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Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology

by Northrop Frye
Harcourt, 264 pp., $4.95

The myth of Oedipus is about a man foredoomed by the fates to kill his father and marry his mother; his very efforts to escape from his destiny (though he does not take what seem to the modern mind obvious rational precautions, like avoiding, on the whole, killing elderly men and marrying middleaged women) hurry him on towards achieving it. The plot of Sophocles’ play about Oedipus is something quite different. It is about a King of Thebes, a just and conscientious man, who has the duty of tracking down some breaker of taboo whose presence in Thebes is causing a plague. In spite of a number of strong hints that he had better let sleeping dogs lie, King Oedipus proceeds ruthlessly with his investigations; and at length discovers that the criminal is himself. The appeal of the Oedipus myth, if we take the Freudian view of it, is to certain primal desires and horrors; if we take a Gravesian view of it, it is a muddled recollection of the matriarchal society in which the king regularly had to die. But in neither the Freudian nor the Gravesian interpretation has Oedipus any choice about what he does. He is the victim either of blind impulses or of rigid social traditions. He is forced to stand out from the chorus and thus to become sacred in both senses, both a god-like figure and a sacrificial victim. In the Sophoclean interpretation, Oedipus does choose, he chooses to find out at the risk of bringing disaster on himself and in order to avert disaster from Thebes. The Oedipus of Sophocles is thus a fully human person, illustrating the splendor and desolation of human responsibility. We identify with him; we identify with the Oedipus of the artwork, of the tragic plot, as we do not identify with the Oedipus of the primitive myth.

Professor Northrop Frye would not, of course, deny this obvious distinction, but since Aristotle uses the word mythos to mean both the unified plot of the literary art-work and the often inchoate primitive raw material out of which that plot is hacked, and since Professor Frye has the taste of many extreme modernists for the primitive, he uses the pun which was forced on Aristotle by a lack of distinctions in the Greek language to suggest that it is the presence, under the surface, of simple fate-stories that makes modern complex choice-stories reverberate with permanent interest. For him, as for Mr. Harold Rosenberg in his brilliant essay, “Character Change and the Drama,” the great moment in Hamlet is the moment when Hamlet, leaping into the grave of Ophelia, is transformed into that fierce, primitive, revengeful identity—“This is I, Hamlet the Dane!”—which he ought to have been all along. It can be allowed to both critics that, for the first time, they give sense to a moment which is nearly always marvelously effective on the stage, but which old-fashioned psychological critics have always had to apologize for and explain away, in terms of sudden emotional stress which makes Hamlet, here as at other key moments in the play, behave very unlike the courteous and considerate Renaissance gentleman which, at his best, and, for old fashioned critics, at his truest to himself, he is. Hamlet’s fascinating personality, for the myth-obsessed critic, is merely an irrelevance which throughout most of the play has, by letting him dally with unreal notions of choice, prevented him from discovering his fated identity: that of the berserker, the killer: “This is I, Hamlet the Dane!” We want at some point in the play (things seem so much rigged against him, Claudius is so formidable) to feel Hamlet as terrible as some force of nature, a kind of killing-machine like Achilles. But of course Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not—or is only at this, and a few other moments—“Hamlet the Dane”: he apologizes for this outburst: at the end, before the duel scene, he is talking like a Christian, resigning himself to the will of God, and leaving the initiative, that results in the end in the King’s death as well as his own, to the King.

We can allow, therefore, that the mythical—“This is I, Hamlet the Dane!” or Oedipus discovering that he is that fabled Oedipus—is an important element in much great literature, but only as part of a pattern which is much more than mythical, which also includes counter-myth, or the sense of the possibility of choice and alternatives, of not working out, or not working out in quite the traditional way, the fated story. We can also agree with Professor Frye, and other mythopoeic critics, that analogy and identification—the analogy and identification of the pattern of a human life or a group of human lives with the cyclical progress of the day from morning to night or of the year through the seasons from spring to winter—is part of the interest and fascination of much even of what we call “realistic” literature. We do not ordinarily think of Arnold Bennett as a writer attractive to mythopoeic critics, but Max Beerbohm, defending The Old Wives’ Tale against Henry James, said this: “What’s it about? What’s it about? Why, I told him, it’s about the passing of time, about the stealthy merging of youth into age, the invisibility of the traps in our own characters into which we walk, unwary, unknowing…” Beerbohm is saying, there, in simpler language, more or less what Professor Frye is saying about analogy and identification between the progress of human lives and the cycles of nature, and about the thrilling effect, in literature, of the sudden emergence of the sense of a character’s identity as somehow primitively fated.

Professor Frye is a copious, lucid, at once packed and graceful writer, and I have thought it better to tackle, head on, the extremely important controversial point he raises, the point, one might put it, about the primacy of myth, rather than to attempt to summarize, one after the other, the sixteen excellent essays in the theory and practice of criticism which this book contains. My case against him, in the Hamlet instance, is that drama is an advance on myth, a human and artistic advance, though a certain mythical element (like the element of alcohol in wine, maybe) is perhaps part of the indispensable strength of great drama. My case on the novel and on certain kinds of great modern poems, like Wordsworth’s Prelude, would be that they represent a human (if not certainly an artistic) advance even on drama, and that the mythical element may be very slight. Jane Austen’s novels, for instance, seem to me to be about moral self-education through making useful mistakes; is there a counterpart for this in ancient or contemporary primitive myths? Wordsworth is writing about the growth of a poet’s mind, partly of course through exposure to great myths embodied in poetry, but more importantly through exposure to such very dry and unprimitive stuff as eighteenth-century theories about how emotions and perceptions get permanently merged with each other. When Professor Frye goes in for practical criticism, he seems to me excellent on a poet like Spenser, who might, indeed, have been writing to his prescriptions; much less good on a poet like Yeats, who talked a great deal about mythology but whose permanent interest lies in the force of his personal reaction to a very concrete and actual world around him.

Professor Frye is worried in case people should label Yeats a fascist and insists that we must not take the poet as saying anything: “The poet, by presenting us with a vision of nobility and heroism, detaches that vision from our ordinary lives.” But, surely, “Easter 1916” is one of the great political poems of all time, precisely because it is rooted in a feeling for political reality; precisely because, also, it expresses with extraordinary tact and pungency one of the most unpopular but also one of the most rationally persuasive of all political attitudes (and probably the one at the farthest pole from any kind of fascism), the ironic magnanimity of artistocratic liberalism. It is a rather thin criticism of Yeats that sees the poet’s progress as merely from youthful romantic values to a later tragic mask, and has nothing to say about the poet’s growingly mature and ironic apprehension of reality. “Reality,” to be sure, is as slippery a word as “myth”: but the difficulty and importance of grasping and representing in literature that which is real—the topic of Auerbach’s great book, Mimesis—seem to me the necessary element of grit or roughage left out of Professor Frye’s very brilliant and very original critical synthesis.


Idiom in Shakespeare March 5, 1964

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