Monthly Archives: February 2010

Frye, Pierce, Eco, and “Abduction”


Umberto Eco

Thanks, Nicholas, for your post: this helps to clarify the connection you are making between Lonergan and Frye. I like the detective novel analogy very much: it is perhaps a useful analogy for Frye’s own process of judgment and insight.

Criticism is the act of making ourselves conscious of what is going on unconsciously when we read, and uncovering the imaginative unconscious of literature requires, to recur to another recent thread, what Frye meant by science: a combination of empirical study and deduction–and, I believe even more importantly, what the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce called abduction, a species of logic close to inspired hunch or guessing. I take the liberty of quoting from the wikipedia’s definition of the word:

Abduction is a method of logical inference introduced by Charles Sanders Peirce which comes prior to induction and deduction for which the colloquial name is to have a ‘hunch.’ Abductive reasoning starts when an inquirer considers of a set of seemingly unrelated facts, armed with an intuition that they are somehow connected. The term abduction is commonly presumed to mean the same thing as hypothesis; however, an abduction is actually the process of inference that produces a hypothesis as its end result. It is used in both philosophy and computing.

(Perhaps Clayton Chrusch will have something to say about abduction and computing.)

Abduction is also used by the great detectives of literature, like Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, and in another sense Frye was the greatest detective of literature, putting together the pieces of the great literary whodunit by a series of lesser, greater, and ultimately crowning acts of abduction. His great epiphanies, about which much as been said already on the blog (see in particular Bob Denham’s post), are in fact moments of startling abductive inference, in which a myriad of previous insights suddenly cohere into a radiant whole.

I have often wondered why semioticians, and for that matter the cognitivists (with the important exception of our erstwhile blogger Michael Sinding), have ignored Frye’s work. To repeat some observations I published years ago in an article on Frye and semiotics, Frye actually produced what semioticians like Umberto Eco merely postulated as possible: a coherent and detailed description of the encyclopedia of literary conventions and genres. Frye’s conclusions are in no way different from those laid out by Eco when he speaks of Barthes‘ sense of the code in S/Z as

the whole of the encyclopedic competence as the storage of that which is already known and already organized by a culture. It is the encyclopedia, and at the same time allows, gives the possibility of inventing beyond itself, by finding new paths, new combinations within the network.

Frye would also be in complete agreement with Eco’s statement that “A code is not only a rule which closes but also a rule which opens. It not only says ‘you must’ but says also ‘you may’ or ‘it would also be possible to do that.'” Indeed, invention in literature would not be possible without the existence of conventions and rules, which should be seen as enabling, not constricting innovation and originality.

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Nicholas Graham: Lonergan and Frye


Bernard Lonergan

Responding to Joe Adamson

Perhaps, a little later, Joe, I’ll be able to offer a more adequate response to your posting which I really enjoyed. It was lively, direct and disturbing to some of my friends who told me to stop sending them such diatribes. But seriously, it touched on points that I worry about myself, especially the subjection of human concerns to metaphysical transcendental norms which I take to mean Nobodaddy in Blake and the priest and king in Joyce’s Ulysses.

For the moment, here are a few points. As you well know, Frye was a double major in Philosophy and English and initially I searched his writings for evidence that he was philosophically an idealist or a naive realist. I was amazed to find that he was neither. He was like Lonergan a critical realist: reality is reached in the act of judgment, however probable it may be. After reading the first chapter of Fearful Symmetry, The Case Against Locke, I was committed to making a serious study of Frye.

In the late 60s, Lonergan was introduced to the syllabus of the Jesuit seminary, Dublin, Ireland. It is hard to describe what a breath of fresh air it was compared to the old Latin texts which were used up till then. We initially wondered what good could come out of Canada, especially in the areas of philosophy and theology, which the Germans had taken over.

What we found in Lonergan’s Insight was an alternative to scholasticism with its metaphysics and epistemology. It was an alternative to faculty psychology with its focus on the attributes of the soul:memory, intelligence, and will. Instead we were invited to examine our conscious operations: “what” questions and “is” questions as the prior conditions for having an insight.

