Monthly Archives: April 2012

Frye and Earl Birney

Another find from Bob Denham, this interesting passage from the Canadian poet Earl Birney:

There was a time [in 1933] at some Victoria College student debate when I was almost diverted back to my earlier skepticism about human affairs by the arguments of a cherubic yet very intelligent undergraduate who was quoting [Egon] Friedell and other historians I had not even heard of.  His name was Norrie Frye.  But I was by nature the optimistic sort of revolutionary and decided to cast my dice with the creator of the Red Army, Maurice Spector.

(Earle Birney, Spreading Time: Remarks on Canadian Writing and Writers, Book I: 1904-49.  Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1980,  p. 27)

Almost a decade later Frye reviewed Early Birney’s first collection of poetry, David and Other Poems, in The Canadian Forum (December 1942):

This is a book for those interested in Canadian poetry to buy and for those interested in complaining that we haven’t got any to ignore. Anyone who follows Canadian verse at all closely will be very pleased to see Mr. Birney’s fugitive pieces gathered into one little volume, and anyone who read the title poem when it first appeared in the Forum will be keenly interested in finding it again in a published book as part of larger collection.

The people who are familiar with the conventions of modern poetry, who can grasp its difficult language and place its recondite allusions, now form a specialized cult largely confined to universities. David will get the full approval of this audience as being on its own merits a touching, beautiful, and sensitively written story. But a large reserve of intelligent readers, not in the cult but willing to listen to a poet who has a real story to tell and who tells it simply and honestly, will also like this poem. The more blasé will take a while to recover from their surprise at seeing, in a volume of contemporary verse, a straightforward narrative cut to fit the “common reader,” without flounces of fake symbolism, gathers of atmosphere, tucks of philosophic rumination, or fullness of garrulous comment. But they will like it too. David is the best thing of its kind that I have seen in current poetry—and for some benighted reason its kind is rare. . . .
(CW 12, 23)

Frye concludes the review: “In case you didn’t get the point the first time, for those who care about Canadian poetry this book is good enough to buy, not to borrow or get from the library” (25)

Anyone growing up in the fifties and sixties  is unlikely to have escaped reading this poem in high school, and, if one was lucky enough to be in the presence of a gifted teacher, to have been haunted by its vision and power. Birney is one of many Canadian writers emerging in the mid-twentieth century who owed a debt to Frye’s critical engagement with Canadian literature for the place they hold in the canon and in readers’ imaginations.

Frye Alert: A Miscellany

Courtesy of Bob Denham, here are some links:

One to a discussion of Frye’s theory of modes at The Archetypal Archive, here.

Another to an article on Frye by Alec Scott in the U of T magazine, here.

And, finally, a tip of the hat to Prof Mondo, who is, not surprisingly, yet another avid reader of Borges, here.

 

Frye Scoop! An Unpublished Talk by Northrop Frye

Communication and the Arts: A Humanist Looks at Science and Technology

Northrop Frye

A talk Frye gave at the Philips Series of Science Lectures at the Ontario Science Centre, Don Mills, Ontario, 12 December 1969.  He was introduced by Ted Rogers, founder and CEO of Rogers Communications.  Transcribed by Robert Denham from a tape produced by the Media Centre, University of Toronto.

 

Thank you very much, Mr. Rogers.  The reason why I am here is that I got a letter from the director of the Science Centre, Mr. [Douglas N.] Omand, saying that while most of the people in this series were scientists and technologists he would like to include a humanist.  This of course is a familiar procedure, which is known in other circles as tokenism.  He went on to say that what he wanted was not on humanism but a talk on science and technology from a humanistic frame of reference.  This seemed to be a very reasonable and sensible proposal, except that I cannot quite manage the separation between the two things.  I’m not sure that I can talk about the sciences from a humanistic frame of reference without explaining what humanism is and what, if any, its importance in society may be.  Perhaps we have to go back all the way to the Middle Ages when the original and oldest universities of our culture were established––Oxford, the Sorbonne, and the great Italian and Spanish universities.  In those universities there was of course the training of the professional faculties––theology and law and and medicine––and there was also liberal education based on the conception of seven liberal arts.  The principle behind this conception of seven liberal arts was that there are two great tools that man has evolved in his mastery of his environment, those two tools being words and numbers.  So the seven liberal arts were divided into two groups.  There was a group of three, called the trivium, which were concerned with the arts of words, and they were called grammar and rhetoric and logic.  Rhetoric was extremely important, because the two key professions, theology and the law, were both rhetorical ones.  Grammar meant, of course, the study of the inflected language of Latin, and the word “gramarye” acquired the meaning of magic or something mysterious.

