An Outline of “The Expanding World of Metaphor”

Frye on Metaphor: An Outline of “The Expanding World of Metaphor”(from Myth and Metaphor, 108–23)

O mysteries at least two score
With “Northrop Frye on metaphor.”
But let us turn our metascope
On what Frye says about this trope.
No similes for Northrop Frye:
Likeness can’t identify.

1.  The movement or pattern of Frye’s thought in this essay is from contraction to expansion.



Art of words (language): Frye leaves the whole question of language alone

Art of words (language): Frye restricts his discussion to art, or so it first appears

Structural patterns

Accidental sound patterns  [“five miles meandering with a mazy motion” (Coleridge)]

Puns, ambiguities [“we die and rise the same” (Donne)]

All figurative language

2.  Figurative language is a matter of “resonance among signifiers” rather that the relation of signifiers to signifieds.  That is, the important thing about poetic language is the way that words relate to other words in the poem rather than to things in the outside world.  In the Coleridge line above, for example, the important thing is the way that “miles” relates to other words in the line, and to the poem as a whole, rather than to the facts that a mile is 5,280 feet as a unit of measure.

3.  [A little digression here on the two contexts for poetry (the poem’s meanings for the poet’s time and its meaning for ours) and the importance of poetry as an oral convention.

4. P. 111.  Argument turns back to figurative language.  Frye makes several points here:

Metaphor is based on the grammatical model of identifying two things: A is B

This is a primitive mode of thought in which some aspect of human personality is identified with something natural.  In primitive religion, we have the same thing: gods identified with a natural feature: sun-god, tree-god, river-god, rain-god, thunder-god, etc.

In primitive culture, no distinction between subject and object.  In such a situation, Frye says, “a channel or current of energy is opened up between the human and the natural worlds.”

This is similar to what Heidegger calls “ecstatic metaphor.”  “Ecstatic” from the Greek ekstasis = ex (from) + stasis (state of standing).  That is, in ecstasy one is moved from a stationary or passive state into a trance; one is displaced into another kind of state altogether.  [Ekstasis is the word Longinus uses on his On the Sublime to characterize what happens to readers when certain passages in literature create the effect of sublimity: we are put out of our place, we are transported, elevated, lifted out of ourselves.  “Sublime” is a word that has metaphorical roots itself: sub (under) + lim (lintel); if one is under the lintel, one is high up.]

P. 112.  Frye’s examples:

The Lascaux cave drawings: what we have here is an identification between the artist and some animal spirit.

Primitive music: identification of conscious with something else

Saul: Samuel tells Saul that when the prophets come down from the hill, he will prophecy with them and he will be turned into or identified with another man.

5.  The essence of Frye’s comments on consciousness in p. 112 are drawn from Julian Jaynes’s The Origins of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  Jaynes maintains that consciousness arose about 1000 B.C. when there was a synthesis of the right and the left brain.  Then, from about the 10th–2nd centuries B.C. brains became bicameral, that is, split as in schizophrenia.  For Frye this means that human beings began to become aware of the difference between subject (the perceiving self) and the object (things outside the self).  With this comes the sense of literature as something hypothetical, fictional, play-like, not related to belief.  Metaphor, in other words, becomes literary.

In Ovid, we get the disintegration of metaphor.  People get changed into trees and rocks and flowers and animals in the 250 stories of his Metamorpooses.  There is no longer an identity between the self and the natural world.  They, in effect, lose their humanity, their identity, or their original identity is reduced to something less than human.

Now for Frye this is something to be regretted.  He prefers the primitive conception.  He wants to maintain that the ordinary view that such primitive conceptions of identity are something we need to outgrow is misguided.  Thus his punch line in the first part of the essay: “”One of the social functions of literature is to keep alive the metaphorical way of thinking and of using words” (p. 113).  He calls on Lévy-Bruhl’s notion of participation mystique, a mystique caused by participatory ritual.  This is a communal rite associated with “charm” or magic.  In primitive societies it could be sustained for hours through dance.  In our own society, it survives in such things as college yells, rock concerts, and the mesmerizing rhetoric of someone like Hitler.  We see it perhaps also in charismatic religious services, with their chanting, speaking in tongues, and other trances.

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