Monthly Archives: August 2009

Frye and the Tale of Genji


In both Anatomy of Criticism and The Secular Scripture Frye refers to Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji as an example of an “endless” romance, the conclusion of which does not preclude Lady Murasaki from adding any number of additional episodes. Frye annotated his own copy of this expansive eleventh century Japanese tale of court life (trans. Arthur Waley [London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957] 1135 pp.) Frye’s annotations are more expansive than the notes he ordinarily scribbled in the margins of his books. If he were to have written an essay or a more extended commentary on The Tale of Genji, the essential core might well have come from his annotations, which are transcribed in what follows. (The numbers in parentheses following each entry are to the pages in Frye’s edition.)

The title “dwellers above the clouds” indicates that courtiers were thought of, & wished to be thought of, as leading a severe & untroubled life of pleasure & privilege. Murasaki shows them as spoiled, frustrated, and boring each other (with the women often quite literally) to death. Is the brutal selfishness of the men something she accepts as a datum of life, or something she is satirizing? The latter by implication, certainly. (46)

Interesting to know if the original has anything of the Virginia Woolfish quality of the translation. (81)

Genji reminds me of the flower known as the red-hot poker. If I were a Japanese I could make a poem out of that. (108)

When night lets fall her sable hood
How may one know which dame one scrood? (153)

The most startling feature of this wonderful story is the sense of social security—no reference to torture, imprisonment, beatings, violence, executions, or even war. In the court, life is like a modern university: when the emperor gets bored with emperoring he just quits, with no questions or upsets. Murasaki makes it clear that this security extends only to a stratospherically elevated group, but within that group, civilization is complete. (184)

The story is realistic in the sense that nothing supernatural or incredible (in her terms) occurs & in the sense that all human foibles & weaknesses are fully displayed. But there’s another feature that makes it a romance in my sense—or one of my senses. That’s her acceptance, not of her own society only, but of that society’s idealized picture of itself. People who are socially the best people, in other words, really are the best people. The exact degree of a girl’s beauty (except for Kiritsubo) depends primarily on her heredity, like a knight’s chivalry in Malory. (184).

The jealous mistress Rukujo sets up a Ligeia pattern, killing Yugao & Aoi by projecting a part of herself & bewitching them. She even speaks through them just as Ligeia does. After her death she becomes more formidable, a prowling ghoul who seizes on Murasaki. Yugao is a sleeping beauty archetype: the incarnate dream of the perfect mistress discovered in a completely isolated spot. (Not completely isolated: she’d already been discovered by Genji’s brother-in-law, who’d had a child by her, but that doesn’t bother Genji: he just wants to adopt the child. Civilized buggers.) (359) Continue reading

Today in the Frye Diaries, 28 August


 1942: Frye and his drinking buddy George Beattie join Helen and Ruth Jenking for a night of “pounding hell out of” Mozart:

[87] Discovered something called Allergitabs, which make me feel funny but seem to work. Picked up that souse George Beattie at the pub and then went to a kosher place on College & Spadina, George making love furiously to Helen all the way. Then to Ruth Jenking’s where we pounded hell out of a couple of Mozart fantasias — amazing things he wrote in 1791 for music boxes, his last year when he was picking up anything he could get in the way of a commission.

1950: Hay fever, the formal causes of literature, and beauty:

[580] Well, today the sea breezes blew ragweed at me all day long, & I had, quite simply, one hell of a time. I didn’t feel able to go swimming — I knew that if I tried I’d start sneezing my fool head off. So I stayed on the verandah or on the beach and scribbled at my paper. A young girl here about eighteen…kept playing around me with a dog. She wasn’t especially pretty or intelligent looking, but her body — she was in a bathing suit — had that extraordinarily beautiful feeling of youth & health about it, & with this lovely & nearly naked figure hovering in my line of vision I had some difficulty concentrating on the formal causes of literature.

Tomorrow: hay fever notwithstanding, a breakthrough on the formal causes of literature

Video: “A Tribute to Northrop Frye”

This is pretty funny. This video claims to be part of a high school student seminar on chapter 3 of The Educated Imagination, “Giants in Time.”  As far as I can tell, it’s really just three guys looking for a reason to perform a card trick:


Now, to be fair, the boys themselves have this to say about the video:

This was a video made for a seminar analyzing Chapter 3: Giants In Time, of Northrop Frye’s “The Educated Imagination.”
We linked his concept of poetry with a “voodoo” magic illusion for the visual aspect of our seminar.
– Andre, Jay, and Josh.

