Jean O’Grady: Re-Valuing Value


This is Jean O’Grady’s first post — and the first paper to be added to our new Frye Festival Archive in the Frye Journal.  Jean is the associate editor of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye, published by University of Toronto Press.  She gave this paper at the Frye Festival in Moncton in 2007. An expanded version of it appears in Northrop Frye: New Directions From Old, published by University of Ottawa Press.

Sir Edward Elgar, composer of sublime symphonies, concertos, and choral works, found it infuriating to be almost universally identified as the author of the Pomp and Circumstance marches. I suspect that Frye found it similarly irksome, after the publication of his Anatomy of Criticism in 1957, to be known, not for having mightily mapped the literary universe, but as the critic who said that critics shouldn’t make value judgments. Of course he had made it clear that he was talking about the academic critic, the theorist of literature, and not the reviewer in the local newspaper, but still his assertion had been found highly controversial. The polemical introduction to the Anatomy had actually made two points which kept coming back to haunt Frye: first, that criticism was, or should be, a science; and second, that the critic’s function was not to say whether a work of literature was good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, but to tell us what sort of work it was. The two points are in fact related, since Frye was trying to move away from the stereotype of the critic as a gifted amateur of exquisite discrimination who journeyed among the masterpieces, poking disdainfully at the second-rate with his gold cane. Instead, he proposed a survey of all the literature that has been written, highbrow or popular, in fashion or out of fashion, in order to map out its genres, types, and archetypes: this was a structure of knowledge that, just like the sciences and social sciences, could be taught and that each scholar could help to build up. As Frye said in The Well-Tempered Critic, “Without the possibility of criticism as a structure of knowledge, culture . . . would be forever condemned to a morbid antagonism between the supercilious refined and the resentful unrefined” (136).

I first read the Anatomy as a student, in 1962, and I can hardly tell you how exciting and liberating this notion was, along of course with the Anatomy‘s actual demonstration of archetypal patterns, of plot shapes that repeated themselves from Spenser to Harlequin romances, and of the unsuspected interrelations among works. Literature was so much richer and more fascinating when one could start to make connections rather than worrying about one’s possibly bad taste! The book opened up wide vistas of intellectual adventure in my chosen field, and made me feel like a participant in and contributor to a glorious endeavour.

The inclusiveness of the Anatomy, its openness to works of popular literature or of dubious morality, should surely endear Frye to the various types of postmodernist, feminist, or postcolonial critics, who complain that the dominant group or class has defined a “canon” that unfairly excludes some works or makes them marginal. Frye was precisely against singling out what he called a “selected tradition” of great works, which would inevitably turn out to have been written by dead white males. No narrow moral criteria apply in the Anatomy, which contends that “morally the lion lies down with the lamb. Bunyan and Rochester, Sade and Jane Austen, . . . all are equally elements of a liberal education” (14). As Frye told Imre Salusinsky in an interview, “The real, genuine advance in criticism came when every work of literature, regardless of its merit, was seen to be a document of potential interest, or value, or insight into the culture of the age”.

Value, as Frye expressed it in this early stage, resides in literature as a whole. As we read, we absorb an imaginative pattern of apocalyptic or demonic imagery and of narratives that fall into the four basic types of comedy, tragedy, romance, or irony; each individual poem or work helps to fill in or reinforce the overall pattern. As Frye put it in The Educated Imagination, “Whatever value there is in studying literature, cultural or practical, comes from the total body of our reading, the castle of words we’ve built, and keep adding new wings to all the time” (39). This total pattern, “the range of articulate human imagination as it extends from the height of imaginative heaven to the depth of imaginative hell” (EI, 44), is what Frye calls “the revelation of man to man”. Such a verbal universe, built up equally by Biblical epics and the most run-of-the-mill adventure stories, provides a model or goal for humankind’s work, thus giving literature a vital role in the building up of civilization.

Does this mean, then, that we cannot say that any individual work is successful or well-written, or that others are second-rate and don’t seem to come off? This was the question that annoyed Frye so. Of course we can, he would reply, but these judgments are far from scientific, being individual and unpredictable. They should be kept in the realm of the private and the tentative, always subject to revision. In the first place, no critical work can be based on them. If you say that Shakespeare is the greatest writer who ever lived, for instance, this judgment is neither a help nor a hindrance to your analysis of the plays, and adds no new knowledge. Secondly, value judgments cannot be taught. In The Well-Tempered Critic Frye gives a typical example of an exchange between teacher and student:

Teacher: Yeats’s Among School Children is one of the great poems of the twentieth century.
Student: But I don’t like it; it seems to me a lot of clap-trap; I get a lot more out of The Cremation of Sam McGee.
Teacher: The answer is simple: your taste is inferior to mine.
Student: How do you know it’s inferior?
Teacher: I just know, that’s all.

