Sunday, 15 February 2015

Nikolai Bakhtin, Nicholas Bachtin

        Serge Aleksandrovich Konovalov (1899-1982) was not yet thirty years old but already he had been elected to the Chair of Russian at Birmingham University. Although, it seems his main qualification was actually being Russian. His father, a businessman who had served as Minister of Trade and Industry in the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky, had moved his family to England in the wake of the October Revolution, allowing Serge the opportunity to study economics and politics at Oxford.

 He was of imposing appearance, discreetly elegant in manners and dress. Dignity, courtesy, and great personal charm are among the qualities attributed to him. He was very tall and powerfully built. A man of natural caution and reserve, he sometimes gave the impression of being aloof, but this was probably due to shyness and a natural reserve. [Slavonic Studies at Oxford: a Brief History, p18]

        Konovalov had a reputation for ‘formidable’ diplomacy, and it was a shrewd decision to ask the secretary of the Slavonic Society to accompany him to Paris to rescue ‘the most brilliant man of the Russian émigration’. Not only could she speak both French and Russian, but her style of approach might just be what was needed to entice an antagonized philosopher out from the shadows of a dilapidated Parisian tenement.

Francesca M. Wilson

       His interlocutor was Francesca M. Wilson who, it can be said, was formidable in her own right. E.R. Dodds referred to her as an ‘untiring worker for the unfortunate’. After putting her teaching career on hold, she had worked with the Society of Friends helping victims of the violent upheavals of history in France, Corsica, North Africa and Serbia during the First World War and then in Vienna during its aftermath. In September 1922 Wilson travelled eastwards to administrate a relief outpost of the Society of Friends in the village of Pasmorowka, a small corner of the Russian Empire in present-day Kazakhstan. She later published a memoir of her humanitarian work, In the Margins of Chaos (1944) in which her colleague Marjorie Rackstraw explains the background to the Russian famine:

In 1920 there was a poor harvest, and in 1921 there was no rain at all. Most of the seed never germinated. The blades that struggled up were burnt by the sun. The peasants have a proverb that you must never see the floor of your granary. But during the years of war and revolution all the reserves were used up. The Red Army had to be fed, and the towns too, and requisitions had depleted all stocks. Transport difficulties aggravated the situation. The railways are in a shocking state. Food got held up for weeks and the people fleeing the famine died by the thousands waiting for trains at the railway stations. And it takes days to get food out to country districts by ox-wagon or sleigh. Then there was our intervention and blockade - that made everything twenty times worse.

        By 1922 the peasants had become too weak to plough the fields, and yet again the harvest was a poor one. Without doctors there was no distinction between dying of starvation or disease. It was estimated that three million had died of typhus alone. Wilson's work in the field was being hampered by an unpleasant translator who aggravated the people whom she was trying to help, so Francesca immersed herself in learning enough Russian to function on her own. Combined with her capabilities in French, these skills would later prove useful in her journey to Paris with Konovalov. Perhaps he was being cynical by using Francesca Wilson to lure his prey out into the light. The man in question was no straightforward victim of the Revolution, and he was desperate, hungry and prone to violent outbursts. However, the man who appeared from the darkened staircase was not at all what Wilson had been expecting:

I made myself a picture of an elderly Russian with a pointed beard, pale, studious, remote and grave... Though at that time he was pale and thin, his broad shoulders and massive frame made him look more a man of action than of thought.

Nikolai Bakhtin in 1935

       Wilson's first impression of Nikolai Bakhtin as a man of action was essentially correct. In 1916 Bakhtin had abandoned his studies in Petrograd to become an Uhlan Lancer in the Tsar's forces 'when someone told him he would look dashing in the uniform's jodphurs', but after the Bolshevik revolution he was forced to seek refuge in the Crimea where he encountered his former commanding officer who persuaded him to take up arms once again, this time as a White Guard in the Civil War, a decision he would come to regret. In 1920, he was forced once more to flee as the White Army retreated south. Briefly he became a sailor in the Mediterranean, then, while drunk one night in Constantinople, he joined the French Foreign Legion. After three and a half years of fighting in North Africa, Bakhtin was invalided out with severe wounds to his right arm and hand.

       In 1924 Bakhtin settled in Paris where he became part of the substantial émigré intelligentsia.  French regulations regarding work and accommodation made it a hard experience, though he did not make it any easier for himself. After walking out or being sacked from several minor jobs, he kept starvation at bay with contributions to The Link, a literary supplement to The Latest News, a Russian émigré newspaper. Edited by his friend from St Petersburg, Georgy Adamovitch, The Link was published for just five years from 1923 to 1928. Later he contributed to Numbers which first appeared in 1930 and existed for only four years.

