Category Archives: Anatomy of Criticism

Bloom, Frye and Value Judgments

“That was my basic quarrel with my former mentor Northrop Frye. He thinks that evaluation has nothing to do with literary criticism. I would tell him, no, it is not true.” — Harold Bloom in an interview published over the weekend perpetuates his agon with Frye upon which he seems to have staked his reputation and legacy.

Here’s Frye in Anatomy addressing the issue of value judgments in a way that uncannily predicts where Bloom’s own criticism would eventually end up:

The first step in developing a genuine poetics is to recognize and get rid of meaningless criticism, or talking about literature in a way that cannot help to build up a systematic structure of knowledge. This includes all the sonorous nonsense that we so often find in critical generalities, reflective comments, ideological perorations, and other consequences of taking a long view of an unorganized subject. It includes all lists of the “best” novels or poems or writers, whether their particular virtue is exclusiveness or inclusiveness. It includes all casual, sentimental, and prejudiced value judgments, and all the literary chit-chat which makes the reputations of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock exchange. (CW 22, 19)

Previous posts on Bloom here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. That’s a lot of posts, it turns out. We’ll set up a Harold Bloom category to make it easier.

“V for Vendetta” and “Demonic Modulation”


V for Vendetta: “Words will always retain their power”

“First they came for the rich, and I said nothing. Because, you know, fuck the rich.” — Oral graffiti currently making the rounds.

The clip above is V’s pirate-radio speech to the people of London in V for Vendetta. V’s sardonic Guy Fawkes mask is now a favored icon among the disaffected, hacktivists especially. This movie is a hopeful relic from the Bush years, which, at the time of the film’s release, seemed they would never end.

Regarding V and his Guy Fawkes mask — as well as the repeated refrain of “Remember, remember, the fifth of November,” the day of the failed Gunpowder plot of 1605 — the literary principle involved is what Frye called “demonic modulation.” With demonic modulation Frye makes a much needed distinction between “the moral” and “the desirable”:

The moral and the desirable have many important and significant connections, but still morality, which comes to terms with experience and necessity, is one thing, and desire, which tries to escape from necessity, is quite another. Thus literature is as a rule less inflexible than morality, and it owes much of its status as a liberal art to that fact. The qualities that religion and morality call ribald, obscene, subversive, lewd and blasphemous have an essential place in literature but often they can achieve expression only through ingenious techniques of displacement. (AC 156)

Demonic modulation manages this by way of “the deliberate reversal of the customary moral associations of archetypes.” For example, in literature, whatever the current status of received moral standards,

a free and equal society may be symbolized by a band of robbers, pirates, or gypsies; or true love may be symbolized by the triumph of an adulterous liaison over marriage, as in most triangle comedy; [or] by a homosexual passion. . . . (AC 156-7)

In other words, exactly the sorts of things that oppressively “moral” forces in society get most nuts about, usually with a commensurate rise in rhetorical violence, sometimes outright threats of it, and occasionally tragic instances of it.

The traditional Catholic villain Guy Fawkes of seventeenth century England becomes in this film by way of demonic modulation the dark force of wrathful resistance in a somnolent dystopian Britain of the near-future. The movie does seem to possess the power of at least some short-term prophecy; it had picked up on something that was roiling just below the surface of the daily nightmare that was the Bush administration. The silent, simultaneous uprising of the people of London nicely prefigures what seems to have been the spontaneous generation of the Occupy movement; and, more ominously, the death of the tyrant High Chancellor Sutler doesn’t look all that different from the recent death of Muammar Quadafi. To cite another instance of oral graffiti that pops up here and there, “When people on the inside of their glass palaces are mocking the people on the outside, it never ends well for them.”

“As the World Turns”


Wallace on humor, irony, advertising, entertainment and Infinite Jest

Frye in Anatomy: “The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect, as a kind of maddened pedantry” (CW 22, 290)

This seems to be evolving into the go-to excerpt from David Foster Wallace‘s last unfinished novel, The Pale King, but let’s slip it in before it becomes overly familiar. Here’s Wallace’s rendering of the spiritual awakening of college student Chris Fogel:

