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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 30, 2016


It is true of the good man too that he does many acts for the sake of his friends and his country, and if necessary dies for them; for he will throw away both wealth and honours and in general the goods that are objects of competition, gaining for himself nobility;since he would prefer a short period of intense pleasure to a long one of mild enjoyment, a twelvemonth of noble life to many years of humdrum existence, and one great and noble action to many trivial ones. -- Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, tr. W.D Ross (from the Internet Archive) 

It's been quite a while since I descanted on the topic of Frye's myth-radicals, as my last listing for the topic was in AFFECT VS. MOOD in 2014. Of course I've continued, here and on the film-review blog, to label narratives as one of the four "mythoi," more or less following the line of thought I formulated in the first "51 percent rule" essay:

...most creators start with a given mythos, make only token shifts to other mythoi, usually proving "loyal" to a particular emotional *dynamis.*

The proposed "51 percent rule" has been modified by the introduction of the "active share/ passive share" corollary put forth last November. But even in this blog's early history, it's clear to me that in essays like BUFFY THE MYTHOS SLAYER and STATURE REQUIREMENTS were seeking for an "active share" solution to the problem of "which mythos is the most dominant." Later, I would ask the same questions with regard to a given narrative's dominant phenomenality or its participation in the "combative mode." A downside to the 51 percent rule as stated is that it was devised with serial concepts in mind. Of course, anyone who seeks to label to a narrative that gives "mixed signals" must attempt something in the nature of an "active share" solution as well, unless the person chooses the strategy of Polonius, adopting weird conflations like the "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral"-- or even the "dramedy," sometimes attributed to Steven Bochco in the 1980s.

As should be evident from my other essays on Aristotle, I don't subscribe to his observations on morality as such, but he was an unqualified genius in terms of seeking to glean what qualities make certain things better, or at least more elevated, than others. The quote above from the ETHICS makes clear that although Aristotle had his "realistic" aspects, he was not a realist in our sense of the word, since he values "a twelvemonth of noble life to many years of humdrum existence." His POETICS is just as informed by this process of sussing-out, and my STATURE REQUIREMENTS essay explores some of the ways in which the philosopher assigned differing values to the literary genres of his time.

Now, Frye's concept of mythoi from the ANATOMY OF CRITICISM took some inspiration from such 20th-century authors as Theodore Gaster and the considerably earlier myth-ritual school. But Frye's primary influence, as he himself admits, is the POETICS, and though Frye does not say so, he implicitly accepts Aristotle's valorization of "plot" over "character," as seen in Book 6 of THE POETICS:

Again, if you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents.--Aristotle, POETICS, book 6. 

Aristotle's "artistically constructed incidents" are not as schematically laid out as Frye's four myth-radicals, though Frye primarily derives all of his terms from the POETICS: "agon," "pathos," "sparagmos," and what Frye calls "anagnorisis" or "cognitio"-- though, without raising a new issue, I've expressed some disagreement with Frye as to the applicability of this last term.

The interesting thing that Aristotle and Frye have in common is that both are trying to advance entirely secular explanations for the wide appeal of narrative actions that are certainly not "incidents" in the way that English speakers use the word. All of these radicals, around which the narrative action coalesces, are intended to produce "intense pleasure" rather than "mild enjoyment"-- though we don't precisely know what Aristotle made of the pleasures of comedy and other literary genres, as opposed to the tragedies to which he devotes so much attention.

Now, in the POETICS Aristotle clearly gives pride of place to the plot-function of "recognition," choosing to term plots without a revelation-scene as "simple" and those with one as "complex." I believe that his preference is rooted in his belief as a philosopher that all literary pleasure itself stemmed from the recognition of familiarity, brought about the author's successful imitation, or "mimesis," of the real world. Unlike Zola, Aristotle did not insist that imitation included only the documentary recording of familiar experiences, for he allowed that it also included things like familiar stories about the nature of the gods, and other sources of the "wonder" that he finds necessary for tragedies.

I myself would rate the familiarity of commonplace experiences as no more than a "mild enjoyment," while the familiarity of shared myths would line up better with "intense pleasure"-- and of course this is certainly the reason that I've chosen to write thousands of words on the topics of myths and myth-radicals. While as a pluralist I affirm the equal importance of all four radicals, I've clearly chosen to devote myself to the radical of the *agon,* even to the extent of analyzing its presence in narratives not aligned to the adventure-mythos best known for it. However, I've already attested to my probable reasons for focusing on the "great and noble action" of combative strife in essays like this one, so I won't repeat myself on that score. I will add, though, that conflict, albeit not combat, is implied by all of the other three radicals-- and that's one other reason as to why I find the *agon* to be the "first among equals" in this archetypal grouping.

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