Although Frye is the author of the Polemical Introduction to Anatomy, he is also an advocate of consensus. In his interviews with David Cayley, he says that the genuine critics of various schools share a consensus of attitude that underpins their work, which is also the case for good writers.This desire for a science of criticism that goes beyond ideology, Perhaps beyond good and evil and the twilight of the gods, does not always endear him to those who wish to concentrate primarily on the political agon or debate in criticism and theory. Frye’s desire for a field theory of literature or culture works against trends towards pluralism: his Aristotelian and liberal tendencies towards unification and universals go against the present critical climate. But Frye, who practiced the criticism of public address for about the last thirty years of his life, argues for a public and democratic criticism. His ideology is not that of a mandarin caste.
Frye and Words with Power
In Words with Power he says that “radically new directions in the humanities can come only from the cultural needs” of the public and “not from any one version of critical theory, including my own so far as I have one”. He does not believe that his criticism has a monopoly on truth. His three primary critical goals in Words with Power are characteristic of his aims elsewhere.
First, he wishes to illuminate difficult literary texts by suggesting one of the contexts that helps to make up their meaning. Second, he suggests why the poets who are generally considered most worthwhile are those who have used the kind of imagery that Frye emphasizes. Third, he hopes to provide “glimpses of interconnecting structural principles of literature that are actually connected with literature and the experience of studying it”. What seems to be a mixture of New Criticism and structuralism turns out to have a political dimension, and not an escapist or quietist angle as recent critics of modernism, New Criticism, and structuralism would have us believe.
Frye and Anatomy
In Anatomy, Frye says he hoped “to apply the principles of literary symbolism and Biblical typology which I had learned from Blake to another poet” who had worked them out from the literary theory of the day rather than for himself as Blake did. But Frye never wrote his book on Spenser; instead he produced Anatomy. It is with the radical, William Blake, that Frye begins.
Frye’s Obsession of Blake
In Northrop Frye he tells Cayley that his theoretical moment of illumination occurred when, as a student at Emmanuel College at University of Toronto, he was writing a paper on Blake’s Milton. At about three in the morning, Frye says, all of a sudden “the universe just broke open, and I’ve never been, as they say, the same since”. His realization was that Milton and Blake both entered into the mythological framework of the Bible.
But just when it was easy to seize on Frye the myth critic and forget that his mentor was Biake, a radical Protestant (not to mention Milton), he made his politics more explicit. They are far from conservative and openly oppose fascism. During the late 1960s, Frye discovered this dimension of his reading of Blake: “When I was compelled to reread Fearful Symmetry, in order to write a preface to a reprint of it, I iscouered what I hadn’t realized before: how very troubled a book it was and how much the rise of Nazism was on my mind and how terrified I was by the clarity with which Blake saw things like Druidism coming, whereby human sacrifice, as he says, would have depopulated the earth”. While other writers and critics, such as W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Paul de Man, could not resist the temptations of reactionary politics or fascism, Frye was able to do so. He credits Blake with helping him avoid the lures of mythography and the visions of organic societies that led some of the modernists astray:
it was Blake who helped me to keep my head. One of the books I picked up was Rosenberg’s Myth of the Twentieth Century, which was a big Nazi polemic claiming that the racially pure come from Atlantis and so forth. Having been concentrating on Blake so heavily, I could see that this was the devil’s parody of Blake.
I think Yeats plunged into something rather similar without realizing that it was the devil’s parody of Blake, although Yeats knew Blake.
Frye’s Sharing with Blake
Here, Frye uses poetry as a means of critiquing ideology in a political text and in the world. Using poetry to confront rather than escape politics, Frye develops a social poetics. He also draws on spirituality and religion, largely marginalized in modern critical theory, to oppose totalitarianism. Like Blake, Frye is interested in a visionary poetics, but not as a means of eluding responsibility in the world; rather, he considers vision to be “the ability to hear and see in that world”. With Blake, Frye shares an interest in the vision of Job and in the visionary and prophetic aspect of the Bible generally--concerns he works out in Words with Power and The Double Vision. This last book, a short, general, and oral version of Words with Power, is addressed to an audience at Emmanuel Cbllege, Toronto. It may be Frye’s only book that has theologians for an audience (although Creation and Recreation was originally delivered as a set of public lectures to those interested in religion and literature; Frye himself was trained in both literature and theology). But Frye’s theology can never escape his focus on literature.
