Literally: time-space. Mikhail Bakhtin used this notion as a device for a type of literary analysis that sought to differentiate novelistic genres by relation to these dimensions. In some ways a metaphorical take on Einstein’s relativity, the chronotope can be traced through clusters of texts that, Bakhtin suggests, reflect the varieties of coherent spatial and temporal experiences in history. Bakhtin most fully developed the idea in his essay Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes Toward a Historical Poetics, found in the book The Dialogic Imagination. One can liken the essay to a Foucauldian genealogy of time and space: reliant on a huge base of written works, yet not pretending to any kind of complete theory, and intensely structured.

An example? In ancient novels Bakhtin notes three basic genres: the “adventure novel of ordeal”, the “adventure novel of everyday life” and the biography. The variations in “chronotopocity” between these literary forms show interesting transitions. For example in Greek romance novels the ordeal can be described as an “extratemporal hiatus”, essentially a sidetrack in the line of the hero’s life that changes nothing in his “biographical time” and does not alter him in any fundamental way. The action is based on a “logic of random disjunctions” or chance encounters that move things along through a topography that is also random and disjointed, replacing him when the story ends. Later novels, those that would fall within everyday life, establish a new chronotope, one ostensibly more influenced by philosophy. The hero sets out on a journey across a landscape that is closer to experience, a wandering terrain rather than a series of distinct and interchangeable stages. The action is not driven by the thread of fate, but by the individuality of the hero, the weakness or flaw that he will overcome in biographical time by developing around it: the inception of the theme of metamorphosis. And later still the biographical form takes hold of lives lived and narrates them as stories of progression. Set in the public sphere, the biography gives voice to the shape of human duration, however selective and tailored it is to the public ear, and creates of it an ascendance toward completion.

The chronotope enables one to follow shifts in the presentation of the human relation to space and time in literature, without having to maintain much philosophical pretension. None of the forms that developed completely dissipate. Some metamorphose into other traditions, some are recognizable in the grocery-store bookrack today. The value of the idea, though, could extend well beyond literature. Bakhtin treats the folkloric and idyllic traditions, the novels of Rabelais and chivalric romances as further examples of chronotopic genres (the essay is long, really more of a novella itself), but it doesn’t seem inappropriate to look for applications in the realm of those political narratives of heroism and justice bandied about by the media. Mostly I wonder what Bakhtin would say, were he alive today, about the time-space of Donald Barthelme.

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