Daily Archives: September 24, 2009

Frye and Chesterton


Responding to Russell’s post earlier today:

Russell, Frye didn’t write anything extended on Chesterton, so far as I know. He read at least The Victorian Age in Literature and The Everlasting Man when he was a student at Emmanuel College. Here are about three dozen passages in his writings, some of them trivial, that refer to Chesterton.

1. I must expand the conception of dandyism as, essentially, a comic literary convention entering life around the second half of the 19th c. The dandy develops out of the Cléante type of comic moral norm, detached from what is seen as a crowd of preoccupied attached obsessed people, all facing in the same direction. The dandy is essentially conservative, because the facing-one-direction people make an assumption of progress, yet his impact is that of a devil’s advocate, reversing the melodramatic maxims in which society believes. Apart from the French developments, Oscar Wilde popularized the attitude, the progenitor of which in England is really Matthew Arnold, both in his life & in his comedies. An Ideal Husband has the dandy in one of his proper roles—that of gracioso-hero. His attitude is comic-existential, puncturing the balloons of false idealism. A Woman of No Importance has a far more brilliant dandy, but Wilde, partly through an effort to be “fair” to the other side, partly through a streak of masochism, & partly through sheer laziness, completely foozled the conclusion. Anyway, the dandy attitude survives in the early (twenties) essays of Aldous Huxley, whose epigrams are mainly inverted clichés, in Yeats’ association of dandyism & heroism, in Lytton Strachey, & in the contemporary New Yorker—see its Knickerbocker figure and again the inverted melodrama clichés of its cartoons. G.K. Chesterton is an anti-dandy; Shaw uses the dandy formula of course, but never puts much of himself behind it. I think something of this might get into an essay on Samuel Butler, who isn’t a dandy, but uses one as a norm in WAF [The Way of All Flesh], & is in marked contrast to William Morris, who’s a tough little Cockney drudge, to use Carlyle’s opposite term. (Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism,” CW 23, 265)

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Resisting the Extraliterary


I think part of my apparent resistance to efforts to apply logical, scientific, or mathematical models to account for literary phenomena is due to the long-standing and ongoing tacit contempt within the university and elsewhere for the value of literature and literary studies. This attitude is sadly the case even within English departments or literature departments. Certainly at my university there is no avoiding the sense that one belongs to the “special needs” group, and that we must be both pitied and patronized by those who are in the real business of scholarship and research, since what they do actually means something in the “real world”: curing cancer, building bridges, producing wealth. How far this attitude is from Frye’s conception of the university he has eloquently articulated in writings too numerous to mention here.

The problem, however, is that this attitude has been internalized by literary scholars themselves, and swallowed whole by cultural studies scholars who have decided that since literature is a confidence game, a shill for the social establishment, the purpose of critical analysis must be to demythologize literature. In contrast, Frye believed in the authority of literature. It was criticism and literary scholarship that were incoherent. The central purpose of the Anatomy was to clarify and establish the parts and principles of criticism, to derive and synthesize a working structural poetics from an inductive survey of literature itself, and to begin building an autonomous body of knowledge on these discoveries. Literary criticism would then no longer feel it needed to seek outside itself for verification of its validity, like a toddler anxiously turning to its mother for permission to walk. There is always something about explanations of literature from other disciplines that smacks of this attitude of dependency that Frye did his best to discredit, and of course these explanations are largely the work of literary scholars themselves. How can we possibly know what to say about literature and myth and metaphor unless we apply real knowledge–from history, anthropology, psychology, cognitive science, now neuroscience even, etc.– to explain them? It couldn’t possibly come from literature itself.

I was on a thesis defense in English a couple of years ago and one of the external examiners was a professor of psychology, a specialist in cognitive science. He used his period of questioning as a teaching moment, as he patiently explained to us what a great tool cognitive science would be to literary scholars in understanding something like metaphor. I am sure that cognitive science can teach us a good deal. On the other hand, it was pretty clear that it had never occurred to him that, when it came to metaphor, reading someone like Northrop Frye might be a greater benefit to him than his particular discipline would be to us.

The fact that my own department here at McMaster is a cultural studies stronghold may account for my particular sensitivity on this point. On my desk right now is a thesis I have been asked to read entitled “Redefining the Victorian Ideal: the Productive Transnormative Family in Sensation Fiction,” which focuses on two popular sensational novels of the Victorian era, one of which, Lady Audley’s Secret, was mentioned by Russell Perkin in an earlier post. The title of the thesis makes my point.

It seems so easy to subordinate literature to something else, something other than story and imagery, something other than the literary universe itself, that a certain amount of knee-jerk resistance may not be out of order.

Today in the Frye Diaries (2)


On the difficulty of being English and Roman Catholic, here is Gerard Manley Hopkins, in “To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life”:

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.
England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

Argument and Transformation


In response to my previous posting, Clayton Chrusch has some very wise words. They remind me, sadly, how little value is given to listening and charity among many literary scholars:

Thank you so much, Joe, for your thoughtful response to my comment. I’ve been thinking about it, and my thoughts have been going in many different directions.

I owe too much to Frye to criticize him for the way he approached his work. My point about Frye being unfair to Chesterton is a minor point and I am not really invested in it because, though I am a fan of Chesterton, I have deliberately not read his criticism.

Also as far as teaching, criticism, and literature go, I’ll be happy to discuss that with you in a forum that doesn’t involve me putting down my ideas in writing and making them public. You obviously have a lot more experience than I do.

I believe that in science, politics, and religion (as far as it affects other people), a rational defence of one’s beliefs is necessary, or at least an admission that they are taken on authority from someone else. These are three spheres that are too consequential to be left to private judgement.

