Monthly Archives: January 2010

Frye on Salinger


Interviewer: Do you mean to imply by this that there have been no important new writers or styles since the 1930s?

Frye: No, no. There is no dearth of new writers and new styles. Norman Mailer has been classed as an important new writer.

Interviewer: What do you think of his work?

Frye: Personally, I find his books rather lengthy and somewhat insensitive. That is not to suggest of course that he lacks integrity—I don’t think he does. And then I can only make a personal judgment, not a critical one, since I have never read his books that closely.

Interviewer: What about J.D. Salinger?

Frye: Ah yes! Now there is someone with whom I have much more affinity. His, I think, is a really unique insight into life in this era. Mind you, his preoccupation with Zen and Oriental culture does strike me as a bit phoney. But his study of the Daemon child, for instance, is awfully well done. There is nobody else I know who has done quite that thing. And this work is not just important as an “adolescent scream” to be put on university reading courses because students can easily identify with the characters. It has great tragic and ironic implications. Of course this has very little to do with its wide popularity. Like Nabokov’s Lolita, it is an example of a substantial piece of fiction of this era which has been widely read not for the things that make it great but for its incidental appeal to a certain audience.

Salinger’s Concrete Universal


Value judgments are a lie
Find the patterns that apply
Squeeze out Hamlet, let it dry
Presto! Catcher in the Rye.

[A poem that circulated among Victoria College students in the 1980s.]

Salinger’s book is my favourite, a work that explained to me my feelings of alienation while growing up as a C.B.C. (Canadian Born Chinese) split between two worlds, Chinese and Canadian, and wanting to be accepted by both. Perhaps that’s one reason why early on I loved English Literature so much: it was a way to be accepted by the ascendant class in Toronto during the 1970s. How much more Canadian can I be if I studied the literature?

Too bad racists are philistines. But I digress.

Frye helped explain my love of The Catcher in the Rye: The Concrete Universal. By being so specific, the novel speaks universally, beyond the limits of its time and place and setting.

It is a work situated somewhere in phase 1 of Satire/Comedy, which may also explain the universal power of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Frye helped me see that the latter is the mythical opposite of Catcher, a full blown Quest Romance/phase 2 Satire. Both protagonists skip school. Both travel through a big city. Both have dates. Both have a kid sister integral to the resolution. The difference is in the power of the main character when confronted by society. Ferris is one with his society. Holden is not, until the very end — the last line, in fact. Those who say Catcher is a depressing book are guilty of a substantial misreading. It has saved me on several occasions.

Thank you J.D. Salinger.  And, as always, thank you Northrop Frye.

The Demonic and Desire


Responding to Michael Happy’s post

I am glad you posted on demonic modulation, Michael, because I think demonic parody is integral to Frye’s conception of Romance, which itself seems integral to his view of literature in relation to primary concerns.

It may be useful to consider demonic modulation in terms the Anatomy’s description of demonic imagery and parody. The apocalyptic world, Frye writes, “present, in the first place, the categories of reality in the forms of human desire, as indicated by the forms they assume under the work of human civilization.” Demonic imagery embodies what desire rejects, and “one of the central themes of demonic imagery is parody, the mocking of the exuberant play of art by suggesting its imitation in terms of ‘real life.’”. In The Secular Scripture he points out that, as the conventions of myth and Romance become gradually displaced into “realist” modes, there is also a parallel gradation of parody serving to assimilate those conventions.

This might provide for an alliance between demonic modulation, which relates to the inversion of customary associations, and the Promethean Furnace in Words with Power. “The world of titans,” Frye writes, “has usually been regarded as simply evil, and the word ‘demonic’ is normally used… to mean a death-centered parody of human life.” (pg. 276). However, “Prometheus is the patron of the attitude, which has sporadically appeared in literature ever since Lucretius, of ignoring the gods on the ground that even if they exist they can only be alien beings unconcerned with human life.” (pg. 277). In this modulation, what would customarily be associated with the demonic is in fact an affirmation of life through desire, over a world that more closely resembles our own.

