In the late 20th century, literary studies dramatically shifted focus from “criticism” to “theory.” That change—as vigorously admired in some quarters as it has been lamented in others—gives testimony to the close relationship between literature and philosophy, something to which Aristotle famously called attention when he held that literature ( poiêsis) is more philosophical ( philosophôteron) than history ( historias), Poetics 1451b.3, cf. 1448b.4-5.
The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) is a prime example of just such a link between the world of literary study (in part a world of genres, texts, fictions, and performances) and the philosophical world (in part a world of analyses, arguments, and conclusions). Since the Greek and Roman classics, along with philosophy, formed a central part of Bakhtin’s education—he was a student of the well-known Tadeusz Zelinski (as Nagy underscores in his essay in the volume under review [p. 74])—students of the classics might well take note of Bakhtin’s profound impact on the way we think about literature. Happily, the book under review, Bakhtin and the Classics, provides a significant entry-point for classicists who want an introduction to Bakhtin’s literary thought, especially in that the classicists who contribute to this volume are complemented by two prominent American Bakhtin specialists. Moreover, for those already versed in Bakhtin’s world of “dialogue,” “carnival,” and the over-arching importance of the novel for literary history, the editor, R. Bracht Branham, has brought together classical scholars who interpret their texts in full view of the challenges presented by this formidable Russian thinker. Thus, Bakhtin and the Classics responds vigorously to a felt need for a treatment of Bakhtin and classical literature. (This book extends the discussion beyond an earlier collection in Arethusa 26, 2: 1993.)
In evaluating this book, I have two goals. The first is to suggest how these essays present what Bakhtin has to say about Greek and Roman literature. The second is to indicate how the texts of the Greeks and the Romans corroborate or challenge Bakhtin’s account of the workings of literature and language.
These two tasks are made complex by the wide-ranging subject matter of this collection of essays, all of which were originally presented in a conference at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia held on March 26-28, 1998 (where I was a respondent on the Homer panel). The conference was designed to engage specialists in classical literature with, as noted above, two prominent Bakhtinians, Caryl Emerson (Princeton) and Gary Saul Morson (Northwestern). A rough sketch of this group of essays can be drawn in a quick review of the classical contributors. For the first section of the volume ( Carnival), A. T. Edwards of U.C. San Diego updates significantly his important essay on the application of Bakhtin to old comedy. The relevance of Bakhtin to Homer is addressed in Part II by two deans of American Homeric literary study, J. Peradotto (SUNY Buffalo) and G. Nagy (Harvard), each of them using Bakhtin in strikingly different ways to understand Homeric narrative. The third section of the collection, The Dialogic Principle, has the imposing task of applying Bakhtin to lyric and other poetic genres; the burden is shouldered by two Latinists, William W. Batstone (Ohio State University) and Garth Tissol (Emory). Finally, the fourth section ( Chronotopes) focuses on the issues that engaged Bakhtin at his deepest: time and place in literary narrative. In this section, R. B. Branham, the editor of the volume, grapples with Bakhtin’s work on the ancient novel by applying forcefully this most influential of Bakhtinian concepts. F. Dunn (U.C. Santa Barbara) continues the exploration into the chronotope by examining a number of philosophers’ approaches to time, with a particular focus on Antiphon. A. Nightingale (Stanford) startlingly advances Bakhtin’s notion of genre by presenting a persuasively innovative reading of Plato’s Phaedo and early Greek geographical texts. Framing this classical core are Caryl Emerson’s essay on Bakhtin’s notion of “carnival laughter” and the volume’s concluding essay, Gary Saul Morson’s exploration of the way Bakhtin helps address the tension between the evident disorder of the world and art’s fixation on harmony.
Classicists will note the absence of some rather significant literary topics. For example, there is no attempt to deal with tragedy, nor to articulate a Bakhtinian sense of the histories of Herodotus or Thucydides. One cannot do everything in a single collection, of course, but it may be significant that the earlier collection of essays on Bakhtin and classical literature ( Arethusa 26, 2: 1993) manifests similar lacunae. Yet, in many ways an analytic approach to the three tragedians or a pairing of the two historians might seem tailor-made for Bakhtinian ways of thinking. Could Bakhtin’s taxonomy of genres help us identify and understand the differences between the historical methods of Herodotus and Thucydides? Might Herodotus, with his penchant for alternative stories and the citing of logoi, reveal a kind of dialogism, in contrast to a unitary (monologic?) voice controlling Thucydidean discourse? Or is it the other way around, with Thucydidean speeches and, indeed, dialogue representing a dialogic approach that might rival Dostoyesky? Moreover, Hellenistic literature should be enlisted into this discussion, cosmopolitan Alexandria being a prime candidate for the study of carnival, with Hellenistic culture fundamentally presenting itself as in dialogue with its classical and archaic past.
