Anatomy of Criticism – Second Essay: Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols

The project to read and blog about Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays continues after a slight pause while several of us were inundated with work. Today, I’d like to welcome my second guest blogger, Niall Harrison, editor-in-chief at Strange Horizons, who will be introducing us to Frye’s second essay, on ‘Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols’. 


What an inexplicable, long-winded, contradictory, pompous writer is Northrop Frye. For paragraphs at a time he seems happy to stray from his ostensible subject with the skimpiest of excuses, and spin an idea until it topples over. And the language! At least when Clute invents a critical term, he usually appropriates a word you’ve never heard before; here defenselessly normal words are turned to Frye’s purpose to construct an edifice that may make sense only on its own terms. And yet outside the essay itself — back in the introduction — Frye is an engaging and frank writer. And open, too, about his work’s limitations: “A book of this kind,” he affirms, “can only be offered to a reader who has enough sympathy with its aims to overlook, in the sense not of ignoring but of seeing past, whatever strikes him as inadequate or simply wrong” (29). In that spirit, then, I approach the theory of symbols.

Frye’s aim here is to speak in generalities about the kinds of meaning that can be extracted from literature. A symbol (“in this essay”, at least) is “any unit of any literary structure that can be isolated for critical attention” (71). In each of Frye’s kinds of meaning there are different kinds of symbols. The relationship, he insists, is not hierarchical — although the way he structures the essay, which rises from particles to god, suggests otherwise — and so he wil speak of different “phases” of meaning: and he will characterise all literary structures as “poems”, “by synecdoche, because they are short words” (71), and perhaps because nobody suggested “text”.

Three of the phases I find relatively straightforward, two somewhat impenetrable. In order:

The literal phase: the marks on a page that represent sounds that represent meanings. Symbols in this phase are “motifs”, and are understood “inwardly”, as part of a larger verbal pattern. Pattern is an important property of literature: indeed “the reason for producing the literary structure”, seen from this perspective, is to stimulate “the field of responses connected with pleasure, beauty and interest” (74). And because literature — as opposed to other kinds of writing, it seems — contains this level of structure, it is always ironic “because ‘what it says’ is always different in kind or degree from ‘what it means'” (81).

The descriptive phase: more or less the level of what happens, the “sequence of gross events” (79). In this phase symbols are “signs”, and are understood “outwardly”, directing us to engage with the world beyond the text. Symbols that function as signs must be “large and striking”; that is, “nouns and verbs, and phrases built up out of important words” (79). Crucially there is no distinction here between things and ideas: in terms of their function within this sort of critical reading, they are the same.

So far so good. We have the basic units, and a level of higher-order structure, and the tensions between the two seem evident. The next one foxes me a little, however.

The formal phase: I’m not even sure Frye knows precisely what this means, because he seems to define it in particularly vague and possibly inconsistent ways. In the formal phase, poetry “exists between the example and the precept” (84). What? He talks about form being either “stationary” or “moving”, a distinction whose meaning I entirely failed to grasp. A little bit closer to comprehensible is this: “The form of the poem is the same whether it is studied as narrative or meaning” (85), which is clearly talking about form as some sort of unifying principle behind a literary work, but not in such a way that I could point to or describe an example of it. On the other hand, his statement of how formal criticism is done: “the units [the formal critic] isolates are those which show an analogy of proportion between the poem and the nature which it imitates” (84); pattern again, but this time at the interface between the work and the world.

The mythical phase: On surer ground here — home ground, almost, since this is where we come to “convention and genre” (which are “based on analogies of form, but we’ll gloss over that). These are of interest because they are part of “our actual experience of literature” (95); indeed, Frye goes so far as to assert that “all art is equally conventionalised, but we do not ordinarily notice this fact unless we are unaccustomed to the convention” (96), which should be sent to John Mullan on a post card. I’d take issue with that “equally”, except that a little bit later Frye does it form me, setting out a spectrum from “pure convention” to “pure variable”. It’s really striking how much more familiar this section felt than any of the others — even allowing for the fact that the genres Frye is thinking of here are primarily the genres of structure, novels vs plays or what have you, rather than of content — how much the understanding of genre here is the one I read with on a daily basis.

