2. The Hegemony of New Critical Modernism

Northrop Frye: Anatomy of Criticism

These "archaic" patterns are discernible as elements within the "historical genre," but only if one "backs up," as Northrop Frye says in his influential treatment of the "shape of the story" in his Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (1957). Frye begins his third essay, "Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths," with an analogy between literature and painting and music. In effect, the analogy is Frye's "working through" of the manner in which James Joyce incorporated archetypal plots into the "symphonic orchestration" of Ulysses. Frye explains the painting analogy:

In looking at a picture, we may stand close to it and analyze the details of brush work and palette knife. This corresponds roughly to the rhetorical analysis of the new critics in literature. At a little distance back, the design comes into clearer view, and we study rather the content represented: this is the best distance for realistic Dutch pictures, for example, where we are in a sense reading the [narrative of the] picture. The further back we go, the more conscious we are of the organizing design. At a great distance from, say, a Madonna, we can see nothing but the archetype of the Madonna, a large centripetal blue mass with a contrasting point of interest at its center. In the criticism of literature, too, we often have to "stand back" from the poem to see its archetypal organization.[89]

The moment this analogy between a text and a painting is accepted, narrative ceases to be movement and becomes an image, not a story but a "shape of a story." Frye, then, moves us "back" further to a point of view where even the "shape of a story" loses most of its discernible "shape," its rough content and residual variation. It becomes a concept. At Frye's archetypal distance any residual sense of movement has been reduced to the idea of "centripetal," which suggests not the onward advance of a plotted story, but the oscillation of one pole of a binary opposition with the other--the "blue mass with a contrasting point of interest at its center."

Subsequent to having "backed up" a sufficient distance to transform the vagaries of narrative into the "shape of the story," and then that shape into a binary opposition, Frye's musical analogy comes into play:

Music affords a refreshing contrast to painting in its critical theory.
In this book we are attempting to outline a few of the grammatical rudiments of literary expression, and the elements of it that correspond to such musical elements as tonality, simple and compound rhythm, canonical imitation, and the like. [....] We are suggesting that the resources of verbal expression are limited, if that is the word, by the literary equivalents of rhythm and key, though that does not mean, any more than it means in music, that its resources are artistically exhaustible.[90]

The painting analogy provides "elements" for the musical analogy by converting narrative in a "grammatical rudiment," one sign, one tone, among many. With the musical analogy Frye rejoins the New Critics, in some sense stepping toward the painting, having secured one more element for their "rhetorical analysis" of the "details of the brush work and palette knife." In this fashion, narrative, even as the "shape of the story," ceases to be the organizing principle of the text. Instead, it becomes just one part of a symbolically structured whole to be assembled by "close reading."

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