Thursday, December 2, 2010

How to read literature like a professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the LinesHow to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For better or worse, How To Read Literature Like A Professor reads like a "for dummies" book.

It's hard to dislike Professor Thomas C. Foster. His love of literature is genuinely infectious (in the musical sense). If your looking for a plebeian, fun introduction to concepts of literature, and if you want a deeper enjoyment out of the practice of literature, than look no further.

Now I have two complaints. First, as this book is clearly a broad look at an enormously large field, the authors Toni Morrison fetish gets tired quickly. Second, his attempts at humor seem of the sort that an elderly woman who thinks inspirational cat calenders are clever would enjoy. This seems forced from someone as bright as Foster.

At the end is a "test case", a short story by Katherine Mansfield, The Garden Party. This was a brilliant move, Foster asks the reader to answer two questions on the meaning and elements of the story. I was suprised by the exercise, and found it a very rewarding ending. This is a teacher at his best, and his analysis was luminous, which made me wish the rest of the book was as solid.

Pedestrian and loose, How To Read Literature Like A Professor is a nice introduction to literary symbolism.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Oresteia

The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides by Aeschylus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And now we enter the world of Greek gods, and the heroic age that to the Greeks of the 5th century B.C. was in the not so distant past. To the Greeks, this was an age when gods still walked the earth and communed with the locals. It is in short the story of the birth of civilization as told by a man who himself fought for the survival of the Greek way of life in more than his plays, Aeschylus. His self-penned epitath reads nothing of his fame as a playwright, but proudly boasts his service in the Greek armies victory against the invading Persians at the battle of Marathon. His plays are a proud celebration of the civilizing aspects of Greek culture.

As Aeschylus famously stated that his works were "slices from the banquet of Homer", this can be read as being between the events of the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is the story of the cursed house of Atreus, the triumphant and doomed return of King Agamemnon from his victory at Troy. He has enraged his Queen Clytemnestra by sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia in order to appease the goddess Artemis. She has had ten long years to brood over this, and to add insult to injury Agamemnon returns with a literal trophy wife, none other than the daughter of Troy's King Priam, the priestess of Apollo Cassandra. Clytemnestra murders them both, and this is something that Aeschylus' contemporary audience knew well, so he bring the sense of foreboding and doom to nearly unbearable heights. Everyone knew of the curse on the house of Atreus, but the Oresteia is much bigger than the story of Agamemnon or his son Orestes vengeance and matricide. Aeschylus seeks not to extirpate the bloodguilt of Orestes, but to reconcile the order of gods to a just life for mankind.

It's difficult to express just how important Aeschylus is to western culture. He is the founder of the art of performance drama, and produced the only extant trilogy we have of the ancient Greek theater, here contained as the Oresteia of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides. His touch contains something extraordinary that he was notoriously unable to quite express, as satirized by the great comic dramatist Aristophanes. This is understandable considering the subject matter, nothing short of the establishment of the Greek concept of justice, which encompasses a uniting of the forces of heaven and earth.

This volume contains an imperishable essay of about 100 pages by Professor Robert Fagles of Dublin University entitled The Serpent and the Eagle. This essay alone almost makes the book worth the cost. His blank verse translation of the Oresteia conveys the range of expression to a pitch so terrifying as to make the story come alive in your hands, and the redemptive call for eternal vigilance expressed in the Eumenides is like walking out of a house on fire into a crisp Autumn night.

The Oresteia is a call to action, a reminder of the dangers of hubris, and above all a celebration of freedom and the Greek way of life. As Robert Fagles phrases it, "the Oresteia is our rite of passage from savagery to civilization." For a fan of western literature, this is an indispensable source of joy, and a key insight into many of the themes that dominate the genre of drama.

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Myths of the Ancient Greeks

Myths of the Ancient GreeksMyths of the Ancient Greeks by Richard P. Martin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Myths of the Ancient Greeks is a book with perfect economy of title. It is a brief retelling of the major surviving myths of the ancient Greeks, and Martin adds a light touch to the stories. He succeeds in making very accessible stories that are notoriously difficult to comprehend. This is not a scholarly look at the myths, but again a light introduction to the stories that may peak your interest into deeper study.

