The Paradisal Pole: A Frygean Perspective on European Irony

[Ugolino and his sons in their cell, William Blake, circa 1826]

The following paper, by Sára Tóth, was presented at the international Frye conference in Budapest (“Northrop Frye: 100 — A Danubian Perspective,” September 7-8, 2012, Budapest).

The Paradisal Pole: a Frygean Perspective on European Irony:
The Example of the Danish Film Green Butchers

Sára Tóth 

In this paper I will attempt to apply what I believe is Northrop Frye’s perspective on one significant feature of European élite culture. I do not use the term European in a geographical but in a sociological sense, having in mind the culture of the secularised élite all over the world, which, according to Peter Berger, constitutes, as it were, a European island even in America (Berger 11). This feature happens to be an attitude of extreme irony, more precisely, the tendency of interpreters to overlook textual data which may counterpoint or call into question the predominance of the ironical vision of alienation. The concept of irony is thus brought into play not simply in the traditional sense of a rhetorical trope, but in a philosophical or existential sense, first theorised by Romantic philosophers, and afterwards by thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Paul de Man or Frye himself.


It is well known for readers of Anatomy of Criticism that irony, coupled with satire, is a very important point of orientation in Frye’s literary universe. In his circle of the four pregeneric plots or mythoi (comedy, romance, tragedy, irony/satire), or in his U shaped quest irony is the lowest point. Whereas tragedy, associated with autumn, implies the downward movement of a hero of great power of action, irony implies the lack of action. Characters are not traveling downward because they are already down, totally paralysed as it were. This scheme corresponds to Frye’s historical modes which proceed from myth through romance, through the high and low mimetic to the ironic mode. Whereas in the mythic mode the “hero” is superior to us, normal beings in degree and kind, at its opposite, in the ironic mode he or she is worse than us and has the least power of action. Whereas in Frye’s polarized world of imagery the apocalyptic group of images belongs to the mythic mode and presents a world of fulfilled desire, its opposite, demonic imagery belongs to the ironic mode, a repudiated world of unfulfilled desire, of unrelieved suffering and alienation.

In short, Frye in the Anatomy of Criticism suggests that irony has a demonic quality to it, and later in Words with Power he calls the pole of irony quite consistently “hell world” and its opposite – referred to in Anatomy as the mythic and apocalyptic – the paradisal pole. Quite logically, Frye’s world of irony and satire, being the mythos of winter, is a cold hell, a frozen and motionless sphere. (Not quite accidentally, the film I am about to discuss to has some important scenes in the meat freezer of a butcher shop.) The positive energy in Frye’s universe is human desire, which transforms nature into a home, helping us achieve oneness with other people, with the exterior world and with God, and thus finding true identity. At the other pole action and motion are absent, no transformation takes place, which leaves us in the hell world of alienation: from nature, from other people, from God, and from ourselves. As opposed to identification with who and whatever is other, in the hellish state of irony we experience extreme detachment and objectivity to the point of being overpowered by the objective world we cannot change, even being turned into objects ourselves.[1]

This account is very similar to Paul de Man’s ironic vision of language and of the human condition, with the substantial difference that for de Man irony is not one pole but it is the only authentic interpretation of existence. For de Man words do not have the power to unite subject and object, self and world, language being a network of signs referring endlessly to other signs and never achieving oneness with something other and real. Neither can the self achieve oneness with the non-self or with itself for that matter. In an endless series of acts of consciousness attempting to grasp its own reality, the self is doubled, multiplied and is finally dissolved in the “narrowing spiral of a linguistic sign … more and more remote from its meaning” (De Man 222). De Man picks up Baudelaire’s example of a stumbling and falling man laughing at himself falling, and invests this scene with a philosophical significance, turning it into a symbolical Fall, in the course of which the divided or split self comes to view himself as object, treated by Nature “as if he were a thing … whereas he is quite powerless to turn the smallest particle of nature into something human.” (214)