That is to say that there comes a point when what is displaced in the text, because it is repressed by the ascendant moral values it flaunts, becomes in fact a life affirming principle. Prometheus becomes Christ-like, the demonic becomes apocalyptic. This may inform the simple and more humane Robin Hood motifs that run through Literature, and our experience, from Huckleberry Finn protecting Jim from the slave “masters”, to what makes it obscene for certain ideologies to speak against aid for suffering countries. And it is why, for example, the homophobic (and perhaps homicidal) work of Christian evangelicals in Uganda has been so repellent a parody of the Christian exhortation to good works.

More from Frye on Relevance


Herbert Marcuse

Frye on Zweckwissenschaft:

One main theme of Part Three is: the N-S axis of concern is revolutionary, & the W-E one is liberal, not speculative, but simply broadening & enlarging. Revolutionary characteristics are: the enforced loyalty of a minority group (Jews, early Christians); belief in a unique historical revelation; resistance to “revisionism”; establishment of a rigorous canon of myth; rejection of knowledge for its own sake (demand for relevance or Zweckwissenschaft). Judaism was the only revolutionary monotheism produced in the ancient world, and Christianity inherited the characteristics that made Tacitus scream & Marcus Aurelius talk about their parataxis [sheer obstinacy].

(The “Third Book” Notebooks, Notebook 12, par. 304)

A certain amount of contemporary agitation seems to be beating the track of the “think with your blood” exhortations of the Nazis a generation ago, for whom also “relevance” (Zweckwissenschaft, u.s.w.) was a constant watchword. Such agitation aims, consciously or unconsciously, at a closed myth of concern, which is thought of as already containing all the essential answers, at least potentially, so that it contains the power of veto over scholarship and imagination. Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance,” that concerned issues have a right and a wrong side, and that those who are simply right need not bother tolerating those who are merely wrong, is typical of the kind of hysteria that an age like ours throws up. That age is so precariously balanced, however, that a closed myth can only maintain a static tyranny until it is blown to pieces, either externally in war or internally through the explosion of what it tries to suppress.

(The Critical Path, 155)

Demonic Modulation


The Educated Imagination was the first book by Frye I read, and it’s therefore always a touchstone for me.  You never forget your first love. Meanwhile, Fearful Symmetry remains Frye’s most mind-blowing text, The Great Code his most challenging, and Words With Power his most expansive for practical critical purposes.  But like many Frygians, I’m guessing, I regularly return to Anatomy of Criticism, and, it seems, almost involuntarily. Every once in awhile I find myself preoccupied by something from it that I seem to recall out of the blue.  Thanks to an email exchange with Peter Yan and the cumulative effect of posts over the last week or so, I have been pondering an issue Frye briefly raises in Anatomy that gets relatively little attention (the exception perhaps being Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye and Critical Method): “demonic modulation.”

With demonic modulation Frye makes a much needed distinction between “the moral” and “the desirable”:

The moral and the desirable have many important and significant connections, but still morality, which comes to terms with experience and necessity, is one thing, and desire, which tries to escape from necessity, is quite another. Thus literature is as a rule less inflexible than morality, and it owes much of its status as a liberal art to that fact. The qualities that religion and morality call ribald, obscene, subversive, lewd and blasphemous have an essential place in literature but often they can achieve expression only through ingenious techniques of displacement. (AC 156)

How does demonic modulation manage this? By way of “the deliberate reversal of the customary moral associations of archetypes.”  For example, in literature, whatever the current status of received moral standards,

a free and equal society may be symbolized by a band of robbers, pirates, or gypsies; or true love may be symbolized by the triumph of an adulterous liaison over marriage, as in most triangle comedy; by a homosexual passion (if it is true love that is celebrated in Virgil’s second eclogue) or an incestuous one, as in many Romantics. (AC 156-7)

A.C. Hamilton in Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism describes Anatomy, published in 1957, as very much a book of its time — so Frye’s reference to various forms of forbidden love as “modulations” must have been eyebrow-raising for many conventionally-minded readers.  Frye does not call it that here, but what he is clearly talking about is literature’s unique ability to express primary concerns beyond the pervasive gravitational pull of secondary ones.

