Northrop Frye

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Geoffrey H. Hartman

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It may not please those who know the great differences in pedagogical method between the New Critics and Northrop Frye to have me begin by suggesting that Frye is part of a single modern movement to democratize criticism and demystify the muse. I would go further and say that Frye is our most radical demystifier of criticism, even though his great achievement is the recovery of the demon or of the intrinsic role of romance in the human imagination. His importance to literary history proper is as a topographer of the romance imagination in its direct and displaced forms. But in his service to the ongoing need to have greater numbers of persons participate in the imaginative life, to open the covenant of education until the difference between persons is really "ghostly," only a matter of more intense or lesser participation, he continues the vision of those first struck in the nineteenth century with the possibility of universal education, and who felt with Victor Hugo that the multiplying of books was comparable to the multiplying of loaves of bread.

Demystification begins in Frye with the very concept of system. This concept should be distinguished, at first, from the particular system furthered. To systematize criticism is to universalize it, to put its intellectual or spiritual techniques into the hands of every intelligent person, even every child. To imagine children of the future performing little anatomies as easily as they now do basic operations in mathematics may not be everyone's utopia, but we should recall that Frye is ambitious only with respect to the possibility of system and not to his particular version of it. Yet it must be pointed out that he fuses, or confuses, two notions of universality. One is the scientific, and holds that the criticism of literature should be pursued as a coherent and systematic study, which, like mathematics, has elementary principles explainable to anyone. The other is the evangelical, and holds that critics have stood like priests between literature and those desiring to participate in it, whereas even a child should be able to be instructed in the principles that make art nourishing. When Frye says "the only guarantee that a subject is theoretically coherent is its ability to have its elementary principles taught to children," it is hard to tell the scientific from the evangelical notion. Frye's scientism is therefore the opposite of exclusionary: he does not seek to over-dignify criticism or scholarship but to place its basic principles and their creative development in the hands of every earnest reader. "What critics now have is a mystery-religion without a gospel … they are initiates who can communicate, or quarrel, only with one another."

But who put the mystery Frye wants to purge into criticism? Nobody: Frye is indicating that unorganized innocence falls prey to the latest compulsions in taste—to casual, sentimental, or social value judgments. This is the more likely as the assumption of innocence, in literary scholarship, takes the form of an appeal to pragmatism, common sense, or impartiality. The unsystematic critic considers his lack of system proof that he cannot possibly be prejudiced. Frye, I think, would hesitate to go further and to accuse specific groups of surrounding the study of literature with a mystique. Yet the feature of his system that has caused most protest is precisely his relegation of certain kinds of value judgments to the history of taste and his resolute exclusion of them from criticism. If there is a mystique, it lies here—in the conviction challenged by him that literature is to be used as a training ground for the...

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elite judgment. (pp. 25-6)

Whether or not Frye's expulsion of rationalized taste from the history of criticism is viable, its purpose is to cleanse that discipline of a sporadically chauvinistic cult of culture. His "categorial criticism" is a direct challenge to the English mystique of English Studies. It bypasses personalistic judgment and the tutorial approach to literature. Instead of the tutor there is the system; instead of judgments reposing on a precarious blend of moral, verbal, literary sensibility, there is the extroversion of archetypes and the free yet controlled establishment of a criticism without walls. The act of appreciating literature has its private pleasures, but it becomes criticism by becoming extramural—by interpretations that link the classics to English literature and all literature to a total form that reveals archetypal features. Frye's concern is with a point of view determined by culture as such, rather than by a particular culture, tradition, or line.

This raises the question of what Frye means by total form and obliges us to turn from his concept of system to the system itself. The intellectual problems here are very great, but ours are greater: for Frye is an eloquent man who somewhere has provided an answer to every question. What must therefore be judged is not his comprehensiveness, which is extraordinary, or his intentions, which are the best since Matthew Arnold, but how well he has dealt with problems every literary critic faces whatever his attitude toward systematic thought. These problems must center, at some point, on how the individual literary work is related to art's general function in consciousness or society. "No discussion of beauty," says Frye, "can confine itself to the formal relations of the isolated work of art; it must consider, too, the participation of the work of art in the vision of the goal of social effort, the idea of complete and classless civilization."

If we were to apply the technique of extracting the myth to Frye himself, we would come on a pastoral motif: "The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed." His critical system moves in the same direction as the history of art it seeks to liberate—away from the closed culture, the closed society, the priest-interpreter the critic's critic. Properly understood he appears as a knight in a continuing quest: that of removing the dragon from the hoard, or mystery from communion. (pp. 27-8)

The possibilities of myth as a structural principle were brought to light by the practice of certain writers in the Symbolist era. Yeats and Joyce, T. S. Eliot said in a famous essay of 1923, substituted "the mythical method" for the "narrative method." Eliot had resolved the problem of the "dreadful sundry" by similar means. The new method, according to him, "is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." It is clear that the substitution of mythical for narrative method, in literature or criticism, expresses the difficulty of finding ideas of order within secular history.

