Category Archives: Symbol

Howard Carter and Tutankhamen


From the BBC, the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb

Today is the birthday of Howard Carter (1874-1939), an English archaeologist and Egyptologist who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen.

From “The Metaphor of Kingship” section of the lecture series, “Symbolism in the Bible”:

The society that went furthest in identifying the entire society with and as the king was ancient Egypt. If you look at, say, the Tutankhamen collection, you would say to yourself that it would be absolutely incredible that all that labour and expense went into the constructing of the tomb for a pharaoh. We’d never believe it without direct evidence. And yet, when we understand how pervasive royal metaphors are in Egypt — that Pharaoh is not only a king, he is an incarnate god, identical with the god Horus before his death and with the god Osiris after it, and that he was called “the shepherd of his people” — it becomes more conceivable. And unlike the Hebrew practice, he was high priest as well as king. So it is possible that the ordinary Egyptian found an identity for himself within the mystical body of Pharaoh which was of a kind that our mental processes simply cannot recapture. (CW 13, 490)


Teaching with “The Secular Scripture”

Many readers of Frye have admitted they have a “preferred” book, or one that influenced them more than any other.  If I recall correctly, Michael Dolzani was most influenced by Fearful Symmetry; Bob Denham by Anatomy of Criticism; Michael Happy by The Educated Imagination; Joe Adamson by The Secular Scripture; and Eva Kushner by The Critical Path.  Indeed, we all appear to have that one moment in reading Frye when suddenly it all made sense.  In my own case, I had always thought it was Anatomy of Criticism, but recently I have been thinking more and more about The Secular Scripture.

Over this past term I have had the great pleasure of teaching with Frye’s The Secular Scripture, and my students have, for the most part I think, enjoyed engaging with it.  However, we have also taken Frye out of his comfort zone.  The course I teach considers “Race and Ethnicity in Latin American Narrative” (this is the official course title).  But I tailored the course to address one of my own preferred area of study, romance novels.  Frye, not surprisingly, seems most comfortable when dealing with romance in its European context, but Latin American romance novels appear to be beyond his purview.

When I began to speak about romance, I went for the obvious question: How many of you have read Twilight or Harlequin romances? — which, of course, many of them had.  I then got them to read theoretical writings on the romance, particularly The Secular Scripture, which became our guide to romance.  They also read articles or chapters by other theorists writing on romance, including writing on Latin America: Pamela Regis, Lois Parkinson Zamora, Doris Sommer, Jean Franco, and others (all of whom, interestingly enough, engage with Frye).

Doris Sommer, for instance, remarked in her book Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America, that:

The Latin American elite wanted to modernize and to prosper, yes; but it wanted at the same time to retain the practically feudal privilege it had inherited from colonial times. Logically, a functioning aristocracy by any name might prefer to represent itself in the incorruptibly ideal terms that Northrop Frye finds characteristic of romance, ‘the structural core of all fiction.’ In Latin America’s newly won bourgeois excess, Frye’s heroic heroes, villainous villains, and beautiful heroines of romance are dislodged, unfixed. They cross class, gender, and racial stereotypes in ways unspeakable for European romance. Yet Frye’s observations about masculine and feminine ideals here are to the point; they point backward to medieval quest-romances where victory meant restored fertility, the union of male and female heroes. (48-49)

I will admit here that I spent many pages of a now-discarded dissertation arguing against Doris Sommer’s understanding of Frye.  It is my belief that we can still work with Frye’s theories of romance, and this is precisely what I have endeavoured to show in the course I am teaching.  Frye did not read Latin American romances, but his theory if applicable to the study of world literature should translate to any given context.

My students and I will have worked through four novels in our course when we conclude at the end of the month.  We have found that Frye’s archetypes do fit well into the study of romance in its canonical and popular senses.  Could Frye have predicted some of the specifics of Latin American romance?  No, he couldn’t, not any more than he could address the latest manifestations of the genre in the twenty-first century.  But, his model still holds true for the bulk of these romances.

Frye’s The Secular Scripture is, as with most of his books, very teachable and very user-friendly to the student of genre.  My students are now preparing to write term papers, which must attend to The Secular Scripture, and I eagarly wait to read their ideas and their approaches to the Latin American Romance with the assistance of Frye.

“Les Fleurs du Mal”

“Hymne à la beauté”

On this date in 1857 Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal was first published.

In this excerpt from “The Literary Meaning of ‘Archetype'”, Baudelaire only gets a passing mention, but his work is nevertheless associated with a constellation of archetypes.

This aspect of symbolism is what I mean by archetypal symbolism.  I should tentatively define an archetype, then, as a symbol, that is, a unit of a work of literary art, which connects one poem with another and thereby helps to unify and integrate our literary experience.  The archetype is thus primarily  the communicable symbol, and archetypal criticism is particularly concerned with literature as a social fact and as a technique of communication.  By the study of conventions and genres, it attempts to fit poems into a body of poetry as a whole.  It is the only method of criticism known to me in which it is really necessary to assume that there is such a subject as comparative literature.

