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The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1976?1991

The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1976?1991

Joseph Adamson
Jean Wilson
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 625
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  • Book Info
    The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1976?1991
    Book Description:

    his new edition in the Collected Works of Northrop Frye series bringsThe Secular Scripturetogether with thirty shorter pieces pertaining to literary theory and criticism from the last fifteen years of Frye's life.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-2755-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Credits and Sources
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. xxi-2)

    The first part of this volume is taken up by one of Northrop Frye’s most remarkable literary studies,The Secular Scripture,a work that has not yet received the readership it deserves. Its original publication in 1976 partly explains this neglect: it appeared at the very moment that Frye’s influence¹ was beginning to ebb, as the contestatory criticism of poststructuralism, deconstruction, and New Historicism took wing and began to overshadow the entire discipline. Moreover, its subject matter did not seem to suggest the weight and wisdom that were to be associated with the two Bible books (GCandWP), though...

  7. 1 The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance April 1975
    (pp. 3-124)

    There is not much to say about this book except that it contains the lectures which I gave as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University in April 1975. This came at the end of an exhilarating and most profitable year in residence at Harvard. To record the personal obligations of my wife and myself to the kindness and hospitality of my Harvard colleagues would swell this preface into a long, and for them embarrassing, catalogue. So I have simply dedicated the book to my students: the fact that there were several hundred of them indicates another aspect...

  8. 2 Romance as Masque 16 October 1975
    (pp. 125-151)

    Let us start with the two comic genres of Old Comedy and New Comedy, familiar from Greek literature.¹ The distinguishing feature of New Comedy, the form predominant from Roman times to the nineteenth century, is the teleological plot, in which, as a rule, an alienated lover moves toward sexual fulfilment. New Comedy reaches itstelosin the final scene, which is superficially marriage, and, more profoundly, a rebirth. A new society is created on the stage in the last moments of a typical New Comedy, and is often expanded by a recognition scene and a restoring of a birthright. The...

  9. 3 Letter to the Editor of Parabola 1976
    (pp. 152-152)

    I am very pleased that you are setting up a new periodical connected with “Myth and the Quest for Meaning.” This is about as central an area in the contemporary intellectual scene as one could find, but it cuts across so many of the conventional disciplines that it is absolutely essential to have something specifically designed to bring together scholars in literature, comparative religion, popular culture, and other related fields.

    I understand that your opening issues will be featuring Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell, which indicates that you know where the central people are and are able to count on...

  10. 4 The Responsibilities of the Critic 20 February 1976
    (pp. 153-169)

    Many nineteenth-century writers, including Burke, Carlyle, and Arnold, were badly shaken by all the revolutionary talk about the “rights of man” following the French Revolution, and were fond of insisting that men have no rights, only duties.¹ Similarly, the academic critic represents the practical arts, notably literature, within the university, and it is safer for him to talk about his responsibilities than about his privileges. Many poets and novelists wonder why, if he must thrust himself in front of students to talk about literature, he cannot confine himself to the dead, and let them make their own impact unimpeded. Most...

  11. 5 Comment on Peter Hughes’s Essay 1977
    (pp. 170-171)

    It seems to me that implicit in Vico’s conception of poetic myth is a double movement, one centrifugal and one centripetal, that follows the course of history until thericorsobrings it around again. Mythology, in his as in the modern sense, is the source of both a literary and a nonliterary development. In the nonliterary context, the primary use of myth is to rationalize law, law including the whole context of custom, ritual, and class structure. Law is first thought to be revealed by the gods; in the heroic age laws are drawn up in the interests of an...

  12. 6 Literature, History, and Language 29 March 1979
    (pp. 172-179)

    When I first became interested in problems of literary history, I became very impatient with the kind of literary history that told me nothing about the history of literature, but was simply ordinary history specializing in the names and dates of authors. Genuinely literary history, I thought, was largely concerned with conventions and genres, and as I looked further into it, it began to take on two aspects, one diachronic, the other synchronic. Diachronically, it showed a kind of Darwinian pattern, throwing mutations out more or less at random and descending through whatever had the greatest survival value. The survival...

  13. 7 On Translation May 1979
    (pp. 180-181)

    What in poetry is translatable? It is easier to begin with the other side of the question, What is not translatable? What is not translatable are the accidents of language: the features that make words rhyme in one language and not in another, the differences in rhythm that make, for example, the hexameter useful in French but awkward in English, the kind of humour that depends on verbal wit, the associative clusters of meaning around words that are different for every language. With English and Chinese, there is the further difficulty of rendering a sequence of characters into an alphabetical...

