Archive for the 'Archetype' Category

Demonic Modulation

Posted by Michael Happy on January 26th, 2010

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The Educated Imagination was the first book by Frye I read, and it’s therefore always a touchstone for me.  You never forget your first love. Meanwhile, Fearful Symmetry remains Frye’s most mind-blowing text, The Great Code his most challenging, and Words With Power his most expansive for practical critical purposes.  But like many Frygians, I’m guessing, I regularly return to Anatomy of Criticism, and, it seems, almost involuntarily. Every once in awhile I find myself preoccupied by something from it that I seem to recall out of the blue.  Thanks to an email exchange with Peter Yan and the cumulative effect of posts over the last week or so, I have been pondering an issue Frye briefly raises in Anatomy that gets relatively little attention (the exception perhaps being Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye and Critical Method): “demonic modulation.”

With demonic modulation Frye makes a much needed distinction between “the moral” and “the desirable”:

The moral and the desirable have many important and significant connections, but still morality, which comes to terms with experience and necessity, is one thing, and desire, which tries to escape from necessity, is quite another. Thus literature is as a rule less inflexible than morality, and it owes much of its status as a liberal art to that fact. The qualities that religion and morality call ribald, obscene, subversive, lewd and blasphemous have an essential place in literature but often they can achieve expression only through ingenious techniques of displacement. (AC 156)

How does demonic modulation manage this? By way of “the deliberate reversal of the customary moral associations of archetypes.”  For example, in literature, whatever the current status of received moral standards,

a free and equal society may be symbolized by a band of robbers, pirates, or gypsies; or true love may be symbolized by the triumph of an adulterous liaison over marriage, as in most triangle comedy; by a homosexual passion (if it is true love that is celebrated in Virgil’s second eclogue) or an incestuous one, as in many Romantics. (AC 156-7)

A.C. Hamilton in Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism describes Anatomy, published in 1957, as very much a book of its time — so Frye’s reference to various forms of forbidden love as “modulations” must have been eyebrow-raising for many conventionally-minded readers.  Frye does not call it that here, but what he is clearly talking about is literature’s unique ability to express primary concerns beyond the pervasive gravitational pull of secondary ones.

I’m pretty sure I can remember the first time I ever became aware of this in my own reading experience: Graham Green’s The Power and the Glory, which was an assigned text back when I was in the 11th grade.  I remember struggling with the contradiction between Greene’s “whiskey priest”‘s all too human frailty and his compelling nature as a human being I felt I could love and identify with, despite his obvious failings.  I’m also pretty sure that even though I wondered about it at the time, I was nevertheless grateful to accept that it was so. Literature was showing me something I otherwise couldn’t account for with any certainty; and within a year I read The Educated Imagination for the first time which articulated what I in some sense already knew but simply could not yet say.

Literature references ideology but does not promote it.  Literature gives expression to primary concerns, most especially when they are contrary to the ideologies that readily suppress them.  Desire may on occasion be moral, but the moral can never contain desire — and in the struggle between the moral as a secondary concern and desire as a primary one, desire always prevails.  That, paraphrasing Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, is what fiction means.

Virginity in Book I of “The Faerie Queene”

Posted by Trevor Losh-Johnson on January 12th, 2010

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John Singleton Copely, The Red Cross Knight, 1793

With this post, Trevor Losh-Johnson joins us as a byline correspondent.

My orientation to romance is by way of The Faerie Queene, where many of the motifs of romance occur in a more condensed form.  And, since Spenser crops up again and again in Frye, it might be worth posting some thoughts regarding the role of virginity in that poem, especially in its first book, which deals with the quest of the Redcrosse Knight.

As she is literally as pure as the driven snow, it is easy to take Una as a prototypical romantic virgin.  In the third essay of Anatomy, Frye notes that Una’s parents, “are Adam and Eve; their kingdom is Eden or the unfallen world, and the dragon, who is the entire fallen world, is identified with the leviathan… Thus St. George’s mission, a repetition of that of Christ, is by killing the dragon to raise Eden in the wilderness and restore England to the status of Eden.” (194). Una’s black wimple, a hymen of sorts, is worn also as a mark of mourning for her parent’s fallen kingdom, and her marriage to Redcrosse (St. George) can only occur once her kingdom is restored.  Indeed, once Redcrosse delivers the kingdom, her veil is lifted to reveal her face, and that deliverance is perhaps a public expression of the perennially deferred, private consummation with Redcrosse.

