Social Concern, Archetypes, and Determinisms


Responding to Michael Sinding’s The Big Picture:

Thanks for your post, Michael.  The following comments are a revised and augmented version of my original comment to your post.

I think the discussion we are having is very useful, as it forces each of us to examine, clarify, and perhaps even change our positions, which is the point of good dialogue and dialectic. I have found your arguments have made me do a lot of thinking and at least consider that there may be indeed a blindness and stubbornness in my own way of thinking that is worth taking a harder look at. At the same time, I think it is important that someone make as strong a case for Frye as possible. This is after all a Frye blog.

Three specific points you make that I wanted to address:

First, I agree completely that a lot of postmodern criticism is driven by genuine social concern, but, as the saying goes:  the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nor are genuine concern and good intentions, I am sure you would agree, an excuse for intellectual dishonesty or incoherent writing and forms of argument.

Beyond this,  I might make a further point by quoting from an essay I wrote a while back on what I then called the intellectual “treason” of the recent critical schools. Instead of protecting the authority of literature and culture, they have set out to undermine the foundations of that autonomy by the facile equation of literature with ideology.  In doing so they undermine the foundations of their own belief in social justice, since

the intense conviction that lies behind so much contemporary criticism–the belief that it is our duty to root out the effects of power in discourse and to expose the complexity of ideology in all its intricate and cunning disguises–this conviction cannot stand on its own. Ultimately, it depends on something that, however self-evident, however much we may take it for granted, can have come to us only from a myth produced and fostered by the human imagination–an affirmative “vision of fulfilled primary concerns, freedom, health, equality, happiness, love” (WP 310), the vision of a world that, once and for all, makes human sense. (“The Treason of the Clerks,” in Re-Reading Frye, 99)

It is the function of literature, Frye argues, to recreate that myth and vision, and the function of criticism to clarify the vision literature offers, not to project our own ideological anxieties on it.

Secondly, I wanted to pursue the question of  the method of archetypal criticism.  Of all critical theorists Frye is the only one who has offered a comprehensive, inductive, and systematic approach to literature as an field of study.  Frye outlines a good deal of his method, most extensively in Anatomy of Criticism.  Whatever the imperfections of that book, the basic principles Frye never departed from. There is also much that can be inferred about Frye’s method by simple exposure to the way he thinks, and it would be perhaps a real contribution to Frye studies to bring that element of method to the fore. But there  is no denying that there is a method to what Frye is doing, and, to allude to an earlier question of Clayton’s, I think it is related to archetype and the question of why archetypal is or isn’t a good term for the basic principle of Frye’s thinking about literature. Anyway, you have got me thinking and I may have more to say about the question later. And I would love to hear from anyone else on the subject.  Given your deep interest and expertise in cognitive science, it would be great to hear what you have to say.

Thirdly, there is the whole question of paradigm shifts.  The paradigm shift in literary criticism theory, in my mind, was ushered in by Frye, and perhaps just hasn’t stuck yet. The impulse in literary and cultural criticism to seek for models outside itself to make sense out of its own subject matter seems almost irresistible. That may be for reasons that I touch on below. That said, this last quarter century of critical theory and cultural studies and New Historicism, etc. may well be seen in historical retrospect as  a period of marked confusion and fruitless mental darkness.

It is worth observing that all the current forms of critical determinisms offered up in this period can easily be aligned with the forms of criticism Frye identifies in the Anatomy, in his polemical introduction most specifically. In fact, he identifies them and views them as valuable critical modes that are an indispensable part of literary criticism and even of a structural poetics. For example in Notebook 19, written at the end of the sixties, he writes:

“[45] I have occasionally played around with the idea that all determinisms are elements in a manifold criticism. Thus every literary work would have its sexual, “Freudian,” erotic, or fetishistic aspect; also a cultural or class “Marxist” aspect; also a historical “Spengler” aspect, and perhaps a primitive or Frazerian aspect. “

“[349] The point is that literary criticism has to develop canons for–not judging, but–incorporating Marx, Freud, Luther, Paul, Jesus, instead of following determinists to make them standard for critical categories.”

The brains behind critical theory today, in fact, are still the same three guys: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. It is the same hermeneutics of suspicion at work, and it is clear that Frye had completely absorbed their lessons himself by the time he started publishing his ideas. Freud and Marx pervade his writings but they are incorporated into a comprehensive theory of literature that remains subordinated to an imaginative conception of literature and culture The only thing that has changed– besides the contemporary scene’s pronounced sacrifice of clarity, logic, and intellectual honesty to rhetoric and ideology–is that what Frye calls the “Freudian proletariat” and Marxist one have branched out a lot more: the proletariat or excluded group includes now a great variety of oppressed minorities, not simply a social class. But the basic determinisms haven’t changed.

I hope I have not misrepresented you in responding to any of these points.

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