Showing posts with label Northrop Frye. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Northrop Frye. Show all posts

Saturday 3 July 2021

Traditional Distinctions: Comedy versus Tragedy

 Traditional Distinctions: Comedy versus Tragedy

reader responsestrong emotions: pity and fearlighthearted: laughter
reader distanceattraction aversion: close enough to feel pity but wanting to escape from fear, terrorironic or comic distance, we cannot be too close or sympathize too much with the "victim" of a comedy
reader focuson an individual, we are inside the hero's head, emotions, dilemma; often sense the entire play is about this individualon a collective, on a group of people therefore not a strong concern about a single individual, more on relationships between people than the inner life of a single character
plotunified,strong sense of coherence and cohesion of events, serious, 24 hours, imitation(mimesis) of reality but with a "beginning, middle and end"; sense of individual quest, typical plot is a character against fate or destiny as determined either by the gods or society, often a double-bind situation where no positive result is possibleincongruity, wit, humour, repetition, exaggeration, error; accidents 
surprising, ridiculouos series of events; most typical plot of comedy is a young couple being blocked from each other by someone older
characterhero is a superior character, or what Frye calls high mimetic; important role in society, but also displays personal characteristics like courage, strength, determination, desire for truth, capacities for leadership or self expressioncharacters tend to be like us or below us, low mimetic or ironic in Frye's terms; inferior characters means that we do not take their destinies or behaviour too seriously
themes and issuesmost serious themes and abstract issues: future of the state, death of a king, taboos like incest and patricide/regicide; tied to gods, religion, justice, honour; transcendence and fate, existentialism, the meaning of life and the ultimate truth of our existencebawdy and body themes; body parts and body functions are at issue, sex and cuckoldry are common themes
language and imagerylanguage is of the highest level and tone to correspond to the most serious of themes and issue abstract issues: religion, the gods, honour, truth, justice, and seriousness of tone, regicide, incest, matricide, the future of the state language is expected to be of a lower register and we expect to hear about body parts and body functions therefore vulgar, vernacular, and colloquial
endingends in death, disaster, destruction of the central character and others; Frye observes that tragedy ends with the hero separated or alienated from his society--if he survivesa happy ending, or at least one in which people get what they deserve (as in "poetic justice"; Frye observes that in comedy the characters end up being brought closer to and into line with their society.

Monday 3 August 2020

What Is Literature about?

Can literature be about life?

When I was teaching a course on American Literature, one of my students, a woman in her twenties, was a mother of five children. I would occasionally see her and her husband with the kids in the park where my son played soccer. One evening her husband was alone with the kids and approached my son and me as we were tossing a Frisbee. He emanated an intensity that I associated with being the young father of five. Nodding hello, he said, "My wife is in your American literature course." Honestly, I assumed I was in trouble and braced myself. "At night we sit at the kitchen table," he said, "and my wife tells me about your course." Then he told me, "I thought a literature course would be just about books, but yours is about life." He went on to express his regret that he couldn't take the course.

The Rules of postmodernism

It was a supreme compliment, and I cherish it to this day. But, at the time, I remember thinking, "I hope he doesn't spread the rumour that I teach literature as being about life." In those postmodern days of structuralism and post-structuralism, any academic who wanted to be taken seriously in literary studies had to acknowledge that literature representing reality was a naive notion which had gone out of fashion a hundred years earlier.

Realism and mimesis

"Realism" or "mimesis," as it is sometimes described, was the attractive idea that literature could imitate or represent reality, and thereby become a kind of laboratory for the scientific investigation of human behaviour. It spawned "social realism," the literary representations of the struggles of the working class, which devolved into "socialist realism," a state-controlled instrument of Soviet propaganda.

Modernism and postmodernism

Modernism and postmodernism were the antitheses of realism and mimesis. Modernist movements like impressionism, expressionism, symbolism, and surrealism rejected the notion of art representing reality with variations on art creating reality. Postmodernism piled on the rejection of realism by emphasizing that even art wasn't really real. So, for example, if you read the novel The Handmaid's Tale through to the end, you would discover that the diary you have been reading which you thought was written by the Handmaid was, in fact, transcribed from audio tapes by a historian named Wade, who questions that the Handmaid ever existed. He came up with the title as a sexist pun and homage to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

"Literature is about other literature."