The doubling of heroines Joe speaks of occurs here in the context of demonic parody.  Duessa, who is allegorically the Whore of Babylon, parodies Una, who is allegorically the one true faith.  An essential function of Duessa is that she briefly tempts and enthralls Redcrosse from this ultimate consummation.  As for the role of gender, virginity is expected of Redcrosse in the context of fidelity.  The purgatorial House of Holiness is attended by, among many virtues, Fidelia and Speranza, who are also virgins.  Their mother is, however, Caelia, who to “a louely fere/ Was lincked, and by him had many pledges dere.”  There may be a buried analogy between the virgin Fidelity in her married mother’s House of Holiness and the virgin Una who shall be married and inherit the regenerated society of her parents.

In the third book, the virtue of Chastity is also framed in the context of fidelity, and it is expected that there will be lots of sex when Britomart finally unites with Artegall.  It is noteworthy that Britomart is to embody the virtue of Chastity, and not the flat virginity that Una embodies until her kingdom is released.  But this may have its basis less in the manifold politics of gender than in the structure of the allegorical romance.  Generally, as far as I can dimly see, the characters and stations that populate the quest are objectified projections of the central figure.  In this solipsistic world, Redcrosse is anatomized by the other characters, and Una’s virginity may be a static expression of his own chastity.  To whatever extent this can be said, I think that the progress of the first book’s quest may be read as an alignment between the progress from the fallen world to Eden and the progress from a hostile virginity to sexual chastity.  It also parallels the process of condensation from the literature of doppelganger heroines to the chastity of Adam and Eve that Frye explores in Words With Power.

As convoluted as this may sound, there seems to be in romance a connection between the upwards movement from virginity to chastity and Frye’s discussion of the Eden metaphor, to wit, “What is significant is the way in which poets preserve and emphasize the metaphorical identity of the bride’s body and the garden, which enables them to associate sexual emotion with visions of a renewed nature.” (198).

The Doubled Heroine Device, or Betty and Veronica

Posted by Joseph Adamson on January 10th, 2010

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In response to the “virginity” thread started by Jonathan Allan’s post, I think it wrong to suggest that Frye himself has gendered virginity: he is simply describing what he finds in literature, and he is obviously well aware of the value put on virginity as a commodity in a patriarchal culture, as his allusion to the danger of losing one’s bargaining position indicates. In romance this aspect of virginity is naturally enough prominent because the female protagonist is headed for marriage and must keep herself intact for Mr Right. As Frye says, the G-string comes off last. This can mean not just outwitting pirates and other villains but also keeping her true love, when he acts like a pirate himself (as in Pamela and Jane Eyre), from treating her as a slave or social inferior and trying to take her virginity before he has married her. But this is precisely what makes virginity a structural principle in romance, as the heroine uses her wiles to escape, survive, and attain sexual union with the right man at the end of the story. This is all of course discussed in The Secular Scripture.

Where virginity comes to take on another dimension is the point of the epigraph from Frye that Bob used in his post: “virgnity means a transcending of sex.” Jonathan Allen commented in this regard on the device of the two heroines, quoting the pertinent passage from The Secular Scripture: “the virgin who marries at the end of the story, we saw, represents the structural principle of the cycle and accommodation of it. The virgin who is sacrificed, or escapes sacrifice and remains a virgin, similarly symbolizes the other principle, the separation or polarizing of action into two worlds, one desirable and the other detestable” (83; CW XVIII: 56).

The two heroines can also represent what Frye calls the two cadences or “creative moods” of romance, the comic and the tragic or romantic, the social and the withdrawn, the world of ritual and the world of dream. The device is, in general terms, part of the general structure of doubling in descent narratives, a milder form of the doubling that you get in a tale like Poe’s William Wilson. An important prototype is Milton’s two muses in L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, the one sociable and light-hearted, the other withdrawn and pensive.

