional definition of the novelistic canon. . . . I am [rather] trying to grope my way toward the basic structural characteristics. . . that might determine the direction of its peculiar capacity for change and of its influence and effect on the rest of the literature. (11).

It is obvious that Bakhtin is not relying on the earlier modes of explanation of the novel, the normative and generic, but that he is attempting to provide a mode of defining that takes into account two important aspects of the novel: the novel as a genre-in-the-making and the novel’s immediate relationship with the contemporary reality as it unfolds.

Three Basic Characteristics of the Novel

Bakhtin suggests the following as three main basic characteristics of the novel and novelistic mode of representation:

  1. Its stylistic three-dimensionality
  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. (11)

The way the first characteristics is explained is through its connection with “multi-languaged consciousness realized in the novel” (11). The three characteristics are interrelated  “organically” and historically situated, and, as Bakhtin points out, “powerfully affected by  a very specific  rupture in the history of European civilization: Its emergence from a socially isolated and culturally deaf semipatriarchal society, and its entrance into international and interlingual contacts and relationships” (11). Thus, the rise of the novel is affected, inherently, by widening of the linguistic repertoire and by Europe’s contact and awareness of other cultures, sometimes, outside Europe. Novel, being a genre of the contemporary and the present is deeply affected by these changes. This is what Bakhtin calls the “active Polyglossia” (12)  of the world of novelistic representation.

Bakhtin does not offer polyglossia as something completely new. In fact, he suggests that polyglossia “had always existed” (12) but it “had not been a factor in literary creation” (11). In his view even though classical Greeks “had a feeling both for ‘languages’ and for the epochs of language, for the various Greek literary dialects. . . but creative consciousness was realized in closed, pure languages” (12). This could be very easily compared to high Arabic literature: even though Arabic has several regional and class-based dialects, most traditional Arabic language is still written in the classical Arabic, as it is considered the only suitable language for high literature.

The rise of polyglossia is linked directly to the rise of a polyglot world, the material conditions of contemporary time that, as we have already learned, inform the novelistic mode of writing. Thus, “the new cultural and creative consciousness lives in an actively polyglot world” (12) and as the languages compete with each other the “period of national languages, coexisting but closed and deaf to each other, comes to an end” (12). All this, according to Bakhtin sets ” “into motion a process of active, mutual cause-and-effect and interillumination” (my emph. 12). Thus, in this polyglot world new “relationships are established between language and its object (that is, the real world). It is this relationship between language and the real world that has serious consequences for already established and completed genres as they were formed “during the eras of closed and deaf monoglossia” (12). This changed condition is, in effect, the ideal precondition for the rise of the novel: “the novel emerged and matured precisely when intense activization of external and internal polyglossia was at the peak of its activity; this is its native element” (12).

Epic and the Novel

Since the novel emerges in the world of ployglossia, the novel, thus, has the capacity of “developing and renewing literature and in its linguistic and stylistic dimensions” (12). This concludes Bkahtin’s discussion of the first of three basic characteristics of the novel: “Its stylistic three-dimensionality” (11).

Bakhtin then moves on to discuss, in comparison with the epic, the other two characteristics of the novel: 1) “The radical change it effects in the temporal coordinates of the literary image”; 2) “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” (11). To make this comparison more fruitful, Bakhtin first describes the basic characteristic of the epic.

Three Constitutive Features of the Epic:

  1. A national epic past (absolute past) serves as the subject for epic.
  2. A national tradition (not personal experience) serves as the source for epic.
  3. An absolute epic-distance separates the epic world from contemporary reality, that is, from the time in which the singer (the author and his audience) lives. (13)

These three constitutive features serve as a comparative grid upon which Bakhtin plots the rise and description of the novel in comparison with the epic. It is important first, therefore, to understand his discussion of these characteristics as our understanding of the his theory of the novel depends on it.

The World of the Epic

  • Is the national heroic past: it is a world of “beginnings” and “peak times” in national history.
  • The epic was never a poem about the present, about its own time.
  • It is “from the beginning a poem bout the past” and the “authorial position” is that of a “man speaking about a past that is to him inaccessible, the reverent point of view of a descendant” (13).
  • The singer and the listener are at the same temporal plane-the present–but “the represented world of the heroes stands on an utterly different and inaccessible time-and-value plane, separated by epic distance” (14).
  • The space between the singer-listener and the heroes of the epic is “filled with national tradition” (14).

Epic and the Absolute Past

Thus, as we understand it, the narrative content of the epic is always from an absolute past, underwritten by a shared national tradition, and while the singer-listener inhabit the contemporary time, the story itself is located in the past and is always about a past. To render the past contemporary, by eliminating the epic distance, would, in Bakhtin’s words, mean “to undertake a radical revolution, and to step out of the world of epic into the world of novel” (14).

thus, epic is a “completed” and “finished” genre in which “the memory, and not knowledge . . . serves as the source and power for the creative impulse” (15). The Novel ” in comparison “is determined by experience, knowledge and practice” (15) and is thus related to the present and looks toward a future. Bakhtin also suggests that the reason epic is a closed genre is because  the past in it is “monochronic and valorized” (17) and this is the reason one cannot destroy this boundary between the absolute past and the contemporary without destroying th epic as a form.

