Daily Archives: October 5, 2009

The Final Interview: 29 November 1990


The following is the final interview with Northrop Frye, by Peter Yan, one of our regular bloggers and then a reporter for The Varsity. The interview is introduced by Peter’s commentary:

Anyone with a surname spelled like mine is used to being last. Of course, I never expected to conduct what would turn out to be the last interview with Frye. His secretary, Jane Widdicombe, at the time said he was sick and had interview requests the “length of my arm”. Widdicombe said she would ask but not to expect anything.

Despite his ill-health, Frye acceded to my request because I was writing for students and a lay public, his favourite audience. On the day of the interview, I recall knocking on his office door with trepidation, an Evian bottle in hand for him, thinking I am about to interview one of the most brilliant men to ever grace this planet. What if he calls me ‘stupid’? Do I have enough money for the therapy sessions to recover from that?

Frye never called me stupid. But I am sure at least one of my questions irritated him. After the interview, he did pay me the favor of autographing about 10 of his books for me. I remember him adoring the cover of his latest, Myth and Metaphor, which he had not seen yet.

The interview was one of the most nerve wracking of my life, right up there with filing my first income tax return, getting my driver’s license and getting married. I remember his final words to me, raising the Evian bottle to me: “Thanks for the lubrication”.

Yan: I want to talk about education because there is so much teacher-bashing going on right now. You mention that a theory of literature should lead to a theory of education because a theory of literature will tell you indirectly what kind of books to read. In your theory of litera­ture what would be your implied theory of education?

Frye: It’s pretty complicated. I have written several books on the theory of education, what I would consider the fight from the beginning to the end for the central importance of the humanities in education, and within the humanities for the central importance of poetry, going out from poetry to literary prose. So much teaching of English backs into it the wrong way: starting out by trying to write various forms of applied prose and often not getting to poetry at all.

Yan: In your work you often refer to Aristotle’s four causes.* Is there a correspondence between the four causes of literature and education? If the efficient cause is the writer, and the material cause is his life experi­ences, what are the formal and final causes of literature?

Frye: The formal cause is the shape of the poem he produces and the final cause is the culture to which it contributes.

Yan: Does the writer define that culture and decide what the final cause would be?

Frye: Oh, he doesn’t decide—he inherits it. He has no choice in the matter.

Yan: The writer inherits it from the work of previous poets?

Frye: Just from being what he is: the fact that he is going to write in his own language with the previous poets in that language as his models.

Yan: I was trying to see if there is a link between the causes of literature and the causes of the educational process. What do you think are the four causes in the educational process?

Frye: I don’t know—I suppose the efficient cause of education is teaching, the material cause is the books read and the subjects studied in education, the formal cause would be the educated man, and the final cause is the vision of which education is a part.

Yan: In answer to the critics reading Fearful Symmetry who said they couldn’t tell where you started and ended and where Blake started and ended, you mentioned that was a good thing because when teaching Blake the only person who deserved to be in the room was Blake and the students. Who is in the room or what is happening in the room when you teach the Bible and literature?

Frye: Well, I suppose it is the same general principle. It is the vision which constitutes the Bible which is the one presence in the room. But you put it in orthodox terms by saying only the presence of Jesus Christ is in the room. That suggests a dogmatic approach, an attachment or belief not really relevant. If I’m teaching Blake I don’t necessarily believe in Blake. It’s the same thing here. I wouldn’t want that misunderstanding to crop up. But we’re looking at the same thing: the vision which constitutes the Bible is the presence.

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Maslow and More


Responding to Russell Perkin’s Celebrity Critics:

Your post reminded me of the last popular critic who had a bestseller on the NY Times List, Harold Bloom, the disciple of Frye, more akin to Judas than Peter. (Frye did say he disliked disciples, as one will betray you anyways.)

The Invention of the Human and The Western Canon were huge and had great implications for literature and literary critics.

I have been reading Terry Eagleton, and he is not my cup of tea. Not only did I feel he misrepresented Frye in his Literary Theory potboiler; he also took many riffs off of Frye. Read Frye’s “Polemical Introduction” in the Anatomy and compare it to Eagleton’s introduction of Literary Theory. Eagleton has a similar outline, if not the arguments.

I feel he made his critical mark, like other critics, by knocking Frye, in a classic David versus Goliath. I still think Eagleton and critics like him turned out to be the real Philistines.

