- Body of Vision: Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Mind by Michael Sinding
Michael Sinding revisits and provides new perspectives for understanding some of Northrop Frye’s major contributions to literary and social criticism after four decades of theory and literary studies that, as he suggests, have been incongruous with Frye’s understanding of meaning. This incompatibility between, on the one hand, Frye’s understanding of language, literature, and they way they work and, on the other hand, past trends in literary studies has, according to Sinding, recently experienced a redress mainly through advances in cognitive poetics. Along with cultural studies and New Historicism, cognitive poetics is well suited for entering, or rather re-entering, into dialogue with Frye’s work; Sinding insists that it is through the four-way dialogue that new perspectives on Frye’s work come to light, specifically the latter’s understanding of metaphor and its fundamental role in constructing stories, world views, and identities. The dialogue is framed by three case studies: Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hobbes and Rousseau, and Milton’s “Lycidas.”
Before presenting his three case studies, Sinding discusses the broader convergences, as well as the divergences, between Frye’s work and cognitive literary studies. This comparison is based on his claim “that cultural [End Page 568] cognitive models exist that are larger, more plentiful, and more coherent than has yet been recognized, that they are grounded in natural perceptual and conceptual structures, and that they have important roles in cultural thought and experience.” For Frye this amounts to a search for a “total form” of the underlying grammars that structure language and literature. Similarly, the cognitive critics (at least the ones Sinding examines here) attempt to show how larger conceptual models and metaphors guide and ground the way we think, speak, read, and act. By seamlessly moving between more general theories (Saussurean structuralism and Jung’s “literary symbolism,” for example) and conceptual metaphor theorists, specifically George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Mark Turner, Sinding shows how cognitive processes and archetypes ground Frye’s literary cosmology and establish parallels between the latter and culture as well as cultural experience. This cosmology is possible only when the specificity of individual metaphors is considered along with “metaphoric coherence,” a grounding that opens to new patterns or schema for understanding.
Chapter two presents Sinding’s first case study: Dante’s Divine Comedy, whose cosmology he compares to Frye’s by seeking out their metaphoric coherence and the way it “relates to literary meaning, understanding and experience by supporting the assimilation of conventions to one another and their resonance with one another.” Focusing on spatiality, character agency, and embodied experience, Sinding is able to reconsider Frye’s literary cosmology as a network of archetypal metaphors that structure and provide the background—a storyworld—for specific stories and images.
Sinding goes on to address Hobbes and Rousseau in chapter three to show how Frye’s literary cosmology, approached from a cognitive poetics standpoint, can address social, cultural, and political concerns, that is, non-literary discourse. Myth takes a central role in this chapter as Sinding applies the Ur-myth of the loss and restoration of paradise to political and social metaphors of the nation, city, family, and body. He points out that for Frye there is a “dialectic of concern and freedom at the core of society and social thought,” a dialectic that he illustrates by examining two opposing thinkers of the social contract: Hobbes (conservative) and Rousseau (liberal). In both thinkers, Sinding highlights the way myth and metaphor (specifically those mentioned above) contribute to political meaning and the making of the state.
In his final case study Sinding provides a reading of “Lycidas” as a basis for a broader discussion of literary genres and cultural history in relation to Frye’s work. The latter’s view, he claims, opens up possibilities for harmonizing cognitive and historicist views of history, meaning, and culture and ultimately “correcting” them; the cognitivist view often misses or misrecognizes the important relation between general universals and [End Page 569] particular...