Chapter 5: Autonomy and the Context of Criticism

If Frye’s reconciliatory aim takes us back to that part of the First Essay where he seeks to unite the Aristotelian and Longinian approaches, it takes us back to the Introduction to the Anatomy as well, for here he argues that the development of a unified structure of knowledge about literature should serve, if not to reconcile the differences among the public critic, the scholar, and the man of taste, at least to provide them a common body of principles on which to proceed with their separate tasks.1 Although we have had several occasions to glance at statements Frye makes in his Introduction, we have not yet considered two important theoretical claims he makes there: one regarding the autonomy and the scientific nature of criticism; the other regarding the status of value judgments in critical theory. The Introduction has aroused more controversy than any other single part of Frye’s writing. Some of his detractors, in fact, have become so caught up in debating the issues raised here that they have never gotten beyond the first two dozen pages, which is one of the reasons I have chosen to analyze these issues only after having looked at the Anatomy itself in some detail. Another reason is that the Introduction is admittedly a polemical one. As a reaction against some emphases in the 1950s which Frye felt to be badly motivated, it tends toward an overstatement of views expressed more cautiously elsewhere. The Polemical Introduction is important, however, and our first obligation in dealing with it is to understand what Frye is saying.

Critical Autonomy

I have remarked previously that Frye’s theory of literature is developed from an attempt to answer two questions: What is the total subject of study of which criticism forms a part? and how does one arrive at poetic meaning? In answering the first question, Frye rejects the notion {133} that criticism is a subdivision of literature, a rejection based on the commonsense observation that apart from some aspect of criticism literature is not a subject of study at all. Instead it is an object of study which can be neither understood nor taught except as criticism develops its own autonomous principles. The fact that literature consists of words, Frye says,

makes us confuse it with the talking verbal disciplines. The libraries reflect our confusion by cataloguing criticism as one of the subdivisions of literature. Criticism, rather, is to art what history is to action and philosophy to wisdom: a verbal imitation of a human productive power which in itself does not speak. And just as there is nothing which the philosopher cannot consider philosophically, and nothing which the historian cannot consider historically, so the critic should be able to construct and dwell in a conceptual universe of his own. (AC, 12)

Such a conceptual universe is what Frye sets out to build. His goal is stated forthrightly: to give his reasons for believing that “a synoptic view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism” is both possible and necessary and “to provide a tentative version” of one such synoptic view.2 His first assumption, therefore, is the existence of a unified structure of knowledge about literature which criticism should progressively and systematically develop.

The Anatomy itself is witness to Frye’s claim that such a structure of knowledge is possible. That it is necessary, on the other hand, derives from two convictions. First of all, critics are in need of a handbook, a contemporary Poetics, which can perform the same function as basic theoretical manuals do in other disciplines. The book reviewer, the literary historian, the philosophical and the formal critic all need a shareable body of theoretical knowledge which, by involving them in a large context, can serve as a common point of reference and thereby work to reconcile the differences among their opposing “schools.” A synoptic view is required in the second place because criticism itself needs an autonomy, an independence from externally derived frameworks. Autonomy is a concept frequently encountered in Frye’s work and needs to be examined in greater detail.

His argument for critical independence is rooted in his view that criticism has tended to attach itself to, and thereby derive its conceptual framework from, other disciplines or ideologies. “Critical principles,” he says, “cannot be taken over ready-made from theology, philosophy, politics, science, or any combination of these” (AC, 7). If they are, the result is the fallacy of “determinism,” that is, the fallacy which sets up a causal relationship between one’s primary interest and a particular {134} subject of study, as when a geographer or an economist, for example, seeks to explain all historical events solely in terms of geographical or economic causes. To assimilate criticism to another discipline is to give “one the illusion of explaining one’s subject while studying it, thus wasting no time” (AC, 6). There are many such determinisms in criticism, according to Frye, each of which—whether Marxist, Freudian, existentialist, Thomist, liberal-humanist, Jungian, neoclassical, or whatnot—uses some framework external to literature as its conceptual base. This is parasitism (AC, 6). It assumes that the conceptual framework for criticism cannot be derived from literature itself and thus forces the critic to become a second-class academic citizen, dependent upon the postulates of some other discipline. “To subordinate criticism to an externally derived critical attitude,” Frye argues,

is to exaggerate the values in literature that can be related to the external source, whatever it is. It is all too easy to impose on literature an extra-literary schematism, a sort of religio-political color-filter, which makes some poets leap into prominence and others show up as dark and faulty. All that the disinterested critic can do with such a color-filter is to murmur politely that it shows things in a new light and is indeed a most stimulating contribution to criticism. Of course such filtering critics usually imply, and often believe, that they are letting their literary experience speak for itself and are holding their other attitudes in reserve, the coincidence between their critical valuations and their religious or political views being silently gratifying to them but not explicitly forced on the reader. Such independence of criticism from prejudice, however, does not invariably occur even with those who best understand criticism.3 

The obvious question now is in what respect Frye’s own conceptual framework differs from those of the deterministic methods he seeks to avoid. Is his method free of what he calls “extra-literary schematisms” and “color-filters”? The superficial answer is that Frye’s claim for the autonomy of his theory is suspect, since he goes to other disciplines for a large part of his conceptual apparatus: witness the terminology he has appropriated from psychoanalysis (projection, displacement, dream), Biblical symbology (levels of meaning, anagogic phase), and cultural anthropology (ritual, myth, archetype). These obvious intellectual debts are the reason Frye is sometimes identified as a critic who has derived his primary assumptions from psychology, anthropology, and Biblical symbology. The contradiction, however, between his theoretical statements about critical autonomy and his practice of freely borrowing from other disciplines is more apparent than real.

{135} In the first place, Frye’s borrowings are less substantive than terminological. Being a “terminological buccaneer,” as he calls himself (AC, 362), means that he can pirate a word like “displacement” without feeling an obligation to retain the meaning which the term has in Freudian psychology. Similarly, the meaning which Frye attaches to the word “archetype” is altogether different from Jung’s use of the term.4 Even those terms he appropriates from other literary critics are often redefined to suit his own purposes, Aristotle’s mythos and Coleridge’s “initiative,” for example.

Tzvetan Todorov has called into question Frye’s claim for autonomy, pointing out that he devotes very little attention to a theoretical discussion of such pairs of categories as sup­erior/in­fer­ior, veri­similitude/fan­tasy, real/ideal, intro­vert/extro­vert, in­tellectual/personal, social reconciliation/social exclusion.

What is striking in this list from the very first is its arbitrariness: why are these categories and not others useful in describing a literary text? One looks for a closely reasoned argument which would prove this importance; but there is no trace of such an argument. Further, we cannot fail to notice a characteristic common to these categories: their non-literary nature. They are all borrowed from philosophy, from psychology, or from a social ethic, and moreover not from just any psychology or philosophy. Either these terms are to be taken in a special, strictly literary sense; or—and since we are told nothing about such a sense, this is the only possibility available to us—they lead us outside of literature. Whereupon literature becomes no more than a means of expressing philosophical categories. Its autonomy is thus profoundly contested—and we again contradict one of the theoretical principles stated, precisely, by Frye himself.5 

“As destructive criticism,” remarks David H. Richter, “this is devastating.”6 But it is hardly devastating if we keep separate, as we should, the issues of critical assumptions and principles, on the one hand, and critical language, on the other. Todorov confuses these.7 The issue is not whether extraliterary influences can be found in Frye, for they are obvious and abundant; many discursive thinkers “interpenetrate” Frye’s critical vision, as he freely admits.8 The issue rather is what function these influences perform in his total discourse. This in turn depends upon the criteria he uses to separate criticism from other disciplines. These criteria show, in the second place, that the inconsistency between his theory and practice is only apparent.