In Response to Russell Perkin’s RE: “Beyond Suspicion”:

The Fusion of Text and Reader and Guilty Pleasures:

As for the fusion of text and reader, Frye speaks of this fusion in Words with Power: to paraphrase, just by reading, we are resurrecting from the past into the present, the work, the speaking voice, in the site of the reader. The centre of the logos is in the reader, not under the text, and changes place with the Logos at the circumference which encloses both.

Existential Projection: Frye noted in The Practical Imagination that it is difficult to read from the point of view of an evil character. Put another way, our reading habits/personal ideology, will not allow us to become in Iser’s phrase, the ideal reader in a work like American Psycho, to walk in that character’s shoes so to speak. Coming from the other direction, one of my guilty pleasures is a song by Nine Inch Nails which I enjoy, but then my ideology/reading habits and superego come in to censor my id, to cancel that enjoyment. It’s a cognitive dissonance not unlike eating something you are not supposed to.

Should we just trust the imagination when we merge with the text to protect us and pull us out after our reading?

In response to Joe Adamson’s The Social Function of Literature:

The Authority of Literature and the Arts:

Short Answer: Literature shows us the world we want (comedy and quest romance) and the world we don’t want (tragedy, irony, satire).

Long Answer: At the risk of sounding glib, for my younger students who could not read Words with Power or understand primary and secondary concerns, I point to Abram Maslow’s needs of life. The authority of literature is to remind us of the needs for life. Every story shows these needs either being fulfilled or denied/subordinated. Usually my students watch their favourite movie and report on the following checklist whether these needs are fulfilled or denied.

1. Physical Needs (movement, food/air/water, reproduction/family, clothing, shelter, property, technology and money).

2. Safety

3. Love/Belonging

4. Self-Esteem

5. Cognitive needs (need to know)

6. Aesthetic needs (need for beauty/art)

7. Humour/Optimism

8. Self-Actualization (power to help oneself)

9 Transcendence (power to help others).

I once had a parent angry that I screened the Eminem movie 8 Mile (13 kilometres in Canada), saying it was crap. After giving her the list, she understood what art does as a whole, even popular art.

As Frye says, his ideas are for the average 15 or 19 year old. A vision of heaven, anagogy, should be open to anyone with a imagination.

The interesting thing is that Maslow’s Needs are most often taught in high school marketing/business courses to brainwash the public.

It’s time that literature reclaimed the imagination, showing how advertising is applying literature’s disinterested vision of an ideal world.

[Eminem’s Lose Yourself after the break.]

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Expanded Consciousness


This engaging discussion has led Joe––in his third answer to what for Frye is the function of literature in society––to what I see as the punch line in Frye, the notion of expanded consciousness that comes from vision.  Frye has a compelling account of this and other matters in his essay, “Literary and Linguistic Scholarship in a Postliterate World,” where he says, after giving his familiar example of metaphorical identification in the Palaeolithic cave drawings, “Later we find the metaphorical imagination expanding into the worlds of dream, belief, vision, fantasy, ideas, as well as human society and nature, and annexing them all to the enlarging consciousness” (“The Secular Scripture” and Other Writings on Critical Theory, CW 18, 294).  [This comes from the volume Joe and Jean Wilson edited, which is, I think, the richest collection of Frye’s essays on critical theory.]

In the 1970s Frye often wrote about what he called the four levels of awareness, but “awareness” as a category tends to disappear from the writings in the last decade of his life, having been replaced by “consciousness.”   This word is often modified by “enlarged,” “expanded,” and “intensified.”  The cave drawings at Lascaux, Altamira, and elsewhere are an example of what Lévy-Bruhl called participation mystique, the imaginative identification with things, including other people, outside the self, or an absorption of one’s consciousness with the natural world into an undifferentiated state of archaic identity.   In such a process of metaphorical identification the subject and object merge into one, but the sense of identity is existential rather than verbal (See Words with Power, 250, and Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 2:503).

