Monthly Archives: November 2009

More on Frye and Alter

Marc Chagall, White Crucifiction

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion

I have found several passages in an interview between Northrop Frye and the Australian scholar David Lawton entitled “Archetype and History” (1986) that are relevant to the relationship between the work of Frye and Robert Alter, the subject of a recent discussion on this blog.

Responding to a question about biblical form-criticism, Frye says “I always feel there is something getting away from me in all this, that Robert Alter and his kind know things that I don’t know—I don’t know what, I haven’t yet discovered what they are from their books.”  In relation to this rather double-edged passage, Jean O’Grady draws attention to a less polite comment in the Late Notebooks: “The Art of Biblical Narrative my ass: there’s no such thing as Biblical narrative: there’s only the Bible’s narrative with a lot of sub-narratives.”  (Robert Alter published The Art of Biblical Narrative in 1981.)

Lawton asks Frye whether he distinguishes sharply between the Christian Bible and the Jewish Bible, and Frye replies:

In imagery and in metaphor it seems to me that Judaism and Christianity are identical.  But doctrinally a religion which accepts incarnation is very different from a religion which does not, and while I think I can come to terms with the Jewish conception of the Bible, it’s just possibly the prejudices of my upbringing that I feel that the Bible is beheaded if it doesn’t have the New Testament.  I just can’t get over that. . . .

I think I managed to get over the gap in the course on the Bible I taught at Harvard, where I had something like four hundred and twenty students and a fair number of them were Jews.  I tried to explain something of the difference between the two conceptions and the way in which Christianity had used Jewish conceptions in ways that Jews would think intolerable but nevertheless did fit consistently the structure of Christianity.  They went off and held special sessions themselves to discuss the Christian interpretation of the Jewish scriptures, and they’d come out shaking their heads and saying, “Clever buggers these Christians.”

Mervyn Nicholson: Frye Was Different (4)


Many, many sentences and even phrases of Frye’s have stayed with me.  For example, in the Introduction to Anatomy of Criticism, he says that “the elementary principles” of criticism “could be explained to any intelligent nineteen-year-old,” if criticism—I’m paraphrasing here—made sense.  The “intelligent nineteen-year-old” should be able to understand what criticism is about.  As a professor of English myself who has spent years teaching writing at all levels, from home-schooling children to teaching graduate students, I have found this ideal deeply credible, deeply compelling in its logic.  “Any intelligent nineteen-year-old” should be able to understand criticism and what criticism is about.  People should be able to read and understand what critics, theorists, and anybody in English studies, setting aside, of course, technical information requiring years of reading to be familiar with.  He did not want a criticism that functioned like a “mystery religion,” as he explicitly argues in Anatomy: something exclusive, like a country club with high entry fees and a membership selected by itself.  He was not a mystagogue.  A lot is involved here, as always with Frye.

It is true that the terms “criticism” and, even more, “literary criticism,” terms that Frye took for granted, have lapsed in academic discourse.  Frye described himself as a literary critic: how many academics in English would identify themselves in the same way?  New Historicism, like poststructuralism before it, rejects the category of “literature,” and since the category “literature” is to it a mystification, it does not see itself as producing “criticism” (of literature), whereas for Frye, the category of literature definitely worked, and criticism should be conceived as the theory of literature, the study of how it works and what it says.

But this point, important as it is, is not what I want to focus on here.  Frye believed that “any intelligent nineteen-year-old” should be able to understand criticism.  He wrote in order to be understood; he wrote in order to communicate.  Anything that got in the way of that communication was wrong, as far as he was concerned.  Therefore, he wrote in a style that is consistently lucid and straightforward, and, while there are definitely difficult passages that need re-reading (not to mention plenty of wit), Frye’s prose is as clear as it is possible to imagine, given the material he is discussing.

If we hold this ideal for a moment, we have to be struck by how different Frye is from the commanding figures in English studies.  In Frye’s last decade, Paul de Man, in the shadow of Jacques Derrida, was a commanding figure, treated with extraordinary reverence as a kind of saint of intellectual integrity and brilliance.  De Man is basically gone, perhaps because when you subtract his elegant writing style and his Olympian mannerisms, there isn’t really that much in the way of ideas in what he says.  The reply, that “meaning” is a contested concept, works really well for about 15 minutes and especially with uninstructed nineteen-year-olds, but for the rest of us, meaning—communicating—is what English, as a subject and as a profession, is all about.

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A Summary of Frye’s The Secular Scripture


A Summary of The Secular Scripture: the following is a revised and expanded version of the summary published in the introduction to The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1976-991. Volume 18 of Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Edited by Joseph Adamson and Jean Wilson. University of Toronto Press © 2005.

