"Ponderynge together yestardayes promise, and two-dayes doyng"
(Hall's Chronicle - 1548)


"Goronigl gwyr yr Ynys" (Lewis Glyn Cothi - 1450)

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Form & Meaning



Looking through an old notebook I came across this quotation from Northrop Frye:


All around us is a society which demands that we adjust or come to terms with it, and what that society presents to us is a social mythology. Advertising propaganda, the speeches of politicians, popular books and magazines, the clichés of rumour, all have their own kinds of pastoral myths, quest myths, hero myths, sacrificial myths, and nothing will drive these shoddy constructs out of our minds except the genuine forms of the same thing.

                                                      (from The Stubborn Structure )

I can see why that appealed to me then, and if it is true of his time, before the Internet, 'fake news' and the extended cult of phony 'celebrity', how much more so now? And yet ... I wonder about the implications here for the separation of form from meaning. For Frye, serious literature embodied these myths in deep and significant structures of meaning but popular cultural artefacts could do no more than gesture towards them. Such a position would be difficult to maintain today and it would be viewed as 'elitist'. But what strikes me as more contentious is the proposal that a 'form' - say a structural expression of an archetypal pattern - might be more or less significant, that is more or less meaningful as a 'sign' - depending on the particular medium of expression. Surely it is better to say that the real thing may be embodied in the form of an expression whether that form be a folk tale, a poem, a novel, a play, a popular drama, or a film. Is it not the skill with which these forms are manipulated in each medium that enhances or deepens our appreciation of the sign and so its significance but that it remains there as a perceptible presence however it is expressed?

That is, we do need, as Frye asserts, to be able to distinguish the quality of different literary products , but we cannot do so by consigning categories of expression to the status of 'worthy' or 'unworthy'. The gods that these myths give form to are ubiquitous, and will be present in whatever cultural forms we make for them according to the skill of the shaper to provide for their appearance rather than the medium through which it is expressed.

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