Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, December 31, 2009


It's fairly ironic that I'm typing this on the last year of 2009, since my concern in the essay is about the changing of the yearly round.

To be sure, I've only passed through a little over two seasons since mentioning that I was reading THESPIS in this June essay. (In full disclosure I had read parts of it years ago, but only this year did I finish the whole book.) And the subject of Theodor Gaster's 1950 book is well attuned to the program of the myth-ritual school of earlier years, in that THESPIS's purpose is to discern what patterns human beings may have followed in their organization of rituals. As a literary critic, my concern with Gaster-- who is cited in Frye's ANATOMY-- is to suss out whether or not his work on religious myths and rituals glosses Frye's insights on literary myths.

My conclusion is that not only is Gaster significant to Frye, for all that Frye only refers to him marginally, it's possible that Gaster's fourfold scheme of ritual actions may have had some indirect, perhaps even subconscious, effect on Frye's arrangement of his four *mythoi.* This is pure speculation, though Frye evidently read Gaster closely enough that he did adapt one of Gaster's terms into a 1960 essay, which I mentioned here.

Both Frye and Gaster formulated schemas that revolved around the response of human beings to the seasonal round. In OPEN QUEST PART 1 I criticized Frye for perhaps imparting too much closure to his theory, so that it seemed like what should have been a cycle actually had an apocalyptic conclusion, but in Gaster I found an additional corrective.

Gaster divides the rituals of archaic humankind into four types, which he ascribes to particular times of the year. Gaster gives a drawn-out explanation of his typology on page 26 of THESPIS, but here's a shortened Internet-encyclopedia version for easy reading:

"First the rites of mortification, symbolizing the temporary eclipse of the community. Next the rites of purgation, by which all noxious elements that might impair the community's future welfare are eliminated. Then the rites of invigoration, aimed at stimulating the growth of crops, the fecundity of humans and beasts, and the supply of needed sunshine and rainfall throughout the year. Finally, when the new lease is assured, come the rites of jubilation; there is a communal meal at which the members of the community recement their bonds of kinship by breaking bread together, and at which their gods are present."

Gaster did not design these designations for any literary purpose, and it's only my speculation that they influenced Frye's categories. But I do think that they loosely line up with Frye's four *mythoi*:

Rites of mortification line up with the *sparagmotic* mythos of irony, in that ironies are those works in which all human efficacy is missing, and all passion spent.

Rites of purgation line up with the *pathetic* mythos of drama, in that drama is often (as Frye points out) concerned with individuals who find themselves in some way cast out from the main society, though such individuals sometimes possess some power of effective action, unlike ironic protagonists.

Rites of invigoration line up with the *agonistic* mythos of adventure, in that these rites, like literary adventure, concern themselves with what Gaster calls "the Ritual Combat, or mimetic battle between Life and Death, Summer and Winter, Old Year and New." (page 37).

Rites of jubilation line up with the *incognitive* mythos of comedy, in that comedy celebrates the same spirit of joy and hilarity found in its ritual kindred, and does so with only spotty relevance to dramas of rebirth and redemption.

In addition, Gaster introduces two Greek terms that identify how the respective rites work. Rites of jubilation and invigoration are both characterized by *plerosis,* or "filling," because both give the sense that the ritual fills the community with new life. Rites of mortification and purgation are both characterized by *kenosis,* or "emptying," because they "empty out" the community of "noxious elements" one way or another.

Incidentally, anyone who googles either of these two terms as I did is likely to find far more references to *kenosis* than to its sibling, since the first Greek term received better press thanks to an apperance in the New Testament.

But neither term is exclusively applicable to religion, and together they bear a striking resemblance to David Sandner's commentary on the ways in which human creativity can seem at once incredibly "full" and surprisingly "empty." I remarked in this essay that this duality applies also to the way different creators, such as Daniel Clowes and the Hernandez Brothers, choose to view certain artifacts of creativity, as well as noting a similar duality in Frye's personal references here, where he said that he preferred comedy and romance/adventure to tragedy and irony (as I do myself).

A fusion of Frye with Gaster and other fellow travelers (such as Joseph Campbell), then, remains my particular quest, albeit one not shared by many others. Notwithstanding that, it's my abiding hope that, no matter how many confluences I find like those listed above, that said quest will always remain an "open" one.

No comments: