Bob Rodgers: Getting to Know Northrop Frye


Bob Rodgers is a documentary filmmaker, TV producer, and writer, currently developing a web-based series titled “The Bible and Literature with Northrop Frye.”

I am fresh from the West when I join Northrop Frye’s graduate class at the University of Toronto in 1959. I know his reputation: Fearful Symmetry is twelve years old, Anatomy of Criticism barely two. Frye is already approaching canonization in the world of literary criticism and celebrity status at the University of Toronto. What comes as a shock is his appearance. He enters the room so unobtrusively it is as though he simply materializes from behind the podium, one eye eagle sharp as it surveys the room, the other with a slightly drooping eyelid as if out of shyness. Or is it irony? Setting Blake’s Collected Works, his only prop, on the podium and gazing at us through glasses that seem to be the wrong prescription, he falls short of the glamorous figure I had anticipated.

Then moments after he begins speaking I forget where I am. I am hearing things as if in a foreign language, yet I seem to understand. As one startling idea follows another I am dazzled by the reach of his mind. At the end of class I haltingly approach him and am granted an interview to discuss my proposal for a term paper. I’m nervous. It is one thing to sit in the relative anonymity of a classroom, quite another to sit across from him face to face.

The doorway between the marble hallway and the hardwood floor of his office in old Emmanuel College has a slightly raised sill I fail to notice. I catch my toe on it and trip. In an effort to regain my balance, I lunge forward, stopping just before crashing into his desk. He looks up in alarm, rising half from his chair as if to fend off a tackle. It is an unpropitious beginning for my proposed topic: William Blake and the Dynamics of Energy and Order.

The imposing yet aloof man I met that day (once he settled back in his chair) was nothing like the man I am coming to know all these years later as I read away at U of T Press’s mammoth publishing enterprise, The Collected Works of Northrop Frye. I am especially interested in the diaries and letters and notebooks that bring out his personal side, and not just one side but many—the self-confessed physical coward, the self-confessed genius, the frustrated novelist and unfulfilled composer, the reluctant introvert and what many would call the dangerous heretic. Most of all I was surprised by his liberal use of what he playfully called dirty words, which would have shocked his orthodox Methodist family and no doubt did shock some of his Victoria College contemporaries. I remember when I was young feeling the same surprise when I learned that Roosevelt had a mistress.

The published works seem certain to establish Frye’s reputation as one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest humanists. The voice is distinctive but impersonal. Only in the previously unpublished writing do we come into contact with the inner man, by way of an unceasing self evaluation in which nothing personal is censored. How many writers would hazard a remark like this that so notoriously troubled Harold Bloom:

Statement for the Day of my Death. The twentieth century saw an amazing development of scholarship and criticism in the humanities, carried out by people who were more intelligent, better trained, had more languages, had a better sense of proportion, and were infinitely more accurate scholars and professional men than I. I had genius. No one else in the field known to me had quite that.

Could these be the words of a braggart? Given what I remember as a student and what I’m learning of the man today as I go through the notebooks, all I can do is applaud him for acknowledging his gift and having the courage to declare it. Nietzsche was right. It is impossible to be a genius and not know it.

Ego was something Frye despised. Following William Blake he viewed selfhood as a consequence of the fall of man, if not the root cause. Yet being a man he knew it was something he could not deny in himself, only remain alert to and struggle against. One way he did that was to subject his physical timidity to ruthless self-analysis:

A weak body led me through an unhappy adolescence into a state of chronic irritability, a neurotic fear of being bullied by vulgarity, and a deeply rooted sissy complex. The result is a constant sense of spinsterish outrage fostered by panic & laziness, & fended off only by a relatively comfortable life. The creator of that irritation blends into a resentful memory of the bully I ran away from, and wish to hell I’d beaten up. I never scored a victory as many children do, & in fact never rose to an occasion: cowardice was bred in me, as it is regularly, by premature, over-active, and perverse imagination.

When I knew him, for some reason I never imagined a man so reserved and unassertive in manner having an especially noteworthy sex life, let alone indulging in such adroit (albeit fanciful) seduction strategies as this:

If were younger and could hold an erection, & were interested in the pursuit of women, I wouldn’t pursue them: I’d pretend to be interested in something else until they came up to me, virgins to a unicorn.