The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance was originally delivered in April 1975 as a series of lectures during Frye’s term as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. The occasion spurred Frye to develop more extensively his thoughts about romance as a literary form, a subject already central to the four essays in Anatomy of Criticism. At the end of his discussion of archetypal criticism in the second essay of that book, he observes that “archetypes are most easily studied in highly conventionalized literature: that is, for the most part, naive, primitive, and popular literature,” and he suggests “the possibility of extending the kind of comparative and morphological study now made of folk tales and ballads into the rest of literature” (104). In NB 56, one of the “Secular Scripture” notebooks, he remarks that after searching for some time for “a unified theme,” he now has “the main structure of a book [he has] been ambitious to write for at least twenty years, without understanding what it was, except in bits and pieces” (par. 157). His hope is to “make it the subject of [the lectures] at Harvard. After all, it’s fundamentally an expansion of the paper I did for the Harvard myth conference.” The latter paper, “Myth, Fiction, and Displacement” (FI, 21-38), outlines and develops a “central principle about ‘myth criticism’: that myth is a structural element in literature because literature as a whole is a ‘displaced’ mythology” (FI, 1).

The Secular Scripture explores three related areas of thought that will continue to preoccupy Frye: the dialectical polarization of imagery into desirable and abhorrent worlds; the recovery of myth in the act of literary recreation; and the struggle and complementarity between secular and sacred scriptures, between human words and the word of God.

The specific subject of The Secular Scripture is the study of sentimental romance, the literary development of the formulas found in the oral culture of the folk tale. It first appears in European literature in the Greek and Latin romances of the early common era. As a central form it surfaces again in the medieval romances and in the Elizabethan reworkings of the conventions of Greek romance, reemerging in the Gothic novels of the eighteenth century, and forming the structural basis of a great variety of nineteenth-century prose fiction, most explicitly in writers such as Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Morris.

In the twentieth century and beyond it appears again most unabashedly in fantasy and science fiction. Recent examples of the recurrent appeal of romance can be seen in the long-term success of the Star Wars films, the spectacular popularity of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (and films), and the renewed interest in the cinematic version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, as well as in the widespread appeal of mystery novels, crime fiction, and Gothic horror fiction and “thrillers,” not to mention the remarkable pervasiveness of all these forms of romance in current film and television.

Frye observes that the forms of storytelling peculiar to saga, legend, and folk tale do not differ essentially from those of the Bible and certain other texts–the “epic of the creator”–which have had a sacred circle drawn around them by religious and cultural authority. The distinction between sacred and secular scriptures, as far as Frye is concerned, is primarily one of social context. Sentimental romance–the “epic of the creature”–has been vilified for centuries by the established cultural tradition, largely because of its unsanctioned preoccupation with sex and violence, and the disapproval of such “proletarian” or popular forms holds even today. Even when they become privileged objects of study, as is currently the case in cultural and film studies, the interest is often largely confined to their hidden ideological imperatives–what they tell us to believe or do.

The term “popular culture” has a widespread currency today, and its definition is often disputed. Frye offers what appears to be a very simple definition, at least of its literary form. It is that area of verbal culture–ballads, folk tales, and folk songs, for instance–which requires for its appreciation minimal expertise and education, and is therefore available to the widest possible audience. At the same time, by virtue of its wide-ranging appeal, popular literature often points the way to future literary developments, for with the exhaustion of a literary tradition there is often a return to primitive formulas, as was the case with Greek romance and the Gothic novel. Frye does not imply any value judgment in distinguishing popular from elite culture. He insists, instead, that they are both ultimately two aspects of the same “human compulsion to create in the face of chaos.”

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We Are Here!


I want to assure everyone that we’re still here.  Joe Adamson and I of course are both working our way through the end-of-semester trials of grading and exams, so that’s kept us pretty much pre-occupied.  Moreover, the gods have determined that this is an especially good time for my home computer to crash.  (It’s still not clear whether or not I’ve lost everything on it.)  I am buying another today and hope to be up and more or less fully functioning very shortly.

Frye’s Review of Joseph Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture


In a letter to David Cook, dated 17 October 1985, Frye wrote that he was asked to review Joseph Pieper’s book for “an American journal,” but “then they decided that it wasn’t the kind of book they wanted discussed in their columns” (NFF, 1991, box 3, file 1), so the review was never published. Immediately under the title Frye typed “Leisure, the Basis of Culture. By Josef Pieper. Translated by Alexander Dru with an Introduction by T.S. Eliot. Pantheon Books. 169 pp. $2.75.” The date is unknown, but it is no earlier than 1952, the year the Pantheon edition was published. Frye refers to the review in Notebook 35.94, which dates from 1953. The typescript is in the NFF, 1993, box 4, file 3, alongside a number of other papers Frye wrote in the 1950s. The review, which follows, was eventually published in Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, CW 10, 325–29, where it is annotated. (He has a talk on “Leisure and Boredom” in the same volume.)

