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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...

Friday, July 15, 2016


I've been reading a few online resources on the subject of the myth-ritual school (sometimes called the Cambridge Ritualists). I've mentioned before that I'm aware that these theories, which had a strong effect on Northrop Frye's ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, are not much in favor today. The most common complaint from recent books is that the ritualists let their enthusiasm for their subject undermine the classicist's need for absolutely scrupulous scholarship.

I can understand why academics would put consistency first. Any academic discipline is highly dependent on an accretion of both fact and opinion, wherein the facts are theoretically unassailable and the opinions are those that best accord with those facts. Careful scholarship is essential, especially when dealing with the fragmentary records of ancient cultures, be it ancient Greece or one with even less extant evidence.

At the same time, I find fatuous the much lauded logic of Occam's Razor: that whatever seems to be the simplest explanation must also be the best. If the real life of modern times proves incredibly complicated, how could the culture of bygone times be any less so? The desire for scientific simplicity that I find in the anti-ritualist books puts me in mind of a quote from Walter Cerf, first cited here:

It is typical of reflective philosophy... that it relies on arguments, proofs, and the whole apparatus of logic... that it tries to solve intellectual puzzles rather than give the true conceptual vision of the whole; that it sticks to the natural sciences as the source of the only reliable knowledge of nature, thus committing itself... to a concept of experience reduced to sense perception, and to a concept of sense perception reduced to some causal chain...

Modern academics reject the highly speculative theories of ritualism because the Ritualists were not able to provide a "causal chain" as sturdy as the Darwinian insight that linked apes and humans. However, "the concept of experience" germane to literary production does not follow one razor-straight path. It may be overreaching to claim that all dramatic productions descend from rituals originally intended to bless the community or to expel noxious influences, but it's no less foolish to dismiss any connections at all, just to expel the "noxious influence" of careless scholarship.

Though Frye based his concept of the myth-radicals on the older Cambridge ritualists, I've never been moved to read most of them, except for a little of A,B. Cook and Jane Ellen Harrison's PROLOGOMENA. I was never married to the ritualist idea that archaic Greek drama descended literally from magico-religious rituals, and so it doesn't affect me that much if some scholars find this "causal chain" dubious. The radicals, like the "mythic moods" analyzed by Theodor Gaster, function as metaphors to organize the multifarious potential of the human mind.

At the end of the first RADICAL CONFLICTS I said:

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 this is 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. 

The blanket assertion of the anti-ritualists is that the Cambridge School was too devoted to fitting the entire world of drama (and, by extension, literature) into pigeonholes derived from Classical Greek terms. It's a familiar argument, showing the reflective critic's aversion to anything that ventures beyond the realm of causality as defined by the natural sciences. Noah Berlasky's pig-ignorant dismissal of Joseph Campbell, refuted here, is based in his commitment to a criticism founded entirely in ideological politics.

But because a pluralist is free to think in broad speculative terms, he can see outside the box of ideological means and ends. For instance, I've refined the idea of the *agon* radical as one that harnessed sort of "centric" will, one that invokes a ritualized invigorative mood,  as opposed to the less ambiious forms that characterize the same radical in its stage of "diffuse" will. The same logic extends to the other three radicals: the *pathos,* the *sparagmos* and the *incognitio*: they too much have their "centric and diffuse" (or possibly "sacred and profane") Possibly I'll explore a few of these as they occur to me, but since I'm writing a blog, and not a book to compete with ANATOMY OF CRITICISM, it's unlikely that I'll spend as much time on the other three radicals as I have upon the invigorative one.

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