Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Give a detailed commentary on Frye’s views.

What is it in Frye to which the larger world responds? For all those interested in English literature, his studies of individual authors - Blake, Shakespeare, Milton, Eliot and the rest - are still required reading and a source of insights independent of critical schools. In the realm of theory, many of his formulations have entered into general critical discourse.
It is unnecessary to argue today, as Frye caused such consternation by doing in 1957, that the critic's main function is not to make value judgements. His once startling contention that the critic is not a mere adjunct to literature, but has a distinct, honourable and formative role to play in the development of human culture, has been borne out even to excess in the theory-dominated 1980s and 1990s. And though "archetypal criticism," as supposedly practised by Frye, has fallen out of favour, the archetypes remain (as indeed is their nature). Frye's exploration of the genres of comedy, romance, tragedy and irony and their relation to the natural cycle of spring, summer, fall and winter has proved enormously fruitful, as has his sense of literary history as a gradual displacement of myth towards realism. Many teachers have echoed Geoffrey Hartman's testimony to the usefulness of this concept of displacement or recurring myth in the classroom: "[it] is empirically sound: it works; it is teachable; above all it reveals the permanence of romance". Frye has sharpened the critic's awareness of archetypal patterns such as the hero's journey, the descent or catabasis, the struggle with the dragon and rescue of a heroine and the eventual happy marriage or recovery of a lost paradise. Unlike other workers in the same field, such as Jungians and anthropologists, he has dealt with these in a specifically literary framework. Largely because of his work, it is impossible for any self-respecting critic today to ignore genre, or to read without sensitivity to myth and metaphor.
Frye's understanding of literature has percolated down to an elementary level, thanks in part to the future teachers who thronged Frye's classes in the 1950s, or who found a new world opening up when they read Anatomy of Criticism in the 1960s. His principles informed a series of 13 anthologies, Literature: Uses of the Imagination, published between 1972 and 1974 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and edited by former students Hope Lee, Alvin Lee and Will Jewkes, with Frye as supervisory editor. These books, designed for use in English classes in grades seven to 12, provide poems and stories from all literatures and historical periods, grouped in such a way as to show the persistence of images, story patterns and motifs from the Bible and classical literature. Perhaps half a million of these readers were sold across Canada and the United States, and a generation of young people was influenced by them. In On Teaching Literature (1972), Frye provided for teachers a distillation of his thought on the importance of the imagination and on ways of nurturing it, a theme he had approached for the general public most notably in his CBC Massey Lectures, published as The Educated Imagination (1963). The latter book has sold continuously and even appeared on the grade 13 English curriculum in Ontario (Ayre 286).
As this discussion has implied, Frye was always deeply concerned with society. A number of his early essays, in the Canadian Forum and elsewhere, address such non-literary topics as democracy, fascism, education and religion. The charge sometimes made by contemporary critics of the Anatomy, that it presents the literary universe as a self-enclosed system with little relation to the real world, is wide of the mark, as are similar charges that Frye is ahistorical. The whole point of literature for Frye is that it provides the essential imaginative basis for individual and social life, as he insisted through his discussion of anagogy. Perhaps in response to this misunderstanding, as well as through a natural evolution of his interests, Frye wrote increasingly on the role of literature, the humanities and language itself in human civilization. In The Critical Path (1971), he advanced the concept of a fruitful tension between a basically social myth of concern and a basically academic myth of freedom, a formulation that is still useful for critics trying to articulate their role in society.
Frye sometimes spoke of his later works on the Bible and literature, The Great Code (1982) and Words with Power (1990), as taking up the "excluded initiative" of the Anatomy, namely the actual experience of reading literature (Northrop Frye's Late Notebooks, Nb. 50, para. 210), which he had labelled as pre-critical and not amenable to analysis. Responding implicitly to the upsurge of linguistic, semiotic and critical studies of recent decades-many of which Frye had read and pondered, though he seldom engaged in direct controversy with their authors - these books deal with the cultural impact of the Bible-derived myths, especially as they are encountered in literature. They replace the Anatomy's five interpretative strategies towards literary language (from the literal to the anagogic) with an analysis of different modes of language itself (metaphoric, conceptual, rhetorical, descriptive and kerygmatic), pointing out the cultural dominance of different modes at different periods, though all also coexist. Increasingly Frye saw language, and hence myth, as informing all human constructs, the awareness of such cultural conditioning as a prerequisite to intelligent functioning in society, and the ability to respond imaginatively to language as a way to enlarged consciousness.
