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In Praise of Northrop Frye: a Giant of Literary Criticism
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2010-09-08 07:01:10
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Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was a Canadian literary theorist who, in the 20th century, practically established literary criticism as an academic discipline. Even today, some twenty years after his death, in the era of logical analysis and extreme rationalism, his work remains very influential. Indeed, for any new theory of literary criticism to have any validity, it has to come to term with Frye’s monumental work. He is in fact such an intellectual giant that those who dare attack his scholarship and erudition usually come across as intellectual Lilliputians, even when they manage to publish their spurious attacks in academic journals and reside in the ethereal halls of academia. Frye will undoubtedly continue to be influential throughout the 21st century.  

Let me now survey some biographical data on Fry, mostly derived by Wikipedia encyclopedia, and then offer a few reflections on the importance of his work for our modern concerns. Frye gained international fame with his first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947), which led to the reinterpretation of the poetry of William Blake. His lasting reputation rests principally on the theory of literary criticism that he developed some ten years later in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), one of the most important works of literary theory published in the twentieth century. The Yale University critic Harold Bloom commented at the time of its publication that Anatomy established Frye as "the foremost living student of Western literature."  Frye's contributions to cultural and social criticism spanned a long academic career during which he earned widespread recognition and received many well deserved honors.

Frye was himself influenced, as he himself frankly acknowledged, by another intellectual giant of the 18th century: Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), a philosopher about whom I have already written extensively in Ovi magazine (see http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/1772, among others). It was indeed Vico who in his The New Science, first posited a view of language as fundamentally figurative, and introduced into Enlightenment discourse the notion of the role of the imagination in creating meaning. For Vico, poetic discourse is prior to philosophical discourse; philosophy is in fact derivative of poetry.  Frye, in acknowledging the debt he owed to Vico in developing his literary theory, describes him sympathetically as "the first modern thinker to understand that all major verbal structures have descended historically from poetic and mythological ones" (Words with Power xii). Thus, Frye launched the pursuit which was to occupy the rest of his career—that of establishing criticism as a "coherent field of study which trains the imagination quite as systematically and efficiently as the sciences train the reason".

As A. C. Hamilton outlines in Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism, Frye's assumption of coherence for literary criticism carries important implications.  Firstly and most fundamentally, it presupposes that literary criticism is a discipline in its own right, independent of literature. Claiming with John Stuart Mill that "the artist . . . is not heard but overheard," Frye insists that the axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with (Anatomy 5).
In seeking integrity for criticism, Frye rejects what he termed the deterministic fallacy. He defines this as the movement of "a scholar with a special interest in geography or economics [to] express . . . that interest by the rhetorical device of putting his favorite study into a causal relationship with whatever interests him less" (Anatomy 6). By attaching criticism to an external framework rather than locating the framework for criticism within literature, this kind of critic essentially "substitute[s] a critical attitude for criticism." For Frye critical integrity means that "the axioms and postulates of criticism . . . have to grow out of the art it deals with" (Anatomy 6).

Taking his cue from Aristotle, Frye's methodology in defining a conceptual framework begins inductively, "follow[ing] the natural order and begin[ning] with the primary facts" (Anatomy 15). The primary facts, in this case, are the works of literature themselves. And what did Frye's inductive survey of these "facts" reveal? Significantly, they revealed "a general tendency on the part of great classics to revert to [primitive formulas]" (Anatomy 17). This revelation prompted his next move, or rather, 'inductive leap': I suggest that it is time for criticism to leap to a new ground from which it can discover what the organizing or containing forms of its conceptual framework are. Criticism seems to be badly in need of a coordinating principle, a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as parts of a whole” (Anatomy 16).

Arguing that "criticism cannot be a systematic [and thus scientific] study unless there is a quality in literature which enables it to be so, Frye puts forward the hypothesis that "just as there is an order of nature behind the natural sciences, so literature is not a piled aggregate of 'works,' but an order of words" (Anatomy 17). This order of words constitutes criticism's conceptual framework, its coordinating principle. The recurring primitive formulas Frye noticed in his survey of the "greatest classics" provide literature with an order of words, a "skeleton" which allows the reader "to respond imaginatively to any literary work by seeing it in the larger perspective provided by its literary and social contexts" (Hamilton 20). Frye identifies these formulas as the "conventional myths and metaphors" which he calls "archetypes" (Spiritus Mundi 118). The archetypes of literature exist, Frye argues, as an order of words, providing criticism with a conceptual framework and a body of knowledge derived not from an ideological system but rooted in the imagination itself. Thus, rather than interpreting literary works from some ideological 'position' — what Frye calls the "superimposed critical attitude" (Anatomy 7) — criticism finds integrity within the literary field itself. This is indeed a uniquely Vichian position: before rationality arrives on the scene, there is poetry.

