Daily Archives: October 6, 2009

From Sophocles to Spielberg


In a previous post I used Frye’s idea of literary scholarship as proceeding from an “inductive survey” of the subject to argue that, in the field of Victorian studies, we should still be teaching such classics as Vanity Fair or Bleak House.  I was using Frye’s criticism to defend a particular canon of Victorian literature, a goal that might be seen as conservative in nature.  Here I want to argue something rather different, and apparently contradictory (in the spirit of the “both/and” logic recommended previously on this blog), namely to show how using Frye to think about my Introduction to Literature course encouraged me to incorporate a contemporary popular movie, namely Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, an action that superficially might seem to locate me in the cultural studies camp.  By writing in some detail about how I teach a specific course, I hope to continue, if obliquely, the theoretical discussion of the last week or two.

On the one hand, just as the literary scholar needs to make an inductive survey, so, in some reduced way, ought the student.  On the other hand, if all of literature has certain fundamental structural properties, then in a sense it doesn’t really matter what texts you study, or where you start.  And so in a first-year course I don’t really worry about how much we cover.  I always begin with Oedipus the King, for reasons which by now probably have more to do with superstition than anything else – rather like always wearing the same shirt for a 10K road race.  And I do proceed in a largely chronological order.  But after that it is a matter of choosing some texts that I hope at least most of the students will be engaged by, and that I can use to illustrate the way that literature can be analyzed in terms of structure and texture, or in Frye’s words, myth and metaphor.

The course outline for my most recent Introduction to Literature course tried to articulate the goals of the course to the students as follows: “We will study literary works of a variety of different kinds (plays, lyric poems, short stories, a novel, and a film) and from a variety of periods, from ancient Greece to contemporary North America, by artists from Sophocles to Steven Spielberg, from about 429 BCE to 2005.  The course is designed to develop the ability to read and think critically, and it will emphasize (i) the structural principles which literary works have in common; (ii) the need for close reading of literary texts in order to identify the distinctive features of any given text.”  My “theoretical approach” adopts Aristotle’s generic categories (as does the Norton Introduction to Literature) and draws heavily on Frye along with an eclectic range of other critics and theorists.  It didn’t take many years of teaching to discover that Frye was a very reliable guide when trying to work out how to teach the basic principles of literary study.  Some of the other theorists I was enamoured of in graduate school were less helpful; I remember a friend who was teaching her first course as a TA in the late 1980s saying to me, “I set out to deconstruct the students’ liberal humanist notions about literature, and then I discovered that they didn’t have any.”

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A Summary of Chapter One of Fearful Symmetry: The Case Against Locke


Clayton Chrusch has generously provided us with a lucid summary of the first five chapters of Fearful Symmetry; hopefully, a complete summary of the book is in the offing. We begin today with chapter one, and will make a weekly posting of each of the next four chapters.

Fearful Symmetry Chapter One: The Case against Locke

“The world we desire is more real than the world we passively accept.”

1. Blake wanted his poetry to be understood.

Frye’s project is to produce a commentary on William Blake’s poetry and thought. Partly this means placing Blake in his context: Blake is original, but he is emphatically part of a tradition, and it is important to set out what that tradition is. This also means placing the emphasis where Blake himself spent most of his creative effort: Blake is known for his short lyrics, but his long, difficult poems called “prophecies” form the largest part of his work, and Frye thus focuses on them. Though the prophetic works are difficult, Blake did not make them deliberately obscure. On the contrary, he wanted them to be understood. Energetic, determined readers will be able to understand these poems and will be richly rewarded.

Blake was a poet, and his poems should be treated as poetry and not as a veiled form of something else. Blake is a visionary, not a mystic or occultist. Blake parts ways with mystics in his belief in the power of words, a power that is not just expressive but also creative. He parts ways with occultists in his rejection of mystery. Positively speaking, a visionary like Blake perceives this world “with a new intensity of symbolism.” Blake was an artist first, before any spiritual commitments, and he pragmatically and irreverently used the spiritual world as a source of energy and material. Nevertheless Blake was a Christian and his views develop out of his Christianity.

2. Learning to read poetry means learning the language of poetry.

Blake adopted the Elizabethan view that the greatest poetry is allegorical. This allegory must be “addressed to the Intellectual powers” rather than “the Corporeal Understanding.” The corporeal understanding is understanding that is merely an explanation. If a poem means no more than its explanation, then it should have been written as an explanation in the first place. The “Intellectual powers,” on the other hand, refer to the acquired discipline of reading poetry as poetry. This discipline is founded on the principle that a poem is an imaginative unit. Learning this discipline means learning the language of poetry so that poetry no longer has to be translated into an explanation in order to be understood. Blake can teach us this language because he makes a corporeal understanding of his poems very difficult. But once we learn this poetic language, we will experience much greater pleasure in reading literature.

Frye also brings up Blake’s supposed madness. Madness must be understood as a “sterile, chaotic, and socially useless deviation from normal behavior.” In this sense, a creative genius like Blake is immeasurably saner than a commonplace mind.

3. Blake was a consistent thinker.

Blake was extremely consistent in his principles, and believed strongly in “obstinacy in maintaining what he believed to be true.” Not only was he consistent but he went to great pains to engrave and illustrate a carefully selected subset of his poems. These then should be considered as an official and unified canon in which we can expect to find a common structure of ideas. Blake set these ideas out very early in two series of aphorisms: All Religions Are One and There is No Natural Religion. These aphorisms deal largely with Blake’s theory of knowledge, and so the rest of this chapter will attempt to explain this theory–Blake’s epistemology.

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