Epic and Tradition

Since epic past is closed off from any other influences, it is preserved “in the form of a national tradition” (16). Now the important thing is not the factual truth of this tradition but its representation as “sacred and sacrosanct” demanding from all “a pious attitude toward itself” (16). This valorization of tradition, in a way, predecides the respect accorded to the epic and the language used to narrate it.

Absolute Epic Distance

This is the third main characteristic of epic that Bakhtin discusses. in his view “the epic world is an utterly finished thing, not only as an authentic event of the distant past but also on its own terms  and by its own standards; it is impossible to change, re-think, tor re-evaluate anything in it” (17). It is this immutability that defines the epics absolute epic distance. Bakhtin further asserts: “This distance exists not only in the epic material . . . but also in the point of view and evaluation one assumes toward them; point of view and evaluation are fused with the subject into one inseparable whole” (17). Thus is the epic world is constructed “in the zone of an absolute distant image, beyond the sphere of possible contact with the developing, incomplete and . . . rethinking and reevaluating present” (17). This epic distance is challenged only with arrival “on the scene of an active polyglossia and and interillumination of languages” (17). After this Bakhtin continues to discuss the closeness of other genres, which, in his view, share the same kind of characteristics as the epic, and then he moves on give his concluding thoughts on the novel.

Novel and the Contemporary Reality

As explained above the time of the epic is sacred and ‘high’ in comparison the narrative time of the novel is of a “lower order in comparison with the epic” (19). The contemporary and the low, Bakhtin suggests was “subject of representation only in low genres” (20). The authentic “folkloric roots of the novel are to be sought” (21) in laughter. It is in parody and laughter that the high world of gods and legends is “contemporized” and “brought low” (21).

Novel’s Precursor: Spoudogeloion (Serio-Comical)

Bakhtin considersthe Greek serio-comic the precursor to the novelistic mode of writing. In his view “the weakly plotted mimes of Sophron, all the bucolic poems, the fable, early memoir literature . . . pamphlets all belong to this field” (21). Also included in this filed are the “Socratic Dialogues,” “Roman satire,” the literature of “the Symposia” and the “Menippean satire” (22). Bakhtin considers all these genres “authentic predecessors of the novel” (22). Why should we consider these as predecessors of the novel? Bakhtin explains: “Contemporary reality serves as their subject and–even more important–it is the starting point for understanding, evaluating, and formulating such genres” (22). There is no epic distance, “contemporary reality provides the point of view” (23) and there is laughter. Laughter makes the subject matter into an “object of familiar contact” and thus, “delivers the object into the fearless hands of investigative experiment” (23).This play on the old, infused with contemporary reality and laughter, transforms the epic mode to “the plane of comic (humorous) representation” (23).

Socratic Dialogues–Dialogized Story

Socratic dialogues, for Bakhtin, are a “remarkable document that reflects the simultaneous birth of scientific thinking and a new artistic-prose model for the novel” (24). Its characteristics:

  • Based on personal memories of real conversations amongst contemporaries.
  • The main character, Socrates, wearing a popular mask of a bewildered fool–wise ignorance.
  • Socrates–new type of prose heroization.
  • Spoken dialogue framed by a dialogized story.

Menippean Satire (26)

Bakhtin suggests that the Socratic dialogue and the Menippean satire are “genetically related” as the latter is sometimes considered “a product of the disintegration” of the former. In a Menippean satire “the unfettered and fantastic plots  and situations all serve one goal–to put to test and to expose ideas and idealogues” (26).

Concluding Thoughts on the Novel

As opposed to the closed and high form of the epic, the novel, a genre in constant flux, is informed by its precursors and opens the narrative form to further change and experimentation. Appended below is a summary of Bakhtin’s concluding thoughts on the novel:

  • The novel is in contact with the inconclusive present and it keeps the genre from “congealing” (27).
  • Authorial language now lies on the same plane as depicted language of the hero (there is no epic distance) (27).
  • Instead of the national past, the foreign past can also be included in the representation. (20).
  • Concept of an individual’s upbringing [and its impact on the characters] also becomes a constant trope in the novel. (29).
  • Due to its location in the present, the novel also is deeply invested in the future. (29).
  • The represented image acquires a specific actual existence. (30).
  • The plot does not have to be wholistic; a part can be represented as a whole (31)

Besides these, Bakhtin also offers several other concluding thoughts on the novel, all pointing to the novelistic form, its constant challenge to established genres, and its extreme importance for the future of literature.

* This is my reading summary, with some brief comments, of Bakhtin’s essay “Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel.” All citations are from  The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays.Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981)


 

  2 comments for “Mikhail Bakhtin: Notes on “Epic and Novel” (Part 1 to Conclusion)*

  1. anhitip90@gmail.com'
    Anhiti
    May 7, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Thank you so much for such a simple and incisive summary, It’s very well-written, really helped me grasp the essay for my exams! 🙂

  2. abhinav210289@gmail.com'
    abhinav
    May 11, 2012 at 3:23 am

    Great Summary! makes Bakhtin more inviting. Thank you.

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