Daily Archives: September 17, 2009

Adam Bradley Responds to Peter Yan on Romance and the Key of C

 circle of fifths

Peter, I think that your observation regarding the term ‘Mode’ is very interesting and may actually be quite important.

The title Anatomy of Criticism always struck me as being peculiar because it suggests that Frye was conscious of the fact that he was beginning the process of laying out the structure of literary theory. By using the word “anatomy,” its seems to me he was indicating that we were in the beginning stages of this type of analysis simply because in medicine the cataloguing of the parts of the body was a necessary step to understanding the processes of the body.

I agree with you that, when laying out his theory of literature and the circles of fifths, Frye must have made the association between the Quest Romance and the key of C for a reason. I have been thinking about the circle of fifths and literary theory since the first post on this blog, and the use of the word ‘Mode’ suggests to me that Frye had an even grander vision for how his anatomy crossed over to all forms of art.

That said, I balked a bit at the suggestion that Frye picked the key of C as an equivalent for the Quest Romance because it is the key which all keys can be translated into. I think we need to tread lightly when trying to decipher why he would do that. Frye, being a fan of classical music and a piano player, would have surely known his scales but to say that its the “key which all keys can be translated into” is a little misleading. We can transpose any piece of music freely between all keys; they are interchangeable. But I do think you are onto something, I simply wonder if it is more that the key of C has no sharps or flats, and that it is the most naturally organized key in our theory of music and on our keyboards. The idea that all other keys are expressed as functions of the key of C does not mean that the key itself or more specifically the sounds made in the key of C are any more important than those of any other key. The key of C is simply our home base, and it permeates our thinking about music as being the solid foundation which we build upon.

I wonder if that is closer to the connection that Frye was trying to make when assigning it to the Quest Romance genre. I think if we look at Frye’s explanation of that genre, we may find that the other genres that he talks about all use the Quest Romance as their frame of reference, just as all the musical keys refer back in our theories to the key of C. As for the modes of music, all the modes can be built in all keys — they apply to every scale. The modes simply change the starting and ending note of each scale within a given key. The Major scale in any key is called the Ionian Mode, and in the case of the C major scale it means you start on the note C and the scale follows Do-Re-Me etc. from there. Other modes simply start the scale on a different note. So the Dorian Mode begins on the note D in the C scale and proceeds up the scale with no sharps or flats until you reach D again as the eighth and final note. Modes are used to change the flavor of music within a given key but can be used in all keys. As an example, melodies written in the key of C but in the Dorian mode tend to have a Celtic feel. I have to think that Frye certainly would know this; so his use of the word ‘Mode’, to my way of thinking, must apply in the same way when dealing with literary genres.

This is a rich and interesting topic that needs more discussion.

Perkin responds to Chrusch on Chesterton


Clayton Chrusch comments on Russell’s post earlier today:

Was Frye being unfair or am I completely naive?

Chesterton wanted to give his audience clear answers and Frye did not. Frye witheld answers because he didn’t want his audience to be stuck with them. Chesterton wanted to give his audience answers, not because he wanted his audience stuck with them and not because he considered himself the greatest authority on anything and not because he considered his own views to be in their final state, but because he thought that, if people were honest, the truth could take care of itself, and that a clear and honest answer backed by reason is as likely to yield truth through participation in a dialectic process as a reticent answer.

Russell responds:

Clayton, I think (and have attempted to argue in an essay a few years ago) that Frye did not see the positive side of the appeal of tradition and orthodoxy in matters of religious belief. Perhaps in part it was his Methodist upbringing, perhaps the spectacle of Catholic fascism, which he comments on several times, but he doesn’t seem to have had much sense of what Chesterton terms “The Romance of Orthodoxy.”

Jean O’Grady has written an interesting account of Frye’s relationship with the United Church of Canada, showing that he didn’t find it much easier to get on with it than with the Catholic Church. She writes “If one searches the diaries and notebooks for evidence of Frye’s attitude to his clerical role, one may well be startled by the negativity of his remarks” (Frye and the Word, p. 176).

More on C.S. Lewis and Frye


Clayton Chrusch, in response to Merv Nicholson’s post of September 15, comments:

Thank you, Merv, for these articles. What do you see as the connection between Frye’s political views and his respect for desire? C.S. Lewis also valued desire very much, but he was not a social democrat.

To which Merv responds:

Lewis was in practice a social democrat.  He was a Red Tory. He took the National Health Service (“socialized” medicine in the UK) as obvious common sense, and was shocked to discover they had no such thing in the US.

He says in “Mere Christianity” that a Christian society would be what “we now call Leftist”.  He was far far far far from Americans (or Canadians for that matter like SH [Stephen Harper]) who call themselves “conservative.”

He denounced the basis of capitalism in the same book, puts a man who advocates the basic principle of Economics (“the science of scarcity”) that scarcity creates society–he puts that man in Hell in The Great Divorce.

He reminds people that the Bible says you’re not supposed to lend money at interest, and where would that put our social order?