It may be that certain thinkers are pulled in by the gravity of some genres rather than others. Think of Nietzsche and tragedy, or Heidegger and lyric. Or perhaps some genres tend to invite philosophical energy more than others. Tragedy has had its share, from Plato and Aristotle down to Hegel and then existentialism. The postmodern story has not yet been written, but it seems prone to eschew the tragic and, with Bakhtin, to look to narrative genres.
That said, let me give a rough sketch of how Bakhtin and the Classics links literary philosophy to our reading of classical texts and how the classics can perform the vital task of critiquing and qualifying a philosopher’s approach to literature.
Discussion of Individual Essays
Part I: Carnival
After his introduction, the editor organizes the volume into four parts, each devoted to a fundamental aspect of Bakhtin’s thought. The first part of the collection is entitled Carnival the term most securely associated in contemporary circles with the name of the Russian philosopher, for “carnival” has given to contemporary thought on comedy and the profane a way of interrogating festival, play, and counter-cultural challenges to authority. It is respectable now to have scholarly discussion of comedic and transgressive genres, from Aristophanes to biker films, and this respectability often wears carnival’s mask. The irreverent challenge to authority and business-as-usual is no longer merely playful or even transgressive, but turns out to be “carnivalesque,” with its embrace of the lower parts of both the body and society, its focus on the ambivalent, its tendency towards laughter even when it deals with the most profound of life’s issues. Thus, in the study of the irrational and unconventional in culture, Bakhtin’s work has virtually replaced the hold of J. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (1955).
In this first section, then, Branham has paired the Bakhtinian, C. Emerson, with the scholar of Greek comedy, A. T. Edwards. Emerson explains the subtleties of Bakhtin’s notion of “carnival laughter” as distinct from theories of laughter such as that of Freud and Bergson. Edwards tries to show the assumptions in Bakhtin’s thought that have managed to keep Old Comedy somewhere near the borders of his theory.
In striving to identify Bakhtin’s notion of carnival laughter through its place in his oeuvre, and by looking at how it has been received and is currently used, Emerson intends to do more than merely set the record straight: she wants to show “the real benefit to literary studies” of Bakhtin’s notion of carnival laughter. Though Bakhtin’s carnival laughter bears comparison with the comic theories of other philosophers, from Plato to Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Freud, Bergson, and others, Bakhtinian carnival has its own set of characteristics (openness, positiveness, etc.). It was Bakhtin who, distinctively, “associated [carnival] not only with the medieval feast and the public square but with a more general freedom from institutions” (6).
Especially valuable is Emerson’s frankness in pointing to paradoxes in Bakhtin’s approach to laughter. For example, where carnival laughter seems to look nostalgically at a world where carnival provided genuine space for the “lower stratum”—of societies, of cultures, of bodies—to express itself and to engage with social reality, the other dominant Bakhtinian theory seems, strikingly, to be in contrast, in that it seems to be progressivist. That is to say, for Bakhtin the novel stands at the crest of an evolutionary wave, so that the most untraditional genre, the novel, is a culmination of literary-historical achievements. Here the reference is to Bakhtin’s notion of dialogue and to his theory of the novel, which, working seemingly on an evolutionary model, lead in Dostoyevsky’s novels to the achievement of a fully “dialogic” form of discourse.
In the course of this first essay, Emerson works up an infectious fervor for Bakhtin’s approach to laughter, even as she touches on the contrasts that can be made between Bakhtin and other thinkers. (For example, Freud’s theory of laughter looks backward, “seeking relief” (8), while Bakhtin’s is positive: “His emphasis is on the sanity, goodness, and normalcy of a self that is split and ‘alienated’ by laughter” ). After explicating the notion of carnival laughter, in this positive, almost utopian, vein, Emerson uses Dante’s The Divine Comedy to map out the different kinds of laughter in a Bakhtinian universe.