Just as Blake’s spiritual world is his world of painting and poetry, Frye’s is his world of criticism, because creation (which includes criticism) organizes and articulates the spiritual world beyond anything the physical world can produce. Frye often sees his own politics, theology, and literary theory as being liberational.
Frye on Ideology and Value Judgments
In wanting to move beyond ideology, Frye admits its centrality. Much of his view of history relates to his discussion of ideology: he keeps the historical before him even when it is not his primary emphasis. Frye sees value judgments as disguised ideology and explains to Cayley, “I’m not trying to eliminate value judgments from critical practice; I’m merely pointing out their grave limitations and the fact that so many judgments have been thought of as transcending the age in which they’re made. Of course, they never do”.
Frye includes his own value judgments in that remark. He considers culture the only power that will allow humanity to survive its folly and sees the university as the cultural meeting place. He praises the movement throughout the world of a “gradual loss in the belief in the validity of ideology qua ideology”. As Cayley notes in his admirable introduction, Frye saw ideology as a set of secondary concerns that dominate social life.
Like Vaclav Havel, Frye views stories as having a liberating power based on uncertainty and plurality gathered in the vision of the reader, as opposed to totalitarianism, which is founded on the known, single agent of truth, and a prevention of storytelling. Frye’s view of ideological conditioning is ambivalent: he sees it everywhere and recognizes its importance, but insists on mythology as the foundational point.
The Difference in Ideology, Myth and Metaphor
Cayley reminds us of an important passage in Myth and Metaphor (1990), where Frye differentiates between myth and metaphor: “I see it as the essential task of the literary critic to distinguish ideology from myth, to help reconstitute a myth as a language, and to put literature in its proper cultural place as the central link of communication between society and the vision of its primary concerns”. Frye’s example for the ecological movement focuses on human alienation from nature and the need to move towards harmony with nature and away from its exploitation. Through an imaginative recreation of nature (not a worship of it), people will help create a cultural stability that will enable survival in an age when the human destruction of nature is a threat. In short, Frye admits the pervasiveness of ideology--but believes ideology must be subordinate to our needs that sustain life: “Ideology is not evil. It’s something essential to human life. The thing is that it has to be subordinate to the very simple and primary things that the imagination is about: life, love, freedom, dignity”.
Mythology and Ideology
In Frye’s schema, mythology and ideology are intertwined. For Cayley, Frye sets out the genealogy of his thought on these topics. In studying Blake, he realized that the Bible was a mythological framework and that societies live within a mythology. According to Frye, “The Bible to Blake was really the Magna Carta of the human imagination”: it invites humankind to recognize that the divine in humans is the power that enables them “to create and imagine”. The Bible’s words are the “words with power” Frye used as the title of his last large book, a volume he had thought about for many decades. In an interview with Salusinszky during the 1980s, he notes: “I soon realized the priority of mythology to ideology in a culture, and then I realized that a mythology is an interconnected series of myths”. The heart of literature and society is mythical and narrative and not ideological and dialectical. There is, Frye adds, ideological conflict in a society with a shared mythological structure because humans cannot stay at the mythological level as they cannot argue about whether they think a story is true or false. He says that ideology involves thesis and proposition, which imply their opposite. The poet, Frye tells Cayley with an allusion to John Stuart Mill, is overheard and not heard, does not desire a kinetic (rhetorical, ideological) effect on the audience. But if criticism is necessary in Frye’s world view, as a mediator between the poem and the reader, is it not an activity of the second and ideological order rather than of the more mythological product of poetry itself? Why not write poetry instead of criticism? Frye’s creative criticism needs to be interpretative. While it may try to recreate the metaphorical cast of mind, it provides a political, historical, or psychological allegory. The attraction of Frye’s theory of mythology and ideology is that it opposes the important theories of ideology that now dominate the field and may help to qualify them. It acknowledges the centrality of ideology but questions it with the ambivalence and irreducibility of the aesthetic or the literary.
Literature and Mythology
In Words with Power Frye amplifies the views of ideology set forth in the interviews with Cayley. Frye says that “every human society possesses a mythology which is inherited, transmitted and diversifed by literature”. Literature, then, is already a displacement and complication of mythology. Frye explains the affinities of “creative writing” and criticism: the central and most significant extension of mythology “is into literature (along with the criticism of literature) which incarnates a mythology in a historical context”.
