jueves, 10 de mayo de 2018

Notes from Northrop Frye's 'Anatomy of Criticism'

Notes from Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1957. Rpt. 1971. 383 p.  Notes taken by J. A. García Landa c. 1985, edited for online publication 2018. Parenthetical pagination nos. refer to the quotations and text following the page number.

Polemical Introduction

Criticism is necessary: there is no direct correlation between the merits of art and its public reception. Frye rejects both the Romantic and the Art for Art's sake approaches. (4) "Consequently there is no way of preventing the critic from being, for better or worse, the pioneer of education and the shaper of a cultural tradition." The Tolstoyan and Art for Art's sake brutalizing of criticism lead to cultural impoverishment. Further, "Criticism can talk, and all the arts are dumb." Criticism, then, has a measure of independence from art as a structure of knowledge. It derives from the conscious mind and the active will; it judges value and is the final judge of meaning. (5) "Ibsen is an indifferent critic of Ibsen"; in no way an artist's opinion on his work is final. (6) "The notion that the poet necessarily is or could be the definitive interpreter of himself or the theory of literature belongs to the conception of the critic as a parasite or jackal." There is also the fallacy of determinism, of assimilating the whole of criticism to a critical attitude (Marxist, Existentialist, etc.). (7) "Critical principles cannot be taken over ready-made from theology, philosophy, politics, science, or any combination of these," but only from knowledge of literature (inductive, or systematic, "scientific" in that sense). (9) Still, there is no way of distinguishing the systematic element from that belonging to the history of taste—cf. the "systematic" scholar vs. the "public" critic. Both are linked not merely by interest in literature, but by an intermediate form of criticism, (11) "a coherent, and comprehensive theory of literature, some of which the student unconsciously learns as he goes on, but the main principles of which are as yet unknown to us"; then what we learn is criticism, not literature. Art makes a conceptual universe of its own: there is the possibility of a comprehensive view of criticism. But general criticism is paralyzed where the Greeks left it (e.g. there are no standards to define literature, no name for a 'work of verbal art' or 'a work of prose fiction' in general). (14) "What critics now have is a mystery—religion without a gospel." An Aristotelian poetics is necessary, within the framework of a useful aesthetics.

The progress of all science can be seen as a move towards seeing former primary data as something requiring explanation: from induction to looking for the structure of each science. Criticism is still in a naive inductive stage; there is a need for systematizing the pile of "works" with something more than chronology or influence or "tradition". Universal formulas reappear from primitive to great literature (the greater the more clearly it points to the center of a conceptual space). (17) "It is clear that criticism cannot be a systematic study unless there is a quality in literature which enables it to be so."

But there is no limit to the activity of criticism: Literature is an inexhaustible source. Then, there is no definite meaning or beauty which can be extracted from it [This seems to suggest a creative dimension in criticism, a creation of meanings and of beauties - JAGL]. The history of taste is not an integral part of the structure of criticism [This seems an overhasty conclusion- JAGL]. (19) "There are no definite positions to be taken in chemistry and if there are any to be taken in criticism, criticism is not a field of genuine learning." "One's 'definite position' is one's weakness." Criticism must enter into relations with other disciplines, but preserving its independence.

The theory of literature is not concerned with value judgements [(!) Another overhasty position—perhaps one of those definite positions which are "one's weaknesses"? - JAGL ]. The objective explanation of value judgements is a permanent illusion in history. Biographical vs. tropical criticism: both use comparative value judgements; both have their favorite types of author (the genius vs. the craftsman). This is rhetoric criticism, unduly extended to the theory of literature through the 'touchstone' theory (cf. Aristophanes' Frogs). Criticism then proceeds to the ranking of poets; in Arnold's case as a means for substituting culture for religion. All this is based on questions of decorum (the three styles), while these are based on a the class structure of society; (22) "and criticism (...) obviously has to look at art from the standpoint of an ideally classless society."

There is historical criticism vs. ethical criticism, i.e. things only in their context vs. things only in our context. (25) "The dialectic axis of criticism, then, has as one pole the total acceptance of the data of literature and on the other the total acceptance of the potential values of these data." Normativism must disappear and comparisons will take care of themselves. (27) "The real concern of the evaluating critic is with positive values, with the goodness, or perhaps the genuineness, of the poem rather than with the greatness of its author". The judgement of greatness is intuitive; the incommunicable experience at the heart of criticism makes it an art, but is not a sound basement to work on. Sometimes the critical response reacts against involuntary pleasure, etc.

