Wednesday Book Club: Spiritus Mundi

Wednesday, 18 March 2009 — 11:28pm | Book Club, Literary theory, Literature

This week’s selection: Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society (1976) by Northrop Frye.

In brief: This collection of a dozen variegated essays—some broadly accessible, others strictly for the interest of literary scholars—is a grab bag of erudite criticism that serves as thorough sampling of Frye’s one-man theory show. The academic pieces, which attempt to deduce overarching mythic cosmologies from the poetic output of writers such as Milton and Blake, are an ample demonstration of Frye’s method. Far more compelling, however, are the pieces that argue for the continued relevance of the imagination following its dislodgment from the objective world of science and history.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Spiritus Mundi, keep reading below.)

Northrop Frye is possibly literature’s most readable theorist, and definitely so, should we confine ourselves to the critical morass that is the latter half of the twentieth century. I attribute this to two factors.

First, there’s his predilection to file the entirety of Western literature into neat analogical boxes like a Victorian lepidopterist, where everything fits into a grand ur-structure of isomorphisms between the four seasons, the genres of drama, the phases of man, the Biblical mythos, and everything else. There’s a clarity to Frye’s writing that doubtless originates in the orderliness of his thought, in stark contrast to the pluralistic mess of postmodernism at its most extreme, where everything means anything and therefore nothing.

Second, there’s his singular insistence on departing from the critical orthodoxy of “schools of thought” derived from preexisting -isms, and developing an independent theory of literature that grows out of the empirical data before asserting its own autonomy—a theory that is to literature as mathematics is to physics, or as chord-scale theory is to music. Reading Frye leaves an encouraging impression that one is, in fact, learning something; again, not something that can be said for your average theorist.

Most of this was explained better in Anatomy of Criticism, a theoretical masterwork that qualifies as desert-island reading for the literary scholar. But there is something to be said for the versatility of a thinker who just as happily boils down his discipline into the basic introductory questions of why we bother with it at all, as Frye does with the utmost commitment to accessibility in the Massey Lectures published as The Educated Imagination.

The twelve essays in Spiritus Mundi cover the spectrum between the two extremes, the Northrop Frye who muses about grand mythological archetypes in case anyone is incidentally listening, and the Northrop Frye who stands as a plainspoken advocate for literary criticism as a dignified, valuable discipline. They are cordoned off into three parts:

  1. “Contexts of Literature”—essays concerning the place of literate culture in the intellectual and political environment of academia, the enduring relevance of books, and the coexistence of mythological and scientific ways of thinking.
  2. “The Mythological Universe”—studies in genres as diverse as literary criticism, charms and riddles, masques, and grand unified theories of history.
  3. “Four Poets”—readings of Milton, Blake, Yeats, and Stevens that attempt to deduce a cosmology, or symbolic universe, from the works of each poet.

It’s hard to summarize any of the essays individually, as Frye has a tendency to meander from one thought to another instead of pursuing a single line of argument at a time. He makes it clear that he doesn’t believe in the “position paper” as a format, as he finds that it enslaves the study of a work of literature to demonstrate an ideology that has already been assumed. Indeed, it is quite easy to get very lost in the essays that rely on close poetic analysis, not because of any obscurity in Frye’s writing, but because he presumes a thorough holistic knowledge of the works he is analyzing in isolated parcels. You might think you know Milton, but then you see Frye go on for pages about a lesser-known work like Samson Agonistes and all you end up absorbing are the occasional conclusive paragraphs that jump out with an “aha”.

So there’s not much I can say about the arguments themselves: I don’t have the literary (or, in many cases, theological) background to follow every logical step and refute them if necessary. What’s interesting to see here is how a writer can dedicate himself to clarity in a syntactic, lexical sense, and still produce essays that are distinctly academic. There remains an irreducible difference between academic and popular writing: the prerequisite of pure knowledge. And as much as Frye would like criticism to be a study that has something to show for itself as a closed system, the evidence underlying his grand mythological constructions—the close analysis of the literature itself—often only makes sense to the degree you are aware of the literature.

But the essays that take a more holistic approach, predominantly those in the first part, are sublime. Some of them are a product of their time, but are food for thought nonetheless. In “The Renaissance of Books”, Frye shows off his healthy conservative scepticism towards the oft-announced death of books at the hands of emergent media, contending that the permanence of written documents (contrary to the “linearity” suggested by McLuhan) makes them the enabling artifacts of democracy. Well, sure, but what do we make of that argument today, in the age of mass digitization of texts—where we have impermanent digital media that are simultaneously more accessible to the public? We’re still at least a generation away from assessing what effect digitization will actually have on our cultural memory, but it currently looks as though Frye’s defence of the book could apply as well to the e-book.

Equally fun is “The University and Personal Life”, Frye’s thorough dissection of late-sixties hippie leftism that exposes it as a far and purposeless cry from the old guard of intellectual social movements, which were fundamentally driven by a teleological vision of history. Frye has a taste for grand theories of history, even if they have been thoroughly discredited in practice: he repeatedly insists that mythologies never become wholly obsolete, since they remain interesting as mythologies—a view he takes of Oswald Spengler’s four-seasons model of the rise and fall of civilizations in “Spengler Revisited”.

One of Frye’s contentions in Spengler’s defence is that his critics, who showed with the obvious means that Spengler ended up being flat-out wrong, never proposed any elegant models of civilization as a replacement. This is understandable in light of Frye’s viewpoint that criticism should learn a few lessons from science, where the refutation of a theory leaves a vacuum that can and must be filled by a new theory that offers a better explanation accounting for the evidence of its predecessor, and then some. However, since the publication of Spiritus Mundi in the 1970s, postmodernism has driven much of literary “theory” off into a different corner entirely—one that rejects grand narratives outright, and aims precisely to take them apart without constructing anything in their place. I do not imagine Frye would be very pleased with the state of affairs today.

The most compelling essay of the lot is “The Times of the Signs”, a mind-blowing address delivered to the Royal Society of Canada in 1973 to mark the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Copernicus. If one were to compile an introductory package of Northrop Frye essays that offer a grand tour of the full spectrum of his thought, this would surely be among them.

Here, Frye illustrates, through a miniature history of Western poetry, the effect that developments in the natural sciences had on the imagination—primarily, but not exclusively, the realignment of our place in the world from a Ptolemaic centre to a heliocentric orbit. What did it do to a Christian consciousness? Or a Renaissance consciousness? And what the heck is Galileo doing in Paradise Lost, anyway?

Frye’s romantic schema, where our natural knowledge of the world that is coexists with an imaginative culture expressing the world as we would like it to be, is as mature an assessment of the interaction of science and myth as one is likely to find. We may be living in times when the common poetic impulse is to retreat into a vehemently unscientific symbol-set—observe the resurgence of astrology—but that wasn’t always so, and it hopefully won’t always be that way. In an apathetic environment, our imaginative response, which takes the form of our cultural production, is the source of human ideals and desires.

As a complete volume, I do not suggest Spiritus Mundi as an introduction to what Frye is all about: a student of literature is better served with Anatomy of Criticism, and a layperson with The Educated Imagination. But it is in Frye’s short works that the extremes meet in the middle, and one gets to witness a fine demonstration of his method, which takes collected morsels of literature as evidence for a grand pattern to the universe of human dreams.

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2 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: Spiritus Mundi

  1. Hear, hear! and Well done! and things like that. A lovely summary of a wonderful book.

    Monday, 23 March 2009 at 7:24am

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