Daily Archives: October 26, 2009

Clayton Chrusch: Five Questions about Archetype


Responding to Joe Adamson:

I’m not anti-archetypist. I’d actually like to see more of this kind of spirited defence of the the term and the concept.

The reason I suggested Frye’s word choice was a disaster and not just a misfortune was that I think archetypes are very important, and that they are so easily dismissed actually is a disaster.

I was having lunch last week with a good friend on the other side of the critical divide (I said imagination was the matrix of human meaning and she said it was ideology) and when the conversation came to archetypes, what I really needed at that moment was not a more profound appreciation of archetypes but short and simple responses to all the common criticisms:

1. What did Frye actually mean by the word?

2. What are some examples other than hero and whore?

3. Aren’t archetypes psychological entities described by Jung?

4. How can you say archetypes are universal when they are based on northern hemisphere climate imagery? Aren’t Frye’s archetypes Eurocentric?

5. How can transcendent entities have any explanatory power?

I muddled through but was disappointed by inability to offer good answers to these questions.

What would you, Joe, or anyone else have answered?

Summary of Chapter Four of Fearful Symmetry: A Literalist of the Imagination


Here is Clayton Chrusch’s excellent summary of Chapter Four of Fearful Symmetry:

A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect: the Man Or Woman who is not one of these is not a Christian.

1. Blake’s view of art: “proud and demonic”

In this chapter, Frye explains Blake’s views about art in general and specifically about visual art.

Blake was a practicing artist which distinguishes him from other thinkers who otherwise had similar views. His views about art are highly developed, central to his thought, and distinguish him as a thinker. For Blake, art stabilizes our experience by removing it from the world of time and space where everything is necessarily blurred. It does not seek to escape from reality but to perceive it clearly and recreate it as a permanent and living form.

Art is superior to abstract thought because it addresses the whole person, not just the conceptual intellect, and demands a total response, including a physical response. A generalization never has the vividness of an example or an illustration. Christ, in this sense, was an artist. Frye writes,

Christ brought no new doctrines: he brought new stories. He did not save souls; he saved bodies, healing the blind and deaf that they might hear his parables and see his imagery. He stands outside the history of general thought; he stands in the center of individual wisdom.

By wisdom, Frye means, “the application of the imaginative vision taught us by art.”

Some people have knowledge without wisdom, which means they possess an unorganized collection of information. Wisdom takes knowledge, abstract or otherwise, organizes it according to a grand pattern, and fits it into a universal imaginative vision. We cannot be satisfied by acquiring knowledge until we have a universal vision that it all fits in.

Here Frye turns to the relationship between art and religion. He recognizes that art cannot give the objective support to religion that dogma can be, but he prefers it that way. Frye claims this kind of objective support leads to a perpetual spiritual infancy and the worship of nature. It is okay to rely on dogma in our most difficult moments, but otherwise dogma must itself be treated as an art form, infinitely suggestive but also flawed and provisional. Frye writes,

The state of Eden [the free and exuberant creativity of an artist] to [dogmatic religions] is proud and demonic, a state in which one forgets God. But one forgets God in that state only in the sense in which one forgets one’s health by being healthy: one is merely released from the tyranny of “memory.”

And so Blake is clear that one cannot be a true Christian without being an artist.

2. Art builds up a permanent structure above time.

Culture or civilization is the totality of art, and art is every worthwhile task done well. Though culture supports society, society, being fallen, constantly resists and attacks culture. Art is ornament, it requires and manifests a freedom above the restrictions of necessity, but the fallen world attempts to eliminate all ornament and to bind people in the chains of necessity. People can only achieve happiness by being artists, that is, by living a free and creative life. Compulsion cannot result in order because it develops out of anarchy which itself develops out of Selfhood or self-absorption.

So divinity is the origin of inspiration; art arises from inspiration; culture and civilization are built up by art; and culture, being the totality of eternal imaginative acts, builds up a permanent structure above time called Golgonooza in Blake’s mythology.

Continue reading

Follow the Damn Archetype


In response to Bob Denham’s post on how Frye thinks:

This is terrific, Bob. Well beyond what I could have hoped for. Here are some improvised thoughts in response:

I was thinking in terms of practical criticism, in response to Michael Sinding’s question: how does an archetype in a given work, like an Ariadne’s thread, lead us into and all the way through a detailed critical reading of a text? At the time I was working on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: that is to say, I was teaching The Scarlet Letter–we’re now onto Melville, another overtly archetypal writer–and I was trying to use Hawthorne’s novel in my American literature class as an example of how archetypes guide our reading, indeed are of primary and central importance to the signifying power of the work.

In that novel (romance Frye would say), the opening chapter, which is simply a description of the prison door, hands the reader the keys to the two main blocks of apocalyptic and demonic archetypal imagery analogically organizing the meaning of the story. The central archetype of the novel, and of Hawthorne’s work in general, is the Eros or bride=garden archetype: it opens with the prison (and in the next chapter we get the associated image of the scaffold) and the rose-bush which is identified metaphorically with Nature (of the natura naturans variety) and sexuality, and is identified with Anne Hutchinson, and by association with Hester and with Pearl, Hester’s daughter, the latter grouping set in opposition to a patriarchal and morally repressive society that punishes sexual freedom and freedom of thought. Thus a deeply social and feminist reading of the novel is fully enabled by the archetypal reading, which inevitably leads to it, in fact, as a level of meaning sublated in the archetype. All of this and more, which I have only encapsulated here, is what the story unfolds when it is unpacked in detail just at the level of a structure of imagery, at the centre of which is, not the morally ambiguous  image of the scarlet letter, but the image of the rose-bush.

