Monthly Archives: January 2010

Friday Night Dance Party

It’s January.  January.  The worst month of the year, which is then followed by the second worst month of the year — February.

Oy.  That’s a tough go.

At times like these we need cheer wherever we can find it.  We’ve usually put the weekends aside for Frye-related videos of some sort, but dark times call for, oh, I dunno, a Hawaiian themed party with Twister, drinking games and tequila body shots!

And just who would you want providing the music for such a party?  Why, only a self-described “tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia” is who!  The one and only B52s.

The video above represents the apex of their commercial success, and the message, appropriately enough, is love.

For those who prefer their B52s a little less cute and cuddly, who remember how genuinely weird they were when they first broke onto the scene, there are some goodies for you after the jump.  Selected for maximum Frye-relevancy.

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What Would a Science of Literary Criticism Look Like?

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Bob Denham quotes Frye saying he is not himself interested in turning literary criticism into a science but thinks it will happen one day. I like to play with this idea. In particular, that there might be an intersection of my two disciplines, literary criticism and computer science, has always been tantalizing to me.

It seems that a scientific study of literature has to begin with a cataloguing of conventions, and by conventions I mean the kind that are more or less obvious to anyone familiar with an area of literature and easily communicable to an outsider. Two books I really love are The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute and John Grant, and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nicholls. Together I think they contain an excellent start and model for this kind of endeavour. Once this data is collected, we have a set of subjects that can be analyzed, compared and whose general structure can be described. This would produce an “anatomy” of conventions. Just to be clear, by “anatomy,” I do not mean what Frye meant by anatomy. I am using the word to refer strictly to the description of the structure of obvious conventions.

A science of literary criticism could be built up from works of literature to conventions and from a catalogue of conventions to a language or theory for speaking about the structure of conventions, and from this understanding of the structure of conventions to theories about higher level conventions such as genre, and from such higher level theories to a general theory of the structure of literature.

So here are the phases that I believe are needed in a scientific study of literature.

Stage   Input                       Output
----------------------------------------------------------------------
first   works of literature         conventions
second  conventions                 catalogue of conventions
third   catalogue of conventions    anatomy
fourth  anatomy                     theories of higher level conventions
fifth   higher level theories       general theory

I think the really essential point is at the anatomy stage. How do we begin to talk about conventions in a structured and objective way? Several answers suggest themselves to me. It may be that we can never get past a semi-formal technical language of convention. But what is more interesting for my purpose is a formal encoding of convention which can be manipulated algebraically and computationally. Admittedly a computational literary criticism would not be a social science as Frye envisioned, but a hybrid discipline combining computer science and literary criticism.

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Peter Yan’s Top Ten Reasons for Literature

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10. Literature is a genuine human creation, a language like math and music, which does not occur in nature. What is defined as culture is a) giving nature a human form (the sounds of nature are not the sounds of music), b) the best that has been thought and said.

9. Political/Scientific reasons: Literature presents different visions of the world we want or don’t want, a way to measure and choose politicians and policies when we vote. It even guides and inspires science, as the visions of literature are being realized, such as Icarus and hang-gliding, or computers that write and respond to vocal commands, even the cellular phone, an influence from sci-fi Star Trek. Also, politicians and governments do not sink to their lowest level of brutality, inflicting the greatest misery on the greatest number, until they rationalize it in words. See Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Be able to read to know difference between ideas which are for or against life, and not accept them passively.

8. Literature reminds us of our need for primary concerns which we share with animals (especially our concerns for food and water, sex, clothing, shelter, and unimpeded movement) over secondary concerns which are our loyalties to a group/mob and beliefs like capitalism, religion, communism. Too often we go to war because we don’t like how another group thinks. Many stories are also of a paradise lost and gained (e.g. story of Eden, Atlantis, the Garden of Hesperides) and we can’t go anywhere unless nature is looked after as well, a strong message for the troubled environment we live in.

7. One often missed point: art and literature are therapeutic. Watching Hollywood movies is the most obvious application of art to cheer us up. Most movies are adaptations of books. No books = no movies, as scripts themselves are written in a literary form, and are direct descendants of drama and theatre. Books and other arts (role-playing) provide a healthy catharsis and emotional release, as a healthy mind is the basis of all health.

