David Richter: More on Frye and Bloom

Bible cartoon for blog

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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4 thoughts on “David Richter: More on Frye and Bloom

  1. Michael Happy

    I’m very grateful to David Richter for graciously taking up our invitation to post.

    Having read him through a couple of times, however, I’m struck by a few things. First, most of what Richter says with regard to Frye reads like quibbling. (I’ll leave it in the capable hands of people like Jonathan Allan when it comes to Bloom.) Do we really want to hang a wholesale assessment of Frye on the question of Joseph’s coat or his metaphorical extrapolation of the word “hevel”? (Moreover, if I remember correctly, Alter misrepresents Frye when he accuses him of mistranslating the word.) Second, Richter’s real problem seems to be that Frye is, well, Frye. In the post above he appears to be saying, “Okay, so the cycles may be there, but so what?” Fair enough. If you cannot see any significance in archetypes, no one’s holding a gun to your head. But for those of us who aren’t so dismissive, the patterns are there, they seem to be universal, and they do associate with “primary concerns” which — and this really is the key — can be distinguished from the “secondary concerns” of ideology. Like other people who are critical of Frye’s late works on the Bible, Richter makes no mention of the fact that a distinction between primary and secondary concerns is at the core of Frye’s objective when it comes to his two-volume study of “the Bible and literature.” To overlook a declared intention and to focus instead upon minutiae relating to debatable issues isn’t the way to go.

    Finally, Richter cannot really bring himself to admit that by identifying Frye and Bloom specifically as “chief whipping boys” he is stigmatizing them from the get-go. But I’m not sure “whipping boy” is really what Richter means here. A whipping boy is an innocent proxy, a scapegoat, one who is compelled to accept punishment in place of a presumed superior. From an egalitarian perspective, the institution is an affront, an expression of abused privilege. The proper term, therefore, the role Richter is actually setting Frye and Bloom up to play, is straw man.

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  2. Jonathan Allan

    This sounds like a Frye-ing of theory teaching: there must be heroes and villains – sounds like a romance. Of course, Professor Richter is right; in theory there are always heroes and villains, or, as Frye would put it, their value on the stock market is always in transition (ascent and descent?). I am always sent running when theorists value on the stock market climbs too high; the pharmakos, the whipping boy, the villain, etc., seem too interesting not to read. Why do theorists have values that are up and down? Why does theory as a general category seem to always be lost in a series of ascents and descents, establishing heroes, heroines, and villains? Of course, my reading here now makes theory into just another literary or creative text to be read. Likewise, Professor Richter is correct in another sense as well; theorists have their own whipping boys and Bloom’s whipping boy has become Frye; in a recent article Bloom notes: “Now, at seventy-eight, I would not have the patience to read anything by Frye.”

    As for Bloom, I cannot really speak to the Book of J. But, what does strike me is that Bloom in his book on Hamlet said he would never write about the personality of Jesus and then in Jesus and Yahweh does just that. Likewise, I cannot help but see Frye’s influence all over Bloom’s pages: from Shelley to present. Bloom, like Frye, lived through and by their theory; however, Bloom has yet to overcome the Anxiety of Influence. All this being said, I have found Bloom to be a fascinating critic of authors; but an even more fascinating critic when he manages to galvanize almost an entire establishment against him — one thing is certain, he has united most of theory against him, even when these theorists often disagree with one another.

    At any rate, Professor Richter’s course sounds to be exceptionally interesting precisely because of the way it negotiates the terrain of literary theory and Biblical texts. Sitting as a Frye supporter in the class would be all the more interesting — and I imagine it is an experience many young Frye scholars have had. I can certainly attest to being known as the “Frye guy” in a course on Romance where Jameson often had more capital than Frye; and moreover, I write and sit at the Centre for Comparative Literature which Frye established and where his name is all but hidden. But, at the very least, even if read as a “whipping boy,” Frye is being read. Thanks to Professor Richter for his comments.

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  3. Peter StirFrye Yan

    Systems of Thought

    Let me begin by thanking Prof. Richter for contributing to this blog which I hope he continues to do. Hopefully, he can offer more criticisms of Frye from his course and from his students.

    My only reservation about Richter’s approach is his dimissal of Frye’s work because of his *system*, used like a smear word to refute without examining the literary facts. As Frye would say, whatever ideas of his that is of use use, and dismiss all the rest. His “only’ system, is the heuristic assumption of “unity”, and a bricolage approach, what Richter puns as “Frye-association”. But that is a “creative” criticism approach which has served many critics well, even those who use AND abuse Frye.

    Clearly what is needed here is more critics on this blog, and more critics like Prof. Gill, who can straddle Frye and every other method of criticism. In other words, perhaps there is an underlying agreement among all schools of criticism, if we get beyond the surface ideology.

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  4. David Richter

    To Michael: I’m afraid that the line in my syllabus about Bloom and Frye was designed as advertising rather than argumentation, to attract students interested in contemporary theory as well as those interested in the Bible. But in a sense Bloom and Frye are indeed treated as whipping boys, whacked for the vices of others. Bloom can stand for all Biblical scholars, and their name is legion, who exaggerate the possibilities of source criticism; Frye can stand for all Biblical scholars who exaggerate the coherence of the Bible as a single whole text (a whole rather than a total or aggregation), or who use typology to read ancient Israelite legends and chronicles in terms of later Christian doctrines. I’m well aware that their reputations will survive any spanking I could give them.

    Jonathan: You’ll be happy to know that I’ve never taught the course without having a “Frye guy” aboard, and I assign him or her (usually it’s a him) the oral report for that session.

    Best holiday wishes to all on this Blog, may its shadow never diminish!

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