The scarlet letter is a related image: the rose-bush is associated with a state of prelapsarian Nature and sexual love; the scarlet letter with the moral repression of sexuality after the fall and with the situation of woman under patriarchy as a scapegoat that carries the burden of shame and guilt for a repressed and projected sexuality. In this situation, the archetype reveals a further dimension, and the figure of Hester Prynne is a perfect example: “a dimension, ” as Frye puts in his discussion of the figure of Ruth in Words with Power “in which woman expands into a kind of proletariat, enduring, continuous, exploited humanity, awaiting emancipation in a hostile world: in short, an Israel eventually to be delivered from Egypt. ” Frye points out that “[t]he body-garden metaphor continues to be appropriate here, for nature is also exploited, fruitful, and patient.”

The critical process of such an unfolding through the archetype is dialectical, as you have shown in your post: but backwards or in reverse, since it begins with an unfolding of the archetype in which the other levels of meaning in the story are already sublated or aufhebened, if I may use such a term. That is what I meant by “follow the archetype.” Spotting it, of course, is the first step, but I am not talking at all about just “archetype spotting,” of which Frygians were, and I guess still are, accused of (and of which we had a rather hysterical outburst ourselves a while back on the blog).

I meant:  follow the archetype, follow the damn thing: it will give you everything you need. Everything in the tale, even the most realistic details, are molded by the archetypal level of meaning. And the anagogic, which is where Frye’s dialectic ultimately takes us, and which you have unfolded above, is also implied in Hawthorne’s novel as what transcends or lies beyond the archetype in the story, the meta-archetypal, meta-literary level.

Archetypes are, semiotically speaking, recurring or inter-textual images “hyper-linked,” as it were, to a complex set of clustered associations. They are, I guess, what Michael Sinding would call particular types of imaginative or mythological frames that organize the way the reader makes connections and constructs the meaning of the text. The Great Doodle, then, would be the frame of frames.

I understand Clayton Chrusch’s unease with the term archetype. There are good reasons for it. But I prefer to embrace the term and reclaim its meaning: its usefulness, it seems to me, lies in the way it covers both metaphor and myth under one term, both story-shapes and structures of imagery, as outlined in essay three of the Anatomy.

“A First-Class Scholar in a Second-Class Institution”


Like Russell, I am reading Bob Denham’s selection of Frye’s correspondence.  This observation to Edith Sitwell in April 1948 caught my attention:

Once a critic learns his job, criticism ought to come very easily, for if he is writing about a greater man than himself (the normal procedure), he has that man’s power available  and ready to be tapped, if he will only realize that it is greater, and puncture a hole in the dam of his own ego.  The arrogance and self-sufficiency I find in so much contemporary criticism, especially in America, bewilders me, as it seems to make things needlessly difficult.

The “arrogance and self-sufficiency” of scholars seems to be a perennial problem.

As Russell points out, Frye dedicated himself to Victoria College, even though in the diaries (which end in 1955) he complains about how stifling the institution could be and occasionally wonders if he shouldn’t take up one of the better offers coming his way.  On January 19, 1950, he observes, “I am worried about my future as a first-class scholar in a second-class institution.”

“My Desire to Remain at Victoria College”: Frye and the History of Literary Studies (I)


I have recently been reading Northrop Frye: Selected Letters, 1934-1991 (ed. Robert Denham, published by McFarland).  They give one a vivid insight into the history of literary studies through the twentieth century, and of Frye’s developing role within that history.  One thing that stood out for me in the selection of letters from the earlier years was the extent to which Frye’s career was bound up with his identification with Victoria College, and with various other Canadian institutions.  This is of course something that anyone at all familiar with Frye is aware of; what is so compelling about these letters is the glimpses they give us of the thoughts and feelings of Northrop Frye, in his late thirties, a promising young scholar who has just published his first book and finds his promise transformed into achievement and recognition. 

People often comment today about how star scholars are lured from campus to campus with offers of increased pay and reduced teaching duty, but on the evidence of the Frye letters, things were not so different in the 1940s.  In February of 1948, Frye writes to Walter Brown, the president of Victoria College, asking for promotion to the rank of Professor.  He notes “the College has treated me very well, and my refusal of the Wisconsin offer is pretty tangible evidence that I realize that fact.  I do have to consider the question of how far I can afford to keep on refusing offers for promotion and greatly increased salary.  The Wisconsin one is the fourth full professorship I have been offered in the past eighteen months: I have no reason to suppose that such offers will cease coming, and I should be greatly fortified in my desire to refuse them by possessing the rank which they offer.”  He concludes the letter by telling Brown that “my conviction of your personal concern for my welfare has always been an essential factor in my desire to remain at Victoria College.” 

A few years later (November, 1951), Frye writes to Robert Heilman, chair of the department of English at the University of Washington, who had been exploring Frye’s willingness to consider a career move, “I look around at my desk and see it piled high with Royal Commission reports on Canadian culture, Canadian magazines and books, letters about jobs in Canada, Royal Society and Canadian Humanities Research bulletins, and I realize how deeply intertwined I am with this community.  I think I should be unlikely to move except to a job that could absorb my teaching and writing interests completely – that’s the nearest I can get to indicating a state of mind at present.” 

Those of us who are academics can no doubt draw many conclusions from this exemplary narrative.