I was by myself, wearing nylon warm-up pants and a black Pink Floyd tee shirt, trying to spin a soccer ball on my finger and watching the CBS soap opera “As The World Turns” on the room’s little black-and-white Zenith. . . . There was certainly always reading and studying for finals I could do, but I was being a wastoid. . . . Anyhow, I was sitting there trying to spin the ball on my finger and watching the soap opera . . . and at the end of every commercial break, the show’s trademark shot of planet earth as seen from space, turning, would appear, and the CBS daytime network announcer’s voice would say, “You’re watching ‘As the World Turns,’ ” which he seemed, on this particular day, to say more and more pointedly each time—“You’re watching ‘As the World Turns’ ” until the tone began to seem almost incredulous—“You’re watching ‘As the World Turns’ ”—until I was suddenly struck by the bare reality of the statement. . . . It was as if the CBS announcer were speaking directly to me, shaking my shoulder or leg as though trying to arouse someone from sleep—“You’re watching ‘As the World Turns.’ ” . . . I didn’t stand for anything. If I wanted to matter—even just to myself—I would have to be less free, by deciding to choose in some kind of definite way.

The Decline of Literary and Critical Theory

In response to yesterday’s quote of the day on the decline of literary studies, Jonathan Allan commented:

I think this is a debate that is needed, but at the same time, I appreciate and enjoy literary theory. Whenever I hear the “death of the discipline,” I always, for one reason or another, feel a need to rebel. I don’t think it is “theory” that killed literary studies or devalued literary studies, and yet, I am not certain what is the cause of this devaluation.

The problem with the term “literary theory,” is that it has come to mean anything but literary theory: what passes as literary theory is sociology, or linguistic theory, or psychoanalytic theory, or history, or queer theory, feminist theory, even evolutionary theory now, as Scott Herring alludes to in his article. None of this is, properly speaking, literary theory, which would be a theory of literature as an imaginative form of communication that is distinct from other uses of language. This is all laid out in the opening chapters of Words with Power, where Frye distinguishes the logical, descriptive, and rhetorical uses of language from “mythological” or “imaginative” uses of words. The same goes for the term “critical theory,” which is not in its current use a theory of (literary) criticism at all. The latter can only be, according to Frye, a theory concerning the principles of literary criticism, the contexts of which he attempts to outline in Anatomy of Criticism: historical criticism (theory of modes), ethical criticism (theory of symbols), archetypal criticism (theory of myths), rhetorical criticism (theory of genres).

What Lynne Cheney and the radical left (as it has manifested itself in literary studies) have in common is an ideological bias that cares little for literature as an autonomous activity of imaginative recreation, as Frye understands it. By “autonomous,” Frye does not mean that literature is “pure” of historical or ideological content, but that what most matters in literature is the imaginative shaping of that content. This aspect is also the genuinely “critical” aspect of literature that gives it its authority and has the power to remind us of how far, how grotesquely the world we have created departs from a world that makes human sense.

In that light, I do think we can speak of a deterioration, if not the death, of a discipline, when so many of its practitioners are seduced and distracted by principles belonging to other academic or scholarly disciplines than its own, and especially when the approach subordinates the study of literature and culture to socially and politically activist agendas, right or left. It is in fact in pursuing his theory of literature and criticism as an autonomous activity and discipline that Frye came to produce at the same time cultural and social criticism of a very high order–not because he turned for his insights to the worlds of sociology and history.

The Descent of Jewish Humour


Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in a moment clearly descended from the “badkhn” tradition, takes the stage at a Bat Mitzvah as part of a botched effort at score-settling

According to UC Berkley professor Mel Gordon, sardonic Jewish humor emerged from a pogrom in the Ukraine lasting from 1648 to 1651. Jewish elders determined that the massacre was God’s punishment, and so outlawed traditionally raucous shtetl entertainers to encourage communal piety. There was however one exception, the badkhn, who was regarded as a cruel truth-teller rather than a frivolous mirth-maker.

From the Jerusalem Post:

The badkhn was a staple in East European Jewish life for three centuries, mocking brides and grooms at their weddings. He also was in charge of Purim spiels in shtetl society.

His humor was biting, even vicious. He would tell a bride she was ugly, make jokes about the groom’s dead mother and round things off by belittling the guests for giving such worthless gifts. Much of the badkhn’s humor was grotesque, even scatological.

“They would talk about drooping breasts, big butts, small penises,” Gordon said. “We know a lot about them because they were always suing each other about who could tell which fart joke on which side of Grodno.”

It’s that same self-deprecating tone that characterizes the Yiddish-inflected Jewish jokes of the 20th century, Gordon points out. Who is the surly Jewish deli waiter of Henny Youngman fame if not a badkhn, making wisecracks at the customer’s expense? . . .

And that’s how the badkhn became the only Jewish comic permitted in the shtetls, Gordon says, and how his particular brand of sarcastic, bleak humor set the tone for what we know today as Jewish comedy. Before the 1660s, the badkhn was the least popular Jewish entertainer – now he was the sole survivor.

