Bakhtin effectively established polyphony as the fundamental basis of his philosophy in his 1929 book 'Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics' which proclaimed Dostoevsky as the first true author of the polyphonic novel. Bakhtin maintained polyphony as an elusive term but his biographers, Katerina Clark & Michael Holquist, tell us that "Bakhtin calls this genre the 'polyphonic novel' because it has many points of view, many voices, each of which is given its full due by Dostoevksy." Clark&Holquist assert that "The polyphonic novel is dialogic through and through" and polyphony is virtually synonymous with dialogism which they explain as - "the nature of human beings is dialogic. The structuring force that organizes between self and other, different selves, or self and the world." Bakhtin himself, however, often refrained from using the term dialogism but his emphasis on open dialogue inevitably led him to increasingly be associated with term. Polyphony and dialogism are somewhat reminiscent of Hegel's dialectic but they are eternally open to reinterpretation as opposed to the predetestined finality which is inherient in Hegel's teleology. Combined together, the writings of Dostoevsky and Bakhtin celebrate polyphony in the novel in its movement away from the Romantic individual and the one-sided perspective of the monologic that had dominated the genre henceforth.

Dostoevsky's unique polyphonic style is particularly developed in his final masterpiece 'The Brothers Karamazov.' Throughout the novel we hear many voices that speak throughout and as Clark&Holquist eloquently point out the "characters in a novel are not like flies, immobilized in the objectlike amber of the text that surrounds them." Bakhtin notes that Dostoevskys heros are "not the usual objectified image of a hero in the traditional novel." Dostoevsky begins 'The Brothers Karamazov' by reluctantly claiming Aloysha as its hero but it is not clear that Aloysha exactly is and the reader is offered optional viewpoints in the other characters. Bakhtin tells us "the hero interests Dostoevsky as a particular point of view on the world and on oneself, as the position enabling a person to interpret and evaluate his own self and his surrounding reality." Accordingly, while there are some neutral characters, for the most part we are offered many heros who are complex characters that bring the force of their opinion to the story. According to Clark&Holquist, "The Bakhtinian self is never whole" because "consciousness is always co-consciousness." Dostoevsky's stated hero, Alyosha, is just a knock-off of the authoritative voice of Zosima but, here, we are able to see how one character is able to speak through another. It is only through these diverse characters that the novel, as a whole, becomes animated. "The consciousness of a character is given as someone else's consciousness" and so it is even possible to see one individual figure have a polyphonic voice. Ivan seems to use many different voices and is perpetually lying to his own self. Polyphony can even be found in the narrator's voice where the voice implies that there seems to be two different narrators all together. Overall, it is impossible to point out one particular hero but there are several heros working collectively as a whole. Voices ring the loudest when they violently crash together in scenes of great arguments such as in the meeting at Zosima's cell. Bakhtin says "Dostoevsky's major heroes are, by the very nature of his creative design, not only objects of authorial discourse but also subjects of their own directly signifying discourse." Dostoevsky's characters, according to Bakhtin, are "not voiceless slaves, but free people, capable of standing alongside their creator, capable of not agreeing with him and even of rebelling against him." In 'The Brothers Karamazov,' it is due to the Christ figure, overall, that we are able to have heroes in the first place. Only through Christ's silence, can other's characters, like the Grand Inquisitor, speak and enact their freedom. Bakhtin tells us that this paradoxically "predestines the character for freedom." Clark&Holquist assert Bakhtin's notion that "the difference between humans and other forms of life is a form of authorship." However, the individual must come to realize "As the world needs my alterity to give it meaning, I need the authority of others to define, or author, my self." Bakhtin's interest in biology scientifically led him to the fundamental fact that the test of life, in even the most basic organisms, is a response to any change in one's environment. There is a continual dependence on the response of another. This only leads Clark&Holquist to reiterate "There is no way for a living organism to avoid responsibility, since the very quality that defines whether one is alive or not is the ability to react to the environment." Here, there is ample evidence to support a definitive movement away from the self-contained individual which was epitomized in Descarte's Cogito Ergo Sum ("I think therefore I am.')