6. Reading stories force us to identify with the main character who often is very different from us. This ability to identify, to walk in someone else’s shoes, helps us to identify with and learn tolerance for people who dress, think, speak, act and worship differently.

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“Reasons Literature Alone Can Satisfy”

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Readers of The Educated Imagination may be interested in this post on Rohan Maitzen’s blog Novel Readings.  Responding to a review of Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, Professor Maitzen provides a cogent reflection on the dangers of emphasizing the practical benefits of literary study, at the expense of the actual subject matter of the discipline.  She argues that “We need to justify the study of literature for reasons literature alone can satisfy.”

Update from the Frye Festival

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One of the delights we have every April is introducing Frye to authors who have never heard of him and are curious to know more, as happened, for example, when Bernhard Schlink was here in 2004. Sometimes we are surprised when an author reveals a personal connection to Frye that we didn’t know about. Last year Don McKay, one of Canada’s great poets, took delight in telling the story of his mother’s encounter with Frye in the 1930s, when she took a class from him that influenced her at the time and later, toward the end of her own life, came back to inspire her when she wrote her memoirs. Andy Wainwright, Ross Leckie, and others studied with Frye and have fond memories. Peter Sanger has a longstanding interest in Frye; and, unless I’m mistaken, also studied with him. Richard Ford was familiar with Frye from his student days in the 60s. (Ford’s complete conversation with Globe and Mail’s Books Editor Martin Levin can be seen via the festival website’s U-Tube link.)

Robert Bly, who was here in 2001, said, in accepting our invitation, “Frye is one of my favorite people.” There’s a lot of common ground between the two that would be worth exploring, even if the direct influence each way is perhaps minimal. Blake’s “the tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction” is where they both begin, in their thinking about education. The idea of freedom is at the centre of everything they do. Neither shies from talking about and mapping the spiritual world, even when such activity is out of fashion. But what especially interests me is Bly’s idea of ‘deep image’ in comparison with Frye’s analysis of existential or ecstatic metaphor. Though ‘deep image’ suggests a location in the psyche, Bly prefers to think of the image as a place “where psychic energy is free to move around” (as quoted in Kevin Bushell’s essay “Leaping Into the Unknown: the Poetics of Robert Bly’s Deep Image”). Frye says, “Metaphor is the attempt to open up a channel or current of energy between subject and object” (as quoted in Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, p. 70). Ecstatic metaphor, at the top of the ladder of metaphorical experience, creates “a sense of presence, a sense of uniting ourselves with something else” (Frye words, as quoted by Bob Denham, p. 72). The free flow of psychic energy is what counts for both. For Bly (at least the early Bly) a true or authentic poem has to involve the “leap” from the conscious, everyday world to the unconscious, universal world. For Frye it’s the gap between subject and object that’s obliterated in ecstatic metaphor. Frye’s is, if anything, a more expansive concept.

Over the years Bly moved deeper and deeper into the study of Jung and Jung’s concept of the unconscious. Throughout the nineties he worked with the Jungian analyst Marion Woodman and in 1998 they published their book The Maiden King. Frye’s interest in Jung was also deep and important. As Bob Denham says, “Frye sometimes expressed anxieties about being considered a Jungian, but he was much more deeply immersed in Jungian thought than is commonly imagined” (Religious Visionary, p. 196). Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy is a rich source for Frye, as Bob Denham wonderfully recounts. “In Anatomy of Criticism, alchemy is seen as a repository of archetypes (rose, stone, elixir, flower, jewel, fire).” (Religious Visionary, p. 194).

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Daniel Deronda’s “Double Heroine”

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Joe Adamson notes that the “double-heroine” structure is worthy of further study whether it be (and I hope I am not over-reading here) in canonical literature or in popular literature.  In his response to my post, he mentions one of my favourite novels, Daniel Deronda by George Eliot.  The novel itself was added to my field exam bibliography late in the process, and I remember groaning when it happened (and also questioning why a realist novelist was to be included).  However, as I started to read the novel, I quickly became entranced by it and ended up getting through it in a single day.  But, after thinking about Joe’s response, I’d have to say our readings are different.

