Monthly Archives: March 2010

Bob Rodgers: My Archetypal Quest


As some of you may know, I and my partner at our production company, ARCHIVEsync, aim to produce and distribute a series of 24 DVDs based on Frye’s classic 1981/82 lectures on the Bible and Literature. As staff producers at the then U of T Media Centre, we videotaped the lectures and related seminars, and edited them into 30 half hour programs called The Bible and Literature: A Personal View by Northrop Frye. This was a video-only series using excerpts from the lectures and seminars and designed for broadcast time slots and supplementary use by teachers in the classroom. The original recordings, some 300 individual 20-minute tapes, went to Robarts archives where (excepting Robert Denham’s publication of the lecture transcripts) the original videotapes have remained unheeded  ever since.

ARCHIVEsync’s plan is to go back to the original recordings and reproduce the complete lectures, plus cogent selections from the seminars, not simply as videos but on the New Media platform of DVD-ROM and web based delivery, which includes interactive data such as lecture transcripts, explanatory notes, study guides, and bibliography. Unlike the earlier half-hour series, this series contains the complete lectures and is not designed as a teaching aid; it is a direct information tool for researchers, students, and the reading public. Sitting down to a Frye DVD will be a private experience not unlike reading a book, with the added advantage interactive navigation to various kinds of pictorial and contextual information.

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John Donne


The portrait commissioned by Donne in his shroud during his last months

On this date in 1631 John Donne died at age 59.

Holy Sonnet X

Death be not proud, though some have callèd thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better than thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death thou shalt die.

Frye on Donne in Words with Power:

In The Great Code I used the word “interpenetration” (167-8/189) tp describe this fluidity of personality in its complete form.  The word “love” means perhaps too many things in English and for many has an oversentimental sound, but it seems impossible to dissociate the conceptions of spiritual authority of love. The capacity to merge with another person’s being without violating it seems to be at the centre of love, just as the will to dominate one conscious soul-will externally by another is the centre of all tyranny and hatred.  John Donne uses a beautiful figure in this connection based on the metaphor of an individual life as a book.  The spiritual world, he says, is a library “where all books lie open together.” (CW, 26, 117-18)

Emma Thompson and Holy Sonnet X in Mike Nichols’s film adaptation of Wit after the jump.

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Joseph Haydn


The Seasons, “Winter”

Today is Haydn‘s birthday (1732 – 1809).

Frye in Notebook 18:

Haydn is a genius of the idyllic unfallen world: it can’t be just accident that the Creation & the Seasons sum him up.  Incidentally, the spinning song in the latter is amazingly sinister: the spinning wheel of the fates. The words superficially cosy & domestic, have Vala overtones he caught, though there’s no passion or fatality as in Schubert’s Goethe song. (CW, 23, 296)

Michael Dolzani: “The View from the Northern Farm”


Michael Dolzani’s 2004 talk to the Frye Festival, “The View From the Northern Farm: Northrop Frye and Nature”, is now posted in the Frye Festival archive in the journal.  You can link to it directly here.

A sample:

My title is inspired, if that is the word, from the fact that the name “Northrop” apparently means “northern farm.”  In fact, the name-book whence the information derives lists Northrop Frye as the most famous instance of the name.  When I first learned of this, I thought it was a bit ironic.  Northrop Frye’s sensibility is urban; he belongs to Moncton and Toronto, and does not have much to do with farms.  He is, however, northern, and the etymology got itself linked in my mind with the lyrics to a song called “Farmhouse,” from an album of the same title by the rock group Phish.  In the song, the speaker begins by saying, “Welcome, this is a farmhouse.”  But he quickly goes on to apologize that “We have cluster-flies, alas / And this time of year is bad. / We are so very sorry, / There is little we can do / But swat them.”  The failure of nature seems linked to the failure of human relationships, and the failure of relationships in turn to the failure of community, as the speaker drifts from alluding to a lover who walked out on him to the observation that “Each betrayal begins with trust, / Every man returns to dust.”  Then, unexpectedly, an anthem-like refrain erupts with a complete reversal of the meaning of this melancholic farmhouse:  “I never saw the stars so bright, / In the farmhouse things will be all right.”  This reversal, or, to use Frye’s term, recreation of the vision of inhospitable nature and selfish human nature is the subject of my talk.  The direction of the reversal is from a “realistic” perspective allied with both common sense and scientific materialism to what Shakespeare in Twelfth Night calls “A natural perspective, that is and is not.”  The latter is the perspective that we call imaginative and spiritual.  It both is and is not because it begins as a fiction, and yet, unlike mere wish-fulfillment fantasies, has the potential to transform what the poet Wallace Stevens called “things as they are.” The fact that Frye, like Stevens, with various qualifications, grants authority to both perspectives gives him the title of his last book, The Double Vision.

