Daily Archives: September 25, 2009

Interdisciplinary Connections


In relation to the Adamson/Chrusch dialogue about ways that cognitive science, logic, and other disciplines might contribute to our understanding of Frye, it might be useful to reverse the context of the issue of dependency and consider the ways that Frye has contributed to thinking in other disciplines.  The most extended commentaries on Frye’s work are naturally within the field of literary criticism, but Frye was an interdisciplinarian, writing on numerous issues outside of literature –– social, political, psychological, historical, philosophical, religious, linguistic, legal, and educational.  He wrote about music, the fine arts, sacred texts, ballet, film, advertising and propaganda, the church, folklore, Canadian culture, comparative anthropology, humor, Utopias, student protest movements, the humanities, and numerous other nonliterary topics.  Frye was, of course, a polymath, and like other instances of the homo universalis, his ideas, especially those that form his literary theory, continue to spill over into other disciplines, affecting them in substantive ways.  His ideas have been applied by philosophers, historians, geographers, anthropologists, political scientists, and by writers in the fields of advertising, marketing, communication studies, nursing, political economy, legal theory, organization science, social psychology, and consumer research.  The contribution to other disciplines is one measure of the substance of a writer’s thought.  One thinks of the way Chomsky’s work has influenced, even developed, other fields of inquiry.  The following survey, which does not include the books and essays by scores of biblical critics and educational theorists who have drawn on Frye’s work, is a preliminary record of the dialogue between Frye’s criticism and other disciplines.  Interestingly, the debts to Frye come not so much from his writings about nonliterary topics: they derive, with a handful of exceptions, from the principles set down in Anatomy of Criticism

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Frye the Scientist


This might be of particular interest to Clayton Chrusch, Adam Bradley, and Trevor Losh-Johnson, among others.

Frye on Form and Volume

At school I was taught that substances keeping form & volume were solids, those keeping volume but not form liquids, & those keeping neither gas.  Even then I could see that there ought to be a fourth class keeping form but not volume.  And there is a tradition, though admittedly a very speculative one, which says that there is a fourth class of this kind, & the one that includes all organisms or living beings.  Also, that just as solids, liquids & gases have a symbolic connexion with, respectively, earth, water & air, so organisms, especially warm-blooded animals, are units of imprisoned fire. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, CW 13, 208)

Frye on Geometry and Beauty

When I entered University in the old Pass Course I was neither wise nor experienced, being seventeen; but my cultural tastes were formed.  I had always done well in English, liked history and languages, thought I could do philosophy, hated science, and loathed mathematics with an adolescent’s fanaticism.  However, I had to take math, so I sulkily bought a formidable treatise on “Analytic Geometry,” by someone named De Lury, whom I had never heard of nor wanted to hear of, and proceeded to read the only part of it which it was possible to read, the Preface.  At the end of the Preface I came across some such remark as this: “The student should get a sharp pencil & a decent set of instruments, because without clear and accurate diagrams a great deal of the beauty of the subject will be lost.”  I stared at that sentence for a long time, and then thought, “By golly, that could be true.”  I never got further with mathematics, and never got the point of the subject, but from that day I have never doubted that there was a point to get, and that for those who know it mathematics is one of the major disciplines of beauty. (Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings, CW 25, 14)

[Daniel Bertrand De Lury, a special lecturer in mathematics at the University of Toronto.  Analytic Geometry seems not to be in the data base of any Canadian or U.S. library, although De Lury published several volumes on mathematics through the University of Toronto Press for the Ontario Research Foundation.]  

Prophetic Genius: Frye the Astronomer

In one of his notebooks he records this fantasy: “In my childhood I dreamed of becoming a great astronomer & discovering a new planet beyond Neptune that I was going to call Pluto.”  [Pictured above]  Frye calls this a “curious form of e.s.p. that he possesses,” and with good reason, as Pluto wasn’t actually discovered and so named until a decade later.  (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, CW 13, 68)

Peter Yan: Militant Teaching


Joe Adamson’s “Argument and Transformation” post reminds me of a recent experience in my grade 12 class. A homophobic student bragged how he would spend his Saturday nights driving in a car (crammed with six other male homophobes), harassing people he thought were gay. My discussions with him failed. However, during my lessons on logic, I had him argue why gays had no right to exist…an assignment he relished. Then after finishing his argument, I had him write the counter argument. While he was still homophobic, he did at least stop physically harassing people because he could not definitively defend his sexist views.

On the one hand, school is for Frye derived for the Greek word for leisure, or “schole,”  a higher form of civilized development, a detachment from the “real” world. But on the other hand, school is engagement, a means of fighting the forces of social conditioning, advertising, politics, and bigotry by way of words with power. Frye’s notion that every argument has a counter-argument, and that the best we can do is become aware of our social conditioning, helped moderate the views of one otherwise intansigent student.

Teaching is militant and, if we are lucky, our students might become through the power of words — and perhaps in the only way possible — born again.

Adam Bradley: La Resistance


Wow. The anti-cultural-theorists! Until this moment, I actually thought I was alone. Reading Joe’s post and the responses to it gives me hope for the state of literary studies. It seems to me that the counter-revolution has begun.

I was an undergrad at McMaster in the middle of the cultural studies movement that swept through that English department. Except for a few professors who remained rather quiet, I felt like the lone objector in the middle of an ill advised coup d’etat. I was always much more intrigued with structuralism than with how to apply ideologies to literary texts, based on an overwhelming sense that there is a structure present within all literature. It is the repetition of these structures over time that represents our connections to one other; our like-mindedness. That is why texts written hundreds of years ago can fit into a model set out by a cultural theorist today. If this is the case, then many cultural theorists that argue vehemently against the existence of structure — or in Frye’s case, myths — would in fact be invalidating their own arguments. I find that funny. But humor aside, I think more literary arguments need to be structured by logic. We marvel at the dialogues of Plato, but then fail to see that if we structured our arguments using the same kind of logic, we may actually find some common ground with theorists of differing opinions. The lens through which the cultural theorists attack a literary work tends to filter out the fact that it is the repetition of myths that enable texts to remain relevant to current ideologies.

