Tuesday, December 7, 2010


First, a facile deconstruction of this book's foundational premise. In his "Polemical Introduction" Frye rejects all schools of literary criticism that apply 'extraliterary' ideologies to literature. His catalogue of hermeneutical ill-repute names the "Marxist, Thomist, liberal-humanist, neo-Classical, Freudian, Jungian [and] existentialist" schools. These he rejects on the grounds that a valid theory of interpretation must "grow out of the art it deals with." The attentive reader might immediately object that all the hermeneutics in Frye's list 'grow out of' literature, broadly defined: Marxism out of Hegel and the 19th-century social novel, Thomism out of Aquinas and the Bible, liberal humanism out of the canon of Adler-approved Great Books, neo-Classicism out of Aristotle and his centuries of epigones (including the one who gave his name to Thomism), Freudianism out of Sophocles and Shakespeare, Jungianism out of the very fruitful Golden Bough, and existentialism out of Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. But leaving this argument aside, we soon notice that Frye's own supposedly 'intrinsic' method grounds its authority in an appeal to science, an ideology further from literature than any of the occupants of Northrop's Hall of Shame. Frye's insistence upon the intrinsicality of the method he will present in these pages is fatally undermined by the scientism that pervades his argument. (And it's a rather odd scientism, curiously old-fashioned even for the Fifties, when this book was published. Frye's 'science' is a Victorian caricature, a deterministic, totalizing worldview innocent of quantum uncertainty and Popperian scepticism.) That's one easy way to deconstruct Frye. A second, more strictly De Manian approach might focus on Frye's denial that criticism is a parasitical growth on literature and his simultaneous figuring of his ideal criticism as "grow[ing] out of" literature, very like a parasite. (The knowing deconstructor will refer to J. Hillis Miller's discussion of parasitism in "The Critic as Host.")

But the fact that a philosophical or theoretical text is fundamentally wrong and occasionally dotty (as Frye's book is) doesn't mean it's not worth reading. If we were to condemn all the philosophers who got the Big Stuff wrong, who before Nietzsche would 'scape whipping? Who after him? At the beginning of The Renaissance Walter Pater (pater of us all; ghostly father of Modernism) writes that the true value of all abstract aesthetic studies lies "in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way." Frye's work remains valuable precisely because of the suggestive, illuminating things he says along the way to his explication of an archetypal mastermyth. There is, for example, his valuable distinction among terror, horror and dread: terror is "fear at a distance;" horror is "fear at contact;" dread is "fear without an object." (We might concretize this by saying: Nazi society was a place of terror, the concentration camps places of horror, and a world in which Nazism could occur a place of dread.) There is the bravura passage in which Frye outlines a reading of Lycidas that unfolds into an encyclopedic history of the pastoral. (Moments like this suggest that Harold Bloom's theories of influence represent a 'secularization' or 'disenchantment' of Frye's archetypal structuralism. Bloom is a Frye who privileges Romantic poetry over the Bible and Jung.) There is this brilliant insight about Paradise Lost: "the real basis of the relation of Milton's God to his Adam is the relation of the tragic poet to his hero." And there is also the great readerly schadenfreude evoked by such jaw-droppingly wrong ideas as "Racks and dungeons belong in the sinister vision not because they are morally forbidden but because it is impossible to make them objects of desire." How can anyone who has read Sade, Freud and Proust write that sentence? And there's the even greater schadenfreude that comes when Northrop stumbles over his blind spots and we watch his clumsy pratfalls: the later passages on satire are skewed by authorial prudery, and Frye astonishingly dismisses The Satyricon in a single obtuse sentence. But what of Frye's beloved schema, his allegory of the four seasons of literature, the reason he wrote this book and the only thing most readers have taken away from it? I think every reader is free to take it or leave it. Aside from giving Frye a structural backbone to build a book on (cf. the function of The Odyssey in Ulysses or Wagner's Parsifal in The Waste Land), it's not essential and can be knocked away like the scaffolding Frye himself likens it to in his introduction. And that thought leads me to suggest that Frye's Anatomy might more profitably be read as an example or artifact of Modernism than as a paradigm for criticism. Alternatively, we might pay close attention to the first word of Frye's title and read the book as an "anatomie" akin to Burton's vast work on melancholy. Despite his scientistic pretensions, Frye has written not a clinical dissection of literature but a wide-ranging and highly compressed compendium of thoughts and ideas, some powerful, some worthless. I found it worthwhile to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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