To have engaged in so much fruitful and suggestive work is an amazing achievement; it may seem captious, therefore, to suggest that it was not exactly what Frye had hoped for and to turn to the negative. As Blake said, however, and Frye echoed, without contraries there is no progression. When Frye wrote the Polemical Introduction to the Anatomy, he set forth a general goal: to rescue criticism from the babble of competing voices and contradictory schools, and to establish it as a science with recognized principles and agreed-upon terms. He later regretted his use of the word science, pointing out that he had in mind not "hard" science but a social science, something bringing together criticism, linguistics and semiotics. But he never formally abandoned his main contention that criticism should be as coherent a discipline as physics. The charts and surveys of the Anatomy, the overlapping and infinitely subdivided diagrams of sequence and modality and genre, were a suggested basis for such a science but not - at any rate in theory - the only necessary one. The important thing was to have an accepted framework in which all critical investigations would find their place, as contributions to a consolidating body of knowledge rather than as fragmentary and competing arguments.
It is hardly necessary to argue that in this ambition he did not succeed. In the headlong rush to deconstruction, such an enterprise was labelled as structuralist and hopelessly logocentric. But even traditional critics have balked at Frye's contention that literature is a unified verbal universe, articulating in its totality humankind's dream of a recovered paradise. They find it hard to believe that all creative writers are contributing to the same vision, or, if they accept that they may be doing so, to delineate that vision in anything but platitudes. What the poets share has often seemed less vital than their particular ideology, even in Frye's discussions of them. As a result, critics who use Frye's ideas tend to stay on the first four levels, and seldom ascend to the synoptic fifth: anagogy has not become a household word. And Frye's notion that the imagination, through its power to make metaphor, ultimately swallows nature and creates a totally human world has itself proved difficult to swallow.
Thus Frye has to some extent been passed over in the realm of metatheory. It is long since the exciting battles of the 1960s, when the English Institute held its packed special session on Frye, and W.K. Wimsatt of Yale, in preparation for his dissenting speech, sent his graduate assistant to determine that the Malaysians had only three seasons, in order to refute the four-part cyclical diagram. Gone too are the heady days of the 1970s, when the Anatomy was practically a Bible at some American graduate schools. Now there are courses in literary theory, even at Toronto, that barely touch on him. In England, perhaps because of the persistence of the Leavisite tradition, Frye was never as popular as he was in North America. He receives only a few dismissive pages in the chapter on structuralism and semiotics in Terry Eagleton's widely used Literary Theory: an Introduction (1983), and the ordinary literate but non-literary person in England is apt never to have heard of him.
In his later years Frye was conscious that he was considered, as he put it in a late notebook, "old hat because I'm logocentric". In these notes, he sometimes cheered himself up with the thought that he had made a permanent contribution to literary theory: "It doesn't matter how often I'm mentioned by other critics: I form part of the subtext of every critic worth reading," he wrote, or "[If a critic] doesn't have something of me inside him, he won't, at this time of history, have anything of much use to say as a critic". At other times he puzzled over his failure to have more impact: "Why am I so respected yet so isolated?" he mused. In 1984 he addressed the Modern Language Association (MLA) on the occasion of its hundredth anniversary in the talk "Literary and Linguistic Scholarship in a Postliterate World," marking his distance from the current scene at the outset by confessing that the title was not his and that he did not know what postliterate meant. Before going on to develop his own far-reaching sense of the critic's social function, he expressed regret that contemporary critical theory, instead of mediating and transmitting the imaginative vision of literature, had "relapsed into a confused and claustrophobic battle of methodologies" (991). In his notebook he remarked of this speech that "It's doubtless my own ego that wonders why critics didn't feel more called to order by the piece I did for the PMLA [sic] centenary". In spite of the fact that many of Frye's ideas have passed into general culture, he is not considered, as he might have hoped to be, the founder of a discipline or the fountainhead of a permanent new direction in literary criticism.
