David Richter: Frye and Bloom


David Richter, who teaches the course on Biblical Narrative at Queens College in which “the chief whipping boys” are “Harold Bloom and Northrop Frye,” responds to our posting a portion of the course outline:

As I said elsewhere (a review of Frye and the Word, UToronto Pr, 2004):

The Great Code and its successor volumes on the Bible were… much less influential than Frye’s Anatomy [because] Frye was much better at explaining Everything than at explaining any individual thing. And the Bible, despite Frye’s insistence on its overarching unity, stubbornly remains an anthology of wildly disparate items, created over more than a millennium, and transmitted over two more with unpredictable vagaries of editing and translation. Frye understood William Blake’s Bible without any more Hebrew or Greek than Blake himself knew, and perhaps thought no more could be needed. He did not set himself to learn its languages and contemned its scholarly and critical tools, which may seem strange in a man whose ambition it had once been to make literary study more scientific.

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4 thoughts on “David Richter: Frye and Bloom

  1. Michael Happy

    I’ve invited David Richter to elaborate a little further on his comments.

    Two things for the time being, however. First, I don’t think any serious Frye scholar accepts that “Frye was much better at explaining Everything than at explaining any individual thing.” It’s an old charge that evidently still gets repeated and is demonstrably not so. Frye’s close reading of just about any text is always a pretty startling experience because of its detail and extraordinary clarity. Second, Frye openly admits that the Bible is in fact, “ta biblia,” or little books, but that it also has a discernible narrative shape (enhanced by its unique typological arrangement) as well a recognizable pattern of imagery. He suggests, therefore, that as a *literary* critic he has something to say about it, whatever other scholarly approaches to the Bible may be applicable to the study of it.

    Finally, I’m still a little shocked by the “whipping boy” analogy, which does seem symptomatic of the casually disdainful dismissal Frye has received in a number of scholarly quarters. It seems to be motivated by a desire to diminish Frye and exclude him out of hand from scholarly debate, which is hard to justify under any circumstances. Frye is not a crank. However 20th century criticism shakes out in the long run, there’s no use pretending that Frye was not there, that he didn’t enjoy a worldwide influence, that the full nature of his critical vision is still not understood by an academic mainstream that reflexively dismisses it, and that his contributions to literary criticism arguably still surpass just about anything that superseded them.

  2. Jonathan Allan

    There is something here that doesn’t seem quite right; Frye was initially trained as a theologian and a literary critic. This seems evident throughout his work and the task of negotiating the two tasks – theology and literary criticism – ought not to be easy. Likewise, to read just Frye’s Bible books now, without taking into consideration the lectures (CW XIII) and the numerous notebooks that make up Frye’s intellectual odyssey (esp. CW V, VI) seems to be something of an intellectual dishonesty. Frye had many doubts and many questions about his readings — and in many cases, as Michael Happy points out, Frye’s close readings are astounding, consider, for instance, his readings of romance; of course, if he is not good at explaining “the individual thing,” one wonders how one accounts for Fearful Symmetry.

    On another note, and though this is a blog devoted to Frye, the whipping boy analogy also seems, as Michael Happy says of Frye, “symptomatic of the casually disdainful dismissal [Bloom] has received.” To dismiss either of these critics seems an intellectual dishonesty, to repeat, insofar as it seems much of this course would be devoted to, well, reading them both. One must, I should imagine, read both Bloom and Frye closely before positioning them as “whipping boys.” For instance, how much is lost when the reader hasn’t fully absorbed Frye and/or Bloom? Likewise, and my own interest influences this question: what is lost when Bloom and Frye aren’t read in discussion with one another?

    There is yet another issue which both Bloom and Frye note over and over again in private and public writings; Harold Bloom writes, “[i]n later years, whenever I lectured at Toronto, Frye would introduce me with considerable polemical fervor, making clear that his Methodist Platonism was very different from my Jewish Gnosticism. I place this upon record, since I have come to praise Frye in this foreword, though with a certain ambivalence” (vii, in Anatomy of Criticism). Religion separated the two scholars and critics on many occasions and thus positioning them both as “whipping boys” seems all the more interesting since they are serving a function of sameness rather than difference, a difference they both pointed out and demanded of one another.

  3. David Richter

    Both Frye and Bloom have written some interesting and even wise things about specific Biblical texts, and I hope my course does them justice, but both of them have a “system” for reading literature into which Biblical texts are fitted, sometimes in Procrustes’ manner, by main force, and both of them have the habit, common with us professors, of pushing their commentary beyond their specific knowledge base of history and language.

    *The Book of J* is an embarrassment even to those who find Bloom’s other books admirable because he grounds his commentary on a grotesque translation by David Rosenberg rather than on a more reliable English version (the RSV would have been far better) or on the Hebrew original, which he evidently cannot read since he makes such elementary mistakes. His theory of the authorship of the J narratives says more about Bloom himself and his quarrel with the feminists than about the narratives. But I find his analysis of Yahweh as an uncanny character in some of the J stories genuinely interesting.

    Whenever Frye alludes to the Hebrew original he is accurate more often than not (his batting average is way ahead of Harold Bloom’s); his mistranslation of *hevel* as “fog,” for which Robert Alter skewered him is not a typical mistake.

    And there is nothing wrong with his cyclical vision of Biblical history except that any narrative that includes a number of periods of independence and prosperity alternating with periods of oppression and want can be made into a set of cycles. (Frye wasn’t the only one to employ “circular” reasoning like this: a different version of Frye’s cycles on p. 171 of *The Great Code* appears in “The Sacred Center,” an early article by the great Biblical scholar Michael Fishbane. And sports writers do it all the time, of course, with their cycles of “winning streaks” and “losing streaks.”)

    And I guess I can’t quarrel with the way everything in the Bible seems to be squeezed into the categories of *Anatomy of Criticism*, since many of those categories sprang in the first place from Frye’s readings of the Bible.

    I expect my main problem with Frye is the way he free-associates (or should I say frye-associates) in ways that I simply cannot follow (e.g., Joseph’s “coat of many colors” suggests to Frye that Joseph is a fertility god). Maybe I’m dim but I don’t see the connection, and whether it would disappear if we were to translate *ketonet pasim* correctly.

    In Myth II of *The Great Code*, Frye gives us a moving analysis of the book of Job, much of the time, but we get sentences like “The reintegration of the human community is followed by the transfiguration of nature, in its humanized pastoral form. One of Job’s beautiful new daughters has a name meaning a box of eye shadow.”

    This is not just distracting. The narratives, which are often intricately shaped at the level of incident and the level of language, simply disappear into this network of frye-associations. And Biblical characters, some of whom, like Jacob and David, we can follow from youth through maturity to old age and death, disappear into their other avatars.

    Similarly, Frye knows that “ha-satan” in OT narratives like Numbers 22 and Job 1-2 is a servant of the LORD and not His demonic adversary as in Mark 1:13 and elsewhere in the NT, but Frye can’t help conflating them, even though he knows better, and even though it totally distorts the Hebrew narratives.

    Anyway, I do want to back-pedal a little from my “whipping boys” quip in the syllabus. Whenever I teach theory, and not just in my Biblical Narratology course, everyone is a hero and everyone is a whipping boy, as we try to see both the powers and the limitations of the method of each critic my students and I read together. It isn’t just Bloom and Frye, we also see Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg and Mieke Bal and Jan Fokkelman in the same critical light, as having questions they can answer and questions they can’t even ask. And I wouldn’t include Bloom and Frye in my syllabus if I didn’t think they had interesting methods and interesting things to say using them.


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