The Romance of Interpretation: Visionary Criticism from Pater to de Man

By Daniel T. O'Hara | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER FIVE
AGAINST NATURE: ON NORTHROP FRYE AND CRITICAL ROMANCE

'I must rush again to War, for the Virgin has frown'd & refus'd.' her privates he, so to speak.


Discovery

NORTHROP FRYE begins from the Romantic visionary assumption that, as Blake puts it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "Where man is not, nature is barren."1 In Creation and Recreation, a monograph on the biblical metaphor of creation in its secular literary contexts, Frye summarizes his prophetic attitude to nature in a most interesting manner. He uses a characteristically nineteenth-century analogy to highlight the differences between living within the protective "envelope" of culture to living in, or at least perceiving, the fundamentally alien environment that surrounds us. The "cultural insulation that separates us from nature," Frye suggests, "is rather like (to use a figure that has haunted me from childhood) the windlow of a lit-up railway carriage." Most of the time this "cultural insulation" functions as "a mirror of our concerns." Culture is a reflexive symbolic medium that man produces to feel at home in the universe. It makes him feel as if he were its center, even though he knows he is actually on its periphery being driven by forces he ultimately cannot control. Now and again, for some apparently unknown reason, culture fails to perform its reflexive symbolic function and the mirror turns into "a real window" which dis

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