copyright 1987 Doug Robinson




Three Dialogues

Bakhtin: Assmiming the Academy

It seems to me that [Galileo] suffers greatly from continual digressions, and that he does not stop to explain all that is relevant at each point, which shows that he has not examined them in order, and that he has merely sought reasons for particular effects, without having considered . . . first causes . . . ; and thus that he has built without a foundation.

René Descartes

I am [indeed] unwilling to compress philosophical doctrines into the most narrow kind of space and to adopt that stiff, concise and graceless manner, that manner bare of any adornment which pure geometricians call their own, not uttering a single word that has not been given to them by strict necessity. . . . I do not regard it as a fault to talk about many and diverse things, even in those treatises which have only a single topic . . . for I believe that what gives grandeur, nobility, and excellence to our deeds and inventions does not lie in what is necessary-- though the absence of it would be a great mistake--but in what is not.


This disagreement between contemporaries (Descartes, born thirty years after Galileo, only outlived him by eight years), cited in Feyerabend (69), maps out in miniature the territory I propose to explore in some detail here: the problem of the construction of a critical discourse that will be at once complex and compelling, attractive and attentive. Feyerabend calls it "the issue between dogmatic methodologies and opportunistic methodologies" (70); but I want to suggest that it is finally more than that. Descartes's argumentative style is indeed "geometric," as Galileo insists; like our own logical positivists (his successors), Descartes takes mathematics to be the ultimate vehicle of expression, the purest, cleanest, sleekest conveyance of all, language to be a messy version of math that must be tidied up as much as possible--if indeed one is forced to use it at all. The best argument, for Descartes, is that which comes closest to a mathematical equation. Galileo, on the other hand, puts his arguments in dialogical form. Where Descartes institutes the modern version of analytical philosophy, Galileo is closer to drama; he loves messes, revels in them, because messes are so richly human. His argumentative style can be described as "literary." We might, in fact, set these two styles at opposite poles of a continuum in order to determine how--

We might, but we're not going to. I mean it, no diagrams, I won't have it.

I thought you were going to sit this one out.

So I lied.


No, really, look. The Buber thing was a sham dialogue, you're right, because we pretended to be in agreement on so many things, and because our disagreements were so contrived. It probably made the dialogue more readable, sure, but also less dialogical. And I think a little boring. Serious--but I'm tired of being serious.

I thought we'd agreed that our battles were counterproductive.

Too painful, maybe. I don't know about counterproductive. Depends on what you're trying to produce. Academic discourse?

Well, isn't that what we're trying to produce? Even if it's a little quirky? You can be quirky in a single voice. Read Kenneth Burke. You can blend two voices into a single quirky voice. Read Deleuze and Guattari, or even better, Deleuze and Parnet. Maybe we should blend our voices for once.

Blend them in yours, right? I resolve Oedipus and become you, so you can go on with your naive little representationalist fantasy, is that it? Your tidy little diagram of analytical/literary styles, externalized and spatialized into a stable object for study? Your analytical attack on analysis?

Yeah, okay, so it's an analytical attack on analysis, so what?

What do you mean, so what? Doesn't your complicity in what you're attacking bother you?

You've got to fight fire with fire.

Do you? Or does that just make a bigger fire?

You seem to assume that for an argument to be valid it has to do what it privileges and avoid what it attacks.

Seems a reasonable enough assumption to me.

I suppose it sounds reasonable enough, but it's not particularly practical if you want to convince somebody you're right. My guess is that an attack on analysis is going to be aimed primarily at analysts, right? And analysts aren't going to take an argument seriously unless it's written in a language they understand, i.e., in analytical form.

If they're open enough they will.

Maybe. But how many of them will be open enough? How many will be willing to listen to an attack on their way of doing things in a style that they don't even understand?

Not many, maybe. But my guess is that anyone who isn't open enough to take criticism seriously isn't going to take it seriously no matter how it's written. Give enough institutional backing to an emotional attachment and it's going to be almost impossible to break, no matter how carefully you nuzzle up to the institutional practices.

What's the point of trying, then, if things are that bad?

What should the point be? Job security? Then the best thing to do is be an analyst, swim with the current. Or is it making a splash without rocking the boat? Convincing people you're right, or at least to be taken seriously, without pushing them to change the way they do things? Then, by all means, do analytical attacks on analysis. Look at the kudos it's gotten Richard Rorty. But if you're just sick of the old ways and means and feel compelled to break out, I hardly think there has to be a point. You do it for whatever reason seems most compelling at the time.

Okay, okay, the argument from self-expression. Or is it the argument from catharsis? Either way, you seem to me to be encouraging us to commit the imitative fallacy.

Ah: the imitative fallacy, yes indeed. Let's see: imitate Descartes's method in order to attack it, beware of imitating Galileo's method when you praise it, oh yes, that's choice.

That's hardly fair.

No, I guess not. You're right. After all, the imitative fallacy is Descartes, isn't it, subject and object, all that. Okay, let's do the imitative fallacy, shall we, get it up on the board so we don't end up committing it. First step: get subject and object as far apart as you possibly can, put the object on Mars if your budget can handle it, and if subject and object look too much alike, as in linguistics, say, or literary criticism, why, fake it, make up a phony distinction between object language and metalanguage à la Carnap (Descartes's boy) and pretend that there's all the difference in the world. Then when you've got your fake distinction set up and looking real good, just like reality, make it out to be this ghastly unforgivable crime to cross over, cross the gap, subject into object, object into subject. It's, well, it's a crime against logic, it's a--a fallacy, and fallacies are to syllogisms as, oh, what shall I say, as ax-murderers are to decent folk like you and me! Logic is God's Logos, after all, engraved in the Book of Life, where it says, among other things, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a sloppy reasoner to publish in a respectable journal."

All right, you've made your point.

Have I? Really? That's a relief. I haven't even stopped to explain all that is relevant at every point, and I was sort of under the impression that that was the minimum requirement.

I'll forgive anything if it means I don't have to listen to you rave.

But doesn't the slightest exception to the rule ruin everything? Doesn't--

You just won't let go, will you? Why can't you just relax and play the game instead of forever tilting at windmills?

Who, me? Me, tilting at windmills? Well, maybe you're right, maybe I do tilt at windmills, but I'm not the one who thinks they're giants, that's the group fantasy of all those normal game-players you're so fond of, all those hard-working scholars bent over their cardfiles up in the windmills believing heart and soul that they're the giant's brain. Me, I'd rather light the windmills on fire, but the damned group fantasy just won't burn.

You're so obsessed with the idea of being some kind of incendiary anarchist that you never stop to ask yourself where the obsession comes from. Why do you want to be Don Quixote? Or rather Oedipus, with your rebellious-son's argument with the world. Why do you insist on setting yourself in opposition to the powers that be?

I don't insist on it. I just--well, get driven into it.

By the powers that be.


By me.

Well, yes.

Because I'm so limited and limiting and dead and deadening and stupid and stupefying? It's all my doing, I force you to this, you're just a living soul in search of an integrity between inner vision and outer action.

Am I so wrong?

I don't know about wrong. It does romanticize the situation somewhat, doesn't it? Make you look like an all-round good guy oppressed by the institutionalized deadness around you, which of course is just your projection of introjected me, and allows you to ignore the emotional needs that drive you to set things up that way. Why does it all have to be the heroic son's rebellion against the dead father? And if I'm dead, why do you have to keep kicking me?

It's not really you, as you well know. It's the introjected you, as you said yourself, the You inside the I, but it's not a Buberian You, it's an It, an Ittified You, a You ringed round so tightly with fear-fed defenses that it feels like an It, a rock in my gut.

So expel the rock. Or corrode its carapaces. Incorporate it into a living I, or you'll Ittify everything around you, and everything inside you.

I know. But how?

I mean, sure, academic writing is controlled by a lot of conventions, and it's easy to make a case for their repressiveness. A lot of the people who decide on what gets published are just as locked into an authoritarian vision of obedience as you are into your romantic vision of disobedience. But the situation only becomes this hopeless agon (as your buddy Harold Bloom likes to call it) if you insist on locking yourself in to one or the other side of the quarrel.

Is that entirely true, that this whole way of seeing things is just my emotional hangup, that I'm just projecting the deadness the introjected You has Ittified itself with out onto the "fathers" who control whether I get published or not? Do you really think it has nothing to do with reality? I'm not alone in this, you know.

Of course you aren't. You've got the whole romantic tradition behind you, right up to and including the moderns.

And isn't it just possible that we're right? That we are indeed being smothered by an institutional deadness that systematically wraps every openended spark of life in a dead protective shell. and that your attempt to psychologize me is emotionally motivated by a good-boy syndrome? You don't want to rock the boat, you're afraid your parental introjects will think you're a bad boy, so you interpret my boat-rocking behavior as Oedipal. And teach me to do the same. You oedipalize me in order to blend my voice into yours, and yours into the depersonalized voice of Truth.

That's possible too.

But see, that's why I want us to do dialogue, real dialogue, polyvoiced dialogue: if we're both partly right and both partly "motivated," if our methodologies are both overdetermined in opposing directions, then our dialogue can get at the complexity of the issues much more effectively than any single-voiced discourse. Look at what William Carlos Williams does in In the American Grain, in those brilliant dialogue chapters, especially the Burr chapter, "The Virtue of History." Mind if I read from it? It opens with Williams and his wife Flossie exchanging some general remarks about the writing of history:

"But history follows governments and never men. It portrays us in generic patterns, like effigies or the carvings on sarcophagi, which say nothing save, of such and such a man, that he is dead. That's history. It is concerned only with the one thing: to say everything is dead. Then it fixes up the effigy: there that's finished. Not at all. History must stay open, it is all humanity. Are lives to be twisted forcibly about events, the mere accidents of geography and climate?

"It is an obscenity which few escape--save at the hands of the stylist, literature, in which alone humanity is protected against tyrannous designs.

"But how small is the sum of good writing against the mass of poisonous stuff that finds its way into the history books; for the dead can be stifled like the living.

"That's metaphysical.

"Never. That of the dead which exists in our imaginations has as much fact as have we ourselves. The premise that serves to fix us fixes also that part of them which we remember.

"If history could be that which annihilated all memory of past things from our minds it would be a useful tyranny.

"But since it lives in us practically day by day we should fear it. But if it is, as it may be, a tyranny over the souls of the dead--and so the imaginations of the living--where lies our greatest well of inspiration, our greatest hope of freedom (since the future is totally blank, if not black) we should guard it doubly from the interlopers.

"You mean, tradition. Yes, nothing there is metaphysical. It is the better part of all of us.

"It is the fountain! But men, never content in the malice with which they surround each living moment, must extend their illwill backward, jealous even of a freedom in the past, to maim and to destroy there too. Better to be a Mexican and take food to the graves on feast days.

"When a man dies what can remain to us, even from the best records, save a few facts--and a mass of prejudice since he, though he were the greatest man in the world, was only one among the others of his time?

"History that should be a left hand to us, as of a violinist, we bind up with prejudice, warping it to suit our fears as Chinese women do their feet.

"What can we do? Facts remain but what is the truth?

"We can begin by saying: no opinion can be trusted; even the facts may be nothing but a printer's error; but if a verdict be unanimous, it is sure to be a wrong one, a crude rush of the herd which has carried its object before it like a helpless condoning image. If we cannot make a man live again when he is gone, it is boorish to imprison him dead within some narrow definition, when, were he in his shoes before us, we could not do it. It's lies, such history, and dangerous. Just there may lie our one hope for the future, beneath that stone of prejudice. Perhaps Burr--" (188-90).