  14. 8 Extracts from The Practical Imagination: Stories, Poems, Plays 1980
    (pp. 182-212)

    The Practical Imaginationintroduces students to the view that literature is both enjoyable and practically useful as it awakens our consciousness of how and where we live: in our imaginations, really—in our perceptions of ourselves as we face the world. Indeed, literature is perhaps our most immediately practical educator, from fairy tale and nursery rhyme onward, engaging our responses as it widens our vision and clarifies our perspectives.

    This book is an anthology. It covers the forms and varieties of fiction, poetry, and drama, moving from the simple elements to the more subtle and complex, with introductory principles and...

  15. 9 Vision and Cosmos 17 May 1982
    (pp. 213-229)

    Every human society, it seems, looks at its environment through a transparent cultural envelope of its own construction. There are no natural societies, in the sense of human groups living directly in and according to nature, able to dispense with such an envelope. There are no “noble savages,” or completely natural men, for the same reason. A society’s cultural structure normally consists of two concentric circles: an inner one which is peculiarly the “sacred,” and an outer one which, though related to the sacred, has the less vigilantly guarded circumference that we describe as secular or profane. Writers on comparative...

  16. 10 Literature as a Critique of Pure Reason 29 September 1982
    (pp. 230-244)

    The word “irrational” is derived from “reason,” and the word “reason” summons up the ghost of the old faculty psychology, in which “reason” is a thing man has, and frequently regards as uniquely his, to be distinguished from other things called “will” or “feeling” or “desire.” These latter seem to be found among animals, or at least analogies to them are, and so “reason” has been traditionally considered the crown that man wears as the king of nature. It is the faculty that shows off man as the only organism in nature whose horizon is not wholly bounded by the...

  17. 11 Approaching the Lyric 14 October 1982
    (pp. 245-251)

    Some people believe that literary terms can be defined: there was a purist in theGreek Anthologywho maintained that an epigram is a poem two lines long, and that if you venture on a third line you’re already into epic.¹ But that seems a trifle inflexible. At the other extreme, there is a popular tendency to call anything in verse a lyric that is not actually divided into twelve books. Perhaps a more practicable approach would be to say that a lyric is anything you can reasonably get uncut into an anthology. Or perhaps we can at least limit...

  18. 12 The Survival of Eros in Poetry 16 February 1983
    (pp. 252-286)

    Every society is characterized by concern, a term so broad that it is practically equivalent to conscious awareness itself, or at least to the awareness that life is serious, on both its individual and its social sides. The verbal expression of such concern is, in modern times, mainly conceptual and theoretical, taking the form of political, religious, psychological doctrines. Before the rise of conceptual language, however, such verbal expression most naturally took the form of stories, stories tending to explain or identify the gods, the structure of authority in the society, the legendary history, and the like. It is obvious...

  19. 13 The Ouroboros Summer 1983
    (pp. 287-289)

    The ouroboros (“tail-eater”) is one of the images that grew up in the tangled complex of symbols that accompanied the Gnostic, hermetic, and, more particularly, alchemical speculations of the early centuries of the Christian era. Its origins are Egyptian and may go back to very ancient times. It is not a Biblical symbol, though it could be adapted to a Jewish or Christian framework by alchemists or Kabbalists, and its first literary appearance is in a poem [On Stilicho’s Consulship, bk. 2, 11. 427–30] by Claudian, one of the last of the pagan Latin poets.

    The image of the...

  20. 14 Literary and Linguistic Scholarship in a Postliterate World 29 December 1983
    (pp. 290-298)

    The title of this paper is not mine: I do not know what the word “postliterate” means, and I have finally decided to take it as a synonym for education itself. Society supports compulsory education because it needs docile and obedient citizens. We must learn to read to respond to traffic signs and advertising, learn to cipher to make out our income tax. These passive acquirements make us literate, and society as such has no great interest in education beyond that stage. Teachers take over from there: their task is to transform a passive literacy into an active postliteracy, with...

  21. 15 The End of History 10 May 1984
    (pp. 299-299)

    In the first place, the myth is amythos, a story, a narrative. And if you’re attending a play of Shakespeare’s, the story of that play is itsmythos, it’s its myth. And if Shakespeare is writing a history play, for example, you’ll find that he alters some details. He makes Hotspur and Prince Henry the same age, where historically, according to his sources, they were twenty years apart. Well, then we say that the story, the play, follows history except for some poetic licence, but that’s got the whole thing backwards. The myth of Shakespeare’s play incorporates historical material,...