The introduction is wonderful, and makes a key point that any person familiar with Greek myth must understand: that these myths can never be fully understood. The Ancient Greeks had very different concepts of morality, justice, honor, duty, and above all religion than we presently possess, whether we are in the Christian west, or the varieties of eastern belief systems. Once you accept that these stories may not be something we can fully grasp, we may try to imagine what it would be like to think like the ancient Greeks, and this is one of the wonderful and mind expanding aspects of the study of Greek myth.

A light, but not simple book that succeeds beautifully as an introduction to a strange, beautiful, and terrifying world of thought.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Letter to a Christian Nation

Letter to a Christian Nation (Vintage)Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is somewhat unfortunate that the title of this book is a misnomer. The United States is not a "Christian Nation" despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of its citizens are in fact Christian. The United States is a secular republic, the worlds first, and it is an important fact to bear in mind.

That said, this is the most concise of the major recent works dubbed the "New Atheism", and it is highly potent. If you are unfamiliar with the views held in common by many atheists you would do well to read this short work. Sam Harris is a very precise author and he pulls no punches in a frontal assault on the beliefs of mainstream Christianity. What makes Harris an exciting and important author, is his central belief that religion represents the greatest threat to civilization, as it is based upon faith instead of the principle ethic of the enlightenment: reason.

This is a very good read, and Harris makes many arguments against Christianity that I find to be (although certainly not original) nearly impossible if not impossible to refute. This is a solid atheist tract, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in faith in general.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics)The Epic of Gilgamesh by Anonymous

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Epic of Gilgamesh is an archetypal myth, predating the Hebrew bible by around 2 millennia. The reason it is archetypal has as much to do with its thematic elements as with its antiquity. It tells the tale of the 27th century B.C. god-king Gilgamesh (Sumerian Bilgames) and his search for meaning in life. It deals heavily with humanities greatest fear: death.

Gilgamesh is grieved by his mortality and seeks a cure for this sorrowful state, taking us on a quest to find Utnaptishim, the immortal human survivor of the great deluge. Utnaptishim was granted immortality by the gods after the god Enlil was angered that humans had survived his catastrophe. All other gods agreed to make humans mortal henceforth.

Here is what I find particularly interesting in the Epic. First, the obvious parallels to the Hebrew story of Noah, as well as recurring significance for the number seven. Now, as you are likely aware, Islam replaced the Babylonian mythology by force, much in the same ways the Christian faith replaced the Greek mythology. However, remnants of the old persist for both East and West. In Islam, fire is a particularly feared cause of death. We find roots in the Sumerian poem 'the Death of Bilgames', where Bilgames companion Enkidu returns from the netherworld and explains the fates of all who dwell there. Those who perish by fire do not enter the netherworld, they are in a state of permanent displacement, alluded as the worst fate of all. There is much more of interest in this poem that I won't spoil should you decide to read it.

To sum up, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a treatise on the proper duties of a king, the futility of any attempt at immortality save the remembrance in the living of those who accomplish great things, and the importance of solid friendship is implicit in the relationship between wild-man Enkidu and two-thirds god, one third human Gilgamesh.

Very interesting, beautiful, and well worth study.

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Monday, November 1, 2010

Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols

This is a synopsis of the 2nd of 4 essays in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. I hope you find it informative.

In literature a symbol is any literary structure that can be isolated for critical attention. Ethical criticism consists of the systemization of literary symbolism. In the middle ages, literary criticism was taken from theology producing the scheme of literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogic criticism. From Dante we have the term 'Polysemous', which means that any work of literature will have multiple meanings. The poet has not the final word on meaning. When an artist produces his art, he gives it to the public, and the public is able to assign multiple meanings to a work, and meanings that perhaps the artist never intended. Here Frye introduces the concept of 'phases', meaning a sequence of contexts or relationships in which the whole of a work may be interpreted. He maintains that a finite number of valid critical methods exist, and that these methods may be contained in a single theory.

Literal and Descriptive Phases: Symbol as Motif and as Sign

When reading, our attention moves both outward (centrifugally) and inward (centripetally). When out attention focuses centrifugally we think of the things the words mean, to our memory of their associations. When we focus centripetally we develop a sense of the larger verbal pattern the words make. Verbal elements connecting centrifugally are referred to as 'signs', the centripetal verbal structure is referred to as 'motifs'.

