Daily Archives: October 16, 2009

Re: Big Picture


Responding to Michael Sinding:

Your points are well taken, Michael.  And it is true that in the comparatively small Frye community, it is easy enough to find a measure of regret about how things have spun out over the last 30 years or so.  Speaking for myself, I was an undergrad when the revolution was fully under way, and I watched as it swept everything out of its path in very short order by appealing to the worst in the academic character, especially the sense of superiority and entitlement.  When I returned years later as a grad student, it was easy to see what had been lost and at what cost.  In your post you describe what sound like small gains — the return of a measure of sanity here and there in an intellectual landscape that has been otherwise ravaged (as you put it at one point, by people who were “brilliant” but “wrong”).  The result is that it’s almost like we are called upon to rediscover fire and reinvent the wheel.  It’s not that there are no good ideas out there, it’s that they do not really compensate for the bad ones that have caused a whole generation of scholars to behave as though, if not actually believe that, literature has no value in itself.  That’s always what set Frye apart: his sure understanding that literature is autonomous and possesses its own unique authority — and, yeah, that authority is “timeless” in the sense that it is constant, even as the literary imagination omnivorously reprocesses whatever cultural, sociological, ideological and historical phenomena that confront it.  I can’t think of anyone else who comes close to asserting as much so consistently, let alone expressing it comprehensively in an extended body of work.

One last point: Frye was not merely superseded during the post-structuralist realignment, he was pushed aside with what can only be taken as shows of bad faith through misreading and misrepresentation.  Russell Perkin’s citation yesterday of Frye’s note to Bob Denham on the enumerative bibliography illustrates the point nicely.  Frye, of course, saw what was going on and often seemed baffled by it, as though he believed that at any moment people would regain their senses.  In one of the late notebooks, he wonders with uncharacteristic despair, “Why am I so revered but so ignored?”  Why indeed?  Frye was a much more revolutionary literary theorist than any who succeeded him because, unlike them, he drew upon the authority of literature itself, knowing that the literary is primary and other verbal structures are secondary derivations.  Like the derivative “instruments” that almost collapsed the financial system last year, the derivative “discourse” of the last generation has denied the public its birthright: the responsible management of an imaginative heritage that not only confronts social injustice in unmistakable terms but empowers us to overcome it.  We need only accept the invitation our shared heritage extends, and to do that we have to recognize the nature of the invitation being offered.  Frye was able to do this — and able to express it in a way that inspires others, as Bob’s post of student testimonials today suggests.  As it turned out, not many other theorists could do the same, and what they couldn’t do became the basis of what literary scholarship was subsequently obliged to do.

Comment Re: Sokal Hoax


One of our readers, Alan, in response to Michael Sinding’s post, makes this observation about the Sokal hoax:

Thanks for the link to Berube – he is now on my Google Reader list – though his comparison of the Sokal hoax to Pons-Fleischmann is fatuous, so I distrust him automatically; Pons-Fleischmann set off a firestorm of skepticism (I remember, I was there) in the scientific community, which is neither so gullible, nor so in love with false scientific legitimation, as the cultural studies community. Sokal went beyond his original hoax and produced further devastating critiques of many in the ‘theory’ community (never Derrida, though, if I recall).

Michael Sinding: Big Picture


I’ve got some remarks on the interesting recent discussions about literary theory, cultural studies & new historicism, social aspects of literature, and the like. These remarks started out small but grew rapidly, as remarks are wont to do if they’re not nipped in the bud.

I agree about some of the problems in literary studies today diagnosed by others here. You do seem often to get, as Joe Adamson suggests, an assumption that ethical issues are cut and dried, that it’s obvious what the right opinions or ideologies are, and that they should be monitored. The critical work then gets highly political, without being highly ethical: they’re not interested in thinking about, say, how a text might complicate ideas about what’s right and wrong and why, just in castigating the wrong-thinkers and praising the right-thinkers.

And I would agree with Russell Perkin that cultural studies and new historicist critics do pay a lot of attention to the social function of literature. The thing is, they tend to have quite a narrow notion of that social function—essentially, as Joe says, that literature is a ‘shill for the establishment’. Often it’s just assumed, but here’s Franco Moretti putting it baldly, in Signs Taken for Wonders (1983, rpt. 2005): “let us say that the substantial function of literature is to secure consent. To make individuals feel ‘at ease’ in the world they happen to live in, to reconcile them in a pleasant and imperceptible way to its prevailing cultural norms. This is the basic hypothesis” (27). Moretti is a brilliant guy, but still. Why is the hypothesis so narrow, and basically wholly negative? Literature is just another kind of mystification. He may have changed his views since this book, but throughout, there is no hint that there is any other social function, or any other function at all. And it seems in line with views that persist today.

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Frye as Teacher


In the course of editing Frye’s Diaries––more than a decade ago now––I sought to identify the more than 1,200 people whose names crop up in the diary entries.  I corresponded with a number of these people, most of whom were his students at Victoria College in the 1940s and 1950s.  To take one year as an example, I wrote to seventy‑eight people who made an appearance in the 1949 diary: fifty‑nine responded.  I would ordinarily inquire of all those I wrote whether they remembered the occasion mentioned by Frye, and I would usually invite them to provide some biographical information about themselves and to share their memories of Frye as a person and teacher.  I often requested the correspondents to help identify others mentioned in the diaries.  I was interested in learning specific details in order to annotate the Diaries, but my invitation to the correspondents to reflect on their experiences with Frye and on the Victoria College scene at the time would help me, I hoped, to reconstruct the social landscape on campus during the seven years covered in the Diaries.  The correspondents were generous in their responses.  The more than one hundred replies I received, many quite extensive, provide a rather remarkable body of reminiscence.

One leitmotif that runs throughout the letters I received is the power and generous presence that Frye had as a teacher.  Here is a sampler of the correspondents’ tributes:

• Northrop Frye was the greatest single influence in my life. (Phyllis Thompson)

• My own memories of Frye are filled with respect and gratitude.  What incredible luck to have been “brought up” by him!  I remember the excitement of his first lecture every fall. There was a ping of the mind, like a finger snapped against cut glass.  You came back from your grungy summer job and then there it was, the whole intellectual world snapped into life again, the current flowing. (Eleanor Morgan)

• I still cannot believe my good fortune in having been taught so many stimulating courses by a person of such brilliance and compassion.  His ideas were electrifying, encyclopedic, and revolutionary. . . . Each year when I returned to the university, the hinges of my mind sprang open, and my brain pulsed with the excitement of Frye’s thinking, his eloquence, and his wit.  But what keeps his influence on my life vivid and profound to this day is that he enabled us to translate the leaps of intellect we experienced in his lectures into the emotional underpinnings of a way to look at the world and one’s place in it––in short, to be in the world, yet not of it. (Beth Lerbinger)

• Frye would lecture without notes, yet the class rarely turned haphazard.  He asked questions constantly that required a knowledge not only of the Bible and classical mythology, but also of the major works in English and American literature.  No one could keep pace with all the references, but still the effect was to illuminate and give a structure to a rich and fascinating verbal universe.  And then, as an added bonus, just when you thought he had reached the conclusion his investigation was leading to, he would use that “conclusion” as the opening position in a new line of investigation. (Ed Kleiman)

• In short, the Frye course [Religious Knowledge] in one way made for a lot of fun at home.  In another way it changed our lives forever. (M.L. Knight)

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