Daily Archives: February 15, 2010

Archetype Spotting



Responding to Jonathan Allan and Clayton Chrusch

A footnote to “archetype spotting”: I think Frye refers to this procedure only once in his published writings––in his entry on “archetype” for the Harper Handbook to Literature. There he says,

Lycidas contains a reference to “that sanguine flower inscrib’d with woe” [l. 106], the hyacinth, thought to have obtained red markings resembling the Greek word ai (“alas”), when Hyacinthus was accidentally killed by Apollo. Milton could of course just as easily have left out this line: the fact that he included it emphasizes the conventionalizing element in the poem, but criticism that takes account of archetypes is not mere “spotting” of such an image. The critical question concerns the context: what does such an image mean by being where it is? (CW 18, 361).

(In his 1963 essay “Literary Criticism” Frye does speak of theme spotting. [CW 27, 128])

But in his notebooks Frye refers to the practice of “archetype spotting on several occasions:

Some fallacies in the archetypal approach beside the historical one: the counting one (if there are a lot of archetypes it’s a good poem), the spotting one, & others. (CW 23, 111)

I need more theory to connect these examples: otherwise it’s just archetype-spotting. (CW 5, 129)

The primary area of communication is conscious: it isn’t a case of deep calling to deep [Psalm 42:7]. If half the world uses an archetype & the other half doesn’t, it’s clear that it can mean something to that other half. The mystique of the unconscious has bedevilled myth critics. If you find fragments of a huge myth in primitive times, the process that put it all together is most likely to be in Shakespeare or Wagner or someone producing a waking dream for conscious minds [Plato, Sophist, 266c]. Such a writer would actualize what is potential in the archaic mythology. People resist this, because a poet’s consciousness may get self-conscious, turn coy or cute and go in for archetype-spotting. The poet (modern) is in the position of a medieval dog hitched to a mandrake root: it doesn’t matter so much if he goes mad, but the root he’s pulling is not just his own tail. (CW 5, 130)

The sense of unreality I feel about this book focused originally on the thinness of literary allusions: even things as deep in me as Shakespeare weren’t getting in. Then there was a sense of too much archetype-spotting, in contrast to real argument. That extended to too much kerygma spotting in 4. Finally I’m back to the Introduction, where I don’t even repeat my original confidence in the Bible as the only sacred book with a literary shape. Put that back in, you stupid bastard. [See WP, xviii, xx.] (CW 5, 369)

Many years ago young Woodberry [J.C. (Jack) Woodbury, a student at Toronto 1951–54], when a student of mine, spoke of the triviality of “archetype-spotting,” and I’ve always tried to recognize that. (CW 6, 564–5)

Every poem is “unique,” in the soft-headed phrase, and “archetype spotting” is a facile and futile procedure; but the traditions and conventions of poetry make a shape and a meaning. They move toward a future (emergence of primary concerns), and they expand into a wider present. (CW 6, 641)

The value of the book will be in this deductive expounding of the myth, not in spotting the archetypes around the compass. (CW 9, 263)

Here we see that Frye’s considers “archetype spotting” to be facile enterprise, and he warns against substituting it for argument. Having said this however, we need to remind ourselves that Frye did engage in a good bit of archetype spotting himself, especially when he was making notes on the texts he was reading. In Notebook 7, for example, he does engage in some rather extensive archetype spotting in Frobenius, Silberer, and Jung (CW 23, 8–15). The same is true of his Notes on Romance (in the weblog Library). Finally, the margins of the books in Frye’s personal library are filled with hundreds of notations about this or that archetype. A sample of these can be found in “Annotations in Frye’s Books,” also in the weblog Library. To speak about an archetype in a literary or any other work, you must of course first be able to spot it. Frye’s point is that if you do only this, then you’ve not made much of a contribution to critical understanding. It’s a procedure that can produce trivial observations, if they are not seen in some wider context of function, structure, and meaning.