Does this mean that Frye's more theoretical works are destined to sink into obscurity, their task accomplished? Are they likely to be cherished chiefly by historians of ideas, as the products of a particular era no longer recoverable? The fact that Frye's collected works are now being published suggests that the University of Toronto Press, at least, believes they will continue to speak to contemporary readers. And here the disappointment of Frye's hope that criticism might become a science actually works in his favour. As he often pointed out, it is the fate of the purely scientific writer to have his work absorbed into the discipline, built upon, and superseded, whereas literature and the arts produce works of lasting value (e.g. "Education"). Scholarly writing in the humanities, situated between the rigour of science and the luxuriance of literature, may easily partake of the qualities of the latter. I should like to use the remainder of this paper to explore the somewhat overlapping ways in which the permanent value of Frye's works might be approached. The first is to consider the literary quality of his writing; the second is to examine the notion Frye increasingly embraced of his criticism as an art rather than a science.
Frye originally hoped to be a composer of music and later envisaged a career as a novelist; it was some time before he accepted that his genius lay in criticism. Ever afterwards he fought against the notion that the critic is a parasite on literature, and asserted his own creativity as if denying that he had betrayed his early ambitions. Over and over again he remarked that it was a mistake to call only poets, playwrights and the like creative writers, "creativity being an attribute of a writer's mind and not of the genres he happens to be working in" (Words).
There is a sense in which this ascription of creativity to theoreticians as well as to poets is misleading. At the very least, in arguing that creativity is not an attribute of particular genres, Frye seems to blur a distinction made in normal usage and one that he elsewhere upholds. "Creative writing" in the popular sense is creative in that it is limited only by the writer's imagination, whereas the prose of thought is required to obey the dictates of fact and logic: a historian, for instance, had better not be too creative. It is true on the one hand that Frye drew attention to the way the imagination of artists is constrained by the dictates of their medium, and to the fact that their subjectivity is representative rather than personal (Stubborn Structure; "Teacher's"). But on the other hand, during the university ferment in the late 1960s, when he spent a good deal of time and energy defending the university from the demands of radical social activists, one of his chief aims was to make a distinction between the socially engaged subject matters of the humanities and the detached attitude of the theorist who studies them. At the conferences on the humanities that were an important feature of that time of revaluation and soul-searching, he exempted only the arts themselves from the requirements of scientific method - the authority of fact, logical argument and repeatable experiment - and insisted that "every discipline should be as scientific as its subject matter will allow it to be, or abandon all claim to be taken seriously."
When he enlarged his theory into book form in The Critical Path, Frye dealt specifically with the literary critic rather than the humanist in general - though it is the critic in the widest sense, one who takes aspects of religion, philosophy and the social sciences into his purview. According to the distinction between the myth of concern and the myth of freedom, developed here, poets are imaginative children of concern, but the critic is an intellectual operating within the university's myth of freedom, and "by necessity, devoted to the virtues of the truth of correspondence, including objectivity and detachment". Though Frye later denied any clear demarcation between types of writing, as late as 1982, in The Great Code, he was still maintaining that the language of criticism is descriptive and centrifugal in direction, while that of poetry and imaginative writing is metaphorical and centripetal. In Words with Power, he noted that whereas when he began his career he felt it necessary for the sake of criticism to defend its autonomy as a discipline distinct from literature, in the present theory-intensive climate, the boundary between literature and criticism needs to be affirmed anew for the sake of the autonomy of literature.