Scott used the device in several of his novels and brought it into into popular use in the nineteenth century where it is all but ubiquitous, at least in the Anglo-American tradition; it does not seem, as far as I can tell, to have the same prevalence on the Continent. Stendhal–an early and avid reader of Scott–uses a version of the device in his two great novels, The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma: Julien Sorel is torn between the withdrawn and pensive Louise de Renal and the more political and theatrical Mathilde de la Mole; Fabrice del Dongo is torn between his socially adept and politically astute aunt, Gina Sanseverina, and the withdrawn and melancholic Clelia Conti.

The device is now known in my classes, thanks to a student wit, as the Betty-and-Veronica device. By the way, I was told by the same young woman that the problem of the two heroines is beautifully solved in the Archie comics: in a recent issue of the comic book Archie marries both of them, thanks to the possible futures of Borges’s garden of forking paths.

A romance device, the doubled heroine is a central structural principle in realist novels as well: George Eliot uses it in a number of her novels: Lucy Deane and Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss (where the device itself is a meta-fictional theme in the novel: Maggie says she cannot finish novels in which the “dark unhappy ones” are doomed from the beginning); Dorothea Brooke and Rosamund Vincy in Middlemarch; and Gwendolyn Harleth and Mirah Cohen in Daniel Deronda. The latter breaks with the tradition, which goes back to Scott and the two heroines of Ivanhoe, by having the hero marry the dark Jewish heroine, the Rebecca figure, and reject the Rowena figure, Gwendolyn. As Russell Perkin noted in a previous post, there is a good example of it in Mad Men: Don Draper is torn between his uptight conventional blond wife, Betty, and the dark and alluring Jewish businesswomen, Rachel Menken.

There are of course male versions of the same thing (Wuthering Heights and Gone with The Wind being obvious examples), and Frye even gives an example of an unhappy male virgin who is sacrificed: “the martyrdom of Sydney Carton at the end of A Tale of Two Cities.”

The device, which is first briefly discussed in Anatomy, is one of those conventions that Frye draws attention to as part of a much larger argument, but which is really worth a book-long study in its own right. I wonder, Jonathan, if your “virginity” project might not be turned more fruitfully in the direction of the doubled heroine convention itself.

Male Virgins

Posted by Bob Denham on January 7th, 2010

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Reubens, Venus and Adonis, c. 1635

Responding to Jonathan Allan.

“Virginity means a transcending of sex”––“Third Book” Notebooks

I suspect that Frye associates females with virginity because that is the typical association he found in the tradition of literature, sacred and secular. But he clearly recognized the category of the male virgin. In Words with Power he writes,

The original adam, alone in his garden, was involuntarily virginal, and illustrates the theme of the virgin who has a peculiarly intimate relationship to an idealized natural environment. The term virgin is usually associated with females, but long before Genesis we have the pathetic story of Enkidu in the Gilgamesh epic, the wild man of the woods made by the gods to subdue Gilgamesh, but so feared by human society that they send a whore to seduce him. After she completes her assignment the link between Enkidu and the animals who once responded to his call was snapped forever.

The figure of Orpheus in Greece, if not strictly virginal, also has a magically close affinity with nature: he is a musician, and music symbolizes the harmony that holds heaven and earth in union on the paradisal level of existence. Female virgins, again, have been credited for centuries with magical powers over nature, including the taming of wild beasts, the attracting of unicorns, and an uncanny knowledge of herbs.

In his notes on Achilles Tatius, The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon, Frye observes that when the

hero is making row about sacrilege in temple he says he’s a free man and a citizen of no mean city (ouk aemou poleos polites), which is quoted from Acts 21:39. Maybe Achilles Tacitus was a bishop after all: his bishop, anyway, if the translation is right, is a most urbane character, said to be familiar with Aristophanes, whose speech in court is full of double entendres about his opponent’s character (Thersander). Note the continuity of Paul’s wanderings around the Mediterranean and later romance. It must mean something that the heroine’s virginity is preserved only by accident and the hero’s isn’t at all.

