Anatomy of Wonder

When I revisited Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, I expected to find formidable scholarship. I didn’t expect to find a literary experience.



On the first page of Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, Northrop Frye irritably dismissed the “conception of the critic as a parasite or artist manqué … sometimes reinforced by a dubious analogy between the creative and procreative functions, so that we hear about the ‘impotence’ and ‘dryness’ of the critic, of his hatred for genuinely creative people, and so on.” As a critic himself, Frye might have been a bit touchy on the subject, but he had nothing to worry about on that score. It’s a rare novel that has anything like the “creativity” of Anatomy of Criticism. While few people care overmuch about the debates that roiled English departments in the years when Frye reigned at the University of Toronto (1939 to 1991), readers coming to Anatomy of Criticism for the first time might be surprised at what they find: a work of formidable scholarship, yes, but with a huge cast of characters (seemingly every writer who ever lived, from the tribal scribes of Mesopotamia to P. G. Wodehouse) moving in a dense network of interconnectedness in which every end is a new beginning, and genres as various as melodrama, farce, epic, satire, and romance live happily together on the same page. It’s rather like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, but with good prose.

It’s a pity that Frye isn’t around to classify A Song of Ice and Fire. He might have termed it a quest-romance where subtlety and complexity are sacrificed in favor of stark dialectical contrasts suggestive of folklore and allegory. Nor would it have bothered him that George R. R. Martin writes like a hippopotamus and that millions of readers love his books for precisely that reason. One of the guiding principles of Anatomy of Criticism is that the whole business of making literary value judgments — “Demoting Shelley, on the ground that he is immature in technique and profundity of thought” or “Promoting Shelley, on the ground that his love of freedom speaks to the heart of modern man” — is secondary to the more enduring enterprise of appreciation and understanding. I’m not about to surrender my precious opinions of this or that writer; as Frye said, “The critic will find soon, and constantly, that Milton is a more rewarding and suggestive poet to work with than Blackmore.” (Extra points for knowing who the hell Blackmore was.)

Read It

ID_AKEY_FRYEAOC_CO_001Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays by Northrop Frye (Princeton University Press)

Yet the sum total of literary or even sub-literary art tends to be a lot more interesting than whatever opinion I might have of any particular part of it. Frye himself delivered his share of literary opinions, or “value judgments,” as he insisted on calling them — on T. S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens or contemporary Canadian poetry — in the occasional evaluative essays he turned out over the course of his long career. While the place of personal judgment in criticism can be endlessly debated, Frye’s general principle — that “the normal development of a critic’s taste is toward greater tolerance and catholicity” — seems to me blessedly sound and sane. After immersing myself in Anatomy of Criticism for the second or third time, I find myself reconsidering all sorts of trash in the light of Frye’s theories and discovering fascinating archetypes everywhere. Gee, maybe that’s not what he had in mind.

Very possibly, I’m not Northrop Frye’s ideal reader. My knowledge of Greek and Latin is a little rusty, and I have to keep checking the glossary to remember the difference between opsis (“The spectacular or visible aspect of drama”) and melos (“The rhythm, movement, and sound of words”). I thought I knew what a symbol was (“any unit of any work of literature which can be isolated for critical attention”) until I read Anatomy of Criticism; now I’m not so sure. But there’s a way of reading Frye’s book that differs from the diagrammatic, systematic way in which it has generally been approached. You may enjoy it even more if you’re not a scholar, which I certainly am not. When Frye says “critic,” I think “reader,” and as a reader I regard Anatomy of Criticism as a wonder, an astonishment, a spur to my imagination. I read it in much the same way I read any great work of imaginative literature: in amazement that any one mind can comprehend so much. Notwithstanding its glossary of forbidding technical terms and quasi-scientific methodology, it’s a book to get lost in. Pick it up at any page, forget for the moment that you’re reading “theory,” and you’re likely to find it nearly as involving as the involutions of the Buendía family in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, about which — I’m guessing — Frye might have had interesting things to say regarding the myth of recurrence.

It’s rather like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, but with good prose.

Frye might have been dismayed at my suggestion that the artistry of his scholarship matters more than the scholarship, but I doubt it. This was the man who advised a student of his named Margaret Atwood to choose graduate study at Harvard over aimless bohemianism in Europe precisely so that she could become the writer she aspired to be. Though modest and courteous in his person, Frye was a genius, and he knew it. To the dismay of some of his peers, he unburdened himself of that judgment in a note that came to light after his death, in which he wrote, “The twentieth century saw an amazing development of scholarship and criticism in the humanities, carried out by people who were more intelligent, better trained, had more languages, had a better sense of proportion, and were infinitely more accurate scholars … than I. I had genius. No one else in the field known to me quite had that.”