Talk about tilting at windmills. This guy's worse than you.

Isn't he, though? History as sarcophagus is analytical discourse in our essay, see how that works, and the kind of history Williams and his wife write (or talk) in this chapter is the openended dialogical discourse we're doing here. It's perfect. "History must stay open, it is all humanity"--and the best way to keep it open is to allow it its multivocity, its heteroglossia . . .

Would it be too pedestrian to clamor for a definition of fancy terms?

Sorry: univocity, monologism, homoglossia, that's the mode of analysis, the single-voiced and -minded logical reasoning in which and by which everything is reduced to an iron chain of necessity, and everything that's left over is mercilessly pruned off. A lean machine. Multivocity, dialogism, heteroglossia, that's the mode of dialogue, drama, literature, a willingness to leave things open, in flux, a willingness to abide waste and mess in a tolerance for the richness of life.

Univocity versus multivocity, huh? Good thing you're so opposed to analytical dualism.

Heh heh, that is a bit dualistic, isn't it. Does that bother you much?

Not me. But maybe it should bother you.

Maybe you're right. But then, isn't there something a little perverse about an attempt to purify critical discourse of all purifying dualisms? There should be room for a dualism or two, shouldn't there? Say a sloppy one? Shall we be tolerant about these things?

Sounds like sophistry to me.

I.e., fallacious reasoning, a misuse of logic? Okay. But logic regains its human face only when it's misused.

Oscar Wilde would have liked that one--but then Wilde was just another elitist late romantic who idealized rebellion as style.

And wrote brilliant critical dialogues in the process.

Okay. But that still doesn't get around the elitism. I mean, in the Williams dialogue you read, that bit about the herd--it's all negative, isn't it? Whatever the truth is, it's not what the herd believes. It only makes it that much clearer how the romanticization of rebellion always leads to elitism, Blake talking big about democracy but castigating ordinary men and women as worms grubbing in the dirt, Nietzsche with his rabble and his superman, his slaves who've internalized mastery and his romantic messiah who can break free of it, the modernists who went openly fascist.

Yeah. I've got great churning vats of that elitism in me too, and it makes me uncomfortable as hell.

Blake's hell, no doubt. Since the Second World War and the powerful example Hitler set us, of course, elitism has been a cardinal sin; but I think it's a deadend street even if you don't take it as far as Hitler did. Frye made that big deal about Blake's circles, the Orc cycle, the revolutionary democratic fire of Orc cycling forever back into the authoritarian deadening ice of Urizen, et cetera et cetera, but I bet Blake never planned it that way; I bet he found himself forced into it by the insoluble dilemmas of his own elitism. The masses can't see the truth, can't bring about the apocalypse, they've been conditioned to be blind, they've been taught to internalize mastery, so the romantic savior has to do it, but bringing about the apocalypse requires getting those blind people to see, which in turn requires reconditioning--not a release of internalized or incarnated mastery but a reincarnation of mastery, the incarnation of a new romantic mastery, and so Orc turns back into Urizen. Whitman spends his entire life as a poet looking for the single apocalyptic word, the one word that will revitalize all life, and in the futile search for it writes millions of words, hoping to hit on it by accident. "I speak the password primeval," that great would-be performative utterance that was just another romantic lie. The search produces brilliant poetry, of course, but in Whitman's own terms it's all perverse, a colossal waste of time, or else it's deceptive, a smokescreen to hide the failure of his messianic project. You're right, I suppose. I've tried to argue my way, or the romantics' way, out of the vicious circle in the classroom many times, and it never works. You always end up with the old apocalyptic hope, the incursion of a messiah from outside the human sphere, or, barring that (which I always have to do), the old apocalyptic despair: rampant skepticism without an antidote. Williams too says that no opinion can be trusted; even the facts may be nothing but a printer's error.

Sort of reeks of Descartes, doesn't it?

I guess it does. Skepticism is analytical thought par excellence.

Yes. Establishing the truth by doubting opinions, eliminating what can't be known, trying to work your way down to a solid foundation. The romantics opposed themselves to the analytics--Bacon, Newton, and Locke, for Blake--but in the end they were trapped in the same epistemological circle. The double-binds of the same apocalyptic metaphysics.

The Williamses make it clear that the same double-bind dogs American politics too:

"What they [the Washington-Jefferson-Hamilton crowd] must sacrifice of hard-won freedom, whittling themselves down--it was dispiriting--they realized with a nostalgic tremor that Burr had KEPT. An unbecoming jealousy sprang up instanter, as with pioneers in a bad country who know that one of them is hoarding up his sugar. Burr would not give in. Let others shift and scheme and draw away, he would not.

"He proved himself, by that measure, wanting in good feeling for his fellows.

"Nothing of the sort. By any measure that you choose, what we find good our virtue is to cling to it. The common good he found common--and did not hesitate to show it. The common good he found lacking, in no matter what--but lacking. He would not stand for its tyrannical assertions. The rare thing--liberty--he saw disappearing in the dreadful leveling, the machinations of a Junto, no matter how well intentioned, were seeking to negate for themselves by seizing power" (203).

She's right, there: Burr did prove himself wanting in good feeling for his fellows.

Yes, but it's more complicated than either of them wants to admit. In a hierarchized power struggle questions of good feeling and virtue hardly count. The "Junto" wanted power and got it, Burr wanted power and didn't get it; the junta wanted democracy and got it by leveling, Burr wanted to infect the nation with his uncompromising vision of liberty, and failed. The only antidote to skepticism is to doubt it, the only antidote to power is to seize it. It's a self-perpetuating vicious circle, and Williams finds himself smack in the middle of it, trapped in the echo chamber of power and doubt, without a clue of how to get out.

Do you have one?

I do, yes, but I didn't make it up. I found it in your Bakhtin.

What do you mean, my Bakhtin?

You were just throwing heteroglossia at me a minute ago, you got your whole attack on single-voiced discourse from Bakhtin, but in your rabid Oedipal rebelliousness you seem to have passed over his notion of carnival laughter.

I didn't pass it over. I read it.

But you weren't in a position to make it your own. You're so serious. So agonistic. You're like Williams, or like Burr, you don't trust anything unless it's programmatic, tendentious, aimed at the overthrow of the fathers. In some sense you trust the fathers too, they're part of the agon and therefore somehow reliable, trustworthy, they're to be taken "seriously" (a word of praise for you, right?), unlike the untendentious humor Bakhtin finds in Rabelais, which probably seems, what, frivolous to you.

Not frivolous, just--well, not particularly compelling. I enjoy it, but it doesn't seem, I don't know, weighty, substantial, to me.

Exactly. What's interesting vis-a-vis Williams and the whole romantic-modernist elitist tradition is the way Bakhtin sets "Rable" up as the prophet of the rabble, the mouthpiece of liberating laughter, carnival laughter.

I guess you could call Bakhtin a Rable-rouser, huh?

Yes! Bakhtin calls laughter the only escape from the vicious circle of skeptical and liturgical power:

"Actually the grotesque liberates man from all the forms of inhuman necessity that direct the prevailing concept of the world. This concept is uncrowned by the grotesque and reduced to the relative and the limited. Necessity, in every concept which prevails at any time, is always one-piece, serious, unconditional, and indisputable. But historically the idea of necessity is always relative and variable. The principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which grotesque is based destroys this limited seriousness and all pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities. For this reason great changes, even in the field of science, are always preceded by a certain carnival consciousness that prepares the way" (49).

The carnivalization of academic discourse.

Exactly. Even in the field of science, as Galileo--

"Laughter liberates not only from external censorship but first of all from the great interior censor; it liberates from the fear that developed in man during thousands of years: fear of the sacred, of prohibitions, of the past, of power" (94).

Sorry, Mike, I wasn't paying attention, what was that?

"Mike," really, show a little respect. The man's a Russian, his name's Mikha-eel.

Mike, Mikha-eel, same diffèrance. Hey, Mike?

You can call me Mike if you like, comrades.

I knew you'd be a sport. Sorry, though, Mike, what were you saying?

I was trying to develop a refutation of Freud on the censor, and ultimately I guess of Nietzsche on the internalization of mastery: laughter, I was saying, liberates from the internal censor as well as from external power.

Nice idea. Go on.

"It unveils the material bodily principle in its true meaning. Laughter opened men's eyes on that which is new, on the future. This is why it not only permitted the expression of an antifeudal, popular truth; it helped to uncover this truth and to give it an internal form. And this form was achieved and defended during thousands of years in its very depths and its popular-festive images. Laughter showed the world anew in its gayest and most sober aspects. Its external privileges are intimately linked with interior forces; they are a recognition of the rights of those forces. This is why laughter could never become an instrument to oppress and blind the people. It always remained a free weapon in their hands" (94).

That's well put, Mike. And you know what struck me when I was listening to that about popular-festive whatever?

Popular-festive images. No, what struck you?

That Mom used to put Bactine on your scrapes and cuts when you boys were kids.

Look, keep your mind on what we're doing here, would you? His name is Bakhtin, he's Russian, remember, how can you expect him to know or care what your--

Sorry to interrupt, comrade, but I am indeed most interested. What was the name of this product?

Bactine. Pretty funny coincidence, huh?

Yes indeed.

I brought a bottle of the stuff along just in case we got around to it. Shall I quote?

Please do.

"Bactine brand skin wound cleanser, no sting, no stain. First aid spray for cuts, scrapes, scratches. Directions: To spray, hold bottle upright 2 to 3 inches from wound and squeeze repeatedly to direct spray across wound. To flush, invert bottle and squeeze firmly to direct stream across wound. Apply to affected area until excess drains freely and wound is thoroughly clean. To aid in removing foreign particles, dab wound with clean gauze saturated with product." What foreign particles would you like to aid in removing, eh Mike?

Well, I--

Seriousness? Dogma, rituals, institutionalized power? All of the above?

All of the above.

Just apply Bactine, huh?

Yes, heh heh, just apply Bactine, that's quite rich, comrade, heh heh. Just apply Bactine. I'll have to make a note of that.

Now what I'm wondering, Mike, is whether it might not be possible to direct that cleansing spray to the agonistic seriousness of contemporary American academic discourse, and flush it out. What do you think?

I'm not sure I follow you there, comrade.

Well, our rebellious friend--er, comrade--here wants us to launch a dialogical attack on the analytical conventions of the critical institution, and he got the idea of using dialogue from you, which you got from Martin Buber, didn't you? At least that's what Nina Perlina says.

Buber was important to me, yes.

Anyway, he wants us to do this dialogical attack on analysis, won't let me do it analytically, which I suppose I can see, in the end; but he wants us to do it seriously. He wants us to be the barbarians pounding at the gates of civilization, Hannibal attacking Rome, all in this longfaced Oedipal mode that to me suggests no ousting of authority but the mere replacement of one authority with another. Don't you think Bactine might be a powerful antidote to all that?

I think it might indeed, comrade, it might indeed. That was precisely my point about Rabelais, that instead of launching a counterattack against the Church he sidestepped the whole power question, victimizers and victimized, powerful and powerless, into a third realm, a realm outside power struggles where laughter dissolved the claims of both the Church and the Renaissance to be taken seriously.

Yes, exactly. And Rabelais could even do straight Renaissance writing, like his chapters on the Abbey of Théléme, couldn't he, without compromising his position outside the Church vs. Renaissance agon, because his position was precisely not a position, it was a spirit of carnival laughter that dissolved all positions.

That's right, yes.

And the implication for contemporary critical discourse, I'd say, is that it's possible to play the analytical game, playfully--and not get caught up in agonizing (literally) over who's alive and who's dead, who's right and who's wrong, etc. I think of J. L. Austin, who seemed to be going to great lengths to play the game according to the rules, to be analytical, to be logical, but somehow never quite succeeding--but deliberately never quite succeeding, as Shoshana Felman says in her book on Austin and Don Juan, and in the process of never quite succeeding, undermining the whole project. With laughter. Austin, of course, is a very funny writer, and I'd claim his humor is in the great tradition of Rabelais.

In other words--excuse me, Mikhail, if I cut in here--there's no need to do dialogue, no need to cast about for alternative critical modes, you can just go on doing the old thing, but doing it your own way, playfully.

That's right. You can also do dialogue, for that matter; no need to avoid alternative critical modes, if you feel drawn to them. But you don't have to lock yourself into a single approach just because it's traditional or it's innovative. You don't have to lock yourself into the discursive choices associated with either the authorities or the rebels. You don't have to be an analytic or a romantic. You don't have to choose sides and then set about elevating your side to a level of high seriousness and reducing the other side to something beneath contempt--deadness, if you're a rebel, or irresponsibility, if you're an authority.

My gut reaction to all that is: "dilettantism." Playing around. Decadent aestheticism, criticism for criticism's sake. It gives me the shivers, in fact. I believe in what I do and am willing to polemicize for it. But okay, given the example of Rabelais and your discussion of his carnival laughter, Mikhail, I'm willing to put that whole argument aside for a minute.

Good, because I don't think playfulness and committedness are mutually exclusive. They weren't for Rabelais.

But you know, I was just reading off this bottle of Bactine you so cleverly introduced into the discussion, and I found another line that may just cast a whole different light on the problem. Can I read it to you?

By all means, comrade.

It says Bactine contains "a safe and effective nonirritating antimicrobial (germ killing) ingredient. Does not delay wound healing." What I'm wondering is, how effective can an antimicrobial ingredient be that's safe and nonirritating?

Explain, please, comrade.

Okay: you spend years researching and writing this brilliant book on Rabelais, implicitly putting the finger on Stalinist tyranny by attacking the rigidly hierarchized feudal power structures, working, in other words, on something that's close to your heart--and then you write it without a single joke, a single pun (of course, I read it in translation, maybe that's the translator's fault), all seriousness, no laughs. I mean, it's all fine and good for my friend here to say that laughter frees you to play the game by the fathers' rules; what I'm wondering is whether playing the game by the fathers' rules doesn't unfree you again, put you right back in the mental prison you supposedly escaped in the first place. Is it possible to obey the rules without being coopted by the game?

I'm still not sure I understand, comrade.

Well, you made laughter this great liberating force in your book, but you didn't seem to know how to tap that force for your own life. At least your professional life. Maybe you were a real card in private, and that kept you sane through the years of nonrecognition, and then again through the years of recognition. But in your Rabelais book you wrote about laughter instead of provoking it, didn't you? You described the marketplace instead of walking around in it, talked about carnival instead of carnivalizing your own critical discourse. You chose a subject that was bound to be profoundly irritating to the power structure, then did your damnedest not to irritate them. My guess is that laughter was only liberating in the abstract, in the distant past, in the idea of Rabelais-not in real life. Am I right?

Wait a second, here, aren't you forgetting the circumstances he wrote the book in? How'd you like to submit your dissertation to Stalin's crowd, especially if it was about French laughter instead of Russian tractors? You were already in disgrace, weren't you, Mike?

Yes, I was. But I'd like to hear what your friend has to say. Go on, please.

Well, I realize you had a pretty suspicious censor breathing down your neck, but then Rabelais did too, as you point out yourself: "We must admit that Rabelais' 'prank' in the style of Master Villon [by 'prank' you mean the novel, right?] was fully successful. In spite of the frankness of his writings, he not only avoided the stake but suffered no serious persecution or vexation. To be sure, he had to take certain precautions, to disappear for a time and even cross the French border. But, generally speaking, everything ended well for him, apparently without much worry and anxiety. Rabelais' friend Etienne Dolet perished at the stake because of his statements, which although less damning had been seriously made. He did not use Rabelais' methods" (268-69). Neither did you, of course; could that have been your problem, like Dolet's, that you wrote too seriously?

I don't know. You'll remember that I wasn't sent to the camps. I wasn't granted the recognition my younger colleagues later seemed to think I'd deserved from the start, but really I didn't do too badly. I survived, like Rabelais. Under the Inquisition, or Stalin, that's saying a lot. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, your compatriots Michael Holquist and Katerina Clark in their biography of me quote that same passage about Etienne Dolet in order to suggest that I did follow Rabelais's example.

In sidestepping power struggles, maybe. In being funny, in cultivating carnival laughter, hardly.

Excuse me, Mike, can I answer that? That's just what I was talking about a minute ago. Once you break out of the agon, once you liberate yourself from the emotional fixations that make it seem necessary to do things this way and no other, it no longer seems so important whether power struggles are sidestepped through laughter or some other method. Mike didn't have to be funny or carnivalesque to slip out of the Stalin-era victimizer/victim agon. He had his own ways.

I wonder. Formally speaking, Mikhail, you were pretty eager to toe the official line, weren't you? Nineteenth-century historicism, the official scholarly method in the Soviet Union then as now, was your metier. You write: "It also explains Rabelais' 'nonliterary' nature, that is the noncomformity of his images to the literary norms and canons predominating in the sixteenth century and still prevailing in our times, whatever the changes undergone by their contents. Rabelais' nonconformity was carried to a much greater extent than that of Shakespeare or Cervantes, who merely disobeyed the narrow classical canons. Rabelais' images have a certain undestroyable nonofficial nature. No dogma, no authoritarianism, no narrow-minded seriousness can coexist with Rabelaisian images; these images are opposed to all that is finished and polished, to all pomposity, to every ready-made solution in the sphere of thought and world outlook" (2-3). But where's the "nonscholarly" Bakhtin, where's the nonconformity of his critical discourse to the scholarly (Cartesian) norms and canons predominating in the sixteenth century and likewise still prevailing in our times? Here you are again, a few pages later: "We have here described only a few better known manifestations of humorous literature, which will suffice for the posing of our problem. As we advance in our analysis of Rabelais' work we shall examine in detail these genres, as well as many less known examples of medieval humorous writing" (15). Is that the royal we, or the editorial we?

Well, I--

Either way, it's an institutional we, a serious, dogmatic we, isn't it? And in fact your "analysis" of Rabelais' work never once challenges the institutional authority of analytical discourse, does it? To describe is to stand aloof, to stand on a balcony and look down at the carnival instead of being swept up into it, wouldn't you say?

As your friend says, I was playing the game.


Sometimes, yes.

Hoaxing the authorities?

I don't know if I'd go that far . . .

No, of course not. My sense is, in fact, that you were coopted.

Coopted--by Stalin?

Yes, in a narrow sense, though I guess I don't really mean Stalin. I mean the authoritarian institution of criticism that Stalin's men used to their own purposes. You thought you were undermining the institution, but you were doing so only in word, not deed. Your dissertation on Rabelais was accepted and then shelved, I'm guessing, because it wasn't really dangerous enough to be worth rejecting or suppressing. No matter what you said about carnival laughter, your willingness to play the game, as you say, to obey the rules without overt irony (no matter how playfully you may have intended your obedience), rendered you toothless. It was easy to coopt you. You asked for it.

You may be right, comrade.

Look at his eyes when he says that. You're insulting him left and right, and he's too well-bred to say so. He's thinking, these Americans, so adolescent with their aggressive frankness . . .

Some would say, comrade, that I was too well-bred, or too self-effacing, for my own good. And, for that matter, that it is adolescent for Americans always to claim to know what other people are thinking. In any case, aggressive frankness is not only an American trait. It is Russian too. Dostoevsky is full of it. So is Gogol. So is your Vladimir Nabokov. No, give me your worst, comrade.

I'm not really trying to insult you, or to "give you my worst." I'm trying to get at this business of playing the game. I feel strongly that both the aestheticist who "plays around" and the con-artist who "plays along" leave themselves extremely vulnerable to cooptation, and in fact in some sense have always already been coopted. The image of you that has grown up in America in the last decade or so is one of the con-artist who plays along--writing books and articles under other people's names, smug- gling subversive ideas into official rhetoric, etc. Laughter is supposedly so liberating--but what if laughter and carnival playfulness and all those wonderful things you talked about in the Rabelais book only give you the illusion of liberation and make you that much easier to coopt? Rabelais is just a funny writer, coopted and rendered harmless by dismissal, until you come along and try to unearth his liberating power--but then you're just a critic, coopted and rendered harmless by the same kind of dismissal. And you contribute to the cooptation, with your historicist methodology and your scholarly style. It's pretty obvious that you were a more conventional, conservative, conformist writer than Rabelais, more of an "agelast," wouldn't you agree?

Yes, I suppose that's undeniable. But then I wonder if you aren't making too much of a single response to my work, or a single kind of response. "In the actual life of speech," as I say in Discourse in the Novel, "every concrete act of understanding is active; it assimilates the word to be understood into its own conceptual system filled with specific objects and emotional expressions, and is indissolubly merged with the response, with a motivated agreement or disagreement. To some extent, primacy belongs to the response, as the activating principle: it creates the ground for understanding, it prepares the ground for an active and engaged understanding" (282). Obviously, you're right, I have been coopted, both in my lifetime, in the Soviet Union, and in America and France since my death. And I probably left myself open to cooptation, by the conservatism you mention. But then, doesn't everyone who writes leave himself open to that danger? And despite my conservatism, my nineteenthcentury method and style, my caution about entering into the fray of the carnival, didn't you find a spark in my writing and fan it into a flame?

I did at that. A lot of things bother me about your writing, your use of the authoritative or authoritarian word when you describe the novel's undermining of that word, but there is something in you that prompts me to join the dialogue. There's room in your prose for my reply.

"But this does not exhaust the internal dialogism of the word. It encounters an alien word not only in the object itself: every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates" (Discourse 280).

So in a sense my response shapes your words?

"The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer's direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation in any living dialogue" (280).

And in any artistic or critical dialogue too, wouldn't you say?


In a sense you're saying that this dialogue is implicit in your own work, would that be one way of putting it? That your work requires this dialogue to complete it, that your serious writing about laughter and your monological writing about dialogue is "determined by that which has not yet been said," i.e. what we're saying here, "but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word."

That sounds rather a self-serving paraphrase, comrade, but you could make a convincing case for it. On the other hand, you could also make a convincing case for the proposition that my not-quite-systematic analysis of the multivocity of language requires the Saussurean (post)structuralism of Tzvetan Todorov or Julia Kristeva to complete it.

Or, for that matter, that it requires my insistence on the needlessness of actual dialogue to complete it--that the logical completion of your theory of heteroglossia is the realization that to write a liberating heteroglot text you don't have to invent speakers and assign them opposing sides of a debate.

Yes, that case could be made convincingly as well, comrade. As I try to make clear, superficially monological prose discourse can be internally dialogized. In fact I claim that authentic prose discourse always is internally dialogized, which in turn does imply what you are saying, that dialogical form is not the only sign of heteroglossia, and that manifest dialogue is in that sense "not necessary."

