Sentinel Poetry (Online) #47, October 2006. ISSN 1479 425X

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Bakhtin the Poet



 In his seminal essay, “Epic and the Novel, on the concept of ‘heteroglosia’, Mikhail Bakhtin insists that the novel is the only literary form still evolving; that it carries the future development or elaboration of all literature within its kernel through its open-endedness and its peculiar ability to incorporate other closed-ended genres – like the epic or even tragedy –  within it. The novel’s vaunted permeability, its inclusiveness, its celebration of the carnevalesque, is the bedrock of his thesis on heteroglosia. In comparison other genres are moribund and dead as far as extending their literary parameters go and, even if they did strive for self-expansion, they can only do so within their hermetically sealed circle or, at best, end up breaking out of their orbits to stretch out and mimic the novel’s linear projection; they become ‘novelised’. The novel is polyglot, many voiced and democratising in its impact on the spirit of the letter and, in consequence, on society.   


The Epic, in its ancient and oral roots in preliterate societies, is originally associated with poetry of course; a poetry usually sung to music and sometimes later written down when particular societies became literate. Usually the older the epic the more certain it is to be steeped in orature; and the closer it is to contemporary times, the more it becomes the literary epic. Every society started out as preliterate and oral, such that most cultures have these epics. As in the ‘world folk-epic’ – they can sometimes be the informing worldview or weltanschauung of social contracts, in which case they are similar to what Bakhtin rightly refers to as the ‘national’ epic. There is more to this; but in a moment.  


Bhaktin concentrated on the emergence of the epic in the western tradition as might be expected considering that he grew up in the west, nevertheless one would have expected the researcher in him to either include variations to his European model or delimit its universalist posturing. This is one of the occlusions (perhaps inadvertent) of his analysis, which heavily priviledges the western tradition. Examples of the epic in this tradition are Beowulf, The Iliad, The Odyssey and Paradise Lost; in the East we have the Mahabarata, Ramayan, Shanama and in ancient Africa the epic of Gilgamesh and others like the epics of Sundjata, Lianja and Silmaka respectively. The most recent contemporary epic poetry – a literary rather than oral epic – is from the Caribbean: Derek Walcott’s Omeros, published in 1990 and intertextual to the oral Greek epic, which was written down later as the Odyssey.  This listing is far from exhaustive. Important is the fact  that, in every single corner of the earth where human beings have lived, east, west, north or south, there has been one  or several such epics produced, the oldest known epic being the Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh, written by Shin-eqi-unninni, dated at 2000 BC, older than probably all other known epics and coming from pre-historical African roots. The question here is: why does Bakhtin occlude the account of the epic from all over the face of the earth and adopt the western epic as a model for discussing and dismissing the epic generally as a literary form, as close-ended?  Before this is addressed let us go back to the idea of the ‘national epic’.  


Bakthin considers the epic as a romantic look over the shoulders of the nation, a kind of narcissistic pining for a lost world or for mythologising the nation’s self. In its project then, the national epic naturally uses what Bakthin refers to as a ‘national language’, which does not point to any referent in the real world but is an allegory for the modes of the epic’s self-mythologising exfoliation; for the tongue of the epic, which tongue does not have any one locale in any particular mouth.


The allegory is a major trope in the epic form, as such Bakhtin behaves like a poet while in the same breath dismissing the epic form, and thus poetry itself, as having “congealed” beyond any further development; it does not allow inclusiveness like the Novel; it alienates other genres and by extension it is not subversive of, nor does it democratise, those hierarchies in society, of which it is, as the ‘high art’ of petit bourgeoisie authority, symbolic. As a matter of fact, the chief rhetorical strategy in “Epic and the Novel” is either the symbol, allegory, metaphor or the metonymy – usually tropes that are very central to, and are the very breadth of, poetry. Such signifiers as national language (allegory), a ‘valorised hierarchy of genres’ (metonymy standing in for the hierarchies within society itself) and so on, have no specific referent in the real world. They are abstract concepts that can only be unpacked through a recourse to the liberating language of poetry!; a very dialogic form that allows the Novel to come into being in the first place. I would say that poetry is the only possible engine for prose of any kind, whether the artistic prose to which Bakhtin referred- that is the novel, or to creative non-fiction, the biography, the essay, ordinary or literary, or even the common letter.  Since some concepts can be abstract the mind needs the ‘image’ in order to elucidate a point or idea or thought. The ‘image’ is the unit of poetry, and good poetry excites all kinds of images and appeals to the senses in a near palpable manner. All rhetorical tropes exist towards such elucidation of thought.  This is why philosophers across the ages fall into the same kind of platonic trap such as the one Bakhtin springs on himself.  Plato would have the Poet arrested and crucified for dealing in dreams and images, but Plato, in explaining his abstract ideas, needed images to make it clear; he was guilty of behaving like a poet, of using language like a poet. His Cave allegory is an example of such contradictions as a critic like Paul Hamilton has noted – in New Historicism.  