After mastering the three arts of words, the student went on to the quadrivium, the four arts of numbers, and those in the middle ages were geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music.  We can see how that has left its legacy in the culture of our own world.  The sciences have developed very largely in the order of their closeness to mathematics.  The most deductive, the most amenable to mathematical treatment evolved first.  Astronomy in the sixteenth century with Copernicus, and later Galileo and Kepler; physics in the seventeenth century; chemistry, with Lavoisier, in the later eighteenth; the biological and geological sciences in the nineteenth; the social sciences in the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth century.  In all this it became gradually clear that mathematics was the central informing language of the sciences, particularly, of course, of the physical sciences, but in some degree of all the sciences. Mathematics itself is not so much a science as a study of the possibilities of scientific formulation.

The arts of words, in the meantime, developed very differently.  With the Renaissance, with Copernicus and Galileo developing the new astronomy, the humanists took shape as a group of people who were studying the languages which related to man as distinct from theology, which related to God, and the sciences, which related to nature.  The humanists were concerned mainly with reviving the Greek and Latin texts.  The printing press had just been invented, and it provided a means of producing accurate and mechanical copies of Greek and Latin authors.  Unlike the sciences, which were founded on experiment and observation, the humanists were concerned very largely with a cult of authority.  They traveled around Europe digging the manuscripts of Greek and Latin literature out of the monasteries, where they had often lain abandoned for centuries, and they wrote formal epistles to each other in Latin, reinforcing each other and keeping their spirits up in the course of visiting such barbaric countries as England and shivering in the cold climate for the sake of discovering whatever manuscripts might turn up.

Their general social influence was to regard the Greek and Latin writers as having produced the definitive statements on practically everything.  The great classical poets––Homer and Virgil––were the models of poetry and would be forever.  The great orators––Demosthenes and Cicero––were still the schools to which one should go for oratory, and the same cult of authority extended even into architecture and into the sciences themselves.  Along with this went an attack on technical language of all kinds, especially the language of philosophy.  There had been a considerable development of philosophy in the Middle Ages but the humanists said that a technical language of philosophy was not the way that people ordinarily talked.  In other words, the humanists were concerned to defend the social importance of the use of words.  Their ideals revolved around the idea of the gifted amateur or more specifically the orator.  The technical philosophers were ridiculed and attacked as people who talked a kind of jargon which nobody could understand.  Of course, the great philosopher of the Middle Ages, Saint Thomas Aquinas, still held some of his authority, but his great critic, the nominalist philosopher, John Duns, called Duns Scotus, who taught at Oxford, became a synonym for the old obsolete way of thinking and writing, the old jargon way.  And the people who held by him were called the “duns men” or the “dunces,” and so the name of one of the greatest critical intellects in the history of thought became a byword for stupidity.

At the same time, while there was much that was reactionary in humanism, there was also something that had an intense social concern for the proper use of words.  Roger Ascham, who was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, said, “You know not what hurt you due to learning when you separate words from matter.  For if you look at the history of all nations, you shall find that social manners began to decline as soon as the use of words became vague and imprecise.”  Almost exactly the same words were being used in our own day by the American poet Ezra Pound, who claims to have derived them from a Chinese origin.  So this sense of the social importance of the precise, accurate, and powerful use of words was the mainspring which was the impetus of the humanist movement.  It has left on our day and our modern universities the term “humanities,” which means the subjects of the literatures and philosophy and history.  In general, it is a term favored by university administrators to designate the low‑budget departments.  All through the nineteenth century the courses which the serious student took were courses in the two essential tools of knowledge, that is, words and numbers, which until about 1900 were interpreted as a course in the classics and a course in mathematics.  In my own college, Victoria College, when it began in the nineteenth century in Cobourg, there was the course for intellectuals, which consisted of the classics and the mathematics, and another course for the people who made money and endowed the college, which was called the English course and was essentially a business training.  It was not until the turn of the century, when the classics began to be replaced by the modern languages, that the same general set‑up and formulation of university curricula still was retained.

