Review of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism

Have with You to Madison Avenue or The Flush-Profile of Literature by Marshall McLuhan [Review of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism]1

It is natural for the literary man to underestimate the relevance of Professor Frye’s archetypal approach to literature. The man of letters expects the literary form to offer a good deal of private consumer satisfaction, and there is nothing private or consumer-oriented in Professor Frye’s approach. The Frye’s approach to criticism as a science turns from the training of taste and discrimination by literary means to the collective producer-orientation of the new mass media of the electronic age. The archetypal approach is the groove of collective conformity and of group-dynamics, which may explain why a uniquely opaque and almost unreadable book should have become a book-of-the-month choice.

In the same way, the off-Madison Avenue of the run-of-the-mill graduate student finds it quite unimportant that he does not understand Professor Frye. He knows that Frye is “with it” and that group participation or togetherness in the aura of such leadership is far more satisfying than private interpretation.

Professor Frye has interpreted the message of the new media aright. Print had in the sixteenth century commanded private interpretation. The fixed stance of the private silent reader, identical with perspective in painting, suggested subliminally the need for an individual viewpoint in all matters. Hamlet confronted by his father’s ghost asserts that “thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain.” Then he snatches his “tables”: Meet it is I set it down, that one may smile and smile and be a villain; At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.”

It had occurred to Montaigne that the snap-shotting of the impressions of the mind was the real message of the printed and written form. Shakespeare certainly made that point in this scene, even joking over the Montaigne technique of doubt, “At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.” For four centuries we have been conditioned by the printed word as snap-shot of the postures of the individual mind. Segmental analysis of all motion, mental and industrial, has long been for us the norm of education and of civilized life.

But in recent decades Western culture has spawned totally new techniques of snap-shotting the postures of the group-mind. Statistical charts of group postures reached a kind of lyric pause or “moment out of time” with the discovery of the “flush-profile” which put the shaky intuitions of individual students of public attitudes on a scientific basis. The flush-profile which hoicks the poet out of his ivory tower and puts him in the partners’ room of B.B.D. and O., as it were, is derived from the data of the city water engineer. At program breaks the additional water used in toilet-flushing was seen to provide a reliable archetype of the group posture of mind for that program.

Now it is obvious that such an archetype or profile of collective awareness offers small consumer satisfaction in itself. And Professor Frye would disclaim the notion that even the most diaphanous archetype could afford consumer satisfaction to a reader. These profiles or nuclear models of collective postures are not literary bon-bons for passive savoring but rather scientific data suited to the austere producer-oriented mind, data necessary to the public relations engineer and the shaper and ruler of societies. Like Sputnik they have a hook in outer space whence they relay signals to us, blip calling unto blip in the universe of the pictorialized word.

It is natural, therefore, that Professor Frye should have betaken himself to the anthropologist and to the folk-lorist for his profiles of literature. These students of pre-literate man provide the scientific archetypes or snapshots of the postures of collective man which now recommend themselves to many keen spirits in the post-literate age of conformity and of global stereotypes. For the characteristic mode of learning and knowing since the telegraph offers a pattern of instantaneous inter-cultural x-ray, very different from the enclosed spaces of literature. Man is no longer monad but nomad.

A literary man describing a people past or present adopts a slant, a point of view. He selects. He structures his image with syntactical bonds of perspective in the style of Hume, Gibbon, or Macaulay. But a century ago, with the photograph, there came new presentation. The photo, as William Ivins explains in Prints and Visual Communication, permits total statement without syntax. And the student of pre-literate man found this kind of non-personal recording of collective social behaviour very needful. Not the personal point of view, nor the partiality of perspective and self-expression, but the catalyst role of the non-personal chemical medium became the natural bias of the social sciences and symbolist artists alike.

That is why the archetypal profiles of literature offered as a new science of criticism may strike literary people as too much like the world of Mighty Mouse, of Space Cadet, and of the Madison Avenue portraitist of public postures. They are not quick to see that Professor Frye has devised a kind of nomadic bookcase for the cosmic man of today who is inevitably a mental D.P. A bedouin’s rug of timeless patterns which include all possible arrangements of human experience is indispensable equipment today.

Seen from the split-level picture-window House of Archetypes, the receding world of Western literature may look appallingly like a silent movie on a late TV show. But for those who recognize the importance of aligning all education with the dynamics of the new mass media, the deft and decent burial of literature provided by the Anatomy of Criticism will come as an exhilirating climax to the slower-paced preliminaries of the literary centuries.

Professor Frye is not, perhaps, sufficiently cognizant of one major resource adjacent to his enterprise. The world of ancient and medieval rhetoric was vibrant with archetypes referred to as “the figures of rhetoric.” These figures are, it is true, postures only of the individual mind which had become accessible to observation and control after phonetic writing. The written word arrested the mental and verbal flux of the fast-talking Mediterraneans and gave them the means of classifying hundreds of mental postures such as chiasmus, catachresis, and scatalogie. These figures or postures of the mind were like so many whales left immobilized amidst the shallows and sands of the written word. And in due time their odor began to be abroad in the land. Writing, however, as a means of capturing, or perhaps of fashioning, the postures of the individual mind has proved to be fatally committed to the fostering of individual expression and eloquence. It is flawed by preference for the humanistic and might well prove to be but a feeble prop for a scientific enterprise such as that of Professor Frye. As it is, even without the aid of such a pipe-line of natural gas from the farther shores of rhetoric, Frye has secured a vehicle which by-passes all rhetorical expression of this personal type, and makes possible the deploying of the total resources of pre-literate culture on to the Madison Avenue testing ground. This in turn will greatly hasten the mopping up of remnants of private awareness and expression such as now give a confused and unsettled character to the literary and educational scene. So that what has here begun as a momentary flush-profile of literary postures will develop into a genuine chain reaction, and the remnants of a decadent form of personal expression can be dispatched down the drain.

  1. This review has been published online in a post called Frye‑McLuhan Rivalry? in The Educated Imagination – A Website Dedicated to Northrop Frye. It is given here simply as a backup.