  22. 16 Myth as the Matrix of Literature Fall 1984
    (pp. 300-311)

    At the beginning of theAnatomy of Criticism, there is a statement to the effect that that book is “pure critical theory” [vii]. I now somewhat regret that phrase, not simply because one tends to lose faith in purity with advancing years, but because of the discovery, which I made soon afterward, that I was much less interested in “pure critical theory” than I thought I was. My central interest is really in practical criticism, which I had originally hoped theAnatomywould be; and my two central conceptions have always been myth and metaphor. TheAnatomyspeaks of the...

  23. 17 The Koiné of Myth: Myth as a Universally Intelligible Language 4 October 1984
    (pp. 312-326)

    The word “myth” is used in such a bewildering variety of contexts that anyone talking about it has to say first of all what his chosen context is. Mine is the context of literary criticism, and to me myth always means, first and primarily,mythos, story, plot, narrative. The words “story” and “history” were originally identical, but they are now distinguished, and the word “story” seems to lie along an axis extending from history to fantasy. In theory, we have at one extreme the “pure” history which is all “true,” in the sense of being a verbal structure that corresponds...

  24. 18 The Symbol as a Medium of Exchange 26 October 1984
    (pp. 327-341)

    The word “symbol” is a term of such Protean elusiveness that my instinct, as a practical literary critic, has always been to avoid it as much as possible. However, the title of this conference, “Symbols in Life and Art,” indicates, quite correctly, that it is a word of major importance in an aspect of criticism which has also been central to my interests, the linking of the arts, including literature, to other social phenomena, and the study of the place and function of the arts in social life. “Symbol” comes, we are told, from the Greeksymballein, which means to...

  25. 19 The Expanding World of Metaphor 8 December 1984
    (pp. 342-356)

    Let us start with literature, and with the fact that literature is an art of words. That means, in the first place, a difference of emphasis between the art and the words. If we choose the emphasis on words, we soon begin to relate the verbal structures we call literary to other verbal structures. We find that there are no clearly marked boundaries, only centres of interest. There are many writers, ranging from Plato to Sartre, whom it is difficult, or more accurately unnecessary, to classify as literary or philosophical. Gradually more and more boundaries dissolve, including the boundary between...

  26. 20 Extracts from The Harper Handbook to Literature 1985
    (pp. 357-389)

    The Harper Handbook to Literature, arranged in alphabetical order, aims to satisfy curiosity about terms likesyzygyorzeugma, concepts likestructuralismorphenomenologyorunity, and literary genres and movements likeAfro-American literatureorGoliardic verse. It is a supplementary text for college students beginning their literary study, a handy guide for casual readers, and a ready reference for advanced students and instructors. Entries range from a few words to summary essays with bibliographies for further study. Cross-references lead from short definitions to larger concepts. AChronology of Literature and World Events, at the end of the text, ranges...

  27. 21 Letter to the Editor of PMLA March 1985
    (pp. 390-391)

    I think of literature not as ironic but as hypothetical, its central axiom being not so much “nothing is certainly true” as “everything is to be tentatively accepted.” Such an axiom certainly has its ironic aspect, but the primary concerns I speak of are not, for me, “immutable values” but limits to the irony. Thus the irony of Swift’sModest Proposalhas a limit in the reader’s continuing conviction that, as the saying goes, eating people is wrong. Here Swift is on our side, but when Yeats, in hisOn the Boileressays, advocates a “just war” and a new...

  28. 22 Lacan and the Full Word April–June 1985
    (pp. 392-395)

    My own chief interest at the moment is in the place of the Bible in the imagination of Western culture, a subject which does not directly concern Lacan. Yet I find Lacan a most rewarding writer to “misread”—this word is taken from Harold Bloom, but Lacan’s own dictum that everyméconnaissanceimplies aconnaissancebehind it amounts to much the same conception.¹ Lacan’s aphoristic and discontinuous style, his unique fusing of the oracular and the witty, affords his reader at least two kinds of stimulus. On the one hand, even if one is not a special student of Lacan,...

  29. 23 Literature and the Visual Arts 6 May 1985
    (pp. 396-407)

    I should like to approach the relation of literature to the visual arts through some of the general principles involved, and hence I am not confining myself to Italian examples. Also, if I am to keep the discussion contained within the limits of a short introductory paper, I shall be able to discuss only one of the visual arts: the one I choose is painting.

