Tuesday, February 13, 2024

GOAT Literary Critics: An interlude on Frye, pharmakos, and violence [Girard]

I found the following passage in an interview that Girard gave to Diacritics:

I find some analyses of Northrop Frye admirable, notably the pharmakon passages in The Anatomy of Criticism. The classificatory tendencies of the author made it predictable, however, that the threat and promise of further contamination would be too easily contained. Frye rightly feels that football and literary criticism are an improvement over sacrifice. Only the demagogues disagree. I cannot share Frye's apparent conviction, though, that in our part of the world at least, the nastier forms of violence have been decisively routed by football and literary criticism.

That interview took place back in 1978, well before the 21st century wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now the unfolding tragedies in Ukraine and in the Levant. But that’s an aside.

Here, I believe, is the principle passage Girard was referring to in Frye’s Anatomy, which I discussed in an earlier post (pp. 41-43):

Thus the figure of a typical or random victim begins to crystallize in domestic tragedy as it deepens in ironic tone. We may call this typical victim the pharmakos or scapegoat. We meet a pharmakos figure in Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, in Melville's Billy Budd, in Hardy's Tess, in the Septimus of Mrs. Dalloway, in stories of persecuted Jews and Negroes, in stories of artists whose genius makes them Ishmaels of a bourgeois society. The pharmakos is neither innocent nor guilty. He is innocent in the sense that what happens to him is far greater than anything he has done provokes, like the mountaineer whose shout brings down an avalanche. He is guilty in the sense that he is a member of a guilty society, or living in a world where such injustices are an inescapable part of existence. The two facts do not come together; they remain ironically apart. The pharmakos, in short, is in the situation of Job. Job can defend himself against the charge of having done something that makes his catastrophe morally intelligible; but the success of his defense makes it morally unintelligible.

Thus the incongruous and the inevitable, which are combined in tragedy, separate into opposite poles of irony. At one pole is the inevitable irony of human life. What happens to, say, the hero of Kafka's Trial is not the result of what he has done, but the end of what he is, which is an "all too human" being. The archetype of the inevitably ironic is Adam, human nature under sentence of death. At the other pole is the incongruous irony of human life, in which all attempts to transfer guilt to a victim give that victim something of the dignity of innocence. The archetype of the in­ congruously ironic is Christ, the perfectly innocent victim excluded from human society. Halfway between is the central figure of tragedy, who is human and yet of a heroic size which often has in it the suggestion of divinity. His archetype is Prometheus, the immortal titan rejected by the gods for befriending men. The Book of Job is not a tragedy of the Promethean type, but a tragic irony in which the dialectic of the divine and the human nature works itself out. By justifying himself as a victim of God, Job tries to make himself into a tragic Promethean figure, but he does not succeed.

These references may help to explain something that might otherwise be a puzzling fact about modern literature. Irony descends from the low mimetic: it begins in realism and dispassionate observation. But as it does so, it moves steadily towards myth, and dim outlines of sacrificial rituals and dying gods begin to reappear in it. Our five modes evidently go around in a circle. This reappearance of myth in the ironic is particularly clear in Kafka and in Joyce. In Kafka, whose work, from one point of view, may be said to form a series of commentaries on the Book of Job, the common contemporary types of tragic irony, the Jew, the artist, Everyman, and a kind of sombre Chaplin clown, are all found, and most of these elements are combined, in a comic form, in Joyce's Shem. However, ironic myth is frequent enough elsewhere, and many features of ironic literature are unintelligible without it. Henry James learned his trade mainly from the realists and naturalists of the nineteenth century, but if we were to judge, for example, the story called The Altar of the Dead purely by low mimetic standards, we should have to call it a tissue of improbable coincidence, in­ adequate motivation, and inconclusive resolution. When we look at it as ironic myth, a story of how the god of one person is the pharmakos of another, its structure becomes simple and logical.

Frye mentions the pharmakos at several other points in the book and includes it in his glossary of critical terms at the end (p. 367):

PHARMAKOS: The character in an ironic fiction who has the role of a scapegoat or arbitrarily chosen victim.

Frye also includes six key terms from Aristotle’s Poetics: dianoia (thought), ethos (character), lexis (diction), melos (song, the chorus), mythos (plot), and opsis (spectacle), which you can find laid out here.

A point of information, from the journal’s website:

Founded in 1971, Diacritics publishes original work in and around critical theory, broadly conceived. Diacritics offers a forum for thinking about contradictions without resolutions; for following threads of contemporary criticism without embracing any particular school of thought. For Diacritics eclecticism in the humanities means nurturing work that is transhistorical, creative, and rigorous.

Note that Diacritics is published by Johns Hopkins press and Johns Hopkins is where the 1966 structuralism conference took place in 1966.

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