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.

She said, more or less in passing, that although English departments talk about being interdisciplinary, transnational, and the rest of it, basically they were interested in provable historical adjacencies. To show that Blake’s idea of revolution anticipated post-colonial conversations (or is a meaningful part of them), you should find articles about the Haitian revolution in the papers he was reading. Further, English professors, these days, are frankly more interested in, say, how Ghanain independence relates to Portnoy’s complaint (both end of the fifties), than in how Roth’s vision of masculinity in the novel relates to, say, Henry James’s. The latter is basically the subject of a book, because you’ll need 200 pages to move a half century or century (or more likely, the book’ll just be four unconnected essays, and the “relates to” will be an illusion anyway).

I think this sensibility is a more precise version of my skepticism. The issue isn’t just the “single literary canon,” it’s the whole idea that one can move easily between historical periods, that, whether because of the conscious design of the writer or, as Frye thinks, the shared literary structures within which they end up working necessarily, the most interesting things to say about them would be based on structural affinities, rather than historical adjacencies. (Needless to say, physical books themselves are the historical adjacencies between the “deep past” and the present: Homer’s Iliad is historically adjacent to me because of the Fagels translation sitting on my shelf which I read in college.)

Now, while I am interested in theoretical answers to my skepticism (i.e., I’m not sure we’ve taken the right tack in discounting literary arguments that aren’t historically local, and I think Fagels and Lattimore are quite important), I also want to put forward an argument for how literary structure can help us construct arguments that are ultimately historically local. So that’s the plan for the next post.