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Mister Myth

Words With Power: Being a Second Study of ‘The Bible and Literature’

by Northrop Frye
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 342 pp., $10.95 (paper)

The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion

by Northrop Frye
University of Toronto Press, 88 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Reading the World: Selected Writings, 1935–1976

by Northrop Frye, edited by Robert D. Denham
Peter Lang, 416 pp., $72.00

Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays, 1974–1988

by Northrop Frye, edited by Robert D. Denham
University Press of Virginia, 386 pp., $14.95 (paper)


Here are the final works of a major critic, product of an unusual combination of gifts and convictions. He was a Canadian, a Christian, a priest, and something of a sage. As Auden wrote of Yeats, he has become his admirers. Northrop Frye was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, on July 14, 1912, and died in Toronto last March. He received his primary and secondary education in Moncton, New Brunswick, entered Victoria College of the University of Toronto in 1929 as a student of Philosophy and English, and studied Theology at Emmanuel College, Toronto. Brought up as a Methodist, he was ordained in the United Church of Canada, a church formed in 1925 by union of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches of Canada.

Frye’s earliest publications, now collected in Reading the World, were heterogeneous. He wrote about anything that came along: the Jooss Ballet, Chaplin’s films, music, Canadian art, Wyndham Lewis, the state of the world. He appears to have been born with a talent for certitude:

Delius’ paganism is honest enough, with none of the hankering for a cloudily catholic religion which inspires the theosophies of Holst and Cyril Scott, and, like most paganism, it is centered on an ideal of physical dignity.

But such interventions were relatively easy pieces. Frye’s hard-earned work began with the publication of Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947).

In that book Frye insists that Blake is neither a madman nor a mystic but a visionary:

A visionary creates, or dwells in, a higher spiritual world in which the objects of perception in this one have become transfigured and charged with a new intensity of symbolism.

To understand Blake as visionary, according to Frye, one must try to understand how he read the Bible, “and to do this properly one must read the Bible oneself with Blake’s eyes.” Frye never doubted that he could so read it: he wrote Fearful Symmetry upon that conviction. In The Double Vision, published in 1991, he claims that his early training helped:

In Methodism, even of the episcopal variety to which my family belonged, there was an emphasis on religious experience as distinct from doctrine and on very early exposure to the story element in the Bible. Such a conditioning may have helped to propel me in the direction of a literary criticism that has kept revolving around the Bible, not as a source of doctrine but as a source of story and vision.

Story and vision became Frye’s preoccupation as a critic. Blake’s reading of the Bible and—an experience nearly as provocative—his reading of Paradise Lost remained for Frye decisive evidences of an imagination at once poetic and critical.

The word that relates story and vision in Frye’s vocabulary is myth. A myth is a certain kind of story, told over and over again for the benefit of the community to which it is addressed; as Christians receive the story of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. Myths enable the people who receive them to cope with “the absolutism of reality,” as Hans Blumenberg wrote in Work on Myth (1979), by giving names and personalities to the forces they mostly dread. Typically, myths are stories about a god or gods, because communities need to be told how to conduct their lives in relation to the forces that apparently encompass them.

These stories are rarely located in history, according to Frye in Fables of Identity (1963). Their actions take place “in a world above or prior to ordinary time, in illo tempore, in Mircea Eliade’s phrase.” Such stories don’t need to be plausible. The things that happen in myth “are things that happen only in stories; they are in a selfcontained literary world.” The reason is, as Frye says in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), that “myth is the imitation of actions near or at the conceivable limits of desire.” If there is a “central myth of mankind,” as Frye claims somewhat tendentiously in Five Essays on Milton’s Epics (1965), it is “the myth of lost identity and the possibility of recovering it.” In Milton’s Paradise Regained Satan’s temptations of Christ figure Christ’s possible loss of identity. The temptations once overcome, Christ is restored to himself and to God. The goal of all reason, courage, and vision is indeed “the regaining of identity.” However:

The recovery of identity is not the feeling that I am myself and not another, but the realization that there is only one man, one mind, and one world, and that all walls of partition have been broken down for ever.

Even more tendentiously, Frye claims in The Great Code that “the real interest of myth is to draw a circumference around a human community and look inward toward that community, not to inquire into the operations of nature.”