Frye, however, does not emphazise the heuristic character of the new method. Although his system is frankly speculative, it rarely allows for counterpoint or opposition between the historical and the mythical. Supremely eclectic, Frye melts what many would consider as contraries into one system of alternative yet concordant approaches. What counterpoint exists is for the richness of the melody: he does not make us feel the problematic situation of either writer or critic, or any sign of that divided consciousness which the mythical method affirms by remaining an artifice in Yeats and Joyce. (pp. 31-2)

[Frye's] attitude toward the fact that literature unfolds in time rather than quasi-simultaneously in space is puzzling. It would be possible to apply his type of analysis to the visual arts as well as to the verbal, for he stands back from poem or play as from a picture…. In fact, as is well known, Frye's concept of literary structure is consciously spatial. It depends on a disjunction between our immediate experience of literature, which is guided by the tempo of the work, and criticism, which lays out the completed pattern spatially…. In the Anatomy, this disjunction is presented as fundamental to the establishment of criticism as a progressive body of knowledge.

Unfortunately it is also an evasion of the whole problem of temporality. With the related question of the unity of the literary work, this problem has been the single most important topic of poetics. It is true that systematic thought on temporality, starting with Lessing and renewed by Heidegger, is mainly German. Yet Helen Gardner expresses the identical concern when she says that "the discovery of a work's center, the source of its life in all its parts, and response to its total movement—a word I prefer to 'structure,' for time is inseparable from our apprehension of works of literature—is to me the purpose of critical activity." One of the most formal differences of literature is omitted if we cannot encompass by reflection its moving power in time. (pp. 33-4)

Frye's system rests on a tacit assumption of the authenticity of myth, but we are in some difficulty if we ask how this authenticity is revealed. By what process do we accept the Romantic element in Shakespeare's comedies? According to Frye it is authenticated by being placed in a context of totality. The individual myth or isolated play reveals its archetypal features by the mutual association of a great number of works of art. What Frye proposes is, in effect, a hermeneutic translation of literature into a clarified form or "reconstructed mythology." Yet the absence of an official or dogmatic theology must always leave the authenticity of that form in doubt. Keats, for example, appreciated romance and certainly understood the Romantic element in Shakespeare, yet he felt, like Wordsworth, that the modern vocation was to surpass it. Myth, whether used substantively or merely as a narrative device, remains a problem for the Wordsworthian tradition. The literary counterpoint of mythical and secular in Eliot and others is a method reflecting this problematic yet insistent presence of myth.

There is, however, a concept in Frye which corresponds to the principle of accommodation and contributes to literary history because it reveals the difficult relation of poetic to ordinary discourse. I refer to what Frye calls displacement and defines as the "adaptation of myth and metaphor to canons of morality or plausibility." So defined it is a restatement of the doctrine of accommodation. Frye supposes that there is such a thing as a pure myth (archetype), the displacements of which can be traced through history. The displacements have a specific direction which his first essay in the Anatomy, on historical criticism, describes. There he classifies all fiction in terms of the status of the hero who moves from a mythic or supernatural to an ironic or all-too-human mode of being. (pp. 35-6)

The concept of displacement enables us to revalue what grosser histories of literature sees merely as secularization. For the movement from myth to realism does not infer the sad decline of hero into antihero or of an ancestor's great seal rings into Belinda's hairpin. We discover that secular man is not devoid of mythical attributes. Except for Frye's hint of a cyclical return of realism to myth, the notion of displacement is empirically sound: it works, it is teachable, and above all it reveals the permanence of romance. One can no more remove the romantic element from art than natural instincts from man. It is eternal, as Freud discovered the instincts to be eternal and therefore gave them the name of gods, Eros and Thanatos.

I suspect, however, that Frye has shown not that myth is displaced but that it is historical. It is never found in that unaccommodated state he posits when he mentions "the pure myth of death and revival" or when he claims that literature is a reconstructed mythology. One can make such a claim only by reducing myths to archetypes in the strictly Platonic sense of simples rather than complexes. But anyone who has read the Anatomy will agree that there are no simples in it…. We do not find myth pure of religion or literature; it comes to us institutionalized from the beginning, and, though it may also be a body of structural principles, there is no point in under-playing the war in the members of that body. (pp. 36-7)

Although Frye increases significantly our knowledge of the structural presuppositions of the literary work, he neglects the one presupposition which is most affected by place of origin: the verbal. He seems relatively unconcerned with the exact dialogue or status of words in the individual consciousness and the particular society…. Instead of examining the verbal, Frye immediately subsumes it in what is called the "verbal universe." But this concept prevents a definitive description of the very element after which it is named.