Verbal structures are classified in this theory according to whether the final direction of meaning is centrifugal - as in descriptive or assertive writing - or centripetal - as in literature. Literary meaning has no "true" or "false" value. It's relation to the external world is always hypothetical. In literature, questions of truth or factuality are subordinated to the primary aim of producing a structure of words for its own sake. Therefore the sign values of symbols are subordinate to their importance as a structure of interconnected motifs. At the center of Frye's theories lie the maxim: Literature is an autonomous verbal structure. This principle is necessary in order for the attempt to make an autonomous science of literary criticism.

The patterns in literature bring us pleasure, an interest in detachment. Originally descriptive works may survive by virtue of their style long after the factual representation has ceased. Remember, in literature entertainment value trumps instructional value. Reality takes a back seat to pleasure in literature. Frye designates centrifugal meaning for works of theology and metaphysics, as their influence from without literature creates centrifugal movement. The privilege of the poet to ignore facts contributes to the idea of the poet as a "licenced liar", but as Sir Phillip Sidney said, "the poet never affirmith". The poet no more lies than tells the truth.

The poet depends upon conformity to his hypothetical postulates. As Frye points out, one who quarrels with postulates has no business in literature. The accepted postulate is the contract between the poet and his/her reader. Therefore in literary criticism, when we refer to "literal" meaning, we refer to the work as a whole, it's meaning within its hypothetical verbal structure. Any paraphrasing produces outward meaning. The concept of literal meaning as simple descriptive meaning, as in theology, will not do for literary criticism.

All art possesses both temporal and spatial aspects. Narrative (mythos) corresponds to rhythm, meaning (dianoia) to pattern. A poems meaning is literally its pattern or integrity as a verbal structure. A word can centripetally have a various meaning depending upon context. On the literal level, where symbols are motifs, any unit may be relevant to our understanding. On the descriptive level, where symbols are signs, a symbol is a body of hypothetical verbal structures.

Literature deeply influenced by the descriptive aspect of symbolism tends towards realistic narrative and didactic or descriptive meaning. Here the rhythm will be the prose of direct speech, and the effort will be towards a clear representation of external reality (as in the documentary realism of Zola, Dreiser).

The literal equivalent is the French 'symbolisme' with its centripetal patterns, where direct statement is subjugated to pattern integrity. In symbolisme the poetic symbol means primarily itself in relation to the poem, the unity of the poem may be understood as a unity of mood, the images point to each other. Here we use words like evoke and suggest, we find an evocation of a harmony of sounds, a growing richness of meaning unlimited by denotation. In poetry, the basis for literary expression is irony, a pattern of words that turn away from descriptive meaning.

Literary criticism has reflected the distinction between the literal and descriptive aspects of symbolism. The "Learned Criticism" treats a poem as a verbal document related to history and the ideas it reflects. In the "New Criticism" the poem is interpreted as self-contained interlocking motifs. Here the key word is "texture".

Formal Phase: Symbol as Image

The seeming antithetical aspects of the literal and descriptive phases, the ironic withdrawal from reality and explicit connection with it, compose the essential unity of works in the most common of critical terms: form. A few terms from Aristotle:

Mimesis Praxeos - an imitation of an action identified with mythos.
Praxis - Human action imitated in histories.
Theoria - Human action imitated in mythos.

Mythos is concerned with typical actions, dianoia with secondary imitation of thoughts. "Mimesis Logou" concerns typical thoughts, images, metaphors.

The form of a poem is the same whether it is examined stationary or as moving from beginning to end. Mythos is the dianoia in movement, dianoia is the mythosmimesis) art does not reflect external events or ideas, rather it reflects the ideal, the exemplary, and therefore does not provide external historical insight.

Frye gives us an example from Hamlet, which said that poetry holds a "mirror up to nature". Literature reflects nature in its containing form. The symbol here may be called "image". The ideas in literature are not real propositions, but verbal formulae which imitates real propositions. Therefore Words' pantheism, Dante's theism, and Lucretius'  epicureanism are all read the same when read for style rather than subject matter.

