Tuesday, April 20, 2004

A Small Defense of Northrop Frye: 'Plasmatic' literature, and the Creature/Creator distinction

NOTE: I've modified and corrected the entry below a bit since originally posting it.

Northrop Frye is one of the key members of the earlier generation in literary criticism, though his works have lately vanished from the syllabi of graduate seminars in today's Ph.D. programs. He is best known for his book The Anatomy of Criticism (1957), as well as his theory of "archetypes," though he wrote many other books, including one I've been reading recently, The Secular Scripture (1976).

Frye is sometimes associated with the movement known as the New Criticism, since he is roughly contemporary with the famous critics of that era -- Frank Kermode, Cleanth Brooks. But his work really aimed to move away from the debates about taste that were prevalent in the New Criticism, and towards a more democratized approach to literature as an expression of myth. The New Critics had an obsession with the originality of the poetic voice, wherease Frye believed that literature is the product at least of a 'literary society', if not society in general (the latter would be the view currently held by most contemporary literary critics).

I am not by any means trying to make a conservative gesture, where I would hold up Frye as somehow right about everything, only we no longer believe him. Rather, I think his work might benefit from being read freshly, without the baggage of the culture wars or the radicalism of deconstruction.

Frye merits respect, but critical respect. Though contemporary critics are often derided for their dependence on jargon, one learns by reading Frye that jargon is nothing new -- Frye peppers his works with difficult Greek terms: mythoi, dianoia, kerygmatic. Frye claimed to be using a "scientific" method in his critical theory, and argued in The Anatomy of Criticism that there is an observable order to literature as a whole: "just as there is an order of nature behind the natural sciences, so literature is nota piled aggregate of 'works,' but an order of words." However, if one attempts to read his work after The Anatomy of Criticism carefully, one sees a style of writing that is more anecdotal than methodical. The school of criticism called "structuralism," which peaked in the mid-1960s, was in fact much closer in its method to hard science.

The Hopkins Guide To Literary Theory has the full text of a greatly helpful essay by Richard Stingle on the evolution of Frye's work, including summaries of the arguments of his various books as well as a detailed engagement with Frye's life-long obsession with Blake. However, the best account of Frye's career can be found in the first chapter of Frank Lentricchia's After the New Criticism.

Here let me invoke just two small points in Frye's The Secular Scripture that I have found intriguing. One is a distinction Frye makes between properly religious epic and what he calls romance:

The secession of science from the mythological universe is a familiar story. The separating of scientific and mythological space began theoretically with Copernicus, and effectively with Galileo. By the nineteenth century scientific time had been emancipated from mythological time. But in proportion as the mythological universe becomes more obviously a construct, another question arises. We saw that there is no structural principle to prevent the fables of secular literature from also forming a mythology, or even a mythological universe. Is it possible, then, to look at secular stories as a whole, and as forming a single biblical vision? This is the question implied in the ‘secular scripture’ of my title. In the chapters that follow I should like to look at fiction as a total verbal order, with the outlines of an imaginative universe in it. The Bible is the epic of the creator, with God as its hero. Romance is the structural core of all fiction: being directly descended from folktale, it brings us closer than any other aspect of literature to the sense of fiction, considered as a whole, as the epic of the creature, man’s vision of his own life as a quest.

Though many have attempted to argue that romance is in some way a descendent of religious narratives, Frye makes the case that the two are really separate. Frye's insistence on this separation -- which is a predecessor of the high-culture/low-culture distinction that still exists in literature today -- runs throughout The Secular Scripture, as it does through several of his other works. Contrary to expectation, Frye is primarily interested in the low mode of literature, the small epic of the "creature" rather than the big epic of the "creator." (A knowledge of Latin verb forms is also helpful here, for the "creature" derives from the past participle, suggesting it is the object of creation, in contrast to the "creator" who is the subject.) For Frye, literature is secular not because it is written by non-believers, but because all major literary forms derive from the realm of folktales and folk culture, which predate the Church, and which have survived outside of religious institutions for millenia.

This interest in high (religious) narrative and popular (folk) romance leads to a second distinction, between the real world and the world of fiction and myth. In the world of fiction, truth and falsehood are irrelevant. What is needed is a term to describe literary mimesis, and Frye comes up with one in 'plasmatic':

Greek critics distinguished verbal structures as true, false, and plastic, or more accurately plasmatic, the presenting of things as they conceivably could be. Truth and falsehood are not literary categories, and are only approximately even verbal ones. For the literary critic, at all events, everything in words is plasmatic, and truth and falsehood represent the directions or tendencies in which verbal structures go, or are thought to go. This leads to a general distinction between serious and responsible literature on the one hand, and the trifling and fantastic on the other.

Here what seems to be a second distinction is really another version of the first: plausible stories are seen as respectable, while fantastic tales are 'low'. But isn't "serious and responsible" a secular analogue for 'sanctioned by the church'? So what emerges is a mirror of the first break. Again, one respectable (plasmatic) style of storytelling would seem to be the more valuable, but Frye's imagination leads us inevitably to the trifling and fantastic tales. The latter spring without mediation from the human imagination, and Frye finds them fascinating.

In short, Frye's approach to secular literary criticism privileges low culture -- without knowing it.

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