In The Critical Path, where Frye discusses again the relationship of criticism to other disciplines, he says: “I have always insisted that {136} criticism cannot take presuppositions from elsewhere, which always means wrenching them out of their real context, and must work out its own” (CP, 16). The question thus becomes defining the “real context” of criticism; and Frye’s answer boils down to whether literary meaning is conceived of in intentional or nonintentional terms. He says that when he first began to write on critical theory, “all meaning in literature seemed to be referred first of all to the context of intentional meaning, always a secondary and sometimes the wrong context. That is, the primary meaning of a literary work was assumed to be the kind of meaning that a prose paraphrase could represent. This primary meaning was called the ‘literal’ meaning, a phrase with a luxuriant growth of semantic tangles around it” (CP, 15). Placing poetry in this literal or intentional context is to see poetic meaning as “related to some verbal area of study outside literature” (CP, 16). This is a familiar New Critical dictum and one we have seen Frye appeal to before.9 But it lies at the heart of his distinction between an autonomous criticism and one dependent upon the presuppositions of another discipline. Literature, in short, is different from other kinds of verbal expression in that it is nondiscursive, nonintentional, nondescriptive. And a criticism which does not begin with this assumption, according to Frye’s argument, will inevitably move outward into some other discipline for its conceptual presuppositions.

The polemic against deterministic approaches is much less absolute in The Critical Path than in the Anatomy. We find, for example, that Frye does not condemn all biographical approaches as deterministic, only those which assume that biography is the “essential key” to poetic meaning (CP, 17). Moreover, only “some” centrifugal methods are “badly motivated” (CP, 14), and documentary approaches must be used by the centripetal critic with “tact,” not banned altogether (CP, 18). Frye therefore admits into critical discourse the contributions of other disciplines as long as the nonintentional rather than the intentional view of poetry is primary. Studying literature in the context of other literature means we will be less likely to capitulate to some “extra-literary schematism” even though other disciplines may interpenetrate the literary context.

Criticism as Science

To achieve his goal, Frye proposes “an examination of literature in terms of a conceptual framework derivable from an inductive survey of the literary field” (AC, 7). He suggests that such an examination can and should be scientific. The view of criticism as science has proved to be a troublesome point for some of Frye’s readers, not all of whom {137} have been awaren of the two distinct senses in which he uses the word “scientific.”10 

The first sense derives from his claim, simply, that critical inquiry should be systematic, inductive, and causal as opposed to random and intuitive; that it should be self-contained rather than dependent upon the principles of other disciplines; and that it should attempt a coherent and progressive consolidation in organizing its materials (AC, 7–8). Because there is a kind of critical inquiry based on rational and systematic analysis—a kind of criticism distinguishable from what R.S. Crane calls, on the one hand, “cultivated causerie,” and, on the other, the application to literature of general systems of ideas11—then Frye’s use of the term scientific can be said to describe such an approach.

But the second sense of the word arises from Frye’s claim that criticism, considered historically, still exists in a state of naive induction, whereas other disciplines, such as physics, history, biology, and astronomy, have moved beyond primitivism to the status of pure science. The transition from naive induction is accomplished when a discipline, rather than taking the data of immediate experience as its explanatory and structural principles, conceives of the data themselves as the phenomena to be explained. Physics, for example, “began by taking the immediate sensations of experience, classified as hot, cold, moist, and dry, as fundamental principles. Eventually physics turned inside out, and discovered that its real function was rather to explain what heat and moisture were” (AC, 15). The study of history has passed through a similar revolution. In the chronicles of the naive historian there is no distinction between the recorded events and the structure of the chronicle, whereas the scientific historian, rather than merely cataloguing events chronologically, sees them as data to be explained and is thus forced to view them from the perspective of a larger interpretative framework. Frye argues by analogy that criticism, currently in a state of naive induction because its practitioners insist on treating every literary work as a datum, needs to pass beyond the primitive state to a scientific one. And this can be accomplished only when criticism seeks to explain literary works in terms of a conceptual framework which is independent from the datum itself. Just as physics has discovered the theoretical framework of relativity, so criticism needs “to leap to a new ground from which it can discover what the organizing or containing forms of its conceptual framework are. Criticism seems to be badly in need of a coordinating principle, a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as parts of a whole” (AC, 16).

Frye’s boldly stated purpose is to develop such a synoptic hypothesis, and his first step in doing so is to assume that there is a total coherence among literary works.

{138} We have to adopt the hypothesis, then, that just as there is an order of nature behind the natural sciences, so literature is not a piled aggregate of “works,” but an order of words. A belief in an order of nature, however, is an inference from the intelligibility of the natural sciences; and if the natural sciences ever completely demonstrated the order of nature they would presumably exhaust their subject. Similarly, criticism, if a science, must be totally intelligible, but literature, as the order of words which makes the science possible, is, so far as we know, an inexhaustible source of new critical discoveries, and would be even if new works of literature ceased to be written. (AC, 17)

It is clear that when Frye speaks of criticism as scientific in this sense he means something much different from the systematic and rational formulation of a theory; one could develop a systematic and internally rational theory which would be an “anatomy of nonsense,” to use Yvor Winters’s phrase. But to say that hypothetical structures of criticism and natural science are or should be the same means that the kinds of tests that are applied to purely scientific hypotheses may be applied to critical hypotheses and statements as well. Whether Frye’s theory can meet the demands of such tests is problematic and will be examined later. For the moment I want only to observe, first, that Frye’s concern to establish the autonomy of criticism stems from his belief that criticism is not a second-class subdivision of anything, but a discipline deserving its own theoretical structure, and, second, that Frye’s view of “criticism as science” has two different meanings.

Value Judgments

Lying behind Frye’s effort to free criticism from a dependence upon other disciplines and his concern to make critical inquiry scientific is an assumption which we encounter at a number of places in his writings: the radical disjunction between knowledge and experience, criticism and taste, fact and value, objective intellect and subjective feeling. This assumption is perhaps most clearly evident in his much-discussed yet often misunderstood ideas about value judgments. In seeking to understand his position, we should recognize that Frye has never claimed the discussion of value to lie altogether outside the function of criticism. What he does contend is that certain kinds of evaluative statements do not properly belong to the kind of criticism which he is mainly concerned to establish. Or to put the matter differently, Frye is not intent on purging all value judgments from criticism: his own work is replete with expressions of value, implicit and explicit. He is intent rather on {139} arguing that value judgments should be neither the starting point nor the goal of criticism. Since the basis of this claim is the fundamental dichotomy between fact and value, or between knowledge and experience, it is not difficult to see why criticism, defined as a structure of thought derived inductively from the total order of words which constitutes literature, cannot embrace evaluation as its proper end. In one sense Frye’s argument is circular and, if we grant his assumption, irrefutable: if criticism is a structure of knowledge, and if knowledge and value are separate, then value cannot be a part of criticism. But this is too simple an account of Frye’s view.

In the Anatomy he distinguishes between what he calls comparative and positive value judgments (AC, 20). Most of his polemic is directed against two kinds of comparative judgments: biographical evaluations, which view a literary work as a product, and tropical evaluations, which view the work as possession (AC, 20–21). Both kinds of comparative evaluations are rhetorical: critics who use them praise or censure literary works in terms either of the author, in which case questions about the greatness of the author’s personality are paramount, or of the audience, in which case the issue is the effect of style and meaning on the reader. But in either case, Frye insists, the basis of appeal is some “concealed social, moral, or intellectual analogy” (AC, 23). Such analogies, he claims, lie behind all attempts at evaluative comparison; and since any effort to promote or demote authors, like Arnold’s touchstones of high seriousness, will betray the subjective preferences hidden in the analogy, such efforts belong to the history of taste rather than to criticism. “Comparative estimates of value are really inferences, most valid when silent ones, from critical practice, not expressed principles guiding its practice” (AC, 25).

