Category Archives: Imagination

A Summary of Frye’s The Secular Scripture


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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Show business kids makin’ movies of themselves / You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else. Steely Dan, “Show Biz Kids“. (Rickie Lee Jones‘s superior cover of the song is featured above).

When Joe Adamson and I were thinking about setting up this blog, Joe said that he wanted it to be like the best aspects of a conference: people milling around amid the serious business of papers and panels, talking, laughing, enjoying one another’s company, with all of the unexpected pleasures and discoveries that come with it.  It’s a good analogy.

For me the analogy is more like a gin joint.  The occupants — having knocked, identified themselves, and gained ready admission — are smart, know what they’re about, and, their tongues loosened, are free to say whatever they want.  We keep good company but are up for shenanigans, maybe even fisticuffs, if necessary.  But the most important thing is that the talk take any form that follows and follow any path it finds.

And that has certainly been true this last week. Over the last couple of days, for example, the conversation — initiated by Russell Perkin and with significant contributions from Clayton Chrusch, Matthew Griffin, Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham — has  centred on Frye, religion, the Bible, and The Great Code.

One of the best things about administering the blog with Joe is that we must deal with every comment and post that comes our way; and, of course, there’s a rich email correspondence going on behind the scenes.  That combination — posts, comments, email — has really clarified at least a couple of things for me this past week.  The first is that even with our small core of regular contributors, we speak with many voices, and that’s exactly what Joe and I hoped for.  What we all have in common are varying degrees of admiration for Frye, but it’s also very clear how diverse our views can be.  The debate we’re having is the sort of thing I’ve dreamed of for a very long time, and I’m enjoying it now with some of the best company imaginable, whose numbers I expect will only increase.

The other issue that’s been clarified for me is confronting what it means to be the kind of Frygian I am, and that’s been helped especially by the email correspondence.  What I’ve had to deal with in particular are the implications of truly, genuinely believing that there was an historical divergence in literary theory and criticism about forty years ago, represented primarily by Derrida and deconstruction on one side and Frye and recreation on the other, and that the road not taken was the better one. Frye, for me — and I know I’m not alone in this — is more than just another literary critic, a great among greats.  For many of us, he is a rare sort of genius whose presence on the scene changes it. As Joe put it the other day, picking up on a suggestion by Michael Sinding, maybe Frye was the paradigm shift that literary scholarship as a whole just can’t see yet.  Jonathan Allan earlier this week cited McMaster’s David Clark’s remarks on Frye and Derrida:

I want to say right away that Frye’s work is richly significant. He played a crucially important role in the history of Canadian letters and in the life of a particular Canadian academic imaginary, signs of which are still to be found in the university. One of the things we have yet to see, though, are slow readers–to remember something Nietzsche once said–of Frye’s work, i.e. readers who put enough confidence in the complexity and critical power of his work to be willing and able to read it resistantly and against the grain, and to read it symptomatically, with an eye to its productive self-differences, occlusions, and unconsciousnesses.

Well, okay: “a particular Canadian academic imaginary, signs of which are still to be found in the university”?  Maybe. But perhaps scholars like Clark might acknowledge at this point that insisting upon “against the grain” readings is not exactly kicking at the pricks, and the reflexive demand “to read it symptomatically” is possibly only a symptom of a deeper pathology.  Today’s established literary scholars may still think of themselves as plucky revolutionaries dismantling various hegemonies, but, after a generation of dominance, they seem much more like post-revolutionary commissars with quotas to fill and vested interests to protect.  In any event, I’m not so slow a reader that I’m unable to recognize what Frye calls “the squirrel’s chatter” of academic cant when I see it.

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Frye and Oedipus Rex


Responding a little more to Russell Perkin’s last post:

Your “superstitious” response to teaching Oedipus Rex is understandable. I recall a workshop, where a teacher (after 30 years experience) didn’t feel ready to tackle Oedipus Rex, which struck me as odd, seeing that the plot seems pretty reader friendly, as opposed to “writerly,” to use Roland Barthes’s term. But now I know how deep the play is after applying Frye to it.

