Study Guide

Mikhail Bakhtin Influences

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Fyodor Dostoevsky

I'm just gonna say it: when it comes to Dostoevsky, I'm the man. My work has never been outdone. In Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics, I offer a few central ideas:

  1. The unfinalizability self. Look, people change, so don't go treating anyone like you have him all figured out because you're probably wrong. People are never fully revealed in the world. (Most people don't even understand themselves, you know what I'm sayin'?) People have infinite capacities that even eHarmony can't fully capture. 
  2. The relationship between the self and other/groups. Hey, we're all in this mess together, and we all influence each other, whether your parents like it or not. (BTW: just because two people disagree doesn't mean that one of them is wrong.)
  3. Polyphony. Like it sounds: "many voices." I say bring on all of the voices—at once! Like a kindergarten class of 30 with one teacher!

I bet you'd like Dostoevsky as much as I do. Check out The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and Notes from the Underground.

François Rabelais

Rabelais was like my own personal Jerry Seinfeld—just a hilarious guy. When I wrote Rabelais and Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, I really honed my ideas on carnival and grotesque—pushing the boundaries of acceptable thought. (Tee hee!) I look mostly at Rabelais's book Gargantua and Pantagruel to examine a particular laughter that thrived in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. My argument is that laughter is freeing and therapeutic; it liberates us from authorities that want to degrade our souls. I look specifically at Medieval carnivals, in which hierarchies got all messed up and social rules were violated through some good partying and open human emotion. I just love the "people's laughter," and all of its low-brow, natural, and bodily ways.

Laurence Sterne

Go read Tristram Shandy. Seriously. And not just because it's one of the first novels in the English language (though if that alone doesn't interest you, I can't help you). Then why? Because it's hilarious. Sterne is a supreme creator of the grotesque. As an 18th-century writer, Sterne practiced Medieval traditions of the grotesque. Laughter is fundamental to this carnival element, and Sterne has this down pat. He reveals the humor in the sorrow and, best of all, shows the mock-heroic side of war.

The English Romantics—you know Coleridge, Keats, and co.—really ruined that comic element. They looked out their windows and, rather than having a good belly laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, they saw a "terrifying world." Come on, peeps. Lighten up.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I love me some Goethe. My favorite thing about him is that he didn't just write about an inert hero in a never-changing world. Goethe really got down with how time and narrative work. He had individuals networked in society and then showed how those individuals developed and grew. (Fancy word for that: bildungsroman.) They aren't just like Muppets reflecting their historical moment.

Example: In his poem "Prometheus," Goethe represents the polyphonic author, giving everyone an individual voice. Unlike Zeus, Prometheus creates free people who can disagree and even rise up against their maker. Goethe was really comfy with contradictions and let his characters change organically. Word.

Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol

Gogol's work really helped me fine-tune my theory of the carnival and the grotesque, two of my signature ideas. Gogol was fearless when it came to contradictions and, in fact, saw them as part of popular tradition. You see, before me, critics always focused on Gogol's compassion for the downtrodden and poor. I say there's a lot more to his work—there are fantastic components and stylistic silliness. One of my faves by Gogol was "The Overcoat" because the story is so "okay" with not being in control. It's still working through things as it begins: "In the department of… but I had better not say which department, a regiment, a government office, and, in fact any sort of official body." Gogol makes the reader feel like he's hearing a story in the moment, with all of sorts of messy confusions and corrections, going back, restarting and revising. I approve.

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