Positive evaluations, on the other hand, treat the goodness or genuineness of a poem, and because they derive in part from one’s direct experience of literature rather than from an extraliterary prejudice, Frye regards them as somewhat less suspect than comparative judgments. Positive values, he says, are born of “informed good taste” (AC, 27), that is, taste founded on both experience and knowledge. Nevertheless, Frye insists that positive value judgments can never serve as the aim of criticism, and he issues several caveats against overestimating their importance.

In the first place, he says, “it is superstition to believe that the swift intuitive certainty of good taste is infallible. Good taste follows and is developed by the study of literature; its precision results from knowledge, but does not produce knowledge. Hence the accuracy of any critic’s good taste is no guarantee that its inductive basis in literary experience is adequate” (AC, 27). Here we have an explicit formulation {140} of the priority of criticism to taste: positive value judgments depend on good taste which depends in turn on disinterested knowledge.

Second, Frye claims that however important to criticism the experience of literature may be, such experience is, “like literature itself, unable to speak” and thus can never be recaptured by critical terminology (AC, 27). The important assumption here is the disjunction between knowledge and experience. In another essay Frye says that criticism proper

is categorical and descriptive: it tries to identify a writer’s work. Now even judicial criticism [criticism based on taste] never leads logically to a value-judgement: value-judgements may be assumed at one end or emitted at the other, but the relation between them is rhetorical only. The source of the confusions involved here is the failure to distinguish criticism from the direct experience of literature. Direct experience, developed by practice and habit, is the basis of good taste, and the normal result of good taste is a value-judgement. Good taste in itself is inarticulate: it feels and knows, but cannot speak. Value-judgements may be asserted, intuited, assumed, argued about, explained, attacked or defended: what they can never be is demonstrated.12 

They cannot be demonstrated, of course, because of the prior assumption that categorical and descriptive fact, which constitutes knowledge, is entirely separate from opinionated and prejudicial judgment, which constitutes taste. Frye’s emphasis, however, is that a scientific criticism must always assume the priority of the former. This conviction is reiterated in the following passage, intended by Frye to be a succinct summary of his views on value judgments:

(1) Every value-judgment contains within it an antecedent categorical judgment, as we obviously cannot tell how good a thing is until we know what it is. (2) Inadequate value-judgments nearly always owe their inadequacy to an insufficient knowledge of what the categories of literature are. (3) Categorical judgments are based on a knowledge that can be learned and which should constantly increase; value-judgments are based on a skill derived only from such knowledge as we already have. (4) Therefore, knowledge, or scholarship, has priority to value-judgments, constantly corrects their perspective, and always has the power of veto over them, whereas subordinating knowledge to value-judgments leads to impossible pendantries. (FI, 43–44)

Frye’s view of value judgments is another example of his attack on critical provincialism. It permits him to grant equal status, in his synoptic perspective, to all literary works. Popular, primitive, and prophetic art can take its place alongside the elite, sophisticated, and urbane. “Provincialism,” writes E.W. Mandel, “clearly has something to do with boundaries, and it is revealing to notice what a difference can be suggested in the quality of a work simply by altering the boundaries within which it is placed.” In a criticism concerned with “first principles,” he adds, we are interested in

the foundations and structure of one of the central humanistic disciplines, and it follows that we are not interested in personality or gossip, but in theory or idea. From this point of view we can define provincialism, as in effect Professor Frye defines it in the Anatomy of Criticism, as the failure to suspect the existence of a systematic criticism distinct from the history of taste. Provincialism here appears to be a derivative of a particular theory of criticism, the theory that criticism is parasitic rather than autonomous, and that therefore it can never deserve serious attention on its own merits.13 

This is certainly one of the reasons for Frye’s wanting to expel matters of taste and comparative judgments from the house of critical knowledge: provincialism in both art and criticism has no place in the free and classless society which is his cultural ideal.14 

Literature and Life: The Question of Literary Autonomy

Frye’s doctrine of value judgments derives from a fundamental assumption which separates knowledge from experience. The same assumption underlies his strong and recurring emphasis on the independence of criticism from other disciplines and of literature from life. We should not be deceived by the polemics of his Introduction, however, into thinking of his solution to these matters as simplistic. The question of literary autonomy has been an especially thorny problem for Frye. He refers to it as the “central dilemma of literature,” a dilemma suggested by the traditional opposition between delight and instruction (SS, 169).

If literature is made out of other literature, as Frye says, then its relationship to life would not appear to figure importantly. And if it is unrelated to life, there is little danger of its integrity being injured by appeals to ethical or instructive ends: it can remain an autonomous object of disinterested study, detached from all value except aesthetic contemplation for its own sake. Such a view, however, does not accurately represent Frye’s position. It is true that he has often been accused of ignoring historical, moral, and social realities, of slighting any {142} literary response which is not disengaged from direct experience, and of retreating into the timeless and amoral vacuum of literary archetype and vision. The feeling is widespread that his views on the nature and function of both literature and criticism commit him to an art-for-art’s-sake elitism and to a view of poetry as nothing more than convention.15 But this assessment is a caricature of Frye’s views. One such caricature has been drawn by Frederick Crews. In an outspoken essay entitled “Anaesthetic Criticism,” Crews takes the position that Frye represents everything that is wrong with contemporary poetics, and he sets out to develop a critical framework in conscious opposition to Frye’s method.16 Crews’s strictures against Frye are best understood in terms of the constructive theory he himself advances. And this is based on the assumption that contemporary criticism has paid too little attention to the direct experience of literature. In his effort to redirect criticism toward a concern for the literary response, he turns to psychoanalysis for his theoretical foundations.

Crews’s argument proceeds deductively. He begins with a definition of man and draws from it certain inferences about the power of psychoanalytic explanation and the nature of art. He rejects the “work-itself” doctrine of recent poetics, and thus he seldom speaks of poetry as if it has some kind of reality apart from the writer or reader. If, in order to characterize Crews’s position, we adopt the familiar rhetorical poet-poem-audience division, it is clear that his fundamental interests relate to the creative process and to the response of the audience—in his words, to “the making and apprehension of artworks” (14). Most often he focuses upon the latter. The first requisite of good criticism, he says, is “the capacity to be moved” (19). And this emphasis is most readily apparent in the reasons which underlie his indictment of contemporary criticism. He claims that recent poetic theory has become “anaesthetic” because it has not properly conceived of the function of art:

A criticism that explicitly or implicitly reduces art to some combination of moral content and abstract form and genre conventions is literally an anaesthetic criticism. It insulates the critic and his readers from the threat of affective disturbance. . . . All literary criticism aims to make the reading experience more possible for us, but anaesthetic criticism assumes that this requires keeping caged the anxieties that the artist set free and then recaptured. (13)

Since this dialectic of liberation and recapture constitutes the essence of literature, Crews believes that criticism needs not a procedure for cataloguing various forms of the contest—a procedure he attributes to Frye—but a method for interpreting responses. How artistic effects {143} come about is the question that most intrigues him, and he argues that a psychoanalytically oriented criticism can answer this question more completely than rival approaches. More than once he suggests that the disinterested posture of many critics springs from some deep-seated aversion to actually confronting literature. “The very routine of one’s method,” he says, “becomes a barrier to the deep involvement which should energize all criticism” (18). His ultimate concern, then, is not with what literature is abstractly but with what is does concretely, with what issues from the reader’s confrontation with the literary text.17 

The first part of Crews’s essay is devoted largely to establishing the methodological validity of using an extraliterary framework, one that is “neither derived from literature nor primarily meant to apply to literature” (1). His polemic is directed against the prevalent tendency tc renounce “methods that would plainly reveal literary determinants” (1). This becomes his bete noire, and he sees Frye as the chief promulgator of the doctrine that critics should not stray outside literature in developing their fundamental principles. Such a notion, he says, is “intellectually indefensible” (2).

