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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...

Monday, October 5, 2015


I started out OVERTHINKING THE UNDERTHOUGHT with this quote from Frye:

Meaning is derived from context, and there are two contexts for verbal meaning: the context of literature and the context of ordinary explicit or intentional discourse. When we first read a concentrated and difficult poem, we first try to grasp its explicit meaning, or the prose sense of what it says. We often call this the “literal” meaning, but actually it is a translation of the poem into a different verbal context, and is not what the poem really means at all. Gerard Manley Hopkins draws a distinction between the poet’s “overthought” or explicit meaning, and his “underthought,” or the meaning given by the progression of images and metaphors. But it is the “underthought” that is the real poetic meaning, and the explicit meaning must conform to it ...-- Northrop Frye (fuller context here).

I didn't use Hopkins' term "overthought" in the essays I directed at a couple of elitist critics, but I did state that they were guilty of "overthinking:" of taking narratives made up of "images and metaphors" and locking them into predetermined complexes of ideas. Within the scope of my essays, "overthought" might describe this tendency, while "underthought" described the reader's tendency to read the narrative's images and metaphors first and foremost as things that aroused either sympathetic or antipathetic affects in him. These emotional responses then lead to the abstract ideas, rather than the other way around.

While I agree with Frye's basic conclusion from the material given, I don't think Hopkins' original thesis goes far enough. I think the "literal meaning" is not something that looms "over" the poem, as a dialectical theme can be descried 'from above." The literal meaning is, amusingly enough, also the "lateral meaning;" one arrives at it by following the progression of events and expressed feelings from point A to point Z, and that is "what happened."

The word "overthought," in my opinion better properly describes a hyper-intellectual approach to art that Frye himself described in his essay "Mouldy Tales," collected in A NATURAL PERSPECTIVE:

{Certain critics] feel that [literature's] essential function is to illuminate something about life, or reality, or experience, or whatever we call the immediate world outside literature. Thus they tend... to think of literature, taken as a whole, as a vast imaginative allegory, the end of which is a deeper understanding of the nonliterary center of experience...

"Underthought," obviously, I would keep just as it is, with the caveat that just because one believes in starting one's critiques by talking about the progression of images and metaphors, that does not mean one has nothing to say about how the "images of intuition" can become ordered into "structures of dialectic thought."

It may be that my revised versions of overthought and underthought will in future serve me as shortened forms for the respective effects that "the function of thinking" and "the function of intuition" have upon literary narrative.  I concluded in REFLECTIONS IN A MERCURIAL EYE PART 3   that both myth-critics and ideological critics were in a similar unenviable position as far as converting the majority of readers to pursue more abstract readings of texts. Most readers quite logically are concerned with lateral meaning, which takes in both "the function of sensation" and "the function of feeling"-- and in truth, the abstractions of both overthoughts and underthoughts are only possible when constructed on the foundation of concrete experience. Thus, I personally can still enjoy many narratives that don't have much in the way of abstract meaning, as long as they excel in terms of sensation, feeling, or some combination thereof.  Many of my favorite comics from my early days will not make the grade as myth-comics, such as the 1960s DOOM PATROL, which did its level best to emulate the charisma of the 1960s FANTASTIC FOUR. The Drake-Premiani stories are still fun to read for their lateral meaning, for their appeals to sensation and feeling-- but overthought and underthought will not appear nearly as much as they do in the Lee-Kirby FF-tales.

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