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Northrop Frye--Anatomy of Criticism

Northrop Frye is attempting a classification of all literature.

Two moves:
1) Literature in itself is unknowable without importation of something;
2) What we deal with is comments about literature--classification is not of literature but of criticism of literature.

What is a symbol? Any unit of literary structure which can be isolated for attention.

Taxonomy of literary language--Scientific model (Postmodernists object to this because they claim that this is an attempt at Grand Narrative--which PMs no longer believe in).

We can study symbol at the level of letters/words--CAT as markings on a background. Saussure: Cat, the animal that says "Meow," and Cat, the word have no necessary connection to each other--the relationship is arbitrary. Cat, the word, is distinguished by its difference from all other linguistic signifiers.

We can study symbols in terms of entire works--all of Paradise Lost, for instance.

How are symbols normally read?

1) Description--split into: A) signs; and B) motifs.
A) Signs--scientific, descriptive language which attempts to give as clear and accurate an account of external reality as possible: outward-directed. The realm of the "imaginatively illiterate."
B) Motifs--symbols read in context of other symbols: inward-directed. Always referential to other symbols (artistic symbols). Motifs can be found on a continuum from Realism--public associations--to Symbolism--private associations.
Description in motif-driven writing is always in the service of the motif; in sign-driven writing (travel guides, for instance) description is always in the service of the sign. The difference between Jane Austen and Nathaniel Hawthorne is the degree in which the motifs are Realistic or Symbolic.

2) Image--Abstraction/Allegory. As soon as we comment on literature, we are no longer dealing with literature qua literature--we are dealing with allegorizations of literature. All criticism of literature is allegorical. This is a literary version of pulling out an experience of reality from the infinite sensuous manifold. Since we can attend to an infinite number of things, what we attend to determines the abstraction and the allegorization we bring to the literary work. Image/Allegory is on a contiuum from Naive Allegory (a political cartoon at the extreme end; Faery Queen, Pilgrim's Progress closer to the center) to Paradox (modernist--and post-modernist--poems which seem to refuse allegory; T.S. Eliot/Wallace Stevens are poets whose works are at this end of the spectrum--talking about these works is allegorical however). Language is used more, or less, referentially: Naive Allegory is more referential to publicly shared ideas; Paradox is less referential publicly--it is privately, self-referential.

3) Archetype--Relationship of the symbol to literature. We place the work in its literary context: genres, heroines, heroes, etc. We look, not at the conditions of history at the time of the writing of a work, but at the interrelationships between characters in various works across cultures and times. We look at literary symbols in terms of their reference to, and relationship with, other literary symbols. This is similar to Eliot's notion of the working of the literary tradition and its relationship to new works. Archetypes are found on a continuum from Pop culture to High culture. Pop culture (Star Wars) is characterized by its naked use of archetypes. High culture (Madame Bovary) is characterized by its concealed use of archetypes. Realistic fiction--figures of life--makes use of archetypes in a less obvious, but no less significant manner. Even fantastic literature of the High variety--Divine Comedy--makes use of archetypes in a concealed manner, because its characters more closely resemble life.

4) Monad--from Leibniz. Monist vision: all things coalesce into the one; all things are divinity. The part is the whole--the whole is the part. Hindu vision--Brahman resides in everything. The most familiar forms of literature in this category are sacred texts--thus springs the medieval notion of the world as God's book. From this springs a notion of the book as a world. In the Bible or the Koran what we have is a work in which the meaning is out of proportion to the actual words; it is out of proportion because it is being treated as an entire human experience--our human experience is inscribed in the text. The cosmos is in the book.

What Frye is doing here is describing--not prescribing--the way we seem (or have seemed up to his time) the ways we have tended to look at, talk about, and write about literature--that unknowable ding an sich. This is actually a criticism of criticism.

Frye distinguishes between the High Mimetic and the Low Mimetic. These are on a vertical axis--as compared to the horizontal axes of the above-mentioned continuums. At the highest level we have the divine--Gods, heroes, etc.--at the lowest level we have all that is ignoble--stones, garbage, etc. Milton is an example of the high mimetic; Beckett is an example of the low mimetic.

Frye gives us four kinds of prose fiction:
1) Romance--personal and experiential; personal figure--hero--and the experiences thereof
2) Novel--social and experiential; society, and the experiences of that society
3) Confession--personal and intellectual--Augustine: intellectual development of the personal agent
4) Anatomy--social and intellectual
Fifth form--sacred text: closest literary (secular) version--Finnegan's Wake--pitched in a dream world--covers everything.