L’homme s’affirme par l’infirmité.”
—Victor Hugo

This essay is meant to introduce a book whose other chapters, written by five Berkeley graduate students, are critical studies of Shakespeare, Dickens, Pater, Melville, and Joyce.1 Unlike most literary criticism, these essays refer overtly to hypotheses and rules of procedure that were neither derived from literature nor primarily meant to apply to literature. Such criticism can go wrong in several ways: by using weak hypotheses, by using strong and pertinent ones in too mechanical a fashion, or by warping literary evidence to meet presuppositions. The recourse to “extraliterary” theory is not in itself, however, a methodological error. The simple fact that literature is made and enjoyed by human minds guarantees its accessibility to study according to broad principles of psychic and social functioning.

This point would seem too obvious to dwell on, but it is widely resisted among the very group to whom it should be most axiomatic, professional students of literature. Most literary scholars observe an informal taboo on methods that would plainly reveal literary determinants. Such methods are considered intrinsically anti-humanistic, and criticism systematically employing them is regarded as ipso facto shortsighted. Academic critics often circumvent the taboo by disguising or compromising their explanatory inclination, thus earning a hearing at the expense of some consistency and clarity. But the prohibition itself deserves scrutiny, not only because it is intellectually indefensible but because its operation has grave consequences for the teaching of literature.

The majority view of deterministic schemes was aptly conveyed by Northrop Frye, one of the most influential of living critics, as he gave assurance that his own theory of literature would not borrow its conceptual framework from sources outside literature itself. Any extrinsic system, he said,

gives us, in criticism, the fallacy of what in history is called determinism, where a scholar with a special interest in geography or economics expresses that interest by the rhetorical device of putting his favorite study into a causal relationship with whatever interests him less. Such a method gives one the illusion of explaining one’s subject while studying it, thus wasting no time. It would be easy to compile a long list of such determinisms in criticism, all of them, whether Marxist, Thomist, liberal-humanist, neo-Classical, Freudian, Jungian, or existentialist, substituting a critical attitude for criticism, all proposing, not to find a conceptual framework for criticism within literature, but to attach criticism to one of a miscellany of frameworks outside it. The axioms and postulates of criticism, however, have to grow out of the art it deals with. The first thing the literary critic has to do is to read literature, to make an inductive survey of his own field and let his critical principles shape themselves solely out of his knowledge of that field. 2

Insofar as this statement pleads against replacing sensitive criticism with a crude ransacking of literature to illustrate hypotheses about other matters, it is beyond dispute. More is meant, however. Frye is asserting that the critic, if he is to retain his objectivity, must derive his principles “solely” from his inductive survey of literary works. The point recurs insistently in Anatomy of Criticism and is extended into a cautionary view of all “axioms and postulates,” whatever their source:

There are no definite positions to be taken in chemistry or philology, and if there are any to be taken in criticism, criticism is not a field of genuine learning…. One’s “definite position” is one’s weakness, the source of one’s liability to error and prejudice, and to gain adherents to a definite position is only to multiply one’s weakness like an infection. [Frye, p. 19]

The modern student of critical theory is faced with a body of rhetoricians who speak of texture and frontal assaults, with students of history who deal with traditions and sources, with critics using material from psychology and anthropology, with Aristotelians, Coleridgeans, Thomists, Freudians, Jungians, Marxists, with students of myths, rituals, archetypes, metaphors, ambiguities, and significant forms. The student must either admit the principle of polysemous meaning, or choose one of these groups and then try to prove that all the others are less legitimate. The former is the way of scholarship, and leads to the advancement of learning; the latter is the way of pedantry. [Frye, p. 72]

These lines seemingly welcome, but actually discourage, the use of explanatory ideas in criticism. “Polysemous meaning” is recognized only in order to close off the possibility that any one line of investigation might be fruitfully pursued to its end. To have a definite position, no matter how correct, is to be “infected” with weakness, prejudice, and error, whereas to be tolerantly indifferent toward all definite positions, presumably including mistaken ones, is “the way of scholarship.” Frye is quite emphatic about this. “All that the disinterested critic can do” when presented with the “color-filter” of an externally derived critical attitude “is to murmur politely that it shows things in a new light and is indeed a most stimulating contribution to criticism” (Frye, p. 7). Frye himself illustrates his recommendation by glancingly alluding to a variety of frameworks, always with an understanding that they lie beyond the true business of criticism.


