Daily Archives: October 23, 2009



Show business kids makin’ movies of themselves / You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else. Steely Dan, “Show Biz Kids“. (Rickie Lee Jones‘s superior cover of the song is featured above).

When Joe Adamson and I were thinking about setting up this blog, Joe said that he wanted it to be like the best aspects of a conference: people milling around amid the serious business of papers and panels, talking, laughing, enjoying one another’s company, with all of the unexpected pleasures and discoveries that come with it.  It’s a good analogy.

For me the analogy is more like a gin joint.  The occupants — having knocked, identified themselves, and gained ready admission — are smart, know what they’re about, and, their tongues loosened, are free to say whatever they want.  We keep good company but are up for shenanigans, maybe even fisticuffs, if necessary.  But the most important thing is that the talk take any form that follows and follow any path it finds.

And that has certainly been true this last week. Over the last couple of days, for example, the conversation — initiated by Russell Perkin and with significant contributions from Clayton Chrusch, Matthew Griffin, Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham — has  centred on Frye, religion, the Bible, and The Great Code.

One of the best things about administering the blog with Joe is that we must deal with every comment and post that comes our way; and, of course, there’s a rich email correspondence going on behind the scenes.  That combination — posts, comments, email — has really clarified at least a couple of things for me this past week.  The first is that even with our small core of regular contributors, we speak with many voices, and that’s exactly what Joe and I hoped for.  What we all have in common are varying degrees of admiration for Frye, but it’s also very clear how diverse our views can be.  The debate we’re having is the sort of thing I’ve dreamed of for a very long time, and I’m enjoying it now with some of the best company imaginable, whose numbers I expect will only increase.

The other issue that’s been clarified for me is confronting what it means to be the kind of Frygian I am, and that’s been helped especially by the email correspondence.  What I’ve had to deal with in particular are the implications of truly, genuinely believing that there was an historical divergence in literary theory and criticism about forty years ago, represented primarily by Derrida and deconstruction on one side and Frye and recreation on the other, and that the road not taken was the better one. Frye, for me — and I know I’m not alone in this — is more than just another literary critic, a great among greats.  For many of us, he is a rare sort of genius whose presence on the scene changes it. As Joe put it the other day, picking up on a suggestion by Michael Sinding, maybe Frye was the paradigm shift that literary scholarship as a whole just can’t see yet.  Jonathan Allan earlier this week cited McMaster’s David Clark’s remarks on Frye and Derrida:

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.

Well, okay: “a particular Canadian academic imaginary, signs of which are still to be found in the university”?  Maybe. But perhaps scholars like Clark might acknowledge at this point that insisting upon “against the grain” readings is not exactly kicking at the pricks, and the reflexive demand “to read it symptomatically” is possibly only a symptom of a deeper pathology.  Today’s established literary scholars may still think of themselves as plucky revolutionaries dismantling various hegemonies, but, after a generation of dominance, they seem much more like post-revolutionary commissars with quotas to fill and vested interests to protect.  In any event, I’m not so slow a reader that I’m unable to recognize what Frye calls “the squirrel’s chatter” of academic cant when I see it.

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Social Concern, Archetypes, and Determinisms


Responding to Michael Sinding’s The Big Picture:

Thanks for your post, Michael.  The following comments are a revised and augmented version of my original comment to your post.

I think the discussion we are having is very useful, as it forces each of us to examine, clarify, and perhaps even change our positions, which is the point of good dialogue and dialectic. I have found your arguments have made me do a lot of thinking and at least consider that there may be indeed a blindness and stubbornness in my own way of thinking that is worth taking a harder look at. At the same time, I think it is important that someone make as strong a case for Frye as possible. This is after all a Frye blog.

Three specific points you make that I wanted to address:

First, I agree completely that a lot of postmodern criticism is driven by genuine social concern, but, as the saying goes:  the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nor are genuine concern and good intentions, I am sure you would agree, an excuse for intellectual dishonesty or incoherent writing and forms of argument.

Beyond this,  I might make a further point by quoting from an essay I wrote a while back on what I then called the intellectual “treason” of the recent critical schools. Instead of protecting the authority of literature and culture, they have set out to undermine the foundations of that autonomy by the facile equation of literature with ideology.  In doing so they undermine the foundations of their own belief in social justice, since

the intense conviction that lies behind so much contemporary criticism–the belief that it is our duty to root out the effects of power in discourse and to expose the complexity of ideology in all its intricate and cunning disguises–this conviction cannot stand on its own. Ultimately, it depends on something that, however self-evident, however much we may take it for granted, can have come to us only from a myth produced and fostered by the human imagination–an affirmative “vision of fulfilled primary concerns, freedom, health, equality, happiness, love” (WP 310), the vision of a world that, once and for all, makes human sense. (“The Treason of the Clerks,” in Re-Reading Frye, 99)

It is the function of literature, Frye argues, to recreate that myth and vision, and the function of criticism to clarify the vision literature offers, not to project our own ideological anxieties on it.

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