"Literature," according to Northrop Frye, Canada's most renowned literary theorist, "is about other literature." Frye developed his own brand of structuralism called "mythopoeic criticism," which proposed that the total body of literature could be studied in terms of shared or "archetypal" symbols that emerged from mythology and continued to be used and reused throughout the history of literature. Frye disparagingly described Canadian literature as suffering from a "garrison mentality"--a widely misunderstood expression. For Frye, writing which remained too close to local, everyday, lived or social reality remained trapped in the garrison, failing to venture out into the wide world of literature where all great literature was produced. (If Frye were a millennial, he would have no doubt been an avid video gamer.) Yes, I was flattered that my course wasn't "just about books" but I recognized that it was supposed to be.


I was able to negotiate the contradiction between what I taught and what I was supposed to be teaching by cannibalizing the concept of "intertextuality." "Intertextuality" can be a very complex concept, especially as it is defined by Julia Kristeva, the psychotherapist credited with coining the term. I preferred Graham Allen's more accessible description of "intertextuality" from the early pages of his book Intertextuality:  








The idea that when we read a work of literature we are seeking to find a meaning which lies inside that work seems completely commonsensical. Literary texts possess meaning; readers extract that meaning from them. We call the process of extracting meaning from texts reading or interpretation. Despite their apparent obviousness, such ideas have been radically challenged in contemporary literary and cultural theory. Works of literature, after all, are built from systems, codes and traditions established by previous works of literature. The systems, codes and traditions of other art forms and of culture in general are also crucial to the meaning of a work of literature. Texts, whether they be literary or non-literary, are viewed by modern theorists as lacking in any kind of independent meaning. They are what theorists now call intertextual. The act of reading, theorists claim, plunges us into a network of textual relations. To interpret a text, to discover its meaning or meanings, is to trace those relations. Reading thus becomes a process of moving between texts. Meaning becomes something which exists between a text and all other texts to which it refers and relates, moving out from the independent text into a network of textual relations. The text becomes the intertext.

Everything is/can be text

The next step in the move from literature to life is to recognize that anything can be called a "text."  You, me, your life or mine, or if you prefer, your life story or mine is a "text." The meaning of any literary text emerges from the connections which a reader makes between the literary text and any other texts which the reader might think relevant, including the reader's life experience as one of those texts.

Ultimately, the literature I taught was "about life," and I encouraged my students to read it that way.

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Understanding Romanticism

Romance: that form of literature where desires can be fulfilled unencumbered

To understand Romanticism it is useful to begin with the traditional cliché image of a man and a woman gazing deeply into one another’s eyes over a candle-light dinner.

More pedantically, the literary theorist Northrop Frye defined romance as that mode of literature in which the laws of nature and reality are somewhat suspended and a hero can therefore perform miraculous feats. Underlying both of these notions (Frye’s mode and what the rest of us describe as “romantic”) is Frye’s idea that all culture is about giving form to human desire. Our expectations of the chivalrous knight of Arthurian Legend and the courtly-love tradition have more in common with modern notions of romantic love than is at first apparent.

Though rarely acknowledged, the knight who slays a dragon and the perfect lovers are both examples of reality and nature overwhelmed by our imaginings of human desires being fulfilled.

The word "romance" refers to translating Latin texts into romance languages

Understanding Romanticism also involves understanding the origin of the word “romance”—the translation (also called “vulgarization”) of Latin texts into the romance languages:  Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc.  Consequently “romance” first meant making literary texts available to the average person in a language she could understand.  When William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge published The Lyrical Ballads in 1798, the event which marked the beginning of the Romantic period in English literary history, they emphasized in the preface that their intention was to write in a language of the people hitherto excluded from being the subjects or the readers of poetry.

The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.

Romanticism and the "historical dialectic"

The understanding of Romanticism is also served by an awareness of the “historical dialectic,” a concept associated with the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, which theorizes that history progresses according to a movement of ideas following a pattern of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.  As an idea or web of ideas become dominant in a society or culture (a thesis), an opposing, contrary or contradicting collection of ideas develops at a sub-cultural level (the antithesis).  Eventually, the antithesis becomes dominant but at the same time, it incorporates ideas from earlier thesis and antithesis into a synthesis.  If we look at Romanticism according to this pattern we can see that first and foremost it is defined by its opposition to neoclassicism, but at the same time, it brings back and celebrates elements of the Middle Ages, the period that predated neoclassicism.