Phish’s “Farmhouse” after the jump.

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Frye Alert


A reader’s response to a Frank Rich editorial, “The Rage Is Not about Health Care,” in the New York Times cites Frye on the hero:

The fact that the McConnells, Boehners, Cantors, and even McCains fear the wrath of unhinged, racist, screaming Teabaggers is the clearest indication possible that none of them are leaders. They are sheep. Abject figures who might be pitied for their impotence if they were not positioned to affect the direction of this country so negatively.

Literary critic Northrop Frye described the true leader as a hero, one who stands apart from the crowd, whose power stems from being able to adopt a position from strength rather than from weakness. Does this description call to mind anyone from the Republican party?

Historian and philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in his essay “From Hope and Fear Set Free” outlines the features that distinguish a rational person from an unfree, fearful person. Berlin states that the rational man is one who can act freely, not mechanically, who acts upon sound motives. The fearful man “is like someone who is drugged or hypnotised.”

Do the current crop of Republican “heroes” sound like either of these archetypes? Of course, it’s the second. They who foment fear are themselves fearful. They who are bound by ideological chains are barely able to see clearly. They who stand, not apart from the mob, in a position of strength, but hiding from it, in a fetal position of fear, cannot lead. They can only cower and whine and threaten.

There are no leaders on the right. They are led to the brink, like Lord Franklin’s doomed expedition, by addled fanatics like Limbaugh and Beck, and inanities like Palin; dragging down everyone with them, insisting that their weakness of mental acuity be recognized as some kind of sign that they are not “intellectuals” or socialists.

This country needs the balance of at least two functioning parties, both of which have leaders ready to stand up for the best America has to offer and to point her in the right direction. Unfortunately, we have only one rational party.

And if the above descriptions don’t fit any Republicans, they do seem to fit at least one Democrat.

That gentleman in the Oval Office.

Milton Acorn


Today is also “the people’s poet” Milton Acorn‘s birthday (1923 – 1986).

Here’s Acorn on Frye in what is arguably a Menippean satire, “On Not Being Banned By Nazis…” in More Poems for People:

After all, the fascist poet, Ezra Pound,

Who continues to pass off his preposterous

common and dull Cantos as very profound, also condemned

Academics. The fast-rising patriotic poet

Robin Mathews is a professor.  Pound was not.

Obviously, when I was saying academics, I meant some-

thing else.

I now realize that what I meant was “Imperial

Academics” – such as Northrop Frye, who in the past did

more than any other man to abolish everything native

and non-European in our literature.

Filmed interviews with Al Purdy and Milton Acorn on poetry and socialism after the jump.

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Paul Verlaine


Portrait of Paul Verlaine by Gustave Courbet

Today is Paul Verlaine‘s birthday (1844 – 1896).  We hate to chuckle at his expense on today of all days, but this entry from Frye’s 1942 diary is too good to pass up:

About this Rimbaud-Verlaine idea: I’d have to make something more exciting out of Verlaine than he actually was.  I get fed up with those people who act like bad little boys & finally collapse into the bosom of Mother Church, with a big floppy teat in each ear, and spend the rest of the time bragging about what bad little boys they used to be and how pneumatic the bliss is.  Rimbaud stayed tough. (Diaries, 18)

Quote of the Day


Further to Russell’s post

“Even the biggest book is fragmentary: to finish anything, you have to
cut your losses.  Nobody ever writes his dream book, like Coleridge’s
treatise on Logos.  That’s why we make scholars finish a thesis first,
that is, a book which, almost by definition, nobody wants to write or
to read, to show how closely the reproductive & excretory systems are
connected.” (CW XV:79)

Doctoral Programmes in Literary Studies


In the last few years, there has been considerable discussion of the possibility of rethinking the nature of the doctoral dissertation in literary studies.  This is in part prompted by the fact that many students apparently take an inordinate amount of time to complete a PhD, and in part by the crisis in scholarly publishing, in which greater pressure to produce scholarly monographs to obtain tenure and promotion has coincided with reductions in the number of books published by many prominent academic presses.  The underlying causes of these various facts are complex, and disputed, and I do not want to address them here; but it is important to recognize that they provide a context for the discussion about the requirements of doctoral programmes.