I’m just psyched that high school kids are still reading The Educated Imagination.  Although I’d really have to hear the rest of their presentation on the “voodoo magic” qualities of “Giants in Time.”

A Note on C. S. Lewis and Northrop Frye


“…the sophisticated allegories of Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis in our day . . . are largely based on the formulas of the Boy’s Own Paper”  (Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Second Essay

My reading was now mainly rubbish. . . .  I read twaddling school-stories in The Captain”  (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Chapter 2)

Northrop Frye attended C.S. Lewis’s lectures during the time he spent in Oxford in the late 1930s; much later he would recall Lewis as the only lecturer in Oxford worth listening to.  The two men would not seem to have much in common: Lewis took a leading role in the revival of a consciously orthodox form of Christianity that is poles apart from Frye’s visionary Blakean Protestantism.  Nor does Frye seem to care for Lewis’s fiction: in the diary for 1949 he expostulates against Charles Williams, noting that “C.S. Lewis must be an influence too, & a bad one” (Feb. 26).  The passage from the Anatomy quoted above, identifying the fiction of the Inklings with the formulas of the Boy’s Own Paper, is hardly complimentary.  But the lectures Frye heard at Oxford were later published as The Discarded Image, a study of medieval cosmology that outlines a “Model” that persists until the end of the seventeenth century.  The affinities with the cosmological schemes in Frye’s work are readily apparent. 

Recently I was struck by another passage in Lewis, this one in his 1955 autobiography Surprised by Joy.  Lewis gives a fascinating account of his development as a reader, and in so doing he assumes something very like Frye’s conception of all of literature comprising a single system, an idea that was most extensively formulated in the Anatomy of Criticism (1957).  Lewis writes of his time at Campbell College in Belfast:

Much the most important thing that happened to me at Campbell was that I there read Sohrab and Rustum in form under an excellent master whom we called Octie.  I loved the poem at first sight and have loved it ever since. . . .  Arnold gave me at once (and the best of Arnold gives me still) a sense, not indeed of passionless vision, but of a passionate, silent gazing at things a long way off.  And here observe how literature actually works.  Parrot critics say that Sohrab is a poem for classicists, to be enjoyed only by those who recognise the Homeric echoes.  But I, in Octie’s form room (and on Octie be peace) knew nothing of Homer.  For me the relation between Arnold and Homer worked the other way; when I came, years later, to read the Iliad I liked it partly because it was for me reminiscent of Sohrab.  Plainly, it does not matter at what point you first break into the system of European poetry.  Only keep your ears open and your mouth shut and everything will lead you to everything else in the end.  (Chapter 3) 

There are also, of course, similarities with T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” For Eliot, “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer . . . has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”  In the Introduction to the Anatomy, Frye calls this passage from Eliot “very fundamental criticism.”

Today in the Frye Diaries, 27 August


 1942: The recent Dieppe raid, which was soon to be an acknowledged disaster, continues to preoccupy Frye (Canadian prisoners pictured above).

[84] I resolved today to (1.) keep up my diary (2.) read all the books I own, before reading much else (3.) write Blake (4.) practise Byrd. Saw Beverley Burwell, who looks taller & older & tells me Jerry Riddell has gone to Ottawa for [censored]. He’s pessimistic about the war. Bickersteth’s letters home are mimeographed & circulated & contain many vicious comments about the War Office: full of antiquated crocks hanging on to their salaries & avoiding being pensioned off on various pleas of emergency. He seems to feel that the German account of Dieppe as a foozled invasion attempt was correct: I’m not sure; it’s too symmetical. Of course if it proved only that Canadians are not cowards it didn’t prove much.

1950: A day trip to Salisbury Beach, Mass., with Frye’s U of T colleague, Ruth Jenking. 

[576] I find the Newburyport turnpike a bit dull, as a road, but Ruth talked easily, she was so relieved to get through with Harvard. The one thing she got from her summer is some understanding of [John C.] Pope’s study of The Rhythm of Beowulf, which, incidentally appeared in 1942, the year of my Music and Poetry article, and if I reprint my essays I may say that this article is a footnote to Pope’s book. Or, in the words of the oracular cliche, I may not. Anyway, the proper way to read Old English is crystal clear to her now, and as it’s a revelation in itself she feels it almost makes up for a very dull summer.

Tomorrow: the formal causes of literature and a young woman in a bathing suit

Now with YouTube!


We now have YouTube-embedding capacity!  Of course, we don’t actually have any relevant video. But we do have the capacity to embed video, so we just had to come up with something.  Given the Northrop Frye-Thomas Pynchon nexus established last week here and here, this video might qualify as marginally germane.  Sure, it’s post-modern enough, but is it also Menippean satire?

Frye and Shaw


Bob Denham sends us still more excerpts from Frye on Shaw.  The mischievous spirit of the Vicar of Bray evidently prevails.  All in all,  a remarkable amount of commentary has been generated by a single compellingly ambiguous diary entry from August 25th, 1942.

From the Diaries,  391-2:

I think the Blake is well in hand, and I’m starting on Shaw. [The reference is to CBC Radio talks on Blake and Shaw that Frye gave in 1950.]  My adolescent interest in Shaw pretty well faded out when I came to college—well, no, it didn’t, as I re-read all of his stuff later, but for some reason I’d never read any play of his later than The Apple Cart. [When he was on a visit to the home of classmate Graham Miller during the summer of 1933, Frye wrote to Helen Kemp that “the family here has all of Shaw’s plays in one volume and I have read six since Wednesday.  I read all of Shaw at fifteen and he turned me from a precocious child into an adolescent fool.  Therefore he has had far more influence on me than any other writer” (NFHK 1:98).]  Doesn’t look as though I’ve really missed much. Too True to be Good is an interesting comedy of humors: his trouble is he can’t just let humors be enlightened by each other: he wants a central character.  In that particular play the nearest norm is Private Meek, an ingenious tricky-slave modulation.  On the strength of The Apple Cart and the name of Good King Charles I’d been saying that Shaw had finally revealed himself as a frustrated Royalist, & I don’t think I was so far out.  Meek is actually a Caesar in disguise, Charles II is certainly the one idealized figure in his play, the Judge in Geneva is a practically royal centre of gravity, & the fact that the king is missing from On the Rocks is what makes that such a silly play: it’s Shaw’s version of England in 1659, waiting for its monarch to appear.  Of course Shaw points out the vulnerable point of hereditary kingship, the non-transmissibility of genius, which he gets around in Major Barbara—significant he has to speak of it.  But there’s more to it than that….

Going on with Shaw, he’s preoccupied by the search for the “ruler”: he simply can’t understand that the world is trying to outgrow all that nonsense about rulers.  He has very little sense of the governor-principle as that which has authority without power: it’s there in the middle of Geneva, I know, but he’s not satisfied with it.  The dialogue of Christ & Pilate ends in a deadlock.  He can see through Pilate, & doesn’t really want a dictator, though he’s enough of a senile enfant terrible to play with the notion.  The closest he comes to it is in the preface to Geneva, where he speaks of Mill & of the right to criticize.  He naturally sees that Stalin is a Pope, the incarnation of a dialectic, & rejects the Papacy, which he’s consistent in regarding as the only possible form of Christianity.  But in a rare flash of real insight he makes King Charles say that the Pope is always a Whig.  And he doesn’t really go for the Platonic philosopher-ruler.  No, it’s the royal epiphany, the king and queen (it’s very funny how he plops the “coupled vote” business into the preface to Good King Charles) [Shaw’s proposal that the representative unit should be a man and a woman so that every elected body would have equal numbers of men and women.  See the preface to “In Good King Charles’s Golden Days,” in Complete Plays with Prefaces (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1962), 6:7–9.] who are also normative in The Apple Cart, the rejuvenated father & mother (Cf. “Mopsy & Popsy” in TTG [To True to be Good]: the process doesn’t carry through there).  Not national royalty ultimately, of course: a Caesar or Charlemagne: Dante’s Feltro or super-Constantine: but still nostalgia for the days “when loyalty no harm meant” [“In good King Charles’s golden days, / When loyalty no harm meant” (The Vicar of Bray, ll. 1–2).] & when a representative of Louis XIV could be the comic Last Judgement on Tartuffe. Continue reading

The Vicar of Bray and The Analogy of Democracy


I am not sure this helps clarify Frye’s enigmatic statement about the Vicar of Bray not becoming a bishop, but Craig Walker’s post led me to a piece entitled “The Analogy of Democracy” (1952).  There Frye argues that

 democracy is to be judged not by what it does, but by what it aims at in spite of what it does. The supremacy of civil over military power, the full publication of all acts of government, the toleration of unpopular opinion, are all recognized to be unchangeable principles of democracy even when they are flouted as often as exemplified. Further, any feature of democracy that is nothing more than a safeguard designed to prevent a democratic process from congealing at a certain stage in its development may disappear when democracy passes that stage. We may find that even such apparently essential things as a two-party system of parliamentary government may so disappear. On the other hand, the fact that democracy is not in itself a form of government makes it possible for it to adapt itself to a wide variety of such forms. If the United States decided to adopt a Soviet system or, as in Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart, to recognize George VI as their king, the move might be inadvisable, but it would not be in itself a threat to democracy.

