academics, charlatans, and the mystery of what we learn

In the 2000s, while I wasn’t looking, a lot of work was done on Bakhtin’s life. And that work crashed down one sancrosanct image after another, since it turned out that Bakhtin was quiet a creative liar about his own life. For instance, he gave a couple of stories to interviewers about his education, tracing his path from the University of Odessa to the University at St. Petersburg. Alas, it turns out this path was taken by another Bakhtin, his brother. Nikolai. Mikhail Bakhtin also alluded to stints at German univesities, borrowing the C.V., this time, of his friend Kagan Matvei Kagan.
More substantially, Bakhtin sometimes seemed to indicate that he had written certain works by certain of his friends, notably Voloshinov’s Marxism and and the Philosophy of Language and Medvedev’s The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship. Such was the hype about Bakhtin in the late seventies and eighties that Bakhtin’s name was actually put on some editions of these books. Brian Poole, who made the most thorough study of the matter, unequivocally denies Bakhtin authorship. Poole also discovered that Bakthin sometimes incorporated pages of other texts, notably Cassirer’s, into some of his writing without acknowledging the source – or, in other words, plagiarizing him.  Brian Poole, for instance, finds a whole page of Cassirer’s book about Renaissance philosophy incorporated into Bakhtin’s Rabelais book, where Cassirer is not even cited. Wierdly enough, nobody seemed to notice this until the later nineties. These issues are confused partly by the fact that Bakhtin inspired a cult – a cult so powerful that one Russian critic closed to him mocked the very idea that we could or could not prove Bakhtin’s authorship of Voloshinov and Medvedev’s works by comparing it to trying to scientifically prove that God exists. The cult definitely extended to the U.S. – the first wave of Bakhtin’s reception in the U.S. was urged on by scholars like Michael Holquist, who practically made Bakhtin out to be a saint.  By the end of the nineties, as Bakhtin’s papers and those of his circle became available, you have people like the man in charge of the Bakhtin center, David Shepherd, saying, well, we have to allow for the fact that Bakhtin may have been a charlatan.
I’m not sure what I think about the new Bakhtin. He is certainly different from the answer to all critical problems enthusiastically wheeled out for me by some UT professors in the 1980s. On the one hand, I feel for the descendents of  Voloshinov and Medvedev, who have not appreciated at all the idea that some of the most creative works of their ancestor are included in an edition of “masked”  works by Bakhtin. On the other hand, scoundrel scholars, brilliant ones, are always more interesting once the myths come down. If Paul de Man had been a brilliant little Belgian nerd who’d gone up the same scholarly ladder as everyone else, he would certainly never have received the biography treatment – it was that he wrote opportunistically anti-semitic things for a Nazi leaning paper in occupied Belgian, defrauded a publishing house and fled to Argentina, apparently committed bigamy by marrying in the U.S. and did not pass any examinations at all on his way to tenure – he apparently had a neuroses that made him fail all exams – that attracts our attention. Bakhtin has often been used to construct a rosy utopia that we can all believe in without thinkin’ about the nasty class struggle, and I’m not too down with that – but he was undoubtedly brilliant. That he borrowed a lot of his scholarship from German sources that he never acknowledged would be a pretty damning thing if he hadn’t done more with those borrowings.

Still, it is worth considering that the texts that are both taught to students in colleges and asked about on their exams are often by fakers, moochers, plagiarists, and people who, themselves, froze up at the thought of exams. It is a sign of something. A mystery.