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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...

Thursday, December 24, 2009


I don't know how long this site has had Frye's ANATOMY OF CRITICISM online, but it'll certainly be of particular use to me in copying text for the purpose of either supporting or refuting Frye's theories. This essay will be a partial refutation of Frye's theory of the comic.

"The theme of the comic is the integration of society, which usually takes the form of incorporating a central character into it. The mythical comedy corresponding to the death of the Dionysiac god is Apollonian, the story of how a hero is accepted by a society of gods. In Classical literature the theme of acceptance forms part of the stories of Hercules, Mercury, and other deities who had a probation to go through, and in Christian literature it is the theme of salvation, or, in a more concentrated form, of assumption: the comedy that stands just at the end of Dante's Commedia."-- p. 43.

"Anagnorisis, or recognition of a newborn society rising in triumph around a still somewhat mysterious hero and his bride, is the archetypal theme of comedy."-- p. 190.

The obvious pun in my title plays off of Frye's tendency to conflate the tendency of comedies toward social integration with that of religious salvation, as presented in Dante's DIVINE COMEDY. I believe I understand his logic but I disagree with his conclusions. I don't find much that is comic in the DIVINE COMEDY, or most similar stories emphasizing something akin to "salvation," and these narratives I tend to categorize under my heading of "non-agonistic" adventure-romance, in that Dante's work takes place in the context of an ongoing struggle between Good and Evil.

A larger question concerns the identification of comic integration with religious triumphalism, in that I view the latter as also more typical of adventure-genres than of most of the works that people consider to be "comedies." In making this equation Frye was probably influenced by his personal religion, in that he was a practicing Christian. It should be said that in most respects Frye's system is more liberal and pluralistic than the systems of those who worship only their own intellects-- which is all right with me as long as they show that they actually posses significant intellects. (This leaves out Barthes and Adorno right off). Only in this respect, in his identification of the theme underlying the *mythos* of comedy, does his religion steer him in what I deem an incorrect direction, though it doesn't undermine his system by any means.

In previous essays I've noted how various works that contemporary society deems comedies, such as the BLONDIE comic strip and the Three Stooges shorts, don't conform either to Frye's general propositions on comedy or his "six phase" design of comic modes, on which I don't plan to discourse here. As I've also stated before I think that the root of our disagreement is that Frye, like Henri Bergson, considers the root of comedy to be "repetitive activity," while I favor the root to be "incongruity," following the arguments of Arthur Schopenhauer.

On page 185 of THE ANATOMY Frye makes another telling equation between the structure of the Greco-Roman New Comedy and the structure of the Christian salvation-narrative:

"...we realize that the crudest of Plautine comedy-formulas has much the same structure as the central Christian myth itself, with its divine son appeasing the wrath of a father and redeeming what is at once a society and a bride."

In stating this Frye does not mean that every "comedy-formula" is like that of the New Comedy, with its concerns over winning a "bride." His "same structure" is an ideal model, not a prescriptive one. But the question remains as to whether his ideal is ideal in all respects. For instance, one of Plautus's best-known comedies is something of a reversal of New Comic themes, for THE AMPHITRYON deals with the comic misadventures that result when Zeus, preparatory to siring Heracles, decides to assume the guise of a Greek lord named Amphitryon in order to sleep with Amphitryon's wife. If anything AMPHITRYON resembles BLONDIE far more than any New Comedy story.

Now, while Frye thought that the "young-man-winning-a-bride" formula was structurally similar to that of a salvation-narrative like THE DIVINE COMEDY, because both ended the repetitious sequence of comic misadventures, I would say that both AMPHITRYON and BLONDIE are better explained by incongruity than by repetition. What they have in common are not young men seeking brides but older men who are for one reason or another embarassed as they seek to maintain order in their households. There is nothing inherently "repetitious" in Amphitryon's predicament: he does what any husband would do when he thinks his wife is sleeping with another man, and only the revelation of Zeus' trickeries mollifies him. Dagwood Bumstead's situation, as it occurs in a serial format, shows more repetitions, but I would suggest that what they have in common is the incongruity of their seeking to have the patriarch's ideal control of his world, and how they fail so miserably as to be funny in their humiliations.

Repetition, for me, is a tool that only works within a greater scheme of incongruous activities that one finds funny because the sufferings depicted are so essentially harmless. If there is any ideal underlying it, it is not Christian grace but a sort of perdurability in the characters who suffer so many zany misadventures. It is this perdurability in the face of the absurd that led me to feel that the emotional affect one should associate with comedy's *mythos* is that of a happy absurdity, which is the affect I wish to suggest with my revised term for Frye's *anagnorisis*-theme: the "incognitio."

Oddly, even though I find nothing comic in the DIVINE COMEDY, or even "the action of the Christian Bible" that Frye also finds comparable with comic action, I do think one early Church Father captured the essence of the incognitio. Asked why he believed in the Resurrection, Church Father Tertullian allegedly said:

"I believe--

--Because it is absurd."

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