Featured Post


In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Sunday, June 14, 2009


"Some arts move in time, like music; others are presented in space, like painting. In both cases the organizing principle is recurrence, which is called rhythm when it is temporal and pattern when it is spatial...Literature seems to be intermediate between music and painting... We may call the rhythm of literature the narrative and the pattern, the simultaneous mental grasp of the verbal structure, the meaning or significance. We hear or listen to a narrative, but when we grasp a writer's total pattern we 'see' what he means."-- Frye, "Archetypes of Literature," p. 14.

In Frye's preface to his essay-collection FABLES OF IDENTITY, he refers to the essay "Archetypes" as a "summarized statement of the critical program" which came to fruition in his book ANATOMY OF CRITICISM roughly six years later. Much of what he writes with application to prose literature has some interesting parallels to the medium of comics, for all that the comics-form leans a little closer to arts "presented in space" like painting, insofar as the medium depends heavily on pictorial representations to communicate both rhythm and pattern.

It's interesting that though the ANATOMY starts off with Frye building upon Aristotle, father of all litcrit, the Greek philosopher is not cited anywhere within "Archetypes." Some influence does seem likely, though, insofar as Aristotle too defines art in terms of a concept of *mimesis* that takes in "harmony, language and rhythm." "Mimesis," meaning imitation, works well enough when one is talking about constructing patterned representations of the real world through "language"-- be it pictorial representations, as seen in comics, painting, and sculpture, or through the more abstract signs of letters and numbers that make up our prose works. Yet many critics have had problems with viewing the structural components of music and dance as an "imitation" of anything. The harmony and rhythm found in these arts doesn't really "represent" any physical thing, though one can hypothesize some rough pattern to the emotions and associations they call forth in their pure state. However, music and dance don't become truly "mimetic" until they are linked to a narrative. For music this means lyrics at the very least, while for dance this means theatrical storytelling.

It's interesting, then, that when Frye defines "narrative" he does so in terms of "rhythm," because narrative, like music, moves in time. One can argue that within the narrative the characters move in both space and time, and certainly the reader moves spatially from the beginning of the story to its end. Frye may have been drawing a mental comparison between the way music compositions and prose literature can be read: as lines of symbols on a page, though there's a crucial difference in that prose *can* be read aloud but music *must* be performed to reveal either "rhythm" or "pattern." (To be sure Frye admits that one can find spatial patterns in arts that predominantly move in time and temporal rhythm in those that move in space, but he doesn't make a lot of the observation in this essay).

This dominant comparison of narrative with temporal rhythm has interesting consequences. Aristotle tries to tell us that "harmony and rhythm" are as much a part of humanity's mimetic impulses as are the direct reproductions of real or imagined experiences found in other arts. Thus Aristotle seems to be taking two activities that would seem to be "concrete" insofar as they don't really represent anything but themselves (unless joined to a narrative)-- and then making these two actitivies seem more abstract by asserting that they are indistinguishably a part of humanity's desire to attain greater knowledge of the world by making representations of it.

In contrast, Frye alters the Aristotelian paradigm so that "narrative," the totality of spatio-temporal events within a (written) work, becomes the "concrete" part of the work, and so is compared to the "rhythm" that underlies all arts that "move in time." For Frye, making representations is not an abstract philosophical activity, part of man's overall "need to know," but is more comparable to the rhythms of organisms. For all that Frye says later in ANATOMY that the comparison is not exact, for animals cannot abstract their experiences enough to tell stories about them, narrative as such arises from man's attempt to imitate "the natural cycle." In this, as I observed before, Frye was probably following the theories of Theodore Gaster, who in turn was building upon the "myth-ritual school" of earlier academics like Murray, Harrison and Cornford.

(as this is becoming a long post I had better break it off here before proceeding to what Frye says about the more abstract aspects of literature, the "total pattern" referred to above)

No comments: