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Alan Jacobs

In Brief: January 01, 2001

Christianity in Bakhtin: God and the Exiled Author, The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin, Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin's Theology of Discourse

Christianity in Bakhtin: God and the Exiled Author
by Ruth Coates
Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998
220 pp.; $59.95

The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin
by Caryl Emerson
Princeton Univ. Press, 1997
296 pp.; $16.95, paper

Corporeal Words: Mikhail Bakhtin's Theology of Discourse
by Alexandar Mihailovic
Northwestern Univ. Press, 1997
336 pp.; $59.95

The many and varied writings of the great Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) have become, in the quarter-century since his death, a kind of scholarly battleground, as proponents of various intellectual causes have tried to claim this powerful mind as one of their own. One can consult anthologies of modern literary theory and find him classified with Marxists, with New Historicists, even with deconstructionists. Often he is considered a key precursor for all of these groups, even though they are wholly inconsistent with one another. Thus it was not just a frivolous pop-culture joke when the journal Lingua Franca referred to him as an "international man of mystery."

When, some years ago, it became clear that Bakhtin was a lifelong Russian Orthodox believer, the mystery either deepened or was resolved, depending on your point of view. But in any case, it has become necessary for Bakhtin scholars to come to terms with this essential element of Bakhtin's being, and three books published over the last several years contribute mightily to that task.

The book by Princeton University's Caryl Emerson—long recognized as one of the world's leading Bakhtin scholars—does so indirectly, since her goal is to tell the history of reception of Bakhtin's work. We see a wide range of ideological forces at work, right from the beginning of Bakhtin's career, making it difficult if not impossible to answer the question with which Emerson begins: "Who was Mikhail Bakhtin?" Emerson's own picture of Bakhtin gradually emerges: he is a man who "turns toward the world with … kindness and generosity of spirit"; he realizes (to paraphrase ...

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