Clayton Chrusch: Five Questions about Archetype

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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?

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2 thoughts on “Clayton Chrusch: Five Questions about Archetype

  1. Joseph Adamson

    Thanks for the clarification and questions, Clayton. These questions deserve thoughtful and detailed answers, but just to answer some of them of the cuff. I will try to come up with something more detailed in the next several days, but just in case you get cornered again at lunch by a hostile anti-archetypalist:

    1. What did Frye actually mean by the word?

    An archetype is a recurring image that links one literary work with another. The doubled heroine is a good example, popularized by Walter Scott, and omnipresent in the 19th century.

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

    The Esau archetype, for example, which is also prevalent in the romantic period and 19th century: Vautrin in Balzac, Ishmael in Moby-Dick, Heathcliff, and Huckleberry Finn, etc. More modern forms would be the detective archetype, as first fully crystalized in Poe, descended from the eiron or tricky servant figure or gracioso of comedy. As literature is created from literature, so archetypes are created from previous archetypes.

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

    Frye’s use is very different from Jung, because archetypes are based on conventions of story-telling, not on something like the collective unconscious: more like a cultural collective consciousness picked up from our experience of literature, and unconscious only in the sense that our familiarity with archetypes is often unconscious the same way our use of language is; it involves a complex learned skill, which becomes habitual and inferentially compressed and stored in something like a zip file in our brains. There may be innate elements in archetype, a part of our brain that responds to archetypal thinking just as part our brain responds to other skills, but of course they need to be activated and those parts of our brain presumably can atrophy without using the skill (I am in deep water here as I know next to nothing about neuroscience).

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

    Some archetypes are probably more universal than others: the ones that pertain directly to food, sex, freedom, and property. No archetype exists in pure form so there are always ideological elements specific to particular social histories. And some seem very specific to a given culture, such as the doubled heroine (light haired/dark haired heroine convention). However, even the latter case partakes of a doubling element that may be more universal: man torn between two women representing the social and the the dreaming aspect of human experience; or woman torn between two men: such as Wuthering Heights: Catherine between Linton and Heathcliff. The more universal an archetype the more it pertains to the anagogic level, the level of primary concerns. One culture may be agricultural, another food-gathering, so the archetype will reveal the particular traces of the culture, but the food and drink issue, for example, is universal and the archetypal meaning will tend to overlap greatly, I would think, from one culture to another.

    And of course archetypes are created that are unique to a highly advanced technological culture like ours–but every culture has arts and sciences, the primary concern of what Frye calls property, and so there would be overlap here as well: the concern with fire, with wealth, with money or treasure, with particular kinds of technical or technological knowledge–like that belonging to the smith or forger of metals.

    5. How can transcendent entities have any explanatory power?

    Archetypes are not transcendent in the sense you mean, but very human entities, linked to intensely experienced primary human concerns, and in this sense not transcendent, though they evolve and expand in spiritual directions: that is, they did not descend from the heavens in a space-ship, or as ideal Platonic forms handed down by a Nobodaddy sky god; they derive from the most intense forms of human experience, social and individual, and when the concerns involved are the most essential or primary, such as food and sex, the more universal is the archetype.

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  2. Jonathan Allan

    It is interesting here to note that Spengler also makes use of “archetype” in _Decline of the West_ a book which Frye certainly read as is evidenced by his comment that Spengler’s book was “perhaps the most important book yet produced by the twentieth century” (CW III:212). Spengler writes, “Is it possible to find in life itself — for human history is the sum of mighty life-courses which already have had to be endowed with ego and personality, in customary thought and expression, by predicating entities of higher order like ‘the Classical’ or ‘the Chinese Culture,’ ‘Modern Civilization’ — a series of stages which must be traversed, and traversed moreover in an ordered and obligatory sequence? For everything organic the notions of birth, death, youth, age, lifetime, are fundamentals–may not these notions, in this sphere also, possess a rigorous meaning which no one has as yet extracted? In short, is all history founded upon general biographic archetypes?” Perhaps this is another way of considering Frye’s relation to the archetype.

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