As Crews’s polemic progresses, it becomes clear that he objects not so much to Frye’s argument for the autonomy of criticism as he does to the entire enterprise outlined in Anatomy of Criticism. He finds the Anatomy to be symptomatic of current critical anaesthesia. He regrets that critics neglect the “urges” of literary causality and that they have too much “reverence for the all-sufficient text.” He sees their systems as apologies “for the most routine academic drudgery.” He says that they make a simple equation between merit and borrowed thematic content, that they are too rational and disinterested, that they are not concerned with how literature moves us, and that their criticism leads only to an unhumanistic and pretentious gentility. Crews advances, in fact, two distinct complaints. On the one hand, he presents an apology for using extraliterary hypotheses: thus Frye becomes his whipping boy for failing to see that criticism cannot be autonomous. On the other hand, he is objecting to the “dull, safe, provincial work” (10) which he feels criticism of Frye’s variety supports: thus his implicit suggestion that Frye has not properly conceived of the function of art, that he has been asking the wrong questions.

There are several attractive suggestions in the constructive theory Crews advances, but his critique of Frye rests upon half-truth and misrepresentation. In the first place, it is important to recognize that much of Crews’s complaint makes sense only in terms of premises which are not Frye’s. Unless it can be established that Frye and Crews are talking about the same thing, there can be no basis for either agreement or disagreement. As R.S. Crane has cogently argued, “there {144} can be no genuine refutation of a critical position except within the particular framework of concepts and rules of inference in which it has been asserted.” Most critical disagreements, he adds, “can be reduced to quarrels between opponents who are really talking about different things or who are talking about them in different ways.”18 A case in point is Frye’s insistence in the Polemical Introduction on the autonomy of criticism. Crews views this as “intrinsically anti-humanistic” and calculated “to close off the possibility that one line of investigation might be fruitfully pursued to its end” (13). But Frye’s claim is intelligible only in terms of his purpose, which, in the Anatomy, is not to discover the proper ends or uses of literature but to determine the principles by which the whole of literature can be organized and by which individual works can be understood as they relate to other works. Frye does not say that literature is unrelated to life or to the direct experience of the reader. He says simply that these relations cannot be the basis for systematic critical knowledge.

Crews’s complaint does not take account of the separation in the Anatomy between knowledge and experience, between fact and value. To frown upon Frye’s caveat about taking “definite positions,” as Crews does, without seeing this statement in the context of Frye’s insistence that the direct experience of literature lies outside the kind of knowledge he is attempting to establish, is to misrepresent his argument. Frye’s statement about “definite positions” comes in the course of an extended discussion about the subjective basis of comparative value judgments. Thus Crews distorts Frye’s statements about externally derived critical attitudes by not placing them in the context of Frye’s argument. He deals only with Frye’s inference, refusing to confront the hypothesis from which the inference is drawn. The result is that the two critics are really talking about different things.19,

Frye’s case for the autonomy of criticism is perhaps somewhat overstated in the Polemical Introduction. But his central intent is clear: to caution against using literature for the purpose of documenting some sociological, religious, or psychological thesis. He would claim that to corroborate Freud by finding literary illustrations for Freudian hypotheses is not very illuminating for criticism, though it may be for psychoanalysis. Crews maintains, however, that Frye means much more than this: “Frye is asserting that the critic, if he is to retain his objectivity, must derive his principles ‘solely’ from his inductive survey of literary works” (2). What Frye in fact says is that such a survey is merely the first step a literary critic should take (AC, 6–7). He also says that “the next step is to realize that criticism has a variety of neighbors, and that the critics must enter into relations with them in any way that guarantees his [sic] own independence” (AC, 19).

{145} We have already seen that Frye himself goes to a number of other disciplines, not the least of which is psychoanalysis, for his own conceptual apparatus. His discussions of manifest and latent content, his concepts of displacement and existential projection, and his emphasis on the relationship of literature to dreams indicate a clear indebtedness to Freud. A number of passages in the Anatomy are clearly influenced by psychoanalysis: Frye’s discussion, for example, of the relationship of poetry to desire and repugnance, to wish fulfillment and anxiety. These remarks are not meant to represent Frye as a disguised psychoanalytic critic; they are intended simply to illustrate that Frye’s principles are not—Crews’s claim to the contrary—derived solely from literature itself. The issue for Frye is not that criticism is prevented from appropriating terminology or concepts from intellectual developments outside its own field. It is rather the use to which these borrowings are put within the framework of a given critical discourse. The framework of Crews’s position is pragmatic; he is interested in the effects of literature interpreted psychologically. In such a framework it would make little sense to speak of the autonomy of either literature or criticism. The framework of Frye’s position is contextual; he is interested in looking at literature—at least as an initial step—as a nonintentional form of writing. In such a framework, it does make sense to speak of literature as self-contained.

Part of Crews’s failure to understand Frye results from his refusal to place Frye’s statements in the framework of general assumptions from which they derive. Part of his failure comes from an unwillingness to reveal the context of Frye’s statements on a particular issue, like that of value judgments. Moreover, there are several inconsistencies between Crews’s own position and his overall assessment of Frye. After condemning Frye’s concerns as useless and irrelevant, for example, he urges that his position not be misunderstood:

Let me emphasize that psychoanalytic discourse properly seeks to show how individuals and groups respond to a totality of inner and outer conditions, and that for this task an awareness of nonpsychological forces is indispensable. As applied to literature this position not only welcomes but insists upon knowledge of every operative factor, including genre, convention, rhetorical devices, philosophical intent, audience, class, and personal background. What psychological analysis disputes is not the usefulness of such information, but the equation of it with literary experience. (22)

Now this concession cuts across Crews’s earlier claims about the dehumanizing implications in Frye’s study of genre, archetypal themes, and historical context. None of these things, moreover, is ever equated in {146} Frye’s criticism with the literary experience. To indict Frye for a position he does not hold is unfair; and at the same time to welcome and insist upon the kind of knowledge he has contributed to criticism is to be guilty of an inconsistency.20 

Crews’s essay raises the question as to whether Frye does in fact show an unqualified reverence for the “all-sufficient text.” Does his system always point inward to the work itself? Is he unconcerned with the relationship of literature to life? Does his attention to questions of form and convention necessarily mean that he must abandon all interest in the social context of literature and criticism? A formidable amount of Frye’s writing, especially in recent years, has been directed toward precisely the issues Crews accuses him of slighting or neglecting altogether. Even in the Anatomy, where Frye’s primary concern is the formal nature of literature, we see his willingness to confront such questions as the role of literature in society, the ethical ends of art, and the social function of criticism. These issues are but a part of a much larger concern, what we might call a general theory of culture. Because of the popular conception of Frye as an exclusively formal theorist, this aspect of his work has been either slighted or, as in the case of critics like Crews, overlooked. “As some of those who write about me are still asserting that I ignore the social reference of literary criticism,” Frye says in the Preface to The Stubborn Structure (1970), “the sub-title [Essays on Criticism and Society] calls the attention of those who read me to the fact that I have written about practically nothing else” (SS, x). The same point applies to The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism, a book published the following year. The social reference of criticism, in short, forms an important part of Frye’s work; we will not have accounted for his critical theory without examining it. It is clear from the Tentative Conclusion to the Anatomy that Frye neither endorses the view that criticism is finally autonomous nor accepts the idea that literature is aesthetically self-contained. He speaks of the necessity for critics becoming “more aware of the external relations of criticism as a whole with other disciplines” (AC, 342), of the “revolutionary act of consciousness” involved in the response to literature (AC, 344), and of the obligation of criticism to recover the social function of art (AC, 345). It is “hardly honest,” he says, for criticism “to shrink altogether from [these] larger issues” (AC, 343). In confronting the “larger issues,” Frye examines a number of alternatives the critic might take, rejecting some and trying to reconcile others to his Romantic view of the imagination. His approach is not altogether systematic, but it does appear that he wants to suggest a way that each of the four kinds of criticism in the Anatomy (historical, ethical, archetypal, and rhetorical) is related to a wider area of humanistic concern.

