Daily Archives: September 7, 2009

Clayton Chrusch: Frye, Sin, and Desire


Clayton Chrusch responds to both Merv Nicholson and Russell Perkin on what makes Frye different.

I once argued with a Frye scholar about original sin. I claimed that Frye was the biggest apologist for the doctrine of original sin that I knew, and I was told I was completely mistaken, that Frye thought the doctrine was one of the worst ideas ever invented.

What I realized after that conversation was that Frye insists (like Blake) on the reality of the Fall, but never equates the Fall with original sin. As Frye puts it in Fearful Symmetry, the fall and creation are the same event. For Frye, it is self-evident that we live in a fallen world, and it is hard for me to imagine a sane person who would not agree with him. But that falleness is not the result of human sin, but rather the matrix of human sin. There is no primordial guilt for Frye. I think Frye in general had little interest in guilt, and that is not because he denied the reality of sin, but like Blake, he accepted the reality of sin but denied the reality of Judgement (this is probably his biggest departure from orthodoxy).

As for desire, it seems to me that his abandonment of the term, in favour of “concern,” was an attempt at greater precision, but it seems to correspond with a loss of some of the explosive energy we see in his Blake book.

But even in Fearful Symmetry, I don’t think desire is seen as a good in itself. Rather, what is good is action, and action is conceived of as desire seeking form. And there are even more caveats. If the desire is to frustrate or impede action, the resulting action is not worthy of the name. And desire that is not acted upon is pestilent.

And also it is specifically the desire feeding creation that is good. Any desire for a created thing is “the cry of a mistaken soul”. Even the erotic delights of Beulah are temporary and must give way either to creation or alienation.

Michael Sinding: Frye and the Curriculum


Michael Sinding responds to Russell Perkin.

Russell Perkins’ question “How do Frye’s ideas relate to the state of literary studies today?” is an excellent one, and deserves some airing out.

One’s initial impression of the answer may be, “not at all.” But Bob Denham has done plenty of work to show how Frye’s ideas continue to inform research and teaching in all kinds of ways. So why do we get that impression?

What I find striking is that when you look at the history of specific topics and questions in literary studies, it’s not unusual to find that Frye has made a major and permanent contribution. As a fr’instance, I’ve been going through studies of satire. In a recent anthology, Ruben Quintero’s Companion to Satire (Blackwell, 2007), Frye is still pretty prominent, though not so prominent as Bakhtin. Paul Simpson’s On the Discourse of Satire (John Benjamins, 2003) says that Frye’s study shaped much criticism, and that his definition of satire seems to be more widely referenced than any other. And Frye makes a respectable showing in John Frow’s Genre (Routledge, 2006), along with Aristotle, Bakhtin, Derrida, Todorov. These are pretty different kinds of books, too. The Companion is fairly introductory, Simpson’s is mainly a linguistic study, Frow is more poststructuralist, especially Foucauldian (it’s in the New Critical Idiom series). I think you’d find this is true with many other topics, though no doubt some (genre, structure & form generally) more than others.

And yet for all of our interest, there is not (yet?) a strong momentum continuing to develop his ideas, as there is with, say, Bakhtin. Something about Frye’s assumptions and style seems uncongenial to the sea-changes literary studies underwent with post-structuralism and afterwards. So even though Hayden White and Fredric Jameson greatly admired Frye, their followers don’t seem to share the interest, and you don’t see Frye talked about much in e.g. PMLA. Perhaps it’s that he never did engage much with those sea-changes. He continued to work with his own assumptions and system, despite occasional references to Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, et al. Bakhtin didn’t engage with them at all, of course, but his ideas were simply better suited to poststructuralism’s impulses and directions.

But I don’t think we want a defensive / defiant celebration of Frye’s supposed old-fashioned-ness, or unfashionable-ness. In short, Frye’s connections with current literary studies seem peripheral, not central, or in the background rather than the foreground.

I’d like to see Frye have more of the kind of continuing reconsideration that Bakhtin does: putting his main ideas into play with current movements, themes, and questions, and tested and developed accordingly. Think of how much he has to say about culture, including popular culture, worldview and ideology, the social contexts of literature and criticism, as well as all the brilliant structural studies … . There’s a lot that is untapped.

Frye and Sin


Re: Merv Nicholson’s “What Makes Frye Different” (1)

I agree that Frye departs from the main traditions of Christian orthodoxy in some significant ways (though how significantly depends on the way one defines those traditions, hardly something on which there is general agreement!) But I think that the idea of original sin is often present in his thought – that is, the idea that human beings are, in Newman’s words, “implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity.”

Frye identifies the primary concerns, which are our desires for such things as food, shelter, and companionship. But it is only in the imagined world of literature that such concerns are not overwhelmed by the secondary concerns of ideology. And even literary works have their inevitable ideological dimension, as in Frye’s favourite example of Henry V.

Frye sometimes refers to human beings as “psychotic apes”! I think he agrees with Freud that civilization is fragile, doesn’t occur very often, and exists to regulate our desires, which otherwise would be boundless. If there isn’t enough to go around in terms of material goods, how much more is that true in terms of prestige and status.

Freud’s ideas, especially as expressed in Civilization and Its Discontents, seem to me based on a fairly accurate perception about the way that desire has to be controlled and regulated for civilization to exist. And Frye would seem to agree with that in his comments about human beings in society. Somewhere he comments on how the sounds of children at play are far from the pastoral innocence of sentimental imaginings. When he talks about discipline as the way to freedom (as in learning to play the piano), he sometimes sounds like Milton talking about “right reason.”

Thus while Frye rejected what he saw as the neurotic obsessions of some forms of Christianity (e.g., anxieties about drinking alcohol in the tradition in which he was raised), I see him as continuing many of the themes and concerns of Christian humanism.

But I readily admit to an inadequate knowledge of Blake, and of the side of Frye which read what Bob Denham refers to as his “kook books,” and I’m sure a much more unorthodox, antinomian Frye exists as well as the figure I am constructing here. I suppose the real question is what one foregrounds in one’s reading of Frye’s work

Merv Nicholson: “What Makes Frye Different” (1)


Mervyn Nicholson, in the first of what promises to be a series, considers what makes Frye different.  In this installment: Desire.

Frye is unusual as a literary-cultural critic-theorist in many, many ways.  But one way that I find fascinating is Frye’s attitude toward human desire.  Frye was a champion of human desire, as was his mentor, William Blake.

But in this Frye, like Blake, is opposed to practically the entire history of culture, a history of hostility to desire.  For Christianity, human desire is corrupted by the Fall, and can not be trusted.  What is needed is obedience to authority; by contrast, human desire is in fundamental conflict with the requirements of obedience.  The problem began with Adam and Eve who disobeyed, followed desire, and thus brought death into the world along with everything else that is bad, from mosquitoes to forest fires.

Christianity is not alone in distrusting and even disowning human desire.  Philosophy has rarely had much respect for desire, which it typically puts somewhere in the basement of human faculties, right next to if not actually in the trash barrel, along with illusion, opinion, prejudice, and other detritus of consciousness. Post-structuralism in its core form of deconstruction maintains the same hostility to desire.  Deconstruction as theorized by Jacques Derrida and practiced for example by Paul de Man, has for its keynote a conviction that desire equates with the unreal.  An entire attitude is summed up in the dictum of Paul de Man: “Metaphor is error because it feigns to believe in its own referential meaning.”  Metaphor and metaphoric thought is indistinguishable from deception, above all self-deception.  Political economy—economics—has stressed the dangers of human desire, from at least Thomas Malthus’s Essay on Population on.  The standard economics text begins with the premise that “economics is the science of scarcity”: there isn’t enough to go around.  In the conflict between what we want and what we can have, necessity always wins.  People must keep desire in check, or disaster will result.

Freud, despite his liberal views, is consistent with traditional attitudes. The entire psychoanalytic tradition is deeply mistrustful of desire.  What you want but cannot have, you then create imaginary satisfactions for.  For example, we fear to die, so we “make up” an afterlife, an imaginary compensation.  This view of desire, as the origin of illusion, is fundamental to Freud, who lays it out with particular clarity in The Future of an Illusion.  The test of an illusion is whether it is a wish fulfilment.  “What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes,” Freud explains.  “Thus we call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfilment is a prominent factor in its motivation . . . the illusion itself sets no store by verification.”  Dreams are of course illusory satisfactions, as Freud argues in The Interpretation of Dreams: dreams are all wish-fulfilments.  But wish-fulfilments are by definition illusory satisfactions.  This is also a theme of the revisionist psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, as well as of Melanie Klein and the “object relations” school of psychology.  Make-believe compensates for loss and alleviates frustration.  But it is still make-believe, and make-believe causes problems.  Similarly, Freud insisted that fantasies, conscious and unconscious, cause neurosis—fantasies so endemic in fallible human nature that they begin in infancy.  In Freud’s view, infants fantasize pretty weird things because they want weird things, and that weird wanting affects them for the rest of their lives.—our lives, in fact

Frye is so different from this tradition! he insists throughout his writing and throughout his career that human desire is good, that it is a guide, that the distinction between what we want and what we do not want — as Frye himself argues in The Educated Imagination is the basic axis of existence and of civilization itself.  Literature is a product of human desire, as is all of civilization.  By showing us what we want and what we do not want, literature functions as a guide to ourselves and a means of evaluating the society we have created and that we also have the power to change.  For Frye, desire is who we really are.

Frye’s “Inductive Survey” and the English Curriculum


Some observations in a time of transition (and at the start of a new academic year).