Historicity is a key element of Frye’s view of literature and criticism: “a literary criticism that cuts off its own cultural and historical roots in mythology becomes sterile”. Criticism that has as its end an analytical disintegration of texts, and criticism that studies literature as history or ideology and its texts as documents demonstrating something outside literature, are for Frye inadequate forms of iterary criticism. Unlike them, Frye’s criticism accounts for “the central structural principles that literature derives from myth, the principles that give literature its communicating power across the centuries through all ideological changes”.
Frye on Structuralism
Frye admits that social and historical factors condition these structural principles, which are not transcendent but keep “a continuity of form that points to an identity of the literary organism distinct from all its adaptations to its social environment”. In our postmodern and post-structuralist world, how can we return to structure? Critics should only do so by taking into account the critiques of ideology and structuralism of the past 25 years. Increasingly, Frye’s theory opens itself to this alternative or oppositional criticism. Movement into a post-postmodern and post-post-structuralist world requires a fuller understanding and less polemical negation of modernism, of which Frye is a part (not to mention his Romantic element), but it also must not neglect the significant contributions of this alternative theory.
Frye on Literature and Criticism
Despite literature’s participation in ideological and historical changes, it has, Frye insists, a certain integrity. He tells Cayley that he regrets using the word “autonomy” in Anatomy because it could be construed as suggesting that literature and criticism should retreat from the world. Although writers and critics cannot escape ideology, the continuous forms that literature translates from mythology allow for communication with the reader despite historical and ideological change.
Frye differs from postmodern critics in stressing the possibility of communication. The subordination of literature and criticism to ideology, politics, and other discourses represents, in Frye’s view, the way things have always been and not a postmodern or revolutionary position. The Bible and Western literature are only given a putative and not an actual pre-eminence. Frye thinks that ever since Plato most literary critics have ignored poetic and imaginative thought and have connected the word “thought” with concepts and dialectic, that is, with ideology. Having defended the creativity of criticism since the 1940s or even earlier, in Words with Power Frye wonders whether the situation has so reversed itself that the integrity of literature and other traditional verbal practices needs to be defended from the expansion of criticism.
Northrop Frye with Others
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Frye addresses some of the key critical and theoretical issues of the time but from a different angle. Always a careful reader of Freud, Frye also read Lacan, as his brief essay, “Lacan and the Full Word”, makes evident. But even while he is increasingly drawn to read Derrida and others from the next generation, Frye often turns to earlier sources, like Plato and Alfred North Whitehead, to make points not out of place in a postmodern perspective. Frye argues against logical positivism, which dismisses metaphysics, because, for him, metaphysical systems are impressive structures that try “to present the world to the conscious mind”. He quotes Whitehead, who worked with Bertrand Russell: “Every philosophy is tinged with the coloring of some secret imaginative background, which never emerges explicitly into its trains of reasoning”. Warning us about the excluded, and pointing out that the logic of an argument leads us away from the recognition that “the argument is what the person constructing the argument wants to be true,” Frye also discusses “power,” not in relation to Michel Foucault, but to the debate on justice in the first book of Plato’s Republic. This choice also allows Frye to return to his theme of the beleaguered world of words, the fragile existence of poetics and criticism. Once again, his choice is shrewd because he does not choose a pre-Socratic philosopher or a deconstructionist to make his case but instead goes to the Platonic Socrates, who is supposed to stand up for the logos. For Frye, Socrates is a more generous Sophist than Thrasymachus, for while the former speaks of good words, the latter “is speaking for the wordless world of power”. Frye’s Thrasymachus is a harbinger of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Marx, and the late Nietzsche, because he thinks the power of the material world is effective whereas that of words is not, and that “justice” is what the most powerful person considers it to be as part of a strategy for maintaining it.