Decisive thinkers of the last century such as Paul de Man tend to absolutize or essentialize the hell world of irony and satire, the state of alienation and split. To mention another towering figure, Jacques Lacan’s vision of the self and its relation to the world, is dominated, as Frye would say, by the archetype of satire which is sparagmos: fragmentation or tearing to pieces. The self or ego as seen by Lacan is always already fragmented, in bits and pieces, the integrated imago being the deceptive result of an imposition of a rigid and artificial unity on this chaotic turbulence (see Lacan 97). According to one of his critics, Joel Whitebook, in Lacan’s work synthesis and integration are suspected as inauthentic, and contrary evidence tends to be overlooked. Lacan, Whitebook argues, tendentiously misrepresents Freud by placing almost sole emphasis on the death drive as opposed to the integrating Eros (see Whitebook 122–128).

Of course the onset of an age of extreme irony with the post war era is understandable. Europe has been through the most horrible times humankind ever experienced, with our societies coming as close as possible to experience the “hell world” Frye describes in such a chillingly precise manner as “a world of power without words, where the predominant impulse is to tyrannize over others” (WP 88). The tendency to interpret existence in terms of irony and irony only and to suspect discourses of integration and synthesis is also understandable. What is less understandable is when interpretive practices begin to turn into a futile enjoyment of irony for its own sake. The most precise account of this attitude I have found comes from Hungarian writer Mihály Kornis, who uses images of cold and frost to describe the extreme ironic mode: “In its final stage, irony turns into a sort of Satanism. It rejoices in being free, free to do anything, but its joy lacks serenity. Rather, it is frozen and shrunken; it has become lucid, but it is only capable of wit. The warm serenity of humour shines with the ability to suffer, the ‘serenity’ of irony shines only with the inability to suffer” (137).

Northrop Frye, on the other hand, is known to be a critic with a preference for comedy and romance over tragedy and irony. The reason for this, I believe, is not the lack of understanding of the latter, but his sharp vision of the ultimately hellish nature of it. And to see hell for what it is, it is necessary to see it in context. Without something else to compare it with, without an opposite to measure it up to, absurdity would cease to be absurd because it would be all there is. In his vision of the whole of literature Frye relativizes the mythos of irony and satire by turning it into one of the four pregeneric narratives and by contrasting its demonic imagery with the apocalyptic or paradisal group of images. His strongest statement about the relativity of irony comes, however, from Words with Power:

… in proportion as we try to approach literature with a sense of personal involvement or commitment, one pole of it begins to look like the revelation of a paradisal state, a lunatic, loving, poetic world where all primary concerns are fulfilled. It is a world of individuals but not of egos, and a world where nature is no longer alien but seems to be, in the medieval phrase, our “natural place.” It is one pole only: the other pole is the imaginative hell explored in tragedy, irony, and satire. The hell world may be described as the world of power without words, where the predominant impulse is to tyrannize over others so far as one’s ability to do so extends. But it is the paradisal pole that gives us a perspective on the hell world, or, in our previous figure, provides the norm that makes irony ironic. (WP 88, emphasis mine)

However, Frye does not only relativize irony structurally, but also historically. In his essay on the successive historical modes of literature he describes how in our own age the ironic mode as the last one in the series of modes follows the low mimetic mode (the age of realism), showing also signs of a return to the mythic. He says that “during the last hundred years, most serious fiction has tended increasingly to be ironic in mode” (AC 34–35). Although he does not spell this out explicitly, one aspect of the irony in modernity seems to be the split between high and low culture, between educated, ironical readers and mass consumers. Thus the interpreting habits of cultivated readers or receivers (the élite), even when applied to popular culture, may sharply differ from the approach of its regular audience. In contrast, the description of irony in the earlier, low mimetic phase actually sounds like what Wayne Booth calls “stable irony” (see Booth 1–32). As Frye explains, “the reader is invited to share in the irony, because certain standards of normality common to author and reader are assumed. Such assumptions are a mark of a relatively popular mode: as the example of Dickens indicates, the gap between serious and popular fiction is narrower in low mimetic than in ironic writing” (AC 49), [2]

