Daily Archives: October 4, 2009

Re: Russell Perkin’s Response to “Beyond Suspicion”


It’s interesting, Russell, that we’ve both said in separate posts this past week that the issues we are addressing come down to a matter of “emphasis.”  For you, what needs to be emphasized is that Frye seems “to downplay the difficulty” of achieving what Gadamer characterizes as the “fusion of horizons” between literature and life.  As you go on to observe, “What [Frye] calls anxieties may be the product of painful experience that cannot be readily cast aside.”  Earlier in the week, meanwhile, I said in response to a post by you that what needs to be emphasized is the priority of literary over ideological meaning, of centripetal over centrifugal reference.

It seems therefore that the difference in emphasis really does account for the apparent divide between us.  To my eyes, what you say about ideology, anxiety, and the potential for misrepresentation of a literary text in the classroom (The Taming of the Shrew once again standing duty on the issue) only does an end run around what Frye is trying to get us past.  If we insist on the primacy of ideological anxiety, whatever its source, we only perpetuate that anxiety.  This is what I mean when I say that all of our limitations when it comes to literature are self-imposed.  As Joe illustrates very concretely in his post yesterday, the centripetal direction of literary meaning is the revelation of primary concern, and that is what literature is saying when it is otherwise saying nothing about what we ought, must, are obliged or compelled to believe as a matter of our prevailing ideological anxieties. 

In The Educated Imagination Frye observes that the purpose of a “liberal education” centred around the study of literature is to liberate.  We are, as Blake says, enchained by mind-forged manacles.  The source of our freedom lies in the perception that we ourselves serve interchangably as master and slave, and no verbal context offers such a perception more comprehensivley than literature precisely because it is not ideological in reference, and because it is motivated by concern rather than compelled by anxiety.

You suggest that some “anxieties may be the product of painful experience that cannot be readily cast aside,” and that may very well be true, as far as it goes.  But just because some anxieties cannot be readily cast aside does not mean that they cannot ultimately be cast aside.  None of this is merely given to us.  The human creative endeavor is fraught with our frailty and failings.  But any notion of human “progress” has an implicit teleology, and in Frye’s case it is the revelation of primary concern, which is, like the gestalt of literal metaphor (the centripetal foundation of all verbal meaning), a universal condition that is individually experienced and expressed. 

Apocalypse, says Blake, relates to the perceiver and not to the perceived.  It is the distinction Frye makes in The Great Code between “panoramic” and “participating” apocalypse.  Only the latter is a source of liberation, and that is up to each of us, one at a time, and at just about any time of our choosing.  But first we have to become aware that it is available to us because we are the source of it, as evidenced by our ongoing acts of creation and recreation manifesting the emergence of primary concerns over ideological ones.  And that, evidently, is the “intensified” state of consciousness Frye suggests in Words with Power is the aim of all critical endeavor.  However, our consciousness cannot be so intensified if it stubbornly entangles itself in a state of ideological anxiety, which is as self-defeating as it is self-perpetuating.

Re: “Beyond Suspicion”


Responding to Joe Adamson’s post:

Joe, That was a really helpful post. You state that “it may be difficult to separate an author’s anxieties or ’secondary concerns’ about race, sexuality, or class, for example, from his imaginative vision. It is precisely the job of criticism to make that separation, and to do so means the critic should have and show an awareness of all aspects of an author’s work. It is a murky job for criticism in the case of a writer like Celine or Sade–and there may indeed be writers where it just doesn’t seem possible or worth the candle.” I think the point I was trying to make earlier is that to make that separation there has to be what Gadamer calls a fusion of horizons, a meeting of the world of the text and of the reader. In some situations, that will be difficult if not impossible. Some readers and some texts just don’t work together.

I think the main point where we differ is really one of emphasis. Sometimes Frye seems to me to downplay the difficulty of achieving this fusion of horizons. What he calls anxieties may be the product of painful experience that cannot be readily cast aside. To clarify the point about Shakespeare, it’s not that people are likely to be infected by sexist attitudes as a result of  The Taming of the Shrew, so much as the fact that if that play, or many other works of English literature, were presented for example by a professor unconscious of his own sexist assumptions, then young women in the class may well not be able to get past the ideology of the play. I am old enough to remember classes where things like that happened routinely. (Just as professors used to smoke in class, a fact which usually amazes my students!) But, of course, to allude to a point Michael made, one can imagine a great production of The Taming resisting that sexist ideology by emphasizing the aspects of the play that Michael pointed to. And for different readers or audiences different texts will be unrewarding, not “worth the candle.” For instance, I once read enough of American Psycho to know that I didn’t want to read the whole book.