On Dialectic and Rhetoric
In his theory of ideology, Frye sets out the relation between dialectic (argument) and rhetoric (persuasion). He associates rhetoric and ideology, and defines ideologies as “the great frameworks of accepted (and by the great majority unexamined) assumptions,” which are generally “structures of social authority, so far as verbal structures can articulate and rationalize authority”. In Frye’s view, ideology does not wholly refuse to enter into dialogue with believers, but when the established social authority insists on some ideological postulates as essential, then dialectic is subordinated to the persuasion of rhetoric (oratory) in order to establish belief. The worst cases of rhetoric occur when the occasion narrows from the historical to the immediate. Whereas dialectics can lead to endless argument, rhetoric can shut argument down altogether. The rhetoric of the personal attack, for example, can end debate by telling people they are saying something because they lack certain convictions, or are women, or whatever. There is also a passive side to the ideological, “where every verbal structure, simply by being conditioned by its social and historical environment, reflects that conditioning”. For Frye, all verbal structures reach ideology: the longer an author has been dead, the more his work is apt to be regarded as an ideological document.
On Ideology and Totalitarianism
When discussing ideology, Frye often has in mind the dangers of totalitarianism. An ideology, according to him, does the most good when it is the least powerful, “when its assumptions can be most freely challenged by others, when the terrible claws of ideological authority, inquisitions and secret police and the like, are not simply pared but removed altogether”. In Frye’s view, new historical or scientific evidence may undermine an ideology, but the use of reason has its limits: to be reasonable is to be aware that all rational arguments are half-truths, and that the other half needs to be included in a flexible and tolerant compromise. Unlike some current theorists of ideology, Frye warns against the ideological containers information comes in, thinks there are degrees of detachment, and contends that it is possible to be intellectually honest with people who have different commitments. Like Plato and Hegel, Frye is teleological and advocates ideal goals, which may be unattainable but represent important directions.
Although in Frye’s scheme mythology is prior to ideology, in Words with Pouer he discusses ideology first in order to establish mythology as an “excluded initiative,” as something even more inclusive than ideology. He is concerned with what first creates ideology and why social authority rationalizes its power in words rather than simply asserting it, as Thrasymachus suggests. Frye believes that the ideological unity of speaker, speech, and listener is human and social, and that ideologies develop in proportion to human recognition of humanity’s dominance over nature. His notion that literature is a critique of ideology counterbalances all theorists who today assert that literature is ideology, but his idea that ideology is pervasive and finds its expression through a dominant class is not much different from the ideas of Marx and Althusser. What distinguishes Frye is his belief that literature is a subversive means of opposing the dominant ideology and the class structure that supports it. In discussing belief in The Great Code (1982) and in Words with Power (which nevertheless stands on its own), Frye says that “Belief, in its usual sense, does not go beyond a declaration of adherence to an ideology”. By portraying his cause as subversive, Frye is trying to beat the ideology critics at their own game. He sees ideology as conveying a message that the social order is not perfect but is the best that can be hoped for at the moment, so people should obey and work. A priesthood or ascendant class attempts to make its “mythological canon” the only one possible and denounces all others as morbid, unreal, heretical, or evil, while refusing to examine the myth by which the ideology lives.
Once again, Frye’s subtlety is worth noting; he portrays ideology as the instrument of oppression and the study of mythology as a taboo means of understanding and undermining a given ideology. Ideology, then, is “applied mythology” which does not examine application, which is often highly selective. The assertionless nature of literature, which asks for the suspension of judgment and a variety of reactions, is more corrosive of ideologies than rational skepticism is. Even though reason may be necessary in the face of a hysterical society, for Frye it acts as a conscious filter of fantasy or dream, which functions in literature. He takes the title of Words with Power from Luke 4:32 to suggest a power of words, rather than of guns, that is consistent with human survival.
Ideology: Frye on Writers and Poets
Writers, Frye argues, are unsure about their status and authority because of ideological pressures and persecutions. We come up against a gap between poetic and ideological language; in the popular mind, discursive prose is more serious than poetry because the playfulness and pleasure of poems call into question the work ethic. According to Frye, ideological principles are metonymic because they are substituted for the ideals that primary human concern envisages. He uses Gerard Manley Hopkins’s terminology as a means of explaining and criticizing ideology. “Overthought” is the conscious, syntactical meaning of the poem, which the contemporary audience and the poet generally consider to be the meaning, whereas “underthought” is composed of the progression of metaphor and images that affords an “emotional counterpoint” to the overthought, which it supplements and often contradicts.
