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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...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


"The critic would tend rather to note how popular literature which appeals to the inertia of the untrained mind puts a heavy emphasis on narrative values, whereas a sophisticated attempt to disrupt the connection between the poet and his environment produces the Rimbaud type of illuminations, Joyce's solitary epiphanies, and Baudelaire's conception of nature as a source of oracles. Also how literature, as it develops from the primitive to the self-conscious, shows a gradual shift of the poet's attention from narrative to significant values, the shift of attention being the basis of Schiller's distinction between naive and sentimental poetry."-- Frye, ARCHETYPES, p.18.

"Inertia of the untrained mind?" Why I oughtta--

In addition to Frye's main purpose of diagramming his distinctions between the "narrative values" and "significant values" of literature, this passage shows that, as I noted earlier, Marxist litcritic Fredric Jameson was pretty off-base in attacking Frye as a putative defender of popular fiction. Another essay in FABLES OF IDENTITY gives an even greater putdown to popular literature, implying that it's only of value once it's been tranformed by the superior artist. So yes, Virginia, Northrop Frye, despite having formed a literary hermeneutic of immense value to the critique of both canonical and popular art, had his elitist side. (He was an academic teacher of literature, after all.)

As noted earlier, Frye separated "narrative values" from "significant values" by giving them respective "concrete" and "abstract" tonalities. In this Frye was, as he himself says, preceded by Schiller, though the argument here reminds me more of Stephen Daedalus' lecture on the differences between "static" and "kinetic" literature in Joyce's PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN. The Daedalus character has a revealing moment in his argument when he compares "kinetic" works of art with the activity of the physical neural system. Kinetic art is that which merely calls forth a purely-physical response from the audience, much as one's nerves are automatically stimulated by such gross emotions as lust or fear, while "static" art is that which somehow goes beyond such commonplaces. Again, the lesser experience is concrete; the finer, abstracted.

But though Joyce's schematic, like Frye's, is stimulating, it's hard to avoid the feeling that what both of them are trying to do is, in Yeats' memorable phrase, to "know the dancer from the dance." To me it seems obvious that there is considerable poetry in both the ongoing temporal motion of the narrative and the sorta-kinda-outside-time spatial stasis of the well-wrought pattern of significant images.

Frye is right in observing that popular literature usually deals with a straightforward narrative rather than any structure that might call attention to the work's own artificiality, to its status as a means through which the artist communicates his "meanings." However, there seems no justification for explaining the fascination with narrative motion in terms of "inertia." The reader who never strays from popular works may not ever appreciate the assortment of significant values one may find in canonical literature, but that's a long way from saying that there are none to find in the popular works he does read.

A suiperficial glance might indicate that children are the readers most infected with what Frye calls "inertia." Do not many of them insist that their parents or guardians read them their favorite stories again and again, preferably in the same way? (This frequently-reported tendency may be dying out now that audiovisual tapes and discs make it possible to repeat the experience EXACTLY as before). But is the child who wants to hear RED RIDING HOOD again and again, fascinated purely with the narrative build: the meeting in the woods, the rush to Granny's, the ritual of "what big eyes," etc.? Or is the child fascinated with what the narrative devices lead to: the "significant value" of the climax, with Red being eaten by the Wolf (with or without a Caesarian happy-ending)?

"Untrained" though such juvenile minds are, I tend to think that both the dancer and the dance matter to them equally. How they can be one and separate at the same time will be a matter for discussion when I follow up this discussion of Frye with one on one of the authors who influenced him: the aforementioned Theodore Gaster, whose THESPIS I'm currently reading. Stay tuned.

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