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.

Yan: I asked you a question a long time ago and I was hoping you would elaborate on it now. In the age of gods the important thing was the story, then the concentration was on the poet, the writer. And now we seem to be in an age where all the importance is laid upon the reader. I asked you if there was a next step. You said, in a cryptic remark, “the reader’s spirit.” What did you mean by that?

Frye: Well, I think that what follows the reader as hero is the consensus magisterium: the generally agreed reaction of critics. I think that there is an underlying consensus among most first-rate critics today. But of course one couldn’t make that an infallible source of knowledge or any­thing like that. It’s just that the hero is a hero not only because he hacks up people but because he is part of an army, and the poet becomes a part of the vision of poetry, of the tradition of poetry, and the reader is a hero because he is a part of the body of instructed and intelligent readers of goodwill.

Yan: You mentioned vision. Does the vision or imagination of the writ­ers of the Bible differ from the writers of literature?

Frye: There is no difference.

Yan: I ask that because in Words with Power I was surprised when you wrote that in terms of a final cause or a program of action or the myths we live by, even Shakespeare didn’t go as far as the Bible does in show­ing what we should be doing.

Frye: I’m trying to distinguish the sacred book, the Bible, from secular literature. That literature is written in the imaginative language of myth and metaphor, but it doesn’t provide a model to adopt as a way of life, whereas the object of the writers of the Gospels writing about Jesus was the imitation of Christ, in the sense that they were telling a story just as the writers of literature tell a story. But the particular story they told was the one that they wanted to make a model of the life of the person read­ing it.

Yan: I’d like to turn to criticism for a second. What happens if we apply your critical principles to your own work: what would show forth? what myths and metaphors would appear?

Frye: Everything I write is a manifestation of my critical principles.

Yan: But what myths would we find? In Words with Power you showed how each section was informed by the myths of Adonis, Hermes, Prometheus, and Eros. What other myths would we find structuring your work?

Frye: I guess there are other forms and structures. I don’t know the entire geography of the imaginative world; if I did criticism would stop with me. What I was investigating was one critical conception, the axis mundi, and looking at its aspects of ascent and descent, above and below.)

Yan: In the introduction to Words with Power, you mention that the wrong thing to do is to keep prodding the educational bureaucracy. What can you say to a student who becomes depressed after being caught in a processed education?

frye: Well, they are. There is no easy answer to that. I think the basis of that is quantitative. There are just too many students and too few teachers. There are some students who want to be processed and other students who want to flow through school and not have any­thing much happen to them. It seems to me it has to be, to some degree, up to the students because teaching does not work by magic. There has to be some kind of effort on the part of the student to find out what there is that he wants to know and is still lacking from what he is getting.

Yan: You edited two works on literature, The Practical Imagination and Literature: Uses of the Imagination. Have they had the effect you wanted? Are the teachers grounded enough in literary theory to use them?

Frye: That’s the trouble. There were a lot of teachers who were very enthusiastic about them but there aren’t enough good teachers in the country. Some of the publishers thought they would make more money and make it faster by going back to the old hodgepodge textbooks that they had.

Yan: Can criticism guide education? Can we start teaching it as early as kindergarten?

Frye: I imagine that the world of explanation is a very limited one at the kindergarten level. It’s a matter of getting youngsters to read things and see things for themselves, tell their own stories, paint their own pictures, and so forth. And then as they get older they get more and more of the sense of the rationale behind this.

Yan: You said that the problem with teaching is that teachers themselves aren’t aware of their own social conditioning. How can they teach stu­dents to be aware if they themselves aren’t?

Frye: You can teach what you don’t know, or at least you can teach what you are not aware of knowing because you don’t know anything else.

Yan: So, that’s where understanding starts, in misunderstanding?

Frye: Yes. I think I quoted a woman writer in Winnipeg as saying that a lot of teachers are attracted to teaching because it gives them a captive audience to whom they can hand over their certainties. Everybody has had teachers like that and everybody knows there are no certainties of that kind. You just get a handful of what really amount to prejudices and find it easier to hand it on to young people who can’t talk back.

* Aristotle’s theory of causation: i) formal cause is that into which something is made, 2) efficient cause is that by which something is made, 3) material causeis that out of which something is made, 4) final cause is that for the sake of which something is made (from Aristotle for Everybody, by Mortimer J. Adler). Bertrand Russell provides a clear example of what Aristotle means:

Let us take again the man who is making a statue. The material cause of the statue is the marble, the formal cause is the essence of the statue to be produced, the efficient cause is the contact of the chisel with the mar­ble, and the final cause is the end that the sculptor has in view (A His­tory of Western Philosophy).

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One thought on “The Final Interview: 29 November 1990

  1. Adam James Bradley

    Peter, Thank you for posting this. It was nice to have an account from Frye himself regarding his own work. So much of what we do is speculation that it is a relief to be given a break from the familiar processes of analysis.

    My question regards Aristotle’s four causes: Is this not a model for critical harmony? The current antagonism in criticism seems to fall in the space between the material cause and the final cause. If we follow the development of this theory from Aristotle through Russell and Frye and then through Critical Theory, does this not fulfill Aristotle’s vision, if only with regard to criticism? It seems quite reasonable that if “the the efficient cause is the writer, and the material cause is his life experiences,” then doesn’t it follow that the material cause, which in Frye’s response to Peter is the shape of the poem (structure and metaphor), which means that the final cause becomes critical theory?

    It seems to me that Aristotle, Russell and Frye offer a pretty good pedigree to get behind, and since every critical theory class I ever took started with Aristotle’s poetics, I believe that a critical theorist would have a difficult time refuting how the two different critical disciplines work in concert within this framework; although I’m sure they would try to convince me the reason I am trying to find unity among criticism is some cultural demon that has overtaken my sensibilities, but that is their job, and their final cause. I don’t think that willing participation is a pre-requisite for this framework to operate, and I wonder if rejection of the premise of this theory is a necessary step in truly becoming the final cause; unwilling participation that satisfies the requirements of that participation. At any rate, I think there is a lot of substance in this theory and it never ceases to amaze me how predictable we turned out to be to a man wearing a toga three thousand years ago. It make me feel connected yet insignificant, which is kind of like experiencing both the material and final cause all at once.


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