Notes to Bakhtin: Between the Epic and the Novel

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Bakhtin / chronotope / epic / genre / literary theory / novel / Zizek

M.M. Bakhtin. “Epic and Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: UTP, 1981. 3-40.

Bakhtin writes “the novel is the sole genre that continues to develop, that is as yet uncompleted” (3). The epic, on the other hand, is a completed and antiquated genre. Bakhtin notes that “Of all the major genres only the novel is younger than writing and the book: it alone is organically receptive to new forms of mute perception, that is, to reading” (3). Bakhtin believes that “This ability of the novel to criticize itself is a remarkable feature of this ever-developing genre” (6).

The novelization of other genres is important to Bakhtin:

They become more free and flexible, their language renews itself by incorporating extraliterary heteroglossia and the ‘novelistic’ layers of literary language, they become dialogized, permeated with laughter, irony, humor, elements of self-parody and finally—this is the most important thing—the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminacy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality (the openended present) (7).

Furthermore, “In the process of becoming the dominant genre, the novel sparks the renovation of all other genres, it infects them with its spirit of process and inconclusiveness” (7).

Bakhtin suggests four aspects of the general characteristics of the novel: “the novel should not be ‘poetic,’ as the word ‘poetic’ is used in other genres of imaginative literature;” the hero should not be heroic like in an epic; the hero should not be portrayed as unchanging or already completed but instead should be shown as in a state of becoming; “the novel should become for the contemporary world what the epic was for the ancient world” (10).

Bakhtin believes that the epic requires “a national epic past” or the “absolute past;” a “national tradition” as opposed to mere personal experience; and an “absolute epic distance” that separates it from the present (13).

To portray an event on the same time-and-value plane as oneself and one’s contemporaries (and an event that is therefore based on personal experience and thought) is to undertake a radical revolution, and to step out of the world of epic into the world of the novel (14).

Bakhtin believed that

The absolute past is a specifically evaluating (hierarchical) category. In the epic world view, ‘beginning,’ ‘first,’ ‘founder,’ ‘ancestor,’ ‘that which occurred earlier’ and so forth are not merely temporal categories but valorized temporal categories, and valorized to an extreme degree (15).

Moreover, in ancient literature it is memory, and not knowledge, that serves as the source and power for the creative impulse. The novel, by contrast, is determined by experience, knowledge and practice (the future). When the novel becomes the dominant genre, epistemology becomes the dominant discipline (15).

The epic is walled off absolutely from where the singer and listeners are temporally located. “This boundary, consequently, is immanent in the form of the epic itself and is felt and heard in its every word…To destroy this boundary is to destroy the form of the epic as a genre” (16).

Bakhtin distinguishes between two types of temporality:

Contemporaneity for its own sake (that is to say, a contemporaneity that makes no claim on future memory)…[and] contemporaneity for the future (for descendents) (19).

The “valorized emphasis” on the epic, absolute past “does not serve the future,” but instead serves “the future memory of a past” and creates “a world that is always opposed in principle to any merely transitory past” (19). In this sense, the epic past is similar to Nietzsche’s conception of the will to power in that it attempts to erect a stable being (indeed, Bakhtin analyzes all things epic as unchanging and already completed) where novels show the world in its contemporaneity, in its becoming (this is probably why Bakhtin calls the epic past the absolute past).

In his book Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Slavoj Zizek writes, “in modernism we have fragments of common daily life expressing global metaphysical vision, while in postmodernism we have larger-than-life figures treated as fragments of common life” (29).

Similarly, the epic, being laughed at in parodies or travesties, becomes “contemporized” and is “brought low” to the level of contemporary life, as Bakhtin says. In a way, laughter demythifies, and, I suppose, postmodernizes (21).

Furthermore, Bakhtin writes at length:

It is precisely laughter that destroys the epic, and in general destroys any hierarchical (distancing and valorized) distance. As a distanced image a subject cannot be comical; to be made comical, it must be brought close. Everything that makes us laugh is close at hand, all comical creativity works in a zone of maximal proximity. Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, break open its external shell, look into its center, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment with it…Familiarization of the world through laughter and popular speech is an extremely important and indispensable step in making possible free, scientifically knowable and artistically realistic creativity in European civilization” (23).

Through laughter, and “the shift of the temporal center of artistic orientation,” the author, his readers, and the world represented or narrated all exist on one plain: inevitably, the novel “permits the author, in all his various masks and faces, to move freely onto the field of his represented world, a field that in the epic had been absolutely inaccessible and closed (27).

Now the author and his work “find themselves…subject to the same temporally valorized measurements, for the ‘depicting’ authorial language now lies on the same plane as the ‘depicted’ language of the hero, and may enter into dialogic relations and hybrid combinations with it” (27-28).

This phenomenon allows for “the appearance of the authorial image on the field of representation;” Bakhtin feels this is one of the most important effects of “surmounting” the epic (28).
The novel is a “world where there is no first word (no ideal word), and the final word has not yet been spoken” (30).
Hence, all characters, events, objects, etc. of the novel are unfinished and mutable.

No matter how distant this object is from us in time, it is connected to our incomplete, present-day, continuing temporal transitions, it develops a relationship with our unpreparedness, with our present. But meanwhile our present has been moving into an inconclusive future. And in this inconclusive context all the semantic stability of the object is lost; its sense and significance are renewed and grow as the context continues to unfold (30).

On the other hand, because the events in the absolute, epic past are finished and immutable, plot is arbitrary; in opposition to this, the novel “demands for an external and formal completedness and exhaustiveness, especially in regard to plotline (31).

Therefore, “This specific ‘impulse to continue’…and the ‘impulse to end’…are characteristic only for the novel and are possible only in a zone where there is proximity and contact” (32). Brooks’s Reading for the Plot comes to mind here, as does the Freudian interpretation of the linear novel driven toward an ending. It is interesting to add that Bakhtin finds the epic structure “circular,” not necessarily needing a clear beginning or end (which explains in medias res?).

As opposed to the epic, the novel speculates in the unknown: “The novel devises various forms and methods for employing the surplus knowledge that the author has, that which the hero does not know or does not see” (32).

Another important difference between epic and novel is that we can identify (somewhat) with characters in novels, but not heroes in epics. This is due to the absolute, hierarchized past. Another important facet of the epic is that the hero’s view of himself coincides with that of the author and reader (whereas in the novel, irony can cause us to see the silly vanity of the cuckold, etc.)(34). This also, to some extent, points back to the being/becoming binary.


–Taylor Adkins

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  1. Pingback: Bakhtin’s Beholder: Epic and Novel in Dungeons & Dragons | Roll Save or Die

  2. Pingback: International Psychoanalysis » Blog Archive » Philosophy Thursday: Mikhail Bahktin

  3. Please unpack what you said here, Taylor: “The event is always rare, at any case, but for Bakhtin, the chronotope actually seems to be talking about a topological phenomenology of the event through its historical development in the social unconscious, etc. etc.” Here, might we correlate the notion of “social unconscious” to the notion of “mentalité” in Annales historiography? Could we speak here of “chronogopological phenomenology,” or does your mention of “event” already include the temporal? In what generic context does your notion of “historical development” belong?

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