Northrop Frye

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Angus Fletcher

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Critics often fight undeclared wars, and any theorist who would free the traffic of criticism must harmonize variant and even discordant interests. Like [Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Préfet de la Seine under Napoleon III,] he must deal with a city that has grown more or less at random in response to historical accident. City planning frequently begins when it is too late; one asks, is it too expensive to rebuild? Furthermore, theoretical networks like the [Anatomy of Criticism] are always called "antihistorical," since they openly resist the uncontrolled evolution of historically changing cityscape, on which they impose a simpler, reductive, more efficient system of intercommunication. They replace narrow alleys and byways with cold impersonal "cannon-shot" boulevards. Many a fine and private place must go to make way for the new metropolis. The young delight in this new scene, as we find is the case with Frye, whose influence on the younger scholars is not at all, as some aver, the magic of scholastic nomenclature, typological exegesis, numerological cabala; on the contrary, what appeals to the younger scholars in Frye is the openness of his system, the freedom with which he catapults himself and his readers from one arrondissement to another. But does this freedom do violence to history, does it threaten a loss of the intimate past, the familiar, the biographical, the unique event in literary evolution? (pp. 31-2)

[Frye believes that] "in its archetypal aspect, art is a part of civilization, and civilization we defined as the process of making a human form out of nature. The shape of this human form is revealed by civilization itself as it develops; its major components are the city, the garden, the farm, the sheepfold, and the like, as well as human society itself. An archetypal symbol is usually a natural object with a human meaning, and it forms part of the critical view of art as a civilized product, a vision of the goals of human work." Civilization may be defined in any number of ways, but none could avoid a factor of temporal development, so … the central mythic symbols are by definition tied into the developmental history of mankind. It is hard to see how such a system denies the essential value and significance of history, as some critics have implied. (pp. 42-3)

Frye is neither exactly Viconian, Hegelian, evolutionary, cyclical, or any other completely speculative sort of historian, though he takes ideas from all these. Of necessity he recombines materials, because the history of imagination is a yet unexplored field. He is, for example, cautious about claiming that the last cycle of irony turns back upward toward myth or romance. Essay I [of the Anatomy] can be described as a prolegomena to a more meticulous periodization of literary history, and it remains deliberately rough, without giving up the hope that each mimetic phase could be distinguished and analyzed in great detail. The theocentric bias of medieval thought could be closely handled, to test its bearing on romance; the courtly cult of the prince in the Renaissance could be related to the methods of high mimetic; the rationalism of modern science to the canons of low mimetic; and so on, through much subtler inquiries than these. In principle there is no reason why Essay I could not form the basis for a freely conducted practical investigation of historical fact.

The true difficulty in thinking about Essay I lies elsewhere. Unfortunately not even historians of politics and economics are fully agreed as to what history is. Although much philosophical attention has been given to this matter, most statements about...

(This entire section contains 4361 words.)

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it, if they are general, will remain controversial. Historians are not clear as to what are their data. Are they events? If so, what or how long is an event? Are they explainable events? If so, what is historical explanation? These are not new questions: they were raised by Thucydides, by Augustine, by the historians of the Romantic period, by positivists, and most recently by analytic philosophers.

Analytic philosophy, by looking at the language of history writing, has made it possible for recent authors to present one very helpful notion, that history "explains" the past by presenting a story of it, or of a part of it. Rather than promulgating historical laws (if they exist), the historian writes narratives, something which indeed was taken for granted by all earlier practitioners of the art. Narratives in history "are used to explain changes, and most characteristically, large-scale changes taking place, sometimes, over periods of time vast in relationship to single human lives. It is the job of history to reveal to us these changes, to organize the past into temporal wholes, and to explain these changes at the same time as they tell what happened—albeit with the aid of the sort of temporal perspective linguistically reflected in narrative sentences." Such sentences refer to events in the past, and do not pretend, in this case, to depict or forecast the future. The narrator cannot speak prophetically without violating the main limits upon his knowledge, its pastness and its unfinishedness. But, by accepting the former limit fully, the narrator can give accounts of change—since that is what stories are—and the crucial part of the story, in this respect, is neither its beginning nor its end, but its middle, where the changes occur. (pp. 53-4)

