Frye: Anatomy of criticism

Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism was published in 1957. This is not only a bibliographically necessary nugget of information for when you want to compile a list of works cited, but also an important touchstone when reading the book. A great many things have happened since 1957, and it is interesting to waltz through the realms of criticism as it were back then with the knowledge of how it turned out later. Armed with the knowledge of the future, returning to this writ is akin to a tour of what might have been. The present back then was contingent in a way that our present is not.

To take an example: at length, Frye gestures to the emerging trend of replacing criticism proper with the act of producing ranked lists, and the inherent methodological problems of such an approach. For one, merely ranking things is not a critical act, it is merely the application of a more or less explicitly defined set of criteria on a limited set of objects. Going through the motions of such a procedure does not increase our understanding of the works in question, or even why they were included in the ranking process to begin with. With the modern phenomenon of listicles firmly in mind, we can look back on these musings and nod an extended agreement. Not to mention the trend of modern mission statements to replace grammatical structures in favor of disjointed yet prominently displayed keywords, where even the pretense of an overarching organizational principle has been abstracted out of the picture.

To take another example: while delineating the different roles of critics and authors, Frye makes a joking aside that Dante, who proclaimed that a certain poem was the best he had ever written, was in so doing an indifferent critic of Dante, and that others had gone on to write better critiques of said poem. Little did Frye know that a mere decade later, the whole death of the author hubbub would flare up in earnest when Barthes kicked the hornets nest. And then kept it going for quite a spell.

A funny third example is how Frye points out how there were no standard introductory books on criticism. He then goes on to speculate what the first page of a potential such book would say, pondering that perhaps it might modestly begin with the question “what is literature?”. Then, he ventures that the second page might expand on this question, in terms of verse and rhythm, and that subsequent chapters then deal with the complexities of genre and other nebulous yet necessary literary terms. Terms which, although recognizable in action and principle, seems strangely resistant to being theoretically explicated.

It is funny in the sense that there are now several such books, who do not necessarily agree with each other on the finer points of what criticism actually is. It is also funny in the additional sense of a reader being able to go to their local university library, scour the shelves of every book that looks vaguely introductory to the enterprise of literary criticism, and empirically investigate how Frye’s prediction turned out. So I went and did just that. Here follows, in the order of which they stacked up next to me after I had done the aforementioned scouring, the results.

First out is Persson (2007), titled Varför läsa litteratur? (Why read literature?). An introductory title if there ever was one. The book begins by mentioning that merely asking this question is seen as blasphemous in certain context, almost taboo. Persson then continues to outline that, in practice, this very question has had a variety of responses throughout the ages, relating to the building of such things as character, nationhood and a (well-read) democratic citizenry. He then gestures towards the contemporary trend within organizations to demand a justification (a stronger word than an explanation) for everything that happens within it. Thus, being prepared with answers with slightly more rhetorical and conceptual bite than “it’s a traditional value held throughout literally all of recorded human history (more often than not constituting said history)” is a modern virtue.

Next up is Barry (2009), with Beginning Theory. It opens up with the observation that the “moment of theory” has passed, and that we now find ourselves in the “hour of theory” – the enthusiastic fervor with which theory was introduced has been replaced with the slightly less enthusiastic aftermath in which we can look back upon what has gone before, and calmly set to work organizing and cataloging the aftermath. Theory, literary theory among them, has become a day-to-day business, and thus it needs standardized books like this one so everyone in said business are, as far as such things are possible, on the same page.

Observant readers will note that “criticism” seems to have been replaced with “theory”. Just theory in general, with “literary“ added on as a reminder that books are somehow involved. Culler (1997) picks up this theme on the first page of Literary Theory, where he differentiates between capital-T Theory in general and literary theory in particular, and then goes on to discuss how the two have been so thoroughly intertwined over the last decades that keeping them separate is a fool’s errand. Non-literary theory (defined broadly) has impacted on how literature has been written, which has then affected how criticism of said literature has taken form, which in turn has influenced literary theory, and to fully understand it all a modern readers has to know a little about every step of this series of events to keep up. Basically, a critic also needs to be a theorist, in order to understand the books they claim to critique.