Our basic texts turned out to be detective novels rather than Aquinas. In a detective novel all the clues are given, yet we fail to spot the criminal, until we have the required insight. Lonergan had studied the act of insight in Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas who did not thematize the act, as Lonergan does in his INSIGHT, but they knew that it was insight that put life into their otherwise dry works.

Lonergan’s then worked out a method in theology based on his book Insight which examines modern science, mathematics, common sense, etc. The point of working out a Method in Theology was to enable theologians to police themselves by peer approval, instead of of being condemned or silenced by some bishop in Rome.

Lonergan’s point of contact with Frye is that they are both Canadian: Sherbrook for Frye and Buckingham Quebec for Lonergan. They both have an encyclopaedic approach to their work. They both work with a four leveled universe, a squared circle diagram, as Joe mentions in his book, A Visionary Life. Lonergan assigns a transcendental precept or norm to each conscious level which we reach through acts of self-transcendence: Be Attentive, Be Intelligent, Be Reasonable, Be Responsible. But these are not some metaphysical entities, some attributes of the soul, these are are personal acts which can be verified in one’s own consciousness. And this verification is what the exercises in Insight are designed to bring about.

Similarly, my reading of Frye’s Secular Scripture brought me to proclaim Frye as the Einstein of the verbal universe. There Frye presents us with four levels of time and space. There is demonic time (Macbeth’s tomorrow, and tomorrow) and there is demonic space (Hell). There is ordinary time (clocks) and ordinary space (mirrors). There is cultural time (music) and there is cultural space (painting). There is anagogic time (Now, the real present) and there is anagogic space (Here, the real presence).

So, to conclude for the moment, Lonergan and Frye share in Blake’s fourfold vision, however much it remains only implicit in the work of Lonergan.

Northrop Frye on Medicine: A Talk to the Doctors at Moncton City Hospital


We are showcasing another paper being added to the Frye Festival Section in our Journal section. This one is by Bob Denham and was delivered at the Frye Festival in April, 2004.  It can be found in the Archive here.

Northrop Frye Literary Festival, Moncton, NB, April 2004

It is difficult to imagine a body of accomplishments larger than those of the man who is honored by having his name attached to this festival.  His preeminence as a literary theorist, his labors on behalf of Canadian culture, his devoted work as a public servant, his achievements as a teacher at Victoria College for more than sixty years, and of course the massive body of writing that has instructed and delighted us for almost seventy‑five years now—these achievements have been well documented.  The written responses to his work—the books and essays and reviews occasioned by his own eloquent prose—require a fairly thick volume just to record, and they have originated on every continent of the globe save Antarctica.  No Anglo-American critic has as great an international reputation as Frye.  As for his national reputation, five years ago a panel of experts for Maclean’s magazine chose Frye as the second most important Canadian in history?[1] To date there are twenty‑eight books devoted in whole to his work.  He has been the subject of international conferences in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Italy, Korea, and China–-in fact twice in China.  And there are more than 200 translations of his books into twenty languages.  All this bears witness to an accomplishment that even a disinterested observer would have to call monumental.

Whatever one says about Frye will always fall short, and I feel in danger of taking a big fall this noon, for what can one say to a group of doctors as doctors about Northrop Frye.  Well, I thought it might be of some interest to call up a few things that relate to the topic of Frye and medicine, which is a topic no one has really talked about much.  And then we’ll open up the floor for questions and comments.  I doubtless won’t be able to answer your questions, but I am naturally very interested in the kinds of questions you might have about Moncton’s most famous native son.  It was as a child in Moncton, incidentally, that Frye, as he records in one of his notebooks, had the fantasy “of becoming a great astronomer & discovering a new planet beyond Neptune that I was going to call Pluto.”  This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy, except that the fantasy occurred more than a decade before Pluto was actually discovered.  I mention this little anecdote to remind us that Frye was a genius.  Whether ESP is an aspect of genius, I don’t know.

