Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Introduction: Anatomy of Criticism

Northrop Frye wrote this magisterial work starting on the assumption that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge in its own right. In four brilliant essays on historical, ethical, archetypical, and rhetorical criticism, using examples of world literature from ancient times to the present, Frye reconceived literary criticism as a total history rather than a linear progression through time.
Literature, Frye wrote, is "the place where our imaginations find the ideal that they try to pass on to belief and action, where they find the vision which is the source of both the dignity and the joy of life." And the critical study of literature provides a basic way "to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in."
The strength of Northrop Frye as a critic in
Anatomy of Criticism
It is universally acknowledged that Northrop Frye is the most important literary critic from America-- and most probably the most inspiring English- language critic of the 20th-century. "An Anatomy of Criticism" is Frye's magnum opus which justifies his position as the great critic of the 20thc. In it, he outlines a general theory of literature in a comprehensive manner-- what it is, how it is structured, and how it "works". These questions are answered in the volumes four essays, each of which approaches the subject from a different theoretical perspective and point of view. These essays include: (1) a theory of modes", (2) a "theory of symbols", (3) a "theory of myths", and (4) a "theory of genres". Although these theories are not wholly unified into a larger structure, they are connected and complementary-- and, taken together, they do form a multidimensional general theory of literature.
Frye’s Argument
Anatomy of Criticism begins with a "Polemical Introduction" – a controversial and contradictory introduction. Here, Frye puts forward an argument that is at once simple and complex at the same time. For too long, he claims, literary criticism has developed basically around matters of taste, with critics declaring judgment on the related merits of different authors and works. Frye believes that this has prevented literary criticism from really coming into its own as a serious scholarly activity-- and he wants to make literary scholarship a genuinely scholarly subject. The way to do this, he argues, is by eschewing any criticism whose goal is to attribute "merit" or "value" to works-- to say that they are good or bad. Instead, the true literary scholar needs to see himself as a scientist and to survey the field of literature as a whole, taking it on its own terms, and describing what seem to be the basic principles, structures, and unstated "laws" governing it. An important point here (and one that I think is especially compelling) is that Frye insists that literary scholarship needs to derive its understanding of literature from literature itself-- and not from other fields like psychoanalysis (e.g. Freudian/Jungian interpretations), from history (biograhical criticism), politics (Marxist criticism), etc. "An Anatomy of Criticism", Frye states, is his attempt to do just that-- to derive a theory of literature (or rather four complementary theories of literature) from literature itself, taking into account that literature, understood broadly, is work consisting primary of words, arranged in such a way as to create structures such as we call plots, characters, images, themes, etc.
Structure of the Book
The book is structured into four essays. In the first essay, the theory of modes, Frye articulates a theory of literature in terms of its level of realism, noting that this can exist in several degrees, which Frye expresses in terms of characters' relation of power to ordinary people and to the world. On the one extreme, we have myth, with gods who are nearly omnipotent, and on the other irony, with characters who are helpless and ineffectual. This is a short essay, and very readable, but is not as insightful as it could have been, if Frye had expanded it to discuss the mimetic level of the "world" in which the character exists as well.
The second essay is Frye's theory of symbols. It is, by far, the densest and most complicated of the four essays. It also has the most jargon, using lots of terms borrowed from Aristotelian and medieval criticism. Nonetheless, it is worth
reading, as Frye wrestles at length with question of what a symbol is, particularly within the context of literature. He also outlines the existence and workings of 5 different levels on which literary symbols work, raning from the literal (where individual words simply symbolize their mundane meanings) to the anagogic, which is an almost mystical level of symbolization-- a level that is more typically reserved for works of perceived religious or spiritually import (although Frye seems like he wants to acknowledge the possibility tha any work's symbols can be read on any of the five levels of symbolization).
The third essay is the "theory of myths". This is also the longest, and probably the most important essay here. Here, Frye outlines his theory that there are essentially four main plots, or "mythoi" (to use the Greek word for "plots") that literature uses-- comedy, romance, tragedy, and irony. Moreover, he notes, the various symbols, motifs, characters, and events that appear in all literary works can be understood within the context of a mythical opposition between a divine, ideal world (which he calls the "apocalyptic") and a demonic, nightmare world (which he calls "demonic). Contrary to what some folks believe, Frye does *not* use this to claim that literature is essentially "derived" from myths-- rather, he insists that those tales that we call myths simply present these structures in their clearest, baldest, most direct forms. In other forms of literature, the same structures exist, but they are displaced, toned down, or made incidental so as to fit into our basic canon of plausibility.
The fourth essay, the theory of genres, is perhaps the least successful of the four. Essentially, Frye seeks here to outline the difference among different types of literature (dramatic, lyric, epic, etc.) in terms of its performative aspect.
When all's said and done, it has to be said that Frye's book, is hardly the alpha and omega of literary criticism. Like all great books, it asks as many questions as it answers-- and like all general theories, it leaves the reader wondering whether it actually works for all/most specific cases. And of course, there are many questions that aren't even discussed-- particularly about the world of non-western literature. Additionally, one wonders whether or not Frye's general theory can be expanded to include such basic aspects of literary interest as "style" and whether there is a place at all for biographical criticism within his vision of what literary science could be. And of course, to someone reading this book today (a half-century after it was written), certain aspects of his argument and terminology may seem a bit outdated. Nonetheless, this is truly a milestone in literary theory and it is a standard by which other works have to be measured. If you haven't read this, I heartily recommend you do-- it may change the way you view literature as whole (for the better!). However, be warned-- this occasionally does get to be tough going (particularly essay 2). Those seeking a more 'accessible' version of Frye's ideas might turn to "The Educated Imagination"-- which waters them down a lot and leaves out a lot of the rigor and nuance-- but is still a passable introduction to the subject.
Some of Frye's critics say his approach to criticism isn't enough of a science -- that he's optimistic about human nature, and he sees entities and landscapes that aren't real. That's certainly true. Others say his approach isn't artistically appreciative enough, that he's incapable of enjoying a butterfly till he's gassed it and filed it in the proper drawer. That's certainly hooey. Frye was as delighted and informed and transformed by his reading as the rest of us. It's just that if he saw a great system of thought in, say, the work of poet William Blake, he went on to show the extent of this thought, revealing how Blake's work carried echoes from other works all the way back to the Old Testament, and how Blake's vision extended far ahead of him all the way to Rimbaud's hell and Rilke's angels, Kafka's castle and James's ivory tower, Yeats's vortices and Proust's hermaphrodites, Eliot's dying god and Joyce's Finnegan. But this is becoming a review of Frye's 'Fearful Symmetry.' 

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