Lewis made grumpy comments about the Labour government and made growly curmudgeon noises about tradition and “Moderns” and so on, but IN PRACTICE he had the very same values as a social democrat.

He wasn’t interested in politics, by the way.

You’re right: Lewis is one of the few people who deeply value desire — in this, as in other ways, he was close to Frye, surprisingly.

(I have a book coming out about Lewis, so I am close to all these questions, though I’m not ready to say anything about that book.)

Interesting points and it is observant of you to connect NF with CSL (though a number of people, including myself, have done so elsewhere).  I actually talked to him about CSL.  It was very interesting what he had to say.

Mervyn Nicholson: Frye, Freud, Displacement


It’s true that Frye used Freud in a variety of ways, but that does not mean that their “models” or outlook were similar.  As I noted earlier, their attitudes toward human desire were very different.

In Anatomy of Criticism, Freud re-creates a key concept in Freud’s great book, The Interpretation of Dreams (and elsewhere), namely:  displacement.  This term is a fascinating illustration of the way Frye’s thinking worked, the way he absorbed and adapted earlier conceptions.

In Freud, “displacement” is a technique of dreams:  dreams shift emotional emphasis from important to unimportant objects.  Intense emotion is thus “cathected” from its actual inspiration to an object that stands in for it, that “displaces” it, in order to conceal from the conscious mind the source of anxiety (or desire, desire being normally the cause of anxiety in Freud).  Neurosis does the same thing: the emotion causing the neurosis is “displaced” from its real object to things that are irrelevant or connected by some chain of association.

Frye picks up the term and changes its meaning.  In Frye, “displacement” refers to literature’s habit of adapting mythical forms to standards of plausibility or accepted morality.  In Anatomy of Criticism [150, Princeton edition] he illustrates displacement with an ingenious exposition of the use of ghosts.  Displacement is a function of the modes he outlines in the first essay—the kind of things you can have in a story is determined by the kind of world assumed in the story, and that world is indicated by the powers of the protagonist.  Displacement in this sense is a vital and powerful conception, showing how mythical formulas are adapted and reappear in realist texts, but in displaced form.  Instead of a man turning into a bat and flying away, you might have him associated with bats in some significant way, or wishing he could fly away with bats (my example — OK, Bram Stoker’s example).

Frye’s use of “displacement” gave the term new life.  From Frye, it went on its merry way in literary theory, being a natural sort of concept for deconstruction, where what is is not and what is not is what is, and “dis placement” is also “placement”.

My book 13 Ways of Looking at Images deals with Freud’s conceptions at length.  The Interpretation of Dreams is one of the great books, when it is detached from Freud’s psychoanalytic apparatus.  In this respect, I think my adaptation of Freud is close to the kind of method Frye worked with.

Frye and Chesterton (1)


In Frye’s criticism, the literary critic should ideally be able to look at a literary work apart from its content, that is, “without making a judgment along the lines of one’s prejudices or one’s commitments in the world” (“Literature as Possession”; CW 21:305).  He recognizes that our way into literature may initially be through writers with identities similar to our own, but for Frye the reader should quickly learn to leave those identities behind, and G. K. Chesterton is one of his standard examples of a critic whose judgment was deformed by his ideological allegiances.  Frye considers the inability to transcend one’s own structure of beliefs and values as a form of anxiety: “There have been many great critics, such as Coleridge or Ruskin, or their followers like G. K. Chesterton and others, who seem to be incapable of making an aesthetic judgment.  They make no statement about literature not coloured by anxieties of some kind” (CW 21:305).  Frye has a lot to say about Ruskin, some of it high praise, whereas Chesterton does not figure prominently in his writing, except as an example of someone who “can’t think of the arts except as a source of homiletic points” (Diaries, 26 Feb. 1949; CW 8:141).

In a future post, I will compare some comments by Chesterton and Frye about the Middle Ages.  I will conclude this instalment with a comment from Chesterton’s Charles Dickens (1906) that has a bearing on the discussion earlier about Frye and Calvinism.  Chesterton sounds rather like Frye interpreting Blake; he is discussing Dickens’s ability to evoke an atmosphere of mystery, with specific reference here to Little Dorrit: “The dark house of Arthur Clennam’s childhood really depresses us; it is a true glimpse into that quiet street in hell, where live the children of that unique dispensation which theologians call Calvinism and Christians devil-worship.”  (I should add, as befits someone who received part of his education in a college founded by Baptists, that I realize there is a lot more that can be said about Calvinism than is contained in Chesterton’s remark!)

Today in the Frye Diaries, 17 September


1942: Still thinking about the movies as a form of popular entertainment.

[119] Another point about ‘what the public wants’ is that there isn’t anywhere else for a young couple to go. Hence out of sheer self-respect they can’t allow themselves to be bored. The dollar they paid to get in is a hole in their expense money: they’re not to walk out of it & leave the dollar behind. Besides, what else are they to do with their evening, read Shakespeare? There’s no use telling them to practice the art of boredom & improve their taste. The situation is there and nobody can do anything about it – I guess that’s got it.