Professor Frye’s widely accepted imperative, Do not stray outside literature, must be seen as territorial rather than intellectual. The avowed idea is to avoid indebtedness to other people’s specialties, “for in that case the autonomy of criticism would…disappear, and the whole subject would be assimilated to something else” (Frye, p. 6). Once this apprehension is grasped, one can predict the degree of Frye’s actual hospitality toward different lines of study. Works can, for example, be safely classified according to their patent resemblances and differences, but in order to say how those features came into being we would have to talk about motives, and there would be no assurance that the motives in question would prove properly “literary.” Beneath, let us say, the urge to write an epic or a masque we might come across other urges at once more private and more universal than the literary taxonomist could account for. Thus it is not surprising that Frye repeatedly admonishes the disinterested critic to beware of all psychological explanations.

But this causal vacuum cannot be sustained; a critic who forswears deterministic thinking will inevitably fall back on a covert, wishful determinism bordering on tautology. In Frye’s case this is particularly clear. “Poetry can only be made out of other poems,” he says; “novels out of other novels. Literature shapes itself, and is not shaped externally…” (Frye, p. 97); “The true father or shaping spirit of the poem is the form of the poem itself, and this form is a manifestation of the universal spirit of poetry…”(Frye, p. 98); “…the central greatness of Paradise Regained, as a poem, is…the greatness of the theme itself, which Milton passes on to the reader from his source” (Frye, p. 96; italics in original); “the real difference between the orginal and the imitative poet is simply that the former is more profoundly imitative” (Frye, p. 97). Literature makes literature which makes literature; tradition itself is the fount of all ispiration and value. No questions need be asked about how the world’s great stories gained their appeal, for the stories themselves are motivational forces.

Indeed, Frye dares to hope that even the idea of the Oedipus complex will some day be exposed as nothing more than a misplaced compliment to the power of the Oedipus story: perhaps we shall decide “that the myth of Oedipus informed and gave structure to some psychological investigations at this point. Freud would in that case be exceptional only in having been well read enough to spot the source of the myth” (Frye, p. 353; italics added).

This vision of literature as its own progenitor is very far from being a unique indulgence. It is, in fact, a common fantasy among writers, a wish that art could be self-fathered, self-nurturing, self-referential, purified of its actual origins in discontent; and it is no less common among critics. Frye found a use for it in his brilliant study of Blake, virtually annihilating his identity as a critic while fusing himself with Blake’s obscure private reality.3 In that case a rapt surrender to the poet’s wish for total imaginative control over the world provided an opportunity for valuable clarification. But such reverence for the all-sufficient text is obviously too narrow a foundation for a whole theory of criticism, and when Frye turns lawgiver he ends by providing an apology for more timid work, indeed for the most routine academic drudgery.

It is important to see that such a result is dictated by the very project of severing literature from its determinants. As Murray Krieger has shown, Frye follows the Arnoldian and Eliotic line of argument which makes artistic unity a substitute for the lost religious matrix, and which decides that in an age of dissociated sensibility this unity must be propped by a body of consciously appropriated belief.4 Frye’s novelty is to fortify the supposedly “anagogic” universe of a poem, not with overt dogmas, but with the rest of literature itself, considered as a great phalanx of works aligned by genre and period. The receding sea of faith has at least left this much behind.

But as Freud said of Dostoevsky’s final piety, lesser minds have reached the same position with less effort. Frye’s emphasis on the autonomy of tradition and his simple equation of merit (as in Paradise Regained) with borrowed thematic content are all too congenial to critics who could never have written a page of Fearful Symmetry. While few professors would say outright that “literature shapes itself,” fewer still have ventured beyond the confines of tradition and convention. Indeed, the fear of “going too far” with any hypothesis about literature has proved considerably stronger than the fear of arriving nowhere. Frye’s suggestion that Freud himself may have made his name through motif-spotting, a talent we already encourage in our literary trainees, must be reassuring to scholars who would prefer not to raise any awkward questions.


Most literary curricula seem to rest on the assumption, implicit throughout Anatomy of Criticism, that the scholar-critic need only become conversant with a certain list of primary and secondary texts in order to begin contributing to knowledge. He should of course be trained in rhetoric and bibliography, but no mention is made of interpretive procedures for bringing some order into the wildly variant subjective responses evoked by any given work. Though first-rate critics like Wilson, Empson, Trilling, and Burke have not hesitated to make “extraliterary” sense of literature, the idea that we positively ought to do so is conceived as a threat to scholarly balance. The critic already knows what he is doing and will be all right if he can just keep himself from being overly drawn toward either what Frye has called “the myth of concern” or “the myth of detachment.” (It was left for Northrop Frye to identify and endorse the ultimate English-department stance, detachment from the myth of detachment.)

