Essays on Frye and The Modern Century

Modern Century

HA&L (Hamilton Arts & Letters), an award-winning online journal edited by Paul Lisson and Fiona Kinsella, has recently published two issues on Frye and his book The Modern Century, the print version of three lectures which Frye originally delivered at McMaster University in 1967, Canada’s centennial year. Here is a list of the articles and contributors, with accompanying links.

Issue Seven.2: The Modern Century

Thomas Willard, “Making it New: Frye and Modernism.” (here)

John Robert Colombo, “The Love of Four Kernels: A Frye Fantasy.” (here)

Jeffery Donaldson, Poetry: “House of Cards” and “Museum.” (here)

Gary Michael Dault, Short Fiction: “The Last Hours of Northrop Frye.” (here)

Brian Russell, “Frye and Hoggart on Film and TV: An Alternative to the Postmodern Paradigm.” (here)

Issue Eight.1: The Educated Imagination

Robert D. Denham, “Northrop Frye, M. H. Abrams, John Keats, and the Co-ordinates of Art  Criticism Theories.” here

Joseph Adamson (Guest Editor), “Maladjusting Us: Frye, Education, and the Real Form of Society.” (here)

Mervyn NIcholson, “Frye’s Desire.” (here)

Ed Lemond, “Beckett and the Alienation of Progress.” (here)

Michael Sinding, “Mythology on the Move: Narrative Archetypes in Framing and World View.” (here)

Blake, Frye, and McLuhan in Fiction: ​​The Devil’s Party, A Novel by Bob Rod​gers


The Devil’s Party
Who Killed the Sixties?

By Bob Rodgers

About the book: “The Devil’s Party follows Jason, an intellectual tenderfoot, and Lennie, a charismatic and tortured literary phenomenon, as they finish their Bachelor’s degrees in Manitoba and begin graduate school at the University of Toronto. Driven by the works of William Blake and mentored by intellectual heavy-weights Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, the pair dive into the rabbit hole of scholastic passions and set out to wrestle with the ruling elite and rattle the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of the complacent majority. Their stories echo a culture stepping away from the quiescent 1950s towards the turbulent and dramatic ‘60s, and together they wrestle with the birth of new ideas and the burden of knowledge that threatens to consume them.”

You can read more about the book here.

The Bob Denham Collection at the Moncton Public Library


I am posting to give an update on the Bob Denham Collection at the Moncton Public Library. The wonderful donation that Bob made in July, 2012, is housed in a special room – The Heritage Room. The “primary” materials (Frye’s books and the many translations thereof, as well as many books about Frye) have been on display and available to the public almost from the beginning, but now library staff have completed the somewhat more difficult task of cataloging and presenting the “secondary” materials (photocopies of contemporary reviews and essays, offprints, funeral notices, etc.). I visited the library this past Friday and was delighted to see many drawers of a built-in cabinet neatly filled with labeled folders containing these secondary materials. So I think now the Moncton Library is really ready to present itself as a destination for Frye scholars and students.

I should also mention that the display includes many artifacts, as well as original portraits and caricatures, that Bob collected over the years.

For more on the collection, go here and here.

Catching Fire with Frye: The Hunger Games Model of Creative Writing


Archetype Spotting as Creative Writing

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has replaced The Da Vinci Code as the model/paradigm of creative writing by such popular creative writing teachers/authorities as Randy Ingermanson (Writing Fiction for Dummies 2010) and Larry Brooks (Story Engineering 2011 and Story Physics 2013).

Northrop Frye’s method of creative writing would add an extra dimension to their teachings. Frye would simply show how Collins’  re-wrote myths, or in his term, “displaced” the myths. The archetypal recipe for The Hunger Games:

1) The Reaping (Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery)

2) the 12  Districts tributes/maze (Theseus and the Minotaur)

3. the arena/human-hunting-humans (Richard Connell The Most Dangerous Game)

4. telescreens (George Orwell 1984)

5. Katniss bow/arrow and helpers  (Robin Hood).

Most creative writing teachers simply adapt Joseph Campbell’s monomyth (like Frye’s genre of Quest-Romance). When I approached Ingermanson and Brooks about Frye’s archetypal spotting/writing technique with The Hunger Games, Ingermanson could not use it; Brooks found it interesting but not instructive. Clearly what is needed is an illustration of archetypes on a micro-scale, a smaller version of what Prof. Glen R. Gill did on a macro-scale with Steven Spielberg’s films  spotting the biblical archetypes (posted previously) :

1. Genesis (Jurassic Park; A.I.)

2. Exodus (Schindler’s List)

3. Job (Minority Report)

4. Gospels (E.T.)

5. Jonah (Jaws)

6. Revelation (War of the Worlds).

While The Educated Imagination lectures brim with archetypes of setting, character and plot, perhaps what is needed is a formulaic listing of archetypes  broken down into the parts of a story, like Freytag’s Pyramid scheme (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement) or Syd Field’s 3 act structure of scriptwriting (setup, confrontation, resolution).

Both creative writing authors, Ingermanson and Brooks, basically use the screenwriting paradigm for fiction as popularized by Syd Field 3 act structure. Ingermanson’s variation on this model is to write 3 disasters prior to the deciding final climax in act 3. Brooks’s method converts Field’s 3 acts into 4 acts (the Confrontation in act 2 is split in half) and he marries character development on top of  the 4 acts/plot, as the main character goes through the stages of  Orphan (act 1), Wanderer (act 2) , Warrior (act 3), Martyr (act 4).

The closest model to Frye’s (using Frye’s method of 3 identities, individual, dual and social) is the author of the storywriting  software Dramatica.  Again, even that elaborate method could benefit from archetypal spotting, For now, without the input of Frye’s ideas (displaced archetypes or even type-anti-type typology), creative writing teachers will be missing  an extra dimension to their teachings.

On Frye and Don McKay, Ecopoet


Don McKay (photo by Shelley Banks; the original copyright photo appeared on

We are delighted to publish the following article. John Nyman is a graduate student and Toronto-based poet. He is currently beginning PhD studies in Theory and Criticism at Western University.

Frye’s Social Function of Literature and the Ecopoetry of Don McKay

John Nyman

When Northrop Frye claims, in The Educated Imagination, that “literature belongs to the world man constructs, not to the world he sees; to his home, not his environment” (12), his vision seems radically disconnected from that of the nature poet or ecopoet, who seeks to represent or even protect nature by portraying it in literary language. For example, “com[ing] to grips with the practice of nature poetry in a time of environmental crisis” is the central concern of Vis à Vis (9), the first of three books of philosophical and field notes by Don McKay, one of Canada’s foremost ecopoets. In accordance with this aim, McKay begins his book with an ethical stance against the “one pole of our relations to material existence” he calls “matériel,” a “second-order appropriation” which “address[es] things in the mode of utility” (Vis 20)—an address which feels very much like an important part of Frye’s literature as the language of “what [we] want to construct” (Educated 7). Considering these key images in both thinkers’ works, Frye’s vision of the social function of literature and McKay’s deployment of poetry appear to come up against each other in deadlock. However, a deeper reading of these thinkers shows that Frye’s and McKay’s bodies of thought coalesce on an understanding of nature and society as ethically inseparable, which gives shape to their shared vision of poetry. While each thinker approaches this model from a different direction—Frye from a central interest in humanism and McKay from the political standpoint of ecology—reading their understandings with rather than against each other helps us produce a fuller and more fruitful picture of the relationship between humanity and our natural environment.

In Frye’s most direct discussions of the social function of literature, all of the elements he incorporates into his model are linked to the human and defined by their relationship to the human, initially making his perspective very different from McKay’s. In Words with Power, Frye argues that literature is significant because it engages with the language of myth—the “sacred ground” of human society which defines what a human subject “must know” (as an assumption, not a prescription) in the first place (41)—to focus attention on what he calls “primary concerns”: food, sex, property—“in the sense of what is ‘proper’ to one’s life”—and “liberty of movement” (51). In this way, literature moderates society’s normally overwhelming focus on less important “secondary concerns,” which “include patriotic and other attachments of loyalty, religious beliefs, and class-conditioned attitudes and behavior” (Frye, Words 50). But primary and secondary concerns are still both human concerns, and both the language of mythology and the dialectic or logos Frye opposes it to are human forms; nowhere is the nonhuman implicated in the work of the poet. In contrast, McKay’s explorations of poetic practice highlight a concern with “wilderness,” which is essentially nonhuman and unknown, before even the understanding of “place.” At the outset of Deactivated West 100, McKay explains the contours of his central aim, which involves thinking a perspective outside of Frye’s “sacred ground” of human society:

Suppose we try to define place without using the usual humanistic terms – not home and native land, not little house on the prairie, not even the founding principle of our sense of beauty – but as a function of wilderness. Try this: ‘place is wilderness to which history has happened.’ Or: ‘place is land to which we have occurred.’ Our occurrence to the land – the act which makes place place – could be a major change (homestead, development, resource extraction) or a smaller claim (prospector’s stake, survey marker, plastic tape, souvenir stone), but it shifts the relationship; it brings the wild area into the purview of knowledge and makes it – perhaps momentarily, perhaps permanently – a category of mind. (17-18)

