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Argumentative Essay: Analysis of Frye's Perspective on Language
In 1947, Wallace Stevens wrote a short yet beautiful poem that tells of the human’s desire to identify oneself with external matters so that one can feel included or able to associate with others - this poem is entitled The Motive for Metaphor. Almost two decades later, the poem was analyzed by Northrop Frye, a renowned literary critic, and was published in a book. The analysis presented well-crafted arguments into how the poem can be best understood, appreciated, and analyzed. This expository essay will tackle the discussion presented by Frye in his book The Educated Imagination.
Who is Northrop Frye?
Northrop Frye was a Canadian literary critic who also happened to be a teacher and the chairman of the English department, and a principal and a chancellor at the Victoria College, University of Toronto. He was known to be one of the most well-respected literary critics and theorists during his time. Frye has a talent for studying underrated or underappreciated literature to a certain degree that not only influenced the succeeding generations of literary critics but also encouraged people to read the subjects of his literary criticism and take the time to appreciate and understand it.
The book that resulted in his international prominence is Fearful Symmetry, which was published in 1947 and features the poetry of William Blake which Frye analyzed using a system of metaphor that is inspired by the Christian’s Holy Bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The system he developed shaped the discipline of literary criticism as known today.
Frye views imagination as something that can guide the world – or at least the world of literature and visionaries – into unity. The existing different languages and cultures in the world created a rift so great and can only be saved by the educated imagination and rebuilding knowledge that has been lost in translation. He delves into this manner of thinking of his in the book The Educated Imagination which was released in 1964.
The Educated Imagination
The Educated Imagination ventures Frye’s view of how important the relationship between language and literature is. In just six chapters, Frye shares with his readers how he analyzed pieces of literature mainly by having a deep understanding of the literary device metaphor.
The first chapter, which the succeeding content will be focusing on, is about The Motive For Metaphor, which talked about how science and literature (or imagination) is found on different ends of the same spectrum. He explores how the two, which are so different from each other, can be used simultaneously to gain a better understanding of the world. The questions posed in this chapter are answered near the end of the book and would not be discussed in this essay.
In The Singing School in the next chapter, Frye talked about the relationship between mythology and metaphors and how literature is doing the same thing as mythology did back then. How literature is basically a form of mythology as mythology is composed of connected myths and literature is made up of novels inspired by other novels.
In chapter three, Giants in Time, Frye talked about literary symbolism and how literature tackles subjects that are universal, gives general examples, and thus gives rise to impartial responses. He shares that literature is nothing but a symbolic world concocted by authors. Reading more books enables a person to relate to and gain knowledge based on literature. Therefore, literature, hand in hand with imagination, is able to swallow life itself.
This chapter, The Keys to Dreamland, discusses the intention of the author and the reaction of the reader – the two powers in literature (Frye 104). That for an author, it is not enough to know how to express oneself in words, and a reader needs to experience imagination in order to fully understand literature. Because “no matter how much experience we may gather in life, we can never in life get the dimension of experience that the imagination gives us” (Frye 101).
The fifth chapter, Verticals of Adam, is focused on teaching the principles of the theory of literature. In this chapter, Frye recognizes that everything has a story and that language learning is a must in order to fully experience what literature has to offer.
This final chapter, The Vocation of Eloquence, is dedicated to readers of literature. He dives deeper into the other things literature can do other than the pleasure it gives people just by reading it. Frye says that literature improves the imagination and that an educated imagination affects a person’s entirety and not just bits and pieces of the individual (152). Literature was created to promote imagination and create a vision in people’s minds.
The Three Levels of the Mind
In the first chapter, The Motive for Metaphor, Frye discussed the correlation between science and literature even if they are vastly different from each other. Having literature representing the arts, while science begin on opposite ends but meets in the middle at some point, and that the English language is essential in having a deeper understanding of how science and artwork.
In order to explain why people use language – or words, in its simplest form – Frye gave different types or levels of the mind which is used for language and for understanding how literature works. This is where it becomes obvious that perspective on language is marked by incongruence and lack of coherence.
The points he postulated in the first chapter clash with each other just like the discipline of the arts and sciences. The first point he made about language is that language is a state of consciousness or awareness that separates the individual from the rest of the world (Frye 37). Awareness is what enables man to react and interact with what he sees in the world. That language is what people rely on to make conversation.
Here, he asserts that the language of ordinary conversation is a monologue. This is totally contradictory to another idea he imparted which is people engaging in ordinary conversation and understanding each other proving that the language of conversation is not a monologue. The way that Frye presented man feeling out of place in a world where nothing responds to himself is quite confusing yet can be understood.
The second point presents a set of ideas that is a further investigation of how art and science eventually collide. Here, Frye stated that the second level is a practical attitude toward creating a human way of life in that world (Frye 37). Frye is implying that there is a need to transform the environment in order to have another human to interact with whose level of thinking is the same as the human who existed before him. This happens after the first person realizes that he is not in a favorable situation and would want to change it. This level of language is how people can gain information.
In reaction to that, the man then proceeds to build a world crafted out of his own imagination and not the world he is currently seeing as was pointed out in the first level. In this part, Frye tells of getting rid of parts one does not want to include in his world and adding ones that the person wants. A contradiction of his discussion is when a supposed uncontrollable factor was added into the equation, regardless of whether the first man wanted it there or not, and was still able to create a human society where art and science meet.
