Saturday, September 17, 2011

PROBE : Sells Like Spleen Ear It

"The Frye 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 in the groove of collective conformity and of group dynamics...

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 view point in all matters...

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. "


Inside Blake and Hollywood
by Marshall McLuhan


-Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947.

-Tyler, Parker. Magic and Myth of the Movies. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1947.

There is a sufficient similarity of approach to the subject in these two books to justify their being bracketed for discussion. They serve to remind us again that one of the principal intellectual developments of the past century or so has been the supplanting of linear perspective by a multi-locational mode of perception. Among critics of Picasso this new mode is sometimes referred to as a "circulating point of view" in which a view from above may suddenly become a view from everywhere at once. When this mode appears in a work of philosophy (as it does for the first time in E. Gilson's The Unity of Philosophical experience) the possibilities for compression and for organic interrelation of facts, pressures, and ideas is altogether a new thing. It represents a real advance in the tools of intellectual analysis. And that this new way of making and also of deciphering ideographs should be inseparable from the achievement of Vico and Freud is only natural. For it has come about through the awareness of the unity of mythopoeic activity in history and art, and it has given modern man a sense once more of the simultaneity of all history seen at the psychological and intellectual level, as well as of the close bonds between all members of the human family past and present.

Blake's view was that "history as linear time is the great apocrypha of mystery which has to be rejected" since "the whole of human life is seen and understood as a single mental form" (340). The linear view of history began with Petrarch and Leonardo da Vinci and ended with Gibbon and Hume. So obsessive a metaphor as that of the linear perspective is important enough to deserve some explanation, especially since we are now deep in the process of extricating ourselves from it. For it still holds firmly among such inheritors of eighteenth-century rationalism as the sociologists and the Marxists.

Briefly, the linear metaphor grew up in connection with the medieval notion of the translatio studii, the continuous transmission of culture from Greece to Rome, from Rome to Britain and to the court of Charlemagne. So that Abelard could regard Paris in the Twelfth Century as the lineal descendant and the sole legatee of Athens. This notion of translatio studii, however, was curiously jolted by the quarrel which developed between the new scholastic theology and the traditional patristic or humanist theology. The quarrel began in the Twelfth Century between Abelard and St. Bernard. Two hundred years later Petrarch had reduced and confused the matter to merely nationalist terms. The schoolmen, whom he regarded as the barbarians or the Goths and Huns of learning, had met with no opposition outside Chartres, Orleans, and Italy. L. J. Paetow summed it up concisely: "Now the lowest ebb in the study of ancient classical literature occured in the century which preceded Petrarch. So low it was that he and his contemporaries believed that the dry and barren period on which they had fallen must have extended back for centuries to the last days of classic Latin literature." It is only in this context that Petrarch's celebrated statement about his being a man placed between two ages makes sense. And it is this passage which focuses that sense of linear perspective which still ruled the imagination of Gibbon.

E. Gilson discusses the entire question in chapter X of his revision of La Philosophie au Moyen Age, explaining in its context (728) Petrarch's statement that he was "placed on the frontier of two peoples looking both backwards and forwards." The supposition has been that these "two peoples" were those of the Middle Ages and those of the Renascence-those of a dead past and a living future. But Petrarch refers to a living past and a dead future, exactly as Gibbon does. Behind him he saw a great antiquity followed by centuries which gradually relinquished the ancient inheritance. Before him he could see only a period in which the already dim and blurred memories of antiquity were to pass into a final night of oblivion.

Here, at any rate, is the origin of the metaphor of simple linear perspective which yields in Vico to a complex genetic metaphor that becomes the intellectual means of being simultaneously present in all periods of the past and all mental climates of the modern world as well. For Vico contains Wordsworth, Freud, and Malinowski by anticipation in answering the question: "Exactly how do people so remote in time or culture or condition as Lucy Gray or Ivanhoe or a neurotic or a Trobriander feel? What is the world they know?"

Professor Frye takes us inside Blake in this way. Fearful Symmetry supplants entirely the work of Middleton Murry and Foster Damon, and of the other exegetists of Blake. For having installed himself inside Blake he does a detailed job of exploration and is able to speak of current issues as we might suppose Blake would have spoken. And, indeed, "the voice of the bard" is heard with typical emphasis on most contemporary matters, artistic and political. It is at once clear that Blake was a great psychologist with clear insight into the mechanism of human motives and of historical periods-his own included. And his psychological insights grew into an all-embracing system which was nothing short of ferocious in its rationalistic completness.

That is the paradox of Blake-that he so largely became the image of the thing he hated and fought, namely Lockean rationalism and abstraction. In Professor Frye's words:

Blake was, it is obvious, so conscious of the shape of his central myth that his characters become almost diagrammatic. The heroism of Orc or the ululation of Ololon do not impress us as human realities, like Achilles or Cassandra, but as intellectual ideographs. It all depends on whether the reader has a taste for this kind of metaphysical poetry or not... what there is in Blake is a dialectic, an anatomy of poetry, a rigorously unified vision of the essential forms of the creative mind piercing through its features to its articulate bones (145).

