Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Northrop Frye's Fables of Identity - the conventions of literature contain the experience

The latest book in my reading of classics of literary criticism is Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (1963) by Northrop Frye, a collection of magazine writing and so on from the 1950s and early 1960s that serves as a sequel to another Frye classic, one that I have not read, Anatomy of Criticism (1957).  “That very theoretical book stated in its preface that a work of practical criticism was needed to complement it” (p. 1), and this is in effect that.  This, a different “this,” the quotation, explains why I wanted to read Fables of Identity more than Anatomy.

The essays take as their subjects Spenser (specifically The Faerie Queene), Shakespeare (the sonnets, The Winter’s Tale), Milton (“Lycidas”), Blake, Byron, Dickinson, Yeats, Stevens, and Joyce (Finnegans Wake).  They are full on useful insights.  I “tested” some of them, re-reading the Shakespeare play and the Milton poem, as well as quite a lot of Wallace Stevens.  It was a good experiment.  Well, I did not really follow the argument in the Stevens piece, which constructs a metaphysics from single lines pulled from thirty years of poems.  I think I followed the rest.  They are magazine pieces, or talks.  They are meant to be followed.

To jump back to my little project, compared to Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending Frye is a model of clarity and compared to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations his ideas have not been so thoroughly sponged up.  It also does not hurt that Frye occasionally uses humor:

Many readers tend to assume that Spenser wrote [The Faerie Queene] in the same way that they read it, starting at the beginning and keeping on until he collapsed with exhaustion.  (69)

Mild, but a relief from the weight of Spenser.

The “fables” and “mythology” in the title are meant broadly.  They can be taken to mean something like the elements that are common among works of literature rather than those that are individual to the text.  The epic form, the pastoral elegy, the hero quest, stories structured around seasonal change.  That sort of thing.  Some of it explicitly uses existing mythic stories, some of it – like Blake’s big poems – tries to turn old myths into new, and some is unconscious.  To the extent that texts fall completely outside of this framework, Frye ignores them.  Maybe everything fits.  I don’t know.

In “Nature and Homer,” Frye generously suggest that everything fits, that the study of Shakespeare and comic strips is just “exploring different literary conventions” (50), that “[w]herever he goes in his imaginative verbal experience, the conventions of literature contain the experience” (51).  Fables of Identity is for readers who enjoy literature itself, literature as such.

OK, come back in a couple of months for Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, or however much of it I have read at that point.