To further elaborate Baktin’s conflation of poetry with plasticity in form and its presumed lack of dialogue with other forms, one could take a closer look at his thesis in a related essay “Rabelais and His World”. There he brings his theory of heteroglosia to bear on Rabelais’ novel Pantagruel, showing how the author’s deployment of the language of parody in a setting of medieval carnival travesties the usual hierarchical order of civic life, levelling all discourses in the derisive laughter of the marketplace feast, where social rank is erased by mockery. The laughter that he proposes as the energy of the levelling processes within social hierarchies and official truths in the novel, should have been preceded by a cry – he should have elaborated his own metaphor or image – that is, the spontaneous cry of being alive, the sudden realisation of consciousness, which is what poetry is! It is the cry of a child being born into the world, exulting in its existence, on the one hand and allowing the child to progress to speech as it grows on the other. The child is poetry, when it grows to a boy or girl it becomes the Novel. They are one and the same and their destinies are infinitely interwoven. That cry is the cry of poetry; while the novel merely laughs. Without the cry there cannot be laughter. It is that cry of the soul – as in the poignancy of the language of poetry – which peters out and levels off into a laughter of conciliation and inclusion and of mutual self-deprecation around the scene of the travesties within the medieval feast, which then challenges social order, power or  prestige and lets in the dialogism extolled by Bakhtin. 


Again one notes Bakhtin’s deployment of symbols, metaphor, images in his diction in “Rabelais and His World” – ‘laughter (which image I have made into a sustained metaphor above); masks  (representing the assumption and reversals of roles during the carnival) the scatological images of the lower parts of the body (i.e. a metonymy for the commoners) challenging the upper part of the body (i.e. metonymy for the Medieval European aristocracy) on the one hand and, also insisting on its importance in the general regeneration of the whole body on the other. The lowers parts must be in dialogue with the upper for the whole organism to regenerate. Thus we can see how through this array of rhetorical strategies Bakhtin becomes a poet unwittingly.


To go back to the question I raised in the first paragraph: why has Bakhtin occluded examples of carnival in other societies of the world, priviledged the European brand and then goes ahead to use insinuate it a meta-narrative for all cultures? Apart from the very observant comment by Terry Eagleton that the European ruling class gives its blessings to the feast, allows the medieval carnival to happen exactly in order to diffuse the plebeian source of threat to its hegemony, it is possible to conjecture that Bakthin was in the grip of that blinding enlightenment endorsement of the repression of other parts of the world by the Europe of his own day; in short that he was in the grip of an enlightenment ideology. Carnival as a form of travesty of all manner of social hierarchies exists in other cultures, the mockery of normative order being just one of them. Such mockery of class and priviledge is not merely only from the bottom up but can take place on the same social level – say as between women in the age-old Western Nigerian ‘Oke’Ibadan’ festival where, for example, women wear straps of huge penises to parody their husband’s and general male phallic power and thereby travesty it, emphasising a  penis-upending upended (pun intended) world of social relations and rollicking in the power inversions of the moment in the following limericks:



Odo do do mi

Do mi ma ma je un sun o

Oba mi wa wo irun obo mi

Meta lo ku o!




He screwed me and screwed me

And would not let me sleep

O Lordy, look at my pubic hair

There are three strands left from the chaffing!


And this is just one scene of possible locales of humour, parody, travesty, inversion, subversion and the dialogue ensuing from that inversion; oppressed and oppressor are participant in this Yoruba carnival, accompanied by gay laughter. It is the general relaxed environment of a prose, not the cry of the gruelling gender inequality of the quotidian. It is noteworthy too that the daily dose of shame about sexuality and taboos are suspended/upended. The woman is free to talk like ‘a whore’ if she is so inclined and right in her husbands face too, or even pursue the male with a gargantuan phallus strapped around the waist in a mimicry of female rape. This ritual is age-old and must have existed at the time Bakhtin wrote his essay. And such carnivals existed in other parts of the world, surely. Definitely it existed in the Caribbean, where inversion was necessary for the slaves very self-preservation. Such carnivals where not only ritualistic in the Caribbean and Africa; they were also linguistic; this lead to the inversion of the English language into patios, Creole, Pidgin English (in Nigeria and most of west Africa).


 The Medieval European was definitely not as oppressed as the slave on a sugar plantation in the West Indies; so why does Bakhtin conveniently occlude such other scenes of oppression. Again the only answer can be that he was part and parcel of a Universalist enlightenment discourse, which assumed Europe to be the centre of the universe, a place on the universal power grid from which electric bolts of knowledge travel outwards into the dark spaces of the world. Bakhtin was a man of his times. And it is particularly insulting for critics to suggest using a Bakhtinian model or concept of carnival in explaining cultural phenomenon in the contemporary Caribbean and Latin America on the one hand and in Asian and Africa (which are far older cultures) on the other. The African mask for example, beyond the ritual of mimicry and play, has deeply esoteric import for the one wearing a mask; or put differently, there are playful masks- masks of role inversions and other masks that have a mathe-magical significance for the wearer, who is instantly connected to an esoteric, extra-worldly dimension; to wear a mask in a west African Carnival is to inhabit a different psychic space, to cross the thresholds of this world and commune with the ancestors. It is the very steep of poetry; it is going back to the cry. To occlude these other forms of carnival is not dialogic!; it is anti-heteroglosia, it is monologic.


Bhakhtin’s heteroglosia has a shredded tongue, one that forgets its origins, the deep chasis of the mouth where it is still deeply buried – inside poetry. A novel cannot exist without poetry: its proposed dialogism is only allowed by the accents it learnt from poetry. Baktin himself is in the death grip of ideology in the Althuserian sense in his discourse of dialogism; in an Althuserian sense because Bhakhtin probably never knew he was serving the hierarchies he sought to dismantle with his theory.


Amatoritsero Ede


01 October, 2006

Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.



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