As Frye often said, if a teacher finds that a student really enjoyed a junky sitcom on television last night, the best procedure is not to tell him that the Shakespeare he’s studying in class is much superior and would do him more good, but rather to show how the sitcom uses the same plot shapes and character types as Shakespeare’s plays; as the student’s knowledge grows, so will his sense of value improve.

Furthermore, Frye points out that every judgment is limited by the outlook and anxieties of its own age. No one has ever come up with an adequate criterion of what makes a work great. Should we praise perfection of form? On these grounds Ben Jonson was valued in the eighteenth century over the sprawling Shakespeare, but now most of his works have faded out of view on the public stage. Should we prize a complex, ironic attitude as did the New Critics of the 1950s? Melodramatic, sentimental Dickens towers above some of their treasured authors. Should we go for those writers who are realistic, who give a marvellously accurate depiction of their own society? Frye is a champion of romance, of the magic of the unlikely, the marvellous, and the happy ending, and considers realism to be a mere blip on the literary radar. What about the psychological realists, those who can present the heights and depths of the human heart? Frye could appreciate as well as anyone a complex, well-rounded literary character, but he saw equal value in allegorical works or anatomies, where the characters are often abstractions or one-dimensional representatives of ideas. Should we champion those writers who convey some interesting, valid, or worthwhile theme? Frye calls this the theory of looking on literature as “a reservoir of great thoughts which would inspire one to meet the battle of life” (Crit.3.17.2). He is adamant that the supposed “message” of an author is not what he really means at all; his real meaning resides in his pattern of images, and his so-called “message” is the ideological part that can be snipped off – meat thrown by the burglar to keep the dog quiet, in Eliot’s image. In fact, Frye has rather wicked fun in the Anatomy with Matthew Arnold’s “touchstone” theory – the idea that you can pull out special lines that are guides to the high seriousness of a first-rate author. When Arnold quotes the line from The Tempest, “in the dark backward and abysm of time,” Frye admires its sonority, but remarks that the line, “Yet a tailor might scratch her where’er she did itch,” is equally essential to the same play (21).

All the same, you might continue to object, Among School Children is generally taken to be a better poem than The Cremation of Sam McGee, and Shakespeare a better playwright than Shadwell. Agreeing, but refusing to set down any criteria that will turn out to be partial, Frye usually settles for the somewhat lame-sounding conclusion that a masterpiece or classic is a work that “won’t go away” – that, no matter how many times you read it, stays around to be interrogated again. Actually I have some difficulty with this on the individual level: I know too many students of Milton’s Paradise Lost, for instance, for whom it has gone away utterly and completely soon after the final exam. But I see what he means on the social level: good works pass the test of time, revealing new meanings to different generations, remaining sources of interest and enthusiasm, though for differing reasons.

Certainly, in his private life Frye did not hold back on the judgments. In Robert Denham’s Northrop Frye Unbuttoned, his book of selections from Frye’s private notebooks, there are 27 entries under “greatest,” ranging from the expected praise of Plato, Bach, or War and Peace to the offbeat judgment that “the greatest literary genius this side of Blake is Edgar Allan Poe.” What criteria did Frye use for these personal, provisional judgments? In 1975 he told interviewer Justin Kaplan that “the primary criterion of value is a certain sense of genuineness,” a conception that he picked up from T.S. Eliot. For ten years, 1950 to1960, when Frye did act as a reviewer, reporting on all the poetry written in Canada for the University of Toronto Quarterly’s annual survey, it was often a poet’s sincerity or genuineness that he praised. In one review, he remarks that “It is the critic’s job to tell [the poet] and the public that whatever his stuff means, it sounds genuine enough” (C, 114). Sincerity, genuineness, conviction – these are not formal criteria but intuitive evaluations of the author’s commitment by the experienced reader.

Sometimes, however, Frye does lean towards judging by theme. I’m thinking particularly of his high valuation of E.J. Pratt’s poem The Truant, which he called in print in 1956 “the greatest poem in Canadian literature” (C, 265), and orally in 1964, “not only the greatest of Canadian poems, but one of the almost definitive poetic statements of our time” (C, 337). I don’t know much about Pratt criticism, but I’m not aware that on the grounds of poetic technique it’s valued that highly. It seems to me that it’s the Blakean theme of the poem – that is, the refusal of mankind to cow-tow to a tyrannical God or a mechanical nature – that is really speaking to Frye: the theme of cosmic defiance.

This brings me to a final criterion of judgment for the early or middle Frye. Some works, he says, are important because they lead to the centre of our imaginative experience. This sense of different levels of authority is perhaps clearer when he is talking about music, where he was never a professional critic on his best behaviour, but rather an enthusiastic amateur, who threw out value judgments right, left, and centre. For instance: “I’ve often drawn the distinction between listening to music, say, on the level of Tchaikowsky, where you feel that this is a very skilful, ingenious, and interesting composer, and music on the level of Mozart or Bach, where you feel that this is the voice of music.” (Ints. 52.3) “This is what music is all about.”(Crit. 3. 28.20). Similarly with literature: some great works are resonant, they focus our experience. The closing cantos of Dante’s Purgatorio, for example: “here we are in the centre of the Commedia,” he says, “and therefore at the centre of our whole literary experience, and so the memory of other things near the centre, late plays of Shakespeare and Sophocles, the Bible, some moments in Plato and in modern poetry, crowd into our minds, and we glimpse a mass of converging rays of significance, as though there were one great thing that the whole of literature had to say to us” (Crit. 4. 183, 1953).

It is this sense of the value of certain key writers that I want to pursue in the rest of my paper. I don’t want to develop the notion that Frye reversed himself in any way and began to wish the critic would make conventional value-judgments. That never changed. On the other hand, I do want to suggest that in both private and published writings he began to concentrate more on the ability of individual works to convey insight. When I first conceived of this paper, I in fact hoped I could show that Frye was repenting somewhat of the formalism of his earlier criticism and smuggling in the importance of content by the back door, as it were, in emphasizing the quality of illumination or insight in a great work. I wasn’t quite able to work out this form/content opposition in absolute terms, but I still believe that there was a shift in emphasis towards valuing or celebrating visionary insight, which parallels the general widening of Frye’s concerns in the latter part of his career.

There are several ways of looking at this changed emphasis, which began roughly in the mid-70s. The Anatomy had been criticized, unfairly it’s true, for presenting literature as a self-contained universe, and so in The Critical Path of 1971 Frye had stressed the social bearings of literature; and increasingly thereafter he investigated the various different uses of language in society. As he told an interviewer in 1978, when he was working on The Great Code, “I’m continually developing critical instruments and tools in order to break out of what I consider the one really hampering category, . . . the category of literature. . . . There is a point at which the response to Shakespeare, to Milton, to Dante, to major works of literature, begins to smash through the category of literature into something much more open – the social use of words” (no. 41, 1978). At the same time as Frye began to leave the purely literary critic behind and to become the critic of language, he also turned his attention to the reader – who, we might note, was becoming the focus of several new schools of criticism. The Anatomy had considered literature objectively as structure, without concerning itself with what the writer may have put in, or what the reader might take out. The actual reading of any particular text was what Frye called precritical – a personal, varied experience; criticism proper started after the reading was complete, with a simultaneous Gestalt of the whole work. But now he began to think of reading as what he would call the excluded initiative of his Anatomy criticism. In Words with Power (1990) he admitted that “The literary work, then, does not stop with being an object of study, something confronting us: sooner or later we have to study our own experience in reading it, the results of the merging of the work with ourselves” (75).

This brings me to a third new perspective, besides that of language in general and that of the reader, and that is a preoccupation with what had always been Frye’s basic concern, the expansion of consciousness: the apprehension of new realms accessible only to the imagination – the intimation of infinity and eternity. You’ll recall that I mentioned earlier how literature as a whole, to the early Frye, provided a model for mankind’s work. I might remark that this has always seemed to me questionable as the purpose of literature. What need of all those works to tell us that we prefer vernal paradises to stony deserts, and spring awakenings to wintry deaths? Indeed, to adopt Shakespeare’s Regan as devil’s advocate, what need one? Later in his career, Frye rephrased his theory by introducing the notion of primary concerns (such as food and shelter) vs. secondary concerns (or social and religious ideologies), and saying that literature is valuable because it rises above its authors’ particular ideology to deal with the primary concerns that all societies share. But, once more, he admits a level of banality among these primary concerns: that life is better than death, health nicer than sickness, and peace preferable to war. Again, I wonder if we really need the efforts of a great author to impress these universal values upon us. Be that as it may, as Frye wrote more about society, he made it clear that actually constructing a Utopia was neither possible nor desirable. Mankind might be working towards the goal of a paradisal society, but it certainly wasn’t going to get there, and if it did, such a society would be a horrible tyranny – or a dreadful bore. The real value of the literary universe was to provide an ideal in the present, a vision within the mind of an individual in the light of which he or she could work – a faith. The later Frye is more and more concerned with the way in which individual words and works may create this perspective beyond the actual. As he wrote in 1975, “It seems strange to overlook the possibility that the arts, including literature, might just conceivably be what they have always been taken to be, possible techniques of meditation . . . ways of cultivating, focusing, and ordering one’s mental processes” (in “Expanding Eyes,” Crit. 3. 28. 19).