But what does the “intensity or expansion of consciousness” entail for Frye?  This is a somewhat slippery phrase to get hold of because Frye reflects on the implications of the phrase only obliquely.  But several years ago I nevertheless tried to set down some of the chief features of “expanded consciousness.”  It came out like this:

1.  It is a function of kerygma.  Ordinary rhetoric “seldom comes near the primary concern of ‘How do I live a more abundant life?’  This latter on the other hand is the central theme of all genuine kerygmatic, whether we find it in the Sermon on the Mount, the Deer Park Sermon of Buddha, the Koran, or in a secular book that revolutionizes our consciousness.  In poetry anything can be juxtaposed, or implicitly identified with, anything else.  Kerygma takes this a step further and says: ‘you are what you identify with.’  We are close to the kerygmatic whenever we meet the statement, as we do surprisingly often in contemporary writing, that it seems to be language that uses man rather than man that uses language” (Words with Power, 116).

2.  It does not necessarily signify religion or a religious experience, but it can be “the precondition for any ecumenical or everlasting-gospel religion” (Late Notebooks, 1:17).

3.  Whatever the techniques used to expand consciousness (for example, yoga, Zen, psychosynthesis, meditation, drugs), or whatever forms it takes (for example, dreams, fantasies, the “peak experiences” described by Maslow, ecstatic music), the language of such consciousness always turns out to be metaphorical.  Thus literature is the guide to higher consciousness, just as Virgil was Dante’s guide to the expanded vision represented by Beatrice (Late Notebooks, 2:717; Words with Power, 28–9).  Still, Frye believes that language is the primary means of “intensifying consciousness, lifting us into a new dimension of being altogether” (LN, 2:717).

4. “Vision” is the word that best fits the heightened awareness that comes with the imagination’s opening of the doors of perception.  What the subject sees may be “only an elusive and vanishing glimpse.  Glimpse of what?  To try to answer this question is to remove it to a different category of experience.  If we knew what it was, it would be an object perceived in time and space.  And it is not an object, but something uniting the objective with ourselves” (Words with Power, 83).

5.  The principle behind the epiphanic experience that permits things to be seen with a special luminousness is that “things are not fully seen until they become hallucinatory.  Not actual hallucinations, because those would merely substitute subjective for objective visions, but objective things transfigured by identification with the perceiver.  An object impregnated, so to speak, by a perceiver is transformed into a presence” (Words with Power, 88).

6.  Intense consciousness does not sever one from the body or the physical roots of experience.  “The word spiritual in English may have a rather hollow and booming sound to some: it is often detached from the spiritual body and made to mean an empty shadow of the material, as with churches who offer us spiritual food that we cannot eat and spiritual riches that we cannot spend.  Here spirit is being confused with soul, which traditionally fights with and contradicts the body, instead of extending bodily experience into another dimension.  The Song of Songs . . . is a spiritual song of love: it expresses erotic feeling on all levels of consciousness, but does not run away from its physical basis or cut off its physical roots.  We have to think of such phrases as ‘a spirited performance’ to realize that spirit can refer to ordinary consciousness at its most intense: the gaya scienza, or mental life as play. . . . Similar overtones are in the words esprit and Geist” (Words with Power, 128).  Or again, St. John of the Cross makes “a modulation from existential sex metaphor (M2) to existential expanding of consciousness metaphor (M1)” (Late Notebooks, 120).  As in Aufhebung, things lifted to another level do not cancel their connection to the previous level: “M2” is still present at the higher level.  Chapter 6 (“The Garden”) of Words with Power “is concerned partly, if not mainly, with getting over the either-or antithesis between the spiritual and the physical, Agape love and Eros love” (Late Notebooks, 2:451).  Again, “spiritual love expands from the erotic and does not run away from it” (Words with Power, 224).

7.  Intensified consciousness is represented by images of both ascent and descent: “images of ascent are connected with the intensifying of consciousness, and images of descent with the reinforcing of it by other forms of awareness, such as fantasy or dream.  The most common images of ascent are ladders, mountains, towers, and trees; of descent, caves or dives into water” (Words with Power, 151).  These images, which arrange themselves along the axis mundi, are revealed with exceptional insight in some of Frye’s most powerfully perceptive writing, the last four chapters of Words with Power.  In these concentrated chapters Frye illustrates how four central archetypes connect the ordinary world to the world of higher consciousness: the mountain and the cave emphasizing wisdom and the word, and the garden and the furnace emphasizing love and the spirit.

8.  Expanded consciousness is both individual and social.

9.  The raising of consciousness is revelation (Late Notebooks, 1:61).