Review of Joseph Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture

In possessing consciousness, man has an advantage over animals at least as great as animals have over plants. Instead of merely adapting himself to his environment, he can transform his environment, and can satisfy not only his needs but his wants or desires as well. Thus his consciousness fulfils itself in work, and modern life has stressed the moral duty to work until it has reached, in Marxism, the conception of the triumph of the worker as the ultimate destiny of men. Yet this plausible and appealing conception seems to destroy both liberty and culture wherever it is realized. The reason is that in this view of work man is still regarded as a clever animal, whose consciousness carries out the orders of subconscious wants, just as a monkey’s desire to eat a banana will force him to solve engineering problems to get one. The desire may be individual or social, but the monkey with his banana and the bee with his honeyed thigh represent the laissez faire and communistic aspects of the same principle. However (to supply a missing but essential link in Dr. Pieper’s argument), man’s consciousness includes the awareness that he is going to die, and society geared for total work or total competitive scramble becomes, unlike an insect state or a colony of apes, possessed by an increasing panic based on clock time, “work for the night is coming” being its constant motto.

When a man refuses to employ his consciousness as a function of his animal being, and turns it directly toward reality, trying to ask himself disinterested questions about reality, he has performed a fateful revolutionary act. He has refused to work, not because he is lazy, but because he wants to do something specifically human with his consciousness. The renunciation of work in favor of something more important is what Dr. Pieper means by leisure, and he will have none of the attempt to come to terms with the moral pressure to work by calling the philosopher an “intellectual worker.” The Greek word for leisure is schole, the root of our word school, and the author traces the association of culture and leisure in Plato, Aristotle, and the Bible (the Septuagint translation of the first two words of the verse in the Psalms, “Be still, and know that I am God” is scholasate, “have leisure”). The basis of the conception of leisure in Plato is the symposium: Dr. Pieper does not mention Plato’s deep interest in an ideal state in which every man is absorbed by a specific job, and does it under the dictatorship of an intellectual worker.

Leisure so defined is very different from most of the things called leisure, and one wishes that the author had made the distinctions clearer. It is not rest, not slothfulness (psychologically akin to frantic busyness, as he shows) and above all not distraction, or breaking the rhythm of a hysterical production of goods by a hysterical squandering of them. Dr. Pieper founds his case on the traditional distinction between liberal and servile (i.e., utilitarian) arts, and, like Newman before him, he avoids all the intricate problems of casuistry raised by what one may call the social tactics of leisure. How far, for instance, does leisure depend on Veblen’s non productive “leisure class,” who have to be supported by the rest of the community? Or, on the other hand, how far is it true that no one can really be a disinterested philosopher if he owes his leisure to a privileged place in a class structure? How does one demonstrate that one has the capacity for leisure? If one has it and supports oneself, what is wrong with being an “ intellectual worker” as far as one’s social position is concerned? These and other questions come to mind, and perhaps they prove how suggestive the author is, but let us return to what he does say.

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Religious Knowledge, Lecture 10


Lecture 10.  December 9, 1947

The key ideas are ritual and myth. The active side of religion is ritual, the ceremony, the religious act.  The myth side is the explanation of a ritual, the religious Word.

Ritual     Act         Ceremony     King

Myth      Word       Doctrine      Prophet

The basis of ritual is sacrifice, and this goes back to the idea of the substitute for the human sacrifice.  The prophets come along with teaching so that the doctrine aspect is connected with the prophet.  The pre-prophetic is ritual dependent upon the king. Now, the symbol becomes interpreted in mythic terms through the prophet.


The Psalms are the doctrine of the king in prophetic language.  The prophets are concerned with the meaning of the ritual, an attempt to explain the true nature of the king.  The king is the visible symbol of the larger human body, “society.”  He is the social body united in one man.  At certain points, the prophets have a special authority to appoint kings or heirs apparent.

The original motive for sacrifice is that the king’s energy is that of the tribe.  In pre-exilic prophets you get the feeling that the old king is not good enough.  Isaiah is one prophet who has got beyond that mental tailspin.  For him the source of inspiration is consciousness; he is the trusted adviser of the king.  Mixed up with what he says is a criticism of what is going on in history.