In Notebook 50, par. 9, Frye writes about the passage in Revelation 14:4––“the business about those not defiled with women.” Later in the same notebook (par. 242) he says, “The male virgins in Revelation [14:4] (I probably have this) are the antitype of the fucking sons of God in Genesis 6.” Then again (par. 453), “It’s bloody confusing to read in Revelation that the redeemed are all male virgins, never ‘defiled’ with women [14:4]. [See Words with Power, 127, 275.] Not that anyone ever took it––well––literally: cf. the 14th c. Pearl. [The Pearl-poet did take the Revelation account literally. See Pearl, ll. 865 ff., where the poet takes pains to insist that the account of the male virgins in Revelation is true.] Its demonic parody, as I’ve said [par. 242], is Genesis 6:1-4: the Rev. [Revelation] bunch are sons of God who stay where they are, & don’t go “whoring” after lower states of being.”

In Words with Power Frye refers approvingly to Meister Eckhart telling “his congregation that each of them was a virgin mother charged with the responsibility of bringing the Word to birth; but then Eckhart did understand the language of proclamation that grows out of myth, and its invariable connection with the present tense.”

The notion of male virginity is implicit in this passage from Notebook 3 (par. 67):

Virginity is of course a Selfhood symbol, and the surrender of virginity in marriage is part of the losing one’s life to gain it pattern. By entrusting their virginities to one another, husband & wife recover their individualities, & advance from the purely generic physical relation to the purely human one of companionship. Possessiveness & jealousy are thus the perversions or analogies of what really happens in marriage. Blake would say that the hymen was the home of the Amalekites.

And then this, from “The Third Book” Notebooks (Notebook 12, par. 394):

Pound’s remark, a far more incisive one than Nietzsche’s, about the difference between those who thought fucking was good for the crops & those who thought it was bad for them, defines the contrast between the shy virginal Adonis, the women lamenting his virginity like Jephtha’s virginal daughter, Attis with his castrating priests, Jesus with his “touch me not” & his homosexual refinement—chaste, anyway—& his elusive ascension, are all in the upper sphere of the purified soul. [Pound’s remark: ““The opposing systems of European morality go back to the opposed temperaments of those who thought copulation was good for the crops, and the opposed faction who thought it was bad for the crops (the scarcity economists of pre-history)” (Ezra Pound, Make It New [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935)], 17).]

In short, I think the notion that “virginity [is] uniquely concerned with the female subject” in Frye needs to be qualified by considering his occasional remarks about male virginity.

Jonathan Allan: Northrop Frye’s Virginity

Posted by Guest Blogger on January 7th, 2010

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Millais’s Ophelia, 1852

Jonathan Allan, a doctoral candidate in English at University of Toronto, will be joining us as a byline correspondent

As I complete the closing chapters of my dissertation and begin an extensive revision, I realize that I have an ongoing debate with Frye in my own notebooks: a debate that unfortunately does not unfold in the dissertation.  There is one point of contention that I run up against over and over again.

Frye writes of the “magical emphasis on virginity [in romance], the fact that virgins can do things others can’t” (CW XV:219, 236); he adds that “virginity is somehow in tune with an unfallen version of the world itself” (CW XV:219).  More specific to my own concerns is Frye’s observation that “this prudery [about virginity in romance] is structural, not moral” (CW XV:187).  Most of these notions find their way into The Secular Scripture in which Frye writes that “apart from the idealizing of the pre-sexual state, there is a sense in which virginity is an appropriate image for attaining original identity: what is objectively untouched symbolizes what is subjectively contained so to speak” (153; CW XVIII:101).  Earlier in The Secular Scripture, Frye writes: “one can, of course, understand an emphasis on virginity in romance on social grounds.  In the social conditions assumed, virginity is to a woman what honor is to a man, the symbol of the fact that she is not a slave.  Behind all the ‘fate worse than death’ situations that romance delights in, there runs the sense that a woman deprived of her virginity, by any means except a marriage she has at least consented to, is, to put it vulgarly, in an impossible bargaining position.  But the social reasons for the emphasis on virginity, however obvious, are still not enough for understanding the structure of romance” (73; CW XVIII:49-50).  It is clear that virginity becomes a central aspect of the romance structure and that the role of virginity is not moral.  However, if this is really indeed the case, why has Frye gendered virginity?  Why is virginity uniquely concerned with the female subject?

