(How) Is Archetypal Criticism Useful To A Skeptic? Part I

Blogging about Northrop Frye’s magisterial Anatomy of Criticism, which I just finished last evening on the Q train, feels a little like writing limericks about “The Waste Land.” (Which someone did.) You’re transferring a massive, carefully wrought art object into a parallel genre, one which is tiny and vaguely parodic. Still, since I’ve invested an embarrassing number of q-train rides into Frye, and I understood the book only in flashes, I feel like the least I can get out of it is a blogpost.

Frye’s self-declared goal is to arrive at a “synoptic” view of literature, that is, an overall structure of criticism which traces the central recurrent literary phenomena. The book consists, in essence, of a number of categorizations. Genres, for instance, are fourfold: comedy, tragedy, irony and romance. Or there are five “phases,” which describe the relation of the protagonist to the audience, ranging from mythic, in which the protagonists are gods; through romance—confusingly used to mean something related to but different from the above—which features superheros or demigods; high mimetic, featuring aristocrats; low mimetic, featuring commoners; and ironic, featuring anti-heros and the like.

There are several more systems like this: each is developed cleverly, and a dizzying selection of literary works—both high art and low—is employed in tracing the many archetypes. So, for instance, Freud’s master narrative is a comedy (!), just like those of Aristophanes and Shakespeare—and indeed, like Hollywood movies—and more interestingly, when Frye does the work of making smaller, more controversial divisions and evaluations, the groups and narrative affinities he described do not strictly correspond to historical periods: You may find that His Girl Friday has more in common with, say, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, than do The Merry Wives of Windsor and Dr. Strangelove (in fact, you would—the first two comedies are closer to romance, the latter two to irony).

So here’s the question. If I don’t think literature has a synoptic structure, what use is Anatomy of Criticism? I’ve been struggling to articulate where this skepticism comes from. Yesterday, it was clarified by a professor I met to talk about graduate school.

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