This explanation is corroborated by further elaboration of McKay’s concept of wilderness, which he describes in Vis à Vis as “the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations” (21). “Wilderness” is an element of what we commonly call nature which is before or beyond humans’ “primordial grasp,” the gesture which leads us to create our non-natural identity by marking nature as ‘other’ and “establish[ing] the place where representation and recollection occur” (McKay, Vis 22). Wilderness also, then, stands against the extreme form of human “grasping” which is the ruthless appropriation or utilization of the natural world amounting to “the colonization of its death” or “a denial of death altogether” (McKay, Vis 20). This process, for McKay, is the making of “matériel,” or “matérielization” (McKay, Vis 20).

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Ron Schoeffel

Ron Schoeffel

It is with great sadness that those in the extended Frye community learned of the death of Ron Schoeffel on July 4. Ron, a long-time member of the staff of the University of Toronto Press, was the editor of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye. It was under his steady hand that the 30-volume Collected Works of Northrop Frye were published, beginning in 1996, at the rate of two per year. Ron also initiated the great Erasmus project at the U of T Press, an account of which can be read in Robert Fulford’s column here, and he was also the editor of the U of T Press’s Bernard Lonergan series. My first contact with Ron was in the mid-1980s while working on the Frye bibliography. Then in the 1990s and following there were countless communications back and forth as the various volumes of the Frye Collected Works made their way into print. It was to Ron that I turned over the typescript of the Frye-Kemp correspondence in 1994 as we sat in President Eva Kushner’s office, when the vision of a collected works was beginning to take shape. Ron was always the consummate professional, while at the same time being a warm, caring, fun-loving human being. The last words I heard Ron say were at the Frye conference at Victoria College last fall, when he reported that his wife was the only person he knew who had ever been trapped in an elevator with Northrop Frye. Perhaps someone knows about a second chapter to the elevator story. We will all miss Ron greatly.

Ron’s obituary can be found at here.

Frye, Orwell, Hoggart: On Popular Culture


The following post is from Brian Russell Graham, author of The Necessary Unity of Opposites: The Dialectical Thinking of Northrop Frye (University of Toronto Press, 2010):

Interestingly, Frye, unlike postmodernist critics, thinks in terms of literature which is “beyond the pale.” In his view, it is judicious to distinguish between popular culture proper and the sham article. In relation to a conventional art such as literature, Frye invites us to work with the distinction between the genuinely popular and what he seems to view as the pseudo-popular, which seems to point to the run-of-the-mill “mass” product – the “bestseller” (Frye 2006, 22). Of course, cultural studies makes interesting study objects of all texts. But Frye also demands of us that we consider the aesthetic merits of works of literature. Having invoked the specter of “a packaged commodity which an overproductive economy, whether capitalist or socialist, distributes as it distributes foods and medicines, in varying degree of adulteration” (Frye 2006, 21), he then proceeds to speak even more damningly of pseudo-popular literature:

Much of it, in our society, is quite as prurient and brutal as its worst enemy could assert, not because it has to be, but because those who write and sell it think of their readers as a mob rather than a community. (Frye 2006, 21-2)

Frye provides us with very little in terms of information about the fiction he views as pseudo-popular. It’s not difficult to imagine the kind of material he had in mind, however.  In the 1960s, populist literature had been  represented by, for example, Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers, described in a New York Times review at the time of its release as “an excuse for a collection of monotonous episodes about normal and abnormal sex – and violence ranging from simple battery to gruesome varieties of murder.” But what precedents are there in literary criticism for Frye’s rather bold judgment? Is he working within a particular tradition of moral criticism?

It seems highly probable that when distinguishing between the genuinely popular and the pseudo-popular, Frye is consciously following the lead of Orwell and Richard Hoggart. Orwell and Hoggart shared something of a common outlook. Both believed that American mass-market fiction was wandering into an ethical gray area. But both were above-all focused on British imitations of that American fiction – No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase, in the case of Orwell, and the British “sex and violence novelettes” published under pen-names such as “Hank Janson” in the fifties, in the case of Hoggart.

In “Raffles and Miss Blandish,” Orwell argues that in Chase’s narrative there is no moral difference between detective and gangster. Chase’s “whole theme is the struggle for power and the triumph of the strong over the weak” (Orwell 1984, 262). Claiming that the idolization of criminals in characteristic of American mass culture, he argues that the appearance of the book in the U.K. is evidence of the Americanization of British reading proclivities: “In America, both in life and fiction, the tendency to tolerate crime, even to admire the criminal so long as he is a success, is very much more marked” (Orwell 1984, 270). Such storytelling may be indicative of an inversion of the underlying myth of Western literature, he goes on to argue: “Perhaps the basic myth of the Western world is Jack the Giant-killer, but to be brought up to date this should be renamed Jack the Dwarf-killer” (Orwell 1984, 272), he concludes. (Interestingly, Orwell uses “brutal” and “brutality” five times in the short piece.)