The romance as a generic model does not preclude the hero from being a virgin or virginal; thus, it seems imperative to ask why this model of purity is not ascribed to both the male and female if it only serves a structural goal?  Indeed, if one looks to contemporary fiction, it might be demonstrated that the “virginal” male is certainly present: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight goes to great pains to ensure the virginity of its hero; likewise, in a recent review of Dan Brown’s latest opus, The Lost Symbol, Maureen Dowd notes: “[e]ven though Katherine seems like [Robert] Langdon’s soul mate – she even knows how to weigh souls – their most torrid sex scenes consist of Robert winking at her or flashing her a lopsided grin.”  There are surely dozens of examples of this virginal behaviour that extends beyond the female to the male.  It is likely there is debate about whether the male virgin even exists – two recent books on the subject would certainly cast doubt upon such a notion; Hanne Blank’s Virgin: The Untouched History (2007) and Anke Bernau’s Virgins: A Cultural History (2007) seem to evade the question entirely and only refer to it when absolutely necessary.

If virginity affords the heroine “magical powers,” what is the source of the “magical powers” of the hero?  In upcoming work, I aim to reconsider the question of virginity in Northrop Frye’s theorisations of romance; however, such a study, as I am quickly learning, requires a re-reading of the very notion of virginity precisely because cultural historians seem not to recognize the very possibility of such a notion.  In this regard, it is hardly surprising that Frye should not have considered the question of the hero being virginal.  This question of virginity, of course, is not unique to the amorous romance novel alone; one need only think as far as Treasure Island wherein one could define the island itself as virginal – though most of the male characters seem rather virginal as well.  One might also consider a tale like Peter Pan as yet another example of the virginal hero; however, in the case of Peter Pan there is a movement towards asexuality or a sexless identity.   

Thus, the question that I keep returning to is: how can virginity be structural alone and not also part of a greater moral concern?  The romance need not offer a defence of abstinence – as is the case of Meyer’s Twilight – but virginity must, and I would argue does, serve some purpose beyond the structure of the narrative.  The only way, I would imagine, that virginity could serve some structural purpose alone – one that allows for magical things to happen – is if this virginity existed in both hero and heroine.  For this virginity to exist, it must also be recognized, and therein lies the problem – how does one account for this seeming paradox in Frye’s theory of romance?  Thus, the question that now haunts my current research (and as I begin to finish my dissertation with better questions than when I started) is about the nature and theory of virginity in the romance.

A Summary of Frye’s The Secular Scripture

Posted by Joseph Adamson on November 28th, 2009

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A Summary of The Secular Scripture: the following is a revised and expanded version of the summary published in the introduction to The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1976-991. Volume 18 of Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Edited by Joseph Adamson and Jean Wilson. University of Toronto Press © 2005.

The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance was originally delivered in April 1975 as a series of lectures during Frye’s term as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. The occasion spurred Frye to develop more extensively his thoughts about romance as a literary form, a subject already central to the four essays in Anatomy of Criticism. At the end of his discussion of archetypal criticism in the second essay of that book, he observes that “archetypes are most easily studied in highly conventionalized literature: that is, for the most part, naive, primitive, and popular literature,” and he suggests “the possibility of extending the kind of comparative and morphological study now made of folk tales and ballads into the rest of literature” (104). In NB 56, one of the “Secular Scripture” notebooks, he remarks that after searching for some time for “a unified theme,” he now has “the main structure of a book [he has] been ambitious to write for at least twenty years, without understanding what it was, except in bits and pieces” (par. 157). His hope is to “make it the subject of [the lectures] at Harvard. After all, it’s fundamentally an expansion of the paper I did for the Harvard myth conference.” The latter paper, “Myth, Fiction, and Displacement” (FI, 21-38), outlines and develops a “central principle about ‘myth criticism’: that myth is a structural element in literature because literature as a whole is a ‘displaced’ mythology” (FI, 1).

The Secular Scripture explores three related areas of thought that will continue to preoccupy Frye: the dialectical polarization of imagery into desirable and abhorrent worlds; the recovery of myth in the act of literary recreation; and the struggle and complementarity between secular and sacred scriptures, between human words and the word of God.

The specific subject of The Secular Scripture is the study of sentimental romance, the literary development of the formulas found in the oral culture of the folk tale. It first appears in European literature in the Greek and Latin romances of the early common era. As a central form it surfaces again in the medieval romances and in the Elizabethan reworkings of the conventions of Greek romance, reemerging in the Gothic novels of the eighteenth century, and forming the structural basis of a great variety of nineteenth-century prose fiction, most explicitly in writers such as Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Morris.

