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Polyphony and the Atomic Age: Bakhtin's Assimilation of an Einsteinian Universe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


Mikhail Bakhtin described a novelistic world bound to the reader's point of view and perception of reality. Albert Einstein's theory of relativity justified Bakhtin's elevation of the reader to a central position in his theory of the novel. This essay examines Bakhtin's engagement with Einsteinian relativity in the context of two of his most influential contributions to critical discourse—polyphony and the chronotope. Originating in the 1920s, Bakhtin's notion of polyphony was initially an expression of his Kantian mind-set. When Bakhtin reworked his formulation of polyphony in 1963 (having already broached the topic of literary spaciotemporality with the chronotope), Einstein had replaced Kant as Bakhtin's guiding intellectual paradigm. In advocating a relativistic model to explicate the literary world, Bakhtin aligned centuries of novelistic tradition with a distinctly modern worldview. His use of the epistemological possibilities inaugurated by twentieth-century physics allowed him to interpret centuries-old texts with an insightfulness available only to a post-Einsteinian reader.

Research Article
Copyright © 2008 by The Modern Language Association of America

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