But what of “the classics” and carnival laughter? Brief mention of Sophocles, Aristotle, and Plato do not clarify for me the relationship of these authors to an open, inclusive, affirming sense of carnival laughter. The reader will have to wait for Edwards’ paper on Aristophanes to challenge Bakhtin in this way. I, for one, am disappointed that the Odyssey wasn’t brought into Emerson’s mix, instead of the The Divine Comedy. After all the Odyssey has often been styled as, in some sense, comic, and the laughter of the suitors is potentially the negative kind that Bakhtin resists. Indeed, the mêtis of Odysseus can be easily enlisted for its positive carnival propensities. But I suspect that the Bakhtinian identification of epic as monologic, tout court makes it hard for a committed Bakhtinian to contemplate Homer in this way.
In A. T. Edwards’ “Historicizing the Popular Grotesque,” the problematic relationship of Bakhtin to classical antiquity is directly addressed. This essay, a revised form of an essay first published in 1993, is a model of how to evaluate a philosophical approach to literature. In this case, the philosopher, a champion of the grotesque and the comic, finds little positive to recommend in the greatest of the ancient comic artists. Why? Edwards shows that Bakhtin is ambivalent about the status of Old Comedy as a genre because “though the comedies of Aristophanes exhibit a formal coherence with Bakhtin’s concept of the popular grotesque, they deviate from his model in terms of the social and political values with which the grotesque is identified” (34). In particular, one might say, Aristophanes uses means that derive from the dêmos primarily to critique the dêmos. In the same way that contemporary elites have learned to use the vote, the bill of rights, and the public demonstration to shore up corporate and governmental power, Old Comedy appropriates tools characteristic of popular forms towards an end whose interest is the state.
Edwards’ essay is ambitious and thorough. He gives a robust critique of other thinkers who examine Bakhtin and comedy, isolates and analyzes attempts to approach this matter using the Bakhtin’s notion of the “dialogic,” and convincingly accounts for the decline of Old Comedy as precisely caused by this contrast between the democratic social roots of the comedic and the anti-democratic political use made of the people’s tools.
Part II: Bakhtin on Homer
Edwards’ wrestling with a classical genre and author prepares the way for the next section, “Bakhtin on Homer,” where two prominent Homerists look to a Homer informed by Bakhtin, but in two very different ways. First John Peradotto continues his engagement with Bakhtin that began in Man in the Middle Voice (Princeton 1990). In this essay, “Bakhtin, Milman Parry, and the Problem of Originality,” Peradotto notes that, since Parry first argued for the traditional character of the Homeric texts, the old opposition between tradition and innovation has remained unchanged, for that old notion of tradition cannot account for the vitality and accomplishments of texts composed in an oral context, including the Homeric poems. Peradotto identifies Parry’s antecedents in this regard as the European scholars of tradition—Meillet among philologists, Weber, Durkheim, and Lévy-Bruhl among sociologists—who saw tradition as providing a context within which traditional cultures and their artistic endeavors either remained stable, or else innovated, so as to go boldly beyond the tradition.
Bakhtin, on Peradotto’s reading, provides a way to rethink the idea of tradition. The key is “dialogism” in the Bakhtinian sense, which helps in “expunging the long-standing dichotomy between … the traditional and the creative” (63). For readers of Bakhtin, dialogue is a central concept, since it is used not only to explain language as in essence “dialogic,” but also as a way to explain features of literary genres and texts: some literary works are more dialogic than others, presenting thereby a close analog to the world itself, a continuing encounter between selves and others. Peradotto argues for the notion that there is a kind of dialogue in play between what he calls the “authoritative” and the “internally persuasive discourse” in Homer. The authoritative discourse is for Peradotto the traditional element, while the internally persuasive discourse is associated with innovation. To argue the point, Peradotto introduces a series of Homeric examples, the most telling of which is the contrast between Demodocus and Odysseus, where Demodocus “repeats a fixed tradition” (= the authoritative form), but Odysseus’ “freely design[ed] fictions” are the “internally persuasive” form.