In the twentieth century and beyond it appears again most unabashedly in fantasy and science fiction. Recent examples of the recurrent appeal of romance can be seen in the long-term success of the Star Wars films, the spectacular popularity of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (and films), and the renewed interest in the cinematic version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, as well as in the widespread appeal of mystery novels, crime fiction, and Gothic horror fiction and “thrillers,” not to mention the remarkable pervasiveness of all these forms of romance in current film and television.

Frye observes that the forms of storytelling peculiar to saga, legend, and folk tale do not differ essentially from those of the Bible and certain other texts–the “epic of the creator”–which have had a sacred circle drawn around them by religious and cultural authority. The distinction between sacred and secular scriptures, as far as Frye is concerned, is primarily one of social context. Sentimental romance–the “epic of the creature”–has been vilified for centuries by the established cultural tradition, largely because of its unsanctioned preoccupation with sex and violence, and the disapproval of such “proletarian” or popular forms holds even today. Even when they become privileged objects of study, as is currently the case in cultural and film studies, the interest is often largely confined to their hidden ideological imperatives–what they tell us to believe or do.

The term “popular culture” has a widespread currency today, and its definition is often disputed. Frye offers what appears to be a very simple definition, at least of its literary form. It is that area of verbal culture–ballads, folk tales, and folk songs, for instance–which requires for its appreciation minimal expertise and education, and is therefore available to the widest possible audience. At the same time, by virtue of its wide-ranging appeal, popular literature often points the way to future literary developments, for with the exhaustion of a literary tradition there is often a return to primitive formulas, as was the case with Greek romance and the Gothic novel. Frye does not imply any value judgment in distinguishing popular from elite culture. He insists, instead, that they are both ultimately two aspects of the same “human compulsion to create in the face of chaos.”

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Leviathan and Dostoevsky’s Crocodile

Posted by Joseph Adamson on November 8th, 2009

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As a way perhaps of tying together two of the recent threads on the blog, I thought I might offer up this little piece as an intriguing example of Leviathan symbolism. It is a summary of Dostoevsky’s unfinished grotesque allegorical satire, “The Crocodile,” from Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, vol. 4 of Joseph Frank’s monumental critical biography.

The Jonah/Leviathan archetype is all the more resonant in the tale because it is a playful but deadly serious satirical attack on the murderous logic of ideologies–in this case the opposing faiths of capitalism and socialism–and the way in which the primary demands of human welfare are so “rationally” sacrificed to the secondary concerns of ideology:

The Crocodile concerns the fantastic adventure of a conceited bureaucrat of ‘advanced’ opinions, who is accidentally swallowed by a crocodile on exhibition in St. Petersburg and quite contentedly swallowed by a crocodile on exhibition in St. Petersburg and quite contentedly takes up residence in his belly. From this secure vantage point, whose isolation allows him the leisure to concentrate his mind, he decides to proclaim a whole new set of ideas about the future improvement of mankind. As he explains his enthusiasm, “you have only to creep . . . into a crocodile . . . shut your eyes, and you immediately devise a perfect millennium for mankind.” This mockery of a visionary Utopianism, however, is not Dostoevsky’s main target; rather, he focuses on the futile attempt made by a naive friend of the crocodile-dweller, concerned about his health and welfare, to initiate a rescue effort before he dissolves entirely in the reptile’s gastric juices. This well-meant humanitarian aim is opposed by a highly placed bureaucrat, who has recently been convinced by an important capitalist that Russia is greatly in need of new foreign investments. The crocodile is the property of a visiting German entrepreneur, and any injury to it would only discourage the flow of capital into the country and hinder Russian economic expansion.

The crocodile-dweller himself, though “progressive” to the tips of his toes, nonetheless agrees with the capitalist’s reasoning: before all else, “the principles of economics” must be respected. All consideration of simple “humanity” are thus swept aside, and the logic of utility, the logic of economics, triumphs over the plight of a human being. The advocate of capitalist enterprise and the inventor of a new millennium are in complete accord; both right and left in Russia, as Dostoevsky saw it, had now accepted exactly the same chilling and inhumane prescriptions for human conduct.

