Myth and the 'Now' Part Fourteen: A Fanciful Table
I wanted to present a table to you which may be largely fanciful but could also be a way of summarising the scene so far:
Northrop Frye’s division of fiction into several modes has in his work Anatomy of Criticism and elsewhere been most usually associated with time periods, more or less aligning to those given above. I have taken the additional step of correlating them with stages of growth, as shown, then these in turn broadly relate (I’m asserting) to the progression outlined by Owen Barfield in his book Saving the Appearances from a state of ‘original participation’ in which the relationship of human beings to the world around them was more intimate, to a condition in which everything has been divided up and the struggle is to make it coherent and whole.
One of the points I’m attempting to make is that pushing Myth into the past (along with other modes) or placing Barfield’s ‘original participation’ in the past can prevent us from perceiving a greater truth: the state of Myth and that of original participation can be much closer to the ‘Now’ of our lives, if we connect them to our growth as individual human beings.
In the last article we looked at the Low Mimetic mode through the example of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and found that, as we expected, it is carried by the skeleton of Myth in the same way that all the other modes are: there is the same polarity, there are the same archetypes, there is the pattern of motion towards light or dark and so on. But the last of Frye’s modes, Irony, is a little harder to deal with. That’s because we are living it - it is the mode of our current culture, for one thing, having developed historically in the 19th century and come into its own in all fields of culture in the 20th and 21st centuries, but looking at it less historically and more psychically, it is the mode of the ‘adult’, that version of us which has progressed furthest from the ‘original participation’ of childhood. Most of us are at that stage of our lives in which things are normally highly compartmented and structured, where we have supposedly ‘matured’. That means that we have entered a certain order into things, but in doing so may have lost our innocent appreciation of, and ability to contribute to, the world around us.
Furthermore, for the adult there has usually not only been this compartmentation but a deconstruction: closely held values and beliefs, once cherished, have been broken up and broken down, undermined, challenged and often suppressed. These are the characteristics of Irony as a genre and also go some way to describing Irony as a mode.
Irony deals with the sub-human. In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye defines Irony as ‘a mode of literature in which the characters exhibit a power of action inferior to the one assumed to be normal in the reader or audience, or in which the poet's attitude is one of detached objectivity’ and ‘the mythos of the literature concerned primarily with a "realistic" level of experience, usually taking the form of a parody or contrasting analogue to romance. Such irony may be tragic or comic in its main emphasis’. In my book How Stories Really Work, I elaborate on this, looking at Irony as one fourth of a circle of four basic genres:
It is the quarter of the horror story, the dark detective thriller, the unsolved mystery, the twisted and unending nightmare. It is the quarter where things which would be neatly resolved in the Epic or even Tragic quarters are left unresolved, often explicitly. Whereas the Epic apex is one of enlightenment and release, here at the nadir of the circle waits only despair and eternal captivity. Horror as an established genre belongs in this quarter.
One of the key features of Ironies is that things get a little 'mixed up': time is often out of sequence (as in Pulp Fiction), characters have split personalities (as in Fight Club) and reality can take on the colour of nightmares (as in Brazil).
But does Irony betray the presence of Myth, as all the other modes do? Its emergence as a distinct genre or mode can probably be traced to the latter part of the 19th century, and one of its early examples is Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.
That's coming up next.