Frye’s archetypal criticism effectively places the work at the centre of the literary and social universe, where the Bible, Literature, Film, Popular Culture, Literary Criticism, Psychology, and Sociology orbit around it.


Reuben sleeps with Israel’s concubine (Genesis 35:22).

Adam rejects the Sky Father to be with the Earth Mother.

Jesus is the opposite of Oedipus: Oedipus kills Father and possesses mother sexually. Jesus obeys Father (Father kills son) and marries mother spiritually, as He is everyone’s (The Church’s) bridegroom.

The curse and plagues and unknown suffering echoes Moses and the Pharoahs and Job.


Countless stories of Father killing son, son killing father, incest, search for origins, prophecy: see “My Oedipus Complex” by Frank O’Connor.


Too many to count, but most popular include Killing of the Father (James Bond: The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day; Gladiator, Star Wars).

Popular Culture:

The Rap song by Immortal Technique Dance with the Devil where gang initiation results in son raping and killing mother.

Literary Criticism:

The Oedipus myth is used as a critical term/conceptual myth by Harold Bloom, in ways the writer writes (anxiety of influence) and readers read (misreading), both trying to kill off earlier influence.


Obviously, The Oedipus Complex. Even the 5 Stages of Grief (Oedipus goes through Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Acceptance) appear here first. And Jung’s idea of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, is the basis of every literary action/plot.


The search for the adopted parents, usually the father, is a major issue given the popularity and technology of sperm donors.

Video of Immortal Technique’s Dance with the Devil after the break.

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Ghosts and Angels



Several of my plans have come smack up against a theory of Bardo, & I can’t help wondering if I don’t need at least a literary theory of ghosts, if not of the whole supernatural. I must start with the vampire theme in Wuthering Heights & see if I can attach it to my floating notions about the echo & the preservation of identity in DM [Daisy Miller], & of the returning ghost in Senecan revenge plays as neurotic, blocked & bound to a pattern of recurrence. The ghost theme in Eliot’s Waste Land (water-nymphs recalling the bodiless souls of Purgatory) winds up with a quotation from the Spanish Tragedy [ll. 266 ff., 432]. Also the Kurtz business, Kurtz being, like Heathcliffe, a “lost violent” soul [The Hollow Men, l. 15–16]. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism,” CW 23, 222)


If I had been out on the hills of Bethlehem on the night of the birth of Christ, with the angels singing to the shepherds, I think that I should not have heard any angels singing. The reason why I think so is that I do not hear them now, and there is no reason to suppose that they have stopped. (The Critical Path, 114)

History tells the reader what he would have seen if he’d been present, say, at the assassination of Caesar. But what the Gospels tell us is rather something like this: if you had been present on the hills of Bethlehem in the year nothing, you might not have heard a chorus of angels. But what you would have seen and heard would have missed the whole point of what was actually going on. Thus, the antitypes of history and of prophecy as we have them in the gospel and the apocalypse give you not what you would have seen and heard, or what I would have seen and heard, but what was actually going on which we don’t have the spiritual vision to reach to. (“Kerygma,” in Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, CW 13, 588)

Mervyn Nicholson: Frye Was Different (2)


Frye was different in many ways.  In this respect, he was like his mentor, William Blake, who has always presented problems, even anxieties, to literary scholars.  Somehow Blake was outside the main current, and Frye sort of is, too.

Frye was different, to begin with, in the fact that he validated human desire.  I noted before that he believed desire was good.  In this, Frye was in opposition to most traditions and unlike most intellectuals.  This difference in attitude has profound significance and profound effects on his thinking generally, but the validation of desire was not the only difference that sets Frye apart.  Another important difference is that he thought a good deal about the question what is the social function of literature.

This is not a question that attracts literary scholars.  It isn’t easy to think of any conference on the topic or anybody who got a SSHRC grant to investigate the question, what is the social function of literature? even though it seems to be a rather obvious question and one of considerable, again obvious, importance.  Frye was different — he thought about this throughout his career.  The question in true Frye fashion points to a prior question, which is: does literature has a social function?  Frye insisted that it does have a social function, and then went on to investigate what that function was.

