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)

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7 thoughts on “Frye the Scientist

  1. Alan

    Re Pluto: Hmm that one sets off the skepticism alerts. When did Frye write this? References?
    Is that purported to be a picture of Pluto?

  2. Alan

    My guess is you do not have diaries from 1930, when Pluto was identified, very indirectly. Frye would have been 18. If later in his life he made such a claim it is clearly worth nothing.

  3. Robert D. Denham

    Here’s the Pluto passage in context:

    “I’ve noticed a curious form of e.s.p. in me: whenever I dream of writing something in fiction somebody else who really does write gets the idea instead. This has happened to me so often that it was no surprise to me after thinking about a historical novel situated at Trebizond, to find that Rose Macaulay had the same idea. (In my childhood I dreamed of becoming a great astronomer & discovering a new planet beyond Neptune that I was going to call Pluto). The reason for Trebizond was the length of time it had been inhabited & the variety of its cultures. But perhaps Trebizond never got that curious sense of awareness of itself as a centre, implicit in the metaphor of ‘capital,’ which Athens & Rome & Paris & doubtless Yeats’s Byzantium had” (Notebook 3, par, 172).

    By “childhood” Frye is clearly referring to his early years in Moncton. He wouldn’t use “childhood” to refer to his college years (he was at Victoria College in 1930). As for the date of the notebook entry, about all that one can say is that it was written after 1957. See the headnote for Notebook 3.

  4. Alan

    So indeed this is just puffery from Frye. Interesting nonetheless, but no evidence he actually did intuit Pluto before its discovery.

  5. Joe Adamson

    The affect theorist Silvan Tomkins, in outlining his theory of ideological polarity and the ideology of research strategies, distinguishes between left-wing/humanistic vs. right wing/normative scientists and scholars.

    Right-wingers (normatives) are primarily focused on verifiability, whether something can be proved or not according to “objective” standards and norms of truth (whatever those received norms are: traditional authority, verifiable experiment, or other forms of hard evidence). Their main concern is to avoid error at all costs.

    Humanistic scientists, researchers, or scholars, are focused primarily on discovery, even at the risk of error, and thus value imagination, feelings, and play over verifiability as legitimate pathways to knowledge.

    Frye clearly belongs to the latter group. As for you, Al, I’ll just leave it to you to examine the evidence and verify which of these descriptions best fits your comments.

  6. Robert D. Denham

    What kind of evidence do we call forth to judge the truth of someone’s writing, say, “On CBC’s ‘Overnight’ last night I listened to a report about the importance of dancing in Poland”? Is the reporter of this sentence lying?

    There may be no evidence that Frye had the Pluto intuition. But there’s no evidence that he didn’t have it. In his notebooks Frye reports on a half–dozen or so epiphanies he had, moments when something suddenly became clear to him. I have no reason to believe that he’s lying about those and no reason to believe that he’s lying about the Pluto one. Did Frye or did he not have an idea of writing a novel about Trebizond before discovering that Rose Macaulay had already written one? My guess is that he did, but that guess is based on trusting Frye as a reporter on things that happened to him. His ethos was not given to either puffery or deceit.


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