The term Frye used to characterize works which addressed the imagination most powerfully was kerygmatic. I don’t want to lead you into a maze of Frye scholarship, but let me recap briefly the types of language that Frye set out in his two late books on the Bible and literature, The Great Code and Words with Power. These are: the mythical and metaphorical language of poetry; the rhetorical language of oratory; the conceptual language of argument and dialectic; and the descriptive language of science and everyday speech. In studying the Bible Frye felt the need to establish a fifth mode, the kerygmatic, which is the language of proclamation, of apocalyptic revelation, of prophecy, peculiar to the Bible. Again, I don’t want to involve you in technical discussions, but a major bone of contention, or perhaps I should say source of confusion, among Frye scholars is whether Frye wanted to distinguish the Bible completely from literature. Sometimes he contrasts them on the basis of intention. The myth and metaphor of literature is always hypothetical: its works do not want you to believe or to do anything, but simply to suspend your disbelief while they tell a story. The Bible, on the other hand, has designs upon you; it wants to persuade you to change your life. In The Double Vision, his last book, Frye says that the New Testament’s “myths become, as purely literary myths cannot, myths to live by; its metaphors become, as purely literary metaphors cannot, metaphors to live in” (NFR, 179-180). “Actual literature, even on the highest level,” he says in 1989, “does not offer a myth to live by, or if it does it is essentially betraying its literary function” (NFR, 163). But on the other hand, the thrust of much of his later work is to suggest that secular literature can be a source of revelation equally with scripture. His book on romance is called The Secular Scripture, and about this time he noted that, now that the Biblical prophecies have been absorbed into the establishment, “the power of prophecy is starting to come from the printing press rather than the pulpit, from secular rather than sacerdotal contexts” (Respons. of the Critic, 163).

Here I should like to follow this second route, and to suggest that Frye began to pay more attention to those kerygmatic writers who reach out, like the Bible, with an involving rhetoric, and to those existential, precritical readings in which the individual responds with a sense of commitment, finding metaphors to live in. In 1984, looking back on the “hypothetical” hypothesis of the Anatomy, he remarked that “At the same time I was not happy with the merely ‘let’s pretend’ or ‘let’s assume’ attitude to literature. Nobody wants to eliminate the element of play from literature, but most poets clearly felt that what they were doing was more complex” (Crit. 4. 349). In the essay “Expanding Eyes” he talks of Blake’s offering his works in this spirit, as mandalas, things for the reader to contemplate to the point at which he or she might reflect, “yes, we too could see things that way.” When the youthful Frye said to Helen, “Read Blake or go to hell – that’s my message for the modern world,” he surely had in mind not a detached contemplation of Blake but the participation in his vision. Readings of this sort may occur equally with what is normally called literature and with “literary prose” such as prophetic works of philosophy or history, works which retain their power over the mind long after their particular scientific scheme has been discredited.

From this point of view Arnold’s touchstone theory begins to make more sense, as certain key passages stand out from their context. Frye considers how the reader begins to notice and respond to “that’s for me” details in his reading, beginning the process of transforming literature from an object to be admired to a power to be possessed. The failure of this step helps to explain the paradox of the Nazi who loves Mozart or Goethe: the Nazi’s appreciation has remained on the aesthetic level. Literature has a transforming power only if we approach it actively, incorporating it with ourselves by a process of what Frye called, starting with The Secular Scripture in 1976, recreation.

One important vehicle for such personal involvement is ecstatic metaphor. The original primitive metaphor identified an individual’s consciousness with something in the natural world (Crit. 4. 346), or in ecstatic states expressed his possession by a god, as even today in “peak experiences” of inspiration or divine union. (Crit. 4, 324). Literary metaphors, though more hypothetical, still retain the power to “take us out of ourselves,” as we say, to overcome our separate selfhood and link us with the rest of creation. Such is the metaphor which “not merely identifies one thing with another in words, but something of ourselves with both” (WP, 75-76). Frye invokes Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime in describing these dazzling moments in our response to art when the ego is dispossessed, and “all the doors of perception in the psyche, the doors of dream and fantasy as well as of waking consciousness, are thrown open” (WP, 82-83).