This is not the sedate man of letters I remember from seminars and lecture halls. Still this kind of mental meandering was anathema to Frye, an almost sinful waste of psychic energy. He called it “…inner chatter … the drunken monkey … making more noise than a punk rock band.” It scares me to think about the kind of mental discipline he expected of himself. If he felt he wasted valuable time on frivolous distractions, what’s to be said for the rest of us?

In some circles literary critics, even the most widely respected ones, are looked upon as literature’s shoe horns, even its salesmen. The argument is simple: authors are creative; critics are parasites. Frye would have none of that, insisting that criticism is a discipline in its own right and should emerge, as biology and geology and psychology did in the 19th century, as a coherent body of knowledge requiring trained practitioners to unlock the complex workings and mythological roots of the human imagination; not just as a polite service to society but as providers of clues to its salvation.

Yet even though criticism could be as creative as literature, Frye longed to write a work of fiction. He speculated again and again in the notebooks about what kind of work it would be–science fiction maybe, or something supernatural, some genre yet to be crystallized from the moribund forms of the novel, something bridging phenomena and the numinous with a realistic surface. Nothing got written along these lines, or if it did nothing survived.

Music was his great passion. He played piano, some said better than he typed. His knowledge of musical structure and its application to language remains the most complex section of The Anatomy of Criticism. What came as another big surprise to me in the notebooks was his claim, at different times, that what he really wanted to be all his life was a composer. Here was the great critic, fashioner of the most comprehensive and syncretic theory of literature since Aristotle, confessing that it was music he loved best.

Once The Anatomy of Criticism was finished Frye returned from the rarefied plain of aesthetic theory to the elucidation of individual works, and more and more to the social relevance of literature. His lectures, like his writings, are laced with aphorisms on the contemporize state of society, as in this excerpt from his 1982 television lectures on the Bible:

There are many contexts where the kingship metaphor is a very dangerous idol, and it is because of the dangers in it that democracy has replaced the ritual humiliation of the king with the periodic election in which, according to the theory, if you get enough individual imbecilities added together, you get a collective wisdom.

The notebooks contain many squibs and ironic asides of this kind, although their tone can be more abrasive and their metaphors more graphic than he allowed them to be in his public lectures and critical essays.

Nobody ever writes his dream book, like Coleridge’s treatise on the Logos. That’s why we make scholars finish a thesis first, that is, a book which, almost by definition, nobody wants to write or to read, to show how closely the reproductive & excretory systems are connected

I don’t think anyone (certainly not me as a youthful fan of Steppenwolf) realized how critical Frye was of the way things were going in academe.

I started reading Steppenwolf in the sixties when every fool in the country was trying to identify with Steppenwolf. I couldn’t stand the self-pitying whine of someone totally dependent on middle-class values. The next stage is when you try to raise your opinion of yourself. Like the wrestler: I got so fuckin’ tied up all I could see was a big arse in frunna me, so I takes a bite of it, and, Christ, it was me own arse.

Shy? Everybody said Frye was shy as an oyster. Well, maybe at cocktail parties, but once he got going in front of a class, calling him shy was like calling an Olympic runner a slow poke. He had little charisma of the kind we associate with his contemporary, Pierre Trudeau. It was something else, his ability to pile up, in a quiet voice, one notion after another, and build each one into a new paradigm which, if you wanted to understand, you had to go away afterwards and work out for yourself. If you succeeded: Eureka!

Critics of Frye’s writings often point to his obsession with schematization. He seemed compelled to perceive patterns and taxonomies wherever he looked:

Architecture: wonder why there always has to be a prick and a cunt: I wonder this when sitting in the Skydome with the CN Tower beside me. Islam had a mosque and a minaret; Christianity a basilica and a bell-tower. Of the prick-and-cunt pairs in architecture. I should add the menhirs and stone circles of Neolithic times. I suppose in another area this pairing becomes the one-and-zero binary form that’s the basis of number. Erik Erikson: leave children alone to play and the boys will build towers and the girls paddocks.

