Frye Was Different (3)


The latest from Mervyn Nicholson, on how Frye was different:

When was the last time you laughed out loud reading De la Grammatologie? or, well, guffawed or chuckled, if not actually laughed? Derrida tickle your funny bone lately? How about Blindness and Insight? Paul de Man was quite a clown, wasn’t he? Or how about Stephen Greenblatt? or Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick? or Judith Butler? lots of LOL there.

You know where this is heading. Frye had a sense of humour! His sense of humour was vivid, witty, lively, incisive, satiric, but also playful. The range of humour is significant, too, because he can be light in tone as well as biting. He is good at coining witty phrases, as everyone knows. The impulse to quote him for those who know his work well is irresistible, especially his numerous satiric and witty remarks. I always laugh when I read Frye. All of his books have humour in them, and clearly the humour was important to him—he made sure to use it.

Not only does Frye use humour in his writing, but he was funny in his lectures. Most of his lectures included what might be called jokes—“self-contained verbal structures,” to use his own idiom, that made people laugh out loud. Of course his deadpan manner, his dry and wry style, was not that of a clown: it was definitely that of a great intellectual. He could say funny things without giving any facial cue that saying something funny was what he was doing. But that made the humour funnier, because it came from what had become a legendary professor persona: the figure of the ultimate intellectual. There was always an element of surprise, as if discovering that he was a human being, not just an icon on a pedestal, or someone of such grand pretention that humour must be kept distant from him. Curiously, Frye’s humour never had the effect of undermining or taking away any of the seriousness of what he was talking about. Frye was serious about his humour.

His status as preeminent academic made him a target for hostile comments of the type that Irving Layton specialized in, treating Frye as a dried-up brain without a body—an image totally at odds with the livewire brilliance that Frye displayed. Forget his tweed jacket and nerdy physique—he could be funny. His voice was a perfect instrument—deep and beautifully modulated, with the kind of rhythm that only a musician can achieve—a voice perfect for reading out loud—or for giving lectures. And he was a superb reader. Just as he made a point of saying things that were funny, he made a point of reading out loud in class—including in his graduate classes, something unthinkable in the usual academic milieu inhabited by graduate students and professors suffering from grandiosity issues. But it was important to Frye that people hear the great poets, not just see their work as print marks on a page. Clearly, Frye, the intellectual, believed that learning involved more than arguing over abstractions.

Frye’s humour punctured any pretention that “higher” English studies might demand. The humour shifted attention from the pretention implied by the scene (famous professor lectures naïve novitiates) over to the real point of teaching, namely the content of the class. Frye insisted on this point: the teacher must be “a transparent medium” for the subject, and must never stand between the subject and the students, setting him or herself up to be a kind of idol, someone who receives the attention of the student rather than the subject itself. His humour was important in demoting the professor and enhancing the content. The humorless solemnity of High Theory and the relentless didacticism of the New Historicism are prima facie limited by their lack of this intellectual vitamin.

This point opens up something important about Frye’s humour. It had a function. And this function was not merely to break the ice or release tension. The humour—I am referring now to his writing—is not merely a decoration or a distraction. It always conveys meaning. It is another way of expressing the thought that Frye is working with. Frye was profound in many ways, but one of the most important is his insistence that meaning is communicated in other modes than abstract reasoning or abstract verbal constructs. Meaning is conveyed in non-abstract ways, by means of image and emotion and body. And humour.

By image, of course, I do not mean “symbol”; I mean the sheer act of forming and transforming mental images: the act of visualization. The form/trans/forming of images is a medium of consciousness, of intellection. It is a means of communicating and formulating thought. I explored these issues myself in my own book 13 Ways of Looking at Images [Red Heifer Press, 2003], which is intended to develop and explore Frye’s approach. Thought is not confined to ideas in the sense of abstractions: it is expressed in sensory forms, such as painting and music, but also in forms of mental imagery. Indeed, the key to Blake, he says in Fearful Symmetry, is that “form” and “image” mean the same thing, and if this works for Blake, we can be sure it works for Frye, too—that the image of a thing is the form of that thing.

This is a big conception, too big for a short note, but it is basic Fryethought. Humour is like images: it is a mode of communication, of fashioning and making ideas precise—it is not just a pleasant talent that Frye enjoyed entertaining readers with, though there is nothing wrong with entertaining readers, something that Frye excelled in. You know that well enough when you put down your Derrida or just about anybody else and pick up Frye.

Frye was different, all right.

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3 thoughts on “Frye Was Different (3)

  1. Russell Perkin

    I have actually laughed out loud a few times at comments in the Notebooks and Diaries. The only other recent critic I could think of who is often amusing or witty is, ironically enough, Terry Eagleton, whom Frye once called “that Marxist goof from Linacre College” (Late Notebooks). Eagleton’s wit often injects a note of personality into what would otherwise be rather arid theorizing. (I seem to recall reading somewhere that the German translation of his _Literary Theory_ left a lot of the jokes out.) Not that Eagleton is like Frye in many other ways. I think it was Bernard Bergonzi who said that in his bumptiousness, Eagleton is rather like Chesterton.
    As for Paul de Man, yes, he made one rather laboured joke about Archie Bunker and Derrida, and that’s about it.