Thus Homer, one is encouraged to conclude, is dialogic because the texts include non-authoritative forms as well as authoritative forms. But does this really alter our notion of tradition and Homer? After all, even with this analysis, the traditional is still primarily authoritative. Or can the “freely designed fictions” be equally traditional and not authoritative? I am not at all sure that the Gordion knot has been cut since a truly robust idea of tradition must come to include the creative, the persuasive, and the innovative under its umbrella. Indeed, among linguistically oriented Homerists (such as Bakker) and oralists (such as Foley) thinking is moving forward along just such lines. But can such ideas be Bakhtinian? That tension (in evidence in Part I) between the admiration of popular forms and the love of the novel (as well as “the novel”) seems still in evidence.
This distinction between epic and novel motivates Nagy’s article “Reading Bakhtin Reading the Classics.” The center piece of Nagy’s article is an old Homeric problem: after the Phaeacians convey Odysseus to Ithaca what happens to them and why? With one manuscript reading, the text has Scheria covered over as divine retribution for the help the Phaeacians gave to Odysseus. On the other reading, Zeus asks Poseidon not to destroy the city. Those familiar with Nagy’s recent work will guess that he argues for both readings as legitimately Homeric, in that they reflect Homeric variant traditions that came to be inherited by the Hellenistic scholars as they proceed to make their editions.
The significance of this for students of Bakhtin has to do with his important essay “Epic and Novel,” which has become one of the standard studies to read on the characteristics of narrative genres in relation to one another (in The Dialogic Imagination, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981: 3-40). That essay, as one can tell from its subtitle (“Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel”), aims at explicating “the basic structural characteristics of this most fluid of genres, characteristics that might determine the direction of its peculiar capacity for change and of its influence and effect on the rest of literature” (op. cit. 11). This approach cannot help but see epic as foil for what turns out to be the ideal genre, the novel. The epic contrasts with the novel in its use of language and its approach to time, especially in its relation to the present. In all these categories the epic is not so good as the novel, which is multi-layered in its presentation of language (the relevant Bakhtinian term being “polyglossia”). With respect to time, epic cannot escape its relation to the past and its inability to incorporate the present in its multiplicity and, to use another of Bakhtin’s key terms, to be unfinalizable.
One might expect the Homerist to wonder at all this, only to find it difficult respond. After all, the past is central to epic, and the language of Homer seems, at first blush, quite uniform; at least the dialectical play of Huckleberry Finn or Wuthering Heights does seem far from even the “play of formulas” that many of us accept as part of formulaic style. Nagy’s response is to take Bakhtin’s erudition, unpack it, and repack it to show that the epic is as rich as the novel, with the decisive factor being the following: which genre is considered “classical” in a given era. For like Bakhtin, Nagy wants to map generic development over time, but Nagy labors to show how generic characteristics are not only differently valued—this much is part of Bakhtin’s major contribution to literary studies—but also differently received from one cultural moment to the next. In other work (e.g., Pindar’s Homer, Baltimore 1990), Nagy argues that the epic and the lyric bore a relation to each other similar to the relations that obtain between the epic and the novel: at one period epic is related to lyric in such a way that epic is received as the marked category as opposed to lyric as the unmarked category. Over time, the relationship shifts, so that epic becomes the “unmarked” in relationship to the newly constituted lyric received as “marked.”
So it is that, for Nagy, the epic focus on the past is an illusion that becomes even more dominant in an era where the novel comes to be the “unmarked” genre. Nagy is clear about this: “The elimination…of references to the present in Homeric poetry is a special case…and it cannot be generalized for epic writ large” (80). Indeed, Nagy’s concluding example argues for the survival of epic’s relationship to the present. The variant readings at Od. 13.158 (referred to above) yield a text that has Zeus cover over the Phaeacian city with a huge mountain—or not. The former is the currently fashionable choice, but Nagy suggests that the second (favored by the editor Aristophanes of Byzantium) leaves an opening to the present. This would be speculation of a most interesting kind, but perhaps only that, were it not for the historical fact that the Corcyreans saw themselves as descended from the Phaeacians. This stunning connection means that the Greeks of some present time (8th century? 7th, 6th? 5th? 4th? all of the above?) might have seen reference to their present in epic texts (89-91).