By implication, in the ironic mode proper irony becomes “unstable,” and in its extreme infinite, or, as we have seen in de Man’s more philosopical account, “the dialectic of the self-destruction and self-invention which characterizes the ironic mind is an endless process that leads to no synthesis” (De Man 220). In infinite ironies, Booth says, “the clear implication is that since the universe (or at least the universe of discourse) is inherently absurd, all statements are subject to ironic undermining. No statement can really ’mean what it says’” (Booth 240–241). Unlike de Man however, Booth and Frye make a distinction between stable and unstable ironies, and Frye does this by pointing out the difference between “the ironic tone that we may find in low mimetic or earlier modes and the ironic structure of the ironic mode itself” (AC 49). The ironic structure does produce endless, hellish irony for Frye, yet, as we have seen, not only is it confined to one phase of history, ultimately it is also only one pole of a polarized vision. Not even the most unrelenting poststructuralist ever experiences existence as permanently and absolutely alienated, and except for geniuses as intensive as William Blake not many of us can claim to be “in God’s presence night and day.” The polarized vision of an ideal world of fulfilled desire and its opposite, a hell world repudiated and rejected by people is not reality in the ordinary sense, but in an intensive sense: the kind of reality T. S. Eliot believes humankind cannot bear much of. It is a vision of the world in imaginatively sharpened contours. None of us lives in either world, but we need both as points of orientation.

The implication seems to be that in Frye’s vision the bleakest and darkest ironical work contains in itself the totality of the literary universe. A narrative of the most extreme tragical or ironical descent can conjure up its opposite, the comic ascent, and thus echo the entire U shaped story of loss and recovery, of alienation and redemption. In the ironical mode, in the world of experience the vision of innocence has been lost. Yet this vision, called by Frye “a permanent integration or unity of being” in an essay on Paul de Man, is something “we can neither attain nor leave alone” (Frye, “In the Earth” 224). This is exactly what Frye goes on to say to conclude the previously quoted passage about the ironical and the paradisal pole:

… while there is no human society where we do not find all the horrors of psychotic humanity, we seldom fail to find something in the culture of a society that is congenial. The sense of the congenial, of a genuine human communication through words, pictures, textiles, ceramics or whatever, comes from the innocent vision at the heart of all human creation and the response to it. Such a vision is a presence created by an absence, a life that remains alive because the death that was also in it has gone.” (WP 88)


In the following brief discussion of the Danish film Green Butchers I will be looking for hints of what Frye calls the innocent or paradisal vision, an aspect of the film almost entirely overlooked by reviews.

In Anders Thomas Jensen’s macabre satire two frustrated, freakish young men open their own butcher shop in a small Danish village. Haunted by a past history of emotional injury and loss, insecure in several ways, they both hunger after social recognition and psychological fulfillment. Bjarne lost his wife and parents in a car accident caused by his mentally handicapped twin brother who tried to avoid a deer while driving. Bjarne is now obsessed with killing animals and collecting skeletons, and he is trying to pull his comatose brother off the life support system in order to raise money for the butcher shop. Initially, no one seems interested in the new shop, which only confirms a pattern of rejection in the life of the uptight and weird looking Svend, abused by his parents as a child and predictably not very successful with the other sex as an adult. One night he accidentally locks up an electrician in the freezer room only to find him frozen to death the following morning. Panicking, he slices up the man’s thigh and sells it in a special marinade as “chicky-wickies.” News of the exquisite meat product spread, and locals line up in front of the shop. For the first time in his life, he feels loved and respected by the community. To supply the growing demand, Svend gets entangled, with Bjarne’s reluctant help, in a series of grisly murders, trapping and butchering people in the freezer. Bjarne, however, is not only a helper, as the life-supporting machine he turns off to lay hold of his brother’s money appears as a visual parallel to the Svend’s freezer.