Formal criticism begins by examining a poems imagery, bringing out it's distinctive pattern. The frequently repeated images form the poems "tonality", with the episodic and isolated imagery relating in contrast. The form is the same whether studied as narrative or as meaning. In analyzing the recurrent imagery, formal criticism attaches the imagery to a central form, and offers commentary on what is implicit in this. Good commentary reads and translates what's there, avoiding the "intentional fallacy", or the notion that the poet has a primary intention of conveying meaning to a reader. Again, intention belongs to discursive writing, what a poet means to say is the poem itself. Art has intrinsic mystery that remains no matter how explored it is. All commentary is allegorical interpretation, the attaching of ideas to the structure of the poems imagery. A poem is allegorical itself when a poet indicates the relationship of his imagery to examples and precepts, therefore restricting the critics freedom of interpretation. In the Pilgrims Progress we have a continuous allegory at one extreme, extending to the center of literature itself where image structure, no matter how suggestive, has an implicit relation only to events and ideas, where poetic imagery begins to recede from example and precept to become increasingly ironic and paradoxical. Here, where the poem is withdrawn from explicit statement the critic has more freedom and feels at home. At this other extreme, again we find the French Symbolisme, the technique for suggesting or evoking things while avoiding the explicit naming of them.

In the "Heraldic Symbol" (Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, Melville's White Whale) we find a central emblematic image in which no continuous relationship exists between art and nature. The Heraldic Symbol is in a paradoxical and ironic relationship to both narrative and meaning, and is based on the strong sense of a lurking antagonism between literal and descriptive symbolic aspects. Other techniques such as private association intend the symbolism not to be understood, as in Dadaism.

This wide range of possible commentary should be kept in mind, so as to not fall into the perspective of Renaissance and Medieval criticism where all poetry is treated as continuous allegory, nor to the modern critics who insist that poetry is anti-allegorical and paradoxical. Now we have a conception of literature as a body of hypothetical creations not necessarily involved in the worlds of truth and fact, nor necessarily withdrawn from them, but which may enter into any kind of relationship to them, ranging from the most to the least explicit. The necessity of assuming a distinction between empirical fact and illusion does not exist for the poet. The dichotomy between delight and instruction, and between style and message is resolved by the conception of art as having neither a direct nor negative relation to reality, but a potential relation to it.

The traditional theory of catharsis, implying our emotional response to art, is not the raising of an actual emotion, but the raising and casting out of an actual emotion on the wave of something else. That "something else" may be called exhilaration or exuberance: something liberated from experience. Our threefold external compulsion of action, thought, and feeling meets a fourth: imagination which rises free of all other compulsion resulting in unlimited spiritual freedom.

Mythical Phase: Symbol as Archetype

In the formal phase the poem belongs neither to the class "art", nor to the class "verbal", it represents its own class. There are two aspects to it's form; it is unique, an artifact with its own structure of imagery, and it is part of a class of similar forms. The idea of the external relation of a poem to other poems brings us to two critical considerations: convention and genre. The study of genres is based on analogies of form, the study of conventions. The central principle of the formal phase, that a poem is an imitation of nature, isolates the poem. However, the poem may also be examined as an imitation of other poems. This criticism relates poems by linking the symbols within them.

A new poem manifest something latent in the order of words that is literature, and is therefore not a creation ex nihilo. Literature can have life, nature, imaginative truth as its content, but it is not created from these forces, rather literature is created out of the forces of literature. Literature shapes itself. The notion of convention showing a lack of feeling and that sincerity is attained by disregarding it is opposed to the facts of literary experience and history. Eliot said that a good poet is more likely to steal than to imitate. The false notion of originality meaning a break with traditional form stems from the idea of the poem as a description of emotion, literally meaning the emotions held by the poet. In reality, originality returns to the origins of poetry, radicalism to literature's roots. The proper view of convention indicates a poems involvement with other poems, not with vague abstractions of tradition or style.

In discursive writing the writer writes as an act of conscious will, becoming analogous to its father. The poet is better described as a midwife, his creation is an unconscious act.

The mythical phase looks at poetry as one of the techniques of civilization and is concerned with the social aspect of poetry. Here the symbol is the communicable unit or 'archetype', the typical of recurrent image. These symbols connect poems and unify our literary experience. Archetypal criticism is concerned primarily with literature as a social fact, as a mode of communication. It studies literature's conventions and genres to fit poems into a body of poetry as a whole.

In each phase of symbolism, there is a point at which the critic must break away from the range of the poets knowledge. The poets conscious knowledge is considered only so far as the poet may allude to or imitate other poets or make deliberate use of convention. Explicitly conventionalized literature must be distinguished from literature which conceals or ignores conventionalized links.

