Montaigbakhtinian: What’s in a Name?

Not a long story. When the blog was created, many obvious names—e.g., William Eaton—were tried, and were rejected by the system. Already claimed. This became a time-consuming and frustrating process. (One might speculate on the psychology involved in being denied one’s own name, or one of one’s own names—an immigrant’s experience.)

In any case, there was a provocation to extravagance; incitement to come up with a name that must be free (available). And so were combined the surnames of two guiding lights: Michel de Montaigne and Mikhail Bakhtin.

Besides resulting in a quite distinctive, if difficult to remember (or to remember exactly) name, the construction also encourages further quotation, i.e., from Montaigne and Bakhtin. To wit:

  • Montaigne, “Apologie de Raimond Sebond”

S’il y a quelque chose du mien, il n’y a rien de divin. . . . Nous ne sommes non plus près du ciel sur le Mont-Cenis qu’au fond de la mer. — If there is something of mine, there is nothing divine. . . . On Mount Cenis we are no closer to heaven than we are on the bottom of the sea.


  • Bakhtin, “From Notes Made in 1970-71”

The world of culture and literature is essentially as boundless as the universe. We are speaking not about its geographical breadth (this is limited), but about its semantic depths, which are as bottomless as the depths of matter. The infinite diversity of interpretations, images, figurative semantic combinations, materials and their interpretations, and so forth. We have narrowed it terribly by selecting and by modernizing what has been selected. We impoverish the past and do not enrich ourselves. We are suffocating in the captivity of narrow and homogeneous interpretations. . . .

Contextual meaning is potentially infinite, but it can only be actualized when accompanied by another (other’s) meaning, if only by a question in the inner speech of one who understands. Each time it must be accompanied by another contextual meaning in order to reveal new aspects of its own infinite nature (just as the word reveals its meanings only in context). Actual contextual meaning inheres not in one (single) meaning, but only in two meanings that meet and accompany one another. There can be no “contextual meaning in and of itself”—it exists only for another contextual meaning, that is, it exists only in conjunction with it. There cannot be a unified (single) contextual meaning. Therefore, there can neither be a first nor a last meaning; it always exists among other meanings as a link in the chain of meaning, which in its totality is the only thing that can be real.

[Text is as translated by Vern W. McGee the collection in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (University of Texas Press, 1986).]

Drawings are by David Levine New York Review of Books.

4 replies

  1. Des personnalités de premier choix ! Montaigne était un grand penseur.
    J’ai un peu étudié Bakhtine en faculté de lettres, mais je ne suis pas du tout une spécialiste. Je me souviens qu’il considérait qu’étudier méticuleusement un extrait d’une œuvre d’un écrivain permettait de comprendre l’ensemble de son œuvre.

  2. This is really interesting. My dissertation was a bakhtinian reading of Montaigne’s “Apologie de Raimond Sebond”. We must have very similar interests.

  3. The name of your blog immediately piqued my interest, so it must have been a good choice. I love Bakhtin’s work; never really acquainted myself first-hand with Montaigne.

    Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting.

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