Among my family and friends, Northrop Frye, Canada’s greatest thinker, is the forbidden four letter F-word.
No small talk, gossip or conversation begins or ends without my mentioning his name. Back from the cottage? Frye says you re-enacted the Exodus story, escaping the city for your promised land. A fan of the Dougs, Flutie or Gilmour? Frye calls them the classic David/Goliath, underdog story. The success of The Blair Witch Project? Frye sees it as the ironic unhappy reversal of the Hansel/Gretel story, complete with witch, forest, trail of stones, and house. The demise of hockey czar, Alan Eagleson? Frye says life imitates literature, as Eagleson exploited players just like Bluebeard exploited his wives, until one dared to bring him down. My Ukrainian wife, Leah’s surprise “that the man of my dreams turns out to be a skinny Chinese guy”. Frye says beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, as my competition, the”tall, dark, and handsome” archetype, is, thankfully, a mass media construction.
Outside of the boxed holdings at U of T’s Victoria College, Frye’s Alma Mater, one of the greatest collection of Frye paraphernalia — autographs, out-of-print books, tape recordings, photos, films, videos, lecture notes, juvenilia, short stories, caricatures, cartoons, reviews, t-shirts, interviews, newsletters — belongs to me, a skinny Canadian Born Chinese Guy (CBC for short; American Born Chinese are ABCs). Frye fanatics at Victoria College were dubbed Fryedolators or SmallFrye. My best man, R. Bingham, christened me StirFrye.
So, why do I, and so many others, love Frye? The short and long answer: he takes us everywhere we want to go. And today, on the 19th anniversary of his death, after the tributes of more qualified and distinguished academics and writers, I have finally gathered enough nerve to pay tribute to the greatest 20th century literary critic, on behalf of his favourite audience — the non-specialist, reading lay public.
Like many readers, I first encountered Frye in ENG 101, in “The Motive for Metaphor,” an essay I read out of patriotic duty, as he and Atwood were the only Canadians represented. Reading Frye reminded me when I first read Revelations: understanding little, but the incredible rush of striking metaphors — in an essay, no less — clustered in my brain like a drug-induced dream, a Frye high for awakened minds. That piece led me to the rest of The Educated Imagination and his works.
Once when I inquired about his latest work at an Eaton’s bookstore, the shocked saleswoman replied, “Are you really into Frye or are you just trying to pick me up?” Then, I learned that I, a CBC, could use Frye’s ideas like an aphrodesiac. A combination of the Polemical Introduction in his Anatomy of Criticism and a bottle of Italian red wine is, I later found, a devasting combination on any female intellectual.
In a 3rd year Contemporary Literary Criticism course, one woman loved how I used Frye as a thread through the maze of warring critical schools. The renowned semiologist, Roland Barthes is really deep down a French Frye, as his mythology is what Frye calls an applied mythology or ideology. Deconstruction is Frye’s theory in reverse, as Frye shows unity among differences, while deconstructionists show difference among unity. Frye is a post-structuralist, as Frye inadvertently made literary criticism and literary critics as celebrated as literature and literary writers. Frye is the ultimate “both-and” post-modernist, as his work fuses both the sacred and the secular, mythos and logos, art and social science, literary theory and imaginative vision; he writes, in Harold Bloom’s phrase, prose poems or verse criticism.
From Frye’s single sentences or paragraphs, other literary critics would build careers. Bloom’s greatest theory of how writers wrestle with the anxiety of influence from an earlier writer, whose work is misread and reconstructed by the later writer, Frye explained 25 years earlier in his first book, Fearful Symmetry. A Bulgarian critic of Frye, Tzetvan Todorov, examines fiction in terms of sentence structure (nouns=characters; verbs=character actions; adjectives=character attributes); Frye illustrates this technique in a 1954 essay parsing philosophy (noun=the material world; verb=spirit, energy, will; adjectives=universals; adverb=values; conjunctions=relations).
Everywhere I want to go, from the Bible to history, from philosophy to psychology, from Zen koans to Shakespeare, Frye guides me, even into unexpected areas, like Canadian-Chinese culture. The question of the Canadian Identity is just as complicated as the question of the CBC Identity. Frye makes me feel both more Canadian and Chinese. Against a taunting racist, I quoted Frye’s idea that Canadian history included me, as Canada largely exists because of the quest for a Northwest Passage to the Orient.
Frye, too humble to admit it, is the synthesizing Critical Messiah he waited for in Anatomy of Criticism. His ideas inspired my high school students’ greatest revelations. In short, Frye helps my students see the role of literature in this mad, mad world; stories show us a world we want and do not want, reminding us the basic needs for life come first before any ideology. J. McGee, a former Gr. 12 student of mine wrote, “Besides the fact that my (relatively) poor English mark costed me thousands of dollars in scholarship money, you came closest to showing me how literature is just as important as math, computers and the sciences.” Frye’s writing is the operating system adaptable to any platform, the ultimate shareware, the great code which builds upon old programs and allows you to write new ones.
Everything I know I learned from Frye. Frye never wanted any disciples, as one usually betrays you. He never wished anyone to centre on his work unless it meant genuine freedom for them. Frye freed a great many readers, not to mention writers.
On behalf of your readers, writers, and students, whom your work and life inspired, thank you Professor Northrop Frye. May you always accept in the best spirit, the small requital from your students, who periodically change the words carved above the Victoria College entrance way, from The Truth Shall Make You Free to read The Truth Shall Make You Frye.
Rest in peace.
Northrop Frye July 14, 1912 – January 23, 1991