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Between the Is and the Is Not: Northrop Frye, Adaptation, and the Romantic Imagination

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 37, Issue 2, June 2011
pp. 67-86 | 10.1353/esc.2011.0022

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For northrop frye, one of the most basic facts about literature and its history is that it constitutes its own ahistorical universe, emanating from the world we live in but basically distinct from it. "Man lives in two worlds," he asserts, "the world of nature and the world of art that he is trying to build out of nature" (Secular Scripture 58). Literature's sole origin is the human imagination, and since, for Frye, "the human imagination ... is always a form of 'lying' "—of reconstituting rather than merely representing the world of phenomena—the organizing principles of the literary universe are not identical with those of the world we inhabit (46). "Truth and falsehood," for example, "are not literary categories, and are only approximately even verbal ones" (17). It therefore seems that at least to some extent, Frye would agree with Paul de Man's famous assertion that

literature is fiction not because it somehow refuses to acknowledge "reality," but because it is not a priori certain that language functions according to principles which are those, or which are like those, of the phenomenal world. It is therefore not a priori certain that literature is a reliable source of information about anything but its own language.


For Frye as for de Man, there is an irreducible gap between a text and the world in which that text is produced. Frye renders the situation with a typically biblical metaphor: "What I do think is that the text before us is something other than ourselves, that we have to struggle with it as Jacob did with the angel, but that there is nothing to come up from behind ... to assist us. The otherness is the text itself" ("Double Mirror" 37). This "otherness" differs from the Derridean sense of otherness, which marks it as a quality language cannot contain but to which it can only point (van der Sijde 204-07). While for Derrida only certain kinds of texts exhibit otherness, for Frye all texts do so, not because they gesture toward what cannot be interpreted or assimilated but because they belong to a separate and aesthetic order of experience.

J. Hillis Miller summarizes the poststructuralist understanding of the radical individuality of the literary text: "each work is a separate space, protected on all sides by something like quills. Each work is closed in on itself, separated even from its author. The work is also separated from the 'real world' and from any unified supernal world which all works might be presumed to put to work" (34). Emphasizing that language is finally indeterminate and unable to refer beyond itself, poststructuralist thought differentiates itself from Frye and New Criticism by denying not only the previously assumed connection between literature and phenomena but the existence of any original or structuring principle on which the enterprise of literary criticism might be based. There are only singular, indivisible texts, adrift on a sea of language. Frye, on the other hand, "can retain the idea of a center or origin of human statements because language for him remains referential, or better, expressive. Language is not an arbitrary, closed system within which no metalanguage or privileged critical statement is possible" (Altieri 971). Frye's tacit assumption of the possibility of a coherent critical methodological system suggests that his vision of the literary universe seems to be founded on an unnamed metaphysical source (one of whose absence Derrida's work strives to remind us). As Jonathan Culler remarks, "the status of [Frye's] taxonomic categories is curiously indeterminate.... As soon as one asks why these categories are to be preferred to those of other possible taxonomies it becomes evident that there must be something implicit in Frye's theoretical framework which needs to be made explicit" (120). Culler's observation seems to me an acute one, but I want to propose in this essay that a return to Frye need not necessitate a return to his complex systemizing of literature, nor a return to his attempts to found a science of criticism based entirely on inductively derived principles. Instead, using Frye's work as a framing device for the study of a film that wrestles with many of the...

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