Archetypes are associative clusters, complex variables. At one extreme is pure convention, at the other pure variable. Each phase of symbolism has a particular approach to narrative and meaning. In the literal phase, the narrative is the flow of significant sounds, the meaning is ambiguous, and we find a complex verbal pattern. In the descriptive phase, the narrative is an imitation of real events, the meaning is an imitation of objects or propositions. In the formal phase, poetry exists between the example and the precept. The elements of recurrence  and desire come to the foreground in archetypal criticism, again the study of symbols as units of communication. Here the narrative aspect is a recurrent act of symbolic communication, a ritual, and the significant content is the conflict between desire and reality.

In archetypal plot analysis we deal with terms of generic, recurring, or conventional actions with analogies to ritual: weddings, funerals, executions etc. In archetypal analysis of meaning we deal with terms of generic, recurring, or conventional shape indicated by mood and resolution, be it tragic, comic, or ironic, in which the relation of desire to experience is expressed. In the archetypal phase the poem imitates nature as a cyclical process with a recurrence of rhythm, ritual, and cycle. Expressing the moral dialectic, poetry in its archetypal aspect illustrates the fulfillment of desire and defines the obstacles to attaining it. The ritual expresses the dialectic of desire and repugnance.

Archetypal criticism rests on two patterns: cyclical and dialectic. In the union of ritual and dream in literature we get myth. Myth gives meaning to ritual and narrative to dream. Again, the mythos (ritual) is the dianoia (dream) in motion. The same distinction in emphasis as between thematic and fictional literature exists here.

To the literary critic, the ritual is the content of dramatic action, not the source of it. And again, the historicity of the ritual is a moot point. The ritual may have analogies to actual rituals and to hypothetical literary rituals. Documentary criticism has misled some archetypal critics into thinking that all ritual elements need be traced directly to historical ritual, resulting in the "lost golden age" hypothesis. Here we must remember the distinction between the duties of anthropology and the duties of the literary critic.

The first unit of poetry larger than the individual poem, is the total work of the poet. By comparing recurring patterns in a poets work, we may gain psychological insights. When we find a device repeated by his or her contemporaries we have "convention", and when we find a device in different ages we have "genre". The critic may draw upon the full resources of modern knowledge without fear of anachronism.

An archetypal symbol is often a natural object with a human meaning. Poetry is a vehicle for truth, morality, and beauty, but the poet does not aim at these things, rather he or she aims at inner verbal strength. Pursuit of beauty is dangerous nonsense, beauty in art is like happiness in morals: it may accompany the act but cannot be the goal of the act. The neurotic compulsion to beautify everything leads to an exaggerated cult of style, it becomes reactionary restricting the poets subject or method, and marshals in the forces of prudery to limit the poets vision. Here vanity of ego replaces the honest pride of the craftsman.

The formal phase of narrative and meaning, although including the external relation of literature to events and ideas, nevertheless brings us back ultimately to the aesthetic view of a work as an object of contemplation, a "techne" designed for ornament or pleasure rather than use. Remember Oscar Wilde, "all art is quite useless". The archetypal view of literature shows us literature as a total form. By adding this phase to the other three we pass Kierkegaard's either/or dilemma between aesthetic idolatry and ethical freedom. Here we reject these external goals as idolatrous and demonic.

Anagogic Phase: Symbol as Monad

In our study of phases of literary symbolism, we have been going up a parallel sequence to that of medieval criticism. The descriptive phase corresponds to to historical and literal criticism in the medieval scheme. The formal phase, the level of commentary and interpretation, corresponds to the allegorical criticism in the medieval scheme. The mythical phase, where poetry is a technique of social communication, corresponds to the moral criticism in the medieval scheme.

A parallel also emerges between the five modes of Historical criticism and the five phases in Ethical criticism. Literal meaning is involved with techniques of thematic irony introduced by symbolisme. Descriptive symbolism of Documentary Naturalism was exemplified in the 19th century, bearing a close connection with the low-mimetic mode. Formal symbolism was typical of Renaissance and neoclassical writers, connecting with the high-mimetic mode. Archetypal criticism finds its center in romance, ballads, and folk tales. The Anagogic Phase is concerned with myth in its more narrow, technical sense or fiction dealing with divine of semi-divine powers.

