Responding the Clayton Chrusch:

Frye uses the word “archetype” in different contexts for different purposes.  Peter Yan reminds us that Frye called himself a “terminological buccaneer,” and Frye was forever taking over his critical language from other writers.  The obvious example is his borrowing mythos, ethos, dianoia, melos, lexis, and opsis from Aristotle’s account of the qualitative parts of dramatic tragedy.  In Frye these words hardly resemble at all the meanings that the literal‑minded Aristotle assigned them in the Poetics.  Frye redefines them and greatly expands their meaning for his own purposes.  In this respect Frye is no different from any other critic.  It often takes considerable digging to discover what critics mean by this or that term.  A great deal of ink has been spilt in the effort to speculate on what Plato meant by mimesis (certainly different from what Aristotle meant by the term), and to what Aristotle meant by katharsis, Longinus by ekstasis, Sidney by “figuring forth,” Dryden by “nature,” Pope by “wit,” Keats by “Negative Capability,” and so on.

The word “archetype” was perhaps an unfortunate choice because of its association with Jung.  Thus, David Richter is led to call Frye a psychoanalytic critic because, like Jung, he used the word “archetype.”  Frye read a good deal of Jung, but his appropriation of the word archetype antedates most of what he read in Jung.  In reading around in the eighteenth‑century as preparation for writing Fearful Symmetry, he stumbled on the conception of archetype in The Minstrel by James Beattie (the writer mentioned by Peter Yan).  No one would have ever guessed that a footnote in a relatively obscure poem by an obscure poet (and moral philosopher) would have been the source of Frye’s conception of the archetype, given many obvious possibilities from Plato’s “forms” on, and we might think Frye to be engaging in a bit of leg‑pulling here were it not for his more extensive discussion of his debt to Beattie’s footnote in “Criticism, Visible and Invisible.,” where he writes:

It is true that I call the elements of literary structure myths, because they are myths; it is true that I call the elements of imagery archetypes, because I want a word which suggests something that changes its context but not its essence.  James Beattie, in The Minstrel, says of the poet’s activity:

From Nature’s beauties, variously compared

And variously combined, he learns to frame

Those forms of bright perfection

and adds a footnote to the last phrase: “General ideas of excellence, the immediate archetypes of sublime imitation, both in painting and in poetry.”  It was natural for an eighteenth-century poet to think of poetic images as reflecting “general ideas of excellence”; it is natural for a twentieth-century critic to think of them as reflecting the same images in other poems.  But I think of the term as indigenous to criticism, not as transferred from Neoplatonic philosophy or Jungian psychology. However, I would not fight for a word, and I hold to no “method” of criticism beyond assuming that the structure and imagery of literature are central considerations of criticism. Nor, I think, does my practical criticism illustrate the use of a patented critical method of my own, different in kind from the approaches of other critics.  (“The Critical Path” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 1963–1975, 154–5)

The footnote is in book 2 of The Minstrel.  It glosses “forms of bright perfection” as “General ideas of excellence, the immediate archetypes of sublime imitation, both in painting and in poetry.  See Aristotle’s Poetics, and the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds” (“The Minstrel,” Minor English Poets, comp. David P. French (New York: Benjamin Bloom, 1967), 8:299.  This volume is a selection from Alexander Chalmer’s The English Poets (1810).

In Anatomy of Criticism the word “archetype” comes to the fore in essay 2, Frye’s “Theory of Symbols,” where it is used to denote the kinds of symbols found in the mythical phase.  To substitute the word “convention” in this context would make little sense: an archetype to be sure is a convention, but there are many conventions, such as genre, narrative patterns (mythoi), and symbol, that are not archetypes.

Now it’s true that Frye’s critical language is often slippery.  The word “myth,” for example, has several different meanings.  It can mean mythos, and mythos itself has a variety of meanings: a type of story (comic, tragic, romantic, ironic) or simply narrative per se.  In addition, when mythos is considered simply as the narrative of a work of literature, the Anatomy calls on us to keep straight five different definitions of the word, depending on the level of criticism we’re engaged in: mythos as the grammar or order of words at the literal level, as plot or argument at the descriptive level, as a typical event or example at the formal level, as imitation of generic and recurrent action (ritual) at the archetypal level, and as the total conceivable action at the anagogic level.  Then, when we read in the Tentative Conclusion of the Anatomy that “[i]n literary criticism myth means ultimately mythos, a structural organizing principle of literary form” (341), we may wonder whether the distinctions Frye has exerted no little effort to establish have not dissipated.  But this does not mean that we can’t attach fairly precise meanings to the words “myth” and “archetype” in a given context.

When asked by David Lawton whether he accepted “archetypal criticism” as a label to describe his work, Frye replied, “On the understanding that ‘archetypal’ means recurrent patterns in literary experience which gives unity to the criticism of literature, I would consider that it was all right.  I use the term “archetypal” in its Neoplatonic sense, only as something immanent and not as something belonging to another world and generating things in a lower world.  But I used the word without realising how completely Jung had taken it over and, while ultimately Jung seems to mean much the same thing by archetype that I do, in practice his archetypes are psychological entities, which would have the effect of turning the whole of literature into a gigantic allegory of Jungian individualism.”

To call Frye an “archetypal critic,” however, provides a label only for his early work.  The words “archetype” and “archetypal” tend to disappear from his later writing.  They appear but seven times in Words with Power and “archetypal” appears only once in The Double Vision (compared with 528 instances of the word in the Anatomy and the notebooks for the Anatomy).  As it turned out then, Frye didn’t really “fight for the word”: he more or less abandoned it.  Still, I don’t think we’d want to call Frye a “conventional critic,” and I don’t think we’d want to purge his criticism of its Greek words.  Such a move would require getting rid of “anatomy,” “kerygma,” “mimetic,” “irony,” “metaphor,” “apocalyptic,” “anagnorisis,” “pharmakos,” “lyric,” “theme,” “katharsis,” “anagogy,” and a host of other terms.  I don’t see anything to be gained by finding Latin substitutions for these terms.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

1 thought on “Archetype

  1. Michael Happy

    Reading Bob’s post reminds me how readily I have over the years slipped into referring to just about every verbal phenomenon in Frye as an “archeype” of some sort. I have done so on the principle –which (as Bob also notes) Frye himself acknowledges — that he is an “archetypal critic” in the sense that archetype refers to a recurring pattern of signfication. This seems consisent with Frye’s critical nomenclature generally: the dialectic at work in all of his criticism means that certain terms seem inevitably to expand their terms of reference. For Frye scholars of my generation, for example, the key terms to understanding Frye seem invariably to be “myth,” “metaphor,” and “archetype.” Without a broad understanding of those words (but also with a very specific understanding that they possess immanent and not transcendental reference), we’d hardly know where to begin at all.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *