Category Archives: Metaphor

Centripetal Meaning and Primary Concern


Russell Perkin expresses some concern that literature has limits.  As he put it in a comment yesterday:

the nagging point that [Deanne] Bogdan raises for me is that, to quote her again “the hypothetical dimension of literature notwithstanding, literature does say things.” It doesn’t entirely leave behind what Frye calls “the original reference,” though of course it cannot be reduced to that either.

It’s at this point we really need to remind ourselves that Frye consistently observes that literary structures are primarily centripetal in reference.  This is very easily demonstrated: you don’t need to believe in ghosts to appreciate Hamlet, you don’t have to be Catholic to access The Divine Comedy.  Heck, you hardly require the English language to experience Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky

That primarily centripetal direction of literary meaning carries it beyond mere metonymic reference with its undeniable “limits” to the liberating power of archetypal metaphor (pace Clayton Chrusch), whose patterns include not just the four mythoi of Anatomy but the four primary concerns of Words with Power.  That is, the ethos of literary criticism is ulitmately (anagogically, kerygmatically) meta-literary: revealing the source of literature’s autonomy and authority, which express the imaginative constants of literary narrative driven by the existential constants of primary concern.  This is not to say that the secondary concerns of ideology are irrelevant, but, in Frye’s “verbal universe” they are secondary, they are subordinated.  The inability of any critical theory to appreciate the distinction between metaphor and metonymy or primary and secondary concern suggests why so much of what now passes for literary criticism has the character of wrestling a greased pig.  It’s a losing proposition; there’s nothing to hold onto securely, except the anxiety of the fact that the struggle must continue and cannot be won.

“Frye was Different”

Northrop Frye

Responding to Merv Nicholson:

Isn’t it the case as well that Frye is different in the attention he devoted to Spirit, especially during the last decade of his life, when he wrote about hardly anything else? There’s a pulsating drive in his late work to get beyond the poetic. The social function of both literature and criticism is, to be sure, a part of his “difference,” and this is an area that younger people interested in Frye might well investigate, as it has not been comprehensively examined. Another area, which relates to Frye as a religious thinker, is his theory of metaphor. As I’ve snooped around in the various writings on metaphor from Aristotle to I.A. Richards, Max Black, and Paul Ricoeur, I don’t find anyone who bases a theory of metaphor on the principle of identity. They all fall back on theories of resemblance or substitution, theories that are founded on the principle of analogy (Blake’s similitude). Frye is different in insisting on what he calls in The Double Vision “imaginative literalism.” Frye on metaphor is another area of his thinking that deserves systematic exploration.

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.

Literal Metaphor, Literal Paradox


A number of posts and comments over the last few days have touched on the matter of Frye and paradox.  Yesterday I cited Wilde’s aphorism that “The way of paradoxes is the way of truth.”  Matthew Griffin responds:

Wilde is cribbing, and making more pronounced, a point Coleridge makes in the Biographia Literaria – itself a neat book for Frygians – that any meaningful truth can only be expressed in paradox.

So Coleridge — whose Biographia Literaria is one of Frye’s critical touchstones — is now in play. Is “paradox” an essential aspect of Frye’s criticism?  If so, where is it articulated?

I think paradox is for Frye a primal creative condition of language as laid out in essay two of Anatomy, “Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols.” 

Frye’s theory of symbols presents an expanding dialectic of metaphorical meaning: the literal (symbol as motif), the descriptive (symbol as sign), the formal (symbol as image), the mythical (symbol as archetype), and the anagogic (symbol as monad).  The only one of these I will deal with in any detail here is “literal” metaphor, effectively the singularity or big bang of verbal phenomenon from which Frye’s “verbal universe” expands. 

