Note 3: Bakhtin on Myth and Language. 3/30/99

According to Mikhail Bakhtin, in his essay "Discourse in the Novel," reprinted as part of The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: U of Texas Press, 1987), multi-languagedness "undermines the authority of custom and of whatever traditions still fetter linguistic consciousness; it erodes that system of national myth that is organically fused with language, in effect destroying once and for all a mythic and magical attitude to language and the word" (368-369). While it might be possible to argue that the Latin version (Vulgate) of the Myth of Eden still retained some quality of its original mythos, since the story was initially inscribed in Hebrew, as it emigrated with its Christian hosts, so to speak, into the heathen lands of the native people of Western Europe and became literally surrounded by the foreign voices (foreign to both the Hebrew and Latin speakers who took it hence and hither) of the non-believers to whom it was exposed, it seems disingenuous to argue that the Myth was able to hold its own against being reinscribed into the vernacular languages that ultimately came to encompass its mythos toward the end of the Middle Ages. One does not have to dwell on the fact that the church long resisted efforts to vernacularize the Bible into the common and profane languages of the heathen people of Western Europe, nor does it require any great leap of understanding to realize why the church resisted those efforts for as long as it did. The very fact that Chaucer wrote a parodic version of the Myth of Eden in Middle English, called the Merchant's Tale, a form much more subversive than a simple translation of Genesis would have been, testifies, in itself, to the irreversible stages of deterioration that affect the "mythic and magical attitudes" that religious communities create to protect their sacred words from the corrupting influences of the Other, even when that Other has been successfully converted from his/her unbelief. First you make the story available in English, then someone writes a parody of it.

Chaucer, of course, would have been able to read the story in its Latin version, which was not true of many, if not most, of his literate contemporaries and the possibility does exist, if Chaucer's work was circulated at the time, which may be doubtful for several reasons, not the least of which was the relative scarcity of manuscripts, that the only version of the story some people ever read was the one written by Chaucer. This may also be meaningless on its face because the story was universally communicated through the pulpit of the medieval church. In short, everyone knew the story as it was handed down by country parsons and city bishops while only a small number of people could have had an opportunity to read Chaucer's parody of it.

Bakhtin also argues that a "disassociation" between "language and intentions," "language and thought," "language and expression" inevitably arises whenever a deeply experienced involvement with the alien word occurs in any culture. To say that such a "disassociation" occurred in England during the Middle Ages is to admit what is only most obvious, since the Anglo-Saxons were conquered by the French in 1066 A. D. and the Latin speakers in the ranks of the clergy were present in England from the time of the Roman colonization of the island. Chaucer's Middle English, with source material for his work coming in translations from Italian, French, and Latin works, was a polyglot of multi-languagedness that could not have avoided the consequences of "disassociation." Bakhtin explains those consequences by noting that there is

"a destruction of any absolute bonding of ideological meaning to language, which is the defining factor of mythological and magical thought. An absolute fusion of word with concrete ideological meaning is, without a doubt, one of the most fundamental constitutive features of myth" (369).

What this suggests, of course, is that the Myth of Eden, since its origin as myth was grounded in Hebrew and transmitted into Western Europe in Latin, was never inscribed with the quality of having "any absolute bonding of ideological meaning" to the language in which it was known and transmitted. Whatever meaning the myth acquired, whatever ideology it expressed, it never had any real connection to its Hebraic roots, to its Latinate trunk. Calling the myth the divine and revealed word of God, and thereby giving it the reputation of being ideologically pure, nevertheless only covered up the fact that its "truth" was always already relativized by its spread among a heathen people who witnessed the world in tongues essentially alien to the mythos of the story that expressed it. This fact made it a parody of itself before Chaucer made it one again in the Merchant's Tale.

Bakhtin goes on from this point to take note of the fact that the absolute unity between myth, and the language that expresses it, and the unity or hegemony of language over a person's ability to perceive and conceptualize reality, only exists in the "prehistorical . . . past of language consciousness." At the same time, however, and since Chaucer's work cannot be characterized as existing in the prehistory of England's language consciousness, his parody of the Myth of Eden, which has no real or essential connection to England, France, Italy, or any other Eurocentric national consciousness, cannot be inscribed in anything but a parodic form because "all higher ideological genres" tend "to exclude the possibility of any artistic use of linguistic speech diversity in the major literary forms." Bakhtin's full statement is worth repeating here:

"The absolute hegemony of myth over language as well as the hegemony of language over the perception and conceptualization of reality are of course located in the prehistorical (and therefore necessarily hypothetical) past of language consciousness. But even in those eras where the absolutism of this hegemony has long since been displaced--in the already historical epochs of language consciousness--a mythological feeling for the authority of language and a faith in the unmediated transformation into a seamless unity of the entire sense, the entire expressiveness inherent in that authority, are still powerful enough in all higher ideological genres to exclude the possibility of any artistic use of linguistic speech diversity in the major literary forms." (369-370, emphasis Bakhtin's)

While it may not be completely obvious what Bakhtin means by "major literary forms" (epic, tragic, lyric as opposed to novelistic?), the clear fact is that Chaucer's parody of the Myth of Eden was produced as a fableau, not as an epic, not as a chivalric romance, not as any other genre that could be called "major" in terms of the literary conventions of the high Middle Ages. With respect to the "authority of language," a crucial point to remember here is that parody seeks to replace the authority of the target text (in this case sacred and Biblical) with the linguistic value structures of its own axiology. The fact that no one in Chaucer's Tale receives any punishment whatsoever for the bad behavior all his characters display suggests his purpose may have been to undermine the validity of the Christian notion of original sin, since that is the major theme in the Myth itself and turns out to be the major theme of the Parson's Tale which ends the pilgrimage to Canterbury. Making such a claim in any straightforward way, however, fails to take into account the fact that Chaucer was exploring the positive and negative effects of fabulous stories on the faith of good Christians and true. What might be a better assessment is to say that the Merchant's story was meant to illustrate how very badly a fictional excursion into the highest principles of Christian morality can turn. No worse commentary could be conceived than showing how a reenactment of original sin goes unrecognized and unpunished in Januarie's garden of earthly delight.

Bakhtin suggests this reading's propriety when he notes that "verbal-ideological decentering will occur only when a national culture losses its sealed-off and self-sufficient character, when it becomes conscious of itself as only one among other cultures and languages" (370). It seems best to say about Chaucer's England, like most other nations in Europe at the end of the fourteenth century, that it was only beginning that process of seeing itself as only one nation among many others and that the discovery of an entirely New World, only 92 years after Chaucer's death, completed that process for England and the rest of Europe simultaneously. The emergence of the truly Other in the person and body of native America, with its multiplicity of tribal cultures and languages, provided a final, and finalizing, shock to any sense Europe maintained about its "sealed-off and self-sufficient character." This is clearly expressed in the arguments that were made at the time about the advantages that could be obtained for the homeland by pursuing a course of colonization in the New World.

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