Beyond Sympathy and Ridicule: Re-visiting Frye's Comic Catharsis

Thursday, January 14, 2021


Last fall, when I was teaching The Winter’s Tale, I picked up Northrop Frye’s A Natural Perspective, whose sparkling, epigrammatic prose had supplied a refreshing break from the minatory theory making the rounds when I was an undergraduate.  As I re-read Frye’s third essay, “The Triumph of Time,” one sentence jumped out: “Comedy, like tragedy, has its catharsis, sympathy and ridicule being what correspond to pity and terror in tragedy.”  I did not remember this apparent non sequitur, and it got me wondering.  Does comedy in fact purge emotions (never mind if Aristotle got it right about tragedy)?  If so, why privilege sympathy and ridicule?  Following this thread led me back to Anatomy of Criticism and Frye’s intriguing notion of comic catharsis.

A Natural Perspective is one of those strange yet indispensable classics of criticism, like How To Do Things With Words or Anxiety of Influence, whose zeal for systematization only makes them seem quirkier.  The book began life as the 1963 Bampton Lectures at Columbia, delivered in the wake of Frye’s magisterial Anatomy of Criticism of 1957 (memorably derided by Terry Eagleton as “marked by a deep fear of the actual social world, a distaste for history itself”), which itself followed Frye’s well-known essay “The Argument of Comedy” of 1948.  A Natural Perspective applies Anatomy’s totalizing theory of comedy to the late Shakespearean romances.  The book appeared in 1965 and was reissued, with a characteristically hermetic and Wittgenstein-haunted foreword by Stanley Cavell, in 1995. 

In key-to-all-mythologies style, Anatomy identifies five universal literary modes: mythic, romantic, high mimetic, low mimetic, and ironic, with each mode characterized by a protagonist who is variously above, level with, or below ordinary folk on the one hand and/or his natural environment on the other.  Each mode comes in two varieties, depending on whether the plot moves toward the isolation and death of the hero (tragedy) or toward his integration into society (comedy), and the attendant emotions we feel toward him differ.  Catharsis proper occurs only in high mimetic works.  The high mimetic hero is superior in degree (to us) but not to nature.  He is not a god, as in myth, nor an Everyman, as in low mimesis, but balanced midway between godlike heroism and all-too-human irony.  So-called Old Comedy exemplifies high mimetic comedy—think Aristophanes’ The Birds.  Aristophanes’ hero usually triumphs over an extant social order, sometimes forcibly, and replaces it with his own, “complete with mistresses, in which he is sometimes assigned the honors of a reborn god.”  Frye now introduces the thesis that struck me: “We notice that just as there is a catharsis of pity and fear in tragedy, so there is a catharsis of the corresponding comic emotions, which are sympathy and ridicule, in Old Comedy.”  What does Frye mean?  “The comic hero will get his triumph whether what he has done is sensible or silly, honest or rascally,” he continues.  That is to say: Aristophanes’ hero is amoral rather than immoral.  The subterranean ritual origins of the comic plot demand the hero’s resurrection (or an equivalent), whatever our feelings about his possibly shoddy behavior.

What links comic sympathy and ridicule to tragic pity and fear?  For Frye, “pity” and “fear” are not just the emotions we call by those names.  They are more general labels for our emotional attraction toward or repulsion from the tragic hero—what the Buddhists call craving and aversion.  “Pity” and “fear” thus wear different garb, and meet different fates, in Frye’s five “tragic” (that is, moving toward isolation) modes.  In romance (a kind of wish-fulfillment dream), pity and fear, usually felt as pain, are absorbed as internalized pleasures.  Our attraction and repulsion manifest variously as feelings of adventurousness, marvelousness, or melancholy.  In low mimetic tragedy, by contrast, pity and fear are “communicated externally, as sensations.”  Overcome by pathos, we weep for Hardy’s Tess because her plight is on our own level of experience.  (By this logic, Ophelia would seem to hover between tragedy and pathos—which is she, tragic or pathetic?  Her status seems up for grabs.)  

