chapter  1
24 Pages

The theoretical imagination

Northrop Frye is one of the greatest critics to have written in English. His work has been translated into many languages round the world. It is no exaggeration to say that he has made an enduring contribution to Western criticism, to an understanding of theory and literature, and to readings of individual authors and texts. Frye is best known for his argument that literature and criticism are each autonomous, by which he means that they are disciplines like any other and should not play secondary and subordinate roles in ideological systems by deferring to science, history, politics, psychology, anthropology, or any other discipline. He wants literary criticism to be scientific, to approach social science, to constitute a method and a body of knowledge. Frye builds his system on the structural principles of mythology but is not simply a myth critic who would subordinate literature to an ur-literature —mythology. He thinks that literature is the most complex and interesting manifestation or translation of mythology and that without literature a study of mythology would become sterile. Conversely, he considers a literary criticism without an understanding of mythology to be, given mythology’s historical priority, ahistorical if not anti-historical. Frye admits that ideology is everywhere, but he thinks that mythology is prior to it. Literature and criticism, according to Frye, use myth and metaphor to create an imaginative language that complicates and creates problems for those who think that all discourse is dialectic or argument and that literature and criticism are entirely ideological constructs or historical documents. His understanding of convention and genre has made this blurring of all distinctions, this homogenization of all types or kinds of writing into Writing, difficult to accept. Like Sidney, Milton, Blake, Shelley, he belongs to the radical Protestant tradition that defends poetry but shows social and political concern. Frye resembles Sidney and Shelley in making overt defences of poetry. Even though Frye has been sympathetic to the Commonwealth Confederation Party (CCF) and to its successor, the New Democratic Party (NDP), which are socially

progressive and ‘socialist’ political parties, and, from about 1948 to 1950, was managing editor of Canada’s progressive magazine Canadian Forum, he is less enthusiastic about political revolution than Blake and Shelley were (‘Ideas’ 1990:12, Cayley: 1991:29).