 Frye’s claim that literary criticism was a science was quite controversial when the Anatomy of Criticism first appeared.  One of the things that Frye meant by this claim was that criticism should be more inductive than deductive.  Instead of applying a preconceived model from another discipline (his usual examples are Marxist, Freudian, and neo-Thomist criticism), the literary scholar should derive his or her conceptual framework “from an inductive survey of the literary field” (Anatomy of Criticism; Collected Works 22:9).  The implications of this for the teaching of literature are obvious.  From undergraduate curricula and required texts to PhD course requirements and comprehensive examination reading lists, the aim should be to survey as wide a range of the literary field as is possible.

 In terms of literary value, Frye of course famously opposed the idea that literary judgments could be demonstrated, but he was equally sure that some texts were more rewarding to study than others.  The frequency with which he refers to Shakespeare and Milton would suggest that they should figure prominently in any programme of English-language literary education.

 How do Frye’s ideas relate to the state of literary studies today?  For one thing, as he observed through the decade before his death, some of the deterministic forms of criticism of his youth have returned, along with new but analogous models.  At the same time, and as a result of some of these theoretical positions, the idea that there is a distinct literary field with certain established “monuments” has become much more problematic (there are a few exceptions such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and possibly Henry James).

 In my own field of Victorian studies, I would like to make a modest defence of the idea that the aspiring scholar should make a fairly extensive inductive survey as part of his or her professional training.  One useful barometer of the state of Victorian studies is the conversation on the VICTORIA listserv (which is archived here).  It would be invidious to single out examples, especially since graduate students are often required to post questions on the list as part of a course requirement.  But speaking generally, the questions that are posted sometimes reveal that students are able to reach the stage of independent research for their PhD in a state of apparent ignorance of what I would regard as key texts of relevance to their work.  One well-known scholar lamented on the VICTORIA list a couple of years ago that courses require fewer and fewer texts, and those that are assigned tend to be shorter, so that Hard Times generally represents Dickens, to the exclusion of the longer and more characteristic works, while Thackeray is gradually disappearing from view altogether.  Another Victorianist, elsewhere, notes sadly the fact the Oxford World’s Classics series no longer includes all of George Eliot’s novels.  At the same time, the sensation novel has become far more prominent, so that Lady Audley’s Secret, once a vague rumour even to most PhD students, is now among the most frequently taught of all Victorian texts.

 Obviously I have opened up larger questions about the changing nature of reading and education, which I will not develop here.  Nor do I want to deplore in neoconservative manner all the recent developments in my field, some of which I have in fact contributed to.  I am simply arguing that those of us who teach and who determine syllabuses and reading lists should consider our responsibility to promote the reading of a wide variety of Victorian texts, including novels such as Vanity Fair, David Copperfield, Bleak House, or the longer novels of George Eliot.  Or, thinking of Frye’s own fascination with the Victorian sages, it would be nice if students were exposed to Carlyle, Ruskin, Mill, Arnold, and Newman more frequently than now tends to be the case. There is nothing wrong with studying Lady Audley’s Secret, whether as a Victorian scholar or in an undergraduate classroom, but Vanity Fair remains for me a more significant literary experience; just as, in Frye’s words, “The critic will find soon, and constantly, that Milton is a more rewarding and suggestive poet to work with than Blackmore” (CW 22:26).  (Lest any of my fellow-Victorianists feel that I am chiding them for their choice of research topics or class texts, I admit to publishing on Dinah Maria Mulock and Charlotte Mary Yonge, and to teaching John Halifax Gentleman and Tom Brown’s Schooldays!)  A last quotation from the Anatomy: “A critic may spend a thesis, a book, or even a life work on something that he candidly admits to be third-rate, simply because it is connected with something else he thinks sufficiently important for his pains” (CW 21:29).

Today in the Frye Diaries, 7 September



 Read Peter Quennell‘s “Caroline of England,” mostly out of the Harvey Memoirs, but intelligent and well written. It would be an amusing idea to write a skit on an English professor waking up in, say, Pepys’ time and trying to get hold of the language and customs. You’d have to know your stuff, but it would make good if somewhat obvious slapstick.

1950: A harrowing bus trip to New York City, plagued by hay fever all the way.

[590]… A tickly throat is a new misery to contend with, and one that give me a bad case of stage fright I wouldn’t otherwise have. I wish I didn’t associate New York so persistently with hay fever.

Note that this is Frye’s last diary entry for 1950.  Bob Denham’s endnote in CW volume 8, page 743, reads: “Among NF’s extant diaries none records his activities for an entire year. NF might have continued to write in this diary had he not, following the English Institute meeting, 8-11 September at Columbia University, broken his right arm in an automobile accident. The Fryes and Philip Wheelwright, the driver of the car, were on their way from New York to Princeton to see a production of Eliot’s Family Reunion when the accident, which hospitalized NF for a week, occurred. See Ayre, 226.”