Monthly Archives: September 2009

Peter Yan: Two Responses


To Clayton Chrusch on “archetype“:

Frye explaining “archetype” from “Criticism, Visible and Invisible”, The Stubborn Structure:

It is true that I call the elements of imagery archetypes, because I want a word which suggest something that changes its context but not its essence. James Beattie, in ‘The Ministrel’ [poem]…adds a footnote to the last phrase: “General ideas of excellence, the immediate archetypes of sublime imitation, both in painting and in poetry”… I think of the term [archetype] as indigenous to criticism, not as transferred from Neoplatonic philosophy or Jungian psychology. However, I would not fight for a word, and I hold to no “method” of criticism beyond assuming that the structure and imagery of literature are central considerations of criticism.

To Jonathan Allan on “theory“:

As Frye said, the present revolution in criticism must exhaust itself, before the subject can be coordinated again. Too many contemporary theorists dismiss Frye because they want to fight: Marxist Crit, Feminism, Post-Structuralism are militant criticisms which bag whatever targets they try to hit; and when the game is short, they turn their target to literature. Frye’s criticism sees literature as the language of love. Kuhn was right in a way that may have surprised him: if every age produces a paradigm which shifts, then Kuhn’s Paradigm Shift is itself a paradigm which has shifted, and the direction is back to what Frye said all along: knowledge has continuity and repetition. If only the warring schools of criticism would drop their swords.

The Taming of Anxiety


Answering Russell’s response to my earlier post:

I guess it’s about getting the emphasis right, Russell.  To say, as Frye does, that literature is “primarily” centripetal is not to say that it is exclusively centripetal.  Frye himself regularly makes the point Greenblatt does in Hamlet in Purgatory: that an understanding of the external “referents” in any given work of literature can only deepen our appreciation of it.  However, that’s about where agreement between them ends.  Frye’s reading scenario is usually laid out something like this: as readers we are confronted with a work of literature with lots of hard words to be looked up and unfamiliar allusions to be traced back to their source, not to mention a contemporary intellectual milieu to be absorbed.  And, of course, it’s a good thing we make the necessary effort to do that; it is certainly an integral part of literary scholarship, as Frye invariably points out.  But once we have done all of that, we are still confronted with a work of literature that must be interpreted as such because, as Frye says in The Educated Imagination, literature does not reflect reality, it swallows it.  And, as he says in Anatomy, once an ideology is taken into a work of literature, it is no longer ideological in reference, it is literary.

Both of the Shakespeare plays you cite, Hamlet and The Taming of the Shrew, provide excellent opportunities to demonstrate how this works.  While it is true, for example, that our appreciation of the afterlife misery of Hamlet’s father’s ghost is enhanced by an understanding of the theological conceptions of the afterlife at the time, it’s pretty clear that no audience of Hamlet requires anything approaching a scholarly knowledge of such a thing.  The archetype of the dread surrounding death is more than sufficient to communicate to us what is happening at the elemental level of understanding.  Death is terrifying, the afterlife a nausea-inducing mystery. “To be or not to be…”  Nuff said.

The same goes with The Taming of the Shrew.  We don’t, as you say, have to live in a “ideal world” to see that the normative misogyny of the world of the play is ugly and absurd.  The play itself shows us that!  One of the things that makes Taming of the Shrew remarkable — and, of course, entirely consistent with the canon as a whole — is its pronounced metaliterary perspective.  In this case, it mostly takes the form (like A Midsummer Night’s Dream) of a dramatically superfluous fifth act.  That is to say, the standard New Comedy plot is long since resolved by the time of the wedding banquet where Katherine gives her notorious speech in which she entreats the women present to submit themselves to their husbands, even to the point of exhorting them to “place your hands beneath your husband’s foot.”  But this little pantomime is no more than that: it’s a fully self-aware show that Petruchio and Katherine are putting on for the benefit (or is it at the expense?) of their less imaginitively adept peers.  We in the audience proper know better.  We know that by this point Katherine and Petruchio have successfully (albeit with a tremendous amount of rough and tumble) negotiated together a world of play where nothing is quite what it seems — where the sun may be the moon or vice versa, and an old man encountered on the road to Padua may be mistaken for a “young budding virgin” — or, more accurately (and much more interestingly) be pretended to be mistaken for one.  Do I also have to mention the Christopher Sly framing device that gives the play an absolutely explicit metaliterary dimension?  The ironies of the fifth act are so rich and evocative that any attempt to reduce them to a flatly declarative ideological intent, however good those intentions, is demonstrably contrary to the inner workings of the play itself.

Here’s my point.  I know that many can and do dispute such a reading of the play.  However, it is also undeniable that this reading is at least possible with reference to what goes on within the play and without reference to any ideological anxiety beyond it.  We are, of course, not compelled to see the play in these terms; but we are free to do so on very good authority (that is, the centripetal focus of the play as such), and that is always Frye’s point.  All of our limits, when it comes to literature, are self-imposed.  As Merv Nicholson might say, “what makes Frye different” is the articulation of the possibility that we might voluntarily recognize those self-imposed limitations and stroll happily and unencumbered right past them.

Re: “Centripetal Meaning and Primary Concern”


Responding to Michael Happy:

You say, Michael, “you don’t need to believe in ghosts to appreciate Hamlet.” This reminds me of something at the MLA in 1993. Walter Benn Michaels made the comment that “we no longer believe in ghosts,” then interrupted himself to say that he had just read in a newsmagazine that a majority of Americans believed in supernatural entities. He gestured around the room; “We don’t believe in ghosts,” he corrected himself.

To pursue the discussion a bit further: yes, literature creates a hypothetical world where there are ghosts, whether we “believe” in them or not. But on the other hand, Stephen Greenblatt, in Hamlet in Purgatory, shows how our reading of Hamlet is enriched by some knowledge of contemporary debates about what happens after you die. Why does the ghost of old Hamlet walk at night? What does it mean to die “Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d”?

I think the point Bogdan is making, where she differs from Frye, is that literature always retains some element of reference, a centrifugal element, and that in teaching it you cannot ignore that element. Her example is to question Frye’s assertion that “the preposterous sexual ideology” of The Taming of the Shrew is “never taken very seriously.” Perhaps in an ideal world it wouldn’t be. Which is not to say that, not living in an ideal world, one shouldn’t teach the text or perform it, only to acknowledge that in certain contexts it is going to be interpreted in part in the context of what it has to say about gender relations.

One more example. Frye comments about Measure for Measure that it is simply a romantic comedy “where the chief magical device used is the bed trick instead of enchanted forests or identical twins.” This is one of those startling places where Frye just seems to me to miss something crucial. The reason that Measure for Measure has been seen as a “problem” is that there is something about the tone of it, from beginning to end, that is not really in the spirit of Shakespearean comedy. I think that here, and in the comment on Taming of the Shrew, it is Frye’s acute sense of the conventions at work that leads him to a conclusion at odds with the experience of many readers and spectators. Because although it is hypothetical, although it is centripetal, literature still does say things.

Perhaps, Michael, you see me grasping confidently for the greased pig! (By the way, your last sentence is very Bloomian, featuring both anxiety and struggle!!). But I will agree with you so far as to say that the greatness of The Tempest or Measure for Measure or Hamlet is not a function of what they reveal about Renaissance ideology. And I don’t want to become the contrarian of this blog, so I will write something more positive for my next post.

Centripetal Meaning and Primary Concern


Russell Perkin expresses some concern that literature has limits.  As he put it in a comment yesterday:

the nagging point that [Deanne] Bogdan raises for me is that, to quote her again “the hypothetical dimension of literature notwithstanding, literature does say things.” It doesn’t entirely leave behind what Frye calls “the original reference,” though of course it cannot be reduced to that either.

It’s at this point we really need to remind ourselves that Frye consistently observes that literary structures are primarily centripetal in reference.  This is very easily demonstrated: you don’t need to believe in ghosts to appreciate Hamlet, you don’t have to be Catholic to access The Divine Comedy.  Heck, you hardly require the English language to experience Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky

That primarily centripetal direction of literary meaning carries it beyond mere metonymic reference with its undeniable “limits” to the liberating power of archetypal metaphor (pace Clayton Chrusch), whose patterns include not just the four mythoi of Anatomy but the four primary concerns of Words with Power.  That is, the ethos of literary criticism is ulitmately (anagogically, kerygmatically) meta-literary: revealing the source of literature’s autonomy and authority, which express the imaginative constants of literary narrative driven by the existential constants of primary concern.  This is not to say that the secondary concerns of ideology are irrelevant, but, in Frye’s “verbal universe” they are secondary, they are subordinated.  The inability of any critical theory to appreciate the distinction between metaphor and metonymy or primary and secondary concern suggests why so much of what now passes for literary criticism has the character of wrestling a greased pig.  It’s a losing proposition; there’s nothing to hold onto securely, except the anxiety of the fact that the struggle must continue and cannot be won.

Clayton Chrusch: “Archetype” a Mistake?


At the risk of being provocative, let me ask if am I the only one to think that Frye’s use of the word archetype is his single biggest error in judgement as a literary theorist, possibly one of the biggest errors of judgement in literary studies of all time, on par with the loss of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy?

Not only does no one know what the word means, not only is Frye’s meaning overwhelmed by and confused with other closely related meanings, but the sheer Greekness and thus foreignness of the word lends it to easy dismissal.

The word convention would have been so much more acceptable, so much harder to attack, so much harder to misconstrue, and in particular would make it clear from the beginning that literature is a human and social construct.

This last point, which Frye himself insists on may seem at first blush like a capitulation to the determinists, but in fact it undermines their accusation against Frye of essentialism (whatever that means) while exposing their own attempts to impose determinism on literature as an attempt to impose determinism on human beings.

Am I wrong?

Today in the Frye Diaries, 30 September



[134] Met Kay Mabee at Feinsod’s: Children’s Aid on Isabella. Just through with taking five kids to court, packed in rumble seat, to charge parents with neglect & take custody. She noticed they seemed to be playing some sort of game, & she discovered it was seeing who could amass the biggest collection of fleas. Tonight Helen staying down & I strolled over to Yonge for dinner, found Murray’s jammed, drifted down to Bloor, picked up Roy [Kemp] & had dinner at Babloor. Full of his draft, of course. So I’m depressed, irritated, nostalgic & half-sick, & I suspect that tooth, which bothered me last year at exactly this time, is acting up again. The Forum sent up a ragtag staff too & that adds to the depression. Oh God, I’m bored with the war: I can’t even rise to a nobler expression.

Re: “A Reply to Russell Perkin”


A couple of responses to Joe’s earlier post:

Russell Perkin:

Joe, I find very little to disagree with in what you have written here. (And I especially share your enthusiasm for Mill. I teach On Liberty whenever I get the opportunity). Ultimately I think it comes down to a question of temperament: didn’t Frye somewhere describe himself as an Odyssey-critic, inclined towards romance and comedy as opposed to tragedy? I must be too inclined to pessimism!

I agree with you about not subordinating works to ideological criticism. The work, the author, not the student, and not the teacher, should be the voice that is heard in the classroom. But the nagging point that Bogdan raises for me is that, to quote her again “the hypothetical dimension of literature notwithstanding, literature does say things.” It doesn’t entirely leave behind what Frye calls “the original reference,” though of course it cannot be reduced to that either.

Adam Bradley:

Joe has hit on what I believe is the real problem with critical theory; that the logical end point of ideological criticism is a disdain for literature. How can it not be so? Identifying power structures a la Foucault or searching for Marxist class inequalities inevitably leads to an identification of the problems inherent in a text. Apply this model enough times to a text from enough ideological views and what is left? This to me is the number one argument against this type of inductive criticism. If I begin with an ideology and then use the tenets of that philosophy as a lens through which to see a text, then not only will I inevitably see whatever I’m looking for but it will also eventually become the reality of that text. If this is misogyny or anti-semitism or some other disdainful ethos, then it becomes a necessary action to dismiss that text as being “only” of that ethos. I have always wondered if this is a conscious act or simply a necessary outcome of such an approach. Regardless of the answer to that question or whether critics admit to this practice, the necessary result is that the text ends up becoming a secondary object to the soapbox that the critic puts himself on, yelling to the crowd about how terrible that text is. It reminds me of how the religious right creates demons out of everything to further the cause. By identifying everyone else as being evil then they can laud their own practices as being holy. I believe that critical theory began with good intentions but has ended up being the right wing faction of literary criticism, the bullying older brother that finds whatever he is looking for and shouts about it.