I’m pretty sure I can remember the first time I ever became aware of this in my own reading experience: Graham Green’s The Power and the Glory, which was an assigned text back when I was in the 11th grade.  I remember struggling with the contradiction between Greene’s “whiskey priest”‘s all too human frailty and his compelling nature as a human being I felt I could love and identify with, despite his obvious failings.  I’m also pretty sure that even though I wondered about it at the time, I was nevertheless grateful to accept that it was so. Literature was showing me something I otherwise couldn’t account for with any certainty; and within a year I read The Educated Imagination for the first time which articulated what I in some sense already knew but simply could not yet say.

Literature references ideology but does not promote it.  Literature gives expression to primary concerns, most especially when they are contrary to the ideologies that readily suppress them.  Desire may on occasion be moral, but the moral can never contain desire — and in the struggle between the moral as a secondary concern and desire as a primary one, desire always prevails.  That, paraphrasing Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, is what fiction means.

“Something threatening about Frye”


Glen R. Gill’s Northrop Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth

Responding to Merv Nicholson’s post

The recent posts recalling the death of Northrop Frye have been incredibly interesting to read, especially from the position of someone who was seven when Frye died.

Indeed, there is, as Merv suggests, something “threatening about Frye.” I was trained in theory –“high theory”– and was frustrated. One professor suggested I read Anatomy of Criticism; I read it and was convinced. I haven’t looked back. Frye is a powerful thinker and one who forces us to think deeply and critically about literature in and of itself and then allows us to move outward from it. So much of the current academy is concerned with the “extra-literary,” as Wellek might call it. In some regards, Frye says: yes, you can have it both ways. But Frye demands that if we dp have it “both ways,” that it be done well. Frye masterfully treats literature as literature, but also always seems to be able to relate it to the “real” world.

I am still not certain about Frye and Bloom. I don’t think that Bloom ever usurped or replaced Frye (despite many attempts); likewise, Frye was certainly quite critical of Bloom’s project. The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading are perhaps the greatest attempts to distance and displace Frye, but, in the attempt they actually begin to reconfirm Frye’s importance.  The same can be said, I think, of Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious. In some ways, I wonder if Frye is “dead” when he has arguably influenced  some of the most important theorists currently writing; the two mentioned above, for instance (I also think of Tzvetan Todorov and Roland Barthes here), but also someone like Emily Apter who delivered two astounding lectures as Northrop Frye Professor of Literary Theory at the Centre for Comparative Literature. These lectures were not direct dialogues with Frye, but they were certainly, I would argue, (polemical) engagements with Frye. It would seem that there is a “new generation,” although perhaps a quiet generation right now.  But there have been some loud cries; for example, Northrop Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth (2006) by Glen Robert Gill which is, without doubt, an impressive reading of Frye.



Responding to Peter Yan’s comment in Russell Perkin’s earlier post

Yes, Frye cites the Nazi term Zweckwissenschaft, which means target-knowledge; the Nazis may have invented it, but it is a term very relevant to what has been going on in universities for some time now.

For example, in my faculty we are constantly reminded that the best way to get funding is to link your research in some way to the “purposive” areas of research in the university, such as areas of medical research, neuro-science, business. So we end up, for example, with funding in our faculty for a program in music and neuro-science. This is one reason, I think, for the success of cultural studies: it is a discipline that applies tenets of existing social sciences such as sociology to the contemporary cultural scene and thus it presents itself in a very direct and obvious way as socially “relevant.” In addition, courses on popular media, music, and visual culture fill the seats. You may not be as relevant as the medical and business schools, but you can be forgiven if you draw in students.

