Frye, Metaphor, and André Breton

If there is a centre or core to Frye’s theory of literature, it is metaphor. One could argue that myth is just as central. No doubt. But myth itself is the unfolding of a  metaphoric structure of imagery.  A myth is the story of a god, and a god is a metaphoric union of a human form, a divine personality, with Nature.

In my teaching I often turn to two passages from Anatomy on the “radical form of metaphor.” The first is from the second essay on levels of meaning, which concludes with a discussion of  different modes of metaphor:

In the anagogic aspect of meaning, the radical form of metaphor,  “A is B,” comes into its own. Here we are dealing with poetry in its totality, in which the formula “A is B” may be hypothetically applied to anything, for there is no metaphor, not even “black is  white,” which a reader has any right to quarrel with in advance. The literary universe, therefore, is a universe in which everything  is potentially identical with everything else. This does not mean that any two things in it are separate and very similar, like peas in a pod, or in the slangy and erroneous sense of the word in which we speak of identical twins. If twins were really identical they would be the same person. On the other hand, a grown man feels identical with himself at the age of seven, although the two manifestations of this identity, the man and the boy, have very little in common as regards similarity or likeness. In form, matter, personality, time, and space, man and boy are quite unlike. This is the only type of image I can think of that illustrates the process of identifying two independent forms. All poetry, then, proceeds as though all poetic images were contained within a single universal body. Identity is the opposite of similarity or likeness, and total identity is not uniformity, still less monotony, but a unity of various things.  (124-25)

The second definition is from Frye’s discussion of the rhythm of association that characterizes lyric:

The fusion of the concrete and abstract is a special case, though a very important one, of a general principle that the technical development of the last century has exposed to critical view. All poetic imagery seems to be founded on metaphor, but in the lyric, where the associative process is strongest and the ready-made descriptive phrases of ordinary prose furthest away, the unexpected or violent metaphor that is called catachresis has a peculiar importance. Much more frequently than any other genre does the lyric depend for its main effect on the fresh or surprising image, a fact which often gives rise to the illusion that such imagery is radically new or unconventional. From Nashe’s “Brightness falls from the air” to Dylan Thomas’s “A grief ago/’ the emotional crux of the lyric has over and over again tended to be this “sudden glory” of fused metaphor. (281)

One thinks of Pierre Reverdy’s definition of the poetic image, cited by André Breton in the first surrealist manifesto:

The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be — the greater its emotional power and poetic reality… [Pierre Reverdy, Nord-Sud, March 1918]

A related idea, another touchstone for Breton, is Lautréamont’s famous image “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.”

Breton’s great love poem “Union Libre” (1931) is one of the most striking examples of such catachrestic fusion. “Union Libre” is the French term for common-law marriage, a sexual union outside the law. What better title could there be for a poem whose radical uniting of disparate realities obeys no normative censor of any kind, and whose subject is both a delirious sexual union and the delirium of verbal fusion in which, as Breton puts it elsewhere, “the words make love.”

The poem is loosely based on the Renaissance blazon, in which the poet praises  the beauty of his mistress by enumerating the various attractions of her body.  The breathtaking sequence of bewildering but exhilarating images, in an exuberant parody of the Song of Songs, is  erotically charged while evoking at the same time a union of the bride (“ma femme,” my wife or woman) with Nature and a world of the most diverse particulars.  The epithetic structure of each image allows for a violent yoking of remotely related but surprisingly fitting realities.

Such a “free union” of images brings to mind Bakhtin’s observations about the use of the blason in Rabelais and His World (425-430), and in the section on “The Rabelaisian Chronotope” in the essay “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel” (The Dialogic Imagination, 167-206), Bakhtin analyzes  the ways in which a grotesque fusion of images decreates and recreates the verbally organized conception of the world. Bakhtin’s understanding of poetic and literary imagery, particularly in its relation to the matrix of objects and phenomena (food, drink, copulation, birth and death) is is, in fact, very close to Frye’s, where such images are an outgrowth of the primary concerns of food, sex, freedom, and property.

Here is Breton’s extraordinary poem. I have consulted a number of versions in English, but the translation is my own:

Free Union

My wife of the wood fire hair
Of heat lightning thoughts
Of the hourglass waist
My wife of the waist of an otter in a tiger’s jaws
My wife of the mouth of cockade and a bouquet of stars of the latest magnitude
Of teeth like the tracks of white mice over the white earth
Of the tongue of rubbed amber and glass
My wife of the tongue of a stabbed wafer
Of the tongue of a doll which opens and closes its eyes
Of the tongue of fabulous stone
My wife of eyelashes in the vertical lines of a child’s handwriting
Of eyebrows like the edge of a bird’s nest
My wife of temples like the slate of a glasshouse roof
And the steam of breath on the windowpanes
My wife of the champagne shoulders
Of the shoulders of a fountain with dolphin heads under ice
My wife of the wrists of matches
My wife of fingers of luck and the ace of hearts
Of fingers of new-moan hay
My wife of armpits of marten and beechnuts
Of Midsummer Night
Of armpits of camphor and a nest of angel fish
Of arms of sea foam and a sluice-gate
And a blend of wheat and mill
My wife of the rocket legs
Of legs of clockwork and movements of despair
My wife of calves of elder marrow
My wife of the feet of initials
Of the feet of a bunch of keys
Of the feet of tippling caulkers
My wife of the neck of pearl barley
My wife of the throat of Val d’Or
Of the throat of a rendezvous in the very bed of the torrent
Of breasts of night
My wife of breasts of marine molehill
My wife of the breasts of crucible of ruby
Of breasts of the spectral rose beneath the dew
My wife of the unfolding belly of the fan of days
Of the belly of a giant claw
My wife of a bird’s back in vertical flight
Of the quicksilver back
Of the back of light
Of the nape of rolled stone and moistened chalk
Of the fall of a glass which has just been emptied
My wife of the hips of a skiff
Of hips of chandelier and arrow feathers
And stems of white peacock quills
Of imperceptible balance
My wife of the rump of stoneware and asbestos
My wife of the rump of a swan’s back
My wife of the rump of springtime
Of the sex of a gladiola
My wife of the sex of a gold-mine and platypus
My wife of the sex of seaweed and yesteryear’s  candies
My wife of the sex of a mirror
My wife of eyes full of tears
Of eyes of violet panoply and magnetized needle
My wife of the savanna eyes
My wife of eyes of water that quenches thirst in prison
My wife of the eyes of wood eternally under the axe
Of water level eyes
Of eyes at the level of air and earth
Of eyes at the level of fire

