Yves St. Cyr: The Quotable Northrop Frye


Selected Quotes from Interviews with Northrop Frye, ed. Jean O’Grady, U of Toronto P, 2008

This superb collection of 111 interviews, compiled and edited by Jean O’Grady as part of the Collected Works, brings together for the first time all surviving records of Frye interviews from television, film, radio, conferences, journals, and magazines.  The range of topics covered includes literature; theory of literary criticism; Canadian culture, arts, and media; pedagogical theory (pre-school, primary, secondary, and university); the Bible and religion; and autobiographical reminiscences.  Below, I offer a selection of quotations from the collection, variously chosen on the basis of eloquence, wit, or erudition.  My hope is that these teasers will prompt those who follow this blog to purchase or borrow their own copies of Interviews with Northrop Frye, thus enriching our collective and on-going effort to understand Frye’s mind and character.

On the definition of terms (4):

Sinclair: […] are you prepared to offer us a definition of conversation?

Frye: Certainly not, Mr. Chairman.  A literary critic of experience never defines anything.


On Canadian poetry (298):

Cook: What would make a poem Canadian? […] If it was full of pine trees, as the paintings of the Group of Seven are, would that make it Canadian?

Frye: No, and neither do pine trees in the Group of Seven. […] You’re not being Australian if you write a story about a boomerang and a kangaroo, and you’re not being Canadian if you write about a Mountie and a beaver.

On the argument that universities have to be ‘relevant’ (300):

My opinion of that argument is something that would involve some mechanical interference with this program.

On graduate teaching (301, 597, 644):

I can only reconcile myself to graduate teaching by treating them exactly like undergraduates.


On the CBC (304):

We seem to keep coming back to some kind of gigantic amoeba in the middle of the CBC.  That is, a large coagulated mass of primitive life, which seems to be blocking every kind of creative endeavour.

On autobiography (316):

…everything I write I consider autobiography, although nobody else would.

On underestimating one’s audience (341):

Oliver: …I recall Johnny Bassett once telling me that one should pitch one’s TV scripts at the level of a Saskatchewan farmer.

Frye: I had a mission field one summer in Saskatchewan and I got a rather high impression of the intelligence of Saskatchewan farmers.

On Québec separatism (353):

My own view is that culturally [Canadians are] all instinctively separatists.

On the ‘Frye in the sky’ painting hanging in the E.J. Pratt Library (361):

I don’t particularly like that picture of me.  There are jokes about Frye having no visible means of support.

On Jungian archetypes (406-407, see also 779):

I didn’t really realize at the time [of the writing of Anatomy of Criticism] how much Jung had cornered the field with his use of archetype in his own highly idiosyncratic sense.  Jung is a psychologist whose private myth is a myth of individuation […].  [W]hen you move from the ego to the individual, a number of autonomous forces are let loose in the psyche, and these he calls archetypes.  He knows how to use illustrative material from literature in such a way as to suggest that the whole of literature is a gigantic allegory of the Jungian individuation process.  Well, that’s all right – that’s his business.  It’s his own use of archetype; it’s not mine.

On literacy (407-408, see also 690, 747, 748):

Cowan: There is a lot of talk about a crisis in literacy.  Do you think there is such a thing?

Frye: I hope so.  I think there’s always a crisis in literacy. […] [T]he humanities always have their backs to the wall. […] The teaching of literature is a militant activity.  It’s carried on in the teeth of ignorance and stupidity and prejudice.

On Pelham Edgar (413):

When I was an undergraduate I had a teacher, Pelham Edgar, who had X-ray eyes, and he took one look at me and decided I had to write a paper on Blake for his seminar.

On Anatomy of Criticism’s Polemical Introduction (414):

I thought the only way to get into this action was to start a long preliminary bombardment.  When the British army did that at Gallipoli it was a disaster, but I think that in intellectual circles it is probably the best procedure.


On becoming a University Professor (441):

It gets me out of departmental meetings, for one thing.  I always feel that the university is a very paradisal community if you cut out meetings.

On the possibility of extra-terrestrial life (447):

It would be discouraging to think that the mob of psychotic monkeys on this planet is the best that the universe is capable of as far as sentient life goes.

On university efficiency (606):

I don’t think the university ought to be an efficient organization […]; it’s misconceived its whole aim and social function if it is.

On the reception of The Great Code (680):

I think the twentieth century, brutal and bloody as it is, is perhaps the first century in which I could write a book like The Great Code.  In the sixteenth century I would have been burned alive by the first person who got hold of me, whether Catholic or Protestant.  The seventeenth century wouldn’t be very different.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a book as uncommitted as mine sounds would have raised a tremendous storm of irrelevant emotions.

On obvious questions (699):

Frye: I feel the image invoked by other [verbal] formulations would be coloured by the differences in those other formulations.

Esrock: Want to comment on what it means to be ‘coloured by’?

Frye: Well, a red image is different from a green image.

Esrock: That’s cheating.

Frye: Is it?

On the relationship between thought and language (746):

[Students] have to learn that ideas do not exist until they have been incorporated into words.  Until that point you don’t know whether you are pregnant or just have gas on the stomach.

On discipleship (848):

…my influence is one thing, and I hope a good thing: discipleship, with its routine of did-he-really-say-this-or-that disputes, seems to be tedious, not to say sinister.

On the death of God (871):

…you can never get rid of God as long as you continue to use words, because all words are part of the Word. […] A part of the consciousness which we’ve been stuck with as human beings.

On prying questions (871):

Rasky: I wonder if I would be prying if I said, Does Northrop Frye talk to God?

Frye: Yes.

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One thought on “Yves St. Cyr: The Quotable Northrop Frye

  1. Clayton Chrusch

    At the risk of being provocative, let me ask if am I the only one to think that Frye’s use of the word archetype is his single biggest error in judgement as a literary theorist, possibly one of the biggest errors of judgement in literary studies of all time, on par with the loss of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy?

    Not only does no one know what the word means, not only is Frye’s meaning overwhelmed by and confused with other closely related meanings, but the sheer Greekness and thus foreignness of the word lends it to easy dismissal.

    The word convention would have been so much more acceptable, so much harder to attack, so much harder to misconstrue, and in particular would make it clear from the beginning that literature is a human and social construct.

    This last point, which Frye himself insists on may seem at first blush like a capitulation to the determinists, but in fact it undermines their accusation against Frye of essentialism (whatever that means) while exposing their own attempts to impose determinism on literature as an attempt to impose determinism on human beings.

    Am I wrong?


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