For the concept of a verbal universe does not agree with what we know of the place of words in society. The opposition of science to art has always centered on the relation of words to things, which is another way of stating that words compete with conventions claiming to be better than verbal. Every writer in society is therefore concerned with the alternatives to the word. There has been fruitful conflict even among the arts themselves on the question of alternatives (musical, pictorial, hieroglyphic) to the verbal. This paragone may simply express the fact that all art aspires to the condition of totality; it remains, even so, a force in the writer's consciousness. Is there room in Frye's system—which has many chambers, and not all opened—for that radical doubt, that innermost criticism which art brings to bear on itself? Or does his system circumvent the problematic character of verbal fictions?

Since the verbal, in Frye, is a larger category than the literary or the mythical, he may have intended to say that literature itself is always in dire need of being humanized. It becomes an institution easily infected by ratio and must be led back to its source in oratio. This surely is what the great work of fiction (or criticism) achieves: it recalls the origin of civilization in dialogic acts of naming, cursing, blessing, consoling, laughing, lamenting, and beseeching. These speak to us more openly than myth or archetype because they are the firstborn children of the human voice. Myth and metaphor are endued with the acts, the gesta, of speech; and if there is a mediator for our experience of literature, it is something as simply with us as the human body, namely the human voice. It is here that one possibility of progress lies: in honoring the problematic relation of words to a reality they mediate rather than imitate. To envision "ghostlier demarcations," a poet must utter keener sounds.

Thus Frye's criticism and a historical approach differ more than we are led to believe. Yet the reservations I have expressed should not be taken as a plea for conventional literary history, for that either does not face the question of the mission of art or is content to show that art, like any cult or closed society, has a self-authenticating range of allusions to be decoded only by the priest of the cult: the historical expert.

In conclusion, I recall ruefully Aristotle's remark that unity of plot does not consist in the unity of the hero. The plot was criticism; the hero, Frye—and in case my reflections have been too picaresque, I would like to end with a firm and even didactic estimate of Frye's importance to contemporary criticism. The more we read in him the more we understand how essential the romance tradition is, both in itself and in its modern afterlife. Poetry is inconceivable without it; even Shakespearean drama and the vast majority of novels conform to a romance poetics, or are significantly clarified by it. Frye's permanent achievement is as a theorist whose recognitions favor romance rather than tragedy; had he no more than rescued for us the spiritual form of William Blake and then the spiritual form of romance, it would have been sufficient.

Frye will not be grateful to me for considering him as the fulfillment of Bishop Hurd. And indeed he is much more, as I hope to have shown; yet his claim to provide the basis for a universal criticism remains less convincing than his anatomy of romance. His discoveries reflect on unity of design rather than unity of plot, and on the unity of art rather than the unity of the work of art. Even his style, a constant pleasure, is a romance multiplication of recognitions; its symmetry, an allegorical layering of the levels of recognition.

But this revival of a romance poetics is of more than professional literary interest. It is romance which mediated the themes and structures of the oral tradition, so that the revival of the one is linked to an interest in the other. Frye reverses the preference of Aristotle, who attempted to modify the predominance of oral tradition by esteeming unity of action more than the variegated energies of epic. The Anatomy of Criticism returns to the values implicit in the multiple design of epic and romance. The archetype as a structural principle resembles nothing so much as the formula of oral poetry, while Frye's system is in quest of a community as universal as that which oral poetry may have reached.

There is of course no question of a return to oral tradition. But there is some hope that its renewed appreciation will change our narrow concepts of originality in art and permit us, in reading a book, to touch the central man and through him the life of generations. There is some hope that reading can become once more an encounter of imagination with imagination, as in Blake. But if Frye's purpose is to contribute to this encounter and to recover for literature its widest audience, his emphasis on system remains a stumbling block. Systems are the inkhorn children of bookcraft and erudition: they arise whenever humanists warm themselves on the ashes of myth. Despite Frye's return to a criticism nourished by the values of oral tradition, he has not escaped the ethos of the printed word. That "virile man standing in the sun" belongs to the Gutenberg Galaxy and is scanning the Milky Way of Romance as if it were an alienated part of his—and our—imagination. I cannot wish he were standing anywhere else or that he should descend to that "lower flight" which Raphael in Paradise Lost urged on Adam. (pp. 38-41)

Geoffrey H. Hartman, "Ghostlier Demarcations: The Sweet Science of Northrop Frye" (originally a paper read at the English Institute, 1965; reprinted by permission of the publisher), in Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism: Selected Papers from the English Institute, edited by Murray Krieger (reprinted by permission of Columbia University Press and the English Institute), Columbia University Press, 1966 (and reprinted in his Beyond Formalism: Literary Essays 1958–1970, Yale University Press, 1970, pp. 24-42).


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