Franzén (2015), in Grundbok i litteraturvetenskap, (Introduction to literary science), take a slightly more analytic approach, and defines theory in the scientific sense of being a comprehensive set of ideas relating to something; the ‘something’, in this case, is literature in its many forms. Franzén notes that there has been a move from writing about literature in a normative sense – i.e. how it should be – to writing in about it in a descriptive sense – how it actually does what it does. The book then proceeds to outline a number of themes in this straightforward manner.

Eagleton (1996) opens up Literary Theory with the striking formulation “[i]f there is such a thing as literary theory, then it would seem obvious that there is something called literature which it is the theory of”. After this opening salvo, Eagleton takes a closer look at what the category of “literature” includes (e.g. the Illiad) and what it, more importantly, does not include (comic books), and how this selective applicability affects the theory which claims to be about those things included. What is literature indeed.

Peck and Coyle (2002) introduces Literary Terms and Criticism with the assertion that “literary criticism is primarily concerned with discussing individual works of literature”. The authors then immediately clarifies that aspects slightly less particular to an individual work, such as its genre or its historical context, also play into the process of criticism. The tension between books always being singular, unique and one of a kind, and also very possible to group together with other similar monads, is as of yet one of the unresolved questions of theory, literary or otherwise.

Next up is Norton’s monumental tome the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2010), which features 2758 large pages of small print, covering just about every aspect of theory and/or criticism there is. It starts off by proclaiming that there are those who claim to be anti-theory, who hold the position that all this circumlocution is a mere distraction from the real work of getting it done. Slyly, the anthology then points out that this in itself is a theoretical position, whose assumptions can be critically examined and thus better understood. Not said, but heavily implied, is that the following thousands of pages might be of some use in this critical endeavor.

Finally – it was a big stack, dear reader – Bennett and Royle (2009) begin their An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory by posing the rhetorical question: when will we have begun? From this provocation, the authors then set out to problematize the beginning of a text. Do early drafts count, or shall we limit ourselves to the finished publication? What about marginal notes, commentary, public reception or influential works of criticism? When, indeed, can we with confidence proclaim that we have read and understood enough to finally get on with doing either literature, criticism or theory?

It is tempting to say that Frye is still correct in his assertion that there is no standard introductory work on criticism. The prevalence of many introductory works, plural, only serves to underline this point, albeit probably not in the spirit with which Frye made it. But I reckon it would be more fruitful to say that there is indeed a standard of introductory works, and that what unites them is an unwillingness to once and for all proclaim what literature (and the criticism of it) actually is. Literature is at once both the baseline of human expression (in its many forms), and the gradual expansion of the possibilities of human expression. We all agree that there is such a thing as literature, and then immediately start to argue about the finer points beyond this first principle. Establishing a firm definition of what literature is invites future authors to blur the line by new and creative literary feats, and criticism must always – lagging behind as it is – try to keep up with whatever tools it can get its hands on, theoretical or otherwise. Which is indeed a hopeful thought to take into an uncertain future. It certainly makes the present ever so slightly more contingent.

Works cited

Barry, P. (2009). Beginning Theory: an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Bennet, A., & Royle, N. (2009). An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Harlow: Pearson Longman.

Culler, J. (1997). Literary Theory: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eagleton, T. (1996). Literary Theory: an Introduction. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Franzén, C. (2015). Grundbok i litteraturvetenskap: historia, praktik och teori. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Frye, N. (1957). Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Leitch, V. (ed). (2010). The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Peck, J., & Coyle, M. (2002). Literary Terms and Criticism. Basingstroke: Palgrave.

Persson, M. (2007). Varför läsa litteratur?: om litteraturundervisningen efter den kulturella vändningen. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Frye: Anatomy of criticism

The I Ching

The I Ching – the book of changes – is a strange thing. It is, all at once, a divinatory practice, a meditative technique, a highly significant cultural document and a vocabulary. All crammed into a very small package, most of which – for western readers – will consist of contextual information, clarifications and useful forewording. The actual text is a mixture of commentary, general life advice and technical documentation, all intertwined. Those looking for a straightforward read will be highly disappointed.