Similarly, in The Uses of Literary, Hoggart focuses on the mass culture embodiment of literature, considering the categories of “Crime,” “Science” and “Sex novelettes” (Hoggart 1957, 205). It is the third category that Hoggart devotes most time to. These works are variously referred to as “Sex-and-violence novels,” “‘blood-and-guts’ sex novelettes,” “novelettes of sex-adventure”. In the stories all sex is violent, and “there must be violence all the time” (Hoggart 1957, 213); “it is violent and sexual, but all in a claustrophobic and shut-in way” (ibid.). Crucially, “it exists in a world in which moral values have become irrelevant”: “‘forgiveness,’ ‘shame,’ ‘retribution,’ and ‘to be sullied,’ ‘to fall’ or ‘to pay’ are all concepts outside their moral orbit” (ibid.). “Crooks” are defeated in the end, but the texture of the writing is bereft of moral reference. When men and women have sex, they do so as “physical enemies” (Hoggart 1957, 215). The aim of the writing is to make the readers feel “the flesh and bone of violence” (Hoggart 1957, 217). Gangster fiction, Hoggart admits, “moves […] with a crude force as it creates the sadistic situation”; but even here “it has the life of a cruel cartoon” (ibid.). In Faulkner’s Sanctuary (actually something of a pot-boiler, argues Hoggart), a scene of violence (sexual violence in this case) strikes us as “real”: “and the more real”, he continues, “because there is, implicit in the passage, a sense of a saner world outside [which] gives a moral perspective to the whole passage” (Hoggart 1957, 220). But in gangster fiction “we are not aware of a larger pattern”: “We are in and of this world of fierce alleyway-assault, the stale disordered bed, the closed killer-car, the riverside warehouse knifing. We thrill to those in themselves; there is no way out, nothing else; there is no horizon and no sky. The world, consciousness, man’s ends, are this – this constricted and overheated horror” (ibid.).

It’s difficult to avoid the sense that, for better or for worse, this tradition in letters petered out in the twentieth century. It may well be that Frye’s distinction between the genuinely popular and the sham-popular represents a late restatement of the Orwell/Hoggart approach. Perhaps, however, the distinction will be adopted by literary and cultural studies again. The feeling that some mass culture is better than other mass culture seems to be quite widespread in society today. The distinction, indeed, seems to be built into mass culture. When watching Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais’s Extras, we get a clear sense that while Extras represents one type of mass culture, When the Whistle Blows, the low-quality “play-within-the –play,” represents another.

Works Cited

Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy. London: Chatto and Windus, 1957.

Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory: 1976 – 1991, edited Joseph Adamson and Jean Wilson. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2006.

Orwell, George. “Raffles and Miss Blandish.” In The Penguin Essays of George Orwell. London: Penguin Books 1984.

Helen Kemp Frye’s Writings on Art

Helen Kemp Frye’s Writings on Art

An E‑Book

Compiled and edited by Robert D. Denham


Iron Mountain Press

Emory, Virginia



 Before enrolling in Victoria College, Helen Kemp had studied at the Danard and Hambourg Conservatories of Music and from the latter earned an associate diploma.  The reviews of her performances while she was a conservatory student recognize her considerable talent as a pianist.  She was no less interested in art.  During her first year at Riverdale Collegiate Institute, where she received the highest standing in the first eight forms, she took part in the Saturday morning classes at the Ontario College of Art.  Before enrolling at Victoria, Kemp had entertained the idea of specializing in art.  This was an interest fostered by her father, who, early in his career, had been an associate of Arthur Lismer and Tom Thomson.  Kemp’s letters to Frye contain a number of whimsical line-drawings, but even the best of these hardly suggest the genuine talent she had as an illustrator, which is revealed in the sketch-books that have been preserved and in the map she drew of the University of Toronto campus.  The latter is a genuine tour de force.  Although she never pursued drawing as a career, art, especially practical art, remained a central interest throughout her life.  When she was a young woman, this interest developed in the direction of art education, and in the letters from the mid-1930s we see the role played by Arthur Lismer, who was educational supervisor at the Art Gallery of Toronto, in launching her career in adult education at the Art Gallery of Toronto.

At the initiative of Lismer, Kemp had become an assistant at the gallery in Toronto during the second week of October 1933.  He had learned that the Canadian Committee, established by the Carnegie Corporation to study the problems of Canadian museums, wanted to train recent university graduates for museum work.  The plan had two phases: students were to gain experience at local museums and then be sent to the Courtauld Institute at the University of London and to galleries on the continent for further study.  Lismer, recognizing Kemp’s potential as an art educator, hired her for the first phase at the Art Gallery of Toronto and then recommended that she continue her museum training at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

In January 1934, Kemp applied to H.O. McCurry, secretary of the Canadian Committee, for an eight-month apprenticeship.  Her application was approved, and in February she spent one week in Ottawa assisting Kathleen Fenwick, curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery, in lecturing on an exhibition of nineteenth-century painting.  She then returned to Toronto, where she finished her thesis on “The Educational Work of an Art Museum,” and busied herself for the next month with the activities of the art gallery—lecturing on Holbein, conducting classes for a French exhibition, assisting Lismer with his Thursday morning study classes, doing clerical work, and in general familiarizing herself with the operation of the gallery.

In the fall of 1934 Kemp began her study in London at the fledgling Courtauld Institute.  The Courtauld had been founded at the University of London in 1931.  It offered courses for the B.A. honours degree and the academic diploma in both art history and archaeology, as well as for the M.A. and Ph.D.  The Courtauld had a skeletal full-time faculty—the director, W.G. Constable, and four additional teachers.  Most of the lectures and classes, in fact, were given by outside scholars, many of whom were from the museums and galleries in London.  Kemp had some difficulty adjusting to the British form of academic life.  “I don’t like the utter and absolute isolation of one group from another,” she wrote to Frye, adding that “there is hardly any social intercourse among the students.”   On the advice of Geoffrey Webb, her tutor, Kemp soon gave up on attending lectures, which she found exceedingly dull, and spent her time instead going to galleries, museums, and churches.  “I am beginning to get a pretty fair idea of the nature of Gothic architecture,” she wrote, but her knowledge came primarily, not from tutorials, lectures, or books, but from visits to Canterbury and Southwark, Westminster Abbey, and the Temple Church.

One little episode reveals Kemp’s typical attitude toward her program of study: in October 1934 she initially planned to attend a lecture by Bernard Ashmole on Egyptian archaeology, but when she discovered that Albert Schweitzer was the same night giving a lecture entitled “Religion in Modern Civilization,” she abandoned Ashmole, whom she knew was going to be dull, and rushed off to hear Schweitzer.  She sent Frye an extensive summary of his lecture.

On the whole, Kemp was rather casual about her course at the Courtauld.   She spent her first two months “fluttering about,” and when she did turn her attention to learning some art history, she became anxious about being able to accomplish the task in one year.  “I’m almost afraid of June coming the day after to-morrow,” she fretted in a letter to Frye, “and so much to be done.  But all one’s life is like that, and if they expect me to have anything more than the mere beginning of a taste for sculpture and painting in eight months, they are indulging in rather fond delusions.”  She had her moments of confidence, as when she reported that her papers “on a general outline of art history . . . would shame any yankee college for scope.”  When she finally got around to meeting with Constable, he told her that her work has been “excellent.”  But on the whole, Kemp’s year at the Courtauld lacked focus: she was doing little more, she writes to Frye, than “tucking in a fair amount of information in a quiet way, not worrying, because I can’t be bothered.”  Part of the problem was that she received no guidance.  Webb, her tutor, hadn’t the slightest idea of what she was doing, which made her skeptical of Constable’s praise, and she lamented the complete absence of any counsel: “We haven’t had any supervision all term and no essays to write as Webb is too busy or too lazy to read them and always postpones his session with us.”  Two weeks before her exams Kemp remarked that she is “at last getting some idea of what this course is about,” but by then it is too late for her to fill her head with the kinds of information her examiners wanted.

On 20 March 1935, Kemp set out with a fellow student for Italy, spending three weeks in Rome, Tivoli, Orvieto, Assisi, Perugia, and Arezzo and three weeks in Florence.  After returning to London in May, she devoted the next month to preparing, somewhat half-heartedly, for her exams, which she wrote on 17–18 June.   A month later, after an interlude in Brussels where she represented the Art Gallery of Toronto at a conference of the British Museums Association, she learned that she has failed her exams, and she wrote broken-heartedly to Frye: “Exam results came out to-day.  I failed.  It looks pretty grim, written like that, but there it is.  And I’m not doing any howling.  I feel like a general after a lost battle, but I’m all ready for the next one. . . . I don’t feel ashamed or degraded or any damned thing at all, for I haven’t time to waste now.  But I have wondered what you would think.  And that has been my worst disappointment.  If this makes any difference to you I shall just fade out of the picture so far as you are concerned.  It may be better that way.  I will not have you marrying a stupid woman.”  In his reply Frye proposed to Kemp that her “mental outlines don’t altogether fit those of an exam, which places such a premium on glibness and assumes that brilliance is the most valuable of intellectual qualities.  First-rate people don’t do things brilliantly, they do them readily; and I think that this will make you much more clear-eyed and self-assured and take a lot more of the flutter and splutter and gawkiness out of your work than the most meteoric examination success could possibly have done.”  The next day he cabled her, “FORTUNES OF WAR CHEER UP AND SHUT UP LOVE.”   Years later Frye remarked that Kemp “cherished [this telegram] all her life—I think of it as the best literary effort of my writing career.”

