Anatomy of Criticism – First Essay: Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes

The project to read and blog about Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays continues. Today, I’d like to welcome my first guest blogger, Paul Raven, better known to many as head wrangler of Futurismic, who will be introducing us to Frye’s first essay, on ‘Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes’.

Take it away, Paul …


With hindsight, Frye’s essay on historical criticism was probably the least suited to my own literary experience; most of the texts and authors to which he refers I know as names and titles only, and my understanding of classical literature in particular is woefully inadequate. Hence many of the modal terms deployed here are known to me only in their (apparently much corrupted) modern vernacular usage. (Though I am at least aware that a certain Ms Morissette’s understanding of irony was somewhat off the mark…)

But hey, why let ignorance get in my way? It’s never stopped me before, after all. 🙂 That said, the gist of Frye’s modal scale (which I assume to be some sort of synthesis of critical frameworks established long before his time) immediately provides me a new way of categorising a text, and props the framework up with a sense of historical flow. This moves from the pure mythologies in which all literature and storytelling is rooted, through to “romantic” legends and folk tales, on to the high and low mimetic modes (wherein man starts writing about man as measured against his environment and/or his fellow man), and out into the ironic mode (in which, if I have understood Frye’s definitions and successfully translated them into my own idiom, man starts looking at the big picture and wondering where the hell god might be found, if indeed god is to be found at all). This flow matches the changing conception of man’s relationship to the world around him: a kind of descent from the naïve grace of classicism, if you like. This sense of downward motion is implicit in Frye’s words (“… we can see that European fiction, during the last fifteen centuries, has steadily moved its center of gravity down the list… “), but thanks to his introduction I must charitably assume there is no subconscious value-judgement in this use of a vertical scale. 😉

After Frye has introduced these basic modes, we’re off into a whole raft of other classifications (the subtypes and cross-pollinations of tragedy and comedy, for instance), all illustrated with references to texts with which I am, to my shame, almost universally unfamiliar. This makes a mockery of any attempt on my part to assess the usefulness of Frye’s theory as expounded in this essay; the most I could hope for is some sort of Chinese Room / Turing Machine processing of interlinked items for which I have little or no context.

However, I do manage to get a sense of the general utility of this sort of approach to criticism… possibly because much of the genre criticism I’ve read at length tends to make use of the genre’s history as a framework. One gets to see how changing attitudes to the world have informed literature over time, and that is far clearer to see over the shorter timescale of genre’s existence (though again my own familiarity with genre by comparison to literature-as-a-whole is probably helping a lot); to come up with a similar theory of historical criticism tailored to genre would not only be useful but a lot of fun (though it would also be a lifetime’s work, I suspect, starting first with an examination of all the previous attempts at such).

One potential axis for plotting the historical development of genre (which leapt out as very familiar) is the mimetic tendency:

Our survey of fictional modes has also shown us that the mimetic tendency itself, the tendency to verisimilitude and ac curacy of description, is one of two poles of literature. At the other pole is something that seems to be connected both with Aristotle’s word mythos and with the usual meaning of myth. That is, it is a tendency to tell a story which is in origin a story about characters who can do anything, and only gradually becomes attracted toward a tendency to tell a plausible or credible story.

I don’t know about elsewhere, but the bugbear of plausibility is still a big issue in genre criticism, though I tend to associate it with the sort of old-school advocacy of “hard” sf that acts for me somewhat like a leper’s bell. But the paragraph above concludes with the following:

Reading forward in history, therefore, we may think of our romantic, high mimetic and low mimetic modes as a series of displaced myths, mythoi or plot-formulas progressively moving over towards the opposite pole of verisimilitude, and then, with irony, beginning to move back.

Thinking about Frye’s own historical standpoint compared to my own, I wonder if he’s pointing here to what I’d think of as the first stirrings of post-modernism: I get the feeling that the ironic re-ascent of Frye’s scale has progressed considerably since the writing of this essay, if not completed itself, with the end result that his linear table becomes something more like a colour wheel (or, to use a more genre-typical image, a Mobius strip). All modes are admissible in the postmodern landscape, but specific audiences have accreted around certain modes and mixtures thereof, each with their own dogmatic attitudes to literature which inevitably fail when projected onto texts from a different section of the colourwheel. (Hence, for instance, the tension between the polar opposites of the ultramimetic Mundane manifesto and the more legend-flavoured sf of the Analog/Asmiov’s scene; two flavours of fiction that can coexist historically, but whose audiences are almost completely mutually exclusive.)

In summary, then, Frye’s specific modal theory is largely useless to me thanks to what he would – quite rightly – decry as my insufficient familiarity with the grand corpus of literature. However, what is very apparent to me is the way in which the modes allow him to slice through the literary lightcone and extract elliptical sections that allow for interesting comparisons of otherwise very different types of work. Also of considerable interest is the implication that simple either/or taxonomy is insufficient:

As for the inferences which may be made from the above survey, one is clearly that many current critical assumptions have a limited historical context. In our day an ironic provincialism, which looks everywhere in literature for complete objectivity, suspension of moral judgements, concentration on pure verbal craftsmanship, and similar virtues, is in the ascendant. A Romantic provincialism, which looks everywhere for genius and evidences of great personality, is more old-fashioned, but it is still around. The high mimetic mode also had its pedants, some of them still trying to apply canons of ideal form in the eighteenth and even the nineteenth centuries. The suggestion made here is that no set of critical standards derived from only one mode can ever assimilate the whole truth about poetry.

Chiming as it does with my own as-yet-unformed “folksonomic mixing desk” theory of genre, this approach to analysing a text appeals to me greatly… and more than ever before makes it clear to me that I really need to read a great many more books written before 1900 than I have to date!

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