Daily Archives: October 28, 2009



Frye, of course, pilfered the word “anagogy” from Dante, where it’s the highest or spiritual level of meaning. The anagogical meaning of the verse in Psalm 144, which Dante uses to illustrate his four levels, is, he says, “the leave taking of the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory.” In his notebooks for the Anatomy Frye writes that in the anagogic habit of mind “we recognize oneness rather than a unity of varieties,” which is another version of Joe’s point about radical metaphor: identification. It’s true that in writing about anagogy Frye often sounds like a shaman or a symbolist poet. At the anagogic level, he says, for example, “Nature is now inside the mind of an infinite man who builds his cities out of the Milky Way.” Such prose might tempt us to exclaim with Pound, “Anagogical? Hell’s bells, ‘nobody’ knows what THAT is.” Some of the reviewers of the Anatomy poked fun at such explanations. Robert Martin Adams wrote, “I do not, by any means, think it wrong to believe in ‘the whole of nature as the content of an infinite and eternal body which, if not human, is closer to being human than to being inanimate’; but I think it wrong to make such a belief prerequisite to the understanding of literature. My own conviction is that the world rests on the back of a very large tortoise.”

Anagogy” comes from the Greek, meaning “mystical” or “elevation” (literally “a leading up”). As a medieval level of interpretation, it signified ultimate truth, belonging outside both space and time. In the Convivio Dante refers to it as “beyond the senses” and as concerned with “higher matters belonging to eternal glory.” Aquinas had defined the “anagogical sense” in similar terms (Summa Theologica, pt. 1, Q1, art. 10).

As the final phase of symbolism, Frye introduces us to anagogy in the Second Essay of the Anatomy, but then he more or less drops it, Essays Three and Four descending from the fourth level (mythical and archetypal). The last half of Frye’s career, however, is devoted to the dialectic of Word and Spirit, which is to say, to anagogy.

Archetype and Spengler


Jonathan Allan, in response to Clayton Chrusch’s “Five Questions about Archetype”:

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.

Doubling in Mad Men


Further to Archetype:

Joe, just to begin the exploration, Mad Men makes frequent use of doubling, most obviously in Don Draper’s dual identity. And in the early episodes we see him in the contrasting worlds of Madison Avenue and the Bohemian Village, and with an artist lover in the city and a family in the country. Then the show really gets into the Rebecca-Rowena pairing with the blonde Grace Kelly-like stay at home wife and the dark-haired Jewish businesswoman lover.

The Five Phases of Symbolism


Clayton Chrusch, in response to Trevor Losh-Johnson:

First of all, thanks so much to Joe and Bob for extremely helpful responses.

Trevor, my master’s thesis was about the theory of symbols [Five Kinds of Freedom: Northrop Frye’s Theory of Symbols and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Old Path and White Clouds.  McMaster University. 2002 ]

I have to admit the phases are difficult to distinguish. The descriptive phase is the odd one out, but the other phases can be thought of as expanding concentric spheres. In each one, the context of the poem is wider than in the previous. So in the literal phase, the context is simply the verbal structure of the poem itself, and the assumption of its criticism is the unity of the poem. In the formal phase, the context is the imaginative world constructed by the poem, and the assumption of the criticism is the unity of imagery. In the mythical phase, the context is the imaginative structure constructed by all of literature, and its assumption is the reality of such a structure (”the order of words”) and its relevance to the poem in question. In the anagogic phase, which I don’t really understand, I think the context is the infinite potential of the imaginative universe, and the assumption of anagogic phase criticism is that the poem is the expression of infinite creative human power. I’m probably wrong about anagogy, but I’m more certain about the others.

It seems to me that not much of interest happens at the literal phase that is not also part of higher phases. I’ve written an essay about grammar in Virginia Woolf’s writing that probably counts as literal phase criticism. I think of Gertrude Stein’s work but even that can be responded to at the level of imagery. So I would say interesting work on the poem as an imaginative unit all happens in the formal phase. Frye seems to want to associate the new critics with the literal phase but based on my reading of Cleanth Brooks, at least, they belong at the formal phase (or maybe both, but not the literal phase exclusively).

So I would say that if you are interested in the unity of imagery in The Faerie Queene without explicit reference to the use of that imagery in other poems, what you may need is a new critical reading.

The Literal, the Archetypal, and the Allusive


In response to Trevor Losh-Johnson:

I am pretty much at a loss when it comes to Spenser, though I should be better versed, given that Hawthorne was steeped in Spenser (he named his daughter Una) and seems to have regularly ripped off parts of The Faerie Queene (“mediocre writers borrow, great writers steal”), such as the Malbecco episode that he purloined for his story “Egotism, or the Bosom Serpent.” Maybe someone else can offer more help in that area.