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The Paradisal Pole: A Frygean Perspective on European Irony

[Ugolino and his sons in their cell, William Blake, circa 1826]

The following paper, by Sára Tóth, was presented at the international Frye conference in Budapest (“Northrop Frye: 100 — A Danubian Perspective,” September 7-8, 2012, Budapest).

The Paradisal Pole: a Frygean Perspective on European Irony:
The Example of the Danish Film Green Butchers

Sára Tóth 

In this paper I will attempt to apply what I believe is Northrop Frye’s perspective on one significant feature of European élite culture. I do not use the term European in a geographical but in a sociological sense, having in mind the culture of the secularised élite all over the world, which, according to Peter Berger, constitutes, as it were, a European island even in America (Berger 11). This feature happens to be an attitude of extreme irony, more precisely, the tendency of interpreters to overlook textual data which may counterpoint or call into question the predominance of the ironical vision of alienation. The concept of irony is thus brought into play not simply in the traditional sense of a rhetorical trope, but in a philosophical or existential sense, first theorised by Romantic philosophers, and afterwards by thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Paul de Man or Frye himself.


It is well known for readers of Anatomy of Criticism that irony, coupled with satire, is a very important point of orientation in Frye’s literary universe. In his circle of the four pregeneric plots or mythoi (comedy, romance, tragedy, irony/satire), or in his U shaped quest irony is the lowest point. Whereas tragedy, associated with autumn, implies the downward movement of a hero of great power of action, irony implies the lack of action. Characters are not traveling downward because they are already down, totally paralysed as it were. This scheme corresponds to Frye’s historical modes which proceed from myth through romance, through the high and low mimetic to the ironic mode. Whereas in the mythic mode the “hero” is superior to us, normal beings in degree and kind, at its opposite, in the ironic mode he or she is worse than us and has the least power of action. Whereas in Frye’s polarized world of imagery the apocalyptic group of images belongs to the mythic mode and presents a world of fulfilled desire, its opposite, demonic imagery belongs to the ironic mode, a repudiated world of unfulfilled desire, of unrelieved suffering and alienation.

In short, Frye in the Anatomy of Criticism suggests that irony has a demonic quality to it, and later in Words with Power he calls the pole of irony quite consistently “hell world” and its opposite – referred to in Anatomy as the mythic and apocalyptic – the paradisal pole. Quite logically, Frye’s world of irony and satire, being the mythos of winter, is a cold hell, a frozen and motionless sphere. (Not quite accidentally, the film I am about to discuss to has some important scenes in the meat freezer of a butcher shop.) The positive energy in Frye’s universe is human desire, which transforms nature into a home, helping us achieve oneness with other people, with the exterior world and with God, and thus finding true identity. At the other pole action and motion are absent, no transformation takes place, which leaves us in the hell world of alienation: from nature, from other people, from God, and from ourselves. As opposed to identification with who and whatever is other, in the hellish state of irony we experience extreme detachment and objectivity to the point of being overpowered by the objective world we cannot change, even being turned into objects ourselves.[1]

This account is very similar to Paul de Man’s ironic vision of language and of the human condition, with the substantial difference that for de Man irony is not one pole but it is the only authentic interpretation of existence. For de Man words do not have the power to unite subject and object, self and world, language being a network of signs referring endlessly to other signs and never achieving oneness with something other and real. Neither can the self achieve oneness with the non-self or with itself for that matter. In an endless series of acts of consciousness attempting to grasp its own reality, the self is doubled, multiplied and is finally dissolved in the “narrowing spiral of a linguistic sign … more and more remote from its meaning” (De Man 222). De Man picks up Baudelaire’s example of a stumbling and falling man laughing at himself falling, and invests this scene with a philosophical significance, turning it into a symbolical Fall, in the course of which the divided or split self comes to view himself as object, treated by Nature “as if he were a thing … whereas he is quite powerless to turn the smallest particle of nature into something human.” (214)