Frye's assertion of his own creativity suggests, in the light of this distinction, that lie might riot be averse to having his works cross that boundary - that they might be seen in a new context, one in which their literary and human qualities come to the fore. As Frye pointed out, some works originally expository become literary classics - like Gibbon's Decline and Fall, which he described as "a permanent possession of literature and not simply a contribution to scholarship" (Well-Tempered Critic). Likewise Frazer, though superseded as an anthropologist, will always be read for his "sheer power to organize material" ("Sir James Frazer"). In this regard it is significant that Frye called his major theoretical book an anatomy. His first published work on literary theory, "The Anatomy in Prose Fiction" (1942), had stressed that the anatomy, or Menippean satire, was a literary form, one whose characteristics include the encyclopaedic survey as well as a satiric purpose (muted in the Anatomy of Criticism) elsewhere described as "the constant ridicule of philosophers and pedantic critics" ("Four Forms"). As the scientific content of such a work became outdated, it would be taken into literature; "[Burton's] Anatomy of Melancholy is as truly prose fiction as a tale of Poe or a novel of Thackeray" ("The Anatomy"). A sense that his own critical works were also literature perhaps explains why Frye was able to put them in the place of the eight concerti or eight novels that originally formed the outline or "ogdoad" of his planned creative life.
Few would deny Frye's superb style and sense of rhythm, his complete control over the verbal medium, his ability to choose the perfect simile. He also laboured mightily to give his works literary form. The intricate patterns of the Anatomy, the wheels within wheels of his Ezekiel vision, his fourfold mandalas and horizontal and vertical axes, the elaborate double mirror shape of The Great Code, are as much architectonic principles as critical ones. His later notebooks show him not so much thinking about his themes as trying to arrive at a structure for his books, obsessively arranging and rearranging the same concepts in order to achieve the required shapeliness. As critics were apt to complain, and he did not dispute, he sometimes conceived of a pattern and then found data to fill it out (though the process was surely one of juggling both inductive and deductive insights). The goal was as much an aesthetic whole as an intellectual argument.
But the literary dimension of Frye's works goes beyond the formal and involves the kind of thought that Frye calls poetic. From this point of view his work is less an objective description of the structure of literature than an imaginative vision, with all the qualities of wisdom, insight and suggestive power that such vision implies. We respond to his language not on the level of the truth of correspondence, but as poetic speech that creates a structure with its own coherence. There is no denying that Frye's whole bent was towards the metaphorical and the mythical, towards a kind of insight that is not amenable to discursive reason. Typical in this regard is his assertion, in the early lecture "Sir James Frazer," that feeling and imagination are inseparably a part of thought and that logic is only one of many forms of symbolism. All discursive thought, he argued, is capable of being refuted; if a proposition can be formulated, so can its opposite. Argument and dialectic attempt to deal with conflicting truths either by refuting one and upholding the other, or by attempting to harmonize and reconcile them. But the result is always a partial truth. Poetry does not affirm in the same way and so allows for polysemy; for instance, metaphor affirms an identity that both is and is not. Later, Frye adopted the concept of interpenetration for this kind of truth. In this almost mystical conception, all things are related to one another without being identical (Denham "Interpenetration"). Interpenetration is involved in the highest kind of cognition, in which conflicting truths are not reconciled but held in suspension.
This notion of interpenetration can help to explain some of the peculiarities of Frye's oeuvre. For all his celebrated lucidity, Frye can be baffling; each sentence is beautifully crafted but the sequence of the argument is sometimes far from clear, and his thought often appears to end in some logical aporia. Symptomatically, one of his favourite texts is the Book of Job, whose perplexities can never be resolved on a rational level however much commentators, including Frye, may comment. It is hard to express Frye's ideas in different words - which perhaps explains why he so frequently repeated the same phrases. The reason for this difficulty may be that he is thinking not so much logically as poetically, in which case the expression really is ("literally" as he would say) the thought. He confessed that his ideas came to him in aphorisms, intuitive leaps, and images and that his main challenge in writing a book was to seek for "verbal formulas to connect them". But the verbal formulas themselves partake of an imaginative leap. Surely he is also describing his own style when he says, in his Study of English Romanticism, that "poetic thinking, being mythical, does not distinguish or create antitheses: it goes on and on, linking analogy to analogy, identity to identity, and containing, without trying to refute, all opposition and objection". This brings to mind Frye's dizzying accumulation of parallels between myth and metaphor, mythos and dianoia, narrative and meaning, ritual and dream, ear and eye and time and space (e.g. Anatomy), as well as his studied avoidance of direct controversy with other critics and his voracious urge to encompass all of human experience.