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4 thoughts on “Frye, Metaphor, and André Breton

  1. dan kershaw

    joe, i vividly remember you introducing us to this poem at a lecture at victoria college. a poem on fire! “blason sans d’or”

    not sure who edits or monitors this site, but i’m looking for the content of an interview that was published in Acta Victoriana circa 1990-1992. In the interview, frye makes mention of some wrongheadedness on the part of mcluhan regarding texts being “linear”. In particular, I’m curious about an anecdote Frye uses to make a point – something about bystanders being unable to react to an emergency happening directly in front of them, “because it’s as if they’re watching TV” (or words to that effect). I haven’t seen this interview collected anywhere and I thought it was quite interesting.

    1. Joseph Adamson Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Dan. That was quite a while ago. Must have been the early eighties?

      The critique of McLuhan’s assertion concerning print versus visual media is one that Frye elaborates in a number of places, most notably in The Critical Path. A more or less complete collection of Frye’s interviews has been published by the U of T press in the Collected Works, vol. 24:

      Sorry for the delay in responding. I have been away from the blog but hope to have it up and running more actively soon.

  2. Joe Adamson

    You asked in particular about the television example. There was an interview in Acta Victoriana (Acta Victoriana, 110, no. 2 (Spring 1986): 23-5, which is reprinted in Interviews with Northrop Frye (766-69). This may be what you are looking for. To the question of whether or not we are living in a “mediascape” today, Frye replies:

    “Well, if you mean that people live within a cosmos essentially constructed out of the formulas of telelvision, it is only in the extreme that some people do. that’s one reason why you get those extraordinary stories of people on the street all standing around with their hands in their pockets watching someone being attacked. It is because they see everything as happening on television, and so it seems that nothing is really hapening. But the impulse to self-preservation is very strong in the human race, and the tendency to try to break out of the mediascape is correspondingly strong. Every responsible citizen breaks out of the mediascape.” (768)

    And here are two samples of his general critique of McLuhan’s insistence on the distinction between the linearity of the book and the simultaneity of visual media.

    From The Critical Path: “The revival of oral culture in our day has been variously interpreted, and one interpretation, suggested and strongly influenced by McLuhan, is that print represents a ‘linear’ and time-bound approach to reality, and that the electronic media, by reviving the oral tradition, havebrought in a new ‘simultaneous’ or mosaic form of understanding. Contemporary unrest, in this view, is part of an attempt to adjust to a new situation and break away from the domination of print. We saw in the first section, however, that the difference between the linear and the simultaneous is not a difference between two kinds of media, but a difference between two mental operations within all media, that there is always a linear response followed by a simultaneous one whatever the medium. For words, the document, the written or printed record, is the technical device that makes the critical or simultaneous response possible. The document is the model of all teaching, because it is infinitely patient, repeating the same words however often one consults it, and the spatial focusus it provides makes it possible to return on the experience, a repetition of the kind that underlies all genuine education. The document is also the focus of a community of readers, and while this community may be restricted to one group for centuries, its natural tendency is to expand over the community as a whole. Thus it is only writing that makes democracy technically possible. It is significant that our symbolic term or a tyrant is ‘dictator,’ that is, an uninterrupted oral speaker. . . .” (Collected Works, 27:103-104)

    And this from Interviews with North Frye: “There are two elements to the book. One is reading it. The other is using it afterwards. While you’re reading it, you’re following out a linear line of narrative from page one to page ‘the end.’ That was the aspect of it that interested Marshall McLuhan. He spoke of the book as a linear medium in contrast to the simultaneous media which the elecgtronic forms of communication were developing. But there’s another side to the book. It becomes, besides being read, the focus for a community. It can be given to a class and referred to over and over again. You can always go back to a certain point. Consequently, it is not a linear medium primarily. It is the most continuous of all media. . . .

    And he adds: “I think [the electronic media] are the linear media because you have to follow them as they go along. Then they disappear, and you can’t refer to them afterwards except by very special efforts, so that the experience of them is discontinuous, as McLuhan said. But it’s also linear. It’s television that makes you live in a clock.” (714-15)

  3. Sylvain Foulquier

    I think that “My wife with shoulders of champagne”, “My wife with fingers of luck and ace of Hearts” etc…are the most correct translation. The hourglass is a symbol of passing time, so the woman is herself compared to time and each part of her body can be compared to a part of the day or to a season, which gives for instance “my wife with buttocks of spring”. Those metaphors are indisputably dazzling and “Free union” is the best poem André Breton ever wrote. And certainly one of the greatest of the last century.


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