Daily Archives: January 25, 2010

“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.

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