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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.)