It seems to me that Daniel Deronda’s selection of Mirah isn’t that he selects the “dark Jewish heroine” as a rebellious move, but rather that the choice is, in many ways, a reinscription of Frye’s structure of romance.  The great “surprise” of Daniel Deronda is the protangonist’s realization that he is Jewish and not Christian. His marrying Mirah is really, I think, quite similar to Ivanhoe – although in Eliot’s novel, what has been reversed or inverted is not structural, but religious.  That is, the structure of the marriage hasn’t been disrupted nor has the definition of community – if anything, Deronda is the sort of pharmakos character (rather than hero) who must be accepted by the Jewish community.

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Robert B. Parker, 1932 – 2010

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Another sad death to report is that of Robert B. Parker, creator of the Boston private detective Spenser (whose first name was never given, but who said that his last name was spelled with an ’s’, “like the poet.”) It’s appropriate to pay tribute to Parker on this blog, both because Frye liked reading detective stories, and because Parker had a PhD in English from Northeastern. Several of his novels feature academic satire. He died at his desk, a writer to the last moment.

Steven Axelrod’s tribute at Salon.com (”How the crime novelist taught me to stand up for myself and taught my son about the carnal pleasures of reading”) can be found  here.  Axelrod’s piece is noteworthy for the way it suggests the liberating possibilities inherent in popular fiction.

Frye and Science

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In Notebook 27 Frye writes:

I’m giving up the “science” bit in AC: it’s impossible to explain to this generation of critics what I mean.  I never did have the analogy of the physical sciences in mind: the model was always social science, man studying himself.  What I thought of was a merging of criticism with semiotics and linguistics.  When critics keep saying that there can’t be a science of criticism, what they’re really saying is “I can’t and won’t write this kind of criticism,” and I can’t say they’re wrong because I can’t & won’t write it myself.  People will write it some day, and I thought it might be a good thing to alert the critics of the 50’s to the ultimate end of what they were actually doing.  But if it’s just a prophecy with no present practical use, the hell with it. (CW 5, 85)

As Michael Dolzani says, Frye’s scientific heroes were of the visionary kind––Whitehead, Jeans, Alexander, Bohm.  I’ve always wondered whether Frye was familiar with the paradigm theory in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions––a theory that would seem to have attracted him.  He owned a copy of the book, but I think there’s no evidence that he ever read it, though he seems to have discussed it in an interview with Gilbert Reid.  Frye had more than a casual interest in science fiction and in the views of new‑age scientists––what he called “the Tao of physics people” (Ken Wilber, Fritjof Capra, et al.).

Frye was familiar with several popular accounts of science.  He read C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science, Isaac Asimov’s The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science and The Neutrino: Ghost Particle of the Atom, and he read as well several of Carl Sagan’s books (Bocca’s Brain, The Cosmic Connection, and The Dragons of Eden).

Frye’s library contains annotated editions of a wide variety of other books on science, including Edwin Burtt’s The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science, Stewart Copinger Easton’s Roger Bacon and His Search for a Universal Science, David Hay’s Exploring Inner Space: Scientists and Religious Experience, his colleague John Irving’s Science and Values, Gordon N. Patterson, Message from Infinity: A Space-age Correlation of Science and Religion, and Rudy Rucker’s, Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite.

Books that Frye owned but did not annotate include Tobias Dantzig, Number: The Language of Science: A Critical Survey Written for the Cultured Non-mathematician, Karl Pearson’s The Grammar of Science, Oliver R. Reiser’s The Integration of Human Knowledge: A Study of the Formal Foundations and the Social Implications of Unified Science and Unified Symbolism for World Understanding in Science, and C.H. Waddington’s The Scientific Attitude.

At school I was taught that substances keeping form & volume were solids, those keeping volume but not form liquids, & those keeping neither gas.  Even then I could see that there ought to be a fourth class keeping form but not volume.  And there is a tradition, though admittedly a very speculative one, which says that there is a fourth class of this kind, & the one that includes all organisms or living beings.  Also, that just as solids, liquids & gases have a symbolic connexion with, respectively, earth, water & air, so organisms, especially warm-blooded animals, are units of imprisoned fire.  (CW 13, 208)