The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structures of Romance
Northrop Frye
Harvard 192 pp. $8.95

For two decades Northrop Frye has been urging his readers to-think about literature as a coherent order of words Which obeys, its own structural principles and has its own truths to convey. The trouble is that most of us like to be confused so we persist in going to Lawrence for ethics, Kafka for metaphysics, or Pound for economics or worse, thus making the same mistake as Don Quixote when he jumped into the puppet show and began hacking away with a real sword at pasteboard enemies.

The facts of life, Proust quipped, “have no meaning for the artist, they are to him merely an opportunity for exposing the naked blaze of his genius.” Nothing could be clearer: whether he knows it or not, the artist’s main concern is-to create art and that is why—as Malraux has shown—he goes at first to art instead of life to learn how. But Proust and Malraux are lettered men and not devoid of pedantry.

Some years ago, an American scholar was interviewing an illiterate singer of Serbian epic songs. Naturally, he wanted to discover what songs the poet knew, but nothing in his critical framework had prepared him for the answer. Instead of replying that he knew about Marko Kraljević or Halil Hrnjičić this proud rhapsode declared that he could sing weddings and sieges, captures and challenges. In other words, he thought of his repertory in terms of the constant structures of his art and not its variable anecdotal content. After all, anybody can in time memorize any number of verses, but only the man who possesses the structuring principles of his art can make songs that are already known but always new.

The steps we should take in order to arrive at an approximate answer are outlined in Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Essentially, we are to regard all literature and its attendant commentary as part of a continuous whole made up of what can be imagined about reality, a system whose parts relate coherently and self-sufficiently so that, all appearances to  within literature itself.

To read the rest of this essay—and access digital editions of our entire print archive—become a member.