The schematic nature of this Anatomy is deliberate. There is a place for schematization and classification in criticism; part is scaffolding, the rest is systematic study.


Fictional Modes: Introduction

(33) Aristotle's genres are established according to the elevation of the character. There is the possibility of a a (non-moral) classification according to the hero's power of action (linked to the audience's expectation and the author's postulates). The hero's power of action may be greater than ours, less, or roughly the same.

(33) 1. "If superior in kind both to other men and to the environment of other men, the hero is a divine being, and the story about him will be a myth." 

2. "If superior in degree to other men and his environment, the hero is the typical hero of romance"— human, but prodigious; the story will be a legend, a folk tale...

3. "If superior in degree to other men but not to his natural environment, the hero is a leader." He has authority, passions, power of expression, but he is subject to criticism and to nature. This is the high mimetic mode, i.e. epic and tragedy.

4. "If superior neither to other men nor to his environment, the hero is one of us": the low mimetic mode, comedy and realist fiction.

5. If the hero is inferior to us, we have the ironic mode.

(34) "European fiction, during the last fifteen centuries, has steadily moved its center of gravity down the list." The first phase is blurred into the second by the fact that Christianity is a devouring, imported myth. The character may be a hero or saint. In the Renaissance, we move into the third kind. Middle-class culture is the fourth. From 1850 on, the ironic phase.

(35) "Something of the same progression may be traced in Classical literature too, in a greatly foreshortened form. Satire was aborted by the divine emperor surviving. Oriental fiction is mythical or romantic.

Axes: Naive vs. sophisticated literature; another: the hero may be incorporated in society or isolated from society (tragic / comic).

Tragic Fictional Modes

- Tragic 1: Dionysiac. A god's death, linked to Autumn or sunset. Ruskin's 'pathetic fallacy' is apt here. In lower modes, it gives a mythic coloring.

- Tragic 2 is similar, an elegiac mode, unspoilt by irony, hybris (pride, overreaching), or hamartia (the tragic frailty or defect). Nature is basic here.

- Tragic 3 is mingled with irony and moral considerations. The central position between heroism and irony is expressed by catharsis. Romance accepts pity and fear; in Tragedy 3, they become favorable or adverse moral judgements. The central tragedy of the hero does not depend on his moral status (unlike that of other characters).

- Tragic 4: Pathos. Pity or fear are nor purged or accepted, but communicated externally, as sensations. This mode is more individual, and pathos is increased by the inarticulateness of the victim. Failure of expression, real or simulated, is usually present. Usually someone like us is torn between the conflict of the inner and outer world, the imaginative and the social reality, as he is excluded from a social group to which he is trying to belong. This mode is linked to the obsession to rise in society: e.g. the alazon, the miles gloriossus, the obsessed philosopher. In contrast, the eiron is the ironic man, the one who deprecates himself, appearing to be less than he is, opposed to the alazon, who becomes his victim.

(40) "The term irony, then, indicates a technique of appearing to be less than he is, which in literature becomes most commonly a technique of saying as little and meaning as much as possible."

(41) "Irony is naturally a sophisticated mode and the chief differences between sophisticated and naive irony is that the naive ironist calls attention to the fact that he is being ironic, whereas sophisticated irony merely states, and lets the reader add the ironic tone himself." In tragic irony there is no hamartia: the hero gets isolated from society; an exceptional happening is out of line with his character.

- Tragic 5: Domestic tragedy: a random victim, the pharmakos or scapegoat, who is neither innocent nor guilty. The world is a guilty world. Job proves he is not a sinner, but then he makes his tragedy morally unintelligible. Irony stems from the low mimetic mode, but moves towards myth, sacrificial rituals, etc. (42) "Our five modes evidently go round a circle." Myth reappears in Kafka and in Joyce.

Comic Fictional Modes

(44) "The theme of the comic is the integration of society, which usually takes the form of incorporating a central character into it."

- Comedy 1: Apollonian. The hero is accepted by the society of gods.

- Comedy 2: Idyllic. Pastoral. Some links to nature, an image of salvation.