Or even, we may say, that there is such a subject of literature at all.  The repetition of certain common images of physical nature like the sea or the forest in a large number of poems cannot in itself be called even “coincidence”, which is the name we give to a piece of design when we cannot find a use for it.  But it does indicate a certain unity in the nature that poetry imitates.  And when pastoral images are deliberately employed in Lycidas, for instance, merely because they are conventional, we can see that the convention makes us assimilate these images to other parts of literature.  We think first of its descent from the ritual of the Adonis lament down through Theocritus, Virgil, and the whole pastoral tradition to The Shepheardes Calendar, then of the intricate pastoral symbolism of the Bible and the Christian Church, then of the extensions of pastoral symbolism into Sidney’s Arcadia, The Faerie Queene, Shakespeare’s forest comedies, and so on, then of the post-Miltonic development of pastoral elegy in Shelley, Arnold and Whitman.  We can get a whole liberal education simply by picking up one conventional poem and following its archetypes as they stretch out into the rest of literature.  Expanding images into conventional archetypes is a process that takes place unconsciously in all our reading.  A symbol like the sea or the paradisal garden cannot remain within Conrad or Green Mansions; it is bound to expand over many works into an archetypal symbol of literature as a whole.  The ancient mariner’s albatross links us to Baudelaire and his ship to Rimbaud’s bateau ivre; Yeats’s tower and winding stair blend into Dante’s Purgatory, like their more explicitly allusive counterparts in Eliot; and Moby Dick merges into the leviathan of Job.  There is only one hypothesis that will prevent this linking of archetypes in our reading from being simply free association.  That is the hypothesis that literature is a total form, and not simply the name given to the aggregate of existing literary works.  In other words, we have to think, not only of a single poem imitating nature, but of an order of nature as whole being imitated by a corresponding order of words.  (CW 10, 184-5)

Texts for a Fire Sermon


A bobbin, vortex, whirling gyre,

The tongues ascend, a silent choir,

A phoenix trope for pure desire.

The painter sees as flames aspire

The anagram of Frye is Fyre.

As for the theft of fire, many of the stories put the source of fire in the under world, where the sun is at night, so that when the thief of fire returns he is also the rising sun.  [Notebook 7.22]

There’s the Paravritti, the Beulah-Eden vortex through the ray of fire which opens out into the mystic rose. [Notebook 7.33]

Engineering metaphors or thought models start of course with fire and the wheel.  One gives metaphors of spark, scintilla, energy & the like: most of our organism metaphors take off from it.  [Notebook 18.10]

In the Great Doodle (apocalyptic) the spiritual world is (a) the fire-world of heavenly bodies (b) the lower heaven or sky.  Hence it is normally (a) red with the seraphim (b) blue with the cherubim.  Blue & white mean virginity, red & white love; red white & green is the point of epiphany. [Notebook 18.98]

Whenever Eros got into the Xn trdn. [Christian tradition] (Inge has it in his book on mysticism) Eros (not Cupid) is certainly a Gentile type of Christ, and Prometheus of the Spirit.  Fire seems right; it’s what the gyre kindles.  Try to think about Abraham’s furnace; fire descending to the altar (less Elijah than Chronicles), the three “children” (magi?) in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace [Daniel 3].  Blake certainly thought Los’s furnaces had something.  Smart on Abraham’s.  Speaking of magi, they should have been women, as they’re antitypes of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon. [Notebook 27.147]

Man is asleep and fantasizing in the ladder, garden and seed worlds.  His central activity there is quest, the projection of Word into Deed that enables him to go on sleeping.  In the fire world he’s compelled to wake up, hence the first thing he does is withdraw the quest.  [Notebook 27.188]

What the released flame of Prometheus illuminates is, among other things, the true ladder as the four phases of meaning.  The flame, by the way, has to include the occult link between the living fire & the warm-blooded organism I mentioned in GC [The Great Code, 161-2]. [Notebook 27.190]

The fire-chapter should include, first of all, Little Gidding and the two Byzantium poems.  SB [Sailing to Byzantium] is a panoramic apocalypse: every state of the chain of being appears on fire as nature is destroyed & the artifice of eternity replaces it.  Byzantium burns from the inside.  Note how intensely Heraclitean both Eliot & Yeats get when they enter the fire. [Notebook 27.250]

What’s the Biblical setup?  I think it’s polarized between the first coming of Christ in water and his second coming in fire. [Notebook 27.259]

To go from the ladder-garden world to the ark-flame one, think of going from Ash-Wednesday to the Quartets, from The Tower to A Vision (if only Yeats had got the vision!).  Note that I was first attracted to archetypal criticism by Colin Still’s book on The Tempest, with its central conception of the ladder of elements, a conception going back to the pre-Socratics.  Heraclitus says there’s an exchange of “fire” and of “all things,” as there is of “gold” for “wares.”  That’s something to chew on.  [Notebook 27.263]

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