{147} First, Frye expands the reference of “historical criticism” to mean not just the codification of the heritage of the past but the recreation of the past in a new context. “The preoccupation of the humanities with the past,” he says,

is sometimes made a reproach against them by those who forget that we face the past: it may be shadowy, but it is all that there is. Plato draws a gloomy picture of man staring at the flickering shapes made on the wall of the objective world by a fire behind us like the sun. But the analogy breaks down when the shadows are those of the past, for the only light we can see them by is the Promethean fire within us. The substance of these shadows can only be in ourselves, and the goal of historical criticism, as our metaphors about it often indicate, is a kind of self-resurrection, the vision of a valley of dry bones that takes on the flesh and blood of our vision. The culture of the past is not only the memory of mankind, but our own buried life, and study of it leads to a recognition scene, a discovery in which we see, not our past lives, but the total cultural form of our present life. It is not only the poet but his reader who is subject to the obligation to “make it new.” (AC, 345–46)

Therefore a historical criticism which sees art only in terms of the past must be balanced by a sense of the contemporary relevance of the past. Such an approach, Frye claims, can lead to an expansion of our perspective in the present. This view has been anticipated in the Polemical Introduction where he says (1) that in historical criticism, we study literature “as we do the stars, seeing their interrelationships but not approaching them”; and (2) that historical criticism therefore “needs to be complemented by a corresponding activity growing out of tropical criticism” (AC, 24). He does not mean that the critic should use art to support social or political causes; at least criticism cannot be based on these ends, for they lead to a moral or revolutionary perspective which slights the present in favor of the future. “As soon as we make culture a definite image of a future and perhaps attainable society, we start selecting and purging a tradition, and all the artists who don’t fit (an increasing number as the process goes on) have to be thrown out” (AC, 346). Thus, just as an uncorrected historical criticism can lead to a deadening reverence for the archaic, so an uncorrected ethical criticism can lead to a futurism based on indoctrination. Both approaches are provincial, and neither, according to Frye, is anchored in the present in any positive way.

This leads him to reconsider the implications of ethical criticism as he has defined it in the Second Essay. There, in his discussion of {148} fourth-phase symbolism, he maintains that art in its archetypal aspect is an ethical instrument. That is, it becomes more than an object of aesthetic contemplation because, archetypically, it is a product of civilization, “a vision of the goals of human work” (AC, 113). “In terms of his moral significance,” Frye says in the Second Essay, “the poet reflects, and follows at a distance, what his community really achieves through its work. Hence the moral view of the artist is invariably that he ought to assist the work of his society by framing workable hypotheses, imitating human action and thought in such a way as to suggest realizable modes of both.”21 As attractive as this view is for Frye, he finally rejects it because it represents art as “useful and functional,” serving the external goals of truth and goodness (AC, 112–15). Thus he is led (in the Second Essay) from the archetypal phase, where poetry is related to civilization, to the anagogic phase, where it is “disinterested and liberal, and stands on its own feet” (AC, 115).

In the Tentative Conclusion, Frye raises the issue again, and his solution turns out to be the same, though it is formulated in somewhat different terms. Beginning with Arnold’s axiom that “culture seeks to do away with classes,” he says:

The ethical purpose of a liberal education is to liberate, which can only mean to make one capable of conceiving society as free, classless, and urbane. No such society exists, which is one reason why a liberal education must be deeply concerned with works of imagination. The imaginative element in works of art, again, lifts them clear of the bondage of history. Anything that emerges from the total experience of criticism to form a part of liberal education becomes, by virtue of that fact, part of the emancipated and humane community of culture, whatever its original reference. Thus liberal education liberates the works of culture themselves as well as the mind they educate. . . . No discussion of beauty can confine itself to the formal relations of the isolated work of art; it must consider, too, the participation of the work of art in the vision of the goal of social effort, the idea of a complete and classless civilization. This idea of complete civilization is also the implicit moral standard to which ethical criticism always refers. (AC, 347–48)

There are two poles of reference in this passage, the imagination and society, and Frye is unwilling to let either of them be his ultimate norm. If society becomes the goal of criticism, then art becomes subservient to morality or one of the practical sciences, and the detachment of the imaginative vision Frye seeks is lost. Thus, he adds, “the goal of ethical criticism is transvaluation, the ability to look at contemporary social {149} values with the detachment of one who is able to compare them in some degree with the infinite vision of possibilities presented by culture” (AC, 348). On the other hand, if the aesthetic norm is given priority, the social function of criticism withers. Thus he appeals to archetypal criticism to right the balance. “We tried to show in the second essay,” he says, “that the moment we go from the individual work of art to the sense of the total form of the art, the art becomes no longer an object of aesthetic contemplation but an ethical instrument, participating in the work of civilization. In this shift to the ethical, criticism as well as poetry is involved” (AC, 349).

But Frye also argued in the Second Essay that both ethical and aesthetic norms must ultimately give way, at the anagogic level, to a self-contained literary universe where the critic is a model of Arnold’s disinterestedness, freed from all external goals. Reflecting on this leap, however, he remarks (in the Conclusion) that he was perhaps merely restoring “the aesthetic view on a gigantic scale, substituting Poetry for a mass of poems, aesthetic mysticism for aesthetic empiricism” (AC, 350). Thus, to right the balance once more, he appeals to the critical approach of his Fourth Essay, the argument of which, he says, “led to the principle that all structures in words are partly rhetorical, and hence literary, and that the notion of a scientific or philosophical verbal structure free of rhetorical elements is an illusion. If so, then our literary universe has expanded into a verbal universe, and no aesthetic principle of self-containment will work” (AC, 350).

These are sweeping generalizations, yet they illustrate Frye’s concern to establish, on the one hand, an autonomous conceptual universe while insuring, on the other hand, that this universe is not isolated from culture, society, and humane letters. “I am not wholly unaware,” he says, “that at every step of this argument there are extremely complicated philosophical problems which I am incompetent to solve as such” (AC, 350). Not the least of these is how criticism can be both disinterested and engaged at the same time. Or, we might ask Frye, what is criticism really, the study of self-contained literary form or the relation of literature to social value? His system, of course, will not easily permit these kinds of questions to be asked, for he conceives of criticism as a dialectical axis, having “as one pole the total acceptance of the data of literature, and as the other the total acceptance of the potential value of those data” (AC, 25). This dyadic framework permits him to pursue practically any critical problem he wants, depending on whether his gaze is centripetal or centrifugal—to use the terms of the Second Essay. His primary interest in the Anatomy is centripetal, the inward gaze toward the structure of literature itself. Much of his other work, however, is directed outward toward the social context of {150} literature. In the final analysis Frye does not see “detachment” and “concern,” to use his familiar terms, as contradictory at all; he sees them simply as contrary, that is, as different in emphasis and direction. This is why he can say that

seeing literature as a unity in itself does not withdraw it from a social context: on the contrary, it becomes far easier to see what its place in civilization is. Criticism will always have two aspects, one turned toward the structure of literature and one turned toward the other cultural phenomena that form the social environment of literature. Together, they balance each other: when one is worked on to the exclusion of the other, the critical perspective goes out of focus. If criticism is in proper balance, the tendency of critics to move from critical to larger social issues becomes more intelligible. Such a movement need not, and should not, be due to a dissatisfaction with the narrowness of criticism as a discipline, but should be simply the result of a sense of social context. (CP, 24–25)

This passage comes from a work published a decade and a half after the Anatomy, but it represents what Frye is reaching for in the Conclusion to the earlier work. The application of the principle expressed here, in such later works as The Critical Path and The Modern Century22 as well as in a number of individual essays,23 should dispel the view that Frye’s work represents a myopic commitment to the disinterested study of literary structure.

