Daily Archives: October 24, 2009

How Does Frye Think?


With regard to Joe’s question about Frye’s method and the “way he thinks,” it seems to me that a critical method is a function of at least four variables: the language a critic uses (the material cause: out of what?); the subject matter he or she explores (the formal cause: what?), the manner used to make a point or construct an argument (the efficient cause: how?), and the purpose(s) of his or her discourse (the final cause: why?).  With regard to Frye, all of these variables are worth sustained investigation.

Consider the efficient cause.  How does Frye proceed in setting out his position on whatever his subject matter is?  We might approach this by asking, How does Frye’s mind work?  How does he think?

1.  Dialectically, by the juxtaposition of opposing categories.  There are scores of these: knowledge and experience, space and time, stasis and movement, the individual and society, tradition and innovation, Platonic synthesis and Aristotelian analysis, engagement and detachment, freedom and concern, mythos and dianoia, the world and the grain of sand, immanence and transcendence, ascent and descent, and so on.  Consider the chapter titles of part 1 of Words with Power: sequence and mode, concern and myth, identity and metaphor, spirit and symbol.

2.  Epiphanically.  Intuitive moments of sudden illumination.  Frye records seven or eight of these, some of them named: the Seattle illumination, the St. Clair epiphany.  These might not properly be called thinking, but these moments were important in forming the vision that he writes about.

3.  Schematically.  Frye can’t think without a diagram in his head.  Spatial representation of thought (diagrams, charts, categories arranged in space––cycles, circles, tables, and other visual taxonomies) are always prior.  His diagram of diagrams he called “The Great Doodle.”  Lesser doodles (his phrase) include the omnipresent HEAP scheme and the ogdoad.  The hundreds of schema he uses are stored (for instant recall) in his vast memory theater.  Thinking schematically means that he is fundamentally a deductive thinker (in spite of the fact that I can think of no critic who had a greater inductive store of literary data).

4.  Analogically.  Frye is obsessed with similarities rather than differences.  He does, of course, have a strong Aristotelian streak, what with all his anatomizing and categorizing.  But while he agrees with Coleridge that we can distinguish where we cannot divide, the bottom line is that Frye is an analogical thinker, like Plato.

5.  Upwardly.  Frye is always moving toward a telos, an end.  There is always another step to be taken to get beyond the present mental or imaginative state.  “Beyond” is the most revealing preposition in Frye’s religious quest––a preposition that takes on special significance only late in his career.  During the last decade of his life he uses the word repeatedly as both a spatial and a temporal metaphor.  Having arrived at a particular point in his speculative journey, over and over he reaches for something that lies beyond.  Notebook 27 (1985) begins with a series of speculations about getting to a plane of both myth and metaphor beyond the poetic, and Frye even confesses that there is no reason at all to write Words with Power unless he can get to that plane (LN, 1:67).  The Bible implies that there is a structure beyond the hypothetical (LN, 1:8, 14).  Many things are said to be beyond words: icons, certain experiences, the identity of participation mystique (LN, 1:15, 16).  Here’s a sampler:

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Robert Wade Kenny on Interdisciplinary Connections


Many thanks to Robert Wade Kenny for these informative comments:

One of my essays is mentioned above, so I would like to offer a little clarification. It is probably inappropriate to categorize that essay with medicine, for in it I look at the first pages of a Life/Death Ethics text by the renowned Peter Singer and I argue that he employs ironic aesthetics to influence his audience — a questionable tactic for one (as a philosopher) who claims the ethos of the epistemic. Frye’s forms of writing (from Words With Power) are mentioned in that essay (because one would expect Singer to keep to the “conceptual” mode) but the primary argument exploits Frye’s treatment of irony (from of course The Anatomy of Criticism), reading that argument across Kenneth Burke in a manner that shows how the ironic can be interwoven with the persuasive. As I say, the Frye/Burke argument used in that essay focused on irony, but irony, tragedy, comedy, and romance were treated as rhetorical devices through the Frye/Burke mix in an earlier article by me, “A Cycle of Terms Implicit in the Idea of Medicine; Karen Ann Quinlan and the Transvaluation of Euthanasia” (published 2005). That article did appear in a Health Communication journal (the irony Essay appeared in a rhetoric journal); all the same, it was not an argument restricted to medicine – in it, aesthetic forces that influence public judgment were explained using (as illustration) public arguments about what should be done with respect to Karen Quinlan. More than any influence on a specific paper, Frye has influenced me the way Blake influenced him. The Canadian polymath once wrote that the best way to develop a mind was to steep it in some other’s lifetime of great thought and Frye was one of those vats that I floated in for several years. Thus, I have read the thirty or so books that Frye published in his lifetime and am collecting the University of Toronto collected writings still. A few years ago, students in one of my graduate seminars read twelve of his books and I gave probing three-hour lectures on Frye’s “universe.” I talked as fast as I could and barely scratched the surface. One of my favorite books by Frye is his first, Fearful Symmetry, and I have published on that book in a collection called The Ethos of Rhetoric. My essay in that collection is called “Fearful Symmetry: Imaginative Vision and the Ethos of Rhetoric.” In it, I attempt to illustrate the role of imaginative vision in the construction of what Heidegger refers to as dwelling. Of course, I use Frye’s other shorter works on imagination there as well. Robert Bellah (who has read Frye with interest) mentioned to me that the argument in that essay seemed similar to the argument of the late Greek/French sociologist Cornelius Castoriadis who wrote for example The Imaginary Institution of Society. Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries comes to mind at this moment as well, and of course C. Wright Mills’s famous The Sociological Imagination. Given the variety of attempts being made to think the relationship between imagination and action, Frye’s treatment of imagination is deserving of a Renaissance, one which I at least attempted. It is also worth noting that Frye is experiencing something of an awakening in social performance theory and cultural pragmatics, given the interest those people have in ritual and myth. To be sure, he is not the central nor sole thinker influencing that writing; however he has influenced the thinking of those authors, who do acknowledge him, for example Jeffrey C. Alexander. I first read Frye as a young man who wanted to be a novelist, and I did indeed write half a dozen or more before going to graduate school. His influence on my understanding of narrative form at that time was unparalleled. Reputation and influence are hard to come by and hold in the academy. Often, social power plays a key role in scholarly reputation (see Homo Academicus by Pierre Bourdieu or my essay on Kenneth Burke in this light, “The Glamor of Motives”).It is remarkable that Frye has had the influence he has had beyond the boundaries of his social reputation. He is found in the most unexpected places. For example, authors who published next to me in my first significant publication in sociology were publishing an essay grounded in Frye. That essay is called “Romance, Irony, and Solidarity” and is in Sociological Theory, a 1997 volume. I have always appreciated Professor Denham’s writings on Frye, also his editing and his ability to find a pithy Frye phrase. I would have preferred to send this note directly to him rather than self-advertise, but an email address is not easily found. At any event, if the goal is to gather information about the range of Frye’s influence, these few details should help.

“Recent Comments”


Someone suggested recently that we have a “Recent Comments” in our Widgets Menu to the right, so that’s what we’ve done.  It’ll help people get an idea of how the discussion thread in various posts is developing.  For example, Robert Wade Kenny has just added a long Comment on Interdisclinary Connections, which was first posted back on September 25th.