The seductiveness of relevance also explains the allure of evo-criticism, neuro-criticism, cognitive criticism: the more scientific you are the more relevant you can claim to be. This is not of course in any way what Frye meant by making literary criticism scientific. It is, in fact, a flagrant instance of what he inveighed against in Anatomy, the turning of literary criticism to other disciplines for its authority.

Literary scholars feel the pressure to prove their usefulness, and, unfortunately, the strong argument that Frye makes about the inherently prophetic and counter-cultural authority of literature and the arts in society–the social context of literary criticism he discusses in The Critical Path–is not what most university administrators have in mind. They are, as their institutions dictate, mostly “pigs,” in ) Rohan Maitzen’s (and Mill’s) sense of the word.

Relgious Knowledge, Lecture 16


Macbeth, First Folio, 1623

Lecture 16. February 3, 1948


Aristotle’s catharsis means that the audience is not to have pity or fear.  The correct response is: the hero is a man suffering from the tragic flaw; how very like things are. The Greek idea of fate was not external; it is the way things always happen.  The law of human life is not moral, but a law nevertheless.

Tragedy is a kind of implicit comedy.  It is the full statement of which comedy gives only a part.  The complete story of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is a comedy.  The implicit resurrection gives balance and serenity.  Tragedy completes itself as comedy. The story of Christ has no ultimate tragedy.  Death is a tragedy, but there is resurrection here.

In other tragedies the hero dies on stage and he revives in the mind of the audience.  Tragedy is the development of the ritual of sacrifice.  The typical act is the death of the central figure, the king or prince in whose death the people find life.  Aristotle’s catharsis is not a moral quality.  It casts out pity and fear, which are moral good and moral evil.

To say that Macbeth is a bad man is the reaction of terror, of moral evil.  Sympathy with him on the grounds of fate, his wife’s influence, etc., is pity: moral sympathy with the hero.  The real function of tragedy gets beyond moral reaction.  The point is not whether Macbeth was good or bad.  Tragedy goes beyond that.  The catharsis in the audience is that the dead man on the stage is alive in them.  The audience is united in the death of the hero.  Modern tragedies are moral in that they stimulate sympathy or condemnation.  Shaw’s St. Joan is moral.  In King Lear, though,  his death is a release. He attempted to find divinity in his kingship and failed. He found it in suffering humanity.

From the spectator’s point of view, Job is funny.  The watcher is released from the action and his perspective, therefore, is one of comedy.  Tragedy has the reversal of perspective.  Tragedy is a work of art seen from the spectator’s point of view as entertainment.  Hamlet asks to be written up: Othello, the same. Tragedy has a point when limited in art form and seen by an audience.

The audience’s perspective is comic because they are the watchers.  The tragic hero is unaware of the humiliation of being watched.  Lear is mercifully unaware of this when scampering around the stage mad.  Hamlet feels that all eyes are upon him.  He feels this to such a point that he takes it out on Ophelia.  He kills Polonius because he is being watched.  In Aeschylus’ Prometheus, he is stretched out on a rock.  He speaks first so that people won’t stare at him.  He says, “Behold the spectacle.”

Job sees God as an inscrutable watcher.  In Chapter 7. he describes his fallen state––no sense in what happens––if there is a God who doesn’t interfere, then he is merely the watcher, and this is unbearable to Job.  Verse 11: “Am I a sea or a whale that thou settest a watch over me?”  Verse 8: “The eye of him that hath seen me shall see me no more; thine eyes are upon me and I am not.”  A sense of loneliness, but of being watched.

Othello’s black skin means that all eyes are drawn to him.  Here, it is subtler.  The comforters are not making fun of Job.  But sympathy is harder to put up with then ridicule.  Job knows God acts — but why this way?  It worries Job.

Continue reading