Another way of describing Frye’s view is to see it as a combination of poetics, which separates literature from other areas of verbal expression, and rhetoric, which does not. Frye himself uses this traditional distinction in The Well-Tempered Critic (1963), a book which seems consciously intent on giving a kind of moral and philosophic rationale for the Anatomy of Criticism. In the last chapter of the later book, he returns once again to consider the two principal ways literature can be viewed, the Aristotelian and Longinian (or Platonic). The difference between the two, according to Frye, is whether art is seen fundamentally as product or as process. He describes the difference by appealing to another series of opposing concepts: Classical versus Romantic, aesthetic versus psychological, hieratic versus demotic, artifact versus expression, imitation versus creation, and the like. From the perspective of “poetics,” Frye says, poeta and poema are assumed to be embedded in a context of nature, whatever concepts or metaphors a critic uses to discuss them. In the Aristotelian tradition nature has reference to the physical order, or to structure and system. In the Longinian tradition it refers to the total creative process (WTC, 111–22).

{151} But when poeta and poema are seen in the context of experience, rather than nature, we leave the province of poetics and enter the realm of rhetoric—the area where authors’ intentions, direct appeals, moral value, evidence, and truth become important considerations. And in this area, Frye argues, criticism, like literature, can also be discussed in terms of either product or process, either detachment or participation. The critic, therefore, “is concerned with two kinds of experience. First, he has to understand and interpret the experience which forms the content of the work he is reading. Second, the impact of the work on him itself is an experience, ‘an experience different in kind from any experience not of art,’ as T.S. Eliot puts it” (WTC, 128). Frye wants to balance the two conceptions of criticism which derive from the two contexts of experience. The disinterested critical response, he says, is fundamental, but never an end in itself (WTC, 140), for the ultimate aim of “literary education is an ethical and participating aim” (WTC, 142).

The reconciliation of the two poles of Frye’s critical axis is accomplished, as already suggested, in terms of his Blakean view of the imagination. The schema I have just been outlining is, after all, a dualistic one. And since Frye is looking for a more unified conception of criticism than any approach that splits off the intellect from the emotions, nature from experience, beauty from truth, and aesthetic from social value, such a dualism for him is inadequate. His solution is to say that these opposites are “inseparable, two halves of one great whole which is the possession of literature” (WTC, 144–45). Perhaps this should really read “possession by literature,” for when we ask what it means to “possess” literature, our answer can only be that it means finally to affirm Frye’s view of the imagination and his conception of the central place of art in culture. He defines culture as “a total imaginative vision of life with literature at its center. . . . It is, in its totality, a vision or model of what humanity is capable of achieving, the matrix of all Utopias and social ideals” (WTC, 154). And he defines literature as “a total imaginative form which is . . . bigger than either nature or human life, because it contains them, the actual being only a part of the possible” (WTC, 155). To speak of culture and literature in these terms takes us directly to the heart of Frye’s critical system. Or, to put it in the language of the Second Essay, it takes us lo the highest of the five critical phases. “When we pass into anagogy,” he says, “nature becomes, not the container, but the thing contained” (AC, 119). To possess literature, in other words, means really to be possessed by it, and this happens at the highest level of imaginative experience. Frye puts it this way at the end of The Well-Tempered Critic:

{152} Literature, we say, neither reflects nor escapes from ordinary life: what it does reflect is the world as human imagination conceives it, in mythical, romantic, heroic and ironic as well as realistic and fantastic terms. This world is the universe in human form, stretching from the complete fulfillment of human desire to what human desire utterly repudiates, the quo tendas [i.e., anagogic, “where you should be going”] vision of reality that elsewhere I have called, for reasons rooted in my study of Blake, apocalyptic. . . . Some religions assume that such a world exists, though only for gods; other religions, including those closer to us, identify it with a world man enters at death, the extremes of desire becoming its heavens and hells; revolutionary philosophies associate it with what man is to gain in the future; mystics call it the world of total or cosmic consciousness. A poet may accept any of these identifications without damage to his poetry; but for the literary critic, this larger world is the world man exists and participates in through his imagination. It is the world in which our imaginations move and have their being while we are also living in the “real” world, where our imaginations find the ideals that they try to pass on to belief and action, where they find the vision which is the source of both the dignity and the joy of life. (WTC, 155–56)

The Imagination

The keystone of Frye’s theoretical arch is, as the passage above suggests, his doctrine of the imagination. This itself distinguishes his poetics from the positions of those who find the source of their general philosophic principles in (1) the nature of “things” (e.g., Plato and Aristotle, who use “imitation” as the basic term for their discussion of art) and in (2) operations or processes (e.g., Horace and Tolstoy, who use poetic effects as their basic term). Frye’s emphasis on the imagination aligns him rather with the tradition of those, such as Kant, who have located the source of their general principles in the human understanding or the faculties of the mind and who use the word “imagination” itself as their basic term for discussing art.24 This is not to say that Kant’s aesthetic views are the source of Frye’s conception of the imagination;25 its chief source is the Romantic tradition, mainly Blake. Like Blake, Frye understands the imagination as both a creative and perceptive faculty. His fullest discussion of the topic appears in a fellowship lecture, “The Imaginative and the Imaginary,” presented to The American Psychiatric Association (1962).26 Here he equates the imagination with the “creative force in the mind.” What it has produced is {153} “everything that we call culture and civilization. It is the power of transforming a sub-human physical world into a world with a human shape and meaning” (FI, 152). “Imagination creates reality” (FS, 27), Frye says: it creates culture out of nature; it also produces literary language (El, 23). The most important thing it creates is not the surface texture of literature but its deeper structures and designs.

Frye is careful to emphasize this point. It is the structuring power of the imagination, in fact, which distinguishes his understanding of the imaginative faculty from Coleridge’s. In the well-known passage in chapter 13 of the Biographia, Coleridge speaks of the imagination as a vital, recreative force which struggles to idealize and unify. Frye often uses the same kind of language to describe the imagination;27 yet Coleridge, in Frye’s view, did not actually believe in the power of the imagination to create the total structures of literature, even though he talks almost obsessively about the imagination as the creative force which is able to make one thing out of many. Coleridge “intended the climax of the Biographia Literaria,” Frye says,

to be a demonstration of the “esemplastic” or structural nature of the imagination, only to discover when the great chapter arrived that he was unable to write it. There were doubtless many reasons for this, but one was that he does not really think of imagination as a constructive power at all. He means by imagination . . . the reproductive power, the ability to bring to life the texture of characterization and imagery. It is to this power that he applies his favorite metaphor of an organism, where the unity is some mysterious and elusive “vitality.” His practical criticism of work he admires is concerned with texture: he never discusses the total design. . . . Coleridge is in the tradition of critical naturalism, which bases its values on the immediacy of contact between art and nature that we continuously feel in the texture of mimetic fiction.28 

Because the imagination “is the constructive power of the mind, the power of building unities out of units” (SeS, 36), the designs it creates are most obvious in undisplaced literary works—those which are most formulaic. “What the imagination, left to itself, produces is the rigidly conventionalized” (SeS, 36). And since literary works displaced in the direction of the plausible move toward realism, where formulaic structures are less rigid, the context of the imagination can be seen as occupying a space opposite that of the context of realistic, representational, or displaced literary works. In The Secular Scripture, in fact, Frye appropriates Wallace Stevens’s use of the word “imagination,” meaning “the shaping spirit, the power of ordering which seems {154} so mysterious to the poet himself, because it often acts as though it were an identity separate from him” (SeS, 35). Thus while the imagination, by means of displacement, does produce credibility and lifelikeness, it also produces “total design,” and this is its most important power for Frye.

