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.

The demand for a style, as opposed to a substance, is a powerful force in English studies: to achieve a style that is fundamentally hierophantic in outlook, that has no patience with mere readers.  I am not being anti-intellectual here, having been myself accused of writing books that are too difficult.  It is not intellectual difficulty that is the issue—it is an attitude of separating the initiated from “the rest.”  So forget de Man.  Consider the figures who are commanding the scene in recent years, for instance Deleuze.  Yes, we are dealing with translation, so we can perhaps set him aside.  The point is that much of academic writing is not intended to be understood, but to express an aura of intellectual authority.  This is something Frye never indulged in.  (And everyone knows that there is a lot more in Deleuze than there is in de Man, that’s for sure.)

In the elite world of the academy, there is something vulgar about Frye.  He should not be interested in educating but in impressing and controlling the world of ideas.

It is hard to imagine any influential critic or theorist saying that “any intelligent nineteen-year-old” should be able to understand what the commanding academic is uttering, even “the elementary principles” thereof.  But why shouldn’t an “intelligent nineteen-year-old” be able to understand?  Could it be that the writers who preoccupy graduate studies deliberately make their writing opaque or semi-opaque? that this is a cultural imperative of their situation? that, instead of wanting to communicate, their intention is to impress and intimidate, rather than inform? and therefore there is an inherent pressure to dwell on peripheral concerns and pointless or even bizarre trivia?

The case for this conclusion is strong.  I was once struck by this fact when one of the leading scholars in English studies said more or less this very thing to me in conversation.  I mentioned that I tried to write in as clear and direct a way as possible, because I wanted to communicate something and I didn’t want to be misunderstood.  The response of this great scholar and critic was: “Not too clearly! You don’t want to write too clearly!” plainly indicating that mystification was part of the function of the academic at the present time . . .  It is true that Fredric Jameson argues that clarity of expression is a bourgeois indulgence and an illusion: a peculiar conclusion for a Marxist, when Marx himself writes with stunning clarity combined with a massive scholarship (and, yes, there are difficult passages in Marx).

There are many directions to take with this point, but the one that strikes me most forcibly is that Frye had a deep and lifelong interest in education—in education as a technical field, so to speak, not education in the sense of merely accumulating acolytes to spread incense around his reputation.  When I say he had a technical interest, I mean that he respected teachers and the teaching profession.  He helped in the formation of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, for example.

His writings on education are voluminous, as the great collection edited by Jean O’Grady and Goldwin French make plain.  This body of writing is as profound and valuable as anything he wrote.  There is so much in this collection that deserves attention and that is in fact radical and at times scathing in its views of established practices and beliefs.  He wrote about education even at the elementary school level, as in his wonderful essay “Elementary Teaching and Elementary Scholarship” (available to read at the above link).  This essay has always stood out for me, because I have taught Children’s Literature at university, among many other subjects, and no one who teaches in that area can miss the disdain with which Children’s Literature is viewed by the commanding heights of the academy.  Derrida did not write about Alice in Wonderland, though he wrote about almost everything else, from circumcision to apartheid.

Frye, by contrast, was interested in Children’s Literature and frequently refers to it, even in Anatomy of Criticism itself, where he presents significant observations about Alice in Wonderland (a favourite of Frye, as of so many intellectuals), The Jungle Book, The Thirteen Clocks, The Water-Babies, and Tom Sawyer (elsewhere other Children’s books, including At the Back of the North Wind).  He was interested in children, even though he didn’t have any of his own.  He was interested in children’s education; he even prepared a high school English curriculum, and worked for years on texts and editions intended for student use.  He explicitly preferred the undergraduate library.  Perhaps most telling, he preferred teaching undergraduates.  I often think of his remark about teaching graduate students in the United States, that the “echo of their horrid articulateness echoes in my ear to this day” (possibly misquoted).

What an unusual pattern in the scholarly world!  In academia, scholars are normally preoccupied with the prestigious aim of teaching less and less—of limiting the teaching that they do to graduate students, who will be the bearers of their personal influence.  What does this pattern say about Frye?

One thing it definitely says is that Frye wanted to communicate.  He had a passionate wish to reach people, not just specialized students in specialized schools, but society at large.  This is one reason why Frye is so often referred to now by intellectuals outside of English, not by English professors, who believe that Frye is unspeakably unfashionable, like long hair or bell-bottoms or granny glasses.  But Frye remains  a living presence with many people, from Margaret Atwood to John Ralston Saul to Bill Moyers.

