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Sniffing Out a Trail

Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society By Northrop Frye Indiana University Press, 296 pages, $11.95

By Julia M. Klein

WHEN NORTHROP FRYE began drawing his circles, representing the cycle of nature, on the blackboard of Burr B two years ago, he immediately created a devoted and evangelical following among Harvard faculty and students. Frye himself, in Spiritus Mundi, insists that he neither wants nor trusts disciples, but it's not difficult to understand why he attracts them. In many ways, Frye is the consummate humanist. A vigorous exponent of the autonomy of art, he has brought to its study a quasi-scientific rigor. A devotee of the imagination, he exemplifies the critic as creator, combining a vast erudition with a penchant for clear and orderly exposition.

Frye's intellectual progenitors are a varied lot. He readily admits his debt to Blake, who sparked his interest in mythology and myth-making. With Blake and the other Romantics, Frye shares a powerful faith in the human imagination as a potential agent of individual and social transformation. For Frye, mythologies, as imaginative universes, are not primitive stabs at science, but "rather an attempt to articulate what is of greatest human concern to the society that produces it." In his exaltation of the imagination, he goes so far as to view poetic myth as embodying a higher order of reality than scientific truth. In an essay called "Spengler Revisited," Frye defends Spengler against his detractors, in part, by saying:

Some of his comparative passages, such as his juxtaposing of colors in Western painting with tonal effects in Western music, read almost like free association. Any number of critics could call these comparisons absurd or mystical balderdash. But Spengler has the power to challenge the reader's imagination, as critics of that type usually have not, and he will probably survive them all even if all of them are right.

One of Frye's main critical contributions has, in fact, been the attempt to separate literary criticism from belief. "A man may be a great poet and still be little better than an idiot in many of his personal attitudes," Frye is convinced. On one level, the mythological structures Frye sees as providing the framework for poetry transcend any question of belief. More generally, he maintains that "when belief is a matter of uncritical acceptance of the unprovable, the less we believe the better."

Frye's faith in the imagination and his rejection of a priori beliefs suggest his liberal bias towards processes over ends. That bias is strikingly in evidence in two of the essays in Spiritus Mundi, both of which condemn student radicals of the 1960s for their attack on educational processes. In "The University and the Personal Life," Frye places student unrest in the tradition of American anarchism, categorizing it primarily as a religious quest rather than a social movement. What he objects to most is the anti-intellectualism of the protesters, their refusal to appeal to "reason or experience or history or anything except emotional reflex." For Frye, the validity of the university as an institution is beyond question; there is something pure about the process of education which takes place within ivied walls, something which was profoundly, but only temporarily, threatened in the '60s.

If Frye's glorification of the imagination is Romantic and his political stance and commitment to free discussion brand him as a liberal, his approach to literature is structuralist, in the very loosest sense of the term. Frye's concern is not with style or literary history or the psychological or social bases of literary expression. He believes rather that each work of art is rooted within a mythological framework derived, in our culture, from the Bible. Frye's main theoretical interest in recent years has been the classification of the various narrative movements and symbolic elements which characterize particular literary modes. His Norton lectures, for example, dealt with the structure of romance, which he referred to as "the secular scripture."

THE TWELVE ESSAYS collected in Spiritus Mundi give ample testimony to the range and eclecticism of Frye's thought. The book is divided into three sections of four chapters each. The first section is the most general, dealing with what Frye calls the "Contexts of Literature." It is from this section that the two essays touching on student radicalism are drawn. The next portion of the book, "The Mythological Universe," provides a useful overview of Frye's general critical principles and their application to the theory of literary modes. The final section, the most technical, contains essays on four of Frye's favorite poets--Milton, Blake, Yeats and Wallace Stevens--all of whom he has commented on before.

The experienced reader of Frye will find little in Spiritus Mundi that is new or startling. Frye himself admits in "Expanding Eyes" that he hasn't "budged an inch in 18 years" since the publication of his major critical work, Anatomy of Criticism. All his scholarship since then has fit his own description of Wallace Stevens's poetry: variations on a theme. Nevertheless, Spiritus Mundi constitutes at the very least an appropriate introduction to Frye's critical preoccupations; it also contains a number of interesting re-explorations of topics he has treated previously. Among the best essays are "The Times of the Signs," which explores the gradual dissociation of the mythological and scientific cosmologies in the early modern period and hints at their eventual unification, and "The Romance as Masque," which takes off from Frye's discussion of Shakespearean comedy and romance in A Natural Perspective.

Frye's writing is, as always, lucid, though the last few essays are difficult for those unfamiliar with the material. In addition, his straightforward presentation is occasionally spiced by a characteristic dry wit. In "Spengler Revisited," for example, Frye writes:

It seems to me that Spengler's distinction between primitive and historical existence is the real basis of Yeats's distinction between "primary" cultures and the "antithetical" ones which rise out of them, but the spirits who supplied Yeats with his vision did not know much history.

No one can accuse Frye of a similar ignorance. The single most impressive characteristic of his scholarship is the ease with which it draws on the materials of a variety of disciplines--not in order to reduce literature to their domains but rather to reinforce its integrity. Although Frye rejects his role as the founder of a school of "myth criticism," he is not loath to characterize himself as a pioneer. "I think I have found a trial," he writes in "Expanding Eyes," "and all I can do is to keep sniffing along it until either scent or nose fails me." Spiritus Mundi is sufficient proof that both are still happily intact.

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