Daily Archives: September 28, 2009

A Reply to Russell Perkin: The Basis of Criticism


Russell Perkin’s last post has raised some important questions. He expresses his sympathy with Deanne Bogdan’s realization “that literary experience could be negative as well as positive.” One of my questions would be: who decides what is negative or what is positive? On what basis do we decide that something is a positive or a negative experience. To pretend that one can answer that question without difficulty is the stance of ideological criticism, the posture of cultural studies, which assumes that the answer is more or less straightforward. Maybe it seems straightforward in certain instances, but even here I would emphasize the “seems.” It is the indispensable function of the liberal arts and their criticism that they require us to suspend any final decision that is based on an ideological assumption, left or right, feminist or patriarchal.

The compelling reasons for a defense of free speech, so eloquently made by Milton, and so lucidly and unassailably by Mill, speak to the very essence of the imaginative vision embodied in literature. The response to literature is not monolithic, but inevitably various–it demands and allows for a great variety of response–and this is inherent in its imaginative and therefore hypothetical nature. It means that a work may strike one person as sexist, and another as liberating and feminist–something that is evident even in the ongoing debates among feminists since the movement began.

One aspect of a work, experienced as negative to one person, may be experienced as positive by another. Sade is an excellent example; his work is, in my mind, unquestionably a part of a liberal culture and the arts, and yet I can see that much of it is hard not to judge as repugnant, and many would see his work as irredeemably obscene, misogynistic and dangerous to read, and therefore would seek to suppress it. And yet some of the most visionary poets of the last two centuries regard Sade as a prophet, not of misogyny, but of emancipation.

Let us ponder where the question raised by Bogdan can lead: it is very tempting to assume that we have the truth, and we know what is offensive and what is not: what is feminist and anti-feminist, what is racist and what isn’t, what is wrong and what is right. But where did we get the assumptions for any such conviction at all: that this is grotesque, and this the norm or goal? Presumably from some “myth to live by,” some vision embodied in religion, literature, philosophy, and the arts and science, the basis of liberal culture, the core of which is an informing vision that is available, not only in the ideas and emotions evoked in the experience of the arts, but in their underlying structures, their under-thought, their poetic and mythological underpinnings.

The concern about the bad or good experience that literature might afford is definitely not something that Frye ignored, not at all. Frye had no objections to feminist criticism; he had an objection to feminist criticism, or Marxist criticism, or minority criticism, or majority criticism, for that matter, becoming the basis, the arbiter of criticism.

The question Russell raises is a good one, and the beginnings of an answer, I think, is in the very passage he quotes from Frye:

Anything that emerges from the total experience of criticism to form part of a liberal education becomes, by virtue of that fact, part of the emancipated and humane community of culture, whatever its original reference. Thus liberal education liberates the works of culture themselves as well as the mind they educate.

This is Frye’s point about the nature of a liberal education and their core, the arts: art and literature, because they demand an imaginative response, are submitted to a different kind of judgment, which demands both engagement and detachment, not moral or ideological judgment.

Unfortunately, once you insist that a certain literary work can only evoke a “negative experience,” it is not hard to take the next step: to refuse to entertain any reading of that work except as an example of what one ought not to think or say. And then you have subordinated criticism to an ideological agenda, to a matter of belief. This is, unfortunately, what has taken place in many areas of literary criticism and scholarship today.

Jonathan Allan: Frye and Comp Lit


It is interesting to note that Northrop Frye was the first chair of Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. He was also one of its great advocates. Recently, Professor Mario J. Valdes spoke about this at the annual Comparative Literature conference at the University of Toronto. Professor Valdes’ lecture can be found here (though it was a lecture about poetry and the Spanish Civil War, Professor Valdes spent the first part of his lecture talking about the history of Comparative Literature at U of T): http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/complit/colloquium08-9.html

“The Bondage of History”


Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Joe Adamson’s post of 27 September gives a really vivid sense of literary studies in the 1980s.  I was in graduate school at roughly the same time (1983-87), in the English department at the University of Toronto, and his description brings to mind those days of intellectual ferment, when for students in English the weekly public seminar of the Comp. Lit. centre (held on the 14th floor of the Robarts Library) had all the allure of a revolutionary cell, and when Yale French Studies was virtually required reading for anyone in English who wanted to be in the know.