One of Frye’s readers argues that his views on the imaginative and the imaginary “establish the fact that for Frye imagination is a constructive faculty as opposed to a perceptive faculty,” and that it “is not primarily an originating faculty.”29 But this is to misunderstand Frye’s view, especially those ideas on imaginative perception which he has taken over from Blake’s theory of knowledge. We have already seen (in chapter 2) how Blake’s view of reality, in which the imagination by the process of “identity” transforms the nonhuman world (Nature) into something with human shape and meaning (Culture), is opposed to the commonsense view of Locke in which the perceiving subject is separated from the perceived object. Frye agrees with Blake. Sometimes he speaks of two basic modes of apprehending reality, as in the Anatomy where the scientific mode, which perceives an objective nature, is opposed to the poetic mode, which perceives a transformed one. Sometimes he speaks of three basic modes of perceiving the world: the egocentric perception of the unreal world of reflection and abstract ideas, which he calls the world of memory; the ordinary perception of the world we live in, called the world of sight; and the imaginative perception of the world we desire and want to create, called the world of vision (FS, 26). Whether there are three orders of perception or only two is not so important for understanding Frye as is his conviction that there are different kinds or levels of perception and that these depend, as they did for Blake, on differing ways men can apprehend the relationships between subject and object.

If the visionary imagination is a perceptive faculty, is it one common to all men? In the Anatomy Frye draws back from speculating about the universality of the human mind. He says, for example, that the literary critic should not worry about the origins of archetypes: he “is concerned only with the ritual or dream patterns which are actually in what he is studying, however they got there” (AC, 109). Or again, he remarks that the Jungian theory of a collective unconscious is “an unnecessary hypothesis in literary criticism, so far as I can judge” (AC, 111–12). Yet the universality of archetypes does suggest, as Lawrence Lipking observes, “that they belong to a single human imagination shared by all men.”30 

If in the Anatomy Frye shies away from speculating about the universality of the imaginative faculty, in Fearful Symmetry he does not:

{155} [Blake’s] “All Religions Are One” means that the material world provides a universal language of images and that each man’s imagination speaks that language with his own accent. (FS, 28)

What makes the poet worth studying at all is his ability to communicate beyond his own context in time and space. . . . It is here that Blake comes in with his doctrine that “all had originally one language, and one religion.” If we follow his own method, and interpret this in imaginative instead of historical terms, we have the doctrine that all symbolism in all art and all religion is mutually intelligible among all men, and that there is such a thing as an iconography of the imagination. (FS, 420)

Neither the study of ritual nor of mythopoeic dreams takes us above a subconscious mental level, nor does such a study, except in rare cases, attempt to suggest anything more than a subconscious unity among men. But if we can find such impressive archetypal forms emerging from sleeping or savage minds, it is surely possible that they would emerge more clearly from the concentrated visions of genius. . . . A comparative study of dreams and rituals can lead us only to a vague and intuitive sense of the unity of the human mind; a comparative study of works of art should demonstrate it beyond conjecture. (FS, 424)

Art therefore demonstrates the universality of the human imagination, a belief reinforced by Frye’s conviction that all men, whether creators (artists) or creatures, are motivated by “desire.” He does not use the word in a biological or psychological sense. He means simply that all men have some conception of a “world” they want to live in— some mental model of an imaginatively possible experience. “Desire,” he says, “is part of imagination” (FS, 27). It is “the impulse toward what Aristotle calls telos, realizing the form that one potentially has. . . . It works dialectically, separating what is wanted from what is not wanted” (FI, 152). Thus while all men are limited in nature, their desire is infinite: “In the imagination anything goes that can be imagined. . . . In the human world the imagination has no limits” (EI, 29, 30).

If all men possess the imaginative faculty because of the teleological impulse, they do not possess it to the same degree. As the titles of several of Frye’s works suggest, the imagination must be educated; it must develop. And it is the artist who develops the perceptive power of the imagination into a constructive one. The artist “catches and (rains the objects of his vision: he can put human imagination into them, make them intelligible and responsive” (FS, 41–42). Therefore only {156} those who have the “energy” (another Blakean concept which Frye often identifies with the imagination) to train themselves to see clearly, to pass “through sight to vision” (FS, 25), possess imagination as a structural power. “The artist is par excellence the man who struggles to develop his perception into creation, his sight into vision” (FS, 26).

If the imagination is a universal perceptive faculty for Frye, it varies among men according to the degree they can create the forms of culture from their perceptions.31 Not all men, obviously, are artists, but all men, for Frye, can at least educate their imaginations into a constructive or creative awareness. If all men do not actually produce the universal forms of the imagination, the unity of the human mind makes it possible for them at least to perceive these visionary forms. Frye has had his own vision, as it were, of the total order of words produced by the imagination. What this vision looks like—“the iconography of the imagination,” as he puts it—is the entire elaborate map of cyclical and dialectical structures we have analyzed in chapters 1–4.

To sum up, we began this chapter by looking at several recurrent ideas in Frye’s work: ideas about the autonomy and the scientific nature of criticism, about value judgments, and about literature as self-contained. And we found that however strongly these principles are emphasized in the Anatomy, Frye’s conception of criticism is always broad enough to include the dialectically opposite emphasis: the moral and social reference of criticism, taste and “positive” value judgments, and the centrifugal aspect of literary meaning. We saw, moreover, how each of Frye’s four types of criticism is continually qualified or corrected by the succeeding type, the result being a breadth of reference which permits him to discuss literature in both its poetic and its more-than-poetic contexts. And, finally, we observed how the several pairs of categories he opposed to each other are ultimately subsumed under the most expansive of all his critical categories, the visionary imagination. All of these matters are an integral part of Frye’s critical theory, the understanding of which has been our main concern up to this point. But a critical theory, even one as intricately and artistically fashioned as Frye’s, does not exist for its own sake. As R.S. Crane says, “the principles and methods of any distinguishable mode of [critical] discourse are tools of inquiry and interpretation.”32 Since the ultimate raison d’etre for critical theory is therefore pragmatic and utilitarian, the most important requirement it must fulfill is external to its own system. Thus we must determine how the theory works practically—which brings us to Frye’s applied criticism.


1. {242} Frye would not like the word “reconciliatory.” “I wish we could throw away the notion of ‘reconciling,’” he says, “and use instead some such conception as ‘interpenetration.’ Literature itself is not a field of conflicting arguments but interpenetrating visions. . . . The genuine critic works out his own views of literature while realizing that there are also a great number of other views, both actual and possible, which are neither {243} reconcilable nor irreconcilable with his own. They interpenetrate with him, and he with them, each a monad as full of windows as a Park Avenue building” (“Letter to the English Institute,” p. 29).

2. AC, 3. Despite the fact that I have spoken often of “Frye’s theory,” he cautions against regarding the Anatomy as his system. Rather it should be considered, he says, as “an interconnected group of suggestions,” parts of which are expendable if they are “of no practical use to anybody” (AC, 3). It offers critics a “new perspective,” not a “new program’ (AC, 341). And even though the large claims of Frye’s enterprise are offered with confidence, he is careful to emphasize that the undertaking is provisional, not apodictic. The Anatomy “can only be offered to a reader,” he says, “who has enough sympathy with its aims to overlook, in the sense not of ignoring but of seeing past, whatever strikes him as inadequate or simply wrong. I am convinced that if we wait for a fully qualified critic to tackle the subjects of these essays, we shall wait a long time” (AC, 29).

3. AC, 7. Thus Frye can speak of Allen Tate as being a “religious determinist” and Sir Herbert Read as a “psychological determinist . . . with latent political implications” (CL, 134). See also SeS, 25.

4.“Because I found the term ‘archetype’ an essential one,” Frye remarks in The Critical Path, “I am still often called a Jungian critic, and classified with Miss Maud Bodkin, whose book I have read with interest, but whom, on the evidence of that book, I resemble about as closely as I resemble the late Sarah Bernhardt” (p. 16). On Frye’s relation to Jung, see SM, 116–17.

5. The Fantastic, p. 16.

6. “Pandora’s Box Revisited,” p. 472.

