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.
Jonathan, I agree with you about the “new and perhaps quiet” generation. As I mentioned in a recent post, the graduate students I have met recently strike me as a very diverse group of people. As one commented to me, speaking about approaches to literary studies, “We all have different selections on our iPods.” On the other hand, they are all competing in a job market that is almost as bad as it was when I started graduate school in the early 80s, and to do that they have to gain the acceptance of a less diverse group: the current faculty, dominated by people who were at graduate school in the 1990s.
I also commented in a post a few months ago that I think one of the reasons why the reaction against Frye was so thoroughgoing is that there is such a strong secular ethos to the theory that has dominated literary studies in the last generation. Jonathan Culler and Edward Said expressed this strongly, while for Marxist critics religion is just a category of ideology. The fact that Frye was an ordained clergyman was for many people enough of an argument to dismiss his work.
When I started working in the area of religion and literature in the early 1990s it was a subject far from the mainstream. Now it is a somewhat trendy topic. It remains to be seen whether that will lead to a renaissance of Frye’s work. One reason why it might not is that, for much of the new work on religion and literature, religion is largely a new category of identity, along with race, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, and so on. Perhaps Frye has more currency in theology, where discussion of the metaphorical nature of religious language is a frequent occurrence.
Both Ways: The Literary and the Extra-Literary
Frye, as we all know, studied literature in terms of literature (give or take his deductive ogdoad revealed in Denham’s Late Notekbooks). When he did take into account the extra-literary, he started from the centre, poetry/myth and moved outward, comparing poetry/myth to the author’s life, history/reality, and the reader/society.
Misreadings result going in reverse, when using the author’s life, history/reality and the reader/society to explain literature.