The created practical world is incongruent in itself because it did not give the person a chance to remove and add factors he likes and dislikes. The first man’s consciousness and practical skill are not on the same level as the newly arrived shipwrecked refugee. This removes the man’s choice and freedom altogether. It does however complete the experience of having someone to relate to and eradicates the feeling of loneliness and being unwanted in the world.
The third point is about an imaginative attitude, a vision or model of the world as you could imagine it and would like it to be (Frye 37). At this point, he postulates that even if man has a vision of what and how he wants the world to be, it is not really brought into existence. This is due to the fact that it will cease being a thing of imagination and start being reality. The imagination described here brings forth what humans know to be literature.
Frye’s initial proposition that science and art are placed on opposite ends but are both needed in the pursuit of knowledge is to be tested here. In his previous statements, he made producing what man wants born out of imagination combined with science sound possible. When in fact, in his last argument in the third point stated exactly the opposite.
His close examination of the use of language and how to be able to analyze it properly exhibits elegant precision. However, it does not mean that there are no loopholes in his elegant composition. The three levels of the mind gave so much detail and categorization that they lacked coherence and bordered on misrepresentation.
Discussion for The Motive for Metaphor: An Elegant Incongruence
In The Motive for Metaphor Northrop, Frye asserts that the purpose of literature is to delight readers by enabling them to experience “a world completely absorbed and possessed by the human mind” (35), a world they are involved with and part of, in contrast to a world they simply observe apart from themselves.
To arrive at this assertion, he introduces his levels of mind with corresponding kinds of languages culminating in metaphor, not English, as the proper language to be used for literature. Frye made astute observations about the workings of the mind and the different manifestations of language that appear valid, but his categorizations, however, are marked by incongruence and overall lack of coherence on all levels.
Frye introduced the Robinson Crusoe life of a person alone on an island - the outside, objective world. He presented an elegant and precise analysis of the objective world in relation to the mind of the lone islander and noted the lack of conversation, morality, and intelligence in that kind of world. The objective world forces the presumed lone person to think of and alternately to react emotionally towards it. This mental posture, Frye called the “speculative or contemplative position of the mind” (18), the first level of mind.
Very nice analysis he made, very elegant. The trouble with this is, when he translated this analysis into what he called “the English of ordinary conversation . . . the language of self-expression” (Frye 22). Because he used the metaphor of a person alone on an island, he was forced to make a sweeping and misleading assertion that this language of ordinary conversation is mostly monologue. Even a young mind will see that myriads of people in ordinary conversation would hardly come to any common understanding had their conversations been mostly monologue.
When the second level of the mind is observed, we find Frye continuing the metaphor of an island and a person as a basis for conjecturing this level. But this time he introduced the presence of another person, the opposite sex with whom you build the rudiment of human society or what he termed “the human form of nature, or the form of human nature” (Frye 20). This imperative to work on the environment needs the level of mind called social participation with the corresponding language of practical sense.
But when he enumerated the class of people who use this as their working language – teachers, preachers, politicians, advertisers, lawyers, journalists and scientists – they hardly fit the category of people who directly deal with and transform their environment. These people are in the category of those who handle data and language rather than concrete, malleable shapes that can be transformed in the interest of the human species; except perhaps for the scientist who handle the world of matter to analyze them, but strictly speaking is interested only in knowledge – the use of their knowledge to transform the world being done by the technologists and engineers.
Again, there's a lack of congruence between his analysis of the island metaphor and his application to the real world. There’s also a lack of congruence between the level of mind description – social participation – and the language of practical sense. The term social refers to interaction between persons but the term practical, gleaning from his metaphor refers to interaction between the person (this time more than one) and the environment, with the expected result of transforming the environment. The only social dimension in his metaphor is the number of persons involved; the mind aspect and the language aspect did not converge or did not logically lead to the other. Simply stated, there is again incongruence.
The third level, the level of imagination, is described as “a vision or model in your mind of what you want to construct” (21). To illustrate this, Frye contrasted science and art. He asserted that science begins with the world as we see it; art begins on the other hand with the world that the mind constructs, that is from the opposite end. But this is not so.
They both start, as with all knowledge, through perception of what is sensible through the senses. They only differ in the way they process what they perceive. Science processes through largely qualitative or quantitative analysis of sense data, art through descriptive processing of human perception and experience of the world. And then both end up with an imaginary construct – a model of the world (and in certain studies that of the human person) as in the case of science, and a model of human experience of the world, as in the case of art.
In implying that metaphor is the language of literature, Frye is short of arrogating metaphor to the exclusive domain of literature. The foregoing shows that science has a claim to metaphor, too. The level of ordinary expression as well can be replete with metaphor, as we can know from experience. We admit, though, that art or literature has developed it to a much higher degree.
The language of literature was associative: it uses figures of speech, like the simile and the metaphor, to suggest an identity between the human mind and the world outside it, that identity being what the imagination is chiefly concerned with (Frye 38). However, science also has to do something with the identity the individual has with the external world. Science, not only imagination and literature, affects the individuality of a person just as much.
While Frye in The Motive For Metaphor has made penetrating observations on the levels of mind and the use of language which led to fragments of admirable insights, his categories are incongruent which largely misrepresented real situations and the overall framework lacks neat coherence. Even though he presented his arguments quite neatly, he failed to first organize his thoughts logically in order to avoid incongruence.
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Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Northrop Frye". Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Jan. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Northrop-Frye.
Frye, Northrop. “The Motive for Metaphor.” The Educated Imagination (Midland Book) , New impression, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 1964, pp. 11–152.
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