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Frye Alert: Of Culture and Condos

Courtesy of Bob Denham,  another Frye sighting, and a very interesting one indeed: an article by Kyle Carsten Wyatt in The Walrus.  The article puts together Frye’s ideas about Canadian Culture and the “condominium mentality” he saw as superseding the earlier “garrison mentality” he discusses in The Bush Garden. The author misunderstands–unless I am mistaken–what Frye means by the cultural energies of the country forming a counter-environment. Frye’s point is that imaginative culture responds to the alienating aspects of its environment by creating a counter-environment, a critical vision of the existing environment in relation to a world that actually makes human sense, as opposed to the absurdity and grotesqueness of the one we face everyday.  Otherwise, the article beautifully captures Frye’s amazing prescience, so far beyond that which passes as cultural studies today.  As the author points out, Frye was using the term condominium mentality well before the condo phenomenon really took hold and mushroomed.

You can find the article here.

 

 

The “Point of Ritual Death”: Frye, Capra, and the Structure of Comedy

In the third essay of Anatomy of Criticism Frye isolates four story shapes–romance, tragedy, irony/satire, and comedy–which he understands as stages in a hypothetically complete narrative structure. Romance and irony concern movement within, respectively, an idealized world and a world of experience; tragedy and comedy concern the direction of that movement. Frye outlines and illustrates in detail these “narrative pregeneric elements of literature,” or “generic plots,” which are “narrative categories broader than, or logically prior to, the ordinary literary genres” (162). Frye’s work has been, even if noted, generally ignored by narratologists. And yet its elegance–its simplicity, comprehensiveness, and explanatory power–which allows it to account for such an extraordinary diversity of narrative literature remains unparalleled.  As it is impossible to outline Frye’s very complex argument here, I will content myself with a brief illustration of the dynamic nature of his view of narrative structure.

For the sake of demonstration, I would like to look at his understanding of comic plot and in particular the assertion  in Frye’s “The Argument of Comedy” that “tragedy is really implicit or uncompleted comedy” and that “comedy contains a potential tragedy within itself” (65). This  statement is crucial to Frye’s understanding of narrative structure as based on conventions that derive their logic from ritual, an assumption shared, among others, by a formalist approach to narrative such Vladmir Propp’s.

One of the modern masters of comic structure is the director Frank Capra, one of the great creators of American film comedy of the thirties and forties. In many of his films he was fond of bringing “his action,” to use Frye’s description, “as close to a tragic overthrow of the hero as he can get it, and [reversing] this movement as suddenly as possible” (65). This feature is central to the “U-shaped plot” of comedy, “with the action sinking into deep and often potentially tragic complications, and then suddenly turning upward into a happy ending” (FI 25). This darkening downturn near the end of his films, often noted by critics as a mark of Capra’s particular style, a part of his signature, is in fact, if we follow Frye, a conventional feature of comic structure in general. Frye calls it the point of ritual death, and he gives a formulation of it in the discussion of comedy in Anatomy. He speaks of the action of comedy as

mov[ing] toward a deliverance from something which, if absurd, is by no means invariably harmless. . . .  Any reader can think of many comedies in which the fear of death, sometimes a hideous death, hangs over the central character to the end, and is dispelled so quickly that one has almost the sense of awakening from nightmare. . . . An extraordinary number of comic stories, both in drama and fiction, seem to approach a potentially tragic crisis near the end, a feature that I may call the  “point of ritual death”–a clumsy expression that I would gladly surrender for a better one. It is a feature not often noticed by critics, but when it is present it is as unmistakably present as a stretto in a fugue, which it somewhat resembles. (178-79)

The hero or heroine in comedy, then, is at a certain point threatened with death or a displaced version of it (false accusation and imprisonment) and then at the last minute escapes. In Mr Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe (which is not always thought of as a comedy), Mr Smith goes to Washington, and It’s A Wonderful Life, the hero struggles against insurmountable odds to overthrow a usurping, “humorous” society which threatens to destroy him and the ideals he represents. In each case, he is isolated and falsely accused by his enemies, and threatened with disgrace, imprisonment, or death. The point of ritual death in comedy corresponds to the death of the hero in tragedy, the phase of pathos in the complete structure of quest-romance; in comedy pathos is invoked, but a tragic result is avoided, often only narrowly.

In the first three of the abovementioned films, often seen as forming a trilogy, it is worth noting how the suggestion of crucifixion attaches to the hero at this point. The word crucifixion is in fact explicitly used in all three to describe the fate that awaits the hero, as he is falsely accused, set up in a mock trial, and then only at the last moment delivered from the hands of his enemies. Mr Deeds is imprisoned, put on trial to decide his sanity, and is about to be defeated because he refuses to speak and defend himself at his own hearing; at the last minute, the situation is turned around by the woman he loves who inspires him to break silence, and the humorous society is at the last moment routed: the film ends with Mr Deeds being carried out of the courtroom in triumph by a cheering crowd and then the couple escaping behind closed doors. In the last frame Mr Deeds picks up his “bride” and kisses her, in a classic comic ending. As formulated by Frye: “The resolution of comedy comes, so to speak, from the audience’s side of the stage; in a tragedy it comes from some mysterious world on the opposite side. In the movie, where darkness permits a more erotically oriented audience, the plot usually moves toward an act which,  like death in Greek tragedy, takes place offstage, and is symbolized by a closing embrace” (164).

