Northrop Frye
The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance
1978

The real social function of literature, in this view, is to persuade the emotions to align themselves with the reason, and so act on the "heart," which perhaps means not so much the pump in the chest as the primary or primitive brain.

[24]

Rituals, like myths, begin in the stage of society described by the term religion: they are symbolic acts of social cohesion in which the acts that we think of as specifically "religious" are not yet clearly differentiated from others.

[55]

the extraordinary skill with which many people arrange their lives in the form of romantic or dramatic ritual, in a way which is neither wholly conscious nor wholly unconscious, but a working alliance of the two.

[57]

One pole of this is an idyllic world where human desires and ideals can find more scope, and where violence and fraud can occasionally be seen in the form of their corresponding virtues, fortitude and prudence.

[91]

The dreamer is, so to speak, a god in relation to his dreamed self: he created him but remains in the background watching.

[105-06]

The closest analogy to such picture-arts in contemporary popular culture is the television commercial, which presents its products as magical objects.

[109]

The reflecting pool is a mirror, and disappearing into one's own mirror image, or entering a world of reversed or reduced dimensions, is a central symbol of descent. ... Peer Gynt also begins his adventures with a tale of jumping off a precipice on the back of a reindeer into the water, where a mirror image of the reindeer comes up to meet him.... Some of the Classical romances are presented to us as commentaries on pictures, which means that they attempt to recapture, or at least invoke, in words, that quality of naive and involving stare that pictures can appeal to more effectively... The Narcissus theme helps to explain why the confusion. of identity in romance is so often associated with the theme of twins.

[112]

On the lower reaches of descent we find the night world, often a dark and labyrinthine world of caves and shadows where the forest has turned subterranean, and where we are surrounded by the shapes of animals. If the meander-and-descent patterns of paleolithic caves, along with the paintings on their walls, have anything like the same kind of significance, we are here retracing what are, so far as we know, the oldest imaginative steps of humanity.

[112]

And in a life that is a pure continuum, beginning with a birth that is a random beginning, ending with a death that is a random ending, nothing is more absurd than telling stories that do begin and end. Yet this is part of the counter-absurdity of human creation, the vision that comes, like the vision of the Bhagavadgita, to alienated figures on a battlefield of dying men, and ends with finding one's identity in the body of the god of gods who also contains the universe.

[125]

The feeling that death is inevitable comes to us from ordinary experience; the feeling that new life is inevitable comes to us from myth and fable. The latter is therefore both more true and more important.

[132]

this is how the recreating of the literary tradition often has to proceed: through a process of absorption followed by misunderstanding, that is, establishing a new context.

[163]

It is possible that social, political, or religious revolution always, and necessarily, betrays a revolutionary ideal of which the imagination alone preserves the secret.

[165]

the journey toward one's own identity, which literature does so much to help with, has a great deal to do with escaping from the alleged "reality" of what one is reading or looking at, and recognizing the convention behind it. The same process exists in the elementary teaching of literature, or should. The child should not "believe" the story he is told; he should not disbelieve it either, but send out imaginative roots into that mysterious world between the "is" and the "is not" which is where his own ultimate freedom lies.

[166]

.. social mythology is adjustment mythology, designed to produce the docile and obedient citizen. It "indoctrinates," as we say, not because anyone, at least in our society, wants it to or plans it that way, but because the whole enterprise is automatic and mindless, an expression not of social unity but of gregariousness.

[167]

Such stories do not end: they stop, and very frequently they can be easily started again. They are designed to provide a kind of idealized shadow of the continuum of our lives, an endless dream world in which we can keep losing ourselves.

[169]

television [is]a shadow counterpart for the whole continuum of existence, dreaming as well as waking.

[170]

the cycle of violence and cunning that begins with Homer.

[172]

The principle of the aristocracies of the past was respect for birth; the principle of fraternity in the ideal world of romance is respect rather for those who have been born, and because they have been born.

[173]

where Don Quixote, possibly the greatest figure in the history of romance, has recovered his proper function as a social visionary.

[179]

The poets see nothing imaginative in a domination of nature which expresses no love for it, in an activity founded on will, which always overreacts, in a way of life marked by a constant increase in speed, which means also an increase in introversion and the breaking down of genuine personal relationships.

[180]

It is very different with the sense of formal design in, say, the cultural products in a museum, which may range from Benin bronzes to Viking ships, from Chinese pottery to Peruvian textiles. We know that all the cruelty and folly of which man is capable was all around these artifacts when they were produced, and that some of that cruelty and folly may be reflected from the art itself. Nevertheless there is something in the energy of design and the purity of outline that lifts them clear of all this. Whatever the culture was, its designed products belong in the state of innocence, as remote from the evils of that culture as Marina was from the brothel in Pericles.

[181]

It is impossible to reconcile a story of God making things in roughly their present forms with the real story of nature, where an evolution of complex organisms out of simpler ones gives a much more satisfactory vision of "genesis," however many gaps there may still be in our [181] knowledge. The artificial myth won out, obviously, because it made reality humanly intelligible...

[181-2]

In human life creation and contemplation need two people, a poet and a reader, a creative action that produces and a creative response that possesses.

[185]

[ back ]