More on Robert Alter and Frye

Posted by Joseph Adamson on November 8th, 2009

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Responding to Bob’s post on the Leviathan symbolism in the Bible:

Yes, and Alter, in the same essay, says that Leviathan is confined to the “cage” of Job, Isaiah, and the Psalms, as if these were minor books of the Bible and the imagery was in some kind of quarantine from the rest of the biblical story.

For Frye’s take on Blake’s use of the Leviathan symbolism, It is worth reading Clayton Chrusch’s summary of chapter five of Fearful Symmetry. Here is an excerpt concerning the cluster of imagery attached to Satan and the serpent:

Alter is an excellent example of a militantly centrifugal critic, a normative realist or descriptivist. He puts all his intellectual energy into directing the verbal traffic of the Bible and literature outside, a critical cop breaking up any gathering of images. OK, move along now, disperse. The ideological underpinnings are worth noting: there is nothing but an objective dimension to reality, this is the way things are: obey and work.

” The serpent, actually, takes a number of symbolic forms: a Satanic form that tempts Adam, an Adamic form representing fallen humanity, and a Messianic or revolutionary form, where it is nailed to the tree of mystery as Orc, representing death and rebirth. The serpent also has a Chaotic form which is more sinister than its Satanic form. In this form, it manifests as a dragon ridden by Rahab or the Great Whore (Mystery), a Covering Cherub blocking the way to Eden, or as Leviathan. This symbolism means that the basis of all tyranny is chaos.”

That the basis of all tyranny is chaos may explain the title of Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan: the idea that the only thing that can defend against the perceived chaos of life in a state of nature, which is also the perceived chaos of human nature, is a Leviathan-like political tyranny. Moby-Dick, as Frye has pointed out, is perhaps greatest example of Leviathan imagery in literature: Ahab projects a paranoid vision of chaotic nature and evil onto Moby Dick and creates at the same time, in his bloody hunt for the whale, an authoritarian system of tyranny aboard the Pequod.

It is true that one has to learn how to think archetypally as a critic, and one can simply refuse to learn, but that is to simply ignore the imaginative element in the act of reading any story or poem, and this critical position can easily take advantage of the fact that the imaginative element in reading literature takes place mostly on an unconscious level, precisely because it is a compressed skill we learn from childhood on.

Alter also dismisses out of hand Frye’s reading of the earth=mother/bride imagery in the second creation story: again, as Bob puts it, Frye has got biblical (and other) scholarship on his side, at least in the way in which creation myths are always versions, displacements, adaptations of competing mythologies, such as the agricultural myth of a symbolically female reproductive Nature. In this case, however, because we are dealing with a sexual myth of creation, female symbolism, and what Frye calls the patriarchal set-up and a “sexual neurosis,” the repression is greater and the displacement is all the more marked. Frye emancipates this imagery in his reading of the second creation myth in chapter six of Words with Power, in a way that is consistent with a feminist approach to scripture.

Phases of Symbolism

Posted by Bob Denham on October 28th, 2009

Further to the ongoing discussion on archetype, here is a chart I put together about 40 years ago:

Phases of Symbolism

Archetype and Spengler

Posted by Guest Blogger on October 28th, 2009

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Jonathan Allan, in response to Clayton Chrusch’s “Five Questions about Archetype”:

It is interesting here to note that Spengler also makes use of “archetype” in Decline of the West, a book which Frye certainly read as is evidenced by his comment that Spengler’s book was “perhaps the most important book yet produced by the twentieth century” (CW III:212). Spengler writes, “Is it possible to find in life itself — for human history is the sum of mighty life-courses which already have had to be endowed with ego and personality, in customary thought and expression, by predicating entities of higher order like ‘the Classical’ or ‘the Chinese Culture,’ ‘Modern Civilization’ — a series of stages which must be traversed, and traversed moreover in an ordered and obligatory sequence? For everything organic the notions of birth, death, youth, age, lifetime, are fundamentals–may not these notions, in this sphere also, possess a rigorous meaning which no one has as yet extracted? In short, is all history founded upon general biographic archetypes?” Perhaps this is another way of considering Frye’s relation to the archetype.


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