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Northrop Frye: An Order of Words

Canadian Herman Northrop Frye (July 14, 1912 – January 23, 1991) was one of the most influential literary critics and theorists of the 20th century. Having famously reinterpreted William Blake’s poetry in his first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947), he developed a theory of literary criticism in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), now considered one of the most important works of literary theory published in the twentieth century. The book basically says that literary criticism is its own field, not drawn from or based upon any other subject. It locates the framework for criticism within literature. As Frye wrote, ‘the axioms and postulates of criticism… have to grow out of the art it deals with’. Drawing on Aristotle, Frye went on to say, ‘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’.

Primitive formulas that Frye noticed in his survey of classic works provide literature with a structure which allows the reader to look at any literary work with a wider perspective provided by its literary and social context. Frye calls these ‘conventional myths and metaphors’ archetypes. Criticism, rather than a task of rejecting or accepting a literary work, is to do with recognition for what it is and understanding it in relation to other works, thus progressing ‘toward making the whole of literature intelligible’. For Frye, criticism begins when reading ends -the critic tries to make sense out of it, not by referring to history or even discussing the experience of reading a work, but by seeing its structure within literature and literature within culture.

Frye asserts that literature is the ‘central and most important extension’ of mythology -they both inhabit and function within the same imaginative world, one that has its own modes, symbols, myths and genres. He maintains that ‘literature derives from myth’. Myths and stories are the foundation of a society, not ideas or philosophies. When we examine a work of fiction, our criticism of it, 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. Poetry, for instance, like Blake's ‘London’, is dominantly centripetal, stressing sounds, movements and images of the ordered words. Novels, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, are mainly centrifugal -the stories and characters are making a social point. ‘London’ has some centrifugal elements and is critical of society; Cabin has centripetal factors and uses language to draw the reader in; but one looks mainly inward, the other outward. As readers, we follow these motions, looking at both the beauty and the social function of any work of literature. The centrifugal movement of withdrawing from a text towards its archetype creates a social function for literary criticism. Studying literature frees us from the dominant ideology of our society and enables us to see what is really going on in terms of the myths and patterns which underlie it.

Here are some quotes from Frye to give a flavour of his thinking:

‘Nobody is capable of free speech unless he knows how to use language, and such knowledge is not a gift: it has to learned and worked at.’

‘Literature as a whole is not an aggregate of exhibits with red and blue ribbons attached to them, like a cat-show, but the range of articulate human imagination as it extends from the height of imaginative heaven to the depth of imaginative hell.’

‘A snowflake is probably quite unconscious of forming a crystal, but what it does may be worth study even if we are willing to leave its inner mental processes alone.’

‘The most technologically efficient machine that man has ever invented is the book.’

‘The poet… uses these two crude, primitive, archaic forms of thought (simile and metaphor) in the most uninhibited way, because his job is not to describe nature, but to show you a world completely absorbed and possessed by the human mind.’

‘The civilization we live in at present is a gigantic technological structure, a skyscraper almost high enough to reach the moon. It looks like a single world-wide effort, but it's really a deadlock of rivalries; it looks very impressive, except that it has no genuine human dignity. For all its wonderful machinery, we know it's really a crazy ramshackle building, and at any time may crash around our ears. What the myth tells us is that the Tower of Babel is a work of human imagination, that its main elements are words, and that what will make it collapse is a confusion of tongues. All had originally one language, the myth says. The language is not English or Russian or Chinese or any common ancestor, if there was one. It is the language that makes Shakespeare and Pushkin authentic poets, that gives a social vision to both Lincoln and Gandhi. It never speaks unless we take the time to listen in leisure, and it speaks only in a voice too quiet for panic to hear. And then all it has to tell us, when we look over the edge of our leaning tower, is that we are not getting any nearer heaven, and that it is time to return to earth.’

‘It doesn't matter whether a sequence of words is called a history or a story: that is, whether it is intended to follow a sequence of actual events or not. As far as its verbal shape is concerned, it will be equally mythical in either case. But we notice that any emphasis on shape or structure or pattern or form always throws a verbal narrative in the direction we call mythical rather than historical’

‘The world of literature is a world where there is no reality except that of the human imagination.’

‘Above all, we have to look at the total design of a writer's work, the title he gives to it, and his main theme, which means his point in writing it, to understand that literature is still doing the same job that mythology did earlier, but filling in its huge cloudy shapes with sharper lights and deeper shadows.’

‘Literary education should lead not merely to the admiration of great literature, but to some possession of its power of utterance.’

‘For the Bible there is nothing numinous, no holy or divine presence, within nature itself. Nature is a fellow creature of man.’

‘So, you may ask, what is the use of studying the world of imagination where anything is possible and anything can be assumed, where there are no rights or wrongs and all arguments are equally good? One of the most obvious uses, I think, is its encouragement of tolerance.’

‘Bigots and fanatics seldom have any use for the arts, because they're so preoccupied with their beliefs and actions that they can't see them as also possibilities. It's possible to go to the other extreme, to be a dilettante so bemused by possibilities that one has no convictions or power to act at all. But such people are much less common than bigots, and in our world much less dangerous.’

‘We do not live in centred space anymore, but have to create our own centres.’

‘I soon realized that a student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads: the most conscientious student will be continually misconstruing the implications, even the meaning.’

‘A person who knows nothing about literature may be an ignoramus, but many people don't mind being that.’

‘Wisdom is the central form which gives meaning and position to all the facts which are acquired by knowledge, the digestion and assimilation of whatever in the material world the man comes in contact with.’

‘…the quest-romance is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality.’


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