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Frye and Borges

In the fourth essay of Anatomy of Criticism Frye calls the two subconscious elements of association “babble” and “doodle.”  He later gives the two elements more dignified names, “charm” and “riddle.”  I think Borges’ fictions appealed to Frye not because of their charm but because of their riddles.  Like Joe Adamson, I’ve also been fascinated with Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a story about “other worlds,” about things that are quite distant from us, things that are strange.  On the first two pages alone we have repeated references to things that are fallacious, vague, ambiguous, nebulous, fantastic, imaginary.  The narrator eventually discovers that Tlön is in fact an “other world”—what he refers to as a “cosmos.”  What we have is a kind of Chinese box: a story within a story within a story.  That is, people invent the country of Uqbar in order to provide a base for the subsequent invention of Tlön, which will eventually become a third world, Orbis Tertius.  As people create fictional worlds within fantastic worlds, they cover their tracks as they go, hiding their fictions in rare editions of encyclopedias.  What is Tlön?  We’re not certain.  In the Uqbar entry of the encyclopedia Tlön is referred to as an “imaginary region.”  In the 11th volume of the Encyclopedia of Tlön it’s referred to as a planet.  The mystery of Tlön is eventually cleared up in the “Postscript,” where we learn that Tlön was an imaginary country invented by a secret society dating back to the seventeenth century.

How strange, how odd all of this is.  It does seem to be another world altogether.  But is it really?  Might Borges be suggesting that this strange, dehumanized, godless world is our world, the world that we’re still in the process of constructing for ourselves?  So, while the fiction of Tlön as conceived by the philosophers and propagated by Buckley’s money is both ridiculous and in some ways deadly to life, the fiction about Tlön as conceived and told by Borges is delightful in its riddling wit and cleverness.  Borges frequently presents us with riddles––intellectual puzzles to be figured out.  It’s interesting to note, for example, that the postscript of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is dated 1943.  Borges says that the story first appeared in the Anthology of Fantastic Literature in 1940.  That’s the truth: it was published in 1940.  So it appears to us that Borges added the postscript three years later.  Why?  Because he felt that readers were puzzled by the story and he needed to clear things up again?  That seems to be a reasonable inference.  The problem is, however, that the 1943 postscript was part of the story when it was originally published.  Another example of Borges’ trickery: some of the books he refers to in the story are real; some are fictitious.

All fiction is about “other worlds,” worlds that have no existence except in our imaginations.  Are Tlön’s philosophy and language and geometry any stranger or any more arbitrary than our own?  In the account of the hrönir, we learn that the ideal influences the real.  Lost objects begin to reduplicate themselves: the idea ends up shaping reality.  And the story seems to end on a moralistic note in the comments on what has happened to people who become fascinated by symmetrical systems.  Fearful symmetry, perhaps?

The appeal of Borges for Frye lay in the dianoia of his fictions, not in their ethos.  We feel little engagement or identification with Borges’ characters.  Frye told David Cayley that when he was writing his short fables for the Canadian Forum back in the 1930s, he knew “more about ideas than . . . about people. If some-body like Borges had been known to me at the time, I would have tried to pick up that kind of tradition.”

Frye owned seven of Borges’ books, all of which he annotated, and there are references to a half dozen of Borges’ ficciones in Frye writings: “The Immortal,” “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” “The Gospel according to Mark,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “Borges and I,” and “The Aleph.”  The scattered references to Borges throughout Frye’s work are collected in what follows.

