Thursday, 26 January 2012

Benedict meets Bakhtin: Towards a Catholic Theory of Literature

In my last post, about Catholicism and the novel, I asked how we might approach the novel from a Catholic perspective. Pope Benedict hasn't, as far as I am aware, addressed this issue directly but he has, perhaps, given us some pointers to work with in his post-synodal exhortation, Verbum Domini.

Time and again he returns in this document to the theme of dialogue: "The novelty of biblical revelation," he writes, "consists in the fact that God becomes known through the dialogue which he desires to have with us."

Now that's a pretty remarkable statement but what's it got to do with the novel? Well, the most obvious link is with the great Russian theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin, who saw the novel as essentially dialogic; it contains a multiplicity of voices competing with each other.

Bakhtin's dialogism and Benedict's may seem to be quite different beasts but the links are certainly worth exploring. For the pope, what matters fundamentally is that "our whole existence becomes a dialogue with the God who speaks and listens, who calls us and gives direction to our lives" whereas, for Bakhtin, it is the, necessarily limited, voices within the novel which matter.

However, Bakhtin does not argue that the text is a self-contained entity or that the author is dead. "Of course, this play with languages (and frequently the complete absence of a direct discourse of his own)," he writes, "in no sense degrades the general, deep-seated intentionality, the overarching ideological conceptualization of the work as a whole."

An Evelyn Waugh novel presents a fundamentally different view of the world from a Thomas Hardy novel; the "
overarching ideological conceptualization" of their books differs enormously. 

But we could go further. According to Bakhtin, it is not just the author but the reader who impinges upon the text. Indeed, it may be that, for Catholics, the true significance of the novel lies in the ways we read it, in what Bakhtin called the "ideological becoming" of the reader. Rather than get sucked into an argument with Orwell about how many Catholics have been good novelists, we can instead approach the novel from the opposite direction. It is what the novel does to us that matters.

There's much more to Bakhtin (and Benedict) than I have set out here but that's probably enough for one post.


  1. Dear Roy - I notice you've written about the much neglected Norman Nicholson and thought you might be interested. I've just been asked by Trustees of his Estate to write a biography of him for the centenary in 2014. It feels good to be able to give some attention to such a wonderful poet.

  2. Dear Kathleen - That's excellent news. He deserves much more attention than he gets and I hope your biography will be a great success. I'm finishing off a book on 20th Century Lake District poetry at the moment; perhaps we could have a chat about Nicholson at some point?