In addition to equating overthought with ideological content, Frye once more shows a certain wiliness by adapting terms from a difficult and highly aesthetic poet and applying them to poetry, which, particularly in its lyric form, is supposed to be beyond ideology. Critics must not, Frye says, ignore or distort the literary past to illustrate the ideological trend they have chosen to join.
On Religion and Ideology
Frye opposes vision and ideology while relating religion and literature through myth and metaphor. He opposes those people in each of the major religions who remain within “the ideological framework of its revelation” and observe its rituals and laws, as well as those who attempt a more direct way through ecstatic metaphor. Frye connects the spiritual kingdom based on Pauline caritas or love with Longinus’s sublime.
On Poetic and Descriptive
The poetic for Frye is not an illusion of an aesthetic ideology, but a necessary heuristic distinction. He sees the poetic nature of the Bible without seeing it as literature. The poetic involves a fictional supposition that other modes of discourse lack. By turning to Longinus, Frye is emphasizing ecstatic response and the difference between ideological rhetoric, which persuades, and proclamation, which takes one outside oneself.
In Frye’s theory, the descriptive, conceptual, and rhetorical are languages of nature that relate the physical to its contexts in time and space, whereas the poetic or imaginative is spiritual.
Discussing the poetic, he argues that traditionally the kerygmatic Word of the Bible (and here he is thinking of Rudolf Bultmann’s kerygma or proclamation) has been primarily related to the spirit, the creative power of humanity, and secondarily to nature.
But Frye’s visionary poetics is not a celebration of religious dogma or ideology. He is acutely aware that much tyranny has been perpetrated in the name of God and Nature and that cosmologies, like the chain of being, have often been used to rationalize the ideologies of social authority. He sees two organizing patterns in the Bible and in literature: the natural cycle and the apocalypse. The apocalyptic is the final separation of life from death, a hope for the future in history or in the after-life, in a revolution that will reverse but not revolve. Words with Power, Frye’s book most concerned with ideology, concludes with a paradox. When we are most oppressed by the mystery of existence and God’s apparent indiference to human suffering, we hear the rhetoric of the ideologues until, perhaps, “the terrifying and welcome voice may begin, annihilating everything we thought we knew, and restoring everything we have never lost”. Is ideology good or bad? One kind of politics feeds starving children while another lets them die.
The Double Vision
The Double Vision, a brief and general supplement to Words with Power, was published just after Frye’s death. Its title echoes a poem in William Blake’s letter to Thomas Butts on November 22, 1802. Like Words, The Double Vision contrasts literary and biblical myths, because the vision of the spiritual life represented in the New Testament represents both myths to live by and metaphors to live in: that is the transforming power of kerygma or proclamation. Following Blake, Frye implies that sense perception is not enough, and that a subject recognizes itself as part of what it perceives. Again like Blake, Frye advocates the humanizing of the world. For Frye, truth is a kind of spiritual body (which he adapts from Paul’s soma pneumatikon), but in religion people must maintain a skeptical attitude or they end up in self-idolatry.
From the double vision of nature, Frye proceeds to the double nature of time. Our hope--a key word in Words with Power and The Double Vision--lies not in abstract constructs of history passed on to us by the nineteenth century, but in social concern, a vision that emphasizes our individuality and our primary needs for survival. Here, as in Fearful Symmetry (1947), his first book, he advocates Blake’s “metaphorical literalism” and Dante’s polysemous interpretation. Paradox is the central element of double vision. But The Double Vision, like Words with Power, ends with a vision of love, one that “has to begin with the human recognition that it is only human beings who have put evil and suffering into human life”. At the center of his metaphorical and mythical opposition to ideology lies an “as if” or fiction. The double vision of language purifies language to plain speech, aphorism, parable, to “a power that re-creates the mind,...as though there really were a Logos uniting mind and nature that really does mean “Word”. This love leads to fictional recreation, a sense of identity with nature, a harmony between spirit and nature. The double vision of the spiritual and physical world at once involves a recognition of the resurrection of human life in each moment here and now.
Here is Frye’s familiar movement to recognition, as anagnorisis, or as epiphany, which, as he explains at the end of The Return to Eden, is its theological equivalent. In both his first book and his last, Frye is fascinated with the visionary.
The Critical Path
In Words with Power and The Double Vision Frye returns to the myths of concern and freedom, which he first set out in detail in 1971 (The Critical Path : An Essay on the Social Context of Literature) but which he was exploring as early as 1967 in The Modern Century.