In high mimetic tragedy only—the tragedy of the Greeks, Shakespeare, and Racine—pity and fear manifest as favorable and adverse moral judgment.  But our approval or reproval of Titus, Lear, Hamlet, and the rest must ultimately be purged.  Tragedy ultimately places the hero beyond moral approbation or censure—beyond good and evil.  “We pity Desdemona and fear Iago, but the central tragic figure is Othello, and our feelings about him are mixed. The particular thing called tragedy that happens to the tragic hero does not depend on his moral status. . . . Hence the paradox that in tragedy pity and fear are raised and cast out.”  The hero’s Aristotelian hamartia isn’t a moral flaw; it’s just the way things (had to) work out, given the combustible combination of character and the situation.  Our moral judgments are in the end beside the point—“relevant to tragedy but not central to it.”  The tragic action isolates the high mimetic hero from his own community (represented by the Chorus) and “invisibly reintegrates him with the community of the audience.”  

Frye notes that all five comic modes share the desire to incorporate the hero into a welcoming society.  But Frye does not trace sympathy (hero-attraction) and ridicule (hero-repulsion) across them all.  Instead, he slots catharsis into the box opposite high mimetic tragedy.  Just as high mimetic tragedy manifests our emotional attraction (pity) and aversion (fear) as moral approbation or censure, only to purge them, high mimetic comedy does the same with sympathy and ridicule.  To quote “The Argument of Comedy”: “Comedy is designed not to condemn evil, but to ridicule a lack of self-knowledge.”  Comedy dramatizes liberation from the bondage of our rigidities (humors), whether individual or social.  But in high mimesis, our sympathy and ridicule for the hero must ultimately be gotten beyond so he can enjoy his triumph free of our judgments.  Springing from a primal resurrection myth, the comic plot easily assimilates tragic contours: “In myth, the hero is a god, and hence he does not die, but dies and rises again. The ritual pattern behind the catharsis of comedy is the resurrection that follows the death, the epiphany or manifestation of the risen hero. In Aristophanes the hero, who often goes through a point of ritual death, is treated as a risen god, hailed as a new Zeus, or given the quasi-divine honors of the Olympic victor.”  It is as if the doomed tragic hero disappears into the horizon, leaving our petty moral judgments behind, while the resurrected comic hero ascends in a blaze of triumph, leaving our tut-tutting down below—not unlike the sexually spent characters fabulously ascending their rope ladder into the blazing light at the end of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw.

Anatomy’s theory of catharsis informs A Natural Perspective, for according to Frye Shakespeare’s romances simplify comic structure.  Comedy purges our sympathy and ridicule by inviting us to join the festivities, whatever doubts we might privately harbor regarding a Bertram, a Claudio, or indeed an Angelo.  Like wedding guests privately dubious about the suitability of bride and bridegroom, “we put the best face we can on.”  In doing so, we wave good-bye to the Jonsonian aspect of ourselves that felt contempt for the characters—the part of us that identified with a Shylock or a Malvolio.  But if comedy moves from irrational law to festivity, in romance the movement is from irreality to reality.  In The Winter’s Tale, for example, the problem is phenomenological rather than actual tyranny: Leontes’ illusory jealousy is dissolved by time.  Frye ends “The Triumph of Time” by recapitulating his overarching theory of dramatic form: “drama is doing, through the identity of myth and metaphor, what its ritual predecessors tried to do by the identity of sympathetic magic: unite the human and natural worlds.”  Drama translates myth—itself the child of ritual—into metaphor.  Whereas primitive ritual worked by sympathetic magic, drama unites the human and natural worlds symbolically.  Romance ultimately rejects the perspective of ordinary experience, in which we are alienated spectators.  We willingly submit to Apollo’s vision as the romance ends, even as the play-world magically seems to go on without our looking at it.

