“The Golden Age of Frye”


Russell Perkin, in a comment to Michael Sinding’s most recent post, affirms that “there was never a golden age of Frye.”

“The Golden Age of Frye”!  How I wish it had been so.  Even a froth-flecked advocate like me doesn’t believe there was ever such a time: it is a myth (which, of course, is a good thing in the long run).  However, it is also true that Frye was for at least one solid and formative decade (say from the publication of Anatomy to the publication of “Structure, Sign and Play“)  the most influential literary critic in the world, and he revolutionized — despite ongoing resistance — the study of literature.  There was (okay, this is just me talkin’) no downside.  There was, however, lots of ill will, misunderstanding and misrepresentation on the part of his critics, which only accelerated as the post-structuralist juggernaut loomed onto the scene.  My attitude therefore is not “Frye or nobody,” but it is “Better Frye than just anybody.”  The issue isn’t that there are no other good critics out there making genuinely valuable non-Frygian contributions to criticism, the issue is that Frye was dishonestly excluded from a discourse to which he still brings so much.  Having him effectively excised from the critical canon as a scholar of enduring importance, as he very arguably was, has cost literary studies much more than it could afford to lose at the best of times.  (Imagine philosophy without Aristotle.  Or better yet, imagine the English disowning Shakespeare.)

So here’s the ad hominem thing coming in handy once again: the reason this happened doesn’t have to be sought very far.  Is it really a secret that, as a class (and most especially when they move in packs), academics tend to be vain, self-serving, petty and duplicitous?  (Present company excluded, of course!!)  There’s a reason the term “trahison des clercs” has staying power.  There’s a reason that David Lodge’s campus novels remain as funny as they are.  Lucky Jim, anyone?  I’ve always liked the fact that of all the social estates, none gets the stick more soundly in Shakespeare than “pedants,” who are uniquely loathsome creatures with, apparently, no redeeming qualities at all, and who for the most part are shuffled off the stage as quickly as possible, leaving only a somewhat discomfited sense of gleeful scorn behind.

So I don’t pine for a lost Golden Age: but I am looking forward to the eventuality, for which I am willing to work very hard with absolutely no promise of reward.  That’s what all good myths inspire us to do.

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5 thoughts on ““The Golden Age of Frye”

  1. Clayton Chrusch

    Does Frye speak about “eventuality?”

    In one of his interviews, he says,

    “…all our hopes when they’re projected into the _future_ have this extraordinary limitation about them. If somebody starts out on a career, let’s say as a doctor or a social worker, he or she must have some kind of vision of a world of better health or of better social organization in his or her mind in order to carry on the career with any kind of consistent energy. it’s that sense of the vision in the _present_ which is the real dynamic. You can die without seeing that come. In other words, you can give up the future as far as your own life is concerned and still carry on with the same vision.” [my emphasis]

    To me, this is one of the most difficult parts of Frye’s thought. If there is a world of fulfilled desire above time, then we certainly owe our allegiance to it, but it is a pathetic kind of loyalty if there is no way to get there personally in a permanent way.

    1. Joseph Adamson

      In response to Clayton’s comment: If I’m not mistaken, Frye seems here only to be speaking of “a world of better health or better social organization” that is projected into the future, and therefore a world that transcends our current one not as something eternal but as a social transformation in this world, a more ideal social world against which our current state of society falls short. But personal permanence or immortality is presumably a state that is only possible in the minds or lives of others who outlive us and carry on the memory of the person we were, a person, for example, who fought for a a world of better health, like Tommy Douglas. Or the immortality of someone who was thought well of by his friends and family and colleagues. That is about all Frye says we can hope for in terms of personal permanence or immortality, and the only part of us, I think he would say, that longs for that other kind of personal permanence “above time” is the ego-self, not the soul or spirit, if those terms still mean anything.

  2. Robert D. Denham

    It’s not so clear to me that Frye has been “excluded from” critical discourse or that he has been “effectively excised from the critical canon.” He still makes his way into the anthologies of criticism. His books continue to be translated abroad (115 translations in 25 languages). Students continue to write dissertations and theses about his work: there are 229 doctoral dissertations in which Frye’s work figures importantly, 194 of which have been written since 1980. And people continue to write essays and books about his work. There are 42 books devoted to their entirety to Frye, seventeen of which have been written in this century (thirty have appeared since 1990). In Northrop Frye: An Annotated Bibliography (1987), I listed 588 essays and book chapters devoted to Frye, covering the first fifty six years of his writing career. Since that time another 1320 have appeared. In other words, 56% the essays about Frye have appeared during the past twenty two years. The Great Code, written after the alleged Golden Age, elicited 189 reviews. Somebody out there is reading Frye.

  3. Clayton Chrusch

    I found the source of the quote: page 1014 of interviews.

    Am I misreading him that badly? Isn’t he saying that there is nothing in time, in the past or the future, worth hanging on to? Doesn’t he reject the myth of progress? Doesn’t he reject the value of hoping in posterity?

    Also, aren’t you making the same identification of personality and ego that many Buddhists do, but that Frye doesn’t? I read Chapter 2 of Fearful Symmetry as a bold defence of personality.

    1. Joseph Adamson

      Yes, I was struggling with that after I submitted my comments. Though I think you have to make a definite distinction between personality and ego. Personality it seems to me for Blake and Frye, and the idea of revelation through the personality of Christ, let us say (I am not a theologian or a very good religious thinker, so maybe someone else can weigh in here), the significance of emphasis on personality in this sense is that it takes God right out of the sky and brings him down to earth and puts a human face on him: the Human Face Divine. It is both a human and a transcendent encounter, which fits very well with what you were saying about love in another post. So there is definitely a distinction between human personality and ego: ego is what disappears in revelation, apocalypse, participating apocalypse.

      Does this make any sense?


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