The way I recall the history of that time, there was a turning point late in the ’80s, when people started to abandon deconstruction in favour of ideology.  I can recall hearing one scholar at a conference attacking Marxist criticism in the name of scholarly inquiry in the hermeneutic tradition, but a year later the same person was saying that “whenever I read there is an invisible Marxist looking over my shoulder,” or words to that effect.  No doubt the scandal concerning Paul de Man’s wartime writings hastened the turn towards history and ideology, and away from the austere textual scrutiny which characterized the so-called “Yale school” of criticism.

Perhaps I should here explain the somewhat anomalous position from which I write about Frye.  For one thing, being an Anglo-Catholic Frye scholar is hardly a common self-identification, let alone an unproblematic one!  Secondly, I write about Frye alongside my other work on Victorian and 20th century British literature, which draws significantly on the work of feminist criticism and the reception-theory of Hans Robert Jauss.  In the only conversation I ever had with Northrop Frye, I asked him what he thought of the uses to which Jauss had put his work.  Frye replied, graciously but firmly, that he didn’t like to comment on such matters; they was something that younger scholars like myself would have to figure out on our own.  I suppose by continuing to study Frye I am, among other things, still trying to figure out the answer to my question.

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Re: “Frye Was Different (2)”


Another response to Merv Nicholson’s post earlier today:

Mervyn, I agree with you that in Frye’s thinking the social function of literature plays a central role. But I think that quite a few other thinkers address the question as well. I don’t agree that the social function of literature is rarely discussed after the 1970s. For example, feminist criticism has concerned itself with the way that literature functions to model gender roles, in both negative and positive ways. For some of feminists, literature is, as you say, “part of a democratic and emancipatory struggle.” Similarly, the revival of an ethical theory of literature looks back to its humanist function of instructing as well as delighting: providing for instance imagined situations through which we can think about concepts such as justice, or forgiveness.

The histories of literary studies of critics such as Chris Baldick and Terry Eagleton have been widely influential in the last couple of decades, and they cast a jaundiced eye on the “social mission” that they claim literary studies had in its formative years. But even if they view it in negative terms, they still concede that there was a social function. Presumably they would also think that there could be a different one, which promoted their values and beliefs.

In his thinking about the function of literature, Frye draws on Sidney, Shelley, and Arnold, to name some of the most important examples. That makes him different from many recent critics, but I would argue that it puts him in a particular tradition of literary humanism. (Forgive me for being repetitive: I know that I said something similar in response to one of your posts on desire.)

“Frye was Different”

Northrop Frye

Responding to Merv Nicholson:

Isn’t it the case as well that Frye is different in the attention he devoted to Spirit, especially during the last decade of his life, when he wrote about hardly anything else? There’s a pulsating drive in his late work to get beyond the poetic. The social function of both literature and criticism is, to be sure, a part of his “difference,” and this is an area that younger people interested in Frye might well investigate, as it has not been comprehensively examined. Another area, which relates to Frye as a religious thinker, is his theory of metaphor. As I’ve snooped around in the various writings on metaphor from Aristotle to I.A. Richards, Max Black, and Paul Ricoeur, I don’t find anyone who bases a theory of metaphor on the principle of identity. They all fall back on theories of resemblance or substitution, theories that are founded on the principle of analogy (Blake’s similitude). Frye is different in insisting on what he calls in The Double Vision “imaginative literalism.” Frye on metaphor is another area of his thinking that deserves systematic exploration.

A Reply to Michael Sinding: Literature and Maladjustment


Excellent post, Michael. As Peter Yan noted, every argument implies a counter-argument, and there have been a number of excellent counters to my post on The Extraliterary. It is doubtless an over-reaction on my part, and likely the consequence of passing my days in a seemingly unassailable fortress of cultural studies. As you and others have pointed out, Frye himself was remarkably interdisciplinary, both in his adaptations of thinking in other disciplines and, as Bob emphasizes, in his influence on thinkers in other disciplines.

I like the fact that you emphasize both the need and difficulty of striking a balance when adapting other disciplines to the study of literature. I suppose this is what I find so problematic in cultural studies, which is essentially applied sociology (of the social constructionist variety), but without any grounding of the application in either expertise in sociology or any coherent understanding of the authority of literature in its own right. It is the latter that is most disturbing: the absence of any conception of a vision that transcends ordinary human experience, or rather the denial of the value of any such vision, on doctrinal grounds, as anything other than an imaginary representation of ideology. And this in spite of the fact that Frye’s dialectic of “the world we want and the world we don’t want” is clearly implied in the assumption made by such scholars that the world we live in is more often than not a complete nightmare. It is the arts and literature that provide us with that vision, and so it seems perverse that literary scholars themselves should be engaged in deliberate efforts to obstruct it.