          Born in 1894 in Orel, Nikolai Bakhtin was the oldest of five children. His younger siblings included his brother Mikhail, and his sisters Ekaterina, Maria and Natalya. Their parents were liberal-minded and interested in culture. His father was manager in a bank established by their grandfather, accordingly the children were given the best education affordable. To say the young Nikolai was precocious would be an understatement. He read Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy at the age of eleven, and frequently he would wake in the small hours of the morning to absorb Kant and Hegel. At school he became the leading figure of an intellectual circle under the influence of the Russian Symbolists, and this circle had itself evolved from a group who would assemble in the toilets to sing revolutionary songs. His schooling was conducted in Vilnius where the family had moved to in 1905, and when they moved again to Odessa in 1911 Nikolai remained to complete his education. It was around this time that he began writing poetry and became interested in Dmitri Merezhkovski's trilogy of historical novels concerning the conflict between paganism and Christianity.

Merezhkovski and his wife, the poet Zinaida Gippius, were living in Paris as exiles from Tsarist Russia and ran a salon called the Green Lamp. Although regarded as conservative and decadent by the exiles of Bolshevik Russia, these symbolist writers were part of an earlier generation who had established a Russian cultural base and influence in the fin de siècle Paris of Diaghilev and Stravinsky. So when Bakhtin found himself in the same city, he became a regular visitor to the Green Lamp. Merezhkovski and Gippius admired Bakhtin greatly, regarding him as ‘a kind of prophet announcing a new conception of life’. Certainly, Bakhtin impressed those who heard his lectures and they included the most famous names of the émigré intellectuals. Despite giving this positive impression on his audiences, Nikolai Bakhtin was destined to remain in obscurity throughout his life and beyond. Where Nikolai had the freedom and possibilities of the West including studies at the Sorbonne and Cambridge, it was his younger brother Mikhail, working in the difficult circumstances of internal exile within the Soviet Union, who became the famous philosopher.

       Because Russia Abroad was entirely formed by its awareness of the other Russia left behind it became by far the more traumatized of two unhappy twins split at birth. Unable to accept the forced break with Russia, many of the exiles and émigrés suffered nightmares of disinheritance and dangerous thoughts of reconciliation and self-sacrifice. A striking feature of memoirs and stories from between the wars is the recurrent sense of Soviet Russia and Russia Abroad as always aware of the other and thinking similar thoughts, whether or not they were actively watching over or intervening in each other’s lives. [CHAMBERLAIN, p250]

Despite their separation, Nikolai and Mikhail came to remarkably similar conclusions philosophically; both made the journey from classicism to the philosophy of language. Together as young students they had paid for tutoring in Ancient Greek which was not taught at their school. Their German governess had given them their passion for the myths of Greece. They were intense intellectual sparring partners and this was the source of the importance of dialogism in both of their philosophies.

One day in a Parisian bookshop, Nikolai came across a copy of a work by Mikhail on Dostoevsky. He had not heard from him since the early 1920s. During the Second World War, Nikolai learnt of Mikhail’s arrest in 1929 and assumed he had perished during Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, but Mikhail had actually survived. In the 1970s, he received a package from Birmingham, it was a collection of Nikolai’s papers assembled by his friends.

Francesca Wilson and Nikolai Bakhtin’s initial meeting did not go well. It acquainted her with Bakhtin's periodic gruffness. Nevertheless, she persuaded him to come to Birmingham, and when he arrived Francecsa got to know the warmer side of his character. Soon, in fact, they became lovers. Until the end of his life Francesca and Nikolai were very close. So in May 1928 Bakhtin arrived at the door of 35 Duchess Road, Edgbaston, with his worldly possessions, mostly books, wrapped in newspapers. He was by no means the only Russian staying at Francesca’s house. She had adopted several boys and girls, all Russians who had been living in exile in Paris, and then there was the housekeeper and the odd lodger here and there.

During the first months of Bachtin’s stay in Birmingham we were a trio, as a Russian schoolboy, Sim, was living in my house at the time. Sim was as greedy for knowledge and experience as Bachtin had been at his age and questioned him endlessly on his philosophy and his adventures. We often went little walking tours in Shropshire and Wales and Bachtin told us about the Foreign Legion… Sim and I realised that in Morocco Bachtin had relived the days of the Iliad and Odyssey.
[Francesca M Wilson in BACHTIN, p12]

Bakhtin stayed for five months before he returned to Paris to study at the Sorbonne and the Ecole des Langues Orientales. His decision in 1916 to seek adventure in the army had curtailed his studies before he could take his degree. Life in Paris was made easier when, in 1929, Francesca decided to buy a flat at 2 rue Rubens in the 13th Arrondissement.  By 1931 their romance had ended, but they remained intensely close over the years. Nikolai met Constance Pantling who was teaching in Paris. They married in 1935, but it was not destined to be a happy marriage. Francesca later described it as a ‘shipwreck’. However, when Constance was dying in 1959 she exclaimed that it had been Francesca’s influence over Nikolai which had made it so difficult.