Having looked through more than thirty online reviews[3] in English, Spanish, Hungarian and French, my impression is that besides complaining about the fairly high gore quotient and warning sensitive vegetarians, the majority of reviewers do not see much more in the film than one other exploitation of the hackneyed theme of cannibalism. Interestingly, few try to interpret the Danish director’s work in term of its genre, satire, although the motif of cannibalism is strongly related to what I have already mentioned as the core archetype of satire and irony in Frye’s vision: sparagmos (tearing to pieces). In Frye’s archetypal perspective satire shocks us into seeing “the world as it is before the imagination begins to work on it” (AC 147). It is the world of one diseased ego feeding upon the other to repair the loss that cannot be repaired, to fill up the gaping hole in one’s existence. To put it in a Lacanian manner, it is a world where the metonymic sliding of desire is endless, the killing cannot stop. There is also a strong sense of arbitrariness Frye generally associates with tragic irony (AC 41): the deeply injured Svend is totally deprived of the power of action, the first murder, as it were, happens to him accidentally, both murderer and victim being playthings of circumstance, reduced to the status of helpless, driven objects.

My contention, however, is that while the majority of online reviews essentialize the murderously dark satire of the two cannibal butchers who sacrifice others to feed themselves, they overlook certain visual and narrative hints of the opposite, paradisal pole, a eucharistic vision of love nurtured by sacrifice.

Several reviews mention the so-called Romantic subplot, Bjarne’s slowly blossoming love affair with the lovely orphaned Astrid, but the good-hearted local priest who raised her and gives her a job, is only mentioned in passing, and only once or twice in a positive sense. No importance is attributed to the strong counterpointing relation between the priest and his surroundings and the world of the butcher shop. In sharp contrast with the cold, grey colours of the butcher shop and the frozen atmosphere of the freezer full of chopped up motionless corpses, the old priest has a hothouse in which he cultivates a garden teeming with green life. It turns out that the old man was sole survivor of an airplane-crash by eating from the flesh of his dead wife whose memory he has not ceased to cherish. The slight morbidity of the priest’s story functions to establish a link with the narrative of the butchers. The common motif is sacrifice: the cannibal butchers sacrifice others to feed themselves, but a truly loving relationship also involves sacrifice in that the partners give away part of themselves to nurture the other. The priest in the film, quite simply, stands for love. Whereas the butchers spread death, the priest has been nurtured and enlivened by the love he and his wife had for each other, so now he himself can spread life by taking care of Astrid and growing a garden. In this perspective the story of the priest has unmistakably Eucharistic overtones.

I know of no better interpretive tool in order to make sense of this weird connection between cannibalism and Eucharist than Northrop Frye’s notion of demonic parody. To quote Frye, “the Eucharist symbolism of the apocalyptic world, the metaphorical identification of vegetable, animal, human, and divine bodies, should have the imagery of cannibalism for its demonic parody” (AC 148). No one would take the Lord’s supper to be cannibalism. No one would call it cannibalistic when we nurture and support one another by giving from ourselves. Cannibalism, however, with its images of torture and mutilation, is a demonic parody of the Lord’s supper. And reading the Bible in Frye’s spirit, the Lord’s supper appears as the type of the apocalyptic feast at the end of times.

The apocalyptic world is a world of union, and union brings life and fertility. “Fertility,” Frye says, “means food and drink, bread and wine, body and blood, the union of male and female” (AC 193). Eucharist symbolism is apocalyptic because alongside sexuality, eating is the most ancient and the most intensive expression of union both literally and symbolically. In the priest’s story both of these aspects of union are present, and in Bjarne’s approach to Astrid the hope of a redemptive love relationship appears. Furthermore, a strong desire for a harmonious relationship with animals also surfaces. Most of these positive motifs center around the church which stands on a hill above the village, thus providing a perspective, a vantage point both visually and in terms of interpretation. Approached this way, I find it significant that it is the priest who exposes the crime of the butchers because he recognizes the special flavour of the meat. The term “demonic parody” does suggest a connection between the apocalyptic image and its demonic counterpart, but it also implies that it is the apocalyptic which provides the norm. The linking motif, as we have seen, is sacrifice. Love always has a cost. Even in the garden of Eden love meant giving up something of oneself for the sake of the other. In a fallen world of demonic parody this giving, this sacrifice turns into destructive butchering. Yet we know it is only a parody and not the real thing: this is why satire provokes such a nervous laughter.