Where does all this leave Bakhtin? What Nagy does is to locate and identify the literary-historical terms on which the Bakhtinian distinctions between novel and epic are played out. The stakes are high, since for Nagy, what is at issue is the very notion of “the classical,” both as a descriptive and as a value laden term. For Bakhtin, the novel becomes classical; indeed Bakhtin’s praise of the genre, I might add, sounds like the praise one might give to “the classics” themselves. Under those circumstances, the epic certainly seems to become distinctive, narrowly focused, and limited. Over time the mighty classical genre has come to seem smaller, from the perspective of the novel. (Note that it is one of the features of the unmarked category to be larger than the marked category.) But such an analysis itself needs to be historically self-aware: what is classical at one moment, say epic, contains the seeds of its anti-classical contender, say the novel, which in the fullness of time comes itself to be the classical and unmarked form. That’s where we are now. Does literary history have an end?
Part III: The Dialogic Principle
The first 4 essays have laid the groundwork for those who want to set Bakhtin next to classical literature. The troubled relationship between epic and novel, the nature of comedy, and the tension between the tradition and what lies on the other side of its borders are issues about which all students of classical literature need to think deeply. Part III takes us into more particular territory. For here two Latinists focus on Bakhtin’s approach to lyric and other poetic forms. As with Nagy above, these authors find the thinking of Bakhtin valuable for understanding their texts, but they also see that Bakhtin’s preference for the novel and concomitant demotion of other genres poses as many problems for the lyric as it has for the epic. Bakhtin’s philosophical tools, such as the concept of polyglossia, dialogism, and carnival laughter foreground the novelistic, often at the expense of the lyric. Indeed, Bakhtin’s prickly relationship to lyric is at times a sticking point for his readers, and for classicists even more so, given the central place that the lyric holds in the reception of Greek and Roman antiquity. And, yet, a rigorously critical approach can succeed in reworking the most valuable of Bakhtin’s insights so that they can help us re-think lyric.
Such an approach characterizes W. Batstone’s contribution, “Catullus and Bakhtin: the Problems of a Dialogic Lyric,” in which Bakhtin’s view of lyric is identified as Romantic in origin. With the Romantic’s focus on the individual’s authorship of a lyric that is expressive of “powerful emotion” (Wordsworth) or that is merely to be “overheard” (J. S. Mill), the deep regard the Bakhtin has for language and life that is dialogic, and for the multilayered consciousness displayed in the novel would seem to exclude the lyric entirely from consideration. But only on the Romantic interpretation of the lyric form. For it is Romantic theory that makes lyric monologic. In Romantic ideology, poetry is private, the expression of a self, in short, a text-book case of Bakhtin’s linguistic demon, the monologic discourse. Batstone’s discussion here is sharp and convincing as he works to find a way out of Bakhtin’s debt to Romanticism.
Batstone gets around Romanticism by critiquing the Romantic notion of the self to suggest that among the types of lyric some kinds exist whose presentation of self is dialogic, a kind of lyric that revels in the plurality of voices and perspectives that Bakhtin identifies with the novel. Having outlined the prerequisites for dialogic lyric, Batstone presents a kind of case study in certain carmina of Catullus. In contrast to poems like Catullus 10, Catullus 8 presents a performance of individual consciousness intersected by different but equally vital discourses. And Batstone concludes “here, for the first time in lyric poetry, internal difference is the event of the self” (108). Batstone finds in what he calls “the elusive self” of Catullan lyric (as in c. 8) a challenge to the monologic lyric. So in Catullus, there is evidence of a non-monologic view of both discourse and world.
Throughout these readings Batstone punctuates the textual analysis with Bakhtin’s own deployment of the notions of polyphony and dialogism. The result is a very convincing demonstration of how Bakhtin’s insistence on multivoiced authorship is exemplified by certain of Catullus’ poems, with the result that Catullus is a counter to Bakhtin’s view of lyric, even as Bakhtin’s more important methods are useful for studying the genre he demotes. Batstone, thus, succeeds in this essay in showing how a close reading of Catullus can challenge Bakhtin’s view of lyric poetry and how Bakhtin’s theories, developed primarily with the novel in view, can provide a theoretical scaffolding for a deep reading of Catullus.