By 1932 Nikolai had completed his studies in Paris and was able to move to Cambridge to undertake a Ph.D. in classics. His thesis was ‘on the origins of the Centaur-Lapithai myth in thirteenth century B.C. Thessaly.’ 

          In Terry Eagleton's novel Saints and Scholars, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein retreats to Ireland with none other than Nikolai Bakhtin. Together they take up residence in a remote cottage in a thwarted attempt to live the simple life. They are unexpectedly joined by an injured James Connolly, who has eluded his executioners through authorial intervention.  Like Connolly, Wittgenstein is also on the run. However the great philosopher wishes to escape the parasites who feed off his work, and the obliging Bakhtin has joined him because he is 'ready to go anywhere with anyone.'

          Although Wittgenstein did indeed live for a time in Ireland, he was not joined by Bakhtin, nor of course by Connolly. Nevertheless the novel does illuminate a friendship between Bakhtin and Wittgenstein which did exist. Their pairing in Connolly's eyes resembles 'a monk and a clown.' Later the fantasy is extended when they are joined by Leopold Bloom, who has wandered off in despair as Molly has left him for Stephen Dedalus. Connolly and his lieutenant, Molloy, keep the party in stasis as they await the reinforcements who, like Beckett's Godot, never come. There is more of the shadow of Beckett cast over Saints and Scholars. As the situation ends, Connolly's final thoughts include, 'You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.’

Bakhtin had met Wittgenstein at Cambridge and the two became good friends. In Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist's biography of his younger brother, Mikhail, they make it clear that 'Nikolai was the most significant "other" whom Mikhail ever encountered.' They were intellectual equals, and Wittgenstein filled the absence of Mikhail in this respect.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

        What I do know and what in itself would call for attention to the friendship is that Wittgenstein indeed loved Bakhtin, was unusually happy and gay in his presence, and never dropped him as he easily did others. His was the rare case of Wittgenstein taking a person as he found him. All this in spite of the fact that they were poles apart in outlook and character. Bakhtin was given to extremes of passion and an uncontrolled exuberance of feeling and expression. He always seemed on the verge of erupting, like a volcano. He suffered from many irrational fears and obsessions, loved expansiveness, was a great gourmet. Unlike Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, though childless, could take delight in children, even in cats. They did however share a kind of childlike innocence, and lacked everything commonplace.
[Fania Pascal in LUCKHARDT, p25]

        Nikolai Bakhtin left Cambridge in 1935 to take up an appointment at Southampton University where he worked for three years, and was then offered a similar role at Birmingham University by George Thomson (1903-1987), who had succeeded E.R. Dodds as Professor of Greek. Thomson was known as a brilliant and serious man. He had been a member of Maurice Dobb's communist circle at Cambridge, joined the Party in 1933, and while others moderated their views under the light of the purges, Thomson was known as a Stalinist. He could be severe with those who did not share his outlook but charming to those who managed to breach the ideological wall around him. Despite this, he too was a friend of Wittgenstein.

George and Katharine Thomson in 1946

        Thomson married Katharine Stewart, a distinguished musician, in October 1934. With Thomson’s new wife, Wittgenstein reprised the musical technique which he had developed with his close friend, David Pinsent, back in 1913, of whistling Schubert’s Lieder to piano accompaniment. Pinsent and Wittgenstein had last performed this at Lordswood House the night before they parted, never to see each other again. With Katharine it became a regular Thursday evening ritual.

        Dobb himself was not a stranger to Birmingham. He was known to have been a guest at Highfield, the bohemian home of Lella and Philip Sargant Florence. Thomson moved nearby to the Florences at 84 Oakfield Road in 1940, but at the time of Wittgenstein’s visit to the Bakhtins in 1938, he was living in Goodby Road, Moseley.