On-line reviews of Green Butchers

Old priest and his garden not even mentioned (25 reviews)

In English (15)

In Spanish (1)

In Hungarian (7)

In French (2)

Old priest mentioned, but not his garden, or not as a positive contrast (4)

In English (3)

In Hungarian (1)

Priest’s story is mentioned and related to both sacrifice and satire in one Hungarian review written by Gábor Toldi, aesthete at the Roman Catholic University in Hungary:

Works Cited

 Berger, Peter. “The Desecularization of the World: a Global Overview.” The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Grand Rapids Michigan: Eerdman Publishing Company, 1999.

Booth, Wayne. A Rhetoric of Irony. University of Chicago Press, 1975.

de Man, Paul. Blindness and Insight. Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Routhledge, 1983.

Dubois, Diane. “The Absurd Imagination: Northrop Frye and Waiting for Godot.” English Studies in Canada 2 (2011): 111–130.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton University Press, 1957.

____________. “In the Earth or in the Air?” Northrop Frye’s Writings on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Ed. Imre Salusinszky. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005. 219 –228.

____________. Words with Power. Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature.” New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

Kornis, Mihály. A félelem dicsérete. [The Praise of Fear.] Budapest, Szépirodalmi, 1989.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock, 1977.

Whitebook, Joel. Perversion and Utopia: a Study in Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1996.

[1] “The descent of the visionary ladder would take us into a world where subject and object grow steadily further apart, and end by the subject’s becoming an object too.” (WP 87) Analysing Waiting for Godot in a Frygian perspective, Diane Dubois claims that the extreme ironic mode of the play is a result of the characters being trapped by the objectively real and unable to use the transformative power of their imagination to give sense and meaning to the chaos of external reality (Dubois 116, 119, 121).

[2] Advertisement and propaganda, the major arts of our ironic age, says Frye in the 50s, build on an exaggeration of this gap, pretending “to address themselves seriously to a subliminal audience of cretins, an audience that may not even exist, but which is assumed to be simple-minded enough to accept at their face value the statements made about the purity of a soap or a government’s motives. The rest of us, realizing that irony never says precisely what it means, take these arts ironically, or, at least, regard them as a kind of ironic game” (AC 47)

[3] See the Appendix.

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4 thoughts on “The Paradisal Pole: A Frygean Perspective on European Irony

  1. Nicholas William Graham

    This paper is clear and fantastic,i.e., very good.
    The first novel I read, when I came to Toronto from Ireland, to study at the Lonergan Centre, the Canadian, Bernard Lonergan, (1904-1984), was THE EDIBLE WOMAN, the first ironic novel by
    Margaret Atwood. I was lonely and depressed, so my friends warned me not to read it because, they said, it was too ironic. I read it and was surprisingly elated, even though I was still mourning the death of Lonergan. I then changed my studies to Frye and the Frye Centre. It was only then that I got a glimpse of the meaning of irony and its place in our lives, which has been greatly enhanced by this magnificent paper. I give it five stars (*****) and thank you, Sara, very much.


  2. Sára Tóth

    Thank you, Nicholas, for your encouraging response. I do recommend that you watch the film as well. Danish films are great. There is one, however, which is the best of all, Adam’s Apples by the same director (much weightier than Green Butchers but the absurd black humour is similar). Frye would have a lot to say on that. Warm greetings from Sara

  3. Bob Denham

    Sara Toth is a rising star among the Hungarian Frygeans. For us monolingual dullards, might she be willing to translate her recent book into English?


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