Garth Tissol, in his essay on Bakhtin and Ovid’s exile poetry, agrees with Batstone’s identification of Romanticism as the source of Bakhtin’s animus against non-narrative forms. What Tissol adds to the matter is a focus on two notions, parody and autobiography. For Tissol “polyphony and dialogism seem as present in ‘novelized’ poetic texts of antiquity as in prose texts” (142). Ovid’s parodic mode in the Metamorphoses is a clear candidate for a type of Bakhtinian parody that “embrace[s] many characteristics of smaller-scale genres” (141). Tissol uses his essay to enlist the exile poems of Ovid as exemplary of the values that Bakhtin ascribes to the novel. The exile poem’s “autobiographical self-fashioning” is rife with epic parody. “Autobiographical writing, self-reflective by nature, lends itself to ironic treatment and is closely related to the parody of public and heroic forms. For [certain Roman] poets irony and parody are not simply casual additions to an autobiographical mode, but are in fact essential to it. The poets wrote for audiences steeped in epic, tragedy, and other genres of mythological narrative and drama….The results are richly dialogic” (145).
In the remainder of his essay, Tissol reads Tristia 1.5 through Bakhtinian eyes, with a focus especially on how epic parody (Ulysses compared to the exiled Ovid) serves the poet’s ironic autobiography. Clearly Tissol, along with Batstone, has shown that the insights that seem most valuable in Bakhtin, about the nature of language, texts, and life, in themselves and to one another, should not be restricted to the novelistic genres. Questions remain, of course. Beyond Romanticism, what prompts the progressivist view of literary history? We certainly live in an age congenial to the notion that the fundamental, vital, and creative genre is the “novel.” Perhaps readers of ancient literature, where the novel is a minor (if fashionably “uncanonical”) genre, can force the issue by bringing a major thinker’s best thoughts and analyses to bear on genres he contrasted unfavorably to the novel.
Part IV: Chronotopics
Part 4 of this volume is its most philosophical segment. Two of the essays deal with the philosophical topics that are at the center of Bakhtinian thought, time and the aesthetic, while the other two essays delve deeply into the implications for ancient literature of two of Bakhtin’s central problematics, the chronotope (Branham) and generic distinction (Nightingale). But of these four articles, the two most philosophically oriented are those of Francis Dunn and Gary Saul Morson.
Dunn takes up the philosophical meaning of time. This ambitious task is given focus by Dunn’s assertion that Bakhtin’s discussions of time point us toward better “models that address the temporal nature of the world we live in” (188). In particular Bakhtin’s study of genres is a “way of thinking about time” precisely because generic difference hinges to a great extent on a genre’s relation to time and space, in Bakhtinian terminology, to the chronotope (189). At this point Dunn encourages us to think of the “presentness” of the novel once again, especially in that this feature of novelistic narrative steers readers toward issues like freedom and autonomy. Dunn turns to study tensions in Bakhtin’s thought. With respect to time, is the present so strongly championed as to exclude in its turn, the past and the future? If the novel is as dialogic as all that and the characters have real autonomy and freedom, what then happens to the author? The author in a sleight-of-hand is made to “seem” absent—is this a necessary feature of artistic mimesis?
Dunn then turns to philosophy to suggest that similar problems obtain in that sphere as in literature. In this section (193-200), Dunn moves very quickly to include Augustine, Whitehead, Spinoza, Kant, Bergson, Husserl and Heidegger. The pace is at times too fast, but Dunn’s purpose seems to be a kind of display of the sheer diversity in philosophical thinking about time: “The present, which is immediate and authentic in Bakhtin, personal and fallible in Augustine, vital in Bergson, and existential in Heidegger, is for Whitehead one point indistinguishable from all others” (200).
Dunn’s review of ancient philosophy also is speedy, with a chronicle of the development of Greek thought beginning from the archaic period (where change and stability were acknowledged, with a preference, as in Hesiod, for a “stable and changeless world” ). Heraclitus is said to have “deconstructed” (201-02) the popular conception of time, with a response from Parmenides that denies that “reality . . . change[s] in time.” This review of time in early Greek philosophy takes us through Zeno, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Protagoras and Gorgias, leading finally to the main comparison to Bakhtin, Antiphon. What attracts Dunn is that “Antiphon employed novel and discursive techniques to create a sense of “eventness” and to sustain the illusion that the thickness of temporal experience has not been betrayed by the process of philosophical abstraction” (209). Such concern for the present and resistance to abstraction is characteristic of Bakhtin as well.
The climax of the essay, then, is a brief for Antiphon as a materialist with a focus on the present, so that he is in this sense comparable to Bakhtin, especially in his notions of unfinalizability and openness, as well as in his own concern with the novel’s incorporation of present experience. Yet, Dunn asserts, Antiphon contrasts with Bakhtin in that his notion of freedom is explicitly political in contrast to Bakhtin’s possibly not so much a -political as un -political [my distinction] notion of dialogue. That is to say, in contrast to Bakhtin’s open and unending dialogue, Antiphon locates the political actor in a struggle over power rooted in the concerns of the present.
