Literature as Projection of Desire

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Literature as Projection of Desire

On Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism

Libri Nuovi (Milan), August 1969.

As a recent reader of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957 and later editions), I should like to pass on a few impressions and pieces of advice to other recent or future readers, I say at once that my argument will be entirely subjective, since everyone mines every book for the things that are useful to him, especially a book as rich and complex as this one is.

The page on which I realized that this was a book that mattered to me is page 139 in the Italian edition (page 105 in the English):

Civilization is not merely an imitation of nature, but the process of making a total human form out of nature, and it is impelled by the force that we have just called desire. The desire for food and shelter is not content with roots and caves: it produced the human forms of nature that we call farming and architecture. Desire is thus not a simple response to need, for an animal may need food without planting a garden to get it, nor is it a simple response to want, or desire for something in particular. It is neither limited to nor satisfied by objects, but is the energy that leads human society to develop its own form. Desire in this sense is the social aspect of what we met on the literal level as emotion, an impulse toward expression that would have remained amorphous if the poem had not liberated it by providing the form of its expression. The form of desire, similarly, is liberated and made apparent by civilization. The efficient cause of civilization is work, and poetry in its social aspect has the function of expressing, as a verbal hypothesis, a vision of the goal of work and the forms of desire.

This passage explains one of Frye’s central statements: “The archetypal critic studies the poem as part of poetry, and poetry as part of the total human imitation of nature that we call civilization.”

Why does this passage interest me? Because in it, couched in a language that awakens illustrious echoes, I find themes that are still dear to my heart, but that I manage less and less often to put together into a coherent argument. After being in the habit of giving things a “historicist” reading, which guaranteed that I would be able to insert literature into the context of human activity (though doing so garbled both literature and history), I have gone on to look for ways of reading that enable me to get more inside the object, and that therefore I do not feel to be misleading. But these do not fill the void left by that feeling of belonging. I know that I must not on this account rush into excluding the possibility that such a thing exists, though maybe it will only appear at the end of a long road. But I also know that I must restrain myself as far as I can from posing the question at all, unless I am prepared to break the rational spell of methodological stringency.

My reading of this Canadian critic arrives at a good time to link preoccupations of this sort with those that form the theme of the most debated philosophical, sociological, and psychological problems of the moment. The reference to the element of desire, which in literature finds forms that enable it to project itself beyond the obstacles met on its way, seems to me extremely topical, based as it is on the unlivable situation of the present and the drive toward the concept of a desirable society.

I admit that in any other context such a conveniently optimistic interpretation would already seem to me to be suspect, but in this case we are at the center of a vast network of classifications and hypotheses. Perhaps it is because the passage appears on page 105 and not one of the first or last pages (in other words, neither a statement of principles nor a summing up) that the argument deserves to be followed as it radiates outward and spreads in concentric circles over the course of several chapters. Also, the passage may be useful as a clarification and possible correction of the image that we are most likely to get of Frye: that of the critic who interprets literary functions on the basis of anthropology, who has theorized the “seasonal cycle” and the correspondences between literary genres and agricultural rites—someone, therefore, from whom one might at best expect a noble piece of work tending to archaism, using literature perhaps to confirm the immutability of human nature, perhaps to demonstrate the cyclic nature of the movement of history, or perhaps the finalism of it.

Rather than hastening to establish which is the real Frye, I would now like to stress one of the contraries on which the Anatomy of Criticism is based: the opposition between rite and dream. To the correspondence of literary forms with ritual practices—which is to say, the technical and institutional uses of myth—Frye opposes (or couples, or combines, for with him such things are never clear-cut and unambiguous) their correspondence with dream, the projection of desire and repugnance in opposition to the framework of existing institutions. It is in this key that I enjoy reading the book, rather than in those—legitimate as they may be—of a “cyclic” Frye (though it would be more exact to call him a describer of the cyclic concept of the world that literature has expressed) or of a “teleological” Frye (and we must not forget that this historian and geographer of human desire is a Protestant minister).

For example, the way is still open for a study of the symbol city from the Industrial Revolution on, as a projection of the terrors and desires of contemporary man. Frye tells us that the city is the human equivalent of the mineral world, in its apocalyptic or paradisiacal aspects (City of God, Jerusalem, soaring architecture, seat of the king and the court) or in its demonic and infernal aspects (City of Dis, City of Cain, labyrinth, modern metropolis). But it has to be said that in the relations between the human world, the animal-vegetable world, and the mineral world, there have been a lot of changes over the last two hundred years: changes in the arrangement and attribution of values that ought to be looked into both on the imaginary-literary and the social levels. Anatomy of Criticism allows for and suggests a great number of developments and extensions of this sort. It is a book of continual centrifugal thrusts, which we occasionally have to resist for fear of losing the thread of the author’s overall theme.

