Re: Five Questions about Archetype


Responding to Clayton Chrusch:

Thanks for the clarification and questions, Clayton. These questions deserve thoughtful and detailed answers, but I’ll just respond now off 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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4 thoughts on “Re: Five Questions about Archetype

  1. Michael Happy

    Regarding the “Eurocentric” nature of archetypes: In Anatomy Frye regulary includes non-European sources to illustrate and extend his notion of archetype. Clayton, for example, refers to “northern hemisphere” seasons, but seasons are seasons; they are universal phenomena and turn in endless cycles, and that’s really the archetypal point of “season” — the everturning cycle of planting and harvesting, life and death.

  2. Joe Adamson

    Thanks, Al, great to hear. I know it is not an easy thing to convince you of something you are at all skeptical about (and that’s not a bad thing), so maybe I have some teaching skills after all–there’s got to be some reason I’m in this profession.

  3. Peter StirFrye Yan

    On Seasons

    Before being carried away with the *reality* of seasons, seasons are still an archetype, a metaphor for the human life cycle (spring/birth, summer/youth, autumn/old age, winter/death). The fact that some parts of the world don’t experience all seasons confirms Frye’s point that literature imitates literature not life.


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