I agree with you about the excessive privilege granted to the critic in much ideological criticism. And also with what you say about the student not being accorded an independent role. Gerald Graff touches on this in his MLA Presidential address, in the recent PMLA. When professors of literature talk of “training” their students I always suspect that their idea of education is closer to Mao’s than to anything one could describe as liberal.

For an example of a critic who can write about literature in its historical and ideological context and at the same time as literature, I would suggest Geoffrey Hill (pictured above). He is acutely aware of power and history, in both his poetry and his prose , but also of the power of poetry and the imagination. Apparently he is a lifelong Labour voter, but he has been accused of nostalgic conservatism and “kitsch feudalism.” He is for me a major figure, though he seems known mainly to specialists in modern poetry and people who have an affinity for his view of literature. And he does seem to me to be doing the kinds of things you are talking about in your post.

The Social Function of Literature


Thank you so much for your comment, Clayton, in response to my previous post. You ask some big questions: “What does a life look like that has listened to what literature has to say? How does having an educated imagination affect one’s commitments? Or does concern replace commitment?” Any answer I offer here will simply be a stab in the dark, but here goes.

Frye, as you well know, does not assume that an active reader of literature automatically becomes a “good person.” I am reading the Third Book Notebooks right now, and I am struck with the emphasis he puts on education or the “educational contract” over the social contract as informing society and therefore social and political action: in other words, for him, the university is the ideal or Utopian form of society. In one of his previous posts Michael Happy cites Frye’s statement that universities are, or should be the engine room of society. Criticism and literature are, for Frye, a central, indeed perhaps the central part of that engine room, which is the world of the arts and sciences. This world, along with–in a much more complicated way–religion, seem to be the only thing that proves we are something more than “psychotic apes” on a berserk rampage bent on destroying both human society and the earth. I love Michael’s image of the crowbarring and “hacking away that has been done by self-declared iconoclasts and comfortably tenured revolutionists” that in the end have only weakened public support for liberal education, and thus undermined any strong intellectual defence against the very clear and present danger: the increasing privatization of the universities and the very sinister encroachments of corporate capitalism.

In terms of concern and commitment, as you also well know, Frye places ideology (political or religious belief) and  kerygma (spiritual proclamation) on the opposite sides, as it were, of literature, and the lines here tend to blur in certain forms of literature. Obviously, there are more rhetorical forms which aim at persuasion. On the kerygmatic side, in my own field of study, I think of Thoreau, whose Civil Disobedience and Walden are obviously much more prophetic and geared towards informing our actions than something like Poe’s poetry and tales which, if you could ever treat them as prescriptions, would lead you straight to suicide, murder, or a mental institution. A serial killer might read Poe that way, and indeed Poe pops up famously in thrillers and crime fiction precisely in that guise: as a guru for psychopaths. There is a killer in one of Michael Connolly’s novels, for example, who reads Poe “kerygmatically,” if one can use the term in such a context. Fictional though it may be, this is an extreme example of the countless possible illustrations of Milton’s famous statement: “a wise man will make better use of an idle pamphlet than a fool will do of sacred Scripture.”

It is often difficult to find something like a later concept in Frye–one is so often proved wrong–but it is my impression at least that he puts a greater emphasis in his later writings on the prophetic dimension of literature, especially post-romantic literature. Here the prophetic is not conceived of so much as informing a program of action as confronting history with vision. Writers like Dostoyevsky or Kafka seem to leap over their times in their capacity to give us an unsettling vision of the most nihilistic and catastrophic potential in their respective Zeitgeists, as though they had a sixth sense of the cultural fissures that were going to lead straight to the horrors of the Holocaust, concentration camps, and the Gulag.

On the ideological side, as Frye points out, literature is always more or less compromised. In the pre-eighteenth century dispensation the imagination is almost completely constrained by what the calls in The Critical Path a central “myth of concern.” In The Third Book Notebooks, he observes that “ literature, being part (the central part) of the myth of concern, is profoundly impure” (CW 9: 67). According to him, in the post-romantic age this myth of concern breaks down, but slowly, and is still with us to some extent. At the same time, with the ascendancy of science and a liberal myth of freedom the writer is increasingly freed from any central ideological constraint. (This was Melville‘s point in a letter when he said that even Shakespeare for all his truth-telling was constrained by the feudal order of his time, and that “the declaration of independence makes a difference.”) The dark side of this is that ideologies become polarized and you end up with writers like Celine–or “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot/fighting in the Captain’s tower,” as Bob Dylan’s lyric goes– writers whose personal programs of action are often repugnant, at least to those of us who are not authoritarians, anti-Semites or fascist sympathizers. Literature gets both more imaginatively pure (Poe, Mallarme, etc) and messier, if that makes any sense.

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