I would advise readers to concentrate at first on the “modes of invention” both tragic and comic, on the symbol as the archetype, on the apocalyptic and demonic images, and on the mythoi of the four seasons. In these chapters the reader will grasp the main thread of the book, which he can then clarify and fill in as he enlarges the area of his reading and goes deeper into its subject matter.

To follow this thread he must go through the history of literature as the representation of exclusion from society and inclusion in society: gods excluded from the society of the immortals and destined to perish; heroes accepted by the society of the gods; nature as the ideal society, which mourns the dead hero (in elegy) or accepts the runaway hero (in pastoral); the fall of the king or chieftain in tragedy; the building of a new society in the comedies of Aristophanes and—from the comedies of Menander and Plautus on—the young married couple as the nucleus of a youthful society that triumphs over the obstacles put in its way by the old; the defeat of Julien Sorel or Emma Bovary in attempting to “climb” a society not his or her own; the ironic, intellectual hero who excludes himself from society; or else the enemy who is hunted down and expelled as a ritual scapegoat.

The study of the history of literary invention from the point of view of the two principal “modes,” tragedy and comedy, enables Frye to identify the outcast from society both when the poetic work takes sides with him (the tragic mode, even when this occurs in comedy, romantic poetry, or the realistic novel) and when he is seen as an enemy to be expelled, the ridiculous or repugnant victim, the phamakos (the comic mode, even if in contexts far distant from comedy). The same argument holds good both when the outcast or self-outcast is the hero, and when he is the poet himself, either in the first person or transfigured. Modern literature here opens a case study of this movement of “irony” or self-exclusion.

The identification of the enemy to be expelled is also the mechanism of the detective story, but here Frye (page 47) warns us against the “propagandist” function (the police represent legality in society as it is established) that is part of all literature in which the enemy is identified as someone outside society (the convention of melodrama), whereas the function of genuine comic irony is to define “the enemy of society as a spirit within that society.”

The most lively parts of the book, where I found the ideas that for me were the most original and stimulating, were those dealing with comedy, culminating in the chapter on the myth of spring. The most intriguing parts, on account of the largely out-of-the-way material they introduce, are those dealing with romance. The chapters on tragedy hold fewer surprises, because when we come to tragedy it seems that everything has already been said. Irony and satire are perhaps the field in which Frye’s inquiry is at its most personal, and here his argument becomes more involved and is left open as a series of suggestions rather than as an organic vision of things.

Frye’s dense network of examples is drawn chiefly from the following: the Bible above all, the Homeric poems, the Greek and Latin tragedies and (even more) comedies, the medieval literature of chivalry and learning, Dante, Spenser, a lot of Shakespeare and especially the comedies, a lot of Milton, many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels (especially English), with not infrequent incursions into the greater and lesser writers of the twentieth century and even the cinema. Before the eyes of the reader he unravels an argument woven all over with references distant from one another in time and space, but he never ceases to establish correspondences and relationships between them. This in itself is enough to guarantee that a first armchair reading, or foray, without ever turning back or stopping to recapitulate, can be very pleasant and from time to time instructive. Frye calls his chapters “essays,” and he has some reason for doing so, for one can follow his digressions like those of an essayist, absorbing the essential unity of the intellectual climate and not asking for more.

If we go on to a systematic reading, at the desk this time, and try to make synopses out of the classifications and subdivisions with which every chapter is studded, we find that the book is far more difficult than it seemed at first, and at times frustrating. This Canadian critic is possessed with the demon of classification and enumeration. He wants to construct systems from which absolutely nothing escapes. Therefore, in every chapter he puts forward new schemes, with terminology that is different though always a little tentative—or, rather, slightly different or with different senses of the same word—while between one scheme and another he traces networks of resemblances (for example, the five modes defined in the first essay are matched by the five phases of the second, but in reverse order). Moreover, at the back of his mind he always has the Aristotelian and medieval systems of classification, which he compares and superimposes on his own. In a word, he stacks up a series of sieves that are supposed to sift everything at once, the whole of literature in all its parts, and also sift one another reciprocally.

It seems that there is a conflict in him, between his passion for rigid compartments and his sensibility as a critic constantly aware of dimensions that elude every scheme and drive him on to add further schemes. At times he flaunts this demon of systemization and at other times he conceals him in digressions, in approaches from different angles, and in a certain vein of loquacity that every so often runs away with him. For me to take the systematic Frye seriously and settle down to work out synoptic tables has meant finding myself faced with tangles of inextricable lines, and then going back to rely on reading the book as essays.