[Pages 219-20 in Northrop Frye, Reading the World, Selected Writings, ed. Robert D. Denham, 1935-76, New York: Peter Lang, 1990; the essay was originally published in Bias 1 (Feb. 1952): 2-6.]

In the same essay Frye observes that

the ultimate aim of democracy is to reach what is not only natural society, but a secular analogy of Christianity. The church is a community whose members are made free and equal by their faith. It is ordered by its Master to take society as it finds it, to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. This, of course, excludes the worship of Caesar as a divine being, which is one of the things that the Caesars of this world are most interested in, and Caesar finds other difficulties in trying to digest this free and equal community in his pyramidial state. To the extent that it obeys the command not to resist evil, the Church’s social dialectic works toward compelling the whole social order to fall into a pattern analogous to its own. This triumph of the Church in manifesting its Master’s victory over the world is the real meaning of the democratic revolution today. (224-5)

Continue reading

Welcoming Bob Denham & Russell Perkin

denhamfrye and the word

We are pleased to have Bob Denham (one of whose books on Charles Wright is pictured above) and Russell Perkin (whose “Northrop Frye and Catholicism” appears in Frye and the Word) join us as byline correspondents at The Educated Imagination. We consider ourselves very lucky to have them.  Bob and Russell will post when they get that elusive combination of time to spare and something to say.  About the latter we have no doubt.  Therefore, here’s wishing them as much free time as they can find.

We should also take this opportunity to remind all of our readers that you are welcome to guest blog anytime you have something to contribute.  Simply send us your Frye-related post via email and we will put it up under your name.

Today in the Frye Diaries, 26 August


1942: Frye complains about the practice of expurgation in the Everyman editions (especially of Samuel Pepys, pictured above), and goes on to note the “wave of prudery” that seems to rise during wartime.

[81] I don’t know why I keep reading this idiotic Braybrooke Pepys, for which Everyman’s Library obtains money under false pretenses. It’s not only heavily expurgated but some of the most important musical references are left out. For the expurgation there is only the faint excuse of 19th c. publication and the facts (a) that milord B. [Braybrooke] was in the Pepys family (b) that he was presenting a historical rather than a literary document. That Everyman should ask $1.50 for this croquette is nonsense. I’d like to write an article on Everyman’s prudery sometime. Geoffrey of Monmouth; the translator’s smug smear on p. 248. Malory, according to Blunden. The Gulliver’s Travels “For Young People” has been modified. The Pepys is the worst of course, for B. [Braybrooke] has even been allowed to tamper with the family text to the extent of printing “prostitute” for “whore,” on the three-point landing principle: I remember the New Yorker’s account of a play, I think Sean O’Casey’s, where Lillian Russell was billed as a “Young Whore.” [Ed. Frye must be mistaken: Lillian Russell was 20 years older than O’Casey and died in 1922 — three years before The New Yorker began publication.] Several papers printed it as a “Young Harlot” (more cushion for sensitive moral fundaments in two syllables). One “blushed prettily and whispered ‘A Young Girl Who Has Gone Astray.'” One said “with Miss Russell and the following cast.”

[Update: According to Bob Denham, Frye means to say Lillian Gish rather than Lillian Russell.  Gish did indeed play the prostitute in O’Casey’s Within the Gates in 1934.]

[82] This combined with the banning of Freud makes me wonder if we are in for a wave of prudery as a defence against the licentiousness of war. That is, it puts me in a gloomy state of mind in which I wonder. I hope we’ll continue the tendency to greater frankness and less bother about it which the popularity of, say, The Grapes of Wrath, would seem to indicate. But as people instinctively do the sillier things, there’s the danger of the huge wave of sullen prurience pouring over us again, welling up from the deep and bitter hatred of culture in our middle-class.

1950: Out with Oxford chum Rodney Baine to see a production of The Alchemist:

[574] Rodney [Baine] celebrated finishing his thesis tonight by taking us over to Tufts College to see the Oxford Players put on the The Alchemist. A group of very young people — the ages were all carefully given in the programme and the oldest was twenty-eight — were attractive (Dol Common made even Elizabethan prostitution seem attractive) and full of life and bounce.

Tomorrow: Dieppe; the rhythm of Beowulf