I'd go even further than that (as long as you're giving us leave to complete your argument) and argue that it's not only possible to write richly complex heteroglot prose in the old traditional academic discursive modes, as you did, Mike--to strive for clarity, precision, and so on--it's also more effective to do it that way. It's more effective to work within the traditional modes, expanding their internal "dialogical" complexity, than it is to set yourself up like Blake's Satan and smash all the academic icons. You get a hearing for yourself that way, and can still have the same effect on your audience. Didn't you say yourself, somewhere in that same essay on Discourse in the Novel, that internal dialogism can never be developed into manifest dialogue, that it's a property of heteroglot prose, not some kind of artistic technique?

No, you've misunderstood me, comrade. I--

On the other hand, Mike, sorry to cut in, you did say a minute ago that response is primary: "a motivated agreement or disagreement."

Yes, that's right.

Which suggests that the reason my friend here insists on misinterpreting you, the motivation behind his response, is that he wants to set things up so as to rule out manifest dialogue. He wants to use you against me, to bring your arguments to bear on my rhetorical innovations, to make them seem either defensive and protective or childishly aggressive, or both. The idea being, of course, to restore the authoritarian word to its place of honor. And of course, since you're fundamentally in agreement with me, he has to "respond" to you in a motivated way, to misread you.

"Fundamentally in agreement with you," what a load of hogwash, what's that if not a motivated response? Not that I claim to understand your motivation, Mike, in denying what you specifically said in the Discourse piece about the impossibility of reducing internal dialogue to manifest dialogical form, to a conversation with speakers.

"Therefore the internal dialogism of double-voiced prose discourse can never be exhausted thematically (just as the metaphoric energy of language can never be exhausted thematically); it can never be developed into the motivation or subject for a manifest dialogue--" (326)

Yes, that's the place, see, there you said it explicitly, now you want to go back on it and side with this--

Let him say the whole thing. You're reading him out of context.

"It can never be developed into the motivation or subject for a manifest dialogue," comrade, "such as might fully embody, with no residue, the internally dialogic potential embedded in linguistic heteroglossia." With no residue: that's the key. "The internal dialogism of authentic prose discourse, which grows organically out of a stratified and heteroglot language, cannot fundamentally be dramatized or dramatically resolved (thought to an authentic end); it cannot ultimately be fitted into the frame of any manifest dialogue, into the frame of a mere conversation between persons," which sounds like I'm veering into your camp, comrade, doesn't it, but I'm not, I'm not in either camp, and if you'd just remember that my views are likely to be more complex than any specific argument you--or your friend--might muster in your own defense, maybe we can get on with this. The point I'm trying to make is not that no one should ever try to make internal dialogue manifest in the form of a conversation, but that internal dialogue can't be exhausted in conversational form: "it is not ultimately divisible into verbal exchanges possessing precisely marked boundaries" (326). "Double-voicedness is never exhausted in these dialogues, it cannot be extracted fully from the discourse--not by a rational, logical counting of the individual parts" (330); "these potential responses can never be fully actualized, can never be fused into finished utterances, but their insufficiently developed forms are nevertheless acutely felt in the syntactic construction of the double-voiced hybrid" (361). I say it everywhere, if you'd just pay attention.

The multiplicity of internal voicing can be actualized, see--it just can't be actualized fully. There will always be a residue, a margin, a supplement, the multiplicity will always resist discursive mastery. But so what? The thing to do is not complacently return to single-voiced discourse, throw up your hands, oh well, it's impossible, no point in trying then, but to surrender the need to master multiplicity discursively, to let things be complex without being able to articulate the complexity in a logically masterful way. As Mike says in the Dostoevsky book, "The consciousnesses of other people cannot be perceived, analyzed, defined as objects or as things--one can only relate to them dialogically," as we're doing to you, right Mike? "To think about them means to talk with them," as we're doing with you; "otherwise they immediately turn to us their objectivized side: they fall silent, close up, and congeal into finished, objectivized images" (68). As Dostoevsky did to you, despite all your fine words about dialogue.

Why, uh, yes, comrade, I--I suppose so.

You objectivized Dostoevsky just as you claimed Tolstoy objectivized his characters, didn't you? You tried to reify his characters as real speakers that Dostoevky didn't invent, only discovered and wrote down, and Dostoevsky as a self-effacing amanuensis or stenographer who was "bound" to simply obey the inner logic of his characters' personalities. You reified polyphony as the true "nature" of Dostoevsky's writing and Dostoevsky as the "creator" of the polyphonic novel. You chose Dostoevsky to study because he was so much like you, a Russian Christian mystic who loved dialogue--or rather he was like your idealized image of yourself, resisting the Stalinists as Dostoevsky resisted the revolutionaries who were to become the Stalinists--and in your monologic (historicist) novel called Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics you constructed an idealized character called Dostoevsky that corroborated your views.

I did admit that my survey of Dostoevsky criticism was "somewhat monologic" (47).

But why was it so difficult for you to practice what you preached? Why was it so necessary for you to do in your own criticism precisely what you attacked in Tolstoy: "The author neither argues with his hero [you with Dostoevsky, in this case] nor agrees with him. He speaks not with him, but about him. The final word belongs to the author, and that word--based on something the hero does not see and does not understand, on something located outside the hero's consciousness--can never encounter the hero's words on a single dialogic plane" (71).

Don't mind him, Mike. He's just trying to use your words to convince our readers of the significance of this dialogue, of the dialogical form of this reading of your words. We're talking to you, you're our hero and you're encountering our words (and we yours) on a single dialogical plane, as if that made any massive difference. Personally, I believe all this can be done within traditional academic discourse, without sacrificing clarity or precision--in fact, Mike, just for the record, I believe you did it yourself, in all your work, in the Rabelais book and the Dostoevsky book too, despite what our friend here has been saying about you quite rightly not committing the imitative fallacy. Just dialogize the academic discourse internally, but give it a different manifest form: not overt dialogue, overt monologue, but no less complex for all that.

That's a choice one. Clarity's an ideal that by definition requires the suppression of competing versions, rival voices. Precision too: it's a mathematical or geometrical ideal, for Christ's sake, our buddy Descartes's favorite.

Fine. That's what it's been historically: "by definition," as you say. But you're the one who refuses to be bound by history, by institutionalized definitions, am I right? So instead of thinking of it as an implement of torture, invented by sadistic fathers to keep you safely in chains, why don't you try thinking of it as a fiction.

A fiction?

A fiction. A logical fiction, maybe, an analytical fiction, but a useful fiction nonetheless.

A useful simplifying fiction.

Okay, granted. Maybe even oversimplifying, although "over" there just means that some kind of arbitrary boundary has been crossed, a boundary that is usually defined along the lines of accuracy/inaccuracy, right? How well you've represented an object, how close your representation comes to the thing itself.

Go on.

Well, so what if it's a fiction? You remember what you used to write about postmodernism: so character and plot don't exist in the real world, so they're artifices, fictions, so what? They're fictions that we all need to run our lives, they're patterns we impose on reality in order to try and understand it better, and we couldn't do without them. You used to sneer at the epistemological realism of Beckett or Robbe-Grillet, but now you're insisting on just the same kind of realism. Really, this dialogue stuff sounds to me like a kind of naive representationalism, based on an ideal of real language, fidelity to the complexity and the multiplicity of actual conversation, which of course doesn't move nicely and tidily and teleologically to the truth as Plato wanted it to, it wanders all over the place. That's your idea, isn't it?

No. It's not representationalism. I'm not interested in imitating real language, making a faithful copy of it, so much as I am in tapping the power of real language, the heuristic power, its ability to lead us to new insight.

The problem with that, though, is that you lose clarity. You may get the feel of real conversation, or something like it, but you get the frustrations of real conversation too. You go round and round and don't get anywhere.


So why not just transcribe some real conversation and print that? Why go to the trouble of writing dialogue that doesn't get anywhere when the world is full of dialogues like that?

That's what I mean by the heuristic power of real language. Or what Mike calls the liberating power of the internally persuasive word. In the process of getting nowhere you cover a lot of ground, open up interesting perspectives, hit upon exciting insights. You hope. Or else not. But you take that risk. You risk banality in order to leave the gates open to fresh insight. Close those gates, elevate your style into the solemnities of institutional single-voiced writing, as you did, Mike, sorry but it's true (if it's any consolation I've done it over and over again myself, it's just about the only way to get published, I realize that fully) and you've got less risk, but also less chance of saying anything worth saying.

Wait a second, is that true, or is it just a communication-theory cliche? You talk about the heuristic power of real language, but there's no real heuristic difference between writing a dialogue and writing a single-voiced essay. There are different conventions to be obeyed: in traditional writing you have to arrange your ideas into a tidy argument, the argument has to develop or unfold logically, you have to stop to explain all that is relevant at each point, examine things in order, etc., all the things Descartes said went into the examination of first causes and the building of a foundation. In dialogical writing you have to divide up your ideas between two speakers (or three, or more). But those are just conventions, matters of form, not content.

Form and content is just as naive a dualism as subject and object. Form and content are mental constructs, not essences. They're images we impose on what we read: that part's form, okay, stick it over on this side, that part's content, that's the payload, that's the main thing. "Form is just a matter of presentation." That's stupid. If you decide to write a dialogue, you don't just start obeying dialogical conventions; you work to call up the multiplicity of voices in your head, all those voices that say this and that and the other thing, some relevant, most not--or actually, the whole business of relevance and irrelevance is just another construct, isn't it? Relevant to what? Relevant to your single-voiced argumentative presentation of the truth, right? But writing in dialogue means letting questions of relevance slide into the background, opening up the inner cacophany, letting all kinds of voices float in and listening to what they have to say. Not suppressing any.

Not any?

Well, you do suppress a lot, of course, I guess there's no getting around that, but you work at releasing the suppression, undoing the flood gates. There can be no commitment to suppression, the way there must be in single-voiced discourse.

"In actual dialogue the rejoinder also leads such a double life: it is structured and conceptualized in the context of the dialogue as a whole, which consists of its own utterances ('own' from the point of view of the speaker) and of alien utterances (those of the partner). One cannot excise the rejoinder from this combined context made up of one's own words and the words of another without losing its sense and tone. It is an organic part of a heteroglot unity" (Discourse 284).

Exactly, Mike! And that's the importance of writing in dialogue, isn't it: it forces you to retain an irreducible doubleness, an alien voice that won't reduce to your own words . . .

Not necessarily, comrade. "If the novelist," I say somewhere else, talking about the novel, of course, but the same would apply to the kind of dialogical hybrid you want to generate out of your critical writing, "if the novelist loses touch with this linguistic ground of prose style, if he is unable to attain the heights of a relativized, Galilean linguistic consciousness, if he is deaf to organic double-voicedness and to the internal dialogization of living and evolving discourse, then he will never comprehend, or even realize, the actual possibilities and tasks of the novel as a genre. He may, of course, create an artistic [or critical] work that compositionally and thematically will be similar to a novel [or a critical essay], will be 'made' exactly as a novel is made, but he will not thereby have created a novel. The style will give him away. We will recognize the naively self-confident or obtusely stubborn unity of a smooth, pure single-voiced language (perhaps accompanied by a primitive, artificial, worked-up double-voicedness). We quickly sense that such an author finds it easy to purge his work of speech diversity" (Discourse 327), and so on. You get the idea. Platonic dialogue. Yes-man dialogue.