It is interesting that literary critics have not bothered with either of these questions much.  Critics did talk about this before Frye (a bit, anyway), but after Frye — after his reputation collapsed in the 1970s — no one seems to even notice that it is a question.  Poststructuralism was hardly interested.  Poststructuralism is essentially a denial of value or function to literature — this neutralization is a basic theme of Paul de Man, for example.

The logic of the New Historicism is to deny the existence of a category called ”literature” altogether; there are just texts, and what is called “literature” is just an elitist preference for one text over another.  Since there is no such thing as literature, the whole question of whether it has a function or not is superfluous, even meaningless.  What has been called literature is primarily a display of the preoccupations, prejudices, and anxieties of the author, exactly like any other text

The social function of literature is a difficult topic because it implies the further question, why study literature? (and then, why have English departments?).  In the past, there were theorists who asked what the value of literature is — “value” in the sense of some inherent importance that is realized by the individual reader-consumer of literature, some private benefit.  “Social function” is a different concept, and refers to some purpose in societal terms, not just for the individual.  For Frye, literature has both “value” and “social function,” too.

Early theorists, say Plato, saw literature as a function of delusional desires or as an instrument of instruction or indoctrination.  Aristotle’s Poetics assigns a psychological value to literature in his conception of catharsis: drama resolves difficult emotions by purging them (I. A. Richards and Kenneth Burke are in this “psychological” line before Frye).  Literature may also furnish enjoyment for those with leisure to enjoy such things.  But the standard attitude is that literature, like works of art generally, belongs to an owning elite who control such works, enjoy them, and pay the artists who produce them.  Special people consume the work of art and benefit from it, as well as determining its content.  Literature is a kind of tribute to the owner, an elite gratification.

Out of this model comes the view of literature as an object — an object of consumption — a notion preserved in the tradition that literary criticism is a form of evaluation.  “Critic” after all means “judge.”  The connoisseur-judge consumes the work of art and decides its value, like a wine expert sampling a particular vintage and pronouncing its value, or to use Frye’s wonderful derisive metaphor, like a judge awarding ribbons at a cat show.

What makes Frye so interesting in this context is that he insisted that literature is a social power: it is a power with a social function.  He struggled to formulate or theorize this conviction, that literature participates in the construction of society, above all the construction of a better society.

Thus literature is part of a democratic and emancipatory struggle.  It is inevitably involved in the question, what would a better society be like? and so brings us back to the prior concern, in Frye, the concern of desire, of what we desire—and do not desire.

Again, Frye was different.

Michael Sinding: The Extraliterary and the Interdisciplinary


Responding to Joe Adamson and Bob Denham.

I’ve got two comments, which are I think related as concerning the extraliterary. One is about logic and language again, and one is about interdisciplinarity.

Paradox and metaphor and irony and dialectic are indeed very important in Frye. But while giving them their due, I think there’s a danger that overemphasizing those rhetorical or hypothetical aspects can insulate Frye from questions and criticism. It can seem to drain his writing of any actual claims that can be discussed: we make it look as if he’s not really saying anything about anything. And I’m pretty sure he’s not doing that (not not doing that?). Such insulation occurs with some poststructuralist criticism, though for a different reason: the language can get rather opaque, to put it mildly. The effects are unfortunate.

Giving the rhetorical and hypothetical its due is not easy. One challenge is the everything-fitting-togetherness of his thinking. Within the system, things can make an amazing amount of illuminating sense. And to do justice to any part, you have to consider it in the context of the whole. (When you try to pull one brick out, a few more may come with it.)

It’s not as if he doesn’t make claims about literature, and about many other things. Even though Frye stresses ‘creating perspectives’ over taking ‘positions’, a perspective is still a perspective ON something, and it can be evaluated for how well it reveals something of its topic, proposes certain patterns, and heck, even for its rightness and wrongness. If all we can say about it is ‘hmm, interesting, another perspective … OK, what’s next?’, it hardly seems worth the candle.