On this basis Essay I is history proper (as opposed to some sort of speculative theory of history only), because it tells a story. Its tale is rough and abruptly told. Within each of the five modal periods it locates a castle of identity, a central manner of presenting the hero, and as each period gives way to its successor, as each castle falls, the essay records the narrative of a decline. The middle of the story as a whole is the triumph, in two cultures, ours and the Greco-Roman, of the high and low mimetic modes—the whole therefore constituting a tragic drama of the fall of these modes. We can say that this is the kind of story or drama an author would make if he regarded Western literature from a sufficient distance away from its particular data. Looked at from a distance, what other stories are possible? No doubt several, but their theme would not be the presentation of the hero. Yet they too would explain our imaginative past. (p. 55)

A practicing literary historian might feel inclined to call Frye's scheme of the past "unreal." When one enters a historical period and looks about at the scattered remains, the endless minutiae which at least since the invention of printing have been available for study, one cannot help wondering if schematic histories do justice to the disorderly past. Everyday historians, working inductively, do not want to gain their detachment at the price of losing palpable realities. And yet they too must give a shape to their mass of data, so that even when they do not write what Frye, following F. H. Underhill, calls "metahistory," their works must have an informing pattern of some kind. The historian, Frye says, "works toward his unifying form, as the poet works from it…. In a sense the historical is the opposite of the mythical, and to tell a historian that what gives shape to his book is a myth would sound to him vaguely insulting." When a historian frankly admits that mythos or plot does govern his selection of detail, he is admitting to a form of thought which is only partly inductive, and is much more largely theoretical and universalizing in its drive to make sense of the past. Such is the metahistory of Essay I; it is no less a type of history for combining induction and deduction.

Nor is the schema of Essay I a rigid formulation. Though it centers on heroic fiction, it allows theme to be central and the heroic peripheral, whenever the poet speaks to us discursively or didactically, when in his persona the poet becomes the hero of his own work. Essay I allows for tragic and comic variations, naïve and sentimental phases, in which the heroic and thematic plots can be represented. It places several standard terms for period in their relations to the fivefold image of history. In general it avoids the paratactic order of mere chronicle. The essay as a whole presents a hierarchy of ideas. On its lowest level it treats the history of Western fiction in an almost fictional way, which I have called its tragic drama; on a second level it explains history by structuring it into a story, whose coherence is a large part of its meaning; but finally, it does correspond to the past in some way, and judges history in the light of certain alleged historical facts concerning the hero. This last correspondence to actual fact is the most problematic of the three levels, and to assess its adequacy we must consider the genre of its expression.

The Anatomy, like every essay in criticism, needs to be accorded the privileges of its own natural rhythm, which is that of the genre, anatomy. Viewing it as such, we can fix its intentions. With some irony Frye's fourth essay describes the generic properties of this "extroverted and intellectual" form. Frequently satiric, intellectually and thematically slanted, full of lists and diagrams, encyclopedic in sweep, anatomies "rely on the free play of intellectual fancy and the kind of humorous observation that produces caricature."… [The single intellectual drive of the Anatomy] is to argue for a theoretical whole body of literature and literary language. Evidently the genre assumes wholeness and hence becomes encyclopedic, but within this wholeness it cuts out endless fragments, whose coherence is a given of the argument and whose correspondence with historical reality will be based on a kind of humorous observation.

