Northrop Frye Frank Kermode - Essay

Frank Kermode

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[For the extraordinary Anatomy of Criticism], as for how few works of critical theory, one confidently predicts long life. It is wonderfully well written, and has such momentum that to disagree with it is almost physically painful, though very necessary. It has almost no repose, but makes up for that by being full of that seemingly inevitable wit that comes only of great intelligence—a little, if one seeks a comparison, like Shaw. And somewhere hidden, driving the book along, is a demon every bit as queer as metabiology. Only by standards which Professor Frye would not accept does it fall short of greatness in its kind: first, if it were widely accepted it would have no influence upon the course of literature itself, and the highest criticism has; secondly, it fails, or refuses, to convey anything of what might be called the personal presence of any of the thousands of works discussed.

The reason for these shortcomings is not the author's incapacity but his devotion to duty. He deals with literature in terms of a specific conceptual framework derived from an inductive study of literature, hoping thus to avoid the 'fallacy of determinism' exhibited in Freudian or Marxist criticism; and he is therefore conscious of his descent from Aristotle, as well as of the analogies between his critical method and the sciences, particularly physics in its mathematical phase. Literature he treats as a second nature, vast, inexhaustible, and anonymous; as physics studies nature, criticism studies art. But if it is to be a progressive science like physics, criticism needs to be developed systematically; that this has never been done is most easily seen from the fantastic deficiency of the critical vocabulary, a deficiency which the author labours fantastically to supply. As literature grew more and more complex, critical systematization declined, whereas the primitive formulations of physics gave way to complex mathematical symbolism. Instead of concluding, as I should, that the physics-criticism analogy breaks down here, Mr. Frye proceeds to invent a quasimathematical critical system. But if science and art are alike Symbolic Forms (which Mr. Frye at least in part believes) a criticism which objectifies art is a strange parasite, as if one were to invent a non-mathematical way of presenting mathematics. However, the author is committed to finding some central hypothesis which will allow one to treat criticism as totally coherent, and concerned with the phenomena of art as parts of a whole; to do for criticism what Darwin did for biology. Of the prescientific prejudices which have first to be exploded, two stand out: first, the 'fallacy of premature teleology'—the notion that the critic's task is to get out of a work what the author put in, which corresponds, in the natural sciences, to the belief that a phenomenon is as it is because Providence inscrutably made it so. Secondly, value-judgements must go; the assault on them is very lively, but Mr. Frye admits that Milton is a more valuable poet than Blackmore, a fatal concession one would have thought, since it is not nobler to study stars than worms.

Between the Polemical Introduction (which is all I have so far considered) and the Tentative Conclusion stand the four enormous essays which chart and classify the world of literature. It is like some strange unknown forest, where the trees grow in groups of four, five, six, or seven, and which is divided into four sections, with balancing subsections, the numerological groups constantly re-echoing each other; ultimately the author reaches the heart of the wood, and finds what he knew was there, a central myth, inconceivably diversified throughout the body of literature. (pp. 64-5)

On the assumption that 'literature shapes itself, and is not shaped externally', Frye proposes a new theory of genres…. In fact this is a theory of archetypes, mythic patterns inductively ascertained from a study of the secunda natura, art, regardless of whether the artist was conscious of employing them. These archetypes are so important to Frye's system that they must be distinguished from other hypotheses that go under the same name: they are not Jungian. They are a necessary corollary of the doctrine that the forms in which a poet organizes his work come out of poetry, not life. Their presence has nothing to do with value, and Frye deliberately draws many examples from cheap and superficial literature…. Frye is concerned only with the fact of recurrence, though to explain that recurrence it...

(The entire section is 1854 words.)