Daily Archives: September 9, 2009

Mervyn Nicholson: Desire (2)


“Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained, and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling.  And being restrained, it by degrees becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire. . . . Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”  “Enough, or too much”—but never less than enough.

That’s Blake.  That’s Frye. 

Yes, Frye did refer to human beings as psychotic apes, contemplating the record of misery and horror that history displays.  “Desire” in Frye, as in Blake, is of course not the same as the compulsion to hurt and control others—“to govern the unwilling”—which is a mental illness, not desire at all.  Frye was not like Freud, especially on the issue of desire.  It is ironic, Frye says, that Freud has become a prophet of eros—ironic, because Freud was deeply pessimistic about human nature; he wanted, Moses-like, to hand down the law from his height of authority.  Frye was not a pessimist of this type, at all. 

That’s another thing that makes him so different.  Consistent with his profound valuation of desire, Frye was deeply committed to what goes with it, namely, an insistence on the value and meaning of life, confidence in the meaningfulness of existence, in fact in the divinity of life.  There is something divine in human nature—that’s Frye.  Indeed this divine aspect is manifested in our desires, in our wishes and their converse, our fears, and what we do about our fears and desires.  Such a conviction is utterly at odds with poststructuralism, particularly in deconstruction, which floated on a sea of shallow, leisure-class pessimism.

But then, on the topic of desire, Frye is unlike most of intellectual culture.  Desire is almost universally devalued—in religion (Christianity-Judaism-Islam is full of it), in philosophy, in psychology (certainly in the psychoanalytic tradition, which so many academics find irresistibly appealing), in economics—you name it.  Curiously, the one area that consistently respects desire is literature—Frye’s area.  By contrast, the prevailing attitude is that human desire is a problem, often THE problem.  “Good” is reflexively understood to mean “obedience.”  (“Were you good today?” Mommy asks, meaning “Did you do what you were told—did you obey?”)  If people could only stick to obeying authority—doing what they are told to do, wanting what they are told to want, and no more—they would be OK.  Instead, they foolishly listen to desire.  Ignorant desire then gets them into all kinds of problems and causes problems for those who obey.  This is of course Freud’s program: superego, with its “Don’t” command, must replace “libido.”  “Thou shalt not,” as Blake puts it in “The Garden of Love.”  Even in economics, supposedly about people doing what they want, scarcity is the ruling principle.  There is not enough.  Some people will have to do without. 

In fact, this is a key reason why desire is so much distrusted: desire incites disobedience, chaos, disorder.  Most of history shows us a tiny minority of the population in control of the rest of the population, who work for a living (as opposed to owning for a living).  Unless those who do the work have their desires carefully pruned to fit the dominant arrangement, there is going to be trouble.  There are a lot of reasons why desire is so distrusted, and it is not an accident that Blake is considered and considered himself a radical.

Frye was not a radical quite in Blake’s style, but there are plenty of radical currents in his thinking.  You don’t have to read far in his notebooks—or his publications—to find him saying radical things, things that have annoyed a lot of people.  One of the most important things he says is to insist on the value of human desire.

This partly explains, by the way, why he is so despised in the academy today.

Michael Sinding: Frye, Bloom, White, Jameson


To the discussion about Bloom and Jameson from Jonathan Allan, Russell Perkin, and others, I’d add that since Bloom is at least as out as Frye, I don’t know how much Bloom’s distancing from Frye counts in Frye’s distance from the current scene. (Being irrelevant to Bloom is kind of a double-negative, like Don Quixote saying everyone ELSE is deluded.) Not that I have much to back this up with, but my sense is that Bloom’s theory was never really in, didn’t change the landscape, at least not as Frye did. Maybe he’s suffering the anxiety of his own lack-of-influence. I’m not sure if this disagrees with Russell’s note. A book may be indispensable for specialists without being greatly influential in terms of big pictures and long runs.

On this note, I have to wonder, why was Bloom chosen to introduce the Anatomy? Why not someone like Hayden White, who’s pretty clear about Frye’s value, not so self-regarding, and still relevant himself?

On another note, the Jameson connection is also important. But can we call him an early disciple? I didn’t get that impression from The Political Unconscious, where he’s already distant from Frye. But I don’t know much about Jameson outside of that. His argument in PU is intriguingly baroque—the systems of Frye and Propp and Greimas are all spun so that again, eureka, ‘everything fits together’ in the dialectic. Jameson’s criticism of Frye there is interesting, and might be worth getting into at some point, for itself, and as an indicator of attitudes to Frye. I’d be curious to know if there are different reasons for distancing in Jameson’s utopia book.

Frye and Poe


Frye’s Superlatives: The Mysterious Case of Edgar Allan Poe

Another surprise in Frye’s superlatives might be Edgar Allan Poe, who in the list compiled by Bob Denham is dubbed “[t]he greatest literary genius this side of Blake.” These are mighty words, and puzzling, it would seem. Poe, of all people. Really? However odd it may strike us, it is indicative of Frye’s conception of literature. Poe is cited extensively throughout Frye’s work. In Anatomy, for example, Frye contrasts the art of Poe with the more inhibited genius of Hawthorne.  “Hawthorne’s inhibitions,” he observes, “seem to be at least in part self-imposed, as we can see if we turn to Poe’s  ‘Ligeia,’ where the straight mythical death and revival pattern is given without apology. Poe is clearly a more radical abstractionist than Hawthorne, which is one reason why his influence on our century is more immediate.” Beyond the many references in Anatomy, Poe is a favorite go-to-guy in The Secular Scripture, and a stalwart in the Late Notebooks and Words with Power. Frye has nary a word against the man, in sharp contrast with most of the critical establishment. Poe generally elicits quick dismissal, or at best skepticism. Yet he was sanctified by the two greatest French poets of the nineteenth century, Baudelaire and Mallarmé.  Frye makes the point in The Secular Scripture: “Another fiction writer who specializes in setting down the traditional formulas of storytelling without bothering with much narrative logic is Edgar Allan Poe. This fact, along with the ascendancy of realism, accounts for the curiously schizophrenic quality of Poe’s critical reception. There have been no lack of people to say that Poe is fit only for immature minds; yet Poe was the major influence on one of the subtlest schools of poetry that literature has ever seen.” The same point is made in the notebook entry the first sentence of which is quoted by Bob. It is worth quoting at greater length: “The greatest literary genius this side of Blake is Edgar Allan Poe–that’s why he’s regarded as fit only for adolescents, or French poets who don’t really know English. I don’t apply this to the poetry, but there’s no prose tale, however silly, that doesn’t hit an archetype in the bullseye.” How could Poe’s tales and critical theory not endear him to Frye? Poe was unashamedly anti-mimetic, a perfect archetypal genius, a purely poetic allegorist, and an extravagantly otherworldly cosmologist.

A side note to Bob Denham and Russell Perkin, concerning Poe and Wilde and Hopkins: even beyond his influence through the Symbolistes and decadents like Huysmans, Poe seems to have made a deep impression on Wilde, a writer admired in the very same spirit by Frye.  It is years since I have read it, but I recall that The Picture of Dorian Gray echoes in several places Poe’s great double story, William Wilson. He may not have been an influence on Hopkins but it was Poe, after all, who first introduced the idea of the primacy of the underthought, or allegorical undercurrent of suggestion, over the manifest meaning of the poetic or literary text.

I looked recently, just out of curiosity, at Harold Bloom’s article on Poe written twenty-five years ago in The New York Review of Books (Volume 31, Number 15 · October 11, 1984).  It is a telling piece. Bloom has little time for Poe, and fails poor Eddie in everything but – significantly enough — his precocious knack for archetypal logic. At least Bloom got that right. He finds an analogy in C.S. Lewis’s attitude to George MacDonald, whose writings, according to Lewis, demonstrate the power of mythological structures over and above any particular talent or gift for writing. MacDonald, of course, is another, if much less important Frye touchstone.

And thanks to Michael Happy for the Wilde quotation: Rufus Griswold’s notorious maligning of Poe is one of the best examples of the biographer-as-Judas.

Frye, Bloom, Eliot — and Wilde


This reminds me that someone (and I would love to know whom: I’ve never been able to find the reference again) once pointed out, unkindly but with at least some justification, that Bloom’s famous “anxiety of influence” was really just a reworking of Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”! Interesting in view of Bloom’s hostility to Eliot.

In partial defence of Bloom, in response to both Bob’s and Joe’s thoroughly reasonable comments, he has modelled himself on the “divine Oscar” with some success. (I know this is not a popular view. I never get very far defending him to most of my colleagues and friends!) And for me, in spite of its obscurities and exaggerations, The Anxiety of Infuence remains one of the indispensable critical books of the second half of the twentieth century.



One might state the case even more baldly: anyone who has read Bloom’s later work with any attention or heard him speak in public can hardly avoid the impression that he is a person of overweening vanity and narcissistic self-regard. Frye’s fingerprints are all over Bloom’s early work, when the latter still had his critical sanity. In his early career, he looked to Frye as a mentor and sought his friendship. I remember reading letters Bloom wrote to Frye at the end of the sixties (this was some years ago, but I think it was around 1969, the year of the letter Bob cites).  Bloom seems to have suffered a serious depression at the time and wrote Frye about it, taking him into his confidence, and exposing his emotional vulnerability to his mentor. Like many envy-ridden people, he later bit the hand that fed him, maligning what he first identified with and later feared he could not compete with. In the general neglect of Frye’s work over the last decades, Bloom stands as a special case: as Bob suggests, the distancing seems personal and speaks more to Bloom’s psychological issues than to any genuine critical or theoretical disagreement.

Frye and Bloom


In January 1969 Harold Bloom wrote to Frye to tell him about his developing theory of the anxiety of influence. Frye replied, “You don’t say much about the general direction or scope of your book. If you mean influence in the more literal sense of the transmission of thought and imagery and the like from earlier poet to later one, I should think that this was simply something that happens, and might be a source either of anxiety or of release from it, depending on circumstances and temperament. But of course it is true that a great poet’s maturity brings with it a growing sense of isolation, of the kind one feels in Yeats’ Last Poems, Stevens’ The Rock, and perhaps even Blake’s Job series. I should very much like to hear more about the book and about your progress with it” (letter of 23 January 1969). In his Foreword to the fifteenth printing of Anatomy of Criticism, Bloom picks up part of what Frye had written thirty one years before: “Frye disliked the idea of an anxiety of influence, and told me that whether a later writer experienced such an affect was due entirely to temperament and circumstance” (vii).

There is, of course, a difference between “might be a source either of anxiety or a release from it” and “was due entirely.” It might be that the real anxiety of influence was Bloom’s anxiety about Frye’s influence. What Jonathan Allan calls “distancing” could well be and example of the killing off of the critical father. Frye, at any rate, thought so. Some years later he wrote to Morton D. Paley, “I hope it isn’t too arrogant for me to think that I represent Bloom’s chief anxiety of influence (letter of 17 January 1978).