7. One might also reply to Todorov’s critique (1) that Frye does use these categories in a special literary sense; (2) that these are by no means Frye’s primary categories; and (3) that no critic can escape from relying on general philosophic principles. Todorov’s own work, based upon a Saussurean linguistic model, is a case in point. There is no difference between the nonliterary status of his categories (e.g., spatial/temporal, projection, isomorphism, vision) and Frye’s. See my “Todorov and the Linguistic Model,” Language Sciences, no. 45 (April 1977), pp. 1–5. A brilliant analysis of the necessity of general philosophic principles in criticism is Richard McKeon’s “The Philosophic Bases of Art and Criticism.”

8. “I have read [several hundred books in psychology] for whatever help they could give me as a literary critic: they interpenetrate my critical work but keep their own context in their own discipline. For a contemporary critic interested in Freud or Wittgenstein or Lévi-Strauss, such writers, like medieval angels, do not travel through space from another subject: they manifest themselves from within his subject” (SM, 107).

9. Especially in the Second Essay, where Frye distinguishes between centrifugal (descriptive) and centripetal (his own version of “literal”) meaning.

10. See, for example, Richard Kuhns, “Professor Frye’s Criticism,” Journal of Philosophy 56 (1959): 745–55; John Casey, “A ‘Science’ of Criticism,” in The Language of Criticism (London: Methuen, 1966), pp. 140–45; John Holloway, “The Critical Zodiac of Northrop Frye,” in Colours of Clarity, pp. 153–60; Monroe K. Spears, “The Newer Criticism,” in Dionysus and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 197–228; Paul Sporn, “Empirical Criticism: A Summary and Some Objections,” Poetic Theory/Poetic Practice, ed. Robert Scholes (Iowa City: Midwest Modern Language Association, 1969), pp. 16–31; Raman Selden, “Objectivity and Theory in Literary Criticism,” Essays in Criticism 23 (1973): 292–94.

11. The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry, p. x.

12. “Literary Criticism,” in The Aims and Methods of Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures, pp. 61–62. This essay contains a good summary of Frye’s views on evaluation. {244} Another succinct account is in “On Value Judgements,” in SS, 66–73. See also SS, 23, 77–80; FI, 8, 128–29, 149; “An Indispensable Book,” Virginia Quarterly Review 32 (1956): 313–14; “The Study of English in Canada,” Dalhousie Review 38 (1958): 4–5; “Blake’s Treatment of the Archetype,” in Discussions of William Blake, p. 16; “Expanding Eyes,” in SM, 99–107; and “Reflections in a Mirror,” in Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism, pp. 135–36.

13. “Toward a Theory of Cultural Revolution,” Canadian Literature, no. 1 (Summer 1959), p. 59.

14. On this aspect of Frye’s work—his effort “to democratize criticism and demystify the muse”—see Geoffrey Hartman, “Ghostlier Demarcations,” in Northrop Frye in Modern Criticism, pp. 109–31.

15. Hayden Carruth, for example, in commenting on the split between art and experience occasioned by the New Critics’ concept of literary function, says that “Frye has resolved the split by denying the moral factor altogether. For him art is simply and totally conventional, and has neither a moral content nor a moral application” (“People in a Myth,” Hudson Review 18 [1965–66]: 609). Similar judgments have been advanced by Gerald Graff, Poetic Statement and Critical Dogma (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), pp. 73–78; V.G. Hanes, “Northrop Frye’s Theory of Literature and Marxism,” Horizons: The Marxist Quarterly, no. 24 (Winter 1968), pp. 62–78; Fred Inglis, “Professor Northrop Frye and the Academic Study of Literature,” Centennial Review 9 (1965): 319–31; Gabriel Josipovici, The World and the Book (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971), pp. 264–69, 289–93, 303–5; Bernhard Ostendorf, Der Mythos in der Neuen Welt (Frankfurt am Main: Thesen Verlag, 1971), pp. 140–41; Richard Poirier, The Performing Self (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 78–80; and Brian Robinson, “Northrop Frye: critique fameux, critique faillible,” Revue de I’Universite d’Ottawa 42 (1972): 608–14.

16. New York Review of Books, 26 February 1970 and 12 March 1970. Reprinted with only slight alterations in Psychoanalysis and Literary Process, ed. Frederick Crews (Cambridge, Mass.: Winthrop Publishers, 1970), pp. 1–24, and in Out of My System (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 63–87. References within parentheses in my text are to the first reprinted edition.

17. This pragmatic orientation, as I have described it abstractly, does not differ significantly from the way one could describe any number of critical theories from Plato to Kenneth Burke. Crews’s interest in psychic function, however, distinguishes his theory of literature from other pragmatic or rhetorical theories.

18. Critics and Criticism (1952), pp. 8–9.

19. It is interesting that when Crews does speak of value judgments his position is not at all different from Frye’s. Frye would be in perfect agreement with the following statement by Crews on Conrad: “Predictions about the future rankings of authors should be made with the greatest tentativeness or not at all. In retrospect it is easy to see that literary value in any given age has been glimpsed through the haze of ideology. . . . The academy, that home of disinterested taste, cannot be appealed to as a referee. . . . Those of us who are involved in the quaint modern industry of explaining literature are assailed sometimes by a doubt as to whether we know what we like. To say what some future generation would like is quite beyond our power” (“The Power of Darkness,” Partisan Review 34 [1967]: 507).

20. The confusion could be removed, it seems to me, if Crews would grant that not all critical methods attempt to answer the same kinds of questions.

21. AC, 113. This position is anticipated in the Polemical Introduction: “Ethical criticism [is based on] the consciousness of the presence of society. As a critical category this would be the sense of the real presence of culture in the community. Ethical criticism, then, deals with art as a communication from the past to the present, and is based on the conception of the total and simultaneous possession of past culture. An exclusive {245} devotion to it, ignoring historical criticism, would lead to a naive translation of all cultural phenomena into our own terms without regard to their original character. As a counterweight to historical criticism, it is designed to express the contemporary impact of all art, without selecting a tradition” (AC, 24–25).

22. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Hereafter cited as MC.

23. Most of the essays, for example, collected in Part I of The Stubborn Structure.

24. This tripartite division of poetic theories derives from Richard McKeon, “The Philosophic Bases of Art and Criticism,” Part I, pp. 466–90.

25. Their ideas on the power of the imagination to create an ideal world are, however, similar. Compare, for example, Frye’s views on anagogy in the Second Essay with Kant’s statement that “the poet ventures to realize to sense, rational ideas of invisible beings, the kingdom of the blessed, hell, eternity, creation, etc.; or even if he deals with things of which there are examples in experience—e.g., death, envy and all vices, also love, fame, and the like—he tries, by means of imagination, which emulates the play of reason in its quest after a maximum, to go beyond the limits of experience and to present them to sense with a completeness of which there is no example in nature. This is properly speaking the art of the poet, in which the faculty of aesthetical ideas can manifest itself in its entire strength. But this faculty, considered in itself, is properly only a talent (of the imagination)” (Critique of Judgment, Part 49, trans J.H. Bernard [New York: Hafner, 1951], pp. 157–58).

26. Published originally in The American Journal of Psychiatry 119 (1962): 289–98; reprinted in FI, 151–67.

27. On the imagination as a vital force, see FS, 55, 83, 230, 235; FI, 80–81; as a unifying and synthesizing force, see FS, 56, 88; EI, 38.

28.“Myth, Fiction, and Displacement,” in FI, 29–30. See also “The Developing Imagination,” in Learning in Language and Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), pp. 37–38. In another essay Frye says, “The imagination is instrumental in Coleridge: it is the power that unifies, but not the thing to be unified, the real coordinating principle” (CL, 175).

29. Ben Howard, “Fancy, Imagination, and Northrop Frye,” Thoth 9 (Winter 1968): 31.

30. Modern Literary Criticism: 1900–1970, p. 184.

31. For a summary of Frye’s views on the imagination as a perceptive faculty, see Iqbal Ahmad, “Imagination and Image in Frye’s Criticism,” English Quarterly 3 (Summer 1970): 15–24.

32. The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry, p. 31.