If Anatomy of Criticism reads as a book of wonder as much as a work of scholarship, that’s partly because it derives from the literary genre that Frye identified as the “anatomy,” that is, a work whose organizing principle is “the creative treatment of exhaustive erudition.” Technically, his mode is “discursive” rather than imaginative, but Anatomy of Criticism is, gloriously, too much a work of sensibility to remain within the confines of scholarship. It owes something to Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, except that it isn’t melancholy and lacks, alas, the “qualities of good swearing” that Frye noted as among the hallmarks of Burton’s style. Some of Burton’s other hallmarks — “a love … of catalogue, an unlimited vocabulary, a tendency to think in short accentual units, and an encyclopedic knowledge” — sound suspiciously like Frye’s own.

Frye said there were Iliad critics and Odyssey critics. He was an Odyssey critic, meaning that his sensibility lay more with the periphery than the center, with romance more than tragedy, with the episodic more than the consecutive. He didn’t have much patience with critics who claimed to have the master key that would unlock all the doors and explain away all the mystery. Where another critic might have used a footnote to clinch an argument, Frye could do it with his wit. Here’s his way of describing the tangle critics get into when they make the mistake of laying down the law:

The critic who attempts to apply such principles in a more liberal or more cautious spirit will soon have to broaden his conceptions to the point, not of course of saying, but of trying to conceal the fact that he is saying, “all plays that have unity of action must have unity of action,” or, more simply and more commonly, “all good plays must be good plays.”

Harold Bloom, otherwise an admirer, expressed some skepticism regarding what he called Frye’s “notion that imaginative literature was one vast poem with many authors.” That’s not the only Frygian notion that might invite skepticism. Do the five major fictional modes (mythic, romantic, high mimetic, low mimetic, and ironic) really tend to cycle downward until the last becomes the first and the whole cycle starts all over again? Reading Frye is a bit like reading theology; an act of faith is required. (He was in fact a minister of the United Church of Canada, though his ministerial duties weren’t very onerous.) I’m willing to supply that faith because the beauty and coherence of the system depend on it. Unlike theology, however, Frye’s postulates are blessedly of this world. Consider the low mimetic mode, where the hero is “superior neither to other men nor to his environment,” in short, one of us. Sound familiar? It ought to, because the low mimetic is the home of most realistic fiction, a genre that we tend to regard as the culmination of literary representation, whereas, as Frye shows, it’s merely one of many necessary and important developments in the unceasing movement of literary history.

You really don’t have to master — or even believe in — all of Frye’s intricate patternings to find Anatomy of Criticism beautiful and moving. In a way, he sanctioned a more, shall we say, improvisatory reading of his own book. In the “Polemical Introduction,” which is really what it says it is, he wrote, “The reading of literature should, like prayer in the Gospels, step out of the talking world of criticism into the private and secret presence of literature. Otherwise the reading will not be a genuinely literary experience, but a mere reflection of critical conventions, memories, and prejudices.” In the private and secret library in my head, Anatomy of Criticism occupies a shelf of its own not because it opened new vistas for literary study or because it extended the reach of Aristotle’s Poetics or because it did any number of important things that furnished material for scholarly debate. For me, reading Anatomy of Criticism is a primary, not a secondary experience, because it answers to my passion for literature, to my hunger for inter-connectedness, to my belief in the transformative power of language. Frye believed that the direct experience of literature was a thing apart from the structure of criticism. What do you call it when the structure of criticism, against all likelihood, precedent, or expectation, affords a direct experience of literature? Anatomy of Criticism. •

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.


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  • Intuitive and creative writers I can admit into my mind; academic know-it-betters I can’t. I have often heard Frye opining on this and Frye opining on that and Frye opining on the other thing and always felt left out of an enlightening sensation.

  • After you’ve reread AoC, or maybe before, go back and reread Auerbach’s Mimesis.

  • “Frye irritably dismissed the ‘conception of the critic as a parasite or artist manqué'”.

    Followed by,

    “I had genius. No one else in the field known to me quite had that.”

    That tells us all we need to know about Frye’s particular insecurities and defense mechanisms of over-compensation. If Frye had really been possessed by genius, then he would have have simply written, instead of written about. As it stands, alongside those writers without whom Frye would have had nothing to write, he is “small Frye”, indeed, or, to shift the analogy, a mistletoe that dreams it is as mighty as the oak.

  • I had the great privilege of being taught by Frye at U of T, taking his wonderful course on the Bible (“The Great Code”). I was also lucky in that what was under examination in those days was what used to be called “literature”, before criticism descended into the farrago of nonsense generically called “theory”. Frye was indeed a genius, but one was always struck by his humanity and humility, and there is more truth in several pages of AOC than the collected works of the French deconstructionists….

  • Thank you! You’ve inspired me to re-read AOC. I just need to find the time…

  • It is good to read a paper that prompts you to re-read a book you knew too long ago. I therefore shouldn’t allow myself the minor quibble that Optis and Melos ought not to have caused any uncertainty even in someone who has forgotten All of his Greek.

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