Romantic “nature” versus neoclassical “nature”

Both movements emphasized “nature” but each adopted a very different notion of its meaning.  For the neoclassicist, the artist should imitate the “forms” of nature.  In other words, nature was an abstract concept which supplied us with rules which we should attempt to imitate and follow.  When the Romantics spoke of nature they generally meant trees and birds and flowers, etc, and took communing with this nature as a source of inspiration.

Deism versus pantheism

Deism is a scientific answer to the religious question of the origin of the world.  The neoclassicists proposed a God the Creator but did not accept any of the versions of God supplied by the religious dogmas of the Middle Ages.  Romantics in contrast adopted pantheism, a religion of all things, in particular of nature which was the ultimate inspiration of the Romantic poet.

Neoclassical “man” versus Romantic “man”

In his poem, An Essay on Man, Alexander Pope declared that “The proper study of mankind was man.”  Pope was responding to the medieval notion that man could only be understood from the perspective of the Creator, of God.  However, Pope’s notion of “man” was a collection of universal properties that defined all men.  The poem is also a celebration of reason over passion. The Romantic notion of “man” in contrast was a living, breathing, passionate creature depending on nature for his existence. Not only did the Romantics celebrate the “common man” but Wordsworth in particular celebrated children.  His most famous line is that “The child is father to the man.”  The child is superior in the Romantic view because the child was thought to have a richer, uncontaminated imagination and a closer connection with nature.  

Neoclassical “rules” and Romantic liberalism

The neoclassical period was known for its attachment to a sense of rules, to decorum and propriety and, in particular, a rigid, slavish attachment to the “rules” elaborated by Aristotle in The Poetics. Empiricism and scientific development gave the neoclassicists a notion that underlying existence there were rules and laws that could be applied to all things, the individual and society as well as the natural world. In contrast, the Romantics celebrated the individual who broke free of the rules of social propriety and convention.

The individual versus society

The neoclassicists valued the individual as a reflection of his society, as a model of good behaviour according to social conventions.  The Romantic is profoundly focused on the individual as an individual, in particular the self, the "I" of the poem.  

Romanticism and Realism

Romanticism was ultimately displaced by Realism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In many ways, however, Romanticism still tends to dominate or at least affect how most people view literature.    Both Modernism and Postmodernism continue the antithesis to Realism and show the lingering influence of Romanticism.

see also:

Monday 27 May 2013

Do No Harm Part II: Avoid Irony

In Education, sometimes less is more

I used to teach a course on Public Speaking.  It took me three years to figure out how to properly organize and deliver the course.  I think I finally did it right in the third year.  The trick was to abandon my teacher ego (a subject for a future post), get out of the way, take care of administrative and secretarial necessities of the course, and allow the students to perform and to educate each other—as much as I could (which was never easy for me).  A majority of the students who took this course were from the Faculty of Education and consequently destined for careers as educators.  One message I passed on to all the students, especially those planning to become teachers:  avoid irony. 

Every Joke has a victim

This is very complicated advice because if you ask students to list the five features they appreciate in teachers, a “sense of humour” is bound to appear consistently in the list.  (Here is another issue that I suspect teacher training programs never deal with.  Are there any education courses out there on “how to be funny”?)  At the core of any “joke” there is bound to be some form of irony and a victim.  I will try to avoid giving one of my three-hour lectures on the subject of irony, but if you are curious you might look at Linda Hutcheon’s book, Irony’s Edge and/or Paul de Man’s “The Concept of Irony” in Aesthetic Ideology.

Verbal Irony means saying what you don't mean

Verbal irony is saying one thing, but you really mean something else quite different.  The lowest form of verbal irony is the most familiar:  sarcasm.  A teacher being sarcastic with students is trying to be hurtful.  Unacceptable, but that is only part of the problem.  Irony by its very nature is always ambiguous.  No matter how clear or obvious a teacher might think s/he is being when being ironic, the fact is a number of different messages are being transmitted to students at the same time, and individual students are going to have to figure out which message is the right one.  Whatever message they choose, they are going to be wrong because the “real” meaning of an ironic statement doesn’t exist.  Irony is deliberately confusing; it does not transmit clear, singular meanings. If you ask someone what an ironic statement “really” means they are bound to be wrong.  According to Linda Hutcheon, the question would be the same as me asking you what this picture “really” represents.

