A Reply to Michael Sinding: Literature and Maladjustment

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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.

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