Here we touch on the crucial point about evaluations of present-day criticism: the possible scientific nature of criticism. Certainly even the most stringent English-speaking criticism finally appears amiably chatty, now that over the last few years French structuralism has accustomed us to a formalization of reading processes that is far leaner and more austere. Let us compare Frye as he catalogues the elements of the medieval romance with a recent structuralist essay on the Quête du Graal. Whereas Frye, at grips with a forest teeming with symbols, seems forever out of breath from chasing the hares that keep popping out on all sides, Tzvetan Todorov the structuralist sees a linear and symmetrical world in which he executes motions of precise elegance and economy: in this thirteenth-century French romance the three levels of meaning refer to one another, and none makes any sense except in relation to the other two; the quest for the Grail is none other than the quest for the tale itself. Whereas Frye sets up a play of mirrors in which the entire encyclopedia of human civilization is refracted, Todorov closes the work in on itself, without leaving any windows to look out of—and, indeed, by his very method rules out the existence of an “out-of doors” to be looked at.

Maybe the critical analysis I am looking for is one that does not aim directly at the “out-of-doors” but, by exploring the “indoors” of the text and going deeper and deeper in its centripetal movement, succeeds in opening up some unexpected glimpses of that “out-of-doors”—a result that depends less on the method itself than on the way one uses the method. The asceticism I subject myself to in order to enter the “semantic universe” of Greimas, who to the last degree reduces and rationalizes the already skeletal formulas of Propp, has repaid me with the satisfaction of seeing that the “modele actantiel” does enable one to compare the behavior of Ivan the village idiot with that of the financial investor in a program of sociological research; in other words, to establish relationships between types of experience that I would otherwise be quite unable to link together.

If I continue to read books of criticism, it is because I always hope they will give me surprises of this kind. The greatest of all was to find, hidden in the pages of Bachtin’s Dostoyevsky, a model of “permanent revolution” (seen as typical of antiquity and the Middle Ages) which could very well be suggested as the society of the future, the only model that would respond to all those requirements that we cannot make fit together: a society based on the regular alternation of destructive periods of consumerism and carnival spirit with periods of productive austerity.

Every true book of criticism may be read like one of the texts it deals with, as a web of poetic metaphors. And this holds good for Frye as well. If efforts have been made to extend these tools of analysis outside the field of creative literature, that is only natural—for example, by going even further than Frye does in his chapter called “The Rhetoric of Non-Literary Prose” and trying to understand the part played by literary modes and symbols and archetypes in every kind of human discourse, in every theoretical model and every vision of the world. I remember an American book I read some years ago (Stanley E. Hyman, The Tangled Bank: Darwin, Marx, Frazer and Freud as Imaginative Writers [New York: Atheneum, 1962]). The author examined the writings of four innovators of nineteenth-century thought as if they were imaginative works, mythical cosmogonies, epic poems, tragedies, cycles of novels. He pointed out the characters, situations, images, conflicts, and feeling for nature, but without ever departing from the methods of literary criticism. Was this simply a sophisticated frolic? I must say that Hyman’s book has always been a most useful reading lesson for me.

And I think that Frye has also played some part in this lesson, he who for much of his Anatomy teaches that even the sacred books must be read by the literary critic exclusively as works of literature. For a clergyman, this is no little thing. On the contrary, if Frye’s voice ever takes on tones vibrant with religious controversy it is where he condemns Coleridge’s tendency to transform criticism into a kind of natural theology.

Yet there is one point at which Frye’s literary and religious worlds do meet: both are in fact biblicocentric worlds. In his chapter on “encyclopedic forms,” Frye considers the Bible (Old and New Testaments) as a complete archetypal structure, and also as a compendium of all the modes, symbols, and myths of world literature. From the point of view of literary criticism, the objection might be raised against him that the Bible is not a book, but a library. That is, it is a selection of books placed one after another, which are given particular significance as a whole, and around which we place all other possible books.

The notion of a “library” is not part of Frye’s terminology, but it might well be added to it. Literature is not composed simply of books but of libraries, systems in which the various epochs and traditions arrange their “canonical” texts and their “apocryphal” ones. Within these systems each work is different from what it would be in isolation or in another library. A library can have a restricted catalogue, or it can tend to become a universal library, though always expanding around a core of “canonical” books. This is the place where the center of gravity resides, marking off one library from another even more than the catalogue. The ideal library that I would like to see is one that gravitates toward the outside, toward the “apocryphal” books, in the etymological sense of the word: that is, “hidden” books. Literature is a search for the book hidden in the distance that alters the value and meaning of the known books; it is the pull toward the new apocryphal text still to be rediscovered or invented.