Adventures in Criticism pt 5

We’re nearing the last leg of Northrop Frye’s first essay in Anatomy of Criticism; this time we’re tackling the section called “Thematic Modes.”

Frye opens by citing Aristotle’s six aspects of poetry, and puts off three until later in the book — so the three we will be dealing with are “mythos,” “ethos,” and “dianoia” (whcih are plot, characters/setting, and “thought,” respectively).  He identifies “thought” as “theme” (52).  He points out that works may be more interested in one than another, but all works have all elements in them.   They also scale.  For example, Sense and Sensibility is strongly thematic, until compared with The Grapes of Wrath.

“All formal allegories have, ipso facto, a strong thematic interest, though it does not follow, as is often said, that any thematic criticism of a work of fiction will turn it into an allegory […] Genuine allegory is a structural element in literature: it has to be there, and cannot be added by critical interpretation alone” (53-54).  I think this bears focus for two reasons — one is personal, in that I hate people trying to argue stories are allegories when they’re not, such as the people who claim The Lord of the Rings is an allegory of the second World War.

Also, and more importantly, it deals with people who refuse to believe that examination of themes in a work of art do anything other than paint another story on top of them — examining themes is not the same as attempting to overlay an allegory on the story.  I have been accused of this and (RE: my hatred of allegory in most cases) generally get irritated by it.  The comparison, as Frye illustrates with Sense and Sensibility vs. The Grapes of Wrath, alters our point of view toward the theme and the “plot,” but does not change what is actually there.

Frye illuminates an interesting dichotomy of creators, which he calls “episodic” and “encyclopaedic” (55).  These terms have to do, first, with how continuous the form of the work is (obviously “episodic” would be discontinuous).  He claims the creator communicating as an individual is episodic, while when the artist communicates “with a social function” the extended patterns of the encyclopaedic form is more useful.  Again, they’re not unrelated.

This, I think, has a lot of relevance to us in the otaku-rhombus.  First, go read Pontifus’s latest post.  We could consider the originating piece as episodic, whether it’s the first version of Arthur (whatever that is) or the first Toradora novel.  That is, the author was interested in committing the story to text rather than compiling the pieces and parts — Frye compares the encycopaedic tendency to the oracle or minstrel, who would, through his or her art, keep the stories of the entire culture (yes, any Arthur story, especially early Arthur stories, could be considered as a compilation of cultural folk stories; I’m more talking about versions by a person, shifting at least somewhat from the mythic to the romantic).

So what’s interesting to me, here, is to consider what the “encyclopaedic” artist would be in this case.  Which artist has the community in mind?  Well, critics, fanfiction writers, fan artists, doujinshi creators, they’re all likely suspects.  Here’s the typical classic example (I’m picking one I’m more familiar with):  Virgil, in The Aeneid, “re-compiles” the story of The Iliad and positions it within his culture, making it the origin of Rome — this is the minstrel using story to hold his cultural heritage in place.

The same thing seems to happen in all the forms of art I mentioned earlier.  Fanfiction isn’t just fiction based in someone else’s playground — the same is true of “shared-universe fiction,” such as the Star Wars novels.  A lot of people have wondered what separates those novels from fanfiction.  I think Frye offers us a way to figure that out — and let’s face it, there is some sort of difference.  I’ve read both.  It is the degree to which the artist keeps the community in mind.  George Lucas didn’t really, not in comparison to our other examples, when he made his movies.  The novelists keep the community in mind a little more, but so long as they follow the “Bible” (the collection of things that must be true in any work of a shared universe) they can do what they want.  Fanfiction writers, on the other hand, not only have to keep all that stuff in mind, they often have their own conventions, specific to the fanfiction writer community.  I’ve dealt with this a little in an earlier post.  That is almost pure community-focused art.

Criticism acts in the same way — most of it is community-centered.  I would argue that’s why a lot of people consider it “not art,” because we live in an era of ironic art, in which the individual artist is considered the new oracle, toughing it out on his or her own with no reference or bowing to anyone else.  Most of our culture can’t countenance an artist who makes obvious use of other sources in the art.

Herein lies, I think, our problems with adaptations.  It’s based on something else!  I’ll give you a moment to collect yourself.  It can’t be art, the ironic soul shouts, if it’s not original!  Brand new!  The artist’s pure, individual vision!  Well, wrong.  This just describes art that is primarily “episodic,” jointed only according to the artist’s needs and not the community’s.  We are left wanting to see, in a new form, the original.  Anything that drifts away from the original is violating the author’s vision.  Really, it is simply taking into account the community in which it moves, both creatively, as adaptations immediately create a community of creators (that is, author + director + actors +&c, for example), and in terms of audience (the community of television watchers have different cultural demands that the community-minded creator must keep in mind).

Frye goes on to provide a whole system of dealing with creators in the terms of the modes he set out earlier for comedy and tragedy.  I’ll spare you that, as it would nearly double this entry.  Interested parties should check out the book.

I’ll end with this bit:

[T]he poety never imitates “life” in the sense that life becomes anything more than the content of his work.  In every mode he imposes the same kind of mythical form on his content, but makes different adaptations of it.  In thematic modes, similarly, the poet never imitates thought except in the same sense of imposing a literary form on his thought.  (63)

This explains the origins, in the head of the artist, of mythic themes, according to Frye — they act as a method of structuring the stuff the artist wants to get out of his or her head.  The structure is easily adaptable to whatever it is the artist has in mind.

That’s the first essay!  Next in AiC will be, I believe, either the second essay, some of the stuff in the book I bought recently, titled Resistance to Theory (not quite what it sounds like), or some of the stuff in a book I got last month, Speculations on Speculation, which is a book of critical essays on science-fiction.  We’ll see how it goes.

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  1. Applause! What would Frye say about the 2 posts (so far) that I did here at Superfanicom, or my self-insert fic styled posts I’ve done for Oi Hayaku and recently at We Remember Love?

    I would guess that he’d catalogue them as encyclopedic works.

    • Cuchlann

       /  10 March 2009

      I think you’re right, in that you incorporate a lot of things together to make a whole. Well, compared to me, even, that’s what you do. :) And yet somehow I haven’t seen anyone trying to subtly accuse you of being a pretentious know-it-all. ^_^

      • Cuchlann

         /  10 March 2009

        Oh, but I think the self-insert posts would be more “episodic.” They’re more self-contained, with an authorial vision: of interacting with the work in question in a meaningful way, but it’s still an individual impulse. Neat idea, by the way.

      • Thanks! I think no one’s accused me of being a pretentious know-it-all because they’re probably busy dismissing me as a raving fanboy (which I am lol).

        self-contained, with an authorial vision: of interacting with the work in question in a meaningful way

        I’ll keep that in mind as a clear objective when I write the next one. I was more of “wouldn’t it be real cool if I got away with adulterous sex having a one-on-one with Kinon?” when I started them.

        we live in an era of ironic art, in which the individual artist is considered the new oracle, toughing it out on his or her own with no reference or bowing to anyone else.

        Why the term ‘ironic?’

      • Cuchlann

         /  10 March 2009

        It’s Frye’s — he uses it to mean the last mode of art on his scale. It’s about someone who, because of the positioning of the narration, is “lower” than the viewer — like the story of Job. Frye felt we were, in his time, in a historical phase of ironic writing, which has tendencies toward saying one thing and meaning something else and obsession with an unsullied original artist’s vision.

  2. it’s cool how you and pontifus seem to be resonating all along. I’m gonna go off on a tangent here, bear with me. If tomorrow a letter was discovered in which Tolkien admitted that LOTR was an allegory of WWII, would that change your mind? Is allegory dependent on the intention of the author?
    doujinshi and fanfics are very community oriented. however, i have seen a tendency in some producers of this stuff to get very attached to their own works, so much that they actually end up being episodic all over again. So after decoding the original “canon” they dream of overcoding it with their own new “canon”.

    • Cuchlann

       /  10 March 2009

      I probably would disagree that it’s allegory — great question. Allegories, I think, have to be pretty clear. That’s actually part of what bugs me about them, the effort that must be expended on making the connection clear.

      And anyway, we have letters where Tolkien specifically says it isn’t. That’s where I pulled the example from. :D

      I think you’re right on the fan-work as well. They compile the original, but then shift away from the first “culture” (readers) and toward a second culture (fans) who have new sets of stuff, thus creating “fanon.”

  3. I’ve been a bit perplexed by your objection to allegory in general, although I can see why you might object to its presence in a modern novel. Personally I enjoy it, as an exercise for the mind.

    I think, also, that there used to be a strand of thought, based on things like Augustine’s ideas of charitable interpretation and the use of pagan writing in De doctrina christiana, that felt that it was impossible for a story not to be in some sense allegorical – since nature and everyday experience could be read for divine meaning, it’d be odd if books couldn’t. (Incidentally, I think Augustine says that part of the pleasure of allegory is not its clarity, but its obscurity: truth is more satisfying when uncovered with effort.) I suppose that’s a kind of reading activity which might have an agenda focused on something other than being entertained, though. I wouldn’t object to someone overlaying some outlandish meaning onto a story (which I agree is different from just examining themes) provided I was interested in their agenda in the first place.

    • Cuchlann

       /  10 March 2009

      Well, I’ve yet to see an allegory that wasn’t blatantly obvious and, frankly, insulting to the reader’s intelligence. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there, just that I haven’t seen them. My version of the epitome of allegory is the Chronicles of Narnia, which I loathe (only partly because of the allegory). Everyman feels the same way. So maybe it’s in the examples, rather than the form?

      I do think allegories tend to be too clever. I’ve learned, in looking at my poetry students’ work this semester, that being too clever in writing can actually make it more difficult for the reader to interact with the piece. I have a student who’s got a great way with words, but sometimes his attention to sounds actually gets in the way of everything else. Allegories strike me as similar — I can’t get into the story or appreciate the writing because I’m always kept so busy working out who the character’s *really* supposed to be.

      I do think you’ve hit on something with your idea about the agenda. An allegory makes me feel like the author was trying to pull a fast one on me. And anyway, if someone wants to write a story about Jesus, they should just write a story about Jesus. ^_^

      Okay, off the topic of why I don’t like them. I suppose some people could accuse the act of myth-criticism as the overlaying of an allegory onto a story that didn’t have one before. The thing is that the myth-critic believes that the myth-story/form is present in the text already, and attempts to pull it out to see how the text ticks.

  4. Nice to see intellectuals making great use of a blog.
    Your site complements mine very well. See

  5. As per allegories, I get the whole DoTA (death of the author) thing, but couldn’t you say, and I’m probably obfuscating the generalized definition of “allegory”, allegorical things needn’t be allegories in the strictest sense? I used the phrase (see name link) “involuntary situatedness”, or something similar, precisely because it paints a new meaning over a text, though, as per our 9000+ words discussion, this only illuminates my preference for political discourse over “nonpolitical, artistic” discourse.

    • Cuchlann

       /  12 March 2009

      Yeah, in the strictest sense of the word an allegory has to be intentional — whatever that means now. I think I’ve heard professors say, in the post-death-of-the-author world, one must be able to find an absolute one-to-one ratio of the story in question and the story one thinks is allegorized.

      My dislike of allegory is more of a creation-level thing than a criticizing-level thing, if you wanna look at it that way. I encourage my poetry students, for example, not to use end-rhyme, even though most of my favorite poems use end rhyme. It’s because almost none of them can do it very well, which is true in general right now. Same with allegory — I discourage it, I suppose, as a “creative writer” because it’s enormously hard to do well and glaringly painful when it’s done poorly.”

  6. Ubiquitial

     /  16 March 2009

    I say, I have never gotten fully understood the concept of the otaku-rhombus. Can you explain it to me ?


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