This passage poses a difficulty for me. I don’t understand how Frye can invoke, at one moment, a vision of human unity, founded upon story, fiction, and metaphor; and at the next moment set up partitions between one community and another and between all communities and the workings of nature. If he means, as Wallace Stevens put it, that “the gods of China are always Chinese” and that “a mythology reflects its region,” it seems sanctimonious to maintain that in the central myth of mankind the walls come tumbling down.

I have the same problem with Frye’s theory of literature. He regarded literature as displaced myth; displaced in the sense of extended, turned in one direction rather than another, translated into more acceptable terms. A displacement occurs, for instance, when gods in myths become heroes in novels, “translated downward” to suit new conditions of authorship and readership. Shakespeare’s late romances are displacements of the myth of Proserpine, “who disappears into the underworld for six months of every year.” In Anatomy of Criticism Frye says of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale:

The story of Hermione and Perdita is so close to the Demeter and Proserpine myth that hardly any serious pretence of plausible explanations is made. Hermione, after her disappearance, returns once as a ghost in a dream, and her coming to life from a statue, a displacement of the Pygmalion myth, is said to require an awakening of faith, even though, on one level of plausibility, she has not been a statue at all, and nothing has taken place except a harmless deception.

So A Winter’s Tale remembers and displaces, partially enacts, the myth from which it came. The play, like the myth of Proserpine, is a human creation. It doesn’t annotate a given world, it imagines another world and gives it form, responsive to human desires as the given world is evidently not. As Frye says in Fables of Identity:

The world of art is human in perspective, a world in which the sun continues to rise and set long after science has explained that its rising and setting are illusions.

The central myth of art is therefore “the vision of the end of social effort, the innocent world of fulfilled desires, the free human society.”

This vision is now embodied in literature, as it was once and still partly is embodied in mythology. From the available linguistic resources literature conjures images of fulfillment, unity of a new or recovered being. I have no problem with this. But I don’t see why Frye finds it necessary to guard this unity by insisting that every local or partial displacement of it must hold to self-preservation as its first and last interest. In The Great Code Frye says that “the formal principles of literature” are “contained within literature, as the formal principles of music, embodied in sonata, fugue, or rondo, have no existence outside music.” That is true, and a salutary thing to say. If I’m reading Shakespeare’s sonnets and think that Shakespeare is expressing mainly the breaking of his heart, it is well to have Frye say: No, he’s mainly writing sonnets, and incidentally imagining events which would issue in a semblance of someone’s heart breaking. But I still find it odd that Frye’s work, devoted to unity of recovered being as it claims to be, is so insistent on distinctions and dichotomies. Anatomy of Criticism is the supreme Book of Distinction, in which every type of literature, every genre, is shown defending its turf. In Frye’s account of fiction, for instance, the distinction he makes between its four forms—novel, confession, anatomy, and romance—is useful, because it prevents us from looking for the attributes of one type of fiction when we’re reading an instance of another. A romance is not the worse for lacking the qualities of a novel. But while Frye is discriminating the four, forms, he seems reluctant to acknowledge, as he does in the end, that most fictions are mixtures of two or more kinds. He was happier with demarcations than with the blurring, in practice, of their edges. In his grand pronouncements we hear much of community, but what we see is a proliferation of tribes, each of them maintaining itself by reciting the stories of its gods.

To summarize, before inching ahead: Frye regarded mythology as the Supreme Fiction. As a man of the twentieth century he was willing to see that designation transferred or displaced to literature. He thought his main duty as a critic was to instruct readers in the formal mysteries of the emergence of literature from mythology. He did this by elucidating not the hidden meaning of a work of literature but the mythic pattern disclosed in the structure of its images. You may say: Didn’t many other critics do this? G. Wilson Knight’s The Wheel of Fire (1937), Maud Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934), Ernst Robert Curtius’s study of topoi in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948; translated in 1953) seem to be engaged in the same work, disclosing patterns of significance behind or above the overt actions of plot. True; but Frye is far more systematic than these, more resolute in conceiving of literature as a whole and of the world imagined as the ultimate good. In this he was much influenced by a famous (or notorious) passage in T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not onesided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

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