In the Spring 2010 MLA Newsletter, MLA President Sidonie Smith’s column is entitled “Beyond the Dissertation Monograph.”  Mentioning both the adverse conditions that prevail for many students in humanities programmes and the digital revolution, Smith suggests that we should perhaps “begin to expand the forms the dissertation might take.”  By this, she primarily means that we should be looking at alternative forms to the Gutenberg-era book.  I noted that one of the “Member Comments” on her column was from Bob Denham, who observed that Northrop Frye, who among his innumerable accomplishments was President of the MLA, never earned a Ph.D., although he was awarded 38 honorary degrees.  Bob adds, “In fact, he likened the doctoral regimen to ‘jumping through the hoops’ and ‘turning Ph.D. cartwheels’ for the amusement of one’s elders.”

I thought it might be interesting to look at a few other passages in Frye that relate to the topic of scholarship in the humanities, in the hope of provoking some more discussion on the blog about it.  In Spiritus Mundi (1976), Frye remarks on the immense amount of effort required to produce first a humanities dissertation and then a book on the same material, but adds, “There are many things in the Ph.D. program which are extremely valuable, as I know to my cost.  I avoided the Ph.D. myself by sheer accident, but there were elements in the training which I wish I had got in the regular way, and have always felt the lack of.”  He contrasts the centrality of the book in the humanities with the way that for scientists the article is the standard means of communication.  Of course, the question here is to what extent digital technologies have changed the situation that Frye is describing.  At the very least, it seems to be true that scholars do not buy as many scholarly books as they used to.  But ebooks have started to appear in the collections of academic libraries, which might indicate that the monograph will continue to flourish in a new material form.

In 1989, Frye gave a talk entitled “Literary and Mechanical Models” to a conference on Computers and the Humanities (published in The Eternal Act of Creation).  He tells the story of Pelham Edgar’s dissertation of Shelley’s imagery, the bulk of which was a catalogue of various images and their contexts.  Frye writes that “Clearly it was of immense benefit to the author of the thesis to steep himself so thoroughly in Shelley’s poetic vocabulary, but still most of the thesis could have been done by an appropriately programmed computer in a matter of seconds.”  Frye’s utopian fantasy, later in the essay, is that the idea of a “productive scholar” should be replaced by the idea of the “creative scholar,” and the dissertation should be seen as something solely for the benefit of the student, “So the crazy chain of thesis, thesis rewritten as book, book published, book bought by libraries, book added to an already groaning bibliography, would be broken.”

Glenna Sloan: “Northrop Frye in the Elementary Classoom”


We are very pleased to add to the Denham Library Glenna Sloan’s “Northrop Frye in the Elementary Classroom,” a speech she gave to the Canadian Literature Symposium on Northrop Frye in 2007.  You can link to it directly here.

Glenna brings what we very much need here: a consideration of Frye as a teacher, which, of all the remarkable roles he played, he considered the most important.

Here’s a sample:

I begin with indoctrination. I preach the gospel according to Frye in an effort to save teachers from the false teachings of the reading industry. These include the notion that how children read is more important than what they read, that fragmenting the reading experience through inane drills of so-called sequential skills is the way to develop literacy. The reading pundits insist that suitable early reading material must be dumbed down or, as they say, leveled, an unfortunate word which means written in limited vocabulary deemed appropriate for the reader’s age. I refer to Professor Frye’s blistering critique of Harcourt’s Adventure series of basal readers when I insist that genuine literature is far and away the most effective reading program ever devised.

In an interview with me, Professor Frye said: “As you read and write from the basis of literature, eventually you realize that there is a difference between learning to read and write at the minimum standards of literacy and being able to write with some power of articulateness and to read with some sense of direction. So the teaching of literature is the teaching of reading and writing. And what you’re aiming for here is the transfer of imaginative energy from literature to the reader” (University of Toronto, February 23, 1970).

Visit Glenna’s website, Children’s Literature and Literacy