Isaiah Chap. 6, v. 8:  “I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for me?  Then said I, Here I am; send me.”  But no one wants to be a prophet.  Isaiah asks, How long will it be? It’s no fun.  In the same way, says Frye, the artist is wholly possessed by what he wants to say.  Genius has nothing to do with sanctity or with whether or not the artist is good or bad.  When he has genius, it possesses the whole of him and gives him the power to shape words as he wills.  Yet the work of art itself is taking form; the artist releases what is being created.  The sculptor sees the statue in the block of marble; it is not an act of will.  There are always times when the artist, the prophet, is saying more than he knows.

Isaiah 7: 10–12: Ahaz represents conventional piety. “I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.”  This is the right answer, up to a point.  But Isaiah takes up the idea of the “great sign of the Lord thy God.”

Isaiah speaks of the arrival of some new form of life, Immanuel, God with us.  He speaks as if this is going to happen at once.  In Chapter 8, Isaiah begets a child, and in the next chapter the arrival of this new life inspires him to say what is over Ahaz’s head, and over the whole situation, too.  He talks of a new king on the throne of David.  He is talking about the real king here.  In Chap. 2 he talks of the “last days” and the spiritual king who will restore the age of paradise.  Still, there is not any doctrine here yet, which you could not match outside the Christian religion.

Micah makes the famous statement of the prophetic position against the sacrificial cult. Chap. 6, 6–8: the utter uselessness of ceremony in itself.  Even human sacrifice will not attract God’s attention.  There is the conception of the blood of a child as a redeeming scapegoat.

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousand rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.

In Chap. 6, Hosea speaks a message of forgiveness, of the restoration of Israel through the love of God. “Come, let us return to the Lord.”

The pre-exilic prophets have the inspiration of the prophet and speak with consciousness.  They condemn the moral evils of their community, the superstition, the mental attitude towards magic.  But Amos is concerned with the paradox of the relation of God to his people.  God has chosen one nation, and yet he is no respecter of persons.  Amos denounces the neighbouring nations, and the audience loves it.  He denounces Judah, the Southern Kingdom, and they still love it.  Then, he turns and denounces the Israelites with the same voice.  He acknowledges the uniformity of men, and yet retains the peculiar relation of God and Israel.  To begin with, Israel means the larger human body, the concrete symbol of which is the King of Israel.

The prophets are led from the contemporary situation and the feeling that their own country is exceptional to the conception of the King of Israel as the source of authority in Israel and of its health and improvement.  The prophets, therefore, become frank advisers of the king and will not flatter.  The feeling merges that only the king is authority and God works through him.  The pre-exilic prophets idealized the King of Israel as the Prince of Peace.

The paradox of a monotheistic state is seen in Amos where the hangover remains that God is concerned with the nation of Israel.  This creates a difficulty that is not cleared up until the later prophets.

“Offprints or Offspring”: Frye and the History of Literary Studies (3)


This is the last in a brief series of reflections on the profession of literary studies prompted by passages that struck me in Bob Denham’s recent edition of Frye’s Selected Letters, 1934-1991.

In a letter to Roger Shattuck, Frye comments on various aspects of the state of the humanities in 1971.  He says, “I suppose some of the bewilderment in modern humanities comes from the false analogies to business which are made at one end of the university, and the false analogies to democracy at the other.”  The assumption of the former analogy is

that the university, instead of being a process which is, in Newman’s phrase, its own end, must be a process with a product, like all other assembly lines.  The product is assumed to be either the works of “productive scholarship,” or students in the form of “trained minds.”  The conception of a university which is not essentially committed either to offprints or offspring is a difficult one to take in.

The business analogy is of course still with us, and still a major bone of contention.  It is even more pervasive because students have largely abandoned what Frye calls the false analogy of democracy.  He was writing to Shattuck in the midst of the student protest movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s (the Kent State Massacre had taken place in the previous year).  My sense is that the business analogy has now been adopted by many students as well as administrators (with the encouragement from universities that promote a rhetoric of customer satisfaction which students, used to completing product surveys in the hope of winning an iPod, are quite willing to respond to).

In terms of the scholarly product, the pressure to publish has only increased since the 1970s.  As for the “student product,” there have recently been efforts to quantify the “value-added” in a university education.  This is often characterized as a conservative initiative that attempts to impose an ideological straitjacket on higher education, though in his most controversial column as MLA President (see the Spring 2008 MLA Newsletter), Gerald Graff defended the general principle of outcomes assessment, arguing that too many colleges and universities are victims of what he calls the “Best-Student Fetish”: “it is as if the ultimate dream of college admissions is to recruit a student body that is already so well educated that it hardly needs any instruction!”

