Mikhail Bakhtin on slum naturalism

A very important characteristic of the menippea [menippean satire] is the organic combination within it of the free fantastic, the symbolic, at times even a mystical-religious element with an extreme and (from our point of view) crude slum naturalism. The adventures of truth on earth take place on the high road, in brothels, in the dens of thieves, in taverns, marketplaces, prisons, in the erotic orgies of secret cults, and so forth. The idea here fears no slum, is not afraid of any of life’s filth. The man of the idea—the wise man—collides with worldly evil, depravity, baseness, and vulgarity in their most extreme expression. This slum naturalism is apparently already present in the earliest menippea. Of Bion Borysthenes the ancients were already saying that he “was the first to deck out philosophy in the motley dress of a hetaera.” There is a great deal of slum naturalism in Varro and Lucian. But slum naturalism could develop to its broadest and fullest extent only in the menippea of Petronius and Apuleius, menippea expanded into novels. The organic combination of philosophical dialogue, lofty symbol-systems, the adventure-fantastic, and slum naturalism is the outstanding characteristic of the menippea, and it is preserved in all subsequent stages in the development of the dialogic line of novelistic prose right up to Dostoevsky.

SOURCE: Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, edited and translated by Caryl Emerson, introduction by Wayne C. Booth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); in Chapter 4: Characteristics of Genre and Plot Composition in Dostoevsky’s Works. (Theory and History of Literature; v. 8)

Note: Boldface mine. There are several subsequent references to ‘slum naturalism’ and even more discussion of slums in Dostoevsky’s works. — RD

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