In pairing Dunn’s essay with Morson’s “Contingency and the Literary Process,” I mean to join the two philosophical issues of time (Dunn) and chance (Morson). In his essay, Morson presents what he calls the “Aristotelian disjunction” that life is perceived as disorderly and unharmonious whereas the wellformed art-work, paradoxically, imitates life by presenting lived experience in forms that show, not chaos, but harmony and order. For reality the future is open, but art presents a future that is closed. Here Morson identifies this disjunction as Aristotle’s, in that Aristotle understood the harmony of art as well as the contingency of a lived life. That is to say, the artistic value of harmony contrasts with the actual (unpredictable, contingent, and disharmonious) experience of life. For Morson, the Aristotelian texts that are our best guides to a “processual” aesthetics are those such as the Nichomachaean Ethics that argue for practical wisdom rather than the Poetics, which searches for principles that give coherence or “unity.”
Bakhtin, it is argued, shows the way to the “processual aesthetic.” Morson sees us as having lost in our “poetics” our connection to phronesis (“practical wisdom”). He maps this loss by saying that there have been three responses to the Aristotelian disjunction. The first response is to rule out the accidental as in Augustine or “in poetry”; the second is to put contingency and accident into the center of theory and text, as in Darwin, Clausewitz and “the novel as Bakhtin describes it” (265); and the third response is to have “works … [that] lack an overall design that makes everything fit, and the temporality of the work, not just of the characters, would be open” (266). Thus, to use Bakhtinian terminology, the chronotope of the world would be congruent with the chronotope of the work. Morson’s argument ends with a list of characteristics that are displayed by works that have what he has been calling the “processual aesthetic” (268-270).
It is just such a hypothetical set of works that pose what seems to me a problem related to Bakhtin’s apparently progressivist aesthetic model. With the focus so heavily on novels and on texts from the modern period, I have to wonder why it took so long for art to develop this kind of aesthetic. As with Caryl Emerson’s opening essay (discussed above), it is a shame that the engaged Bakhtinian eye was not turned to early Greek literature, and, in particular, to the archaic material presented in Homer. Surely if we adopt a vital view of tradition (as Peradotto and Nagy have tried to do in this volume), tradition might find a seat at the table of the “processual aesthetics” where there is no closure and things are open-ended. The paradox to be overcome is merely that, in a tradition, there is a closed set of literary items that are finalized and that set is known a priori. Troy, for example, always falls. But the way in which it falls is unlimited (unfinalized, open, subject to innumerable contingencies). Under such conditions one’s narrative is infinitely open-ended, if one merely begins by accepting a few fixed points. (Witness here Nagy’s two readings of the return of the Phaeacians to Scheria.) It is tantalizing to think that the foil for the novel (the epic) might hide the very processual aesthetics that Morson pleads for in this intriguing essay.
In other words, while Morson’s essay makes a case for the crucial significance of time and chance in the light of Bakhtin’s formidable theory of narrative, I am not so sure that, especially in the context of classical literature, limiting that case to the novelistic form is necessary or desirable.
The volume’s section on chronotopes actually begins with a close reading of Bakhtin’s concept in the context of ancient Greek and Roman romance. Branham seeks in this essay (“A Truer Story of the Novel?”) to pose an alternative to conventional theories of the development of the novel. His view challenges convention by suggesting that the genre is not to be traced to developments heralded in England in the 18th century (as in Ian Watt, et al.) but that the genre is traceable in its genealogy back to antiquity. Indeed, “novelistic fiction has been invented more than once” (162). This gesture is valuable in moving Bakhtin’s theory away from its reception as an apology for progressivist or evolutionary models that merely privilege modern forms.
Branham’s reading of the chronotope is detailed, thus providing a valuable inroad to Bakhtin’s view of genre. Indeed, Branham’s essay extends Bakhtin’s thinking in the very directions that Bakhtin thought he was heading, that is to say, toward explicating the shapes and contours of generic change and development throughout literary history. Branham’s essay is also comparative in its range, from Greece to Rome to renaissance Spain to the modern period. Finally, Branham hopes to show that Bakhtin’s theories are not merely developmental or progressive. In this sense too the essay is comparative—in trying to account for genres as a trans-cultural phenomenon.