    The verbal and musical arts that address the ear are presented as temporal experiences, where we move along with the presentation from beginning to end. Those that address the eye, including painting, sculpture, and architecture,...

  30. 24 The Journey as Metaphor 8 October 1985
    (pp. 408-422)

    A journey is a directed movement in time through space, and in the idea of a journey there are always two elements involved. One is the person making the journey; the other is the road, path, or direction taken, the simplest word for this being “way.” In all metaphorical uses of the journey these two elements appear. In pure metaphor the emphasis normally falls on the person; in proportion as we approach religious and other existential aspects of metaphorical journeys the emphasis shifts to “way.” I should like to begin with some common examples of the metaphor of journey, and...

  31. 25 Framework and Assumption 24 October 1985
    (pp. 423-435)

    As this conference is concerned with convention and knowledge, I should like to begin by talking about the role of convention in literature. A convention is an aspect of the identity of a work of literature: it is what makes it recognizable for what it is, and it is also the aspect that welcomes and invites the reader. Conventions may appear in minor roles within other conventions.In Romeo and Juliet, for instance, the great courtly love convention that dominated so much of the Middle Ages extends only to the Romeo–Rosaline affair that precedes the action of the play....

  32. 26 Maps and Territories 25 May 1987
    (pp. 436-441)

    Many things must be said that should go without saying. It should go without saying that I regard this occasion as an extraordinary honour to me, so I am saying it with all the emphasis I can. The honour is independent of whatever may be said about me, because what is in the centre of discussion is not me but literary criticism. Fifty years ago there was a widespread feeling that criticism was a series of reactions to works of literature, but did not form a coherent subject in itself. There was a reluctance to examine the theoretical assumptions of...

  33. 27 Epilogo May 1987
    (pp. 442-443)

    I can only repeat what I said at the beginning: what an enormous honour this is to me. And add that the conference was organized with extraordinary efficiency. The uniform excellence of the papers rendered me almost—you will be glad to know—almost speechless.

    I have often been asked how I feel about being discussed in the third person, and I usually say that I meet it with a kind of controlled schizophrenia. That is, one splits off one’s private preoccupations from one’s public work, because if you get the two attached and begin to yield to temptations to...

  34. 28 Auguries of Experience 28 December 1987
    (pp. 444-450)

    In days so remote that I can barely remember them now, I was reading books on Blake in preparation for writing one myself. In those early times it was an unquestioned axiom that one should read everything available on a subject before trying to write about it, and for Blake in the 1930s that was still humanly possible. So I immersed myself in the two or three good books and the hundred and fifty or so bad ones that had been devoted to Blake up to that time. One of the bad ones quoted a couplet fromAuguries of Innocence,...

  35. 29 Literary and Mechanical Models 6 June 1989
    (pp. 451-462)

    My qualifications for addressing a conference of this kind are as close to absolute zero as it is possible to get, except for one thing. Nobody can have lived through three quarters of this century without being aware of the immense number of major revolutions, political, economic, religious, and above all technological, that one has lived through during that time. So nowadays I almost invariably begin an address with personal reminiscence: this is not (yet) simple senility, but a means of providing some historical perspective on the contemporary world.

    When I was an undergraduate student at Victoria College, I had...

  36. 30 Literature as Therapy 23 November 1989
    (pp. 463-476)

    When I was looking over the connections that came to my mind between literature, more particularly English literature, and the medical profession, I remembered that in the Middle Ages the doctors had a popular reputation for scepticism and that there was a medieval proverb that said that wherever there are three doctors there are at least two atheists. When Chaucer introduces a physician on his Canterbury pilgrimage, he remarks that “His studie was but litel on the Bible,”¹ and that was a sort of in-joke, picking up the general assumption. That notion lasted even as late as the seventeenth century,...

  37. 31 Response to Papers on “Northrop Frye and Eighteenth-Century Literature” April 1990
    (pp. 477-484)

    I am very grateful for these thorough, well-written, and very sympathetic critiques. I don’t feel too happy about being in a position of response. It would be ridiculous to be defensive about a book that I started to write forty years ago. I am interested mainly in seeing what changes of perspective have taken place since that time. At the same time, there are disconcerting aspects of being treated as the author of only one book which was published a full generation earlier, and has been overlaid in my own mind by twenty-odd books since. It reminds me a little...

  38. Notes
    (pp. 485-534)
  39. Emendations
    (pp. 535-536)
  40. Index
    (pp. 537-588)