chapter  10
10 Pages

The power of words

All writers are destined for literary history. Critics cannot avoid the inevitable. But literary history means different things to different people. For some, it is the dustbin of history. In this view a critic has performed his or her function and has been superseded in the comic plot of the progress of criticism. For others, the critic becomes part of the history of the criticism of a genre, author, period or a kind of theory or problem. Few critics, as well as few poets, dramatists and novelists, are made part of a myth of the fall, given a place of honour in the golden age, looked upon as giants in time immune to the tragic stumble into disintegration and decline. Aristotle and Plato have sometimes occupied a place in this pastoral-in name if not always in practice-but all too often critics in our age have been willing to discredit or to devalue their predecessors or apparent rivals. This is a wearisome ritual better suited to cockfights than to a criticism that has a social dimension. Nevertheless, there seems in recent years to be a division between theory and criticism, and Frye, the theorist, now seems more read by those who wish to apply his work to specific texts. With characteristic irony, Frye said in an interview that he was no further down skid row than the deconstructionists were. Depending on the myth, the time for general theories, as opposed to the variety of specific theories today, will return or will never rise again. This book would place Frye neither on the scrapheap nor in a prelapsarian critical paradise. Instead, it argues that Frye has made important contributions to the theory of genres, especially to satire, comedy and romance; to the study of authors like Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and Eliot; to the discussion of language, mythology and ideology; to literary history as a history of genres; to the defence of literature and criticism; to poetics; to education; and to the dignity and independence of

the critic as a creative writer and a member of a discipline. In Frye's literary history he would be a central figure in the genre of criticism, as an essay writer, and as something separate, a theorist of literature. The theoretical imagination for Frye was as much a part of the critic as of the physicist. Criticism, according to Frye, is the theory of literature. For polemical reasons, he did not necessarily want to combine his defence of the imaginative and creative aspects of criticism with his declaration that criticism was its own field because at the time he wrote, in his view at least, too many critics thought of themselves as failed writers or parasites on literature who were doomed to spout second words.