“The Bondage of History”

robarts

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.

Joe raises the question of the cause of the resistance to Frye’s work.  Paradoxically, as Joe says, Frye was too theoretical for many in the period before the rise of alternative theoretical approaches.  Later, as many of these approaches coalesced around a set of political commitments and the practice of the hermeneutics of suspicion, I think the problem was Frye’s opposition of the world of the literary imagination, “the order of words,” to what he calls at the end of the Anatomy “the bondage of history.”  This went against the most fundamental assumptions of ideological criticism.  I can clearly remember one friend of mine reading that passage in the “Tentative Conclusion” and declaring, from the perspective of Frankfurt School Marxism, that it summed up everything that is wrong with Frye.  Here is the whole quotation: “It seems better to try to get clear of all such conflicts, attaching ourselves to Arnold’s other axiom that ‘culture seeks to do away with classes.’  The ethical purpose of a liberal education is to liberate, which can only mean to make one capable of conceiving society as free, classless, and urbane.  No such society exists, which is one reason why a liberal education must be deeply concerned with works of the imagination.  The imaginative element in works of art, again, lifts them clear of the bondage of history.  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” (Anatomy of Criticism 347-48).

In my copy of the Anatomy, I have argued with myself about that passage for twenty-five years.  It is interesting that Frye begins the paragraph with a reference to Matthew Arnold’s goal of a classless society.  But in Culture and Anarchy Arnold is more sceptical about the value of culture than Frye is here.  For Arnold “Hellenism,” the pursuit of sweetness and light, is always balanced by “Hebraism,” the pursuit of righteousness, and no sooner has he argued in favour of the greater need for Hellenism in Victorian England than he is maintaining that Hebraism is really more important.  Similarly, John Henry Newman’s great defence of liberal education abruptly turns on itself, declaring that the goal of liberal education is the production of a gentleman, and that the gentleman at his best simulates the true Christian: “it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain.”  However, Newman continues, there is a radical difference between the two: “The world is content with setting right the surface of things; the Church aims at regenerating the very depths of the heart. She ever begins with the beginning; and, as regards the multitude of her children, is never able to get beyond the beginning, but is continually employed in laying the foundation.”

Northrop Frye, a much truer liberal than Arnold, takes the most socially radical element from Culture and Anarchy, the pursuit of a classless society, and he changes the meaning of “liberal education” from its etymological sense of an education appropriate to a free man to the transformative sense of an education that aims to produce a free man (or woman).  And unlike Newman, he regards that education, and the culture with which it is concerned, as sufficient for the purposes of liberation; religion is not something separate, different, and primary, as it is in Newman.

Frye offers the best defence of the study of poetry that I know; his work is an invaluable resource for my own teaching; but I always come back to the question of how far I can accept his optimism about the power of literary culture.  And that I suppose is the source of my dissent from Mervyn Nicholson’s discussion of Frye and desire.  Deanne Bogdan articulates my doubts in a fine essay in The Legacy of Northrop Frye where she discusses her realization “that literary experience could be negative as well as positive.”  I hope that further discussion can pursue this point.  I want to come back to it myself from a more pragmatic angle in a future discussion of how Frye influences my Introduction to Literature course.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

1 thought on ““The Bondage of History”

  1. Jonathan Allan

    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

    Reply

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*