Archetypes and myths are associated with the primitive and the popular, or "naive" literature. In the greatest works of Shakespeare and Dante we sense a converging significance, we are approaching seeing what the whole of literary experience is about: the still center of the order of words.

The study of archetypes is the study of literary symbols as parts of the whole of literature. At the center of the archetypes we find universal symbols; light, dark, quest, food, sex, symbols common to humanity. In the archetypal phase, literature is myth, uniting ritual and dream thus limiting the dream. Three things are noticed when we examine the dream:

1. Its limits are not the real, but the conceivable.
2. The limits of the conceivable is a world of fulfilled desire free of anxiety and frustration.
3. The dream universe exists entirely in the dreamer.

In the Anagogic Phase, literature imitates the total dream of humanity, thought lies at the circumference of reality. From the Formal Phase, where nature is content and the poem is contained in nature, to the Archetypal phase where the whole of poetry is still contained within the limits of the natural or the plausible, finally in the Anagogic phase nature becomes the contained rather than the container. The archetypal universal symbols are themselves the forms of nature. This is the imaginative limit of desire, which is infinite, eternal, and apocalyptic.

In the Anagogic phase, poetry imitates human action as total ritual. Anagogically, poetry unites total ritual, or unlimited social action with total dream or unlimited individual thought. Its universe is infinite and boundless hypothesis, uncontained by any civilization or set of moral values. Here dianoia is no longer a mimesis logou, but the Logos, both reason and creative act. Literature most influenced by this phase is scripture or apocalyptic revelation, with god the central image conveying unlimited power in human form. When they lose existential content they become purely imaginative, as Classical mythology did after the rise of Christianity.

The principle of the anagogic perspective is that anything may be the poems subject. The symbol is a monad, all symbols united in a single infinite and eternal verbal symbol which is, as dianoia the Logos, and as mythos the total creative act. Symbol is the center of literary experience, the epiphany. The Anagogic view of criticism sees literature no longer as commentary of life or reality, but containing them within its universe.

The unit of relationship between symbols is the metaphor, two objects are identified and each retain their form. On the literal level metaphor appears as a simple juxtaposition. At the descriptive level metaphor is simile. At the formal level metaphor is an analogy of proportion. At the archetypal level metaphor unites images into clusters or classes. At the anagogic level metaphor is a statement of hypothetical identity.

The study of literature takes us toward seeing poetry as the imitation of infinite social action, infinite human thought, the mind of man who is all men, the universal creative work which is all words.

This concludes the summary of essay two of four. Essay three on Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths will be next. I hope you enjoyed this and found it informative.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes

This is a synopsis of 1 of 4 essays in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism. I hope you find it informative.

In Frye's 'Anatomy of Criticism', he composes four essays, each on a form of literary criticism. For Frye, literature is "an order of words", and as such he seeks nothing short than to turn literary criticism into a science unto itself. Implicit in this goal is the abandonment of criticism from anything outside of criticism itself. Thus Marxist criticism, for example, is out. That is not to say there aren't valuable insights to be gained from philosophies extraneous to literature itself, but Frye maintains correctly that in order to make literary criticism a proper science, it has to establish it's central principles from no source extraneous to literature. With that said, Frye maintains that literature can be approached from many different perspectives, again so long as they stem from literature at the core.

In Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes, we have a classification system that categorizes literature according to the protagonist's power of action. Five levels of modes based on this are listed:

1. Mythic Mode: Where the hero is a divine being, superior to both men and his/her environment.
2. Romance, Legend, and Folk Tale Modes: Where the hero is superior in degree to both men and his/her environment.
3. Epic and Tragic Modes (high mimetic modes): Where the hero is superior in degree to men but not to his/her environment. In this mode the hero is usually a mortal leader.
4. Comic and Realistic fiction Modes (low mimetic modes): Where the hero is equal in power to us, the readers.
5. Ironic Mode: Where the hero is inferior in power or intelligence to us, the readers.

Note that as you work your way down this list, you may find an interesting correlation between the history of literature (thus Historical Criticism) and these modes. Literature began with myths of gods and godlike kings, down to the present Ironic mode we see so much of today. Romance dominates western literature up to the Renaissance, where the "cult of the prince" produces mainly high mimetic literature.