        Nikolai and Constance moved into their flat on Wheeleys Road in April, and Wittgenstein visited in the autumn. It was the first of a handful of visits to the Bakhtins in Birmingham which we know about. The existence of this particular one is established in a letter to George Thomson's mother-in-law dated 28th October 1938, reproduced in Ray Monk's biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius:

        Dear Mrs Stewart,
        I must apologise for an untruth I told you today in Miss Pate's office. I said that I had seen Mrs Thomson recently in Birmingham; & only when I came home this evening it occurred to me that this wasn't true at all. I stayed with the Bakhtin's a few weeks ago in Birmingham & I tried to see Mrs Thomson & we had a talk on the phone; but I wasn't able to see her. When I talked to you this afternoon what was in my head was that I had seen Mrs Thomson at your house before she went to Birmingham. Please forgive my stupidity.
                                                            Yours Sincerely,
                                                            L. Wittgenstein

          Around this time Wittgenstein was experiencing 'great nervous strain' brought about by the situation at home in Vienna. The Wittgenstein family were under great pressure from the Nazis to hand over their foreign currency in exchange for an acceptance of their racial status as non-Jews. This was an attempt to guarantee the safety of Ludwig’s sisters, Hermine and Gretl who had chosen to stay in Vienna. The trip to see Bakhtin was perhaps some relief from the stress he was under. It was also his first stay in Birmingham since he said farewell to David Pinsent in 1913.

Fania Pascal

       Some of Wittgenstein's other visits to the Bakhtins in Birmingham can be pieced together from Fania Pascal's Wittgenstein: A Personal Memoir. Fania and her husband Roy Pascal had moved from Cambridge to Birmingham in 1939 when Roy was appointed the Chair of German at the university. Their home was at 17 Rotton Park Road, Edgbaston. The Pascals had both known Wittgenstein at Cambridge where Roy, like George Thomson, had been a member of Maurice Dobb's circle. Fania Polyanowska had studied literature and philosophy at the University of Berlin where, in 1925, she befriended Rudolf Peierls, the future pioneer of nuclear physics at Birmingham University. Fania married the charming and gentle Roy Pascal in Cambridge in 1931.

The Pascals' home on Rotton Park Road

       Fania gave private tuition in Russian to Wittgenstein and Francis Skinner who often accompanied him to Birmingham. The lessons had ceased in 1935 when Wittgenstein travelled to the Soviet Union looking for a new life for Skinner and himself. He returned shortly afterwards having changed his mind. It would seem that the Soviet Union was always seen as somewhere to escape to, be accepted and start again, but it lost its appeal when the possibility approached reality.

       In her memoir Fania recalls a letter written to her by Skinner from the Bakhtin household. This was August 1940. Unfortunately the Pascals had not been in Birmingham when Skinner and Wittgenstein were visiting Nikolai and Constance. They were picking fruit in Pershore, a very practical activity in wartime. As Fania writes of knowing Wittgenstein up to 1941 and recalls a visit to their house when he 'was an orderly in a hospital' (Wittgenstein worked first as dispensary porter then a technician from October 1941 to April 1943), it would suggest that Wittgenstein's last visit to Birmingham in which he saw the Pascals was in late 1941. Whether it was during this visit or a later one to the city in 1943, Wittgenstein spent time with Nikolai Bakhtin which played a part in the development of the Philosophical Investigations. They had many discussions over the years, often late into the night and often "interminable" according to Constance.

        G.H. von Wright, in his 1982 book on Wittgenstein, points out an error in the printed preface to the Philosophical Investigations which differs from the original typescript. It is a reference to a time with Bakhtin when they read the Tractatus together. In the printed version it would seem to have been 1941, but according to von Wright, it was really 1943. In Fania Pascal’s recollections of Wittgenstein she admits to not being good with dates, so perhaps his last visit to the Pascal household when he was an orderly in a hospital, was later. Perhaps the original typescript was wrong and the printed version was correct and Bakhtin’s and Wittgenstein’s reading of the Tractatus had been in late 1941 when he saw the Pascals for the last time.

        The two phases of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, or his two distinctly different philosophies, which culminate in the publication of the Tractatus and the posthumous Philosophical Investigations, coincided with the two periods in which he made visits to Birmingham. In 1912 and 1913 he was studying under Russell, exploring the nature of logical propositions, then in the later period of 1938 to 1943 he was concerned with mathematics and the philosophy of language. When he dictated his Notes on Logic, he was sowing the seeds for the Picture Theory of Language which would become central to the Tractatus. Then came the First World War and the death of his ‘first and only friend’, David Pinsent, and when the Tractatus was eventually published in 1921:

        He thought he had got all the answers right, so at that point he gave up the subject. For a number of years in the 1920s he was an elementary school teacher; then he worked as a monastery gardener; then he helped design a house for his sister; and it was not until the end of the 1920s that he took up philosophy again… In this period he produced a completely different philosophy which… approaches language as a natural human phenomenon, something that we find going on all around us, a complicated, overlapping array of human practices.
[Anthony Quinton in MAGEE, p109]

        A noticeable difference between the two philosophies is the social function of language. In the first period, language analyses the world, and the possibility of language analysing itself is considered. In the second, language breaks out of these purely rational constraints and consists of social games whose rules define community but are also ever changing as communities change.