Finally: The anagogic phase: which is an attempt to talk about “universal meaning” that acknowledges cultural specificity (to a point: “they may be confidently excluded from the human race if they cannot understand the conception of food” [125]) and then tries to imagine the whole of literature contained within an imaginary godmind (I think) about which critics must remain agnostic (I think). (This was the other one that had me a bit baffled.) The most interesting notes here, for me, were those that returned to the importance of pattern once more — or ritual here — which becomes almost a living thing, aspiring to dominate nature, to bend the world to its form. It reminded me quite a lot of Clutean Story.

Having laboured through this edifice of phases, I’m left with two main thoughts. The first is that it’s not clear to me in which sense the theory of symbols is “ethical criticism”; or rather, in the sense that I normally understand “ethical”, it’s not, which means there must be another definition somewhere that either I missed or Frye is taking for granted. There is a brief discussion during the mythical/social phase to the effect that “Beauty in art is like happiness in morals: it may accompany the act, but it cannot be the goal of the act” (114), which is an interesting association, but that’s about it. My second thought is that I’m not sure what to do with this structure now that I have it. I suppose that’s what the rest of the book is going to articulate, but I’m not sure at this stage that the phases are distinct and coherent enough for it to be helpful to me to think about addressing them separately as I write about literature, or even that I understand them fully enough to argue with productively. The insights — or at least assertions — that interest me most seem to be scattered through the essay without being integral to any particular phase. I’m fascinated, for instance, by Frye’s seeming vacillation on artistic intentionality and creativity. AT one point he insists that literature must be read as intentional, that “For many of the flaws which an inexperienced critic thinks he detects, the answer ‘But it’s supposed to be that way’ is sufficient” (87); later, he seems to indulge the idea of independent creations, speaking of artists as custodians of great themes that in some sense work through them, or make them “at best a midwife” to the final work. It may be that the impossibility of knowing an author’s mind, for Frye, necessitates reading a text in both ways just to see what you come up with. So maybe that’s the point: maybe the theory of symbols is an extended argument that a critic should never say a literary work “is” any one thing. (Oops.)

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4 thoughts on “Anatomy of Criticism – Second Essay: Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols

  1. Paul Kincaid

    Niall, I agree with you totally about Frye's use of language. I often found myself wondering whether it was simply that critical language has changed quite dramatically in the 50-odd years since he wrote this book. On the other hand, Auerbach's Mimesis had appeared in America at the beginning of the decade, but Frye shows no awareness of it and continually uses 'mimesis' in a way that seems slightly off-kilter to me – at one point he defines it as: "an emancipation of externality into image" (113), that "emancipation" is a curious word. And then, as I noted in comments to the first essay, there are places where he cheerily admits to using the same word with different meanings in different places in the essays. The end result is that I found myself distrusting every word, particularly 'criticism' and any word he uses as a title for any part of his structure.Part of the slipperiness of the language is there in the whole notion of "ethical criticism" which I came to realise is not based on morality but on "ethos" or characterisation. We may assume that characters are moral beings, but moral readings of their actions are notably absent from this essay. We are most of the way through the essay before we come to: "the social context of art is also the moral context" (113), an equivalence with which I have some hesitation, to say the least. On the other hand, it was in reading this essay that I think I came to an understanding of what he was trying to do. He implies this several times, though if he ever makes it explicit (does he ever make anything explicit) I missed it. The aim is to construct a critical framework for literature that is entirely independent of anything outside the literature. In other words, we're talking about the skeleton of the work before any of the more culturally specific layerings of organs and muscles and flesh are built on top of it. That, at least, is what I think is the idea, but I have major doubts about the enterprise on three counts.1) I am not convinced that you can ever completely sever literature from context: there is not such skeleton.2) I don't think Frye himself achieves this, since his schema is itself littered with cultural references, though I'm not sure he's always aware of the extent to which he is making these references.And 3), I have doubts about the structure that is presented to us. Frye is very fond of patterns, everything comes in a set number of groups with a set number of subdivisions springing from them. Yet I could not say how much these patterns are extracted from the literature (the inductive method he raises then abandons in the introduction), and how much they are constructed independent of the literature and then laid over it. The all too neat way in which the 5 phases of symbolism match the 5 modes in the first essay, except in reverse, rather makes me suspect the latter.[This comment is growing long, I'll continue in another.]