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Jonathan Allan: Writing in the Shadows of Theory


Joe Adamson very graciously provided a lengthy response to my initial posting “Finding Frye” and highlights yet another level of the history of ideas and Frye’s place in these ideas.  I distinguished myself from Bob Denham’s experience in the 1960s, and now Joe has rightly pointed out another side of this history – coming of age during the theory boom in the early 1980s.  Though we all think we have unique positions, what is striking is our relation to theory: before theory, theory, and after theory.  Well, I do not believe in an “After theory” because we are always theorizing as we read; but, the High House of Theory seems to have reached its potential, or perhaps it is in search of a renaissance of sorts.  Recently, I read that the last great book of theory was written in the late 80s, early 90s; the author of the article cited Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, which is, at the very least, one of the finest examples of the potential of close reading alongside a practice of critical theory.  Sedgwick was a rare critic – she had a political intention, but also a fidelity to textuality.

As some readers are likely noting here, there is a sympathetic tone in my writing when speaking about theory.  It is a tone of respect, I imagine.  I respect theory but I also feel committed to not being committed to theory.  When I started graduate school (actually, when I started university), the major movers and shakers in my discipline almost seemed passé, for they were part of an historical process that seemed complete.  Fredric Jameson, Jacques Derrida, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler, and the list goes on and on (as readers of the Norton Anthology of Criticism can attest), had published works which were no longer “new” but rather were “commonplace.”  I had always read text alongside theory, theory alongside text.  There was never a time when I wasn’t aware of theory as a scholar of literature.  I had no canon from which to depart, even literary history was in doubt.  “The author is dead” was one of the central claims that I had heard time and time again…strangely, the “pleasure of the text” seemed lost. Hostility toward theory hardly seemed revolutionary – theories are, in many instances, always already hostile (often with one another).  To borrow from Frye: the academic stock market is always at play and the New Critics, Structuralists, and Northrop Frye (of course), were not trading well (but they were trading as the Collected Works of Northrop Frye suggests).

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Yves St. Cyr: The Quotable Northrop Frye


Selected Quotes from Interviews with Northrop Frye, ed. Jean O’Grady, U of Toronto P, 2008

This superb collection of 111 interviews, compiled and edited by Jean O’Grady as part of the Collected Works, brings together for the first time all surviving records of Frye interviews from television, film, radio, conferences, journals, and magazines.  The range of topics covered includes literature; theory of literary criticism; Canadian culture, arts, and media; pedagogical theory (pre-school, primary, secondary, and university); the Bible and religion; and autobiographical reminiscences.  Below, I offer a selection of quotations from the collection, variously chosen on the basis of eloquence, wit, or erudition.  My hope is that these teasers will prompt those who follow this blog to purchase or borrow their own copies of Interviews with Northrop Frye, thus enriching our collective and on-going effort to understand Frye’s mind and character.

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Today in the Frye Diaries, 29 September


Burwash Hall, Victoria College: Senior Common Room at left


[132] Add to S.C.R. [Senior Common Room] catchwords (Sept. 14): “I don’t see why unconventional people aren’t willing to take the consequences of being unconventional.”

[133] At that party of Marion Darte’s Eleanor [Godfrey], stewed, said she didn’t like divorced people: Ray [Godfrey] said: “Say you don’t like the system of divorce, not that you don’t like divorced people.” I was very impressed with that for several days but not anymore. To dislike divorce is a vague approximation: to dislike divorced people is concrete as far as it goes. I don’t trust approximate remarks. Thus you say: “throw out all the old men & put in young ones,” meaning “throw out incompetents & put in good men,” but as the former looks vaguely like a more practical suggestion you hope it will approximate the latter.