“Jewish humor used to be the same as that of the host country,” Gordon said. “Now it began to deviate from mainstream European humor. It became more aggressive, meaner. All of Jewish humor changed.”

The badkhn’s role was secure from the 1660s to the 1890s and the beginning of the great Jewish migration to America and to the larger cities of Russia and Ukraine.

This character is recognizable in Frye’s account of the “churl” in Anatomy‘s Theory of Myths“:

Such a character [the churlish plain dealer] is appropriate when the tone is ironic enough to get the audience confused about the sense of the social norm: he corresponds roughly to the chorus in a tragedy, which is there for a similar reason. When the tone darkens from the ironic to the bitter, the plain dealer may become a malcontent or railer, who is morally superior to his society…but who may also be to motivated by envy to be much more than another aspect of his society’s evil… (CW 22, 164)

Zero Mostel and Tricky Slaves


New Comedy in a nutshell — including a brother and sister kidnapped in infancy by pirates — from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  This clip includes Mostel as Pseudolus (right), Jack Gilford as Hysterium (left) and Buster Keaton (centre) as Erroneous.  (Michael Hordern makes a brief appearance as Senex.)

Today is the great comic actor Zero Mostel‘s birthday (1915-1977). His performance as Pseudolus in Richard Lester’s 1966 film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum nicely represents the eiron character Frye in Anatomy calls the “tricky slave.” Then again, the plot of A Funny Thing is a playbook for the formulaic conventions of New Comedy, to the extent that two of the characters bear the names of the types Frye identifies them by: Senex and Miles Gloriosus.

From the “The Mythos of Spring” section of “Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths”:

Another central eiron figure is the type entrusted with hatching the schemes which bring about the hero’s victory.  This character in Roman comedy is almost always a tricky slave (dolosus servus). . . . The vice, to give him that name, is very useful to a comic dramatist because he acts from pure love of mischief, and he can set a comic action going with the minimum of motivation. . . One of the tricky slaves in Plautus, in a soliloquy, boasts that he is the architectus of the comic action: such a character carries out the will of the author to reach a happy ending.  He is in fact the spirit of comedy itself. . . . (CW 22, 161)

Blogging “Anatomy of Criticism”

Jonathan McCalmont at Ruthless Culture and a number of other bloggers will be posting on Anatomy of Criticism, beginning March 7th:

few of us are going to be blogging about Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957).  We are each going to take it in turns to write a position paper on a particular section of the book and then post it and discuss it over at Maureen Kincaid Speller’s blog Paper Knife.  The first essay is due to go up on the seventh of March.  I’ll link to it when it goes up but if you are looking for an excuse to read through a classic work of literary criticism and discuss it, then this is your chance.

Frye Alert: The Archetypal Archive

Image from Neil Gaiman’sSandman 15

Gene Phillips of The Archetypal Archive has a post up today, “The Empiricist of Dreams,” that makes extensive reference to Frye.

A sample:

The battle between Freudian reductionism and Jungian amplification has been fought on other fronts, as when Northrop Frye describes the “distinction between two views of literature that has run all through the history of criticism. These two views are the aesthetic and the creative, the Aristotelian and the Longinian, the view of literature as product and the view of literature as process.”—Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, p. 66.

Frye probably borrowed the terms “product and process” from the writings of Alfred North Whitehead, while his opposition of Aristotle and Longinus may remind some readers of this blog of a similar opposition by R.A. Habib, which I reprinted in The Sphere of Longinus. I frankly don’t like Frye’s terms “aesthetic” and “creative,” which Frye himself doesn’t use often, either in the Anatomy or elsewhere. I much prefer the opposition he makes in another essay, quoted here, between a story’s “narrative values” and its “significant values.” In contradistinction to what Frye writes in this section of the Anatomy, I would say that while I agree that Aristotle is indeed more aligned to the view of literature as product, this goes hand-in-hand with a tendency to see literature as a means of transmitting “significant values.” Thus literature is just one step up from rhetoric, in that its purpose is to convey those values through a fictional façade, much as Freud would’ve believed that a dream’s purpose was to convey the psychological truths of sexual repression. In contrast, though Longinus wasn’t without his own concern for “significant values,” on the whole he seems more concerned with pure “narrative values” when he speaks of how poetry’s effects bring forth the internal ecstasy he calls “the sublime.” This in turn squares up with Jung’s tendency to value dream-fantasies for their own communicative power, not as representations of something else.