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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...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


In Part 2 of this essay-series I alluded to, but did not explain, a dichotomy between two distinct aspects of the power of action, aspects which Frye suggests in other writings but does not formulate in his rethinking of Aristotle at the beginning of the "Theory of Modes" chapter of ANATOMY OF CRITICISM:

In the second paragraph of the Poetics Aristotle speaks of the differences in works of fiction which are caused by the different elevations of the characters in them. In some fictions, he says, the characters are better than we are, in others worse, in still others on the same level. This passage has not received much attention from modern critics, as the importance Aristotle assigns to goodness and badness seems to indicate a somewhat narrowly moralistic view of literature. Aristotle's words for good and bad, however, are spouddos and phaulos, which have a figurative sense of weighty and light. In literary fictions the plot consists of somebody doing something. The somebody, if an individual, is the hero, and the something he does or fails to do is what he can do, or could have done, on the level of the postulates made about him by the author and the consequent expectations of the audience. Fictions, there fore, may be classified, not morally, but by the hero's power of action, which may be greater than ours, less, or roughly the same.-- Frye, ANATOMY OF CRITICISM.

Frye's interpretation of Aristotle's terms make a fair comparison with those I've introduced in previous parts of this essay: "tonal levity" for comedy and irony, "tonal gravity" for drama and adventure.  Like Frye and unlike Aristotle, I'm not interested in viewing these qualities of weightiness and lightness in terms of moral rectitude.  However, Frye may have erred by defining "power of action" purely in physical terms.  In my comparison between PLANET OF THE APES and KAMANDI, I noted that the protagonists of these works-- possessing similar subject matter though very different themes-- might have near-identical physical abilities, yet the way those abilities manifested in the narratives could be very different.

Taylor and Kamandi, both of whom are tough human beings with no fantastic powers or weapons, are identical in terms of their *physical* power of action, but not in terms of their *thematic* power of action. 
In this essay and others I've drawn attention to a dichotomy Frye introduced about 4-5 years before the publication of ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, in an essay entitled "The Archetypes of Literature," sort of a dry run for ANATOMY.  The dichotomy was between what he called the "narrative values" and the "significant values" of any given narrative.  The former set of values denote those aspects of the narrative that are important to its function as a narrative, while the latter set are relevant to those that cause the narrative to be significant to audiences in a moral, ethical or aesthetic sense (my definition).  As it happens, though Frye does not repeat these terms in ANATOMY, he does, within the same chapter that introduces his reformulation of "power of action," draw a distinction between "fictional modes" and "thematic modes."  These are so close in essence to the earlier terms that I choose to keep using the earlier ones.

In this early essay I summarized the ways in which Frye defines "power of action" into five different modes, only four of which were applicable to literature proper, and which generated the mythoi I've re-termed "adventure, comedy, drama, and irony."  Yet in essays like this one, I've tangentially pointed out that in none of these mythoi are the protagonists limited in terms of PHYSICAL power.  All four-- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (representing adventure), Harry Potter (drama), Ranma Saotome (comedy), and the so-called "Watchmen" (irony)-- incarnate various degrees of marvelous power.

A strictly "narrative values" interpretation of Frye's formula could not allow for such distribution of power.  Frye allots the idea of heroes who perform marvelous actions to the mode/mythos of "romance" alone:

If superior in degree to other men and to his environment, the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvellous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established.

In all likelihood, given that Frye was primarily focused on medieval and Renaissance works, it's likely that within his specialty one usually did not see "prodigies of courage and endurance" or "talismans of miraculous power" anywhere in any literary category save that which he calls the "romance," and which I've termed "adventure."  But plainly in many types of later literature, marvelous powers are not confined to the heroes of the adventure-mythos.

This means that if anything separates such super-powered heroes as Buffy, Harry, Ranma and (just to choose one "Watchman") Doctor Manhattan, it's not the NARRATIVE nature of their "power of action," but the SIGNIFICANT nature, the nature that determines to what thematic ends the power is used.

More later.

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