On the matter of logic and mathematics as they relate to literature: Is it not simply a matter of logic that if you believe in a mythical structure, as Frye suggests, then the logical extension is to be able to represent those structural constructs with numbers? That is, if there is a structure, then that means there also exists a relationship between constructs, and it would be no great task to represent those relationships numerically. I think this would in fact enhance the wonder to be found in literature, not detract from it. Physicists describe light waves with numbers all the time, but a sunset does not become any less sublime because they can describe the structure of it. In fact, the opposite is true. Being able to describe a sunset scientifcally makes the experience of it even more intense. I believe the same to be true of literature. Being able to describe the constructs of literature —  as an “objectiv(ish) ’science’ ”, as Clayton Chrusch puts it —  would only enhance the wonder of how we are moved by the written word.

If my thinking is correct and cultural theory is enabled by the structure and myths found in literature, then the insistence that there is no structure in literature by the same theorists would turn out to be a pretty obvious contradiction; and, if this is the case, I would be even more amazed if we could represent that relationship with an equation that manifests this logic. I believe that it would take our understanding from a belief to a fact. And, if Joe is correct that cognitive scientists could in fact benefit from the literary theorists’ understanding of phenomena such as metaphor, then we need to be able to bridge that gap and explain our subject in terms they can understand. This means logic, structure, and to some extent axiomatic thought. The onus is on the literary theorists to prove their own worth, if in fact the aim is to have a meaningful discussion with scientists. Science has established axioms and methods that have been in practice for thousands of years and, being that language is our business, we would do well to do the same.

Viva la counter-revolution!

Re: “Resisting the Extraliterary”


A couple of  insightful responses to Joe’s earlier post:

Clayton Chrusch:

I understand what you are saying. I think the difference is that relating literature to economics or politics or power relations between the sexes, is setting up a determinism with the implication that literature has no empirical structure that is proper to itself; in other words, it empties literature of literary content.

But bringing logic or even math to the table is a different matter, because these are tools that can be used to build a properly literary structure, they are not the structure itself, they do not usurp the content of literature. Frye liked to make analogies between the study of literature and other disciplines, and if you consider other disciplines, you see that the use of mathematics or logic does not work to subordinate them to something outside themselves.

Frye liked to use diagrams. That did not subordinate literature to geometry or graph theory.

I’m not insisting that everyone think as I do, but I do believe that if people with a logical temperament could find a place in literary studies, they could do a lot to build an objective(ish) “science” of literary convention which would establish the properly literary structure of literature.

Jan Gorak:

It does seem a shame that no one seems to ask why anyone would want to cast a work in literary form any more – something that The Educated Imagination itself addressed so well I always thought. I also think Frye – and many of his contemporaries – were much better at seeing and talking about the various constructions human beings deploy and the motives for deploying them. Contemporary critics seem to have gone back to the dark ages on questions like this, so that you often wonder whether they would even recognize an allegory if one bit them! It would also seem relevant to say that although Frye thought that he inhabited the same imaginative universe as Blake, Coleridge etc, most contemporary theorists are convinced that anything before 1968 let’s say is completely out of their field of vision, so you get bizarre frames of reference brought to bear in the name of  “redefining the Victorian idea” or whatever. Sho’ is a mysterious discipline these days. Good to be in touch!

Trevor Losh-Johnson: “The Phases and Modes of Language”


Responding to Bob Denham’s earlier post.

Since my Frygian orientation is based on the Anatomy, this is certainly a new and exiting schematic for me. I wish I could have cited my source for that comment on etiological theories of language, but I have had no luck finding it. There is always the possibility that it was a sort of excluded initiative during my reading that became a center of concern when I wrote my post.

Is there a term Frye used for the movement of the excluded initiative into its subsequent center of concern (I may not be using the term “concern” correctly)? If reversed, it seems to resemble the displacement of myth into descending modes in the Anatomy – “Reading forward in history, therefore, we may think of our romantic, high mimetic and low mimetic modes as a series of displaced myths, mythoi or plot-formulas progressively moving over towards the opposite pole of verisimilitude, and then, with irony, beginning to move back” (pg. 52, the final sentence of ‘Comic Fictional Modes’).

Also, is there any circular thrust to this model, adopted, as it seems, from De Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis? From what I know of De Lubac, his adapted categories were more or less static modes of interpretation. The model adopted from Vico has its implied ricorso, but what modulation is in the second seems to be without recurrence.

But as an applicative theory of language, it is just the thing that dovetails into my interests. I am interested in theories of language that apply to literature as an order of words, even if such theories do not apply much to linguistics as the discipline stands. My complaint, that comparative literature made me into an amateur expert on everything except literature, may apply in its own way to Prof. Adamson’s lament on the extraliterary.

Today in the Frye Diaries, 25 September



[128] Full of shit again. Every once in a while I get shocked by the callousness and brutality of members of my class: I was thinking of that Sunday afternoon at Millars. Mildred [Oldfield Millar] was speaking of young David’s tendencies to run across the road, & I said ‘You can imagine the state of mind of mothers on Charles St., or places where kids have to play on the streets.’ One woman said ‘Oh, I don’t think those people care much.’ Cats would care, and hens would care, but the mothers of Charles St. don’t give a damn.