 

 

The realist finds his material in waking experience, or, more accurately, he finds the analogies to his material in waking experience (because he seldom if ever transcribes directly from experience).  It would be silly and misleading just to say that the romancer finds the analogies to his material in dreams, in spite of all the remarks (there’s one by Borges) about how all writing of fiction is really controlled dreaming.  But if we expand the term “dream,” as I do in AC [Anatomy of Criticism], to cover all the conflicts of desire with reality, it would make more sense.  Impenetrable disguises, where the same person is two people at least; metamorphosis of people into animals; anxieties of shipwreck and “falling” (sinking into water); fantasies in which a hero kills an impossible number of enemies—all these are reminiscent of what Freud calls “the dream work.”  It would include conscious fantasy or day-dreaming, where the erotic drive is more controlled and subordinated. (“Notes 56a,” CW 15: 209–10)

 

For most of my life I have felt that I didn’t have enough to say in the ordinary fiction form to bother turning my full attention on it, when there were so many things as a critic I could say that were distinctive.  But I’ve also had a persistent feeling that if I had the outline of some work of fiction by me, it would be useful as a counterweight or ballast, like a second weight on a cuckoo clock.  I should not think of this as something eventually to be published in any form, merely as something there to be thought about as a mental exercise.  Although for a while I had a novel in mind, set in western Canada, and very naively realistic in style, that was obviously getting me nowhere and I gave it up.  I now realize that my gift in fiction, if I have such a thing at all, would be in one of the “anatomy” genres rather than in the conventional novel or romance forms.  Apart from the small things I printed in my graduate student days, nothing has emerged in a big shape, and isn’t likely to unless I get a revelation out of line with what I’ve so far received.  My early things were based mainly on Richard Garnett’s Twilight of the Gods—if Borges had been available then I might have got further with it. (“The Academic Novel,” CW 25:153)

 

I keep vacillating between the feeling that there are four areas & the feeling that there’s just one area with variations.  Thus Oedipus seems to be the labyrinth one, but there are labyrinths in Eros too.  Prometheus is the emergence from the labyrinth or cave: it features follow-the-leader games, where (see a passage in Yeats) an ordinary man gains immortality through attaching himself to his shepherd king.  Harrowing of Hell.  Egypt: Book of the Dead.  (Hero as the dead king moving toward identity).  Blake’s picture of Earth in GP [The Gates of Paradise]; Caliban; Borges’ story “The Immortal.” Parodied by Satan’s journey through chaos in P.L.[Paradise Lost], with its Ulysses echoes.  Old Comedy: the Odyssey as a narrative Old Comedy, labyrinth followed by dialectic emergence of identity of Odysseus at Ithaca. (“Notebook 12,” CW 9:165)

 

I mention Borges, who seems to me one of the guides, along with the Alice books & Poe.  He says in connection with Quixote that literature not only begins but ends in mythology, & he tells the story of the man who rewrote Quixote—a parable of the way every great work is polarized between meaning then & meaning now [“Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”]. (“Notebook 12,” CW 9:165–6)

 

[from one of Frye’s pipe-dreams about a 64-section book] Fourteen, Sections 53-56: The new Hermes or Perseus.  Doubles, clocks, mirrors, nympholepsy & alastor figures: growing mechanistic & conspiratorial worlds (Poe, Kafka, Borges); the dystopia; breakup of language as we approach Phase One. (“Notebook 24,” CW 9:306)

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Frye, Borges, and the Power of the Imaginable

I  just finished teaching, in my last few classes of this term, a number of the remarkable pieces of fiction in Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths. The more I return to the great Argentinian writer the more I see the deep affinities between his work and another writer I have grown more and more fascinated with, Edgar Allan Poe, “the greatest literary genius this side of William Blake,” according to Frye. Frye speaks of Poe admiringly in Anatomy as being a much more radical and uninhibited archetypal abstractionist than his contemporary romanticist Hawthorne. He means by this that Poe dispenses with the normal constraints of logic, realism, and conventional morality that hobbled a writer like Hawthorne and made him feel he had to contain the world of Ideality within the confines of a morally responsible allegory. Unlike Hawthorne, however, Borges, like Poe, utterly disregarded any “general distinction between serious and responsible literature on the one hand, and the trifling and fantastic on the other.” As Frye points out,  such distinctions

are not literary categories, or qualities inherent in literary works themselves. They are the primary elements of the social acceptance of or response to literature. Hence what is accepted as serious or dismissed as trifling may vary from one age to another, depending on currents of fashion or cultural attitudes operating for the most part outside literature.

Because he so thoroughly abandoned any such sense of responsibility or seriousness, Poe was able to give himself over completely to a trust in his own imaginative life. Borges followed his own imaginative instincts in the same way. Both writers exemplify the idea of “pure” literature and the sheer power of the conceivable.