In The Critical Path Frye says that whereas the myth of freedom is liberal, detached, and individual, and emphasizes tolerance, correspondence, and objectivity, the myth of concern is conservative and communal and suesses belief, coherence, and authority. Together these two myths produce the social context of literature.
Primary concerns are made up of four areas: food and drink, sex, property, and liberty of movement. Secondary concerns grow out of the social contract, such as patriotism, religion, and class attitudes, and, in Frye’s later phrasing, “develop from the ideological aspect of myth, and consequently tend to be directly expressed”.
In both Words with Power and The Double Vision, as in The Critical Path, Frye argues that secondary concerns have been given priority over primary ones. For many writers who are victims of a hostile ideology, truth becomes a dedication to primary concerns.
In “War on the Cultural Front” (1940) Frye writes that democracy is laissez-faire in art, science, and scholarship, and predicts a decentralization of culture after the war.
In 1945 he wrote an article in two parts on liberal education. The first part addresses issues that prefigure the debate in the 1980s and 1990s on technical education for global competition. He defends liberal education against Conservative politicians and capitalists who want vocational training, maintaining that great works of culture represent a vision of reality that is human and understandable but a little better than we can have in life. He also says that laissez-faire philosophy was once liberating but is now reactionary, and that the only coherent form of socialism is one based on the liberal theory of education, the tradition of which Frye’s theory is a part. Part two of this article goes beyond both the vocational view, that students should be prepared for the actual social surroundings, and the liberal view, that they should be trained for the ideal environment. The proper purpose of liberal education, Frye asserts, is to effect “neurotic maladjustment” in students in order to develop critical thought. This estrangement is reminiscent of Brecht’s alienation effect.
On Religion: Christian Demention
There is also a Christian dimension in Frye’s thought. In 1947, he finds spiritual freedom in Christianity and in the humanities, and says that in times of trouble people return to the humanities because they lead us away from ordinary life and towards that freedom (“Education and the Humanities”).
In 1950 Frye outlines the ideological causes that seem to make apocalypse imminent in modern life: fascism, communism, laissez-faire utopianism, technology, and atheistic parodies of religion. In “The Analogy of Democracy” (1952), he relates the church to various secular institutions like the university, seeing the theological as one of the repressed origins of literary interpretation (practical criticism) and literary theory. This theological side of Frye may put off many fellow theorists, but is part of his estrangement or otherness.
Nonetheless, the democratic nature of Frye’s work should make him no stranger to those who now espouse a poetics of equality and accessibility. His democratic and open view of education led him to give lectures in person and on radio. The two best examples of his work on education are The Educated Imagination (1963), the Massey Lectures on CBC radio during November and December of 1962, and On Education (1988), a collection of talks given over several decades. At the center of Frye’s view of education is literature: the basic question in The Edueated Imagination is “What good is the study of literature?”. He argues that with imagination each individual develops a vision of society in order to select what it offers and to cut through illusions that do not appeal to that vision. What Frye was later to call ideology, he earlier called social mythology--appeals to status symbols, cliches, jargon, and nostalgia. The educated imagination works against these illusions by opposing archetypes to stereotypes. Here, Frye is writing with McCarthyism at his back and in the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, speaking up against the illusions of ideology. In On Education what is most striking is Frye’s response to the student revolts of 1968 and 1969. For Frye, the student radicals want answers to existential problems, whereas the university offers them critical detachment from society in order that they might develop a social vision as a utopian ideal with which to transform society. In the midst of this crisis, Frye developed his scheme of the myths of concern and freedom. In a convocation address at the University of Western Ontario on May 27, 1969, Frye reiterated his distinction between the myths of concern and freedom. With his memories of the excesses of totalitarianism among fascists and communists, Frye could only despair: “It is students, today, who repeat the formulas of the ignorant and stupid of a generation ago”: the university is a parasite on society; academic freedom is shopworn liberal rhetoric; since objectivity is impossible, degrees of objectivity mean nothing; the university fosters a detachment that escapes social issues; research and scholarship are not real life. Frye is ambivalent about the students of the late 1960s: some are interested in social change, but others are given to barbarism and totalitarian measures.