Reading his notebooks, I imagine Frye at an academic social, smiling benignly, backing away from some overheated discussion about Jungian psychology and then going home to write:

The descent [into introversion]is always into mamma’s cunt, which is what the Paleolithic caves represented, I suppose, with their meander-and-descent patterns. Extroversion has to do with striving onward & upward, trying to get through the wilderness & following the star, projecting everything on a father sky-god revealed through papa Moses or Mohammed or Marx.

In similar vein the notebooks debunk institutional religion. Faith may be the essence of being human, but parsons and priests and church bureaucrats are the prison wardens of the fallen world. About peoples’ ideas of God’s role in the world, Frye can be scathing:

Western historical dialectic gives me a pain. God thought of us. He started us back in Nile slime & Euphrates mud, then the Greeks added reason, the Hebrews God, the Romans law and the British fair play…. Asia is irrelevant: it has no real history because it didn’t contribute anything to our great Western omelet. Phooey!

A hundred years from now scholars may still be arguing whether Frye, ordained and once a practicing young minister in the United Church of Canada, believed in God or not and, if he did, what kind of God. Jesus, not the man but the symbol of a capacity within man, was the redeeming force in the fallen world for Blake. Not the historical Jesus, if there ever was one. Churchmen unsympathetic to the Blakean symbolic universe, may well be shocked by Frye the Bibliophile when he writes:

I find the Gospels most unpleasant reading for the most part. The mysterious parables with their lurking & menacing threats, the emphasis placed by Christ on himself & his uniqueness & and on a “me or else” attitude, the displaying of miracles as irrefutable stunts, and the pervading sense of delusion about the end of the world. The Christian Church with all its manias had started to form when the Gospels were written, & one can see it at work smoothing things away & making it possible for Christianity to be kidnapped by a deformed and neurotic society.

I wonder how long & how far one can dodge or resist the suggestion that the editorial shaping of Scripture is a fundamentally dishonest process. I’m a Blakean, a visionary disciple: hence the complement is scientific materialism & and skepticism of the crudest kind. I’m always torn between feeling that the cock crows because he has a vision of the dawn, or because he feels stimulated by standing on top of a pile of horseshit.

The question arises, as always in the case of a writer’s private papers: Did Frye intend the notebooks to be published after his death? Robert Denham opines: “There is a difference between the absence of an intent on Frye’s part to use the notebooks for anything other than his own writing projects and the knowledge, which he seems clearly to have had, that the notebooks would some day be published.”

I can’t believe Frye would have had it otherwise. Censorship for him was a betrayal of that most precious of things, freedom of thought and expression, and what could withholding the notebooks from publication amount to but a way of censoring his not always decorous or reverential observations on the human condition? It would be an attempt at sanitizing his reputation, ultimately an act of selfhood, and so a victory for the devil.

Like the market, literary stocks rise and fall. No doubt Frye’s decline in the 1980s and 90s as his visionary grand design lost favor and various schools of deconstruction, post-structuralism, and cultural studies came into vogue. The arrival of the Collected Works should bring about a correction. One thing is certain. After reading the notebooks no critic of his work, whether hostile or laudatory, will ever think of him as a detached academic with his head in the clouds, let alone as prissy or meek. For me they bring the man to life, reveal him to be far more down to earth and endearing than the austere Olympian I took him to be that day years ago when I tripped on his doorstep, lost my balance, and made my vaudevillian entrance into Frye-land.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

3 thoughts on “Bob Rodgers: Getting to Know Northrop Frye

  1. Michael Happy

    Bob makes a good point about Frye and self-censorship. It’s worth remembering that this is the man who quipped, “Censorship is to free speech what lynching is to justice.”

  2. Jim Colby

    As usual Rodgers hits the nails on the head. I recall the patience and kindness of Frye, especially with queries which came from people innocent of academic pretense. I loved the way he walked forward and backward while holding down the podium from which he spoke.

  3. Roger St. Louis

    Hello, is this the Bob Rodgers who was co-producer of the film, Circle of Two with William Marshall and Henk Van der Kolk?


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *