Daily Archives: June 15, 2010

The Function of Criticism at the Present Time?


The July/August issue of the Walrus has a piece called “The Long Decline” by André Alexis.  In it, he argues that there’s been a marked degeneration of criticism in popular fora.  He suggests, strikingly, that Frye’s work was one of the principal “catalysts” against which critics reacted to move away from taxonomy to  personal opinions and something more akin to the stock market of authors’ worth.  The attack  Alexis makes is in some ways predictable — there has been a marked decline in both the quantity and the quality of mainstream book reviewing — