2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism
Mythic Method and the Shape of the Story
Mythic Method and the Shape of the Story
The aesthetic legitimacy of Miller's narrative claims cannot be comprehended by a criticism that tends to equate narrative with primitive storytelling, with the chronological relation of events as they "happened," or "happened once upon a time." To say as much is not incompatible with the fact that there are circumstances under which New Critical modernism has valued narrative texts: New Criticism lends legitimacy to narrative if it can be psychoanalyzed, if it can be anthropologized. But this kind of legitimacy, which high modernist critics, beginning with T. S. Eliot, have discovered in narrative, entails a devaluation and delimitation of narrative's aesthetic potential in the modern world. Central to T. S. Eliot's most influential formulation of "mythic method" is the presupposition that storytelling is atavistic. Only through symbolic interpretation may it be made relevant to the historical reality of the urban, industrial West: "Psychology [...], ethnography, and The Golden Bough have concurred to make possible what was impossible even a few years ago. Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method." Canonical modernist criticism tends to insist on this equation, seeing narrative only where there is chronology, and interpreting that narrative as an atavistic remnant, a symbol of the mythic past present in the modern psyche as the unconscious.
As the psychology of the unreliable narrator resurrected point of view to lead a form of critical afterlife, so at a later phase of New Criticism's development the legacy of the mythic method was extended. Its early prominence enabled and shaped British-American criticism's assimilation of the existing work of the Russian formalists. The infusion of this formalist methodology brought, and continues to bring, a new sophistication to narrative analysis, particularly the distinction between the "fabula" and the "sjuzet", between the order of events and the order of the telling of events. But, because it was assimilated under the aegis of the mythic method, Russian formalist methodology only reinforced New Criticism's long standing devaluation of narrative as a primitive novelistic technique. Here it is crucial to state the major difference between the New Critical approach to the text and that of Russian formalism. Bakhtin does so when differentiating between Russian formalism and European symbolism and formalism, of which New Criticism must be classed an British-American variety:
While [European critical movements] advanced the idea of the closed unity of the work mainly in opposition to abstract, and particularly to idealist, notions of art ["Art for Art's sake"], it was in opposition to positivism [Realism/Naturalism] that it steadfastly insisted upon the profound meaningfulness of every element of the artistic construction.
The European formalists had no fear of the semantic meaning or content of the artistic construction. They were not afraid that meaning would unlock the closed construction and destroy its material integrity.
Thus, European formalism not only did not deny content, did not make content a conditional and detachable element of the work, but, on the contrary, strove to attribute deep ideological meaning to form itself. It contrasted this conception of form to the simplistic realist view of it as some sort of embellishment of the content, a decorative accessory lacking any ideological meaning of its own.
We shall see that Russian formalism sharply differs from West European formalism on this point. The Russian formalists began from the [...] assumption that an element acquires constructive significance at the cost of losing its ideological meaning.
Due to its insistence upon the meaningfulness of form, New Criticism could not directly absorb the theories of the Russian formalists, but had to find a subordinate place for them within its own understanding of the novel. That place was prior to the emergence of the novel, in the past of the race and in the past of the individual. Precisely by excluding all ideological meaning from the constructive unity of the text, Russian formalism placed all texts on the same ahistorical plane: all are governed by the same rules of combination and permutation of the same stock of precise plot "devices"; differences between texts and sub-genres lie in the specific combinations and permutations employed. Committed to the "advance" of its allied strand of modernism over the idealism of "Art for Art's sake" and the positivism of Realism, New Criticism necessarily found it uncomfortable to adapt Russian formalist analysis to any but the most ancient and "archaic" of forms: legend, Biblical and Homeric epic, folklore, and the fairy tale.