Once asked whether his critical theory was romantic, Frye responded, "Oh, it's entirely Romantic, yes".  It is Romantic not because of Vico who has misguidedly been confused for a proto-romantic, which he is not, but in the same sense that Frye attributed Romanticism to Blake: that is, "in the expanded sense of giving a primary place to imagination and individual feeling". As artifacts of the imagination, literary works, including "the pre-literary categories of ritual, myth and folk-tale" (Archetypes 1450) form, in Frye's vision, a potentially unified imaginative experience. He reminds us that literature is the "central and most important extension" of mythology: ". . . every human society possesses a mythology which is inherited, transmitted and diversified by literature" (Words with Power xiii). Mythology and literature thus inhabit and function within the same imaginative world, one that is "governed by conventions, by its own modes, symbols, myths and genres". Integrity for criticism requires that it too operates within the sphere of the imagination, and not seek an organizing principle in ideology.

Myth therefore provides structure to literature simply because literature as a whole is "displaced mythology".  For Frye, the story, and not the argument, is at the centre of literature and society. The base of society is mythical and narrative and not ideological and dialectical". This idea, which is central in Frye's criticism, was first suggested to him by Vico’s philosophy as well as by Cassirer’s theory of Symbolic Forms where Cassirer, like Frye, acknowledged Vico as the first modern philosopher to have fully understood the real significance of myth.

Frye uses the terms 'centripetal' and 'centrifugal' to describe his critical method. Criticism, Frye explains, is essentially centripetal when it moves inwardly, towards the structure of a text; it is centrifugal when it moves outwardly, away from the text and towards society and the outer world. Lyric poetry, for instance, like Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn", is dominantly centripetal, stressing the sound and movement and imagery of the ordered words. Rhetorical novels, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are dominantly centrifugal, stressing the thematic connection of the stories and characters to the social order. The "Ode" has centrifugal tendencies, relying for its effects on elements of history and pottery and visual aesthetics. Cabin has centripetal tendencies, relying on syntax and lexical choice to delineate characters and establish mood. But the one veers inward, the other pushes outward. Criticism reflects these movements, centripetally focusing on the aesthetic function of literature, centrifugally on the social function of literature. As Frye put it: “Structural analysis brings rhetoric back to criticism, but we need a new poetics as well . . ." (Archetypes 1447).

For Frye, this "new poetics" is to be found in the principle of the mythological framework, which has come to be known as 'archetypal criticism'. It is through the lens of this framework, which is essentially a centrifugal movement of backing up from the text towards the archetype, that the social function of literary criticism becomes apparent. Essentially, "what criticism can do," according to Frye, "is awaken students to successive levels of awareness of the mythology that lies behind the ideology in which their society indoctrinates them". That is, the study of recurring structural patterns grants students an emancipatory distance from their own society, and gives them a vision of a higher human state that is not accessible directly through their own experience, but ultimately transforms and expands their experience, so that the poetic model becomes a model to live by. In what he terms a "kerygmatic mode," myths become "myths to live by" and metaphors "metaphors to live in," which ". . . not only work for us but constantly expand our horizons, [so that] we may enter the world of [kerygma or transformative power] and pass on to others what we have found to be true for ourselves" (Double Vision 18).

Because of its important social function, Frye felt that literary criticism was an essential part of a liberal education, and worked tirelessly to communicate his ideas to a wider audience. "For many years now," he wrote in 1987, "I have been addressing myself primarily, not to other critics, but to students and a non-specialist public, realizing that whatever new directions can come to my discipline will come from their needs and their intense if unfocused vision" (Auguries 7). It is therefore fitting that his last book, published posthumously, should be one that he describes as being "something of a shorter and more accessible version of the longer books, The Great Code and Words with Power," which he asks his readers to read sympathetically, not "as proceeding from a judgment seat of final conviction, but from a rest stop on a pilgrimage, however near the pilgrimage may now be to its close" (Double Vision Preface). This reminds us of another Pilgrim on a pilgrimage: Dante and his Virgilian guide. For Frye, it was Blake who first awakened Frye to the “mythological frame of our Western culture,” notes Nella Cotrupi in her keynote address in honor of Frye (titled Process and Possibility: Northrop Frye’s Spiritual Vision). That vision contains the recognition that the Bible is a mythological framework, a cosmos or body of stories, and that societies live within a mythology. Such a mythology in turn informs all of Western Literature. Thus Blake’s claim that the Old and the New Testaments are the Great Code of Art became the central doctrine of Frye’s criticism; a doctrine finds its fullest expression in Frye’s The Great Code where he investigates the Biblical structure and typology and how they are revealed by the Bible’s narrative and imagery then transmitted to the conventions and genres of Western literature.

Vico, Blake, Frye: three great visionaries and intellectual giants who, in transmitting their imaginative poetic vision in an era of dry logic and sterile rationalism, have immeasurably expanded our cultural humanistic horizons. We shall not see their kind again any time soon. 

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