Tragic terror and comic ridicule are linked by this spectatorial alienation. Alienation from tragic values leads to terror; alienation from comic values incites ridicule. Both genres acknowledge that we are at once engaged participants in and detached observers of the action.  “Tragic and comic structures move horizontally across the action, and appeal to the participant in us.”  But in comedy, the “vertical” spectator-character arrests this trajectory and solves the paradox.  With a flash of “direct insight” into the comic catharsis itself—we might call it generic satori—he unsnarls the participation-detachment knot (experienced as pity and terror, sympathy and ridicule).  And what comedy offers on the far side of catharsis is knowledge.  Lavache’s chilling “I am for the house with the narrow gate” speech in All’s Well eschews wit in favor of oracular insight.  Such key moments of response, brief by Shakespearean design, “have a penetrating quality out of all proportion to their duration.”  Perhaps this is why lonely Feste is given the last song in Twelfth Night before he ducks out into the Illyrian wind and the rain—a refrain that fleetingly echoes in the mouth of Lear’s drenched and shivering Fool.  

Frye’s contention that comedy purges our sympathy and ridicule in order to elevate the high mimetic hero inspires me to hazard a somewhat different, and broader, conclusion.  Comedy and tragedy offer incompatible perspectives not on the hero but on the vexed relationship between human subjectivity and human sexuality.  Comedy sees subjectivity and sexuality as compatible, tragedy as incompatible—hence human sexual relations are reparable in the former (the world must be peopled) and irreparable in the latter (Medea’s children must be sacrificed).  From this perspective, farce lies closer to tragedy, even if it’s funny.  After all, there is something risible about sexuality’s mechanical reduction of human subjects to sexual automata (recall Henri Bergson’s theory of laughter). 

If this theory holds, what are the emotional correlates of these dueling perspectives?  Shakespeare’s romantic comedies arouse our anxiety (how will the drives be managed this time?) and resolve in relief.  The drives can be more-or-less accommodated by the social order that induces them, at least for now.  Demetrius can spaniel-ize masochistic Helena to his heart’s content, and she’ll enjoy it, unless the love-juice moderates his sadism, in which case she’ll be frustrated (and don’t put that Cesario costume away too soon—you’ll be needing it).  Tragedy arouses empathetic identification and eventuates in awe, the residue of Aristotle’s pity and fear.  (Example: that the stoic Horatio impulsively reaches for poison when his friend the prince is dying is logically absurd yet tragically condign—we feel Horatio.)  Shakespeare’s romances, too, arouse our anxiety.  They aim toward awe’s close cousin, wonder (“It is required you do awake your faith”), not relief.  In each of these cases, an onlooker figure helpfully proffers prophylactic (apotropaic?) irony to ward off melodrama.  Melodrama, tragedy’s false friend and close cousin, arouses sentimentality rather than empathy and eventuates in moral self-satisfaction (as when we step over the homeless people to hail our cab after having a good cry at Les Miz) rather than awe.  No wonder it’s still the most popular genre.

Irony neutralizes the emotional responses of awe, wonder, relief, and sentimentality, but a little irony is a dangerous thing.  In what might be called the Falstaff effect, the cynical spectator-character sometimes explodes his enveloping genre, as when the sadistic yet monstrously entertaining Aaron tempts us to see Titus’s suffering as the stuff of hilarity.  Hamlet performs generic resistance by trying to be Feste for most of the play and by staging a creaky revenge tragedy instead of prosecuting one.  For much of the play, he is more an antic Armin than a Dane, but there’s no exit door from tragedy.  Hamlet must play the alienated spectator to the gravedigger’s irony plot—pun intended—which will (literally) swallow him up tomorrow. 

Pace Frye, I doubt Shakespeare was all that interested in legislating audience’s emotional responses according to a generic formula, however hard he worked to arouse those responses.  After all, The Tempest seems as invested in dispelling wonder—or, at least, questioning its lasting moral effects—as in arousing it, just as Hamlet seems as invested in ironizing tragedy as indulging it, or The Winter’s Tale keeps drawing attention to its own creaky implausibility even as it insists on miracle.  Awe, wonder, relief and irony each exert their own gravitational pull on our emotions.  Indeed, that very gravitational pull is genre itself, warping the fabric of the play in the same way that gravity (according to Einstein) just is the warp in the fabric of space-time, rather than some spooky force exerting action at a distance, as Newton imagined.  Brilliantly idiosyncratic, Frye’s A Natural Perspective invites us to query our own emotional responses to tragedy, comedy and romance. That invitation stands.  

Andrew Sofer, 1965.