Anatomy of Criticism
It should come as no surprise, given Frye’s response to the totalitarian powers of the Second World War and to the student revolts of the 1960s, that Anatomy of Criticism has a historical dimension. The Tentative Conclusion to Anatomy is historical. In 1966 Angus Fletcher recognized that Frye used utopian historiography to make his view of temporality coherent. In Anatomy, Frye does not exclude historical critics, but attacks only the barriers between the various kinds of criticism. For him, historical criticism is one of the options; a critic must have more than one method to achieve a wide understanding of the complexiry of literature. Before Derrida and Hayden White, though not with the same emphasis, Frye suggests that the language of all disciplines, including literary criticism and history, is rhetorical, and more specifically, metaphorical. He participates in, but recognizes the limits of, organic metaphors to describe history, such as the “quasi-organic rhythm of cultural aging” as postulated by modern philosophical historians or the decadence of capitalism as described by Marxists. What he shares with Christianity, Marxism, and nineteenth-century economic theory is a myth of progress, a telos.
Though Frye does not pursue a historical materialist perspective, he recognizes it. In the Tentative Conclusion to Anatomy, he combines a kind of Brechtian alienation effect in history with the Aristotelian conception of art: “Nearly every work of art in the past had a social function in its own time, a function which was often not primarily an aesthetic function at all”. The reception of, not the authorial intention behind, literature defines what is called literary. Frye understands the historical aspect of genre and convention and wants to explain the transhistorical.
In The Critical Path he presents a historical criticism intended to be a genuine history of literature and not an assimilation of literature to another type of history. In search of this historical method he sees the significance of archetypes, “certain structural elements in the literary tradition, such as conventions, genres, and the recurring use of certain images or image-clusters”. Frye continues this method even in Words with Power and The Double Vision. It becomes a metaphorical and mythological means of ensuring communication in the face of ever-changing ideology. This theme also provides an important subtext to the conversations with David Cayley. For Frye, within literature convention is more powerful than history because poetic conventions change less than social conditions and the poet relates to earlier poets as the scholar relates to earlier scholars, adding something to an organic body of the previous work. He argues for a sense of history as a balance between the history of literature’s larger structural principles (conventions, genres, and archetypes) and the history of literature in relation to its non-literary background. The critical path balances a study of the structure of literature with a turning outward to other cultural phenomena that compose the social environment.
The return of a repressed liberational theology, in the form Frye suggests, might have implications for a world given to old and deadening ways. In a passage from The Double Vision, with which Cayley ends his Introduction, Frye recalls and appeals to the Age of the Spirit that Joachim of Floris, a thirteenth-century Franciscan, sees as superseding the Age of the Father (Old Testament) and that of the Logos (New Testament). In this age the metaphor of the Father would not be one of “male supremacy.” or the Son a Word given to platitudes. Instead, Frye appeals to a “Spirit of creation” that brings to birth a spiritual body “in time and history but not enclosed by them”. Frye’s way of moving away from rutinized pauiarchy and logocentrism (and “phallocentrism”) is not the conventional means of making such a move today, but it offers an alternative worth considering. Over his career, Frye is also a critic of himself as he attempts to refine his principal critical insights.
Northrop Frye’s politics is one of a liberal openness based on the otherness of cultural tradition. It is both radical and liberating but paradoxically finds its liberation in an understanding of the conventions that permit communication across the ages in the face of changing ideologies. His conviction that literature can make a difference in the world, can act as a critique of ideology, and can give us alternatives in the face of social hysteria and totalitarian tendencies means, in my view, that his ideas form a supplement to those of alternative and oppositional critics. Their cultural critique has done much to make a return of Frye desirable and has helped to define both the historical context for that return and the theoretical questions that can be asked of his texts. At the height of myth criticism in the 1960s and early 1970s, a hermeneutical suspicion probably had to be cast on Frye’s way, and certainly on his wake, where his followers read his tracks. After years of looking at the ideology of history and literature, it is time to find again a literary dimension to the history of ideology, a place for literature where communication over time does not negate the alienation and necessity of time. It may be time for a revolution of our intellectual grandparents. By reading Frye and others from his and earlier generations, it should be possible to find what remains helpful and dynamic in post-structuralism and postmodernism, which have been with us for a generation, in order to move on to the next phase. It may be the best time to read Frye because to do so now still seems strange, awkward, and unlikely.