This I think is the point of Merv Nicholson’s vehement insistence on the value Frye gave to desire and how fundamentally he departed from Freud when it came to the latter’s view of the neurotic as someone who just needed to abandon his fantasies and grow up. That Frye himself believed and stated many times that the purpose of a university education was to ensure that the student was maladjusted to his society would come as a great surprise to many of my colleagues.

Mervyn Nicholson: Frye Was Different (2)


Frye was different in many ways.  In this respect, he was like his mentor, William Blake, who has always presented problems, even anxieties, to literary scholars.  Somehow Blake was outside the main current, and Frye sort of is, too.

Frye was different, to begin with, in the fact that he validated human desire.  I noted before that he believed desire was good.  In this, Frye was in opposition to most traditions and unlike most intellectuals.  This difference in attitude has profound significance and profound effects on his thinking generally, but the validation of desire was not the only difference that sets Frye apart.  Another important difference is that he thought a good deal about the question what is the social function of literature.

This is not a question that attracts literary scholars.  It isn’t easy to think of any conference on the topic or anybody who got a SSHRC grant to investigate the question, what is the social function of literature? even though it seems to be a rather obvious question and one of considerable, again obvious, importance.  Frye was different — he thought about this throughout his career.  The question in true Frye fashion points to a prior question, which is: does literature has a social function?  Frye insisted that it does have a social function, and then went on to investigate what that function was.

It is interesting that literary critics have not bothered with either of these questions much.  Critics did talk about this before Frye (a bit, anyway), but after Frye — after his reputation collapsed in the 1970s — no one seems to even notice that it is a question.  Poststructuralism was hardly interested.  Poststructuralism is essentially a denial of value or function to literature — this neutralization is a basic theme of Paul de Man, for example.

The logic of the New Historicism is to deny the existence of a category called ”literature” altogether; there are just texts, and what is called “literature” is just an elitist preference for one text over another.  Since there is no such thing as literature, the whole question of whether it has a function or not is superfluous, even meaningless.  What has been called literature is primarily a display of the preoccupations, prejudices, and anxieties of the author, exactly like any other text

The social function of literature is a difficult topic because it implies the further question, why study literature? (and then, why have English departments?).  In the past, there were theorists who asked what the value of literature is — “value” in the sense of some inherent importance that is realized by the individual reader-consumer of literature, some private benefit.  “Social function” is a different concept, and refers to some purpose in societal terms, not just for the individual.  For Frye, literature has both “value” and “social function,” too.

Early theorists, say Plato, saw literature as a function of delusional desires or as an instrument of instruction or indoctrination.  Aristotle’s Poetics assigns a psychological value to literature in his conception of catharsis: drama resolves difficult emotions by purging them (I. A. Richards and Kenneth Burke are in this “psychological” line before Frye).  Literature may also furnish enjoyment for those with leisure to enjoy such things.  But the standard attitude is that literature, like works of art generally, belongs to an owning elite who control such works, enjoy them, and pay the artists who produce them.  Special people consume the work of art and benefit from it, as well as determining its content.  Literature is a kind of tribute to the owner, an elite gratification.

Out of this model comes the view of literature as an object — an object of consumption — a notion preserved in the tradition that literary criticism is a form of evaluation.  “Critic” after all means “judge.”  The connoisseur-judge consumes the work of art and decides its value, like a wine expert sampling a particular vintage and pronouncing its value, or to use Frye’s wonderful derisive metaphor, like a judge awarding ribbons at a cat show.

What makes Frye so interesting in this context is that he insisted that literature is a social power: it is a power with a social function.  He struggled to formulate or theorize this conviction, that literature participates in the construction of society, above all the construction of a better society.

Thus literature is part of a democratic and emancipatory struggle.  It is inevitably involved in the question, what would a better society be like? and so brings us back to the prior concern, in Frye, the concern of desire, of what we desire—and do not desire.

Again, Frye was different.

Today in the Frye Diaries, 28 September



[131] Three lectures and busting with shit: went home early this afternoon. Then to Havelock’s for a debating society executive meeting, Eric has taken quite a shine to me evidently & he certainly does work hard at debates. They varied between political and local-scandal subjects, suggesting “should formal parties be suspended?” I said it would be more interesting to say “should formal dresses be suspended?” They came to no conclusions but are planning a group of inter-year debates.