You say that Frye didn’t think arguing was productive, and that no one can argue anti-gay protesters out of their beliefs. Those are actually two quite separate claims, and the first in no way depends on the second. As I’m sure you know, I’ve argued with anti-gay activists, and though you cannot change their minds, there is a lot of productive stuff that can happen, beginning with the recognition of an opponent’s humanity. Most debating or arguing is unproductive because it is being done badly on both sides. There is no real listening, no real charity, no real belief that the other person is basically motivated by a loyalty to goodness and truth, no real attempt to find out what that goodness or truth is, no real attempt to get over differences and achieve reconciliation. One bad tactic you see over and over again is an obstinate refusal to admit that an opponent’s facts and reasons have any validity at all. But even if only one side is debating in a charitable way, the experience can be transformative.

I may not always leave an argument with a renewed hope for humanity, but I think I leave with a clearer vision of humanity, a stronger desire for reconciliation, and often more humility.

The Phases and Modes of Language


Frye may not have, as Trevor Losh‑Johnson reports someone as saying, an “etiological theory of linguistics,” if that means a theory of the origin or causes of language, but he does have a theory of language––in fact, several theories.  He begins his talk “The Expanding World of Metaphor” by saying:

Let us start with literature, and with the fact that literature is an art of words.  That means, in the first place, a difference of emphasis between the art and the words.  If we choose the emphasis on words, we soon begin to relate the verbal structures we call literary to other verbal structures.  We find that there are no clearly marked boundaries, only centres of interest.  There are many writers, ranging from Plato to Sartre, whom it is difficult, or more accurately unnecessary, to classify as literary or philosophical.  Gradually more and more boundaries dissolve, including the boundary between creators and critics, as every criticism is also a recreation.  Sooner or later, in pursuing this direction of study, literary criticism, philosophy, and most of the social sciences come to converge on the study of language itself.  The characteristics of language are clearly the essential clue to the nature of everything built out of language.(“The Secular Scripture” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 1976–1991, CW 18, 342–3)

The “characteristics of language” are naturally a part of Frye’s theory of language, the two chief forms of which in his late work are in the first chapters of The Great Code (phases of language) and Words with Power (modes of language).  The first chapter of The Great Code, in typical Frye fashion, is elaborately schematic.  It begins with Vico’s notion of the three ages of humanity, and then moves through more than a dozen different categories to classify the tripartite phases that language has, more or less historically, passed through: the poetic, the heroic, and the vulgar; the hieroglyphic, the hieratic, and the demotic; the mythical, the allegorical, and the descriptive; the metaphorical, the metonymic, and the similic, and so on.  Frye glances at the historical locus of each of these phases, the way each formulates subject‑object relations, the meaning of such words as “God” and “Logos” in each, and the typical form that prose takes in each phase.  All of this anatomizing, devoid of Frye’s examples and illustrations, can be summarized in this chart:

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Frye and Chesterton (2): “The Great Western Butterslide”


As I said in my previous post on this topic, Frye often uses G. K. Chesterton as an example of a critic whose judgments are always overly affected by his beliefs and commitments.  This is perhaps somewhat unfair to Chesterton, who celebrated the genius of Charles Dickens, someone who had no great love of Catholicism, or dogmatic religion, or the middle ages.  Ian Ker, in The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961, refers to Chesterton’s “Dickensian Catholicism.”  I find there is a kind of exuberant excess in Chesterton’s style that evades the reduction of his work to the articulation of a set of beliefs.  Ker makes an eloquent case for placing Chesterton alongside the great Victorian cultural prophets such as Carlyle, Arnold and Newman. I wonder if “Chesterton” for Frye was more a symbol of a certain kind of neo-Thomist intellectual for whom he had little time, and who would have been likely to have admired Chesterton, than a considered reflection on the writer himself.

 Frye’s bluntest comment on Chesterton that I am aware of (perhaps Bob Denham can let me know of a better one!) comes in the Notebooks on Romance: “Catholic thinkers like Chesterton pretend that medieval life was an ideal along with medieval art, and was so because everybody was agreed on a central myth of concern. That’s shit” (CW 15:320).  But unlike many Catholics who looked back to the middle ages, Chesterton described himself as a liberal and a democrat in politics.

 One of Frye’s most colourful expressions is “the great western butterslide,” by which he means the myth of decline that held that at a certain point the organic unity and spiritual harmony of western culture was irretrievably lost, and things declined to their present desperate state (or “Pretty Pass,” as Frye put it in a 1953 review of Allen Tate (CW 21:177; see also Anatomy of Criticism, CW 22:319).  Ruskin identified this cultural “Fall” with the Renaissance; for others it was the Protestant Reformation that was the cause of all our problems.  I first encountered the intriguing word “butterslide” when reading Frye;  Germaine Warkentin notes that he was familiar with it as a bobsledding term, and she also cites the OED: “butter-slide, a slide (SLIDE n. 9) made of butter or ice; also fig.” (CW 21:495n4).

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Today in the Frye Diaries, 24 September



[126] Morley [Callaghan] & Eleanor [Godfrey] dislike the English but don’t fully understand why: it’s because they’re Catholics, of course. The confusions of interests today are curious. Heywood Broun turned R.C. after he’d become convinced, wrongly of course, that it wasn’t inherently Fascist. He judged the church by a political standard assumed superior to it. Yet if he had realized this he’d have sold out to the reactionaries. Funny deadlock.

 [127] The theory of democracy about the will of the people being the source of government is, in that form, just will-worship like Calvin’s.