Actually, the insitance on interactive dialogue harks back to the beginnings of Western philosophy, itself, with Socrates' disdain for the static written word as opposed to the enlightening dynamics of verbal communication. Plato, Socrate's foremost disciple, agreed with his mentor but reluctantly opted to record, to our benefit, their conversations in the form of written dialogues. Similarly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau admonished himself for his introspective writings that he likened to masturbation since both are merely substitutes for the primary social interactions of conversation and sex. It is interesting that both Plato and Rousseau (along with maybe Descartes, Hume, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and James) stand out as only a handful of the few significant philosophers with a combined talent for exceptional writing. It is not until Existentialism and its forefather, Kierkegaard, that we see philosophy transform into a problem of writing itself. Kierkegaard's marriage, effectively binding philosophy to literature, can be seen today in Existentialist writings found in the other prominent philosophies of Schopenhauer, Dostoevsky, Nietzche, Bergson, Kafka, Sartre, and Camus. In Kierkegaard's first publication and seminal masterpiece 'Either/Or,' he collaborates an anthology of imaginary authors with conflicting opinions and lifestyles. The point is to offer the reader a broad spectrum of beliefs so that s/he may choose their own viewpoint in life. Similarly, in 'Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics,' Bakhtin presents us with the writings of various critics of Dostoevsky in an attempt to create a polyphonic forum where many voices are heard in which we may eventually may make our own decisions for ourself. Beginning in the nineteenth-century, the literature of philosophy finally retains some semblance of the dynamics of verbal dialogue which Socrates had privileged and set such a precedent on.

Bakhtin uses literature brilliantly to spell out his theory of dialogism but it is a bit tricker to 'see' how we are able to enter different conscious viewpoints in a visual image. To illustrate how dialogism applies to the visual arts we will now focus on 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergere,' Manet's final masterpiece that was completed shortly before his death. It is obvious that a woman is the center of attention in this painting. We are immediately effronted by this large portrait of woman who takes up half of the composition. Her size in this composition only suggests her importance in the painting but it also implies that the viewer must be in the heart of the action as well to be so close to her. Our proximity is only cut off by the marble counter which extends over the bottom of the canvas. As a result, the viewer feels as if s/he is directly at the counter being greeted by the bartendress. There are two other large figures on the right which also appear to be in our immediate space. On further inspection we come to realize that one of these figures is only the reflection of the main figure and, therefore, the third person must be a reflection of our own self. We realize and identify ourself in the picture as a man with a tophat and mustache. The geometry of the space appears to be slightly off and, for the woman's back to be reflected in the manner it appears to be, the mirror would have to be curved or at an angle. The rigorous horizontals of the bar and the distant overhang, however, reinforce the fact that the mirror is, in deed, parallel to the bar counter. It is probable that Manet crafted this unusual (and spatially impossible) effect to reflect the entirity of the bartender's back and to help the viewer recognize the reflection as hers and, consequently, to realize her 'point of view.' The champagne bottles in the lower left echo this angle of reflection in how they seem to be reflections of eachother and, therefore, effectively clue us in on how we are supposed to perceive the entire painting. The picture is innovative in how the viewer has access to the vision and interior of two different people and so is, therefore, granted a truly polyphonic visual image.

All of these basic components of 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergere' combine beautifully together to visually portray what Bakhtin calls "transgredience" or "extralocality." Like Manet, Bakhtin also refers to the mirror "because the mirror we use to see ourselves is not a passively reflecting looking glass but rather the actively refracting optic of the other persons. In order to be me, I need the other." Holquist&Clark see Bakhtin's aquisition of the self as a quest for a holy grail where "I go out to the other to come back with myself." As portrayed in Manet's painting, Bakhtin claims "my I-for-myself is always invisible" and so "we get ourselves from others: I get a self I can see." Bakhtin often refers to this vacillation between the self and other specifically in his law of placement which states "no two bodies can occupy the same space at the same time, then my place in existence is unique if only because while I occupy it, no one else can." Basically, the law of placement "is that what I see is governed by the place from which I see it" and so one has to continuously imagine what is not in the immediate field of vision. The point in Bakhtin's thinking is "I cannot see the self that is my own, so I must try to perceive it in others eyes." Similarly, in Manets painting we are able to see ourself only through the perspective of another person.

Even though we are given both points of view, it is apparent that the woman bartender is the one being objectified here. Even though she is the focus of attention, the barmaid still awaits our beckoning call and can be seen as an object for the patron. Manet allows us access to her view as a means to sympathize with her subjugated status. The picture conjures up a confluence of emotions where we effectively loose ourselves and become one with another and, at the same time, become objectified by our own self. As a result, in Manet's painting we are both patron and server, man and woman, and master and slave. The thing that we thought we were in control of and objectifying (the canvas/the bartender/the woman) has turned the tables and effectively objectified us. Not only is it her gaze that objectifies us but she has a whole audience behind her that backs her up. The viewer soon realizes that an entire audience surrounds him so that he is likewise viewed from every angle and has become the center of attention. The canvas is no longer a simple curiousity, in which we freeze and objectify time to look at according to our whims, but it is now us who are condemned to observe our own image for the rest of our life.


Thomas Cummins art philosophy