- Comedy 3: Old comedy, Aristophanes. The hero constructs his society in the teeth of opposition (as in The Tempest). There is a catharsis of sympathy and ridicule; moral values are indifferent.

- Comedy 4: New Comedy, down to Molière, etc. The opposition to the hero is resolved by a twist of the plot and public marriages. We have intimate, domestic comedy, or, f.i., in Shakespeare, Falstaff.

- Comedy 5: The pharmakos or scapegoat is rejected —Often a villain, but modes join, and the rejection can be a terrible irony. This mode borders on ritual sacrifice and savagery. In the detective story, a man-hunter locates a pharmakos and gets rid of him. A wall of play protects this comedy from becoming ominous. As advertising is interpreted ironically (it pretends to address itself to an audience of cretins), melodrama is regarded with a strong sense of the unreality of the villainy involved in it. After melodrama we find an intellectualized parody of melodramatic formulas; comedy is then directed at the melodramatic spirit itself; we have then the comedy of manners, (48) "the portrayal of a chattering-monkey society devoted to snobbery and slander. In this kind of irony the characters who are opposed to or excluded from the fictional society have the sympathy of the audience.

Science fiction represents the link with myth.

"Romantic" and "realistic" are relative or comparative, not absolute terms. The ironic tone is present in earlier modes, vs. the ironic structure of the later modes.

In the low mimetic mode, we have characters as they appear to others: they are more idealized, even when ironic.

(50) "While one mode constitutes the underlying tonality of a work of fiction, any or all of the other forces may be simultaneously present." These partial strands must be recognized. The tendency to myth is balanced by a tendency to plausibility The lower modes can be seen as displaced myths or plot formulas.

Thematic Modes

In a work we have the "internal fiction" of plot-solving vs. the "external fiction" of the relationship writer-reader and the discovery of theme (Aristotle's dianoia). There are thematic vs. fictional (aspects of) literary works—these are just poles in a gradation. In lyrics, essays: (53) "A part sending a love poem to his lady complaining of her cruelty has stereoscoped his four ethical elements into two, but the four are still there".

(53) "When a work of fiction is written or integrated thematically, it becomes a parable or illustrative fable." Formal allegories are thematic. The allegorical element is structural in literature. Each culture opposes canonical vs. apocryphal myths. The former have particular thematic importance. The "tragic" tone of the poet writing as individual, vs. the "comic" tone of the spokesman for his society (in educational poetry). Also lyric vs epic, or, better, episodic vs. encyclopaedic forms.

(55) - Theme  1: The poet as the instrument of the gods sings about them. A typical episodic theme is the inspired oracle. Poets as a whole are "divine", and their productions tend to aggregate in large wholes.

- Theme 2: The poet is human, but remembers the heroic or divine age. We have minstrels or encyclopedists like Gower. The poet is often a "traveller" (or assumes this role). A typical episodic theme is the passage from one world to another (in a vision, etc.).

- Theme 3: The centripetal perspective of the court vs. the centrifugal perspective of romance. Emblems of the prince, the nation, and national faith. The central episodic theme is the centripetal gaze or cynosure (directed at the mistress, the deity, the king). The poet is a courtier or a preacher. Courtly love and Platonism; poetry appears as a model to nature.

(38) - Theme 4: Romanticism. Intense individuality; the analogy of myth is individual creation. There is a sharp sense of the contrast between the subjective and the objective. The poet is an individual; the central episodic theme is the presentation of a subjective mental state.

(60) - Theme 5: Renouncing of rhetoric and morals. The poet appears as the maker of poems. He is a craftsman (not a 'creator' or 'legislator'). Idea of 'pure' art. The central episodic theme  is the theme of pure but transient vision, the epiphanic illumination, an aesthetic and timeless moment of symbolic revelation. There is a contrast between the aesthetic moment and history or past time; the meaning of the latter is revealed through the former.

The ironic mode does away with the mimesis of direct address. Use of juxtaposition, and a frequency of definite articles implying initiated groups. There is a tendency in the ironic craftsman to return to the oracular (closing the circle).

(On the New Criticism): There is the danger of critical assumptions having a limited historical context (ironic or otherwise). The critical reaction is stronger to the mode immediately preceding the current one.