Anatomy is useful to literary theory and more narrowly to literary history, because it can take the form of a utopia. Frye himself has noted the utopian nature of many anatomies; one suspects that because of its drive toward a single pattern anatomy is the genre in which utopian ideas are most readily expressed. In general utopias present "an imaginative vision of the telos or end at which social life aims." By analogy the Anatomy would present a vision of the end toward which criticism tends, especially if criticism is conceived as a socially complex enterprise. Frye is concerned with the present and future of criticism—of utopias he remarks that they usually project their vision into the future or into some faraway place—and one essential critical function (yet to be accomplished) is the analysis of our literary past. The breezy, high-speed spinning of patterns and themes in the four essays creates a discursive form not unlike that of the great English model of this genre, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, but Frye may be more deeply influenced by More's Utopia. This should not be taken to mean that he has abdicated a conceptual standpoint for a fictional game; rather he has adopted a mode of expressing (frequently through metonymy) theoretical relations which are those, as we said, of an immensely complicated city-planning design…. The traditional model for utopia is an idealized city, the classical polis of Plato's Republic, and the question raised by Frye's utopian intentions is whether this political model will describe our critical "society" adequately, with sufficient detail to demonstrate the openings available to the lively modern critic.

For one thing the utopian polis may be restrictive in its spatiality. As the mass of information and printed matter increases in the world, criticism theoretically occupies more and more space; but another way of putting this new situation, which we experience every time we enter a university library, would be to say that the simultaneity of critical expressions continually increases, because although thought itself may be as slow and painful as ever, the reproduction and publication of thought has speeded up, which more and more scholars are at work to accelerate this process even further. There is now too much information to be simultaneously processed or shared, and yet our assumption strengthens every day that somehow scholars should attempt to share and assimilate this mass of data. The human machine of the scholarly community is itself a utopian conception, but its potentially unlimited productive power has rather resulted in a kind of universal scholarly flux, where no fixed locus of opinion seems possible. (pp. 55-60)

The Anatomy in part recalls the old-fashioned utopias of the polis, and displays a variety of diagrammatic street-planning which is clearly spatial. On the other hand, its insistence on the Blakean body of total vision which is literature is an attempt to say that space, geometrical space, does not and cannot define the temporal flux of the critic's full literary experience. By stressing body Frye stresses movement and the unimportance of diagrammatic fixity in the utopian plan. The total form is necessarily more like a cloud than a house; its network of interrelated sections is always changing in design. In fact the excitement of utopian speculation at present is a consequence of rejecting the older spatial plan and the admission of change as an essential quality of stable theory. The city of today can only plan for a stable tomorrow by thinking of the day after tomorrow.

Normally we do plan for the future, and the use of utopian critical theory to prevent an enslavement of critics by various provincial attitudes will help to safeguard the future of criticism. Liberal education invests similarly in the future. Of course, mere anticipation of an event does not guarantee that man will compass that event to his satisfaction. Planning may lead to a constriction of purpose, the antithesis of liberality. We may call this excess "futurism," and the trick will be to keep utopian thought from becoming panicky, millenarian, and merely apocalyptic. Thus it is most important that Frye finds value in imaginative freedom, that with him myth develops and is tied to the growth of civilization…. The futurism of Essay I achieves balance because it gathers the past into its single vision. It recognizes that our practical criticism deals largely with poems made in that past; as Frye has said, in another connection, we face the past.

The problem here is to decide in what way there can be a utopian history of that past, since we cannot alter its form by doing something now. We cannot plan the past. The past is not an open possibility. The past is finished and done with, or so we usually think. How then can utopia, which leans forward, lean backward too, without falling apart? Indeed utopian history, looking in either direction, is hard to imagine. As one political theorist has said, "Utopia is nowhere, not only geographically, but historically as well. It exists neither in the past nor in the future." On the other hand, there is some disagreement on precisely whether all utopias are genuinely transhistorical and thus "timeless." Another critic has observed that in the nineteenth century a new sort of utopian thought developed, which may be called open-ended utopianism. "Up to the nineteenth century, the utopian ideal involved the ordering of life once and for all time. By contrast, the new vision entailed a constant management of run-away historical forces: to tame the future, to know in order to predict and control, to change the world—but always in accordance with its historical destiny." Frye clearly belongs to this later tradition. But since the reader of poetry faces the past, the utopian critic of poetry uses the "new vision" to illuminate the developmental significance of that actual past. (pp. 61-3)