Once again, Frye’s reflections on the state of the academic profession identify trends that would become more and more apparent with the passage of time.  What would a university look like today if it were not committed “either to offprints or offspring”?  Can we even imagine such an institution?  Perhaps all those involved in university education need to have at least the idea of such a university in mind, as a utopian vision and a reference point while working within the less than ideal institution where they are a teacher or student.  In “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision,” Frye argued that everyone who works at a task in society has an imagined ideal towards which his or her actions are directed: “The model so constructed is a myth or fiction, and in normal minds it is known to be a fiction.  That does not make it unreal: what happens is rather an interchange of reality and illusion in the mind.”  A good example of what he is talking about is John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University, which originated in a series of lectures in Dublin, discourses to an impoverished religious community in a colonial society who were hoping to set up some sort of college to educate their youth.  Newman responded with the most idealistic of visions of what a university could and should be.  But he then showed considerable business and political shrewdness and realism as he went about trying to create a university for Catholics in Ireland.  That combination of idealism and pragmatism is still a good model for those of us who work in higher education.

Tina Weymouth


Tom Tom Club, “Genius of Love” (single rather than extended club mix)

Today is Tina Weymouth‘s birthday (born 1950).  Tina is known primarily as the bassist for Talking Heads from the time of its inception in the early 70s until its slow demise in the early 90s.  But with her side project, The Tom Tom Club, she had a monster hit in 1981 with “Genius of Love.”  This was the early days both of video and of rap as an emerging mainstream genre.  The video remains charming (like most videos associated with anyone from Talking Heads, it is quite precocious), and the song, as unlikely as that may seem, was one the most sampled tracks by rap artists throughout the 80s and 90s.  It still occasionally re-emerges from time to time.

A real treat for Talking Heads fans after the jump.

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John Robert Colombo: Request for Your Favourite Quotes


For the last four years I have been preparing for eventual publication a large-scale compilation that has the working title “The Northrop Frye Quote Book.” It will consist of some 4,000 alphabetically arranged quotations, the texts of which are taken from the Collected Works.

I would like to correspond with FOF (Friends of Frye) who wish to draw my attention to remarks that should appear in this collection. Included will be aphoristic expressions but also passages of two or three sentences in length that, while far from being aphoristic, make strikingly odd though often obvious points. Already I have some 3,500 such remarks in place, but the man is so quotable I may have missed your favourite formulations. I would love to know about them.

I am currently an Associate of the NF Centre at Victoria College. My website is www. colombo – plus. ca and my email address is jrc @ ca . inter. net.

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 9


Michelangelo, Isaiah

Lecture 9.  December 2, 1947

The king is regarded as the archetypal man in whom all the people who follow him find their own being.  This is based on the idea that man is part of a larger human being.  To see society as a larger self we must move from atomic individualism to some kind of abstract idea.  Man sees in society only himself and others like him, but knows there is more than must a mere aggregate of individuals.

“Body” and “being” are vague terms.  The essential thing is that society is seen as a human form, larger than the person. That’s what man expresses in the king—the larger body of society.  He picks out a concrete symbol to express that idea.  The king is an individual and. at the same time, the larger human being.  Cannibals express literally that they are members of a single human body.  There is a certain distrust of the king in the story of Saul; he is seen as something of an idol.

The Israelites saw in Egyptian culture the idolizing of the king.  Thus, deliverance from Egypt meant deliverance from the divine man, Pharaoh.  When the Israelites pick a king, it develops from the genuineness of kingship.  Instead of a physical idol, they saw the spiritual reality that the king symbolizes and that all subjects are united in a common human body.  David rejoices, repents of his sins, etc., because he is the King.  The individual worshipper says that David is myself, my larger human body in which I find myself.  David is the typical man; therefore, each worshipper goes through his emotions when he says his Psalms.

The idea of kingship carried with it one important factor: the King in the Old Testament is not divine. And yet, there is danger in an idol and a danger in making the spiritual abstract. The danger of idolatry must be faced.  The concrete symbol must be the king representing the larger human body; the concrete stands for the symbol and has to be the flesh incarnate.

The king is society incarnate in a man.  He is Israel incarnate because Israel is the larger human body of society.  The Bible doesn’t use abstract ideas.  It doesn’t use the term “society,” but Israel, or Jacob.  The king, therefore, is the Son of Israel, the incarnate form of Israel, the Son of Man.  Accepting the divine king in spiritual form is the consolidation of the symbol.  We see that the most primitive is often the form of the most highly developed.  The most crude form of the cannibal feast is the real form of the highest development at the other end.

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