The poet does not imitate life or thought, but imposes a mythical form on his content everywhere.  We have the fallacy of 'Existential Projection' whenever the apparatus of tragedy or comedy is taken to be the author's view of life; (64) "each mode of literature develops its own existential projection"—of mythology, theology; of of irony, existentialism.

This critical frame, wider then Aristotle's, makes Plato's theory of poetry more coherent. Phaedrus deals with poetry as myth; Ion with phase 2, Symposium with 3. The polemic in the Republic is not against poetry as a whole, but against the low mimetic element in poetry. In Cratylus we find an introduction to the apparatus of the ironic mode.

Fictional vs. Thematic  =  Aristotle vs. Longinus; and opposition between literature as product and literature as process. Catharsis (i.e. detachment from work and author) vs. ecstasy or absorption; a public vs. an individualized response. Some works tend to follow one of these lines more than the other.



By 'poem'' we understand here a work of literary art in general. (71) And a 'symbol' is "any unit of any literary structure that can be isolated for critical attention." Criticism begins and basically consists in the systematizing of literary symbolism. There is a multiplicity of meanings in a work of literary art. In the criticism of the Middle ages there was a precise scheme of literal, allegorical, moral and anagogic meanings, taken over from theology and applied to literature. Today symbolism is subsidiary to semantics (which is not too good).  The variety of critical schools is only justifiable with the variety of meanings.

(72) "we can go on to consider the possibility that there is a finite number of valid critical methods, and that they can all be contained in a single theory." Better still, they are to be seen as "phases" or contexts, each having its characteristic mythos, ethos and dianoia (or meaning).

Literal and descriptive phases: Symbol as motif and as sign

Symbols are signs insomuch as they represent other things (the centrifugal direction in reading). But symbols are also part of a verbal structure; they relate to other symbols (the centripetal direction [text formation —JAGL.] In this sense they are motifs. In assertive writing, the final direction is outward; in literature, it is inward. The meaning of literature is not true, nor false, nor tautological: it is 'hypothetical'. The sign value of the symbols is subordinated to their importance as a structure of motifs. The poem as an "autonomous verbal structure" is a source of pleasure and interest. "Instruction" is subordinated to delight, but both are present in any kind of writing. There are different degrees in which the sense of reality may weigh against the sense of pattern in each genre. "The poet never affirmeth": "literal meaning" does not then mean "descriptive meaning" in literary criticism: here it means "understanding the whole of it, as a poem, and as it stands" (as opposed to a paraphrase). Joyce's conception. The work is a logical, not a psychological, sequence. The work has an impact as a whole, in the effort to unify symbols towards as simultaneous perception of the unity of the structure. "Unity" is not a statement of fact about the poems, but about the reader's expectations. The recurrence of elements is fundamental: we call it rhythm (temporal recurrence) or pattern (spatial recurrence). Mythos is more temporal, while dianoia is more simultaneous. The response is not to the whole of the poem, but to a whole in it. The meaning of a poem is not separate form its integrity as a verbal structure. But regarding words as signs, the poem becomes a verbal structure (not the same as "a work of art"). (78) "In this context narrative means the relation of the order of words to events resembling the events in 'life' "outside"; meaning means assertive propositions. (78-79): "A considerable amount of abstraction enters at this stage. When we think of a poem's narrative as a description of events, we no longer think of the narrative as literally embracing every word and letter. We think rather of a sequence of gross events, of the obvious and externally striking elements in the world order. Similarly, we think of meaning as the kind of discursive meaning that a prose paraphrase might reproduce." Hence a parallel abstraction comes into the conception of symbolism. (79) "So literature in its descriptive context is a body of hypothetical verbal structures." "Plot" or "story" for the sequence of gross events (not the same as history), just as the "thought-content" for the gross meaning is not the same as "thought." There are both literal and descriptive phases in all literature. But realistic, prose literature is mainly descriptive, while poetry is mainly literal  (extreme: the opposition between naturalism and symbolisme). Symbolism stresses the aesthetic emotion, moods (—> shorter poems). The poem is not the description of an emotion (not all meaning is descriptive); it evokes the mood, and articulates it. Academic criticism treats the poem as if its meaning was descriptive; the New Criticism deals with the poem as poem, as symbolic meaning.

Formal phase: Symbol as image

To be continued....

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