The utopian sensitizes himself to detect elements of change which, without some notion of the total interpenetration of all literary vision, would remain elusive. The utopian historian searches out mere "traces" of the thoughts and acts of men, and by picking up these vestiges and ghosts of thought, hovering over his sources, this "ludic" historian tries to get time into his scheme of things, without making an unreal abstraction out of the Past. On the one hand a critic like Frye, I suspect, is more sensitive to hints of the true course of events, as revealed by delicate verbal traces, than most formal historians of literature, and on the other he prefers a curiously nonlinear account of that course of events. The pretense of the formal historian is that he writes a linear account of things as they happened. Frye does not make this pretense. He asserts that what we know about the past is the units, the periods, by which we measure its linear movement.

His essay "Varieties of Literary Utopias" has provided a preliminary model for this timeless presentation of time…. (pp. 64-5)

History on this plan will present the image of changes of ritual behaviors or, in another formulation, literary behavior as a function of ritual habit. The term "ritual" points to the solution of our problem, which was to keep time in a timeless system. Rituals are cyclical actions, movements which are repeated, recur regularly, are more stable and in a way more readily measurable, than actions which take place "through time," where the observer is in the unhappy position of having to keep moving in order to keep watching the obiect of study (the difference between watching a moving train and watching a rotating wheel). In a sense these circular motions of the ritual act are perfect, since they combine both stillness and movement. But their perfection is less interesting than their necessity for the calendrical division of any linear history. To develop a measured image of literary tradition which extends through time, we need periodic divisions of that temporal transit. Common history calls these units "years," "months," "days," "hours," and "seconds," and common history takes its cyclical units from extrahuman standard conditions (the astral universe). Literary history can and does do the same, for its chronological correspondence to common history. But the notion of a literary period (and probably of other kinds of periods also) seems to require a more pliable standard than that given by the astral universe. The consequence of taking a utopian view of history is that a basic periodicity of creation as a ritual act is made available to the historian. In creating the hero and his story, the poet "is concerned not with what happened but with what happens. His subject-matter is the kind of thing that does happen, in other words the typical or recurring element in action. There is thus a close analogy between the poet's subject-matter and those significant actions that men engage in simply because they are typical and recurring, the actions that we call rituals." Since the imitation of ritual is myth, the creation of the hero, his imitation, inevitably employs the repetition of archetypes and their displaced equivalents. Human experience, conceived periodically, is time informed by ritual recurrence. A period of literary history is a linear duration of literary activity viewed as a cyclical process. The main task for theoretical history is then to determine what are the chief literary rituals.

Essay I asserts that one of these, perhaps the cardinal ritual, is the recurrent creation of the hero. Each of the five phases is a theoretical time-unit, defined in terms of an attitude toward the hero. If Frye actually thought that any given cycle (e.g., that of high mimetic) had an a priori temporal duration—as we might consider the durations of the day and night given to us by the rotation of the earth around its own axis—his theory would be chimerical. But he has defined utopian life as a combination of ritual and habit where the two are rationalized through their quality of recurrence. There is no linear time in the time-units we use, and there is no linear time in the cyclical phase-units of Essay I. Such secular time is (if anything) a property of life that is merely measured by such units; the units are not synonymous with that life, but only measure it, as a ten-yard gain in a football game is one thing, the measuring chain another. There is indeed no reason for the historical cycles to have the feel of linear time in them; they have, in a way, no feel at all, since they are only measures. And yet they do have a normal relevance to the excitements of life, with all its accidental surprises, because they are derived from an observation of the over-all quality of that life, namely that with surprise it combines recurrent events. They are especially useful because they measure linear time as fulfillment. (pp. 66-8)

The main difference between an imaginative cycle, a cycle of ritual poetic habit, and the rotation of a wheel is that the former is plastic and rubbery, like the human life-cycle, where longevity is a variable. This should not imply that imaginative cycles are useless measures. However imprecise such units may seem, when compared with the divisions of time measured by the hand of a watch, they are still the bare necessity of any account of the imaginative periodicity of literature. If we want linear history without corruption, we must settle for its problematic fullness, which is not so much a plethora of facts (though that makes a difference) as it is a complexity of feeling and thought and action which defines each genuine era in terms of a single, almost musical sound-pattern. (pp. 68-9)