In any event, Frye and medicine is an interesting subject to think about.  The body was a central metaphor in Frye’s criticism, as it was in the work of his great literary hero, William Blake.  In editing Frye’s diaries several years back I was struck by Frye’s concern for the health of his own body and psyche.  He reveals a great deal through self-analysis, writing about his abnormal fears, his physical insecurity, his self-consciousness, his introversion, his sanguine humour and his dark moods, his claustrophobia and paranoia, his grieving over the death of a colleague, his phobia about animals, and so on.  And he writes at length about his various bodily deficiencies and physical ailments: his deviated septum, hay fever attacks, constipation, insomnia, and various states of stupor induced by too much alcohol.  He probes his own ego as well, often from a Jungian perspective.  I would guess that the details in Frye’s description of his symptoms would provide a fairly good basis for diagnosis.

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Teaching with Frye (1)


With this post, I am inaugurating a series documenting a year of teaching English, in which I plan to highlight the part played by Northrop Frye’s ideas.  For me, Frye has always been more important for my teaching than for my scholarly research and critical writing.  I am beginning now, rather than in September, because I have already had to do some thinking about my courses for the next academic year, which were assigned late in 2009.  Entries for the department Handbook were due last week, and that means I had to decide on at least the main focus and the assigned textbooks for the courses that I will be teaching.  If I find I have enough to say, and the energy and commitment to keep it up, I will post in this series until the end of classes in April, 2011.  (Academic life certainly keeps you planning ahead!)

First, a few words of introduction.  Teachers often keep journals for personal use, and there have been numerous publications such as James Phelan’s Beyond the Tenure Track: Fifteen Months in the Life of an English Professor (1991), a detailed account of events both professional and personal in the life of a professor moving into the mid-career phase. More recently, many students, professors, deans and other administrators write blogs in which academic life is a major focus.  I was partly inspired to start this series by the example of Rohan Maitzen’s regular feature “This Week in My Classes” at her blog Novel Readings. I do not plan to write a detailed diary about my teaching, and I will not provide regular commentary on what goes on in the classroom.  The plan is to write about some of the decisions I make, especially about what texts I choose and how I teach them.  In so doing, I will consider in what ways and to what extent Frye is a vade mecum for my work as a university teacher of English.  I hope that these occasional journal entries will be of some interest and use to other teachers and to students in the discipline.

To set the scene, I teach at Saint Mary’s University, a former Jesuit college that is now a medium-sized public university.  (I once taught Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist in a panelled classroom that had formerly been the Jesuits’ dining room).  We have an English department of 19 full-time members and offer a wide range of courses for a department of our size.  In 2010-2011, I am scheduled to teach a section of the first-year Introduction to Literature, the second-year survey course English Literary Traditions (6 hours), a third-year course on British literature from 1900-45, and an advanced course on the novels of the Brontë sisters.

In the survey course, along with the usual Norton anthology, I have decided to teach Measure for Measure, Sense and Sensibility, Frankenstein, and Hard Times.  These are all comfortable choices for me, and usually popular with the students.  The British course is a new one.  Thinking about my plans, I realize that they involve historical context and cultural studies to a fairly large extent, and also the dialectic between modernism and realism.  In spite of my love of at least some of the masterpieces of modernism, I have a fondness for the alternative poetic tradition that was championed by Philip Larkin, and for the English tradition of fictional realism that continued through the modernist period.  I will be teaching novels by E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Graham Greene.  Frye’s discussion in the Anatomy of realism and symbolism as two opposing literary poles will be useful in mapping the literature of the first half of the twentieth century, along with David Lodge’s The Modes of Modern Writing.  The influence of Yeats and Eliot, and then of Auden, can also usefully be described in the terms set out by Harold Bloom in his books on poetic influence.  As for the Brontës, another new course – thank goodness I am on leave at the moment! – my entry for the Handbook does little more than list the books, noting that there were three sisters, not two, and that Charlotte wrote more than just Jane Eyre.  The psychological and the sociological will figure prominently in this course, I expect, as will a kind of comparative phenomenology of the sisters’ novels.  Of course, I will go back to Frye on romance, and I recall a number of entries on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley in the notebooks.

That’s it for my first entry, and I imagine that I will add to this journal infrequently until late in the summer, when preparations for the academic year begin in earnest.