In the opening chapter of Words with Power, Frye outlines the sequence of modes that make up the verbal universe and shows how each mode (the descriptive, conceptual, rhetorical, imaginative, and kerygmatic) is founded on an excluded initiative, an aspect of the power of words it must deny in order to assert its own ascendent authority.  Thus the mythological or imaginative is the excluded initiative of dogma and ideology, and the excluded initiative of the imaginative is the kerygmatic or anagogic, the world of the meta-literary, a prophetic mode responsive to both the existential and the spiritually transcendent. However, the latter is not a negation of the literary, but literature plus: there is not spiritual reality which is not also an imaginative vision. Perversely, with the current dogmatic hegemony of post-structuralism and cultural studies the imaginative is precisely what is  excluded from study by many contemporary critics and scholars. It is against this dogmatic tendency, whether from the right or the left, that writers like Poe and Borges assert and champion the pure autonomy of the imagination.

Literature, Frye writes, is the product of

the need for a more inclusive mode of verbal communication of a type that since the Romantic period has usually been called imaginative. Such a mode takes us into a more open-ended world, breaking apart the solidified dogmas that ideologies seem to hanker for.

An imaginative response is one in which the distinction between the emotional and the intellectual has disappeared, and in which ordinary consciousness is only one of many possible psychic elements, the fantastic and the dreamlike having conventionally an equal status. The criterion of the imaginative is the conceivable, not the real, and it expresses the hypothetical or assumed, not the actual. It is clear that such a criterion takes us into the verbal area we call literature.

Nowhere is this criterion of the conceivable and the hypothetical more fully at the centre of a writer’s concern than in Borges’ work where the imaginative or subjective element of dreaming and fantasy reigns supreme. In perhaps his most famous tale, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” the universe is conceived of as a laybrinthine temporal multi-verse, a maze of time consisting of potentially infinite alternative story-lines: the legendary garden of the demiurge Tsui Pen is in fact a book, a work of fiction (compare Mallarme’s “le monde va s’aboutir a un livre”).  It is a parable “whose theme is time,” an image of the universe as “an infinite series of time, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times, of the universe as embracing “all possibilities of time.”

Another story, “The Circular Ruins,” concerns the paradoxical relationship between illusion and reality, creator and creature: a man arrives on the shores of a deserted part of the jungle, where there is a circular ruin, apparently a demolished temple, “long ago drowned by fire”: he is a shaman, a magus, who has come to this place to invoke the power of the fire god in order to engage in the demiurgic feat of creating a man:  to do so he must “dream” a man and then insert him, by the fullest concentration of his mind, into reality.  After great struggle he succeeds in his task, but suffers from the awareness that his child must some day be awakened to the knowledge that he is nothing but a dream. However, he is now an exhausted old man, ready for death, and as a conflagration engulfs the rebuilt temple of the fire god he stoically walks into the flames. Not feeling any pain, he realizes that he is himself the dream of another man, who is, according to an ironic infinite regress, perhaps himself a dream of someone else, who is dreaming of a man who creates a man by dreaming: “Not to be a man, to be the projection of another man’s dream, what a feeling of humiliation, of vertigo!”

In Borges, the hypothetical and virtual always trump reality. In one of my favorite “ficciones,” “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the narrator and his friend and alter ego discover the existence of a complex, centuries-old fictional project undertaken in secret by an elite group of illuminati to create a completely illusory and fictional world: the discovery of a hoax in an encyclopedia about a country called Tlön leads to the further, astonishing discovery of an entire planet intricately imagined and recorded in an encyclopedia : the fiction is so successful that what is thus imagined takes on the force of an inexorable pressure on the existing world as the fictional universe begins to insert itself into reality.

The impossible, the non-existent, the unreal is actualized, in much the same way as described by Rilke in Sonnets to Orpheus (sonnet 2 of the second part), in which a the purely hypothetical creature, the unicorn, appears at least by virtue of those who lovingly imagined it and fed it “only with the possibility that it truly was”:

O this is the creature that does not exist.
They knew nothing and yet without a doubt
—his gait, his posture, his neck, down
to the silent light of his gaze—they had loved.

Indeed, it wasn’t real. But because they loved,
it became a pure animal. Always, they gave it space.
And in that space, clear and spare
it raised lightly its head and needed scarcely

to be. They nourished it not with grain,
but with only the possibility that it truly was.
And this gave such strength to the animal

that it grew a horn from its brow. But one horn.
It passed in its whiteness a young maiden—
and appeared in the silver mirror, and in her.

Borges’ writings, like Frye’s criticism, are always laid on the surest of foundations: the bedrock substance of the possible, the conceivable, the imaginable– creators of the real.