Rhetorical and stylistic analyses allow the most close-up views of poetry, and it is possible that a critic who gives himself to microscopic study can never happily assume a more distant perspective on his subject…. [However, a] convivial critic like Frye, who has avowed that his early sympathies were with the Odyssey rather than the Iliad, who styles himself an "Odyssey critic," will be at home in the comic middle distance of critical response. The very tendency toward theory which everywhere determines Frye's work is a sign that he needs no help in remembering the mass of existing literary documents, which as he says "are far better worth reading than any history of them could ever be." From this Homeric, Odyssean belief in the value of experience arises an abstract countercurrent, which in both the Odyssey and the Anatomy takes on the rhythm of utopia. Both works seem at first to follow an overdetermined, single line of action; both works end by having defined a circle. As Frye has said of a particular literary history, their effect is to "reawaken and refresh our imaginative experience by showing what unexplored riches of it lie within a certain area."

The utopian style plays hand in hand with the humorous observation and realism of both the Homeric poem and its critical, anatomic descendant, the Anatomy. A critic chiefly responsive to that sort of poem is a primarily comic, romantic, and theoretical person whose main interest is the special untruth of poetry. Odysseus specializes in telling tales which are implicit commentaries on the whole idea of telling tales, and this is very much Frye's style. Generic and generous, this style may be contrasted with the "high seriousness" of the Iliad, whose subject is wrath and tragedy, whose fiction attempts a close correspondence with physical reality. The low seriousness of the Odyssey permeates the Anatomy, which explores the coherence and the means and modes of travel between different sections of the critical world. Truth and untruth in this context become mainly relative, as truth in the Odyssey became relativistic through the displacement of the hero. By such explorations the critic hopes to achieve a sense of unity in disorder, as if the world of criticism were a wondrous Mediterranean basin.

Finally history in the Anatomy appears to restore "sacred time" to the domain of criticism. For the mere profanity, secularism, thingness, and progressivism of the purely linear historian, Frye would seek to enlist a mixed methodology, where that linear history is combined with the ritual periodization of the poet's imaginings. "Sacred time" is the opposite of mere futurism, with its perverse millenarian zeal. The futurist (and here of course I do not mean the Futurist school of art), though he uses the terminology of historical cycles, does not believe in the human actuality of these cycles; almost the opposite is true for him—his "ages of man" are empty fields. He wants to stop time, rather than bring any period of it to fulfillment, and he wants to get off the world. By exaggerating the linearity of history he can bring it to catastrophe, to a sudden, explosive, final end. Antithetically, by introducing "sacred time" into linear history, the critic accepts all regular, recurrent, traditional, inherited goods. His criticism is, in a precise sense, periodic, festive, memorial, and dancelike. Man as a creature and creator of the imaginative period is free within controls, a musical being. His movements within fiction correspond not so much to the things of nature as the rhythms of nature—one perceives the provincialism of this critical view, a eurythmic rapture—and through his own originality he imposes variation on the forms derived from those rhythms. By reminding us of man as a breathing, walking, eating, copulating, as well as thinking, loving creature, Frye's periodic history testifies to fundamental qualities of life itself. I have called this "dance-like," I might have said "graceful." The imagination resists dictation, and the history of literature must be the chronicle of that rebellion. Under the circumstances, when information is expanding both present and past so rapidly before our eyes and the future is moving toward us at an accelerating rate, which encourages catastrophic thought, it seems natural and useful to employ utopian, periodic forms to outline the history of imaginative freedom. (pp. 71-3)

Angus Fletcher, "Utopian History and the 'Anatomy of Criticism'" (a revision of a paper originally delivered at Columbia University in September, 1965), in Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism: Selected Papers from the English Institute, edited by Murray Krieger (copyright © 1966 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of Columbia University Press and the English Institute), Columbia University Press, 1966, pp. 31-73.


Geoffrey H. Hartman