From what I can tell, however, the lion here (C.S. Lewis’s  lion Aslan, I guess, comes from Spenser)  seems to be an emblematic symbol, allegorical, because linked to a conceptual framework for its meaning, rather than archetypal, and the transvaluation is purely contextual, as you outline:  depending on whether it is associated with (British) regality, ferociousness, or savagery.

As to more general questions, here are some rough thoughts.

What you seem to be talking about is the centripetal connection between images and words that the reader makes as he reads and constructs the text: its internal structure. This is the literal level of meaning, as Frye defines it in Anatomy. The archetype, in contrast, involves the linking of a recurring image or, as Bob points out, a ritual story-pattern among works in literature as a whole, as a total centripetal organization of words.

In my Hawthorne example, the archetype of the “bride-garden” brings within its orbit and organizes an entire series of details and images in The Scarlet Letter, at the centre of which stands this Edenic image of the rose-bush. Another good example is the organizing of almost every detail of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (no, it is not a Chuck Berry tune) around the womb-tomb white goddess archetype, which is powerfully encapsulated in the haunting closing image of the sea, or death:

“( . . . like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet
garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me.”

The recurring image should also be distinguished from allusion, the reference within a text to another text or texts, though allusion often links what may seem casual details to an organizing archetype. I emphasize to my students the importance of allusion and how, as Frye insists, in any writer of genius there are no idle or gratuitous, purely ornamental details.

I mentioned the Esau archetype. In Balzac’s Pere Goriot, the red hair that covers Vautrin’s body, which may seem at first blush simply a realistic detail, is in fact an allusion to a detail in the Genesis story, the fact that Esau’s body is covered with red hair; in fact Vautrin’s hair is described as a pelt (pelure in French), which alludes to another detail in the Genesis story: Esau is a hirsute hunter and so Jacob covers his own body with pelts to make his blind father Isaac mistake him for Esau and win his blessing. Elsewhere, Vautrin makes a number of allusions to Rousseau’s Social Contract. When he is finally captured,  he defiantly declares himself a disciple of Rousseau and an admirer of his great political treatise. This detail falls into the orbit of the same archetype: Vautrin is someone who breaks with the social contract and sides with Nature and the strength and cunning of the natural man, and declares war on society, all of which reinforces and blends into the Esau archetype.

Another challenge is to show how archetypal meaning works in much more contemporary mimetic fiction like Updike’s Rabbit saga, or Richard Ford’s similar type of epic about an individual who is simply “one of us,” or Richard Price’s great novels about street life, police enforcement, and drug crime in urban America, or some of the great HBO series, such as Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men. That these stories are so compelling suggests to me that there must be significant metaphorical and mythological structuring involved, however displaced. It would be of great interest, precisely because of their displacement and relative invisibility, to uncover the underlying elements of archetypal design that give such highly mimetic stories their power. It would also be worth exploring since it is these popular TV dramas that inevitably attract ideological criticism and are interpreted as critiques of ideology. If archetypal criticism is the foundation of literary criticism, it must be able to deal with imaginative works like these as effectively as it deals with more romantic and mythopoeic forms of literature.

Archetype in Spenser


Trevor Losh-Johnson,  in response to Bob Denham’s Frye on Archetype:

Thanks for such a helpful post! I am wondering if Frye addresses anywhere the difference between archetypes that refer to an exterior model (which seems to be his primary concern in this vein) and archetypes that become so by repetition within the bounds of the individual text. By the latter I mean either motifs that become loaded images through repetition, such as crystalline optical illusions in Nabokov, or exterior archetypes that assume different connotations through repetition. I may be confusing his literal and mythical symbolic categories, but the lamentable paper I am writing on Spenser has forced the question.

I am looking at Frye’s essay on imagery in the Faerie Queene, and it seems like a model of archetypal criticism. It is mostly dedicated to imagery as it fits with exterior models, analyzing, for one of many examples, the Venus/Adonis/Diana motifs in the context of the Virgin Mary and the Pietà. This has brilliant implications for Glorianna and the structure of the knights’ quests, but I can’t help but wish he had better outlined how such imagery of chastity and rebirth inveigles itself into other episodes of the poem.

In his notebooks, Frye does address the latter sorts of motifs, in one case noting how in Book I the lion imagery follows Una around [see the painting above, “Una and the Lion” by Briton Rivière (1840-1920)”], first as an actual lion and then as a series of similes describing both her assault by Sansloy and her rescue by the satyrs. In that case, the different connotations of regality, ferocity and savagery seem to to work their way through different inflections at each appearance. This appears to be a great example of archetypal transvaluation, but his emphasis in his essay proved to be towards archetypes that refer to the larger economies of literature. It would also be helpful to know if, such as when he claims that there is Adonis imagery in the first couple books that do not directly refer to the character in the later books, we can connect episodes that are not explicitly connected