Archetype Spotting



Responding to Jonathan Allan and Clayton Chrusch

A footnote to “archetype spotting”: I think Frye refers to this procedure only once in his published writings––in his entry on “archetype” for the Harper Handbook to Literature. There he says,

Lycidas contains a reference to “that sanguine flower inscrib’d with woe” [l. 106], the hyacinth, thought to have obtained red markings resembling the Greek word ai (“alas”), when Hyacinthus was accidentally killed by Apollo. Milton could of course just as easily have left out this line: the fact that he included it emphasizes the conventionalizing element in the poem, but criticism that takes account of archetypes is not mere “spotting” of such an image. The critical question concerns the context: what does such an image mean by being where it is? (CW 18, 361).

(In his 1963 essay “Literary Criticism” Frye does speak of theme spotting. [CW 27, 128])

But in his notebooks Frye refers to the practice of “archetype spotting on several occasions:

Some fallacies in the archetypal approach beside the historical one: the counting one (if there are a lot of archetypes it’s a good poem), the spotting one, & others. (CW 23, 111)

I need more theory to connect these examples: otherwise it’s just archetype-spotting. (CW 5, 129)

The primary area of communication is conscious: it isn’t a case of deep calling to deep [Psalm 42:7]. If half the world uses an archetype & the other half doesn’t, it’s clear that it can mean something to that other half. The mystique of the unconscious has bedevilled myth critics. If you find fragments of a huge myth in primitive times, the process that put it all together is most likely to be in Shakespeare or Wagner or someone producing a waking dream for conscious minds [Plato, Sophist, 266c]. Such a writer would actualize what is potential in the archaic mythology. People resist this, because a poet’s consciousness may get self-conscious, turn coy or cute and go in for archetype-spotting. The poet (modern) is in the position of a medieval dog hitched to a mandrake root: it doesn’t matter so much if he goes mad, but the root he’s pulling is not just his own tail. (CW 5, 130)

The sense of unreality I feel about this book focused originally on the thinness of literary allusions: even things as deep in me as Shakespeare weren’t getting in. Then there was a sense of too much archetype-spotting, in contrast to real argument. That extended to too much kerygma spotting in 4. Finally I’m back to the Introduction, where I don’t even repeat my original confidence in the Bible as the only sacred book with a literary shape. Put that back in, you stupid bastard. [See WP, xviii, xx.] (CW 5, 369)

Many years ago young Woodberry [J.C. (Jack) Woodbury, a student at Toronto 1951–54], when a student of mine, spoke of the triviality of “archetype-spotting,” and I’ve always tried to recognize that. (CW 6, 564–5)

Every poem is “unique,” in the soft-headed phrase, and “archetype spotting” is a facile and futile procedure; but the traditions and conventions of poetry make a shape and a meaning. They move toward a future (emergence of primary concerns), and they expand into a wider present. (CW 6, 641)

The value of the book will be in this deductive expounding of the myth, not in spotting the archetypes around the compass. (CW 9, 263)

Here we see that Frye’s considers “archetype spotting” to be facile enterprise, and he warns against substituting it for argument. Having said this however, we need to remind ourselves that Frye did engage in a good bit of archetype spotting himself, especially when he was making notes on the texts he was reading. In Notebook 7, for example, he does engage in some rather extensive archetype spotting in Frobenius, Silberer, and Jung (CW 23, 8–15). The same is true of his Notes on Romance (in the weblog Library). Finally, the margins of the books in Frye’s personal library are filled with hundreds of notations about this or that archetype. A sample of these can be found in “Annotations in Frye’s Books,” also in the weblog Library. To speak about an archetype in a literary or any other work, you must of course first be able to spot it. Frye’s point is that if you do only this, then you’ve not made much of a contribution to critical understanding. It’s a procedure that can produce trivial observations, if they are not seen in some wider context of function, structure, and meaning.

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.

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Frye’s Valentines


Here are some Valentine references culled from various sources.

[A verse to an unknown lover]


I will be your valentine.
Will you be my concubine?
On ambrosia let us dine,
With a glass of sparkling wine.
Let us now our limbs entwine.
I’ll be prone and you supine,
So our two hearts will align.
You’ll be mine, and I’ll be thine.
Cupid’s arrow is our sign
In our lover’s sacred shrine.
The world will never us malign:
Lover, you are all divine.

Just kidding.

– – –

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