Decisive thinkers of the last century such as Paul de Man tend to absolutize or essentialize the hell world of irony and satire, the state of alienation and split. To mention another towering figure, Jacques Lacan’s vision of the self and its relation to the world, is dominated, as Frye would say, by the archetype of satire which is sparagmos: fragmentation or tearing to pieces. The self or ego as seen by Lacan is always already fragmented, in bits and pieces, the integrated imago being the deceptive result of an imposition of a rigid and artificial unity on this chaotic turbulence (see Lacan 97). According to one of his critics, Joel Whitebook, in Lacan’s work synthesis and integration are suspected as inauthentic, and contrary evidence tends to be overlooked. Lacan, Whitebook argues, tendentiously misrepresents Freud by placing almost sole emphasis on the death drive as opposed to the integrating Eros (see Whitebook 122–128).

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Frye and Colin Still

[William Hogarth, The Tempest, ca. 1735.]

The following paper was delivered at “Educating the Imagination: A Conference in Honour of Northrop Frye on the Centenary of His Birth,” October 4th – 6th 2012, Victoria University in the University of Toronto.



Robert D. Denham

In Anatomy of Criticism Frye notes that critics often break forth into an “oracular harrumph” when they encounter references to alchemy, the Tarot, or Rosicrucianism.  Even today, one encounters readers here and there, having discovered that Frye thought highly of Colin Still’s book on The Tempest or that he had read some esoteric work, recoiling in amazement, as if it automatically followed that Frye was a card‑carrying member of some mystery cult or was engaging in the ritual practices of Freemasonry.

In the late 1970s I was invited to a party in Toronto by a friend at York University, where the assembled party‑goers turned out to be McLuhanites.  When they discovered that I had an interest in Frye, they began to pepper me with questions about his having been a Mason.  I naturally asked what evidence they had for this claim, but none was forthcoming, their assumption being that this was common knowledge.  The rumor, apparently, was initiated by Marshall McLuhan, or at least perpetuated by him.  McLuhan’s biographer Philip Marchand writes that McLuhan “certainly never abandoned his belief that his great rival in the English department of the University of Toronto, Northrop Frye, was a Mason at heart, if not in fact” (Marshall McLuhan, 105).  In a later book review Marchand removes the qualification, saying flatly that “McLuhan thought Frye was a Mason” (“Frye’s Diaries”).  He goes on to say that it’s no wonder that McLuhan suspected that Frye was a Mason because he was interested in the occult, used diagrams, and, most damning of all––get this––took Colin Still’s Shakespearean criticism seriously.

“Colin Still,” Marchand declares, “was a crackpot,” whose book on The Tempest “[m]ost academics would have been embarrassed to be seen reading.”  All this gets picked up by Maclean’s blogger Colby Cosh, who does Marchand one better: “McLuhan . . . despised Frye because he thought he was dabbling in dark occultic forces and perhaps messing about with Freemasonry. . . . Marchand has discovered a new and major source for Frye’s thinking in Colin Still, a hitherto undistinguished flake who believed The Tempest was a disguised representation of some sort of pagan initiation rite.”

Although Frye occasionally comments on Freemasonry,[ii] there is not a shred of evidence that he was a Mason or ever entertained the slightest thought of becoming one.  As for Still’s being a “crackpot” and an “undistinguished flake,” no less a critical intelligence than R.S. Crane speaks of the “pioneering work” of Still in reading Shakespeare allegorically, discovering in the play “the double theme of purgation from sin and of rebirth and upward spiritual movement after sorrow and death” (132).  Peter Dawkins refers to Still as an “eminent scholar” (xxv), and Michael Srigley has defended Still’s thesis.  In a detailed examination of Still’s argument, Michael Cosser says, “Certainly it is not stretching credulity to see a close parallel between the play and what can be pieced together from classical sources as to the training received in the Mystery-centers of old.”  In his study of the sacerdotal features of The Tempest Robert L. Reid takes seriously Still’s view that the play is a “universal purgatorial allegory.”  Howard Nemerov calls Shakespeare’s Mystery Play an “interpretive masterpiece” (470).  These critics, like Bishop Warburton before them, are far from being crackpots and flakes.  In the eighteenth century Warburton, as both Still and Frye were aware, had proposed the theory that book 6 of the Aeneid––the descent to the underworld––corresponds to the ancient rites of initiation.[iii]  In other words, observations about parallels between literary works and Greek initiation rites had been around for some time: noting such parallels was a common critical practice.

