(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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Why We (And Especially Lefties) Should Read “Israeli Army Fiction”

In my latest piece for Open Zion, I look at a supposedly racist story in The New Yorker, and I argue that anti-Zionist Phil Weiss cannot read Israeli fiction well because he doesn’t have much moral empathy for Israelis:

I have a fantasy in which I tell all of America about William Empson. Yes, there are more pressing topics than a dead literary critic. But every time a political polemicist badly misreads fiction—as the anti-Zionist writer Phil Weiss has misread Israeli author Shani Boianjiu’s short story (just out in The New Yorker) about IDF soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators—the English major in me cries, and I dream again of subjecting the nation to a semester of Remedial Irony. Because even if New Criticism is not exactly news, Weiss’s inability to parse Israeli art points to an intolerance for the Israeli perspective, a hostility to complexity.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Weiss quotes disapprovingly the following line from the story, about a gory photograph of an injured Palestinian in Gaza, “The world said that the Israeli Army had done it with artillery fire, but the Israeli Army knew that the family had been killed by a dormant shell that Palestinian militants had left by the sea.” Weiss thinks that’s Hasbara, but he’s wrong.

To find out why he’s wrong—and why it matters—go read the rest.

Of Ghee and Welsh Mutton

Studying for the GRE subject test in literature has been wonderful. The Norton Anthology (which seems to be the standard) is like a good Indian lunch buffet: you get your small portions of super-rich entrees (ie, the actual literature), you have the light, airy condiments (the historical essays and biographical sketches), and if you want palak paneer (that Browning poem you’ve already read a million times), there will always be palak paneer. Also, if you do it right, the experience is cheap and the physical plant dingy.

The best new find so far: William Hazlitt’s “My First  Acquaintance With Poets” — the story of Hazlitt, as a young man, meeting and traveling with the explosive, charismatic, and magical Samuel Coleridge. It’s not my first acquaintance with Hazlitt. I’ve read The Spirit of The Age, his collection of profiles of English notables, including Coleridge.

“My First Acquaintance,” however, is to that profile what ghee is to margarine: lighter but more grounded, tied to organic experience but perfectly clarified. Coleridge isn’t just a flighty, quasi-mystical and bombastic genius. He’s also Hazlitt’s first encounter with greatness, an experience as revolutionary in its way as the storming of the Bastille. You get the sense that all the energy running through Hazlitt’s prose (and there’s plenty) is somehow messily tied to the bounding, exclaiming figure of Coleridge. Continue reading