When we read Frye with this poetic dimension in mind, we enter into an imaginative world as visionary as that of any poet. The theoretical works sketch the cosmos that Frye's synthesizing imagination constructed from a lifetime of reading, a complete cosmos stretching from heaven to hell, dotted with caves and furnaces and purgatorial mountains. The people and creatures who populate this world - the hero, alazon, Leviathan, ouroboros, bride, mother and the rest - are derived from literature but take on an independent existence. Patterns that Frye extracts from literature encapsulate his understanding of the human condition: the forms of tragedy and comedy become meditations on the dissolution or integration of the human community, and investigations of the Biblical myth of creation are paeans to human creative power. On this level it is hardly fruitful to argue about whether the giant anagogic man who stands at the apex of literature in the Anatomy, identified with Christ in The Great Code and encompassing all of humankind in one body, is the culminating reality of literature or can somehow be deduced from it. The image has not been much used by practising critics or apologists for literature; its true realm is the imagination, along with the cabbalistic Adam Kadmon and similar giant figures in the Prose Edda, Milton and Blake (Fearful Symmetry). And what a towering, compelling figure it is: the product of Frye's midnight imaginings, the culmination of his mystical insight into the human condition. On this level Frye is less the scientific critic than the seer, the Blake of the twentieth century, and his high and serious style speaks directly to us.
It is mainly in his later notebooks and private jottings that Frye talks about his sense of this imaginative dimension to his criticism, though it is certainly implied in his increasing blurring of the line between the literary and the non-literary, as well as in his growing awareness that science itself is also governed by myths and the imperatives of language. In the notebook entry quoted earlier, in which he regretted having used the word science for criticism, there is a surprising addendum to the effect that "When critics keep saying that there can't be a science of criticism, what they're really saying is 'I can't and won't write this kind of criticism,' and I can't say they're wrong because I can't & won't write it myself". The implication is that the Anatomy itself was not, or is not now considered by Frye to be, an essay towards such criticism. At other points in these notebooks he acknowledges the visionary, personal and non-prescriptive nature of his work. Reacting to the chronic complaint that he tended to erect "palaces of criticism" that imprisoned his readers, he countered that "I have as much right to build palaces of criticism as Milton had to write epic poems" and that readers, having absorbed him, "can go out to build palaces of their own". In the late 1960s, musing on his plans for a vast work on the mythological universe that never came to fruition, he remarked that "If I can bring it off, it really will be the Divine Comedy of criticism, perhaps a greater poem than the Pound Cantoes."
There are intimations even in such middle-period published works as The Critical Path that the totalizing vision of literature is embedded in particulars and mired in ideology, and that it is really the critic (or perhaps the reader as critic) who pulls together the overarching structure. Here in the notebooks he is more willing to assign to the critic an inspired or prophetic role. "I can hardly say explicitly that it's the function of criticism to see a super-kerygma forming out of literature," he writes, "but what else do I mean?" Or again, "Literature is seeds: criticism is the kerygma of what's in literature". The kerygmatic - for him the proclamation of the possibility of rebirth, not in another world but through mental strife here and now - has always had Frye's deepest allegiance. It was presumably the reason for his deciding to study theology in the first place, and in the posthumously published The Double Vision (1991) the kerygmatic vision of a spiritualized nature is visible as the destination of his critical path.
The critic as poet: a contradictory, perhaps impossible combination. One would not wish to go too far in this direction, pushing Frye into an alien postmodern camp where all truths are personal and the possibility of pointing to an objective structure of literature disappears entirely. He exists in the tension between two impulses, one towards scholarly rigour and the other towards bearing witness to an imaginative world beyond scholarship.
In this doubleness, perhaps, he is quintessentially Canadian. Frye once said that the Canadian genius was for producing strange hybrids: Confederation in politics, the United Church in religion and the University of Toronto in education. Could he be the latest of such hybrids, Canada's offering to the twentieth century? The role would be congenial to one who always admired the paradoxes of Wilde's essay "The Critic as Artist." Perhaps the twenty-first century will tell us.

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