Frye points out in this essay what he repeats elsewhere; that language has both “centrifugal” or outwardly directed, and “centripetal” or inwardly directed reference. When reference is primarily outwardly directed we have a “sign” whose function is to point to “the thing represented or symbolized by it” (AC 73). Hence, “cat”.  However, when reference is primarily inwardly directed we have a “motif” whose function is to “connect” elements of verbal phenomenon. Hence, “c – a – t”: that is, the discrete constituents, whether written or uttered, that make up the centrifugally referenced sign “cat.”  Frye, in a famous reversal, calls the centripetal direction of meaning “literal” metaphor, not because it ensures accurate and reliable descriptive reference (as the word is most commonly used), but because it refers to artfully ambiguous “units of verbal structure” — or that which is proper to the “letter” — whose primary internal relation is a necessary condition for meaning of any kind.

As Frye goes on to observe, these “two modes of understanding take place simultaneously in all reading.” However, a distinction can still be made between verbal structures whose final direction of meaning is either inward or outward.  In “descriptive or assertive writing,” reassuringly enough, the direction of meaning is centrifugal.  In all literary verbal structures, on the other hand, the direction is centripetal:

In literature the standards of outward meaning are secondary, for literary works do not pretend to describe or assert, and hence are not true, not false, and yet not tautological either, or at least not in the sense in which such a statement is “the good is better than bad” is tautological. Literary meaning may best be described, perhaps, as hypothetical, and a hypothetical or assumed relation to the external world is part of what is usually meant by the word “imaginative.” This word is to be distinguished from “imaginary,” which usually refers to an assertive verbal structure that fails to make good on its assertions. In literature, questions of fact or truth are subordinated to the primary literary aim of producing a structure of words for its own sake, and the sign-values of symbols are subordinated to their importance as a structure of interconnected motifs. (AC 74)

The significance of this imaginative, hypothetical, and centripetally “literal” meaning to a properly literary criticism is crucial:

Now as a poem is literally a poem, it belongs, in its literal context, to the class of things called poems, which in their turn form part of the larger class known as works of art. The poem from this point of view presents a flow of sounds approximating music on one side, and an integrated pattern of imagery approximating the pictorial on the other. Literally, then, a poem’s narrative is its rhythm or movement of words… Similarly, a poem’s meaning is literally its pattern or its integrity as a verbal structure. Its words cannot be separated and attached to sign-values: all possible sign-values of a word are absorbed into a complexity of verbal relationships. (AC 78)

The dialectical direction of what Frye calls a “complexity of verbal relationships” is to a large extent what the remainder of this essay addresses as he works through literal meaning to the  anagogic, where the apocalyptic turn of the imagination perceives at last that the whole of nature may be regarded as a human artifact recreated by specifically human concerns.  But here, at the very genesis of meaning, is a centripetal verbal power to assert that which is not, but which nevertheless possesses dialectically expanding significance.  Metaphor, as Frye regularly reminds us, expresses both what is and is not.  What it expresses, however, is real, inasmuch as it articulates a human condition — including our capacity for language — that has the (anagogic) potential to become fully aware of itself as such.

The famous illustration above is M.C. Escher’s “Relativity,” which nicely captures the “what is” / “what is not” capability of the human imagination where even an “absence” is still a “presence” because it can be expressed.  The concept of “relativity” is as distinct from “relativism” as the “imaginative” is from the “imaginary.” “Relativism” seems to dominate current literary criticism which somehow finds its criteria (in ideological constructions such as gender, class, race, and so on) outside of literature as though literature were primarily centrifugal in reference. “Relativity,” on the other hand, requires a constant: in Einstein’s case, that constant accounts for bodies in motion relative to one another.  And, it seems, the same is true for Frye as well; the constant in this case being those primary human concerns which are everywhere evident in literature and provide the impetus for us to communicate at all. Concern is the gestalt of verbal expression; and literature — in its simultaneous acknowledgement of what is and is not as an integral part of its saying — confronts the inadequacies of the world we inhabit with a world we are trying to create through the imaginative expression of our universally shared but individually possessed concerns.