Mikhail Bakhtin: Notes on “Epic and Novel” (Part 4)*

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).

* 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).