Frye terms literature "sentimental" that is recreative of earlier modes, i.e. Romanticism is a sentimental mode of romance as the fairy tale is a sentimental form of the folk tale.

Tragic fictional modes:

Tragedy is a fairly generic term referring to any fiction in which the hero becomes isolated from society, and the reverse of course is comedy. Dionysiac refers to Mythic Mode tragedies, Elegiac refers to the tragedy of the semi-divine. In high mimetic tragedy we find a mixture of the heroic and the ironic, where the hero is often exposed by his/her leadership position. The characters fatal flaw is what Aristotle called 'hamartia' in Poetics. This need not be a moral weakness necessarily, often the position of leadership itself is the hero's undoing in the high mimetic mode.

In low mimetic tragedy, at the level of comedy and realism,  we experience pathos. This is for the fairly obvious reason that in "domestic tragedies" we find protagonists that are on our level of experience, thus we tend to relate to them much more than we can to Zeus (unless we happen to suffer from delusions).

Finally, we reach tragic irony, where exceptional events occur to our unexceptional protagonist. The hero may be unlucky, hit by random catastrophes, or at the whim of impersonal fate. The hero here is often a 'pharmakos' or scapegoat, neither innocent nor guilty. Melville's Billy Budd being a prime example. It starts to get very complex and interesting in this mode of tragedy, as we find our Ironic Mode forming a loop back to the Mythic Mode. In Billy Budd we start to see tones of the trial of Christ for example. We go from intense realism to the mythological, from the all too ordinary to the fantastic. Which brings us to...

Comic fictional modes:

In the comedy of Myth we see our hero accepted into a society of (what else?) gods. In the Romance Mode of comedy we find the partner to tragedies elegiac in the 'idyllic' pastoral vehicle. High mimetic comedy is largely in the past, the 'Old Comedy' of Greek playwrights like Aristophanes. The low mimetic comedy (social comedy) that packs people into theaters deals largely with characters we can relate to or feel superior to (Homer Simpson, Adam Sandler). In Poetics Aristotle introduces us to the 'Catharsis' of tragedy, the purging of emotions such as pity and fear. These emotions relate little to comedy, and therefore the equivalent emotions in comedy are sympathy and ridicule. Our low mimetic comedy usually involves social promotion.

Melodrama has two main themes:

1. The triumph of moral virtue over villainy.
2. Idealizing of moral views assumed held by audience.

Ironic comedy treats these two themes as an absurdity, the paradox of trying to define a villain as separate from his/her society. Satire and comic irony usually define the villain as an aspect of society rather than individuals within said society. Ironic comedy ridicules the audience that seeks the sentimental, the audience that seeks the triumph of moral standards.

In the Comedy of Manners our hero has our sympathy, and repudiates society becoming a pharmakos in reverse. The society may deem him/her a fool, but we the audience know better. Dostoyevsky's 'The Idiot' is the example Frye gives.

Here is something to keep in mind. Although a work may have one mode underlying its tonality, other modes may be present. This is known as 'modal counterpoint'. I give the 'magic realism' of Salman Rushdie as an example. The very term betrays the fact that it will not be constrained by our five modes of Historical Criticism. This is the power of literature. Mythic tales can have tones of realism (and vice versarelatable by modern readers as well as audiences of the past. There's a reason the Christian Bible isn't going anywhere, and I'm afraid it has little to do with either societies literacy nor the Bible's plausibility. It resonates. Ditto Homer, Gilgamesh, Beowulf.

All good literature resonates, lives, changes as we change. As Frye aptly puts it: "a work can be contemporaneous with it's time as well as ours".

Thematic modes:

And now a few Greek terms from Aristotle's Poetics, and yes these are simplistic definitions:

Mythos: Plot
Ethos: Character and Setting
Dianoia: Thought

At this point an interesting idea. When you read a work of fiction there is a division into an internal and an external fiction. The internal fiction is the fiction contained in the story itself, the external fiction is the dialogue between author and reader. The external fiction is what Thomas C. Foster refers to (in his excellent 'How to read Novel's like a Professor') when he talks about the first page of any novel being a negotiation between the author and you the reader. The author has certain expectations of you, as you do of him, and the first page is where the negotiation occurs as to whether you take the book to the cashier or toss it back on the shelf.