  2. Robert D. Denham

    Further on Humor

    Frye says of Robert Burton that his “tremendous erudition never blunted the edge of his sense of humor” (“The Times of the Signs”), and we might say the same about Frye. Here are a few of the hundreds of passages in which Frye writes of humor:

    For many readers of Paradise Lost the contrast between the domestic, highly cultivated atmosphere of Eden and the nudity of the inhabitants seems grotesque, like Manet’s picture Déjeuner sur l’herbe. But Milton’s approach to his subject is thoroughly consistent with his view of the human state, and it is by no means humorless: in fact a careful reader of Paradise Lost can easily see that one of the most important things Adam loses in his fall is his sense of humor. Humor, innocence, and nakedness go together, as do solemnity, aggressiveness, and fig leaves. (Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 86)

    A sense of humor, like a sense of beauty, is a part of reality, and belongs to the cosmetic cosmos: its context is neither subjective nor objective, because it’s communicable. (Late Notebooks, 1:227)

    All literature is literally ironic, which is why humor is so close to the hypothetical. If you don’t mean what you say, you’re either joking or poetizing. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism,” 264)

    In Synge’s Riders to the Sea a mother, after losing her husband and five sons at sea, finally loses her last son, and the result is a very beautiful and moving play. But if it had been a full-length tragedy plodding glumly through the seven drownings one after another, the audience would have been helpless with unsympathetic laughter long before it was over. The principle of repetition as the basis of humor both in Jonson’s sense and in ours is well known to the creators of comic strips, in which a character is established as a parasite, a glutton (often confined to one dish), or a shrew, and who begins to be funny after the point has been made every day for several months. Continuous comic radio programs, too, are much more amusing to habitués than to neophytes. The girth of Falstaff and the hallucinations of Quixote are based on much the same comic laws. Mr. E.M. Forster speaks with disdain of Dickens’s Mrs. Micawber, who never says anything except that she will never desert Mr. Micawber: a strong contrast is marked here between the refined writer too finicky for popular formulas, and the major one who exploits them ruthlessly. (Anatomy of Criticism, 168-9)

    Two things, then, are essential to satire; one is wit or humor founded on fantasy or a sense of the grotesque or absurd, the other is an object of attack. Attack without humor, or pure denunciation, forms one of the boundaries of satire. It is a very hazy boundary, because invective is one of the most readable forms of literary art, just as panegyric is one of the dullest. It is an established datum of literature that we like hearing people cursed and are bored with hearing them praised, and almost any denunciation, if vigorous enough, is followed by a reader with the kind of pleasure that soon breaks into a smile. (ibid., 224)

    Humor, like attack, is founded on convention. The world of humor is a rigidly stylized world in which generous Scotchmen, obedient wives, beloved mothers-in-law, and professors with presence of mind are not permitted to exist. All humor demands agreement that certain things, such as a picture of a wife beating her husband in a comic strip, are conventionally funny. To introduce a comic strip in which a husband beats his wife would distress the reader, because it would mean learning a new convention. The humor of pure fantasy, the other boundary of satire, belongs to romance, though it is uneasy there, as humor perceives the incongruous, and the conventions of romance are idealized. Most fantasy is pulled back into satire by a powerful undertow often called allegory, which may be described as the implicit reference to experience in the perception of the incongruous. The White Knight in Alice who felt that one should be provided for everything, and therefore put anklets around his horse’s feet to guard against the bites of sharks [Through the Looking Glass, chap. 8], may pass as pure fantasy. But when he goes on to sing an elaborate parody of Wordsworth [ibid.] we begin to sniff the acrid, pungent smell of satire, and when we take a second look at the White Knight we recognize a character type closely related both to Quixote and to the pedant of comedy. (ibid., 225)

    Yes, I think you are right in ascribing the failure of so many earnest men to a lack of humor. Humor arises from the perception of incongruities and discrepancies in human nature. The reformer is impatient of these discrepancies; he calls them the result of cynicism and skepticism. His outlook is too exclusive and narrow for them, because he wants to apply a few formulas to the world which, universally accepted, would cure all of that world’s evils. Now a man who has a panacea in any sphere is a quack. And a quack is always a nuisance, generally a menace. Whether he makes himself ridiculous or not depends on the amount of humor possessed by his portrayer or auditor, not on his own. (This is the sample of the workings of a mind with mould clinging to it, as aforesaid). (Frye to Helen Kemp, on his 20th birthday, 15 July 1922)

  3. Joseph Adamson

    Merv, you really put your finger on what is most unappealing about the new critical establishment: they are what Bakhtin calls agelasts, those who cannot laugh. Sartre had a word for the same type: les sérieux. In Rabelais the agelasts are always the defenders of official truth and they are always the targets of the wrath of Rabelais’s titanic laughter; like the pedants in Shakespeare Michael Happy alluded to in a previous post, Malvolios all, they are ritualistically ridiculed, thrashed, and chased out of the festive community.


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