Katabasis and Popular Culture


The movie that haunted Frye as a child: Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera, 1925.

I am reading Bob Denham’s wonderful book, Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World.  It is divided into two main parts, “Exoterica” and “Esoterica”, the first of which I am making my leisurely way through. I have always called myself an exoteric Frye scholar, which means that I try to approach him as a general reader would through the published work and with the assured assumption that it possesses total coherence.  This approach has never failed me.  But what Bob manages to demonstrate is how the esoteric element of Frye’s critical vision illuminates the exoteric: and, appropriately enough, illuminates it from within.  I’m not even bothering to annotate or highlight the book — that can come with subsequent readings.  This first time round I simply enjoy being startled by the clarity of Bob’s insights while tucking away little bits of miscellaneous information here and there, like a chipmunk filling its cheeks.

Here are a couple of observations that stand out for me at this point, and I hope are at least tangentially related to the posts that have been going up the last few days.

The first has to do with Frye’s notebooks, which Bob characterizes as the “imaginative free play” where Frye’s mind displays its tendency to dianoia or the gestalt perception of pattern rather than the narrative continuity of mythos.  Here Frye is associative, oracular, synchronicitous.  Bob mines a number of excellent quotes from the notebooks to illustrate the tendency, but this one stands out:

[I]n beginning to plan a major work like the third book, don’t eliminate anything. Never assume that some area of your speculation can’t be included & has to be left over for another book. Things may get eliminated in the very last stage . . . but never, never exclude anything when thinking about the book. It was strenuous having to cut down FS [Fearful Symmetry] from an encyclopedia, but . . . major works are encyclopedic & anatomic: everything I know must go into them — eye of bat & tongue of dog. (25)

The second observation relates to the emphasis on katabasis or descent in Frye’s later work, which Bob astutely notes “appears to be even more important” than the theme of ascent.  Once again, he comes up with a superb quote from one of Frye’s 1960s notebooks to make the point:

Everybody has a fixation.  Mine has to do with meander-and-descent patterns. For years in my childhood I wanted to dig a cave & be the head of a society in it — this was before I read Tom Sawyer. All the things in literature that haunt me most have to do with katabasis. The movie that hit me hardest as a child was the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera. My main points of reference in literature are such things as The Tempest, P.R. [Paradise Regained], [Blake’s Milton], the Ancient Mariner, Alice in Wonderland, the Waste Land– every damn one a meander-&-katabasis work. (29)

If I’m reading Bob correctly, both of these observations relate to an aspect of Frye’s vision that he finds especially fascinating: and that is the mysterious passage from the oracular to the witty, the threshold where irony returns to myth.  On a hunch the other day (and inspired by Joe’s earlier post), I put up a video of remixed music from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, and so I’m delighted to know that Frye himself declared the novel to be one of his imaginative touchstones.  For what it’s worth, I’ve noticed that on the experimental fringes of popular culture katabasis is ubiquitous — not just conspicuously present, but overwhelmingly predominant — particularly in music where it currently takes the cutting edge forms of the “remix” and the “mashup.” In both instances the primary principle of composition is (in the best postmodern fashion) bricolage.  But the effect is also entirely consistent with the uncanny experience of the oracular as Frye describes it.  (Note that the only fully comprehensible words in Pogo’s “Alice” occur in the obsessively repeated refrain “There is / There always”.)  I’m pretty sure that this wouldn’t have impressed Frye much as music: in one of his 1950s diaries he complains that the problem with modern music is that it had become (in the much later words of Grace Jones) slave to the rhythm. However, as a cultural phenomenon, the remix and the mashup might have caught his notice as the manifestation of an ongoing dialectical struggle through irony toward myth by way of what he calls “creative coincidence.”  What’s most assuring about this for an “exoteric scholar” is that it is no longer simply a matter for what was once known as high culture but now displays unmistakably deep roots in a wildly burgeoning popular culture.  This always evolving culture evidently nourishes itself as much upon the kinds of primary archetypes and concerns Frye would recognize as it does upon the accelerated demand for novelty that seems more typically to characterize it.  Even amid the hubbub, in other words, something familiar abides. If, as Frye says (and as Bob cites him), the “future” of culture is the “emergence of primary concern,” then the widespread appearance of katabasis in our popular culture may be a sign of fundamentally sound health, whatever madness continues to prevail at the ideological level.

Because I’ve already provided an example of a remix, here’s a mashup by one of the best practitioners of it, a young Frenchman who goes by the name Overdub.  In this instance, the “mash” is between two pieces of music fifty years apart: Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and Radiohead’s “15 Step.”  If your experience of it is anything like mine, you won’t be able to listen to either again without hearing one weaving its way through the other.  And that may be the compliment the oracular pays to wit: to recognize that everywhere is here, and there are an infinite number of creative ways to manifest that endlessly inclusive unity.


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