It’s important not to oversimplify what Frye is saying. And it’s important to be, well, judicious in our judging: not to reach too quickly or in the wrong way after fact and reason. But I think we can and should question those claims, because it’s essential to taking Frye seriously, and to keeping the conversation alive.

As an example, if we take Frye to be saying that all language is literary language, that’s a claim about language—one which, as it stands, I don’t think has a chance of surviving serious scrutiny. All kinds of language is non-literary, is literal, referential etc. But if we consider in context the general idea of this dialectic between centripetal and centrifugal language, or attention, and the idea that all language has a centripetal, rhetorical, literary aspect (which I think is what he was actually saying), then that looks like an idea with some future in its bones.

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Re: “Resisting the Extraliterary”


A couple of  insightful responses to Joe’s earlier post:

Clayton Chrusch:

I understand what you are saying. I think the difference is that relating literature to economics or politics or power relations between the sexes, is setting up a determinism with the implication that literature has no empirical structure that is proper to itself; in other words, it empties literature of literary content.

But bringing logic or even math to the table is a different matter, because these are tools that can be used to build a properly literary structure, they are not the structure itself, they do not usurp the content of literature. Frye liked to make analogies between the study of literature and other disciplines, and if you consider other disciplines, you see that the use of mathematics or logic does not work to subordinate them to something outside themselves.

Frye liked to use diagrams. That did not subordinate literature to geometry or graph theory.

I’m not insisting that everyone think as I do, but I do believe that if people with a logical temperament could find a place in literary studies, they could do a lot to build an objective(ish) “science” of literary convention which would establish the properly literary structure of literature.

Jan Gorak:

It does seem a shame that no one seems to ask why anyone would want to cast a work in literary form any more – something that The Educated Imagination itself addressed so well I always thought. I also think Frye – and many of his contemporaries – were much better at seeing and talking about the various constructions human beings deploy and the motives for deploying them. Contemporary critics seem to have gone back to the dark ages on questions like this, so that you often wonder whether they would even recognize an allegory if one bit them! It would also seem relevant to say that although Frye thought that he inhabited the same imaginative universe as Blake, Coleridge etc, most contemporary theorists are convinced that anything before 1968 let’s say is completely out of their field of vision, so you get bizarre frames of reference brought to bear in the name of  “redefining the Victorian idea” or whatever. Sho’ is a mysterious discipline these days. Good to be in touch!

The Greek Modes and the Circle of Fifths


Responding to Peter Yan and Adam Bradley:

Yes, Frye certainly did know about the Greek modes.  In “Modal Harmony in Music” he writes:

In the sixteenth century much greater freedom of tonality was available.  The major and minor modes were then celled Ionian and Aeolian respectively, but four others were used.  Arranged in order of sharpness, they are:  Lydian (F to F on white notes: present major with raised fourth); Ionian (C to C: present major); Mixolydian (G to G: present major with lowered seventh); Dorian (D to D: present natural minor with raised sixth); Aeolian (A to A: present minor); Phrygian (E to E:  present natural minor with lowered seventh).  A seventh mode, the Locrian, B to B or Phrygian with lowered fifth, had probably only a theoretical existence.  These four additional modes, like the two we now have, ended on the tonic chord.  Thus, if all modes were impartially used today, a piece ending on G would have a key signature of two sharps in the Lydian modes, one in the major, none in Mixolydian, one flat in Dorian, two in minor, three in Phrygian.  Or a piece with a key signature of one sharp could be C Lydian, G major, D Mixolydian, A Dorian, E minor, or B Phrygian. (Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings, 185)

And in “Baroque and Classical Composers” Frye writes:

When rhythm changes from 4/4 to 3/2 the minim of the latter = crochet of former.  Key signatures only either none or one flat, & occasionally two flats: no sharps.  Fellowes finally, bless his heart, coughs up some dope on the modes.  If the piece has no flat in the signature, look at the last bass note and that will give you the mode.  A = Aeolian (minor scale), B = Locrian (theoretically: it’s never used), C = Ionian (major scale), D = Dorian, E = Phrygian, F = Lydian, G = Mixolydian.  That’s if the melody is authentic: if it’s plagal then prefix hypo to the mode.  If there is a flat, transpose a fourth down or fifth up (G with a flat = D without one); if two, tr. [transpose] a tone up.  Hence many key signatures until the 18th c. were a flat or a sharp short.  Modulation & equal temperament go together. (ibid., 175)

As for the circle of fifths, sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s Frye provided a schematic for the circle as a way of outlining the twenty‑four parts in the first three units of his ogdoad: Liberal, Tragicomedy, and Anticlimax.  The twenty‑four letters of the Greek alphabet provided Frye a convenient name for each of the twelve major and the twelve minor keys.  C = alpha, A = beta, G = gamma, etc.  Frye didn’t actually draw a diagram, but in his Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism” (paragraphs 57, 58, 63, and 73 of Notebook 18), he set down the constituents of a diagram and gave a brief description of the thematic contents of each of the twenty‑four parts, illustrating what he means by saying that the circle of fifths provides a “symmetrical grammar” (Spiritus Mundi, 118).

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Trevor Losh-Johnson: Diagrams and Paraeducation


Some days ago, I sent out letters requesting information on professors who take an active, scholastic interest in Northrop Frye.  I have a BA in Comparative Literature from UC Santa Barbara, and am looking for English graduate programs where I may incorporate Frye’s diagrammatic method into specific research.  Professor Adamson has kindly invited me to post something here about how my interest in Frye arose in part through working as a teacher with orthopedically handicapped students.

My experience with such students is a product of my work as a substitute teacher in the greater Los Angeles area.  It is difficult to obtain consistent teaching assignments now, especially considering our certain governor’s propensity for terminating education funds.  I have therefore found more work with less orthodox students, which is something to which my father has devoted his entire teaching career.

My work in one of these classes coincided with some cursory reading of [Roman] Jakobson].  I was taken with Jakobson’s model of metaphor and metonymy, based on his work with language acquisition and aphasia.  While my interaction with students was not nearly as systematic, it greatly reinforced my sense of the metonymic workings of language acquisition.  When a child is learning to read, an unknown word is often sounded-out, and then replaced with a known word that rhymes with those sounds- sip becomes ship, cot cat.  I can recall a student named Elijah who had had clustered brain tumors as an infant.  He would tell stories structured only on a series of metonymy- What did the monkeys do next?  They attacked the car.  What did they say?  They ate me!  What happened then?  I fed them pizza and chicken!  This of course does not do justice to Elijah’s stories.  They were products of an outrageous and brilliant associative process that defied logic, space, and mortality.  While the origins of many of the images (a TV show?  The expected vandals in his neighborhood?) were private and beyond communication, many of them were contiguous images, constantly displaced into the unfolding narrative.

While I am not an expert in cognitive science, or in cognitive approaches to narrative, my experience with Elijah certainly made me very receptive to Frye’s distinction between centrifugal and centripetal forms of criticism.  In Elijah’s stories, the etiological and centrifugal origins of the plot and characters were subordinated to the centripetal patterns of the narrative.  It was in the telling of those patterns that he found extreme communicative joy and liberation of imagination.  Near the penultimate page of the Anatomy, Frye writes, “The link between rhetoric and logic is ‘doodle’ or associative diagram, the expression of the conceptual by the spatial” [335, Princeton edition].  The only way of decoding what in Elijah’s stories made him laugh was to follow the logic of “babble,” to trace the imaginative puns and metonymic displacements of imagery.