Dialogue can be a subterfuge, granted, but it needn't be. It can be liberating, right Mike? That's your whole point about the heteroglot novel, that it opens up a saving relativism--

"The author is not to be found in the language of the narrator, not in the normal literary language to which the story opposes itself (although a given story may be closer to a given language)--but rather, the author utilizes now one language, now another, in order to avoid giving himself up wholly to either of them; he makes use of this verbal give-and-take, this dialogue of languages in every part of his work, in order that he himself might remain as it were neutral with regard to language, a third party in a quarrel between two people (although he might be a biased third party)" (Discourse 314).

That's right! That's exactly it! That's precisely what we're doing here, Mike.

"All forms involving a narrator or a posited author signify to one degree or another by their presence the author's freedom from a unitary and singular language, a freedom connected with the relativity of literary and language systems; such forms open up the possibility of never having to define oneself in language, the possibility of translating one's own intentions from one linguistic system to another, of fusing 'the language of truth' with 'the language of the everyday,' of saying 'I am me' in someone else's language, and in my own language, 'I am other'" (314-15).


"The possibility of never having to define oneself in language"--interesting phrasing, Mike. The idea is, I guess, you beat the censor by never actually saying anything, or never saying anything you could be put in jail for, sent to Siberia for. Or, in America, never saying anything that gets too close to your own taboos, anything that brings you into the proximity of scary things, like your repressed anger toward your parents . . . No sweat: just "utilize now one language, now another, in order to avoid giving yourself up wholly to either of them." Intellectual liberalism. The formal illusion of internal complexity cocoons away the bad news you're afraid to hear. Heteroglossia as a cover for Freudian resistance.

"This process--experimenting by turning persuasive discourse into speaking persons--becomes especially important in those cases where a struggle against such images has already begun, where someone is striving to liberate himself from the influence of such an image and its discourse by means of objectification, or is striving to expose the limitations of both image and discourse. The importance of struggling with another's discourse, its influence in the history of an individual's coming to ideological consciousness, is enormous. One's own discourse and one's own voice, although born of another or dynamically stimulated by another, will sooner or later begin to liberate themselves from the authority of the other's discourse" (Discourse 348).

Yes, Mike: "in those cases where a struggle against such images has already begun."

You're implying, comrade, that his struggle against authoritarian discourse has not yet begun?

I guess I am. I think all this rebelliousness is just talk, a wishful attraction to the heroic figure of the romantic rebel, a sham verbal iconoclasm that masks a real unwillingness to enter the fray, to engage the struggle.

A "sham verbal iconoclasm," comrade? Verbal iconoclasm is not a real engagement with the fathers?

No. It's just talk.

What would you have your friend do, bomb the MLA? Why is iconoclastic talk "just talk"?

It leads to no action.

Isn't writing action?

More words.

You're protecting yourself against the power of words to bring about real change, in the world and in the speaker's head. "In the history of literary language, there is a struggle constantly being waged to overcome the official line with its tendency to distance itself from the zone of contact, a struggle against various kinds and degrees of authority. In this process discourse gets drawn into the contact zone, which results in semantic and emotionally expressive (intonational) changes: there is a weakening and degradation of the capacity to generate metaphors, and discourse becomes more reified, more concrete, more filled with everyday elements and so forth" ("Discourse" 345). Which is precisely what your friend is trying to do in his academic discourse, struggling with the institutionalized impulse to distance, split off, defuse by dematerializing, trying to bring academic discourse down to earth, as it were.

Thanks, Mike, that is what I'm trying to do, and his image is the one I'm trying to liberate myself from. His objectifications are the ones the bind me.

Yes? This is interesting.

Interesting? Hardly. It's the rather repetitious story of my life. And in any case I'm not so sure you're off the hook yourself, Mike, when it comes to distancing and splitting off and defusing by dematerializing. I'm thinking of the way you try to make a case for the uniqueness of the novel by splitting off poetry and drama, for instance. This business of the poet being a poet only "insofar as he accepts the idea of a unitary and singular language and a unitary, monologically sealed-off utterance" (Discourse 296). The same case could be made against novels, of course, by selecting a novelistic tradition and isolating the monological elements in the key texts, but you want to use the argument for novels, by some kind of normative dualistic contrast between the sheep and the goats.

"Normative," comrade? I was describing, not prescribing.

You write, and I quote: "Behind the words of a poetic work one should not sense [my emphasis] any typical or reified images of genres (except for the given poetic genre), nor professions, tendencies, directions (except the direction chosen by the poet himself), nor world views (except for the unitary and singular world view of the poet himself), nor typical and individual images of speaking persons, their speech mannerisms or typical intonations. Everything that enters the work [these are your italics now, Mike] must immerse itself in Lethe, and forget its previous life in any other contexts: language may remember only its life in poetic contexts (in such contexts, however, even concrete reminiscences are possible" (Discourse 297). Should not do this, must do that.

Those weren't my norms; they are the norms of the genre.

Which you construed in normative terms. No, I don't think you were being innocently descriptive there, Mike, you had a program, you were motivated, and, well, nothing wrong with being motivated, of course, we all are, I'll follow you there, but it seems to me your motivation was specifically authoritarian.

How so, comrade?

Academically authoritarian. Your cooptation by the academic authorities corrupted you; you talked big about the liberating power of the internally persuasive word, but throughout your work the authoritarian word does its dastardly work, imposes exclusive dualisms on a complex field, splits poetry off from novelistic prose, negatively valorizes poetry, positively valorizes prose. And in that sense, you're right, your tendencies toward authoritarian analysis do require the structuralist completion of a Todorov or a Kristeva. Everywhere the internally persuasive word threatens to liberate itself in your work, the authoritarian word clamps back down, imposes a morally charged dualism or a hierarchy on the field and closes it back up.

Pardon my pedantry here, comrade, but the word I used was "authoritative" word, avtoritetnoe slovo, not "authoritarian." There is, I believe, a difference in English, though we don't make one in Russian.

Yes, there's a difference: "authoritative" eulogizes authority, "authoritarian" dyslogizes it, which is why in English translation your own authoritarian word naturally gravitated toward "authoritative." It wanted to protect its own reputation.

Be that as it may, comrade, I did temper the extremism of my claim about poetry, later in the essay: "Double-voiced, internally dialogized discourse is also possible, of course, in a language system that is hermetic, pure and unitary, a system alien to the linguistic relativism of prose consciousness; it follows that such discourse is also possible in the purely poetic genres. But in those systems there is no soil to nourish the development of such discourse in the slightest meaningful or essential way" (325).

You're still essentializing prose--or prose "consciousness," a strange hypostasis, by the way--as inherently relativistic, and reducing the possibility of heteroglot poetry metaphorically to the seed that was cast on the rock. Surely you were aware of the rich tradition of nonsense poetry, acrostic rhymes, nursery rhymes, magic spells, mnemonic tags, verse conundrums, rhymed lampoons and flytings, and so on? Surely that is "soil to nourish the development of such discourse in a meaningful or essential way"?

Potentially, yes, comrade, I suppose so.

And of course even canonical "high" poetry beginning in the Renaissance has its influential heteroglot texts: Donne and Marvell, Dryden and Pope--

I beg to differ regarding Pope, comrade--

Let's not argue specific texts, Mike. Modern poetry from Whitman and Dickinson to the present is the best counterexample. Read me a Dickinson lyric and tell me there aren't four or five conflicting voices at work in it, tugging the poem in all different directions at once! Not to mention Whitman, of course. And high modernism: what are Pound's Cantos if not a brilliant tour de force of poetic heteroglossia? What is a poem like Williams's "Portrait of a Lady" if not heteroglot? Here, maybe you're not familiar with it, let me read it:

Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? The sky
where Watteau hung a lady's
slipper. Your knees
are a southern breeze--or
a gust of snow. Agh! what
sort of a man was Fragonard?
--as if that answered
anything. Ah, yes--below
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore--
Which shore?--
the sand clings to my lips--
Which shore?
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

How many voices can you count there, Mike?

It's not simply a matter of counting voices, comrade . . .

Don't quibble, Mike. It's pretty obvious that Williams is diving right into the violent sea of inner voices, isn't it? He's got the "unitary and singular language" that you find exclusively in poetry, he starts off with it, "Your thighs are appletrees / whose blossoms touch the sky," nice pretty poetic figure for a woman as nature as thing, but then a realistic voice interrupts the unitary poetic voice, "Which sky?" Gimme some facts and figures, and I don't mean poetic figures, buddy. So the poetic voice answers him in an aside, outside of the romanticizing metaphorical voice he started in, "The sky where Watteau hung a lady's slipper," then tries to get back to it, but now apparently he's flustered, he can't get his metaphors straight, he rhymes "knees" with "southern breeze," nice meaningless poetic remark that covers its meaninglessness with precious decoration, but then changes his mind midstream and makes the lady's knees a "gust of snow." Now the frustrated cry, "Agh!"--but who utters it? The would-be homoglot poet? The realist? A third voice from outside their petty quarrel? "what / sort of man was Fragonard? / --as if that answered anything," and who's saying this? And is it a this or a these? What is the duplicity or multiplicity behind the biographical question and the ironic aestheticist denial of its relevance? And then, doggedly, back to the idealization-cum-objectification of the woman, who isn't really a woman anyway, she's a metaphorical image reified as a woman to protect the would-be unitary poetic speaker against the complexity of real women, except the heteroglot interruptions keep him from constructing a coherent image, and he finds himself with sand on his lips, my God, what am I doing here, kissing the shore like some kind of cheap romantic nature-lover, some castaway in a B-movie, kiss the soil and you get sand on your lips, says the realist, or says the poet in anticipation of the realist's carp, "Which shore?" "Agh, petals maybe. How / should I know?" The poet? Some voice of frustration with the way this poem is going, but it could even be the (implied) reader, the (anticipated) response as a primary shaper of the poetic word, couldn't it? "Which shore? Which shore?" How would you read that, Mike? The same voice, or two echoic voices? If it's the same voice, is it the poet mocking his mocker (do you hear him sneering it? can you feel the exasperation?), or is it the mocker dogging his prey (do you hear him insisting, pounding, trying to get through the poet's barriers to complexity? can you feel the difference in the exasperation?)? If it's two voices, who are the speakers, and in what order? "I said petals from an appletree," a childish retreat into deafness, reiterating the last thing you can remember with any clarity, clarity at all costs, hang onto it, hurl it at your confounder, maybe that will drive him away--but what a way to end a poem! What a way to write a poem, Mike! Huh?

Yes, comrade. It is an impressive performance indeed. The poet's, and the critic's.

Shucks, Mike, thanks, I--I don't know what to say! Coming from you, well, gosh, I--

Oh, please, spare us that phony shit, would you? I can't believe it, what a fucking charade.

Yeah, yeah, it's a fucking charade, but what a performance, huh Mike! It just goes on and on.

Is there a point to this?

You mean, like an "authentic end," as Mike says? An adequate thematization? Hell if I know. What I did want to pick up on, though, Mike, was your juxtaposition of the poet's and the critic's performance. I mean, it's one thing to recognize that there's soil to nourish a heteroglot tradition in poetry and another to recognize that there's soil to nourish a heteroglot tradition in criticism. No, I mean it! Really! Don't laugh! This is no joke! And I don't just mean the dialogists, the overt dialogists, Plato, Augustine, Galileo, Hume, Wilde, Williams, I mean all the gay scientists in Nietzsche's sense, from Ovid through Burton's Anatomy through Nietzsche himself to Derrida (Glas, say), the feminists like Susan Griffin and Robin Morgan and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, all the "scholars" and "critics" who don't feel obliged to reduce their subject to a mathematical grid and their own voices to an institutionalized and depersonalized machine. There's life out there, Mike! Take my word for it!