Professor Frye claims that the mental process involved in literary criticism “is as coherent and progressive as the study of science,” and he expects that his colleagues’ efforts will be revealed as a unified scientific system, “the main principles of which are as yet unknown to us” (Frye, pp. 10f.). This discovery would, as he says, “certainly be convenient” (Frye, p. 11), and many academics will forgive him for going on to treat it as already established. Unfortunately, there seems to be no objective basis for this optimism. The history of literary study is transparently a history of intellectual and political fashion, never more so than in recent formalism and neo-religious moralism. Critics have arrived at no agreement whatever about the meaning of beauty, criteria of value, or even the grossest facts about books and authors, such as whether Shakespeare was or wasn’t stoical, whether Milton was or wasn’t of the Devil’s party, whether Blake was crazy or visionary or both, whether The Golden Bowl is an example of self-transcendence or of colossal arrogance and evasion. Unless one had decided in advance to find criticism “coherent and progressive,” he would be hard pressed to justify calling it an intellectual discipline at all.

Such a justification would have to show that literary study, like other disciplines, is concerned with the differential evaluation of various styles of inquiry according to their relative success in making sense of the objects studied. But not only is this winnowing process singularly missing from criticism, it is condemned outright as needlessly zealous, intolerant, and unliterary. Each critic is free to adopt the “approach” that suits his fancy, and most of the approaches prove to be little more than analogical vocabularies lending an air of exactitude to whatever the critic feels like asserting. This is precisely why Professor Frye can urge us not to “choose one…and then try to prove that all the others are less legitimate.” What does it matter whether we call ourselves Thomists or Aristotelians or phenomenologists, provided we don’t take our method too solemnly or show impatience with our neighbor’s? Anatomy of Criticism is in part a book of professional etiquette, expressing and inculcating the civility that makes literary eclecticism possible. That this civility is in practice anti-intellectual has gone unnoticed—a fact which begins to suggest the extent to which “English” has deafened itself to criteria of knowledge.

The tolerance of literary scholars for “polysemous meaning” is understandably strained by methods that claim to deal in causes and effects. It disappears altogether as soon as such a method is applied in earnest. A critic can allude to Marx now and then, but he had better not get too interested in exposing the class apologetics in cherished texts, much less in other critics’ theories of meaning. Similarly, it is a badge of broadmindedness to season a conventional argument with references to Freud, but the references will be calmly received only if they remain honorific. One may, to be sure, safely credit an author (even a pre-Freudian one) with having made use of “Freudian insights.” This is not psychoanalytic discourse but a subtle prophylaxis against such discourse, for the fantasy materials that a Freudian would have ascribed to the unconscious source of the work itself have been promoted to the realm of conscious art, where all of us feel at home. To say that an author has endowed his hero with Freudian traits is no more psychoanalytic a statement than to say that he has evoked a pleasant landscape; in both cases the question of unconscious influence over the whole text is being avoided. And this avoidance is the minimal condition a critic must fulfill if he doesn’t want to be regarded as unbalanced.

Thus there is less Freudian criticism extant than one might think, and most of it continues to be received either with hostile alarm or with those polite murmurs that Professor Frye advises us to utter in the presence of the single-minded. The reasons for this reception overlap with those explaining the virtual ban on Marxian analysis. Both Freud and Marx ask us to think about matters that not only partake of alien disciplines, but are profoundly unsettling in their own right. While Freud may seem politically less iconoclastic than Marx, his method is in one sense more radical; it leaves the critic with less ground on which to strike a righteous attitude. Psychoanalytic principles bring into question the very possibility that a critic’s relation to his texts could be fundamentally rational and disinterested.

Resistance to such self-appraisal assumes many forms, but it almost never assumes the form of meeting Freudian propositions on evidential grounds. From Wellek and Warren’s icy and confused chapter on “Literature and Psychology”5 in 1949 to the present day, it is next to impossible to find a clear and informed discussion of psychoanalysis by a critic who does not employ it. One hears instead that the Freudian revolution was won long ago and that we needn’t make a fuss over it now, or that psychoanalysis has been replaced by any number of better systems, or that it neglects creativity or communication or religion or society or existential anguish or aesthetic textures. Such half-truths are usually followed by a retreat to homespun moralized psychology or to nebulous, dignified, quasi-metaphysical concepts such as Jung’s, which, far from seeking to “explain” religion and art, seek to declare their sublime immunity from explanation.