What had initially brought me into Comparative Literature was my interest in the revelatory symbol, and how one may understand the processes and degrees of symbolization at work in such varied writers as Spenser and Joyce.  I now find most useful those dialectical oppositions that do not act as privileged dichotomies, but rather as polar continuums, allowing for maximum modulation and movement.  What seems uniquely powerful about Frye’s schemata is his capacity to set such integral distinctions while displacing them into his modal diagrams.  His passage in the Anatomy on babble and doodle, the radicals of melos/opsis [270-81], is one of the few examples I know of a critic assimilating the rudimentary and associative nature of linguistic development into a broader, synoptic view of literature.  A critic, whom I cannot remember any more, wrote that one drawback to Frye is that he does not establish an etiological theory of linguistics.  The lack of a theory of such a priori things (which may have something to do with negative capability) in no way diminishes his achievement of establishing schematic first principles to literature; first principles that may be modified as suits the subject.

The conceptual by the spatial, so totalizing in Frye, is a pragmatic and teachable method of scholarship which I hope to pursue in my graduate studies, wherever those shall be.  The above does not sum up my reasons for wishing to undertake a study of Frye and his applications to modes of symbolism,  but it does note the more humane and fundamental values I perceive in him.

Frye and Negative Capability


I am a bit puzzled by Clayton’s comment in response to Russell’s post on Chesterton, suggesting that Frye did not want to give clear answers because he did not want people to be stuck with them, and that his reticence to give answers means that he did not want to enter into a dialectical process. Frye certainly did not want to impose ideas or beliefs on anyone, or even assert them in a context of dispute. One reason is that, even though people are passionate and articulate in asserting their beliefs, ideologies or matters of belief do not lend themselves to evidence or certainty. No one is going to argue anti-gay protesters out of their belief that homosexuals are polluting the world with sin. Frye would have been terrible on CNN, but this does not mean that Frye’s posture is non-dialectical. It depends on what meaning you give the term. The issue of Frye’s elusiveness when it comes to “answers” or categorical statements and judgments recalls the passage in the introduction to The Great Code that I quoted in a previous post.

It is clear that in his writings Frye’s approach is very much that of a teacher, not an ideologue or a polemicist, or a preacher or professor of some faith. Frye does in his books and essays and lectures exactly what he says a teacher should do: recreate the subject in the student’s mind. Frye has stated on occasion that he eschewed argument or disputation, and just wasn’t interested in it. It is clearly partly temperamental, but more that he just didn’t see it as particularly productive. Teaching isn’t about arguing or promulgating something. The contrast with aspects of the contemporary scene in literary and cultural studies, which often verges on ideological indoctrination or the imparting of correct thinking, is striking, and only demonstrates–at least for me–what is so appealing about Frye’s posture.

Frye says the teacher, precisely because he has more knowledge than the student, should be the one asking the questions, rather than giving the answers. As in one’s own thinking, asking the right questions is always the key, and this demands a high degree of negative capability. Keat’s statement of the issue is always worth quoting:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. [Letter to George and Thomas Keats dated Sunday, 28 December 1817.]

The anxious reaching after truth–as a matter of belief–is a liability that can end up blocking progress to better answers and better questions. I find this is the case with many students: they are often all too ready to reduce a symbol or theme to a significance outside the text and literature, such as what beliefs the author held. But this is just as much the case with many critics. Frye is not criticizing Chesterton for his beliefs, but for the way he subordinated his imagination and perceptiveness about literature to his beliefs. That is Frye’s point about value judgments: they are simply a dead end when it comes to the knowledge of literature.

Such judgments are rhetorical in the sense Frye gives that term in Words with Power: they involve a subjective response and cannot be the basis of criticism. One can try to persuade others by the compelling logic of one’s argument, or rhetorically, by an appeal to the compulsions of emotion and belief, the domain of ideology, belief, and advertising. But literature is not about compulsion, even though it may be subordinated to an author’s wish to propogate the truth he or she believes in. Frye certainly uses logic and rhetorical devices to recreate his subject in the minds of his readers. But he does his best not to subordinate his understanding of literature to his own beliefs, which he most certainly had. One of the teachings he imparts is that literature itself does not try to persuade at all: it deals with the conceivable, the imaginable, regardless of the facts or truth, scientific or religious.