Still’s books, listed in all the bibliographies, were also celebrated by the distinguished Shakespearean G. Wilson Knight, who calls Shakespeare’s Mystery Play an “important landmark” (Shakespeare and Religion, 201).  As an undergraduate at Victoria College, Frye had known Knight, who taught at Trinity College at the University of Toronto in the 1930s.[iv]  T.S. Eliot referred to Still in his preface to Knight’s The Wheel of Fire,[v] and it is possible that Frye ran across this reference even before he checked Still’s book out of the Toronto Public Library during his sophomore year––the same year that The Wheel of Fire was published (1930).  In The Wheel of Fire Knight writes, “Since the publication of my essay, my attention has been drawn to Mr. Colin Still’s remarkable book Shakespeare’s Mystery Play . . . .  Mr. Still’s interpretation of The Tempest is very similar to mine.  His conclusions were reached by a detailed comparison of the play in its totality with other creations of literature, myth, and ritual throughout the ages” (16).[vi]  Knight regards Still’s book as confirmation (“empirical proof,” he says) of his own view that The Tempest is a mystical work (ibid.).  A year later Knight wrote that his view of The Tempest

is most interestingly corroborated by a remarkable and profound book by Mr. Colin Still, Shakespeare’s Mystery Play. . . . Mr. Still analyses The Tempest as a work of mystic vision, and shows that it abounds in parallels with the ancient mystery cults and works of symbolic religious significance throughout the ages.  Especially illuminating are his references to Virgil (Aeneid, VI) and Dante.  His reading of The Tempest depends on references outside Shakespeare, whereas my interpretation depends entirely on references to the succession of plays which The Tempest concludes.  We thus reach our results by quite different routes: those results are strangely––and, after all, I believe, not strangely––similar.”  (“Mystic,” 67–8)

Because they have no sense of allegory and no sense of the difference between the reading of a text and the use to which that reading is put, Marchand and friends will doubtless continue to dismiss the interpretations of Still, Knight, and Frye, though one wishes that their dismissals had been based on actually having read what Frye and Still had to say about the parallels between Shakespeare and ancient myth and ritual.

Still’s allegorical interpretation of The Tempest seeks to demonstrate four things: that The Tempest has the same form as the medieval miracle and mystery plays, that it is an allegorical account “of those psychological experiences” referred to by the mystics as initiation, that its features are like those of the ritual and ceremonial rites of initiation, and that these resemblances are “consistent and exact” (8–9).  His method is a comparative one: he works out the analogies between The Tempest and myths and rituals of the past.  In this regard Still’s work stems from the work of the so‑called “Cambridge school,” which, following the publication of the final edition of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough in 1915, gave shape to the ritual view of drama.  These scholars––most prominently Frazer himself, Jane Ellen Harrison, F.M. Cornford, Gilbert Murray, and E.K. Chambers––produced book after book applying the ritual view of drama to Greek culture.  Colin Still, therefore, is not some eccentric on the margins of the literary establishment.  He belongs to a very large group of critics who have expanded our view of literature by applying the myth and ritual approach.  This group would include Jessie Weston, F.M. Cornford, Lord Ragland, Gertrude Levy, Joseph Campbell, Francis Fergusson, Theodor Gaster, C.L. Barber, Herbert Weisinger, O.B. Hardison, and of course Frye himself, to name some of the most prominent.  The point is that in the field of literary criticism Still is very much an establishment figure.  Thus, we need not concern ourselves overmuch with Marchand’s dismissive judgments, other than to say a little learning is a dangerous thing.   But if Frye and Still belong in the same general critical matrix, it is perhaps worthwhile to explore the connections between them and to consider the reasons that Frye was attracted to Still’s reading of The Tempest.

First of all, Still played an important role in what Frye called his ogdoad––an eight-book vision that he used as a kind of road map for his life’s work.  As with all of his organizing patterns, the ogdoad was never a rigid outline, but it did correspond to the chief divisions in his conceptual universe over the years.  Throughout his notebooks he repeatedly uses a code to refer to the eight books he planned to write.  The original plan was actually eight concerti he dreamed of writing––a dream he had at age nine.  At about the same time, after reading Scott’s novels, he imagined writing a sequence of historical novels, and after he had made his way through Dickens and Thackeray, this modulated into “a sequence of eight definitive novels.”  When he was fourteen, each of these novels acquired a one-word descriptive name (Liberal, Tragicomedy, Anticlimax, Rencontre, Mirage, Paradox, Ignoramus, and Twilight), and these names, along with their symbolic codes, remained with Frye over the years, appearing hundreds of times in his notebooks as a shorthand designation for his books, both those completed and those anticipated.  In the 1940s the eight books were reduced to what Frye called his Pentateuch, but they expanded shortly after that into the eight once again.

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