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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

COMEDY! IRONY! LIVIN' IN IMPERFECT HARMONY!

I'm backburnering the essay I said I'd do next to clarify my thoughts on the following.


Northrop Frye's poetics is probably the Moby Dick of all literary theories. To refute him adequately one would have to have the same level of literary knowledge he had, and then to show why his schema did or didn't encompass as much of literature as Frye claimed it did. To the best of my knowledge the few Ahabs who have made the attempt have gone down with their ships (=theories) like their fictional precursor.

But naturally, no system is perfect, nor (I believe) would Frye have claimed his was.


Because the theory of mythoi is drawn from Frye's imagined "quest-myth"-- in which he imagines a protagonist cyclically passing through each of the four mythoi as a human being passes through the seasons-- some of the phases may be overdetermined by this model.

Earlier I commented:

'I should add that Frye’s definition of comedy proper is strongly predicated on the model of Greek New Comedy, which dominantly centered about the idea of young lovers successfully being joined despite some opposing force. It may be possible to see the theme of anagnorisis, or “discovery,” even in comedies that are not about overt romantic themes, but that would be a project for another time.'


Naturally I'm not going to attempt such a project on a blog in any depth, but here are some thoughts I formulated after re-reading Frye's sections on comedy and irony.

The so-called "New Comedy" of the Greeks still comprises much of the formulas of contemporary comedy-- but not all. It would be hard to find very many New Comic setups in the hundred-plus "Three Stooges" shorts, where the emphasis is almost entirely on violent slapstick. So "discovery" in the sense of bringing about connubial happiness doesn't seem adequate to take in everything that comedy can do, especially since it can be argued that Frye's other three modes-- irony, tragedy, and romance-- use anagnorisis in their own distinctive manners.

I'd argue, though, that both romantic comedies and slapstick japes like the Stooges use the notion of "discovery" with a tonality not present in the other modes. Frye generally pairs romance and comedy because they resolve their conflicts with upbeat conclusions, as opposed to tragedy and irony, which resolve conflicts with downbeat conclusions. Yet though the romance generally ends in an upbeat way, it could be asserted that it is rarely a surprise that it does so. The same could be said of tragedy and irony: once it's suggested that the story's theme is that of the fall of a great man, or the descent of a mediocre hero into a hell of greater mediocrity, the progress is pretty much the same all around.

Comedy's theme is also predetermined by its genre, but it does depend much more on the tonality of sudden surprise. Only sudden surprise provokes the sort of disinterested laughter that is as amused by the discomfiture of the hero (say Charlie Chaplin) as by that of Chaplin's opponent, against whom, in theory, the audience should want to see discomfited.

Romance, irony and tragedy are usually not quite so disinterested, for they are more invested in following through on a specific myth-theme, symbolized by narrative actions Frye terms agon, pathos, and sparagmos.

The narrative action of "discovery," though, could mean not just the discovery of the new society postulated by Frye from New Comedy, but also the discovery of pure incongruity in any seemingly-normal situation. It could be found as much in Woody Allen's comic meditations on the need for relationships, as in Moe using a scissors to catch Larry by the nose. (I should add that I'm partial to the incongruity theories of humor as put forth by Kant and Schopenhauer.) In any case, if in future posts I make use of the myth-theme anagnorisis to characterize comedies, this is the meaning the word has for me.


The element of anagnorisis makes a strong if more predictable showing in romances and tragedies, but it might be at its weakest in the ironic story. Frye does not identify the radical of irony as he does with romance, but of the four mythoi irony would seem the one most predetermined by fate (i.e., the author's decision to portray a world without significant freedom).


Though Frye speaks of the (often mundane) horrors that dominate the irony, he never explicitly links that form to the genre of horror, as I have. I don't mean to suggest that all horror stories fall under the mythos of irony, but certain ones do. In classical mythology one might think of stories in which a victim perishes ignobly-- say, Actaeaon-- as the ancestors of ironic horror, in contrast to the noble, tragic horror found in the story of Oedipus.

One reason I've decided to clarify these two details of my system is that one of my next planned posts is to deal with what I deem the 20 most exemplary CDMs, which I'll write as a way of giving further examples of particular examples of modes.

And if the reader doesn't recognize the term CDM, that's because I just made it up.

CDM= Comics-Derived Movie

More later.

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