Indeed, Jung has proved a godsend for many critics troubled by the menace of psychoanalysis, for he spent the better part of a lifetime coping with that menace in seductive and readily adaptable ways. Even someone who applies Jung’s system with unfashionable explicitness and persistence will find himself free to retain an elevated notion of literature. To invoke that system is of course a revealing mark of indifference toward evidence, for as Edward Glover demonstrated, Jung’s hypotheses are logically unnecessary and mutually contradictory; his methodology shifted continually between claims of adherence to the strictest clinical principles and claims of rapport with ineffable mysteries; and for these reasons and others his version of neo-Platonism has made scant impact on any field of serious inquiry.6 These, however, are points of small concern to the lapsed-religious humanist, whose own hopeful guesses about the uplifting value of literature are as fanciful as Jung’s. Modern men in search of a soul can make wide allowance for one another’s poetic leaps of faith.

This is not to say that critics who openly espouse Jungianism will escape the disapproval of their more cautious colleagues. The latter, failing to appreciate the circularity of Jung’s mental journey, its intent of rescuing spiritual and cultural matters from destructive scrutiny, will find in the use of Jungian terms yet another instance of going too far. But because the offense is not so much empirical as social, it can be forestalled merely by using Jung’s ideas without attribution or with suitable disclaimers. Token gestures of skepticism can become a means of escape from considerations of plausibility—as, for example, in Professor Frye’s statement that the collective unconscious is “an unnecessary hypothesis in literary criticism” (Frye, p. 112), even while he has been developing an immanent and impersonal notion of creativity that seems to demand that very hypothesis.

Since good criticism appears to be largely a matter of sympathy, sensitivity, and pertinent learning, one might reasonably ask whether such vagueness over theory has much importance. Yet it does not seem too venturesome to propose that all scholars, even literary ones, could profit from being clear about what they believe and what they are doing. There is also a possibility that what many of them are doing is wrong both in its premises and in its educational impact. Behind the public façade of eclecticism there may lie a dogmatic avoidance of unacknowledged aspects of literary experience; behind the tactful withdrawal from theories, a disregard for knowledge; behind the celebration of traditional themes, an intolerance toward students who want to come to grips with their deepest responses.

These possibilities are in fact widely realized. The cardinal features of professional critical training as most of us know it are a suppression of affect and a displacement of attention from artistic process onto motifs, genres, literary history (conceived, not as the study of how books are influenced by objective conditions, but as chronology, borrowings, gossip, and a disembodied “history of ideas”), and the busywork of acquiring the skills and attitudes needed for circumspect research.7 Actual criticism, in the familiar sense of making a case for the superiority of some works to others, is frowned upon as amateurishly subjective.

Since sheer acquaintance with the body of Anglo-American literature is supremely valued, emphasis is laid on “working up” the designated genres and periods without concern over how literature moves us. As Professor Frye says with some enthusiasm, after showing how we can trace the devices of pastoral elegy from the Bible and the early Church and Theocritus and Vergil through Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Arnold, Whitman, and Dylan Thomas, “we can get a whole liberal education simply by picking up one conventional poem and following its archetypes as they stretch out into the rest of literature” (Frye, p. 100).8

One could hardly wish for a more vivid statement of the prevailing academic faith; all that need be added is that nobody believes it except those who propagate it. By now the humanizing pretensions of traditional literary study seem to have been questioned by everyone but its official custodians. But so long as the field prizes gentility over principled inquiry, no critique of those pretensions is likely to make much headway. One always runs against the tacit agreement that curators of culture needn’t bother with ideas except as indulgences of taste or fashion.

At present it is generally true that students who reject this consensus must either feign acceptance of it or drop out of school. The survivors and inheritors of literary training tend to be those best adapted to dull, safe, provincial work, while the more creative and inquisitive students, having squandered valuable years on the graduate regimen expecting that it must have something to do with the life of the imagination, are mastered at last by despair.9 Nor is the despair confined to students. The occupational disease of “English,” rarely acknowledged until recently, is a debilitating fear that literary scholarship as we have been practicing it is a useless and elitist pastime. If the fear is somewhat exaggerated, the exaggeration nevertheless springs from an entirely understandable bad conscience.

(This is the first of a two-part essay.)

This Issue

February 26, 1970