Jean O’Grady: Re-Valuing Value


This is Jean O’Grady’s first post — and the first paper to be added to our new Frye Festival Archive in the Frye Journal.  Jean is the associate editor of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye, published by University of Toronto Press.  She gave this paper at the Frye Festival in Moncton in 2007. An expanded version of it appears in Northrop Frye: New Directions From Old, published by University of Ottawa Press.

Sir Edward Elgar, composer of sublime symphonies, concertos, and choral works, found it infuriating to be almost universally identified as the author of the Pomp and Circumstance marches. I suspect that Frye found it similarly irksome, after the publication of his Anatomy of Criticism in 1957, to be known, not for having mightily mapped the literary universe, but as the critic who said that critics shouldn’t make value judgments. Of course he had made it clear that he was talking about the academic critic, the theorist of literature, and not the reviewer in the local newspaper, but still his assertion had been found highly controversial. The polemical introduction to the Anatomy had actually made two points which kept coming back to haunt Frye: first, that criticism was, or should be, a science; and second, that the critic’s function was not to say whether a work of literature was good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, but to tell us what sort of work it was. The two points are in fact related, since Frye was trying to move away from the stereotype of the critic as a gifted amateur of exquisite discrimination who journeyed among the masterpieces, poking disdainfully at the second-rate with his gold cane. Instead, he proposed a survey of all the literature that has been written, highbrow or popular, in fashion or out of fashion, in order to map out its genres, types, and archetypes: this was a structure of knowledge that, just like the sciences and social sciences, could be taught and that each scholar could help to build up. As Frye said in The Well-Tempered Critic, “Without the possibility of criticism as a structure of knowledge, culture . . . would be forever condemned to a morbid antagonism between the supercilious refined and the resentful unrefined” (136).

I first read the Anatomy as a student, in 1962, and I can hardly tell you how exciting and liberating this notion was, along of course with the Anatomy‘s actual demonstration of archetypal patterns, of plot shapes that repeated themselves from Spenser to Harlequin romances, and of the unsuspected interrelations among works. Literature was so much richer and more fascinating when one could start to make connections rather than worrying about one’s possibly bad taste! The book opened up wide vistas of intellectual adventure in my chosen field, and made me feel like a participant in and contributor to a glorious endeavour.

The inclusiveness of the Anatomy, its openness to works of popular literature or of dubious morality, should surely endear Frye to the various types of postmodernist, feminist, or postcolonial critics, who complain that the dominant group or class has defined a “canon” that unfairly excludes some works or makes them marginal. Frye was precisely against singling out what he called a “selected tradition” of great works, which would inevitably turn out to have been written by dead white males. No narrow moral criteria apply in the Anatomy, which contends that “morally the lion lies down with the lamb. Bunyan and Rochester, Sade and Jane Austen, . . . all are equally elements of a liberal education” (14). As Frye told Imre Salusinsky in an interview, “The real, genuine advance in criticism came when every work of literature, regardless of its merit, was seen to be a document of potential interest, or value, or insight into the culture of the age”.

Value, as Frye expressed it in this early stage, resides in literature as a whole. As we read, we absorb an imaginative pattern of apocalyptic or demonic imagery and of narratives that fall into the four basic types of comedy, tragedy, romance, or irony; each individual poem or work helps to fill in or reinforce the overall pattern. As Frye put it in The Educated Imagination, “Whatever value there is in studying literature, cultural or practical, comes from the total body of our reading, the castle of words we’ve built, and keep adding new wings to all the time” (39). This total pattern, “the range of articulate human imagination as it extends from the height of imaginative heaven to the depth of imaginative hell” (EI, 44), is what Frye calls “the revelation of man to man”. Such a verbal universe, built up equally by Biblical epics and the most run-of-the-mill adventure stories, provides a model or goal for humankind’s work, thus giving literature a vital role in the building up of civilization.

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