All right, we've got your word, now shut up for a while, who wants to listen to you go on, not me.

No, I'm not going to shut up, I'm just getting started here. I think of Gertrude Stein criticism, for example, barf barf, what garbage!

Gertrude what did you say her name was, comrade?

Stein. One of the Oakland Steins.

But of course: mentor to Picasso, author of portraits--

That's the one.

And what's wrong with the criticism on her, comrade?

It's benighted, is all. It's hopeless, it's shit, no not even shit, shit smells, but this stuff--it's empty, it's mere air, academic air, maybe a little stuffy but no other distinguishing characteristics. Stein baffles her critics, so they--

Wait a second, now, that's not fair, I mean sure, Stein got neglected for a long time, everybody just thought of her as the eccentric rich Mother Goose of Montparnasse who dabbled at writing a bit herself but that isn't true any more, is it, there's been lots of good Stein criticism written lately, Bridgman, Steiner, Perloff . . .

Yeah, and what do they all do, register her attack on, well, let's call it homoglossia, since we have Mikha-eel here, logically determinate, analytically stable, monological language, she prefers homotonguing, maybe, but then, as critics, find themselves fatefully compelled to go ahead and analyze her anyway, to reduce her prose to just the kind of monological patterns that she worked so hard to disperse: themes, structures, autobiographical references. The only Stein critic I've ever read that I like even half-well is William Gass, and even he stoops to diagram her sentences, for God's sake.

"Stoops"? What's wrong with diagramming sentences?

What do you mean, what's wrong with it, everything's wrong with it. Apart from everything Mike's been saying about heteroglossia and dialogue, if Stein set herself the task of tearing down the tidy tree diagrams of formal grammar, what right does the critic have to horn in and prop them all back up?

What would you have them do, pass it all over in silence, like your friend Wittgenstein at the end of the Tractatus? A critic has a job to do, and the critic's job is analysis.

What were we just saying about the pitfalls of analytical thought?

Sure, if you take it to be an epistemological techne, a pathway to truth. Then you're stuck. But if it's a useful fiction, a tool, an academic game that can be played playfully, then who cares whether it leads us to truth? Who cares if the episteme is forever deferred? Making diagrams is fun.

Like drawing pictures in the sand.

Sure, why not? The critic's job is analysis, discovering the underlying patterns of whatever it is. I mean, okay, so the patterns you discover aren't really "there," so what? You give your reader a handle on the text and at the same time take a step toward your next promotion.

That's cynical.

Partly. But you're also rendering a service. Without analysis it would be difficult to read anything, let alone prose like Stein's.

What a service: by reducing Stein to analytical patterns you're teaching the reader to read you, not Stein.

A moot distinction. Does Stein "exist"? You're always talking about reader response. There's no one Stein, there are Steins, depending on who's reading her.

But as long as critics are institutionally compelled to bring a single analytical tool to bear on her, all the Steins they produce will bear an uncanny resemblance--a resemblance organized not by the author herself but by the critical institution.

The institutionally organized uncanny resemblance I'll buy--that's what Fish says is the inevitable result of the authority of interpretive communities. The singleness of the analytical tools they bring to bear, though, is simplistic. There are lots of analytical tools.

But all analytical.

Yes, but not all the same. A different tool for every job. Ideally, anyway. A lot of critics pretty slavishly apply the same tools to every critical job, but not all. Gass made up his own tools, didn't he?

In a way. They were pretty obviously indebted to those coin-sorting machines banks use, where the coins roll down a slope and drop off into the right-sized slot.

Which is a significantly different way of diagramming sentences than we learned in school, right? It wasn't a series of binary decisions.

No. In fact, I almost liked it--apart from my methodological qualms.

You see? Relax that zealot's eye you glare out at the world through and everything looks better. I've half a mind to try my hand at diagramming some Stein myself, in fact. What's that book you've been clutching at, can I see it?

Lucy Church Amiably. You want me to find you a passage to diagram?

Okay, sure, you do it. Open and stab.

Here, I'll read it:

"Lucy Church might be if as planned. And very much in attending to finding anything at once agreeable and if there was continuity an indifferently variably fatigue and so forth with them in exchange. It is not an indifference which makes them give themselves pleasure not at all not at all an attentiveness that makes them give themselves pleasure not at all and not at all. It was by and by as if and to wonder is the river as a river as a river as a better and better and wider and wider and very much as small as if allowed allowed to be sure surely it is not partly they they are replaced by once more than at all with likely very much and very and likely to be nearly with when and letting letting theirs be nearly, it is nicely left to which one and which one is it" (131).

Whew, comrades!

Not at all and not at all, as Stein would say, Mike. Look, here's the first sentence, just for starters:

Lucy (Church

Church as if in-Lacey)

might be if as planned

if be

Now what's wrong with that?

I can think of several things. First, you dragged in the church-in-Lucey just for pure symmetry.

So does Stein.

Does she? Or is that her critics' work, the symmetry? It's a pretty picture--too pretty. Draw me an ugly picture and I might be tempted. Stein was a bad writer, the finest bad writer America ever had, a writer who took bad writing about as far as it would go, pushed it until it began to tell her (and us) things it had never shown prettifiers, symmetry-


You draw an ugly picture, then.

No, I don't want a picture at all, pictures spatialize, stabilize. Picasso tried his best to unspatialize space in his work but really you can't do it visually, the two or three dimensions of your piece are going to drag you kicking and screaming back to representation in the end. Stein's words destabilized logically stable language much more effectively than Picasso's images ever did spatial perspectives.

Listen to you! If the logical stability of language is a social construct that the writer can destabilize, spatial perspective is the same kind of construct, and should be just as destabilizable as logical language. And since when did "dimensions" have the power to drag anybody kicking and screaming anywhere? People who've been socially conditioned to see things representationally are going to respond to modern painting in terms of representation, but that doesn't mean Picasso has been dragged back against his will. It just means somebody saw him that way. And Stein can be read that way too, as you've just been saying.

Okay, okay, right. And you want to read her that way. It makes her easier to understand, to impose a pattern on her.

Anything wrong with that?

Is there anything right with it, you mean. Your diagram is utterly incapable of recognizing, much less expanding on, the kinship between its symmetrical planning and the if-as planning of Lucy Church.

Should I be appalled?

Jesus Christ, don't you take anything seriously? Your diagram exiles Stein's prose from shared linguistic humanity, objectifies it, externalizes and spatializes it, stabilizes it by projecting it onto the screen of your analytical imagination, and therefore remains mute on its love affair with Stein's text, a sadistic, paternalistic, love affair, a oneway love affair of dominance and repression. Bondage is the name of the game, and you hold all the keys in your clammy little hand!

Those are pretty sultry accusations. Why don't you show me how it's done so I can slander you for a while. It's hardly fair to stand back and carp at the way traditional analytical critics criticize if you don't have anything to offer in their methodological stead.

Okay, I'll try my hand at a new approach to Stein. But I'm not going to try to compete with your diagram. I'm going to take a stab at (pace, Mike) overt heteroglossia, like this:

Lucy Church might be, might be what, might be planned, planned how, planned as in designed, diagrammed, structured, you mean like a church, the church-in-Lucey, no I mean like the Lucy Church/church-in-Lucey symmetry you imposed on her, might be planned by Gertrude Stein, the author as authority, or by you, the reader as lectority, the as-if authority, the if-as lectority, meaning what, meaning the authoritarian/lectoritarian power structure's crumbling, how do you get that, never mind watch it go, like old plaster, whee, the as-if meeting the if-as like a nice story meeting Godzilla, they might get together, might be married as planned, if (only Stein didn't prefer a mate more like herself, without attendants) in attending, attention, at ease, I preferred standing at tension, more tensile, better for finding anything at once, or finding anything agreeable, finding anything that is agreeable at once (no time to wait for it to turn agreeable, we're busy people), finding anything at once agreeable and disagreeable (we love paradoxes, we're the antilogical munchkins), and if there was continuity you put it there, you traced the line with your own hand, I saw you, yes maybe I did, but the discontinuity before I drew the line was your doing, I saw you move them apart, Lucy Church over here, the church-in-Lucey over there, you believe there are no straight lines in nature and go about bending or breaking them wherever you find them, no that's not true, I I I, never mind, it's a matter of complete indifference to me, an indifferently variably, a differently invariably, what's the difference, what's the differaunts, whose aunts, Jack's aunts, Jack who, Jack Derry, you mean Jack Berry, Berry bah, Derry dah, never mind who cares anyway, difference variance how tedious, fatigue yes that's what this book gives me, a headache, a headache's not the same thing as fatigue, same difference, same indifference, same college deferments, I never got one, came too late, did you go, no they ended the draft the year I turned eighteen, lucky you, not luck, what not luck, how so, what did you plan it, planned it carefully, held off turning eighteen till, bet you were pleased it worked out, pleased as punch, planned on punch for the reception, what reception, the one in the church, which oh no let's not start that again, no pleasure in that, no Behagen Freud would say, an Unbehagen rather, whatever are you talking about, Freud's Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, the displeasure in the culture, I'm not pleased with your translation, the malaise of civilization, Civilization and its Discontents, and all because of too much planning, what do you mean planning, Freud doesn't talk about planning, he talks about submission to an internalized ideal I doesn't he, the symbolic father as superego, that's planning, ne c'est pas, daddy the great planner-idealizer, the daddy in my head, he teaches me to plan things meticulously, and I do, I do, but I hate him secretly in my heart, and someday, someday I, no you won't, you're too well programmed, too well planned, social planning the social planners call it, black-box linguistic competence the TG-grammarians call it, resolving the Oedipus complex the psychoanalysts call it, adapting, adjusting, you get the idea, a loss of personal creativity I call it, well yes why not, a straitjacketing of creative options, yes why not, welcome to civilization, folks, please check your creativity at the door, anyone caught breaking the rules will be locked up, schizos and antioedipuses beware, see those pusey schizos Auntie Gilles and Eddie Felix (the Cat) Puss (in Boots), feel the pleasure of anoedipal exchange, not sister for wife but Oedipus for flows, an interchange, a surreal dialogue where you never know who's speaking and whether it's you, a fantastic voyage into the factory of the body, remember that movie, what a time to run out of sugar, keep your eyes peeled, keep your eyes on the road, watch out for falling eyeballs, snags in the flows, cuts in the schizzes, be attentive, attentive to your pleasure, attentive to your attentiveness, attentive to your finding anything at once agreeable, or disagreeable, I'm not particular, just so it's not fatiguing, just so it's not planned, if as planned is all right but I do hate planning, life as an endless railroad track, give me a river any day, a flow, a wonderriver, a wanderriver, a wonderer about riverwanderers, as rivers wander about wonderers, do they, why not yes--

All right, all right, that'll do quite nicely.

Do you think so? You see what I was doing there? It wasn't a representation or spatialization (monologization) of Stein's paragraph but a reading, a riverring, a diving into the river of her prose and learning to swim in it, not to be drowned or swept out to sea, but to learn wonder at the flow, the stream, the--


Exactly, Mike. The alternative is to diagram rivers, lock them into mathematical notation like the Army Corps of Engineers did to the Mississippi, no room for a runaway slave or an outcast boy on that river any more, they'd be caught and locked up, shipped down the river lock by lock, like schizos, Twain's dream to be a dream, and so remain, hey, listen, speaking about dreaming, I had a dream last night, shall I tell you about it?

Wait, what is this, here? What's going on?

What do you mean? Do you want to hear the dream, or not?