[Language] can function only if there are rules that are accepted by more than one person, so that any one person’s use of the rules which guide him in speaking is open to correction and improvement by another person’s observations.
        [Anthony Quinton in MAGEE, p109]

        The apparent reductionism of his earlier work is abandoned to embrace the evolving complexity of the social functions of language. It is therefore worthwhile considering Wittgenstein’s own sociability as his second period of philosophy develops. His network of friends in Birmingham gives us some idea of this, and his relationship with Nikolai Bakhtin is particularly telling.

        The ‘interminable’ discussions between Bakhtin and Wittgenstein were not just about Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Together they would also read Pushkin in Russian. For Bakhtin, Pushkin’s work is ‘a poetry that can reveal itself only through direct experience, defying translation and imitation and remaining for ever circumscribed by its own perfection.’ For Wittgenstein it was also an opportunity to utilise his Russian.

Nikolai Bakhtin's home on George Road

The old road from Birmingham to Worcester, thence the new world, remains in fragments.  Bakhtin's flat at 27 Wheeleys Road lay on the wrong side of the Edgbaston Conservation Area. The border was the boundary wall. Only the gateposts frozen in redevelopment cement give any clue to the existence of the boarding house. Of his other residences in Birmingham, two still exist – 37 George Road and 36 Frederick Road. However his final home in Cambridge Cresent has disappeared. He died there suddenly of a heart attack in 1950, in the middle of a heatwave and having just returned from a holiday in the Southern France. There is no grave for Nikolai Bakhtin in Birmingham. His body was cremated, and no flowers were requested. His wife Constance survived him for another nine years; housebound with multiple sclerosis in a foreign city. Bakhtin never published his great on-going work on the nature of language nor his incomplete autobiography. His essays and lectures were compiled by his friends for publication by the University of Birmingham in 1963, and his work sank into the shadows of obscurity while that of his brother, Mikhail, and his close friend, Ludwig Wittgenstein, formed those very shadows.

I know that when people talk of death of senseless, they are not speaking of the one who has just died but of external things: of all that he might have done and attained, that he has left undone and unattained.
But at such times as I have felt in myself the power to force my way through the external chance and meaninglessness of events I have realised that death is not something alien, exterior and violent: that an end, annihilation coming by chance from without, is only possible for inanimate objects. For the living it is not simply an end but always a fulfilment. It does not come to him from outside but grows within him; all his life it is maturing in him, nourishing and strengthening itself on his joy, his wisdom, his pain and ascending slowly like the sun from the depths within him.
[from In Praise of Death (BACHTIN, 1963)]

This blogger outside Nikolai Bakhtin's home on George Rd.


BACHTIN, Nicholas, Lectures and Essays (University of Birmingham, 1963)

CHAMBERLAIN, Lesley, The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia (Atlantic, London, 2006)

CLARK, Katerina & HOLQUIST, Michael, Mikhail Bakhtin (Harvard, 1984)

DODDS, E.R., Missing Persons (Oxford, 1977)

EAGLETON, Terry, Saints and Scholars (Verso, 1987)

MAGEE, Bryan, Men of Ideas (BBC, 1978)

MONK, Ray, Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (Vintage, 1991)

PASCAL, Fania, Wittgenstein: A Personal Memoir in Wittgenstein: Sources and Perspectives edited by C.G. Luckhardt (Harvester, Hassocks, 1979)

ROBERTS, Sian Lliwen, Place, Life Histories and the Politics of Relief: Episodes in the Life of Francesca Wilson, Humanitarian Educator Activist (Doctoral thesis submitted to the University of Birmingham, April 2010)

VON WRIGHT, Georg Henrik, Wittgenstein (Blackwell, 1982)

WILSON, Francesca M, introduction to BACHTIN, Nicholas, Lectures and Essays (University of Birmingham, 1963)

WILSON, Francesca M, In the Margins of Chaos, (Murray, 1944)


Wittgenstein shook his head grimly. 'No, Russell, that's where you're wrong. Abstract knowledge isn't innocent. It's poison: dark, violent, implacable. It isn't merely sealed from life, it terrorizes it, it preys on flesh and blood.' He strained forward, the tip of his nose quivering faintly. 'Do you know where this terrible will for knowledge will end up? Mark my words, it will end with a scarecrow in a field.'

from Terry Eagleton's Saint and Scholars