If irony has to cross languages or cultures there is an exponential increase in the possibility of its being grossly misinterpreted.

Faced with verbal irony, you are never supposed to ask "what do you mean?"

Verbal irony can be quite innocent and lighthearted or unintended or very aggressive.  The problem is we can never know, with certainty, which.  Let’s try a case.  You arrive at work one morning and your colleague says:  “you’re looking sexy today.”  If your colleague is old and creepy, you begin to contemplate your sexual harassment suit; if young and attractive, you flash your brightest smile and strike a pose.  However, there is something in your colleague’s tone that puts a question mark in your mind.  (With irony, tone is everything.)  Does your colleague really mean that “you are looking sexy” or is the colleague being ironic and therefore intending another meaning? So, of course, you ask with an earnest glare: “What do you mean?”

The Multiple Meanings of an ironic utterance

We’ve all been there, so we know the answer will be something like:  “oh nothing,”  “just kidding around,” “don’t be so serious,” etc, etc, dodge, evade and duck (or is it a rabbit?).  Now you are left to try and figure out what your colleague really meant and, of course, the more you think about it, the more the number of possibilities expands.  The least likely possibility now seems to be that you are looking sexy this morning; your colleague earnestly thinks so and said so.  You enumerate the possibilities.  You had to get dressed in a rush this morning, missed the bus, etc.  Your colleague is telling you that you look a mess, or at least below your usual standards.  Option two, worse still, you are the least sexy person in the office and everyone knows it.  It is a big joke to describe you as “looking sexy.”  Or maybe the message is quite the opposite; it’s that you are trying too hard or you have overdone it and gone too far.  Your apparel is, in fact, too sexy.  You’ve gone passed sexy to slut/pimp. You are inappropriately dressed for the office.  At the same time, you infer that your colleague wants to initiate a “sexy” conversation with you.  What’s that about? 

Hopefully you are beginning to appreciate the problem.

What teachers say matters

Contrary to popular stereotypes, students are affected by what teachers tell them.  Moreover, there is a pretty good chance that the most passive-aggressive student in the room is also the most thin-skinned and insecure.  Imagine you are a student and your teacher is in the habit of being ironic.  Not only has your teacher confused you with multiple messages that you are unable to decode, but some of those messages, as far as you have been able to figure them out, are personally insulting and hurtful.  Your teacher on the other hand is thinking that s/he has such a great rapport with students that they have a fine time joking with each other.

Humour is a double-edged sword

It may not sound like it from this blog, but humour is an important part of my lecture style, my teaching in general and my personality.  I absolutely believe that teaching by example is the most important kind of teaching, and where teachers most often fail.  (I am convinced that if they were giving a lecture on “The Importance of Punctuality,” a number of my colleagues would show up late—and would have trouble understanding why that was a problem!)  Nonetheless, I have certainly been guilty of irony in my classes.  I have tried to mitigate the potential damage by warning students that I tell jokes (or at least relate anecdotes and recount comic examples) for two perfectly justifiable pedagogical motives:  The first is that I am illustrating a point in a fashion that I hope will make the point memorable (and I beg the students to remember the point I was making and not just the joke).  The second motive is that looking out across the room I can see that everyone is on the verge of falling asleep.  Whatever significant knowledge I was hoping to get across at that moment was DOA, so I might as well stir the room with something random with the hope of rekindling curiosity and concentration a few moments hence.

Comedy and ironic distance

However, tell yourself any two jokes that you know well, and chances are they both involve a victim.  Stories are funny because someone is or does something foolish or something unfortunate happens to them that makes us laugh.  We need a certain distance from these characters in order for us to laugh at what befalls them. Northrop Frye calls this distance “ironic” in his categorization of the modes of literature.  We cannot be too close to the characters, too sympathetic or concerned, or the joke won’t seem funny.   Generally, we feel superior to the characters in a joke or funny story.  