No, I mean why not, but--what's that gleam in your eye? Are you losing your marbles here, or what?

Maybe I am. This whole conversation you've been harping on how serious I am, how locked into agonistic seriousness I am, and my riverring of the Stein passage started feeling good, started, well, loosening me up, okay? It's what you've been calling for the whole time, don't go all authoritarian on me now.

No, but--

Do you want to hear the dream or don't you?


By all means, comrade.

Okay, I was sitting in my office when someone knocked on my door and introduced him- or herself as the Common Reader.

Him or her, comrade?

I just couldn't tell, Mike, funniest thing. It was heorshe, the great depersonalized, desexed Common Reader.

What did heorshe want, comrade? Did you engage himorher in dialogue?

I did. Heorshe asked for an inscription in one of my books. But the book heorshe handed me to inscribe wasn't mine, I didn't recognize any part of it, the cover was unfamiliar, the author's name was indecipherable, the typeface was outlandish, and what was strangest of all, the letters on the page wouldn't hold still, they kept swarming around like ants, or like angry alphabet soup. It was disconcerting to say the least.

What did you do?

I mumbled something about this not being my book and went to my shelf to get one I knew was mine to inscribe for the Common Reader, heorshe being such a great fan of mine, you see, heorshe having read everything I'd written and loved every word and never wanted a book of mine to be over and waited on pins and needles for the endless months and years before I brought out a new one, but when I got to the shelf where I keep my own books I didn't recognize a single damn thing there either, they looked like the fake books in furniture stores, or like Reader's Digest Condensed Books, something really classy like that, and when I pulled one off the shelf why it started crawling all over the page too.

What then?

Well, I was about at my wits' end by now, but I decided to carry it off with some semblance of calm, so I sat down at my desk to inscribe the book I'd taken off the shelf, but there was something wrong with the pen (a Bic, only kind I ever use), the ballpoint wobbled in the plastic sheath, and it splotched ink at irregular intervals so that what I wrote looked more like a dot-to-dot drawing than a signature, but I kept at it, going over and over the words I'd written and my signature, so intently that I didn't even notice himorher slipping an ass's head on over mine. When I finally looked up heorshe was standing there with hisorher hands on hisorher hips and grinning at me puckishly. Any idea what it could mean? I can't make heads or tails of it.

Well, now, comrade--

Isn't it perfectly obvious? The Common Reader thinks you're an ass. What could be plainer than that? Your books are gibberish, your pen is empty, and you're an ass.

No, no, I deny it, that's wrong, that can't be the correct interpretation. The shifting characters signified Derrida's free play of signifiers, the gaps in my signature were Iser's (or Ingarden's, I can never keep those guys straight) spots of indeterminacy, and the ass-head was a tribute, raising me to the rank of the author of A Midsummer Night's Dream, don't you think Mike?

Why, comrade I--

I don't. Face it, friend. The Common Reader thinks you're an ass.

You figure?

I figure.

Yeah, hmm, maybe you're right. But hey, what does heorshe know, right, after all, heorshe's just an abstract androgyne, goddammit, a brand X bubby, no weenie no woomie, a department-store dummy, calling me an ass, of all the, why I've a mind to--

If I may put in a word at this juncture, comrades?

Yes, Mike, sorry, you wanted to say something.

"The ass is one of the most ancient and lasting symbols of the material bodily lower stratum, which at the same time degrades and regenerates. It is sufficient to recall Apuleius' 'Golden Ass,' the widespread ass-mimes of antiquity, and finally the image of the ass as the symbol of the bodily lower stratum in the legends of Francis of Assisi" (Rabelais 78).

Well, thanks for sharing that with us, Mike, those are points well taken, you forgot Shakespeare's Bottom, of course, both bottoms, the one in the play and the one in his pants, ha ha, that is you or your translator forgot it, she should have stuck it in there for you, oh yes there ahh, but no, she was a serious translator, no carnival for her, no ma'am, leave Shakespeare's ass in his pants where it belongs, still, St. Francis was a good one, easy enough to see the ass in Assisi, ass-easy in fact, heehaw! See the dream was a tribute, it was a tribute to my regenerative degradations of traditional literary criticism, my assmiming of the whole thing, or my assholing of the mime thing, take your pick, pick my ass--

Calm yourself.

Calm myself, how can I, when Mike tells me my dream's crowned me with "one of the most ancient and lasting symbols of the material bodily lower stratum," whatever the hell that means.

I think you're just being asinine.

See, now you're doing it! Bad puns, silly jokes, asinine asshole humor, that's the ticket! Carnival laughter! You were the one going on about carnival laughter a minute ago, but you wanted to do it all proper and decent, no belly-laughs, just the idea of laughter, right, you and Mike? You wanted laughter to be liberating, but not too liberating, not so liberating that it smashed through the boundaries of good taste, you're thinking of parlor laughter, aren't you, tasteful chuckles, nothing out of control, nothing even vaguely resembling inebriation, enthusiasm, mayhem, running amok and ass-wild, all that's too scary, liberation sure but not off the deep end, liberation as liberalism, better safe than sorry, but this is what Mike was talking about, this is the real thing, this is what you've been urging on me from the start, don't you see? The answer to the dilemma of apocalyptic metaphysics!

I guess I do see, in a hazy sort of way. But I still think your methods stink.

Stinky poo, what do you expect of the material lower bodily stratum?

Yes, sure, but why drag them into print?

Mike did.

He did, true, but calmly, all right, tastefully--not all unwashed, like you.

Unwashed, right, wash your ass or you'll smell like shit, and you don't want to smell like shit lest somebody start thinking you're human or something, isn't that it, robots don't shit and never have to wash their assholes, robots, that's what we're supposed to be, abstractions, only good asshole is a disembodied one, the true Platonic form of the asshole, sphincter-idealization, there's a good resonant abstract name for you, don't--

Stop, stop already. My God are you wound up, and self-indulgent? You'd go on forever if I wasn't around to cut you off.

Self-indulgent, is it? Well, I've been called self-indulgent by the best of them, you can't intimidate me with a word like that. Self-indulgent is a boring person's word for anything that isn't boring, anything that isn't decorous, stately, solemn, liturgically controlled, ritually depersonalized. In fact, hey, I haven't read you the reader's report I just got back on the Iser piece, have I, here, let me give you the best part--

Oh, please, don't hang out all your dirty underwear in public.

Dirty underwear, hell, I'll hang out my bare ass in public if I like, Mike just said I could, and should, didn't you Mike?

Well, comrades, ehem, I--

Here, listen: "For one thing, the essay is too discursive, its argument to [sick!] labored, unnecessarily sinuous, and--in its presentation--[here it is] extremely self-indulgent. Second of all, the author lacks total control over the presentation of hisorher material. The writing is sometimes clumsy, sometimes manically lively; the tone is occasionally pedantic, more often archly playful."

Sounds remarkably restrained, to me. What would heorshe say about this piece, I wonder?

I hate to think. But just listen to the roll of those adjectives: discursive, labored, sinuous, self-indulgent. By "self-indulgent" I think heorshe means I used "I" once or twice--this, remember, was a pretty straight piece. Yes, I stand convicted of self-indulgence, if that's the opposite of faceless objectivity. But discursive--what the hell does it mean to be too discursive? Can you psyche that one out? And yes, labored, I was trying to give birth to too many ideas, quintuplets, hell, centuplets, one idea per article will usually do it, any more than that and people start gasping for air. But what does sinuous mean here? Can you believe what some readers put in these reports? Personally, I think sinuous sounds pretty, well, sinuous, like a leopard, or a marathon runner, or something. But of course one doesn't want to be unnecessarily sinuous, does one, so from now on, yes sir, I'm sticking strictly to necessary sinuosity.

Why do I sense that we're moving from the manically lively into the archly playful here?

Yeah, and the occasionally pedantic's next. No, but you're right, yes, rein me in, hold me back, total control over my presentation, that's the key, that worked in American Apocalypses, total faceless control, that is, faceless prose, that's the name of the game, isn't it, let's get face out of scholarship! In fact, I think I'm going to run for the MLA Presidency on a self-effacement platform, let me dictate my statement on matters of professional concern for the PMLA candidate info to you, okay, you ready? "In a time beset by grave difficulties, the MLA must lead the current move toward a new sense of responsibility, a new conscientiousness in which individual critics and scholars will work together cheerfully and courageously to advance commonly agreed-upon standards of truth and value instead of egregiously disrupting the orderly pursuit of serious scholarly aims through frivolous anarchic displays of personal cleverness and fucking ingenuity all those hotshot brandnew Ph.D.s with their goddamn fucking Derrida and Deleuze and no fucking control over their--" no, wait, cut that last bit, hoo! got a little carried away there, don't want to give the game away. Finish with: "I will do my best to further these goals." Will you be my campaign manager?

I would, if your playfulness weren't so unbearably arch.

Sorry. But that's all behind me now, I promise, I've turned over a dead leaf. Seriously (really), what is this big thing about staying in the same voice in a critical essay (that's homoglossia for you jargon freaks), I mean we did it pretty much straight for a while there and probably didn't antagonize our readers too badly, but now I've really done this dialogue in, haven't I, I've lost control, I lack control over the presentation of my material, we've got tonal shifts up the yin-yang, because I won't let you reduce this whole piece to a nice tidy single-voiced essay, or even a monologue in dialogical guise like the Buber thing, two voices cooperating to word forth a coherent view of the universe. But good God, why shouldn't I lose control? Why shouldn't I be manic one minute pedantic the next? What is this liturgical decorum of literary criticism that makes people shit their pants if you change styles midstream, or say "you," or talk about shitting your pants?

A word to the wise: it's not just the self-indulgence, it's the selfexposure. Your slip is showing.

My slip? You mean my readers are going to find out just what a sick twisted pervert I am and have been all these years? Boogley boogley gah gah? Will all my base obsessions and neuroses come out? (Assorted animal noises, this guy is out of his tree!) Yes, well, maybe you're right, maybe I should cool it a little, be more circumspect, use words like circumspect, tone my voice down, ritualize it so the reader will know it's not me speaking, no it's the institution, it's the voice of institutionalized, ritualized, by-God dogmatized truth, otherwise, good heavens, the reader might think I was a-a-a human being or something, with, like, an asshole, no, scratch that (please!), with human, uh, limitations and things, human shortcomings (that's already a better word, isn't it?), weaknesses, yes, desires, beliefs, hopes, anxieties, a-and prejudices! And the next step beyond that would the reader's realization that heorshe is at least humanoid hisorher own self, that heorshe is a he or a she, and that critical discourse sets up dialogues not only inside the writer's head (viz., you and me), and not only between writers (that includes you, Mike), but with readers too, and that those dialogues aren't some kind of abstract discourse-analytical structure but a confrontation, a rendezvous if you like, a tryst, meet me in the arbor at the stroke of midnight, with all the sexual and other politics that a tryst implies, and that instead of institutionalizing the tryst we ought to carnivalize it, goodbye-to-flesh it, and everybody knows that the only way to say goodbye to flesh is to indulge it, to make the beast with two backs, to charge the abstract black marks on the page with thumping, throbbing, dripping, slurping carnality.

Now you're waxing mystical.

I'm not waxing your stical, I'm waxing my mustache, ha ha! I was thinking, in fact, more along the lines of Akhter Ahsen's psychological theory of somatic response as the reality of mental imagery: a word as stable "meaning" or Logos is a spiritualization, a logicalized truth, but words take their force from the physical reactions they provoke in us, they make us cry, or laugh, or quake in our boots, they bore us, excite us, whatever. The spiritualizers would kill the body, stifle it, put it in chains with Satan (it is Satan, they think), but the body isn't killed, only bored, and boredom can be smashed with a good belly laugh.