Unlike Vico and Joyce but like Freud, Blake mistook a psychology for metaphysics and theology. His rigorous monism had no place for "the many" save as modes of primal, divine energy. The created world is a part of fallen god-head and is essentially evil. Existence and corruption are the same. This makes for simplicity, intensity and inclusiveness of outlook, but it may not have been of as much use to Blake the poet as he himself supposed. It made Blake an encyclopedic allegorist but it also led him to attach a final rather than a provisionary value to his allegorical imagery. That is, Blake was not so much concerned with the visual and dramatic character of his imagery as with its intellectual meaning. So that reading Professor Frye is a more satisfactory thing for most of Blake than reading Blake himself. The great poetic allegorist like Dante proceeds by simile, although the entire work is a huge metaphor. Blake proceeds by metaphor or identity of tenor and vehicle and ends up with a work which requires a key to open. His intellectual structure is not realized dramatically in the "major" poems but has to be set beside them. Professor Frye does not regard this as a defect since his business in his book is exegesis and not criticism:

No student of Blake can fail to be deeply impressed by the promptness with which Blake seized on the machine as the symbol of a new kind of human existence developing in his own time. His poetry is an imaginative mechanism designed to fight the machine age; it has the "wheels within wheels" of Ezekiel's vision which will reverse the direction of the "wheel without wheel with cogs tyrannic Moving by compulsion each other..." (359).

Professor Frye's inside view of Blake in which every part of the bard's thought is seen to have a strict etiolation and coherence is perhaps in need of some further development from the outside. Blake is psychologically in the tradition of patristic allegory unbroken from Philo of Alexander to the Cambridge Platonists, and he needs to be closely compared and contrasted with Vico. But much gratitude is due to Professor Frye for having brought into a conclusive focus all the elements of Blake's thought and feeling.

Parker Tyler is the first American to give serious attention to popular culture as it is expressed by Hollywood and Magic and Myth of the Movies is a sequel to The Hollywood Hallucination. Mr. Tyler substitutes perception for abuse or passivity-the only current attitudes to Hollywood as to all popular culture. Just how it has been possible for those who regard Joyce and Eliot with respect to exempt themselves from a rigorous evaluation of every phase of commercial culture is perhaps only to be explained by the obsession with mechanistic abstraction which an industrial society imposes. For example, the Ford motor company has in its museum working models of all locomotives and all motor cars ever made. But it has no record of production methods employed in the manufacture of its early cars-a fact which rightly shocked S. Giedion. However, the kind of repercussion which every phase of the technological world may have on the artist and on the modes of our sensibility is illustrated frequently in Moholy-Nagy's Vision in Motion. Aropos of the seemingly disparate themes of Joyce and Ford cars, he points out on page 350, for example, that "one can find in Joyce's writings analogies to contemporary technological terms... manifolded word agglutinations (often constructed from German, Hungarian or other composites...) ... similar to the industrial process of assemblage..." Joyce, of course, was extremely conscious of scores of inter-related analogies in the modes of his artistic activity. And Eliot is explicit:

It was here, in the kitchen in the passage,
In the mews in the barn in the byre in the market place
In our veins our bowels our skulls as well
As well as in the plotting of potentates.

Committed to an atomistic conception of himself and society, the American intellectual doesn't really credit these things. Movies aren't avant garde; therefore they are insignificant. This, in a word, is why the avant garde has to be imported. So Mr. Tyler's books have been given a gentle brush-off in spite of his showing that vulgar and commercial entertainment is often of great psychological complexity and that there is nothing in high art which doesn't appear in some confused mode in low art.

A major postulate of Mr. Tyler is illustrated in his statement that:

The rudimentary camera trick, for instance, that of appearing and disappearing persons, which occurs in the wink of an eye, is a visualization of the correspondence between matter and spirit that was a cardinal tenet in the beliefs of primordial savages. (255-56)

This sets The Golden Bough right in the Hollywood Bowl. It further implies that every mode of technology is a reflex of our most intimate psychological experience. The pointillage of Seurat is a derivative of Humean association psychology and exfoliates again in modern wire-photos. Movie technique has obvious relations with the panoramic devices of Scott and Tolstoy. And the close-up, as well as darkroom projection, can be traced back to the Rembradt "point of light" school in the same way. If this should seem "merely mechanical" it can be shown that the entire conception of characterization in novel and drama since the mid-Eighteenth Century is similarly based on sensationalism divorced from any scheme of social and moral references. That is merely another point of view from which to observe the "picturesque" characters of modern fiction from Clarissa onwards. They stand in a palpitating focus of self-awareness.

It is in this sort of way that Mr. Tyler takes us inside Hollywood with its mushrooming symbolism. Exuberance of semi-conscious and uncontrolled symbols on one hand, and shrewd technical and commercial control on the other. For all the conscious intellectual activity of an industrial society is directed to non-human ends. Its human dimensions are systematically distorted by every conscious resource while the unconscious and commercially unutilized powers struggle dimly to restore balance and order by homeopathic means.

It is for this reason that Hollywood dominates the psychic life of America. It provides the night-dream actuality. Mr. Tyler's great merit is that he explores the multiple modes of the movie night-dream as it is his limitation seldom if ever to emerge from that dream. He is quite frank about his purpose not to "analyze the best movies as the artistic best but as the mythological best," and like Mr. William Empson he has no technique of evaluation of the products he explores. Nor does he consider many of the moral, social or political wherefores of Hollywood's deep artistic anemia. Thus in discussing the anomalous excellence of S. Ansky's The Dybbuk he can find no criterion for placing the essential Hollywood impotence. He rightly finds The Song of Bernadette repulsive but his tools of analysis do not carry him to the point where he can isolate the cliché and timidity as rooted in the death of all intellectual impulse. This in turn is related to Mr. Tyler's lack of expressed awareness of the perennial uses and necessity of art in maintaining social viability. He does a fine job of reading the enigmas of the fever chart from the movies but of the positive function of popular art for good or ill he says nothing.

But this should not be too disturbing since there has been no lack of critics who have proclaimed the uplifting qualities of the movies without having noticed anything whatever of what was going on in them. Mr. Tyler is right, therefore, to concentrate attention on the complexity and eminent snideness of movie art as preliminary to opening up a plenary critique.

Have with You to Madison Avenue or The Flush-Profile of Literature

by Marshall McLuhan

[Unpublished review of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism]

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.

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