What Does Literature Say?: The Problem of Dogmatic Closure-From Romanticism to Northrop Frye

By Toth, Sara | English Studies in Canada, June 2011 | Go to article overview

What Does Literature Say?: The Problem of Dogmatic Closure-From Romanticism to Northrop Frye


Toth, Sara, English Studies in Canada


One can stop and examine a secret, make it say things, make out that there is something there when there is not. One can lie, cheat, seduce by making use of it. One can play with the secret as with a simulacrum, with a lure or yet another strategy. One can cite it as an impregnable resource. One can try in this way to secure for oneself a phantasmatic power over others. That happens every day.

Jacques Derrida

On the Name

What does literature say when it's silent?

Northrop Frye

Late Notebooks

THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER Northrop Frye has insisted on the all-pervasiveness of rhetoric in verbal discourse. As he famously says in Anatomy of Criticism, "Nothing built out of words can transcend the nature and conditions of words," therefore "the nature and conditions of ratio, so far as ratio is verbal, are contained by oratio" (337). In other words, literary or poetic language, the language of story and image, takes precedence over the dogmatic or conceptual interpretations of texts. Overturning the platonic priority of dialectic over rhetoric, Frye no longer thinks of Plato's myths as "illustrating his dialogues but as the primary meaning of which the dialectic discussions form a commentary" (Great Code 65). This approach especially challenges the traditional concept of religious dogma by suggesting that the primary language of religion is literary and doctrine is a secondary superstructure imposed by the church, an attempt to translate metaphorical paradoxes such as the Incarnation, or its corollary, the Eucharist, into propositional language (55).

Frye's insistence on the primacy of rhetoric continues to be very relevant today. In spite of obvious differences, his theory, I will argue, matches the insights of poststructuralists such as Paul de Man's in the essay "Semiology and Rhetorics" or Jacques Derrida's in "White Mythology." This far-reaching reversal of the hierarchy between the literary and the dogmatic, however, goes back to Romantic theories of literature and language. Whereas literary devices viewed in the spirit of Plato are merely decorative, and need to be translated into conceptual or propositional language in order to find out what the text really says, the Romantics no longer consider language to be "thought clothed in words" but to be conveying meaning through its own medium of verbal effects such as narrative, metaphor, paradox, and the subtleties of association. Thus raising a doubt about the possibility of pinning down what a text really says, the Romantics highlight a tension we have had to deal with ever since: the tension between the open nature of literary discourse and the tendency of dogma or its contemporary equivalent, ideology, toward the closure of meaning. This is what Derrida means by suggesting that modern society has given literature the right to "ask any question, to suspect all dogmatism, to analyze every presupposition, even those of the ethics or politics of responsibility" (On the Name 28).

At first sight, it seems that this tension was unknown before the dominant ideology of Christianity gave way to a conflict of ideologies in the early modernity of the Enlightenment and then of Romanticism. In premodern times the interpretation of literature or poetry was subordinated to the theological and ethical doctrines of the socially and institutionally entrenched religious discourse. Literature earned its legitimacy as teaching or didaxis in the service of the doctrines and ethics of the received worldview. On second thought, however, even an age of religious ideology sustained an awareness of the tendency of dogma toward closure. Whereas in a particular religious community (the church), particular teachings are needed in order to talk about God and to spell out the ethical consequences of faith (quid credas and quid agas), human doctrines by nature tend to restrict and close down what is unlimited and infinite. Even if we say something about God, we need to unsay it as well. …

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