These peak moments of revelation can only be brief, and correspondingly Frye talks of the authors who are most kergymatic as those who tend to write in intense, oracular fragments. Speaking of the analogy between the ancient Biblical prophets and the modern writer, he says that “the creative people that we most instinctively call or think of as prophetic – Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Blake, Van Gogh, Dostoevsky, Strindberg – show the analogy very clearly. Some people pursue wholeness and integration; others get smashed up, and fragments are rescued from the smash of an intensity that the wholeness and integration people do not reach” (Crit.4.164). The power of their vision smashes through the normal defences of the ego and allows us to glimpse momentarily the larger whole of which we are a part (WP, 82-84).

Shakespeare and Milton obviously did not write prophetic, fragmentary works of this kind. But they have another quality which can be equally kerygmatic: the ability to evoke our whole literary experience that I referred to earlier. Words with Power studies the way certain Bible-derived clusters of imagery are used in secular literature; as we journey up and down the axis mundi we find that literature itself becomes a guide to higher journeys of consciousness. “This book may help one to understand,” Frye writes, “why the poets whom we consider most serious and worthy of exhaustive study are invariably those who have explicitly used the kind of imagery studied here” (WP, xxii). For Frye, Shakespeare’s The Tempest is one such work, summing up for all time the illusory nature of all that we consider real and the reality of visionary illusion. This and other works – Milton’s Paradise Regained, Blake’s Milton, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the Book of Job – seem to have a special power to address our buried selves.

In an important essay of 1976, “The Responsibilities of the Critic,” almost a manifesto of the second half of his career, Frye talked at length about the prophetic authority of literature, and suggested that the critic’s task was to identify it. Characteristically, he distinguishes this from a value judgment: “This act, I have so often urged, is not an act of judgment but of recognition” (Crit.4. 166). “The door to our Eden is still locked,” he says, “but [the critic] has a key, and the key is the act of recognition.” Frye knows that “no kerygmatic canon will ever be drawn up: it would be impossible to find a committee to agree on the selections” (LN, 366). Indeed, by the principle of interpenetration, so important for the later Frye, all works are linked to the whole and “every work of art is a possible medium for kerygma” (LN, 643). Still, the critic has a role to play in guiding and clarifying response: his “recognition” does involve powers of discrimination. What is recognized is not any supposed theme but an image structure: “What the critic tries to do is to lead us from what the poets and prophets meant, or thought they meant, to the inner structure of what they said. At that point the verbal structure turns inside out, and a vortex opens out of the present moment . . . into the created world” (Crit.4.168). The vortex, the turning inside-out: these suggestive but untranslatable terms recall the anagogic perspective of the Anatomy, in which the critic sees the whole of literature as a universe of “infinite and boundless hypothesis” (120), but now the emphasis is on the individual works that provide the revelation, the individual writer’s version of the image-pattern that, as we saw at the beginning of this paper, was the total revelation of literature. Such an approach seems to me a marvellous opening-up of the predominantly structural approach of the Anatomy to the way people actually read and write – to the social use of words.

Finally, if literary prose can be kerygmatic, why should criticism be excluded? One begins to see a kerygmatic impulse in the writings of Frye himself. We recall that when Frye was an adolescent, small-town Moncton had no university, and the church offered the only visible route to culture and learning. And so Frye studied to be ordained. He never had a parish, but he considered himself nevertheless a minister and a missionary, writing works that would open up a channel into the eternal present. As with the kerygmatic writers he most admired, his ideas came to him in aphoristic fragments, though he laboured afterwards to join them into a whole. His pieces often end with a new cadence, a Biblical or preacherly heightened tone. All four of his books on Shakespeare end with The Tempest, The Secular Scripture ends with Spenser’s Faerie Queene, while Words with Power ends with the Book of Job; it is as if he were consciously drawing on the resonance of these central works to open up a perspective beyond the academic. “Literature is seed,” he wrote in a late notebook; “criticism is the kerygma of what’s in literature” (LN, 334). In “The Responsibilities of the Critic” he noted that “If the critic is to recognize the prophetic, . . . he needs to be prophetic too: his model is John the Baptist, the greatest prophet of his age, whose critical moment came with recognizing a still greater power than his own” (166). In his private musings Frye sometimes envisaged himself in this role, hoping for instance that a book he planned to write “may even become prophetic, a sacred book like the one it studies” (TBN, 270). From anatomist to John the Baptist; from Moncton to the centre of the created world; quite a pilgrimage.

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