As for the ancient texts, Branham follows and analyzes Bakhtin’s lines of argument as he traces the chronotope in Achilles Tatius, Longus, and finally Apuleius and Petronius. It is in the last reading that I find the essay most valuable, especially in Branham’s supplementing of Bakhtin’s own all-too-brief discussions of Petronius. For Branham, Petronius’ novel “bristles with chronotopic motifs” (178-179), and indeed such an observation affirms the positive value for readers who focus on the kinds of analyses posed by Bakhtinian theory. In the Cena for example, Branham sees the “many….echoes of the time of Nero in Trimalchio’s banquet, chronotopic motifs which are themselves concerned with the registering and marking of time” (129). Calendars, clocks, sundials are all gathered here to show one novel’s preoccupation with time. The most impressive assertion here is that carnival (and carnival-time) are joined with everyday-time in Petronius’ novel. This feature itself might account for the sense of greatness we have in this text, however fragmentary it is. Indeed, in Branham’s hands, Bakhtinian tools seem to bring our text into focus in a way not thought of before.
I conclude this review with some comments on an essay that exemplifies the kind of value that can be found in literary philosophy for the reader of classical texts. Nightingale’s essay moves towards a reading of Plato’s Phaedo, with a revised notion of a Bakhtinian chronotope. While, many of the essays in this volume have critiqued, re-analyzed and modified Bakhtin on the classics, Nightingale does something different. Her essay extends Bakhtin’s thinking on a certain kind of genre and uses that extension to make a significantly innovative contribution to our readings both of Bakhtin and of Plato.
As does Branham, Nightingale takes care to explicate Bakhtin’s view of the chronotope (220-223). In delineating the major types relevant to antiquity, she turns her focus to a situation in space and time that Bakhtin sees as inferior to his own favored types (exemplified by Rabelais and Goethe). This type, the chronotope of eschatology, is deficient (for Bakhtin) in that it closes off “unfinalizability” in historical and human life, and devalues the “material present” (220). Nightingale, however, with her profound knowledge of Platonic discourse, brings something else to the table. In a reading of the myth of Plato’s Phaedo, she locates and identifies its chronotope as that of “eschatology,” because it “explores the relationship between human life in the present and human life in a distant time”; since, for this chronotope, the distant time can be located either in the past, or future, or present.
Nightingale makes two contributions to Bakhtin’s typology. First, she introduces a new chronotope, the “eschatology of the present” (cf. 236 et passim), wherein the time-place nexus is not after or before ours, but contemporaneous with our own. That is to say, instead of placing the other world, say, after ours on a horizontal axis, this genre moves the other world above or below us, on a vertical axis. From this point of view, a radical critique of the present is possible, one that does not rely on mere future punishment for a past nor on nostalgia for an idyllic past from the perspective of the present. Nightingale in support of her thesis brings into the mix ancient geographical texts. Her summary of the analysis is worth quoting: the geographical texts “meet the requirements for … [an] ‘eschatology of the present’: not only do they depict alien and exotic places which exist contemporaneously with our own world, but they also posit different temporalities for these distant lands…Finally, geographic discussions of ta eschata invariably attempt to explore the nature and boundaries of the human” (234).
Her second contribution is to assert that “eschatology, then, can be ecological rather than theological” (240). What she means by this, as I understand it, is that the “alien and exotic” that is held up as material for exploring human life is not “coded as opposition,” as in some mythic traditions, but is seen as co-existing with human life. In other words, Nightingale wants to expand Bakhtin’s thought to include the natural world. Perhaps we should invite nature to the symposium. The claim I find most gripping is that “part of the business of eschatological narratives is to negotiate both the boundaries and the limits of the human” (240).
By connecting all this to Plato’s Phaedo, Nightingale exemplifies the kind of valuable analysis that can emerge from contemplating theory in the light of ancient literature. So let this essay stand for the volume, an example of how thinking about classical texts will, of necessity, not come to an end, since those texts are vital to the dialogue that is literary thought, texts and theory. Here Nightingale, for example, offers us a new tool (an “ecological eschatology”), which galvanizes the dialogue that begins when philosophy and literature make their relationship even closer than Aristotle claimed.