If you want to communicate, you are going to do your utmost to express your ideas as clearly as possible.  You are going to be unusually conscious of the basic patterns or shape of your thought, and Frye was definitely unusual in his preoccupation with the big picture (as well as studying the tiny details that reveal more than mere details are thought to).  He was unusually aware of the basic assumptions he was working with, and did his best to communicate what those assumptions were.

This did not prevent Frye from being misunderstood.  On the contrary, his attempt to communicate notwithstanding, he was constantly attacked for saying things he did not say.  One has only to look at Robert Denham’s compilation of reviews of Frye’s books to see that Frye was never that popular with academics, who seemed to sense that Frye did not belong to their particular caste.  Students responded avidly, but colleagues did not.  Frye was never a bandwagon, despite his brief but intense period of influence, accompanied and followed by years of misrepresentation and incessant belittlement.

Is it ironic, given this misrepresentation and hostility, that Frye wanted so deeply to communicate?

Communication mattered to Frye, because he was interested in education, and this interest had an evangelizing dimension.  “Communication” meant “community” to Frye.  He wanted to stimulate interest in literature, not just study it.  Education in turn was much bigger to him than knowing more about writers who have been dead a long time.  It was about renewing and transforming society.  It was about liberation.

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4 thoughts on “Mervyn Nicholson: Frye Was Different (4)

  1. Robert D. Denham

    Or younger than nineteen?

    The separation of images into the contrasting worlds or states of mind that Blake calls innocence and experience, and that religions call heaven and hell, is the dialectical framework of literature, and is the aspect of it that enables literature, without moralizing, to create a moral reality in imaginative experience. The full understanding of these two structures is complicated for the teacher, but their elementary principles are exceedingly simple, and can be demonstrated to any class of normally intelligent fifteen-year-olds. Analysis of this simple kind is, in my opinion, the key to understanding, not merely the conventions and the major genres of literature, but the much more important fact that literature, considered as a whole, is not the aggregate of all the works of literature that have got written, but an order of words, a coherent field of study which trains the imagination quite as systematically and efficiently as the sciences train the reason. If the teacher can communicate this principle, he will have done all he can for his student. (N. Frye, “Elementary Teaching and Elemental Scholarship”)

    I did not begin to believe in my own critical theories until I began to see ways of applying them to elementary education. In a book published over twenty years ago, I wrote that literature is not a coherent subject at all unless its elementary principles could be explained to any intelligent nineteen-year-old [Anatomy of Criticism, 14]. Since then, Buckminster Fuller has remarked that unless a first principle can be grasped by a six-year-old, it is not really a first principle, and perhaps his statement is more nearly right than mine. My estimate of the age at which a person can grasp the elementary principles of literature has been steadily going down over the last twenty years. So I am genuinely honoured to be able to pay tribute to an educator who has always insisted on the central importance of children’s literature. (N. Frye, “Criticism as Education”)

  2. Clayton Chrusch

    Tolstoy, I believe, spoke about an affectionate 7 year-old boy as his standard audience. I haven’t been able to track down the quote, but I think it was in _What is Art?_

  3. Robert D. Denham

    Brenda Ueland, author of the classic If You Want to Write, quotes Tolstoy to the effect that “There is nothing in the world that should not be expressed in such a way that an affectionate seven-year-old boy can see and understand it.” I suspect she is thinking of Tolstoy’s letter to A. M. Kalmykova, a.k.a, “A Letter to Russian Liberals,” 31 August 1896. “So that two methods of opposing the Government have been tried, both unsuccessfully, and it now remains, to try a third and last method, one not yet tried, but one which, I think, cannot but be successful. Briefly, it is this: That all enlightened and honest people should try to be as good as they can; and not even good in all respects but only in one, namely, in observing one of the most elementary virtues-to be honest and not to lie, but so to act and speak that your motives should be intelligible to an affectionate seven-year-old boy; to act so that your boy should not say: ‘But why, papa, did you say so-and-so, and now you do and say something quite different?’ This method seems very weak, and yet I am convinced that it is this method, and this method alone, that has moved humanity since the race began.”


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