"This is a bodily and popular corrective to individual idealistic and spiritual presence" (Rabelais 22).

Go for it, Mike!

"In all these writings, in spite of their differences in character and tendency, the carnival-grotesque form exercises the same function: to consecrate inventive freedom, to permit the combination of a variety of different elements and their rapprochement, to liberate from the prevailing point of view of the world, from conventions and established truths, from cliches, from all that is humdrum and universally accepted. This carnival spirit offers the chance to have a new outlook on the world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter a completely new order of things" (34).

Yes, I'm with you in principle there, Mike, but let's not go overboard. Not the consecration of inventive freedom; let's be satisfied with the assertion of inventive freedom, shall we? And not a completely new order of things, either. What carnival-goer wants an order of things anyway?

Well, now, I--

I mean, sweet Jesus, Mike, carnival, uh, oh God, here it comes, carnival opens, uh, uh, the body, oh-oh, past order, to laughter, and tears, to shared, ah, AH! shared insight, by, by, by exploding the, the! the differences! between words! and people! oh yes oh yes in a cop, oh a cop, copuLAtion of BODies! and MINDS! and WORDS! oh God! screech! wheeze YESSSS ahhh oh yes.

That is about the most disgusting display I've ever been subjected to. Can't you save your obscene grunting and snorting for the privacy of your own four walls?

Privacy, yes, that's the spirit, the modern spirit, that's precisely what Mike lays his finger on, figuratively speaking, it would have been better if he'd laid his skinny little real finger on it, no, just a little lower, yes, there: privacy! Hide it away, skulk about in closets and bedrooms, shut out the light of day, shut out the press of the crowd, shut out liberating laughter, don't let anybody else see how dirty it all is, or how mystical, because sex only becomes dirty or mystical when it's locked up in dark places. Open the shutters, go ahead, let in the daylight, and with it the carnival crowd, press bodies freely, let the juices flow, wine, blood, snot, saliva, semen--

One more word and I'm going to vomit.

Yes! And vomit, why not? Blaaah! Heeave! Oh barf, oh puke, I am ralph, I am nothing! I become a transparent barfbag! All those stuffy authoritarian English professors out there, Yaas, hmm, well, one mustn't rush into these things, must one, you think you've got the lid on things don't you, but you don't, just watch me puke all over your books, no book-burning for me, I'm a book-barfer, I toss my cookies on your bookies, yes I do, your little booky-wookies, so serious, so solemn, me too, I used to be serious, oh-so-solemn, but no more, I've lost it for good, and I'm out to get you sons-a-bitches, I'm after your asses, I'm going to hand them to you, you watch me, you think you're so smart with your war toys, engineering sure, you think--


Dad, get out of this dialogue, get out of this fucking dialogue, I mean it! I can't stand it, Dad, you start butting in here, this is my business, I've got the Ph.D., I'm the professor, you got no business in here, out out out! you can't make me do it your way, I hate you, I hate you hate you hate you!

Stop it! Stop it this instant! You're ruining everything!

I hate you! I hate you! Please love me, Daddy! Dada, wuv me! Wuv me, wuv me, don't be mad at me dada! Wuv me! Don't hate me! Oh waaaahhh! Boo-hooooooo! Waaahhh!


Uh--comrade? Are you all right? Comrade?

Leave him. I think he OD'd on Oedipus.

No, look--his eyelash moved. He's stirring! Comrade!

Huh? Who--

I don't think we're in Kansas any more, Toto. He's in La La Land.

I--Mike? What happened?

We're not sure, comrade. You seemed to have some sort of anti-authority attack. It was wrapped up with your father, somehow.

You OD'd on Oedipus.

I did, I guess. I felt--I don't know. I felt like I was in a time machine or something, plunging back through the years into my childhood, into Oedipus, and then past him, and then--

Don't tell me: everything went black, right? Jesus H. Christ, this is straight out of the movies.

Sneer if you want. But something happened to me just then. I was raving pretty wildly, wasn't I?

You were indeed, comrade. All kinds of wild threats directed at the academic institution, at first, and then at your father.

I felt so much anger, it just welled up and exploded out. But it's gone now. I feel--well, good.

Oh, please! Don't do this to us, okay? I mean it. I hate the soaps. This is so revolting, this wholesome denouement, it all worked out for the best, I worked through my childhood hangups, embraced my inner child, and look how it turned out, I'm cured, I'm a new man. Blaah.

Careful, comrade. "Blaah" is how your friend started on his collision course.

Don't worry about me. I'm no nut.

No, comrade. You're no nut; neither am I. But maybe your friend was right: maybe that's because neither of us has entered the fray, or, well, the Vanishing Point. He entered it and came out the other side--a new man, as you so scornfully put it.

Drooling like an idiot.

You know what's ironic, though? You were going on about the importance of being truly liberated from the agon, so that you could play whatever game you wanted without being locked into either rebellion or authoritarianism? Well, I just discovered something: this is the way to do it.

Becoming a drooling idiot?

Dissolving Oedipus. Going back to the old Oedipal resolution and undoing it, letting go. You were arguing for the same thing, but you didn't know how to do it. You thought you could just decide to do it: just stop being a sham rebel and play the game. I was afraid that that would make me a sham authority, and I was right--anybody who plays the Oedipus game is Oedipus, has always already become Oedipus. It's a sham game, but the sham is programmed into us, we're locked into it by our Oedipal conditioning, our oedipalization. You can't just dump it, just like that. You've got to engage it, fight it to a standstill, and survive the battle.

And you did it, huh? That's what you were doing back there. That's the model: everybody go out, now, all you readers out there, sitting there in your walnut-lined studies, go out right this instant and get crazy, hurl your poop at the walls, shout obscenities at your colleagues and fathers, and poof! you'll be cured of Oedipus. What rot.

The funny thing is, it's the same rot the romantics were talking. All their talk of the apocalypse, the unveiling of the inner eye--this is what it comes down to.

So tell me, what's it like in paradise?

This is really getting to you, isn't it? It's really hitting close to home.


It's really bothering you.

I know you'd like to think so.

It scares you. I know it does--it scared me too, that was why I was so damned serious all the time, I was controlling myself. The Williamses groped their way toward the same insight in the Burr chapter, ironically enough. In Spring and All Williams does the romantic apocalypse, coming out of the liberating power of art; but in the American Grain discussion of Burr I think he gets closer to the real issue:

"A new world, that's what we were: It was a springtime that the colonists, at their most impassioned, were attempting. But as it is a winter that we are now in, and the more ordered the more wintry--dulled values, stereotyped effects of bygone adventures--so it began to be after the Revolution; a sense of life killed, systematically, as with school children--

Under a cruel eye outworn.

"But some one must rule, even children know that and accept it with pleasure and relief.

"What matter who rule? to rule is without sense. There can be no rule. Burr saw America in his imagination, free. His spirit leaped to it--and his body followed out of a sick bed. But his spark was not preserved. He saw America, or he had seen America, as a promise of delight and it struck fine earth, that fancy. Now he saw a sombre Washington--with shrewd dog Hamilton at his side--locking the doors, closing the windows, building fences and providing walls. He dreaded this. He saw that they would only lock up themselves, and he rebelled" (196-97).

That's close: "His spirit leaped to it--and his body followed out of a sick bed." But not quite. The reason his spark wasn't preserved, I'm guessing, is that it had to rely for its preservation on a mind-body dualism, the spark as the privileged term in a moral hierarchy that degrades the body into a mere vehicle, mortal, impermanent, decaying. Body's the key. There is no spirit, or rather spirit is the name we give to those achievements of the body that we like best, the achievements that we want to frame and hang on the wall, preserve in perpetuity, put in the deep-freeze and take out to look at fondly, nostalgically, every hundred years or so: that's spirit, an idealized fiction, not some originary spark that the body (poor thing) fails to hold on to. Here, there's more:

"Inspired by devil or angel, Burr was a frightful danger to the young state and needed to be curbed.

"So much the worse for the young state then. But it's the malice I decry. Burr's account in history is a distortion. The good which history should have preserved, it tortures. A country is not free, is not what it pretends to be, unless it leave a vantage open (in tradition) for that which Burr possessed in such remarkable degree. This is my theme.

"But has he not that place? He's there in history just as you design him.

"He's in myself and so I dig through lies to resurrect him. We are deceived by history. America had a great spirit given to freedom but it was a mean, narrow, provincial place; it was NOT the great liberty-loving country, not at all. Its choice spirits died.

"Ah, my friend, you are an enthusiast, rash guesses and the same loose talk of which you complain" (197).

But it's not the enthusiasm that plagues Bill, and it's not rash guesses either, since guesses imply an external truth from which the guesser is separated. No, it's the dualism, the idea that there's a vehicle, which is history, and there's a payload, which is Burr and the spirit of liberty he stood for. The part I like is where Flossie says that Burr is there in history just as Bill designs him, and Bill replies that Burr's in him and has to be resurrected, the resurrection of the body, Burr is a bodily impulse toward freedom that Bill feels, a gut feeling that his body knows well and that his words must seek to enact. Burr isn't the spirit of freedom, he's the body of freedom, that twitch of the muscles that shrugs off chains, and Bill sets himself the task of thrashing the dead body of institutionalized history until it frees its prisoners, political prisoners it didn't even know it had jailed, prisoners that perhaps weren't even there, weren't even in prison until the body of freedom in Bill felt the weight of history as an imprisoning force and decided to crack it open. Flossie is right, Burr is there in history just as Bill designs him, because it is Bill's design that discovers him there, uncovers and puts him there. In this sense America has left a vantage open for the body of freedom Bill possesses in such remarkable degree and rubs onto Burr, exchanges with Burr in a copulative act by which the lovers become one flesh, and the one flesh expands, sucking in more and more lovers until America becomes a vast orgy, Burr's vision of American liberty. That's the answer: the body, both politic and psychologic, the body of felt reality, the body of shared understanding, past the spirit of fathers and the spirit of sons, past the spirit of mothers and the spirit of daughters, past Oedipus, the body joined in laughter, and sex, and--

And food?


The body joined in eating, how about that? While you were rhapsodizing I raided the fridge, you want some? A cold drumstick?

What, and leave our dialogue hanging? What do you take me for?

A drooling idiot. A Galilean opportunist. I think, in fact, that you've just proved that I was right all along, you have your little religious experience and suddenly this dialogue slides into monologue, you going on and on monologically summarizing Doug's authorial world view and Mike and me just sitting here listening to you, which says to me that it is possible to get at the complexity of an issue monologically, and that, now that you've dumped your Romantic iconoclasm, you agree with me--but never mind. Eat. White wine or red?

White. Well, maybe you're right. Maybe--

"The banquet is even more important as the occasion for wise discourse, for the gay truth. There is an ancient tie between the feast and the spoken word. The ancient symposium--" (Rabelais 283).

What, Mike, are you still there? Pull up a chair, don't cower back there in the corner, join the party, have a drumstick, and take off that tie, unbutton your shirt, God, man, don't be so damned formal all the time!

Why, thank you, comrades, perhaps I will join you. Could you pass me some of that macaronic salad, please?

Gladly, Mike, gladly. Open your mouth and I'll pour it in.

Three Dialogues contents

Buber | Bakhtin | Wittgenstein | Works Cited


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