Cuckoos and cuckoldry

In late medieval humour the most common theme was cuckoldry.  A cuckold (just to remind you, because it is not a word often used these days) is a husband whose wife has sex with another man.  (There is no equivalent term for a betrayed wife, but the etymology isn’t quite as sexist as it sounds.  The origin is the cuckoo bird which was known for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests.  The implication is that a cuckold suffers not because his wife has sex with someone else but because he might unknowingly end up raising someone else’s offspring. People who have seen the movie but not read the novel will likely not recognize the intimations of betrayed masculinity—as well as insanity—in the title One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest).  In more contemporary times, until the recent ascendency of political correctness, the “victim” was usual a gendered or ethnic or regional or class stereotype. 

Teachers:  are you ready to be the butt of your own jokes?

If you are going to “be funny” with students, you have to ask yourself:  what is the relationship between the victim of your humour and your audience?  One way you as a teacher can be sure you are not going to victimize someone with your humour is to make yourself the victim.  I do on occasion make myself the butt of my own jokes, but this is not a gambit I recommend for any teacher who may be having concerns about maintaining status, respect and proper decorum with students.  If you observe stand-up comedians these days, self-mockery or at least putting themselves in the role of the “dumb” character is a common strategy.  It is also worth noting that the word “irony” derives from the dissembling character in ancient Greek comedy called the eirôn who appeared to be inferior and unintelligent but would triumph over the braggart in the end.

"No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teachers leave them kids alone"

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Time to Blow the Whistle

What does "education" mean?

Teachers, past, present and future, and students, it's time to blow the whistle.  Complaints and confessions are needed.  Name any problem--crime, depression (economic and psychological), sexism, racism, drug abuse, the breakup of marriages and families, etc, etc--and someone has already proposed that "education" is the solution.  Does anybody ever stop to consider what these specialists (politicians, administrators, sociolgists, ecologists, psychologists, pedagogues and functionaries) mean by "education"?

New myths for old

The world renowned literary theorist and educator, Northrop Frye, described education as the process of getting rid of old myths, in order to replace them with new ones.  Frye was a great believer in "myth," so his declaration isn't quite as cynical as it sounds.  So let me play the cynic, although as you might guess, like most cynics, I'm really just a slightly bruised idealist.

Education versus cognitive bias, ideology and prejudice

Everywhere I look at what passes for "education," I see one group of people trying to impose their thoughts and beliefs on another group.  (Liberal-minded educators will object to the verb "impose," but whatever verb you choose--"transmit," "share," "pass"--the end result is the same.)  "Education" too often means simply replacing one set of ideas with another set that the educator likes better. Unfortunately, whenever you ask someone why one set of ideas is better than another, you very quickly find yourself running in a circle, trapped in a tautology, exhausted by a conversaton that never quite takes place. 'My ideas are better because they correspond to my values.  My values are better because they correspond to my ideas.'

Critical thinking skills and postmodernism

Lots of university programs in the Humanities and Social Sciences pretend to have solved the problem by flashing "we teach critical thinking skills" on their web sites.  The sad truth is that much of what gets taught as "critical thinking" is anything but.  Far too often, what passes for "critical thinking" in universities is slavish, dogmatic adherence to the loosely reasoned ideologies of armchair socialist and armchair feminists.  (I speak as a socialist and feminist with a longstanding commitment to his armchair.)  But think about it, really, if there was any commitment to "critical thinking" in universities, would we still be forcing students to read the bogus diatribes of junk theorists like Lacan, Kristeva, Derrida, Bhabha and their ubiquitous spawns as if they all made perfect sense?

Students cannot be called upon to effectively exercise critical thinking skills until they have amassed a bank of uncritical thinking skills and knowledge.  This is a problem that universities do not want to address, and which we need to talk about.

Dogma is the enemy of learning

Since this is my first posting, I guess I should explain what I think this blog is about.  It is dedicated to speaking openly and frankly about education without having an agenda or a dogma to defend.  Education is too important to be left in the hands of specialists.  Education is the passing on of knowledge, skills and attributes from one person to another.  It is carried on everyday by millions of people, many of whom have never thought of themselves as teachers or as students.  Its practices are as diverse, unique and personal as are the relationships of all those people involved in the process.  Our collective knowledge of the field is boundless.  Everyone has something important to contribute, if we have the courage to write the truth, and the respect and sagacity to read with an open mind.

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