Northrop Frye

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Harold Bloom

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Though ["The Secular Scripture"] reintroduces the Frye who matters most, the visionary of romance, it is a disappointment. He modestly terms it "a very brief and summary geography lesson" in what he calls "the mythological or imaginative universe." That "or" cunningly contains the kernel of Frye's argument: the mythological and the imaginative are one. As a geographer of myth, Frye is far more persuasive than Jung or Robert Graves, and yet he is a visionary geographer as much as he is a mapper of visions, and so he is as suspect as he is useful.

"Romance," to Frye, has had an unusually broad meaning and at times seemed to absorb or at least contaminate all the other genres, since he used it to mean the whole literary spectrum that lies between "realistic" representation and depictions of the divine world. But, in his current book, it has a narrower signification, and refers mostly to prose fiction, whether of the folk-tale variety or more literary and sophisticated stories that continue to rely upon the formulaic elements that are more clearly evident in popular and legendary material.

"Popular" is a key word for Frye, whose literary theory is movingly democratic and optimistic, and I mean that I continue to be deeply moved by this element in it, where I most dissent from its conclusions. Frye is the legitimate heir of a Protestant and Romantic tradition that has dominated much of British and American literature, the tradition of the Inner Light, by which each person reads Scripture for himself or herself without yielding to a premature authority imposed by Church or State or School. This is Frye's true greatness, and all who teach interpretation are indebted to him for precept and for example.

But there is always a shadow side to any critical virtue, and the limitations of Frye's systematic mapping of literature are sharply evident in "The Secular Scripture." For him, any story or poem is essentially a renewable and renewed archetype in a verbal universe, and so he is at a loss to account for just what makes it new in any particular story or poem. Frye sees creation as a progressive enterprise, in which the artist imitates his forerunners without experiencing any of the guilts of indebtedness, or the anxieties of coming after greatness. It follows therefore that the transmission of images and ideas from one story or poem to another can be a benign process, in which later meanings reinforce previous meanings, and in which stories or poems can fulfill earlier ones, much as Christianity holds that the New Testament completes and fulfills the Old Testament.

Frye maps romance on these principles, and he succeeds sometimes in showing how one author can light up another, for instance how Spenser can enrich our reading of Hawthorne. Yet he assumes that each story or poem always is unified in itself, and that there is nothing particularly problematic about the way in which meaning is brought about, in any single text, by resisting the meanings of earlier works. The result of these pragmatic assumptions is not always a gain for the critic's reader, because stories and poems not only begin to blend into one another, but more strikingly they start to blend into themselves, as though they were perfectly homogeneous entities. Frye risks becoming the great homogenizer of literature. "The Golden Ass" of Apuleius, a curious and effective mixture of picaresque incident and Neoplatonic fantasy, is glanced at by Frye in both of its aspects, but with small sense of the book's dialectical or even self-contradictory nature. Frye is a master of the...

(This entire section contains 873 words.)

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byways in which the author's desire vacillates in stories and poems, but he is not much interested in the parallel vicissitudes of meaning within or between texts, the ways in which meaning changes when rival works collide.

This lack makes Frye a little more vulnerable to the assaults of recent language-centered critics than he needs to be, since as a rhetorical critic he clearly knows more than enough about the ways in which any literary work's consciousness of its own status as language necessarily affects its meanings, or even its way of meaning. In his defense, it is valid to assert that his most vital function has been to resurrect and exalt some of the larger designs and conventions of literature, and of romance especially.

Yet, for now, his labors increasingly touch their limit in the tricky area where the present must justify itself against the past. Every major writer attempts to clear a literary space for himself, and this cannot be done without usurping some privilege or power of past writers, a usurpation that depends upon actions and attitudes that need not be idealized. In literary as in human romance, there is an anguish of contamination, a sense of being impinged upon by all rival romances. A prose or verse romance always fights to get free of the verbal universe that nevertheless it is condemned to join. Frye is the seer of that joining, but not of the poetic will's anxious struggle to be free.

Harold Bloom, "Northrop Frye Exalting the Designs of Romance," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 18, 1975, p. 21.

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