In novels and plays, the mythos is usually of primary interest, in essays and lyrics the dianoia is of primary interest. As Frye puts it, when you ask 'How is this story going to turn out?', you are referring to plot discovery, what Aristotle called 'Anagnorisis'. When you ask 'What is the point of this story?', you are referring to dianoia or thematic discovery. The main emphasis of a work may be fictional or thematic, but all four ethical elements are at least potentially present: Hero, Hero's society, poet, poet's audience. Therefore every work of literature has both elements at play.

An interesting point Frye gives is that although Homer was the very type of impersonal fictional writer, the main emphasis of 'Homeric Criticism' to 1750 was overwhelmingly thematic, concerned with the dianoia of the two epics. Which leads to this point: Which element is more important is a matter of emphasis of interpretation. Two of Jane Austen's most famous works are named for  thematic elements: 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Sense and Sensibility'. As we move towards more thematic fiction, we find the word plot may be replaced by narrative. A note of warning though in regards to emphasis of interpretation. Genuine allegory is a structural element that no critical interpretation can legitimately add.

Corresponding to the comic and tragic modes of fiction, Frye divides thematic literature into 'Individualistic poetry' and 'Spokesman poetry'. The former somewhat relates to tragic fiction, focusing on the poet in isolation, producing essays, lyrics, satire, epigrams. Protest, complaint, ridicule, loneliness (both bitter and serene) are roughly analagous to tragic fiction. In Spokesman poetry has the poet expressing knowledge latent or needed in society, producing "educational poetry": epics of theme, didactic  prose and poetry, encyclopaedic myth compilation, folklore and legend. Of course the stories are fictional, but the themes are very real.

Modes of poetry:

1. Mythic poets often sings as a god, or a gods instrument (Hebrew Prophets, Muses).
2. The romantic poet is human, and his function is memory, often of a marvelous journey be it physical or spiritual.
3.High mimetic poetry often deals with epics of nation, unified by patriotic or religious ideology. Poet a courtier, preacher, public orator.
4. Low mimetic poetry is individualistic, concerned with the self, often expressing a pantheistic rapport with nature. (Faust, Keats, Shelley)
5. Ironic poetry focuses on art rather than the self. Often avoiding direct statement, juxtaposing images without explanation, this poet avoids rhetoric.

Again, in poetry as with fiction we find irony returning to the roots of myth. The craftsman or irony turns to the oracle of myth. An interesting point Frye makes is that there exists a tendency toward a strong reaction against the preceding historical mode. The example given is the shift to the ironic in the anti-romantic revolt following the Victorian era. You can think of anything your parent's wore or listened to to get the idea here.

The juxtaposition between an emphasis on thematic vs. fictional elements in literature corresponds to the historic view of literature. Aesthetic or creative, Aristotelian or Longinian, literature as product or literature as process, these are largely distinctions of fashion and the times. For Aristotle the poem is an aesthetic artifact, catharsis the central concept and thus the detachment of the spectator, what is referred to as "Aesthetic distance". In the thematic aspect, the external relationship between author and reader is prominent. The Longinian approach, ecstasis is the central concept, an individualized response involving the reader. The Longinian approach is used in lyrics often, the Aristotelian approach is often used in plays.

To sum this up, remember that to approach literature as a science involves recognizing that in a diverse field a diverse toolset is helpful. To become focused on one approach to literature at the expense of others is to make your literary experience much poorer. The goal for Frye is the inclusion of various methods into one coherent and flexible whole. In his methods, there are rules of literature and principles for its criticism, and these rules and principles make literature the richest field for exploration we could possibly imagine.

This concludes the summary of essay one of four. Essay two on Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols will be next. I hope you enjoyed this and found it informative.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


This is a place where I will be posting some essays on works of literature, as well as other things related to literary criticism. It's focus will be on all works considered to be classics. I will also be exploring so called "non-imaginative" writings, such as philosophical works here. I hope you enjoy this blog, and find some interesting information.

To those familiar with the art of literary criticism, you may recognize the title of this blog from the famous work of Northrop Frye. I have taken much of my theory from that work, and consider it a masterpiece. It is in honor of the great Canadian critic that this site is dedicated. I will begin with a brief synopsis of his 'Anatomy of Criticism', and carry on to some of my essays on great works.

I can be emailed directly at

Here's to a hopefully fun and enlightening exploration of art.