  2. Paul Kincaid

    [My comment continued …]That last point, about the way the 5 symbols are mapped upon the 5 modes raises another problem for me. The literal symbol equates with the ironic mode (lowest and latest of his historic modes), while the anagogic phase, which is the most esoteric and therefore seemingly closest to the purely literary detached from all external influences, equates with the earliest mythic mode. If this is anything more than a metaphorical linkage, then it seems to periodise symbols just as the modes are periodised. And as I said before, I have a real problem with periodisation.It would help if I didn't suspect that Frye's grasp of literary and cultural history was rather dodgy. He says, for instance, that "the great age of documentary naturalism, the nineteenth century, was also the age of Romantic poetry" (80), though these were at opposite ends of the century. The only thing that links them is the human tendency to group years into bunches of 100, and these two trends happen to fall more or less within the same bunch.When I said before that you have to question every word, starting with the word 'criticism', one of the points I had in mind was when he says: "Formal criticism (ie criticism of form) … is commentary, and commentary is the process of translating into explicit or discursive language what is implicit in the poem" (86). It occurs to me that such commentary is mostly what we mean when we talk of criticism. But if criticism isn't just commentary what is it? He doesn't say. "But even continuous allegory is still a structure of images, not of disguised ideas, and commentary has to proceed with it exactly as it does with all other literature, trying to see what precepts and examples are suggested by the imagery as a whole" (90). In other words, art is a construct of images and no more (art is dumb) and abstracting ideas from the images (giving voice to art) is the job of the reader/critic not the writer.What he says about the "intentional fallacy" (86/7) calls to mind what he said about art being dumb in the introduction. "[W]hat the poet meant to say, then, is, literally, the poem itself" (87) – actually, no. We can't know that. The poem is what the poet said, but whether that is what she meant or simply the limit of her skill is another matter.I have similar problems when he comes as close as he can manage to what we would understand by ethical criticism. "Beauty in art is like happiness in morals: it may accompany the act, but it cannot be the goal of the act" (114) though there are some moral philosophers who would be happy to challenge the last part of that statement. All the way through this discussion (apropos my earlier remarks about the impossibility of separating literature from context), I felt that Frye seems to confuse the beauty of an object being painted with the beauty of the painting. Surely it is possible to paint an ugly object beautifully?"But if no social, moral, or aesthetic standard is in the long run externally determinative of the value of art, it follows that the archetypal phase, in which art is part of civilisation, cannot be the ultimate one. We need still another phase where we can pass from civilisation, where poetry is still useful and functional, to culture, where it is disinterested and liberal, and stands on it's own feet" (115) This is the clearest statement we have had so far about his aim. Criticism must exclude all political, moral and aesthetic influences, it must be entirely in and of the art. This is another way of excluding Marxism from criticism, but it also excludes ethics or any sense that art has a function to be explored.

  3. Paul Kincaid

    Having said all that, I should add that there were some things I really, really liked about this essay, perceptions that I think are wonderful and valuable. Almost at random:"It is better to think, therefore, not simply of a sequence of meanings, but of a sequence of contexts or relationships in which the whole work of literary art can be placed, each context having its characteristic mythos and ethos as well as its dianoia or meaning" (73)."The basis of poetic expression is the metaphor, and the basis of naive allegory is the mixed metaphor" (91) lovely!"The literary relation of ritual to drama … is a relation of content to form only, not one of source to derivation" (109) so, by extension, it is never correct to criticise a work by saying 'that never happened' or 'it wasn't like that'.Finally, since I am here just dropping in random apercus rather than trying to construct a coherent argument, I note: He doesn't mention him, but his brief discussion of signs and symbols (73-4) seems to pick up on Saussure. Except "the poet does not equate a word with a meaning; he establishes the functions or powers of words" (78) separating meaning from function, not sure what I make of this.

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