Jonathan Allan: Northrop Frye and the Twenty-First Century

Residence window, Victoria College

Residence window, Victoria College

It has become apparent that there is something rather fascinating about the place of Frye in the academy.  As I have suggested previously, when I came to graduate school, Frye’s value on the academic stock market was low – despite the fact that the University of Toronto was publishing on a regular basis volumes of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye.  As a somewhat naïve graduate student, I assumed the University of Toronto would be the ideal place to study Frye.  Frye’s archives, his annotated library — his presence and influence still linger at Victoria College at least.  And yet, Frye remains something of an enigma at Toronto.  At the annual Victoria book sale, when I generally buy whatever book on Frye I can find, the sales people almost always tell me stories about when they were students sitting in one of Professor Frye’s lectures.  So Frye is not “dead” at Victoria; instead, he seems to be caught between silence and shadows and yet remains a conspicuous presence: Northrop Frye Hall, various portraits throughout the college, and some of his former students still roaming the halls.  So what does the graduate student today, at Toronto, do?  How does the graduate student approach Frye? 

Joe Adamson recently spoke of wanting to teach Frye and Cultural Studies.  This graduate student of Comparative Literature says: please, please teach a course like this.  Cultural Studies are taking hold in literary studies; Frye seems an ideal candidate to be included in that debate.  In Canadian Cultural Studies: A Reader, the editors – Sourayan Mookerjea, Imre Szeman, and Gail Faurshou – include a few selections from Frye.  This is one way to bring Frye into the twenty-first century.

Likewise, David Clark at McMaster write, when asked to compare Frye’s work to Derrida: What does Jacques Derrida’s work have that Frye’s doesn’t?, “I want to say right away that Frye’s work is richly significant. He played a crucially important role in the history of Canadian letters and in the life of a particular Canadian academic imaginary, signs of which are still to be found in the university. One of the things we have yet to see, though, are slow readers–to remember something Nietzsche once said–of Frye’s work, i.e. readers who put enough confidence in the complexity and critical power of his work to be willing and able to read it resistantly and against the grain, and to read it symptomatically, with an eye to its productive self-differences, occlusions, and unconsciousnesses.”  This is, perhaps, another response to how to engage with Frye and one that will likely offer many new perspectives and likely revisionary readings as well. 

I’m not certain if this is or is not Frye’s Golden Age, but I’m inclined to think that Frye is ready for a “come-back” and will likely return in ways that are just now being conceived of. 

Frye is being read, of this I am certain – at least I am thinking and writing about Frye and hope to offer work that helps to re-energize the debate.  But my work tries to negotiate Frye with the phenomena of critical theory, popular theoretical models, and taking him places Frye himself didn’t go; for instance, Latin American narrative.  I recognize Frye thought about Borges and a copy of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude sits in the annotated collection, as does the Popol Vuh – but Frye still has so much more to offer.  I am sure that readers will continue to find him and academics will inspire a new generation of students to return to Frye.

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5 thoughts on “Jonathan Allan: Northrop Frye and the Twenty-First Century

  1. Joe Adamson

    It would take a very slow reader indeed to respond to Frye in the way Dr. Clark suggests. Believe me, he has no genuine respect for Frye’s work, as should be clear from the condescending nod to Frye’s importance, which is a barely concealed put-down. And note the trendy mishmash of critical buzz words. This is a perfect example of the kind of narcissistic posturing I spoke of in my previous post: “essentially rhetoric passing for argument: very little information and whole lot of glib and smart-sounding noise.”

    I have actually read such attempts at deconstructing Frye and it is not pretty, unless you are into mash-ups: something like, let’s say, “Northrop Frye with Zombies.”

    Sorry for playing the part of Mephistopheles here, Jonathan, and please forgive these rather touchy remarks, but I feel it my duty to inculcate in young graduate students at least a modicum of cynicism regarding the literary academy and its arcane politics.

    I think the only thing that will lead to a revival of Frye’s work, if that is our goal, is to read Frye honestly and as he hoped and meant to be read, as he deserves to be read, and not according to whatever set of critical hermeneutics is currently in fashion.

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  2. Joseph Adamson

    By the way, Jonathan, I meant to thank you for your encouragement to create a course on Frygian cultural studies. The main core would be writings like The Critical Path and The Modern Century, his writings on education, culture, and various other essays on culture, such as essays in Northrop Frye on Modern Culture and Northrop Frye on Canada. If you have any particular suggestions, I would love to hear about them. In such a course I would have to engage with the enemy, and as a matter of course engage in a Frygian deconstruction of “postmodern criticism.” The latter is a good blanket term that people seem to be using for the highly specialized critical armaments that have been piling up in different forms over the last twenty-five years or so. Maybe Obama can bring in a critical non-proliferation treaty, just so everybody has the time to catch up. That is in fact one of the problems with the theory boom, analogous to the constant need for digital upgrading. You feel like you’re caught in an endless gunfight but just spend most of the time reloading your gun.

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    1. Joseph Adamson

      The situation is well described by Imre Salusinszky, in an essay written fifteen years ago: “So far, the lessons of Anatomy regarding the dead end of ideological criticism have not been taken. But now, more than ever, many books of criticism seem like smart bombs fired across discursive minefields, making me wonder whether Frye’s ‘middle way,’ between determinism and aesthetic indeterminacy, may yet turn out to be the truly critical path” (The Legacy of Northrop Frye, p. 82).

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      1. Joseph Adamson

        I misquoted Imre Salusinszky’s in the previous comment, from his essay “Frye and Ideology.” I left out a line. It is now corrected. It is also worth quoting again: ““So far, the lessons of Anatomy regarding the dead end of ideological criticism have not been taken. But now, more than ever, many books of criticism seem like smart bombs fired across discursive minefields, making me wonder whether Frye’s ‘middle way,’ between determinism and aesthetic indeterminacy, may yet turn out to be the truly critical path” (The Legacy of Northrop Frye, p. 82). ”

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