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In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


"I will not Reason or Compare: my Business is to Create."-- William Blake

I was almost all Fryed out and ready to put away his FABLES OF IDENTITY when I happened to scan his essay, "Blake After Two Centuries" and decided to read it. This essay fortuitously gave me evidence to confirm my earlier opinion that Frye, though capable like many academics of evincing some degree of elitism, had pluralism at the heart of his theory.

The elitist remarks I mentioned elsewhere occured in his 1958 essay, "Nature and Homer:"

"All of us, even the most highbrow, spend much time in the sub-literary world; all of us derive many surreptitious pleasures from it; but this world is, from the point of view of actual literature, mainly a babbling chaos, waiting for the creative word to brood over it and bring it to literary life."

(nice visualization of Genesis imagery there)

And yet, roughly one year before this essay appeared Frye published the Blake essay, in which the aforecited "Reason & Compare" quote is followed by this observation:

"The creative process is an end in itself, not to be judged by its power to illustrate something else, however true or good."

So in the Blake essay, Frye is taking arms against a sea of critics who might prefer the sort of artistic works that I have labeled "thematically realistic," in that they are oriented on spelling out What Good Men Should Do and What the Real World is All About. Earlier in the same essay Frye also quotes another Blakism: "That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care." So in this essay, as well as others, Frye encapsulates the idea that Great Art must be something more than mere allegory, even if the work allegorizes some principle both "true and good."

And just one later Frye sees "subliterary" artworks are seen to be a "chaos" whose main relevance to literature is as a resource for art's transformative power. Frye is careful to state that such a POV is valid only from that of the true artist or the critic of art, but it's hard to parse out just what mysterious quintessence comes into existence to separate Great Art's use of ideas and/or formulas from the way the same ideas/formulas are used in the babbling chaos. I suspect, however, that on some level Frye valued Blake's intellectual powers as much as his poetic ones, and that much of that "mysterious quintessence" would have come down to the fact that Great Art does address "serious themes" about the real world where most popular art does not-- or if it does, does not do so in an intellectually-rigorous manner.

Of course, the main objection to Frye's elitist cant here is that "subliterary" art is not a chaos. If anything, most of its critics find popular art too structured, too ritualistically bound by the demands of its patrons. And of course even the patrons may eventually become bored with repeated permutations of ideas or formulas that they formerly enjoyed, and it's hard to tell whether those patrons have become bored with the ideas themselves or their reiteration. (Of course, it's arguable that the same patterns develop in the world of "highbrow" culture, where artists do repeat themselves whether they intend to or not, and patrons will grow bored with even too much novelty.)

Still, even popular works that originate as imitations of something else, as much as literary works that take fire from subliterary "waters," may have complexities that neither their original makers nor the original set of patrons may have appreciated.

In previous essays I've noted some of the reasons why I think my approach to symbolism-- indebted in large part to both Frye and Campbell-- throws light on the common ground between the literary and "subliterary" works. And just as I thought Campbell was perhaps a bit too imprecise regarding the dividing line between art and myth, so that I opined that Frye might serve to present a little more rigor in that department, Frye's dividing line between literary and subliterary is a bit too rigid and could benefit from some Campbellian input to show how even works that might be deemed "thematically escapist" possess their own orderly structure and communicate their own sort of messages, even if said messages *might* be fundamentally simpler. A good synoptic critic (which Frye was, even if he simply didn't have that much interest in popular fiction) would be one who can appreciate all meaning in both its simple and complex forms.

Interestingly, I also read Frye's essay in FABLES on Emily Dickinson,and found this quotation from her works more than a little relevant:

"To be alive-- is Power--

"Existence-- in itself--

"Without a further function--"

Is there meaning even in fictions that abrogate all claim to functionality, to relevance to realistic concerns? Stay tuned.

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