In technical terms, the I Ching is a six bit binary system with 64 different states. As with a computer binary, each bit can either be 0 or 1, yin or yang. Depending on which six bits are given by the divinatory process, the resulting sign can give very differing interpretations of the situation you find yourself in. The sequence 000111 gives you the sign Stagnation, a very clear indication that the situation is hopeless and that nothing good can come out of persisting; the general advice is to leave as quickly as humanly possible. This can be contrasted with the at first glance seemingly opposite 111010, the sign for Calm Anticipation, which advises that a great or dangerous moment is imminent, yet that the time to act is not quite here; the general advice is to wait energetically. Two very different moods to find oneself in, yet very compactly conveyed through the use of merely six lines.

This efficiency is ever so slightly opaque to those who do not know the signs. It is also a remarkable achievement. It manages to place wildly disparate life experiences into the same framework, and thus allows for comparisons between different situations and the appropriate courses of action for each such situation. When under the sign of Stagnation, the only possible way forward is to just drop everything and get out, since nothing can be salvaged. When under the sign of Calm Anticipation, however, the opposite is true – the winning move is to firmly keep your eyes on what’s ahead and sticking to the plan. The wisdom imparted by comparing these two signs is that these are two possible life situations to find oneself in, and that being able to tell which applies to the current moment is crucial to getting ahead.

As you might imagine, there are a great number of possible comparisons to make with 64 available signs. To make things even more interesting, each sign is subdivided into six subvariations depending on which line gets emphasized in the divinatory process. Take 111010 as an example. Emphasis on the first line indicates that the danger is far away still, and that the best way to prepare is to live in such a way that the appropriate virtues are firmly in place when it finally does arrive. This can be contrasted with fourth line, which indicates that the danger is already clear and present, and that the proper move is to not make things worse in a blind panic, but to calmly hold fast. Both indicate that things will get better once the approaching danger can be overcome, but that overcoming this danger is a function of the actions taken in the calm moments of preparation.

Math enthusiasts will quickly figure out that the sum of these subvariations is 384, a respectable number of possible life situations. When I earlier called the I Ching a vocabulary, this is very much what I meant; being able to systematically distinguish between such a large number of possible situations (and the prudent courses of action for each) is a whole dedicated skill in itself. Being able to talk with confidence about the subtle differences between the different signs and their subvariations is yet another skill, one which may very easily be (as the character of Chidi in the TV series The Good Place so eloquently exemplifies) mistaken for wisdom. It is the allure of what is signified through 101001, Effortless Grace, which ever so slyly emphasizes the former over the latter.

The great number of variations points towards one of the inherent paradoxes of the I Ching system. On the one hand, the sheer volume indicated that just about everything ought to be covered in there somewhere. On the other hand, any student of creative writing will surely be able to think up more than six variations for each sign, once they have gotten the general gist of what it is about. Indeed, anyone with sufficient life experience will be able to recall that one time when the sign itself was applicable, but none of the variants really fit. The world is greater than the attempt to systematically categorize it.

This paradox is not a bug, however. It is a feature. Once someone has gotten so used to the signs and variations that they are able to identify the blind spots of the system, they have mastered a vocabulary of situations, remedies and moods so vast as to be able to conceptualize just about anything they stumble upon. If a peculiar situation does not fit into the system, then that too is useful information, and indicates that there is something there that warrants thinking more intently about.

Thinking intently is one of the things the I Ching encourages its practitioners to do. Going through the motions of a divinatory session takes everything from 30 to 90 minutes, during which it is advisable to keep out all distractions. Not only because it is easy to lose count whilst going through said motions, but also because the sheer act of sitting still with the problem firmly in mind is itself a kind of thinking. As Jung almost phrased it, the hands are busy whilst the mind is giving space to consciously and unconsciously process the situation. Once the answer is given and a sign appears, the practitioner is more than ready to see how it applies to the present circumstance, in extensive detail.

The I Ching is a peculiar text, a discursive anomaly. It is, I dare say, a small book of big moods.

The I Ching