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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...

Saturday, April 23, 2011


In a 4-16-2011 comment on my DARK KNIGHT RETURNS post, a respondent named AS-ST Pilot said:

P.S. I'm having a tough time understanding Frye's ANATOMY OF CRITICISM. In the future, could you post a "Mythopoetics for beginners"-type thing, with some book recommendations? I would appreciate it.

I responded:

I've sometimes thought it's too easy to get lost in the labyrinth I'm constructing here. A little Ariadne-thread would probably be appropriate.

The first question one has to answer when talking about "mythopoetics" is the same one that has to be answered in talking about anything: "Why is it important?" That subjective sense of importance is "the needle" of my title, which guides one's efforts in weaving the thread into a consistent design. (And yes, that metaphor has nothing to do with the labyrinth-related one from earlier.)

The question of myth's significance for literature, and the possible continuity of the two cultural forms, is one that began to preoccupy Western culture near the close of the nineteenth century. Only with that backdrop in mind can one get a sense of what Northrop Frye was trying to accomplish with the ANATOMY, his signature work. Frye claimed that the label of "myth-critic" was somewhat foisted upon him, but in the main he seems to have agreed with it, admitting in his prefatory remarks that the ANATOMY grew out of his desire to better analyze the typological symbolism of Blake and Spenser.

One can see in the ANATOMY many influences from diverse writers concerned with the myth/literature confluence-- Goethe, Eliot, Cassirer and Jung, to name four. Like most innovative thinkers Frye "takes what he needs" from them all and "leaves the rest," for Frye's "needle" was set to correcting the deficiencies of a literary criticism bogged down by what he called "rhetorical value-judgments." Being that I may well be very nearly the only "myth-critic" in the community of comics-readers, I've observed that state of affairs in the smaller comics-world myself:

As most comics-critics are (as seen in my above example) largely ignorant of mythology, they generally prefer to see art as independent of the processes of mythology. Most comics-critics prefer to see literary works as heuristic tools by which authors work through their crises and the like, and for them art is individualized and thus as far as one can get from the formulas and/or rituals by which mythological narratives are sustained. Their conception of art is a bunch of separate trees which no-how no-way comprise a forest, except in the imagination of the learned critic who shapes them into the kind of forest he calls a "canon."

Despite all of Frye's links to the distant, pre-industrial past-- his expertise in medieval and Renaissance literature, his taste for such hermetic literary mythmakers as Blake and Spenser-- Frye was a 20th-century comparativist to the very bone, after the same fashion as Goethe et al. The ANATOMY is on one level an attempt to plead for a "synoptic" vision of all literature that includes THE ROMANCE OF THE ROSE as much as THE FLIES. But such a vision was then and is still a hard sell to the purveyors of rhetorical value-judgments.

That comparativist impulse has a touch of irony in that so much of Frye's conceptual structure is predicated on Aristotle. In the POETICS the Greek philosopher makes no bones about stating that literary practices evolved from mythic/religious ones-- tragedies from Dionysian dithyrambs, comedies from "phallic songs." But the derivation holds little importance for Aristotle. Given his views on teleology, one presumes that for Aristotle the mythic forbears of tragedy were viewed as being on a par with the mighty oak's development from the little acorn. Certainly Aristotle had no trouble pronouncing "Tragedy" to be a superior literary form over the "Epic," even while assiduously detailing the different parameters each form followed.

I tend to think that Frye may have followed Cassirer in the belief that no cultural formation was intrinsically superior to any other, even if he sometimes changed his tune on the matter of popular fiction.

In addition to literary and philosophical giants who influenced Frye, the ANATOMY is also easier to understand as a partial development from the Cambridge "myth-ritual school." In AN OPEN QUEST PART 1 I noted:

I won't explore here the controversies surrounding the myth-ritual school, which isn't much in favor these days though it has received some academic re-evaluations of late. At worst, it was too much of a totalizing approach to mythology, assuming that everything in archaic mythology stemmed from some ritual religious act. It wasn't as far-fetched as Robert Graves' penchant to see all myth as recapitulated ancient histories, or (to cite the fellow who let the monocausal cat out of the bag in myth-studies) Max Muller's notion that all myths related to sun-worship. But like all monocausal explanations, pure myth-ritualism left a lot to be desired.

Fortunately, even though Frye took many structuring concepts from academics like Murray and Gaster, he quite correctly refashioned them to his own interests, which concerned the better understanding of the humanities as a whole.

Now, having said all that about the ANATOMY, I'd have to say that it isn't the best book to school one in mythopoetics. I probably read it about '79 or '80, ironically a year or so after graduating college (where my thesis, even without Frye, had expounded on the typological similarities between MOBY DICK and THE TEMPTATION OF SAINT ANTHONY). Probably the best Frye work to start one out would be the essay I recommended in "Breaking Open Mouldy Tales," which appeared in the collection A NATURAL PERSPECTIVE.

And even though there are strong philosophical differences between Frye and Joseph Campbell-- for one, the fact that Frye cares more about "the ritual" while Campbell focuses on "the innate idea"-- Campbell probably does a better job of communicating the special joy of mythopoetics in books like MYTHS TO LIVE BY and THE INNER REACHES OF OUTER SPACE. It is a joy of "completing one's partial mind" by virtue of seeing connections where before there was only chaos. Or, to cite once again, the Yeats quote with which I started this blog:

It is the charm of mythic narrative that it cannot tell one thing without telling a hundred others. The symbols are an endless inter-marrying family. They give life to what, stated in general terms, appears only a cold truism, by hinting how the apparent simplicity of the statement is due to an artificial isolation of a fragment, which, in its natural place, is connected with all the infinity of truths by living fibres.


AT-ST Pilot said...

This is great. Thank you.

Also, if you ever want to revisit Elfquest in another post and don’t have the comics around:
The navigation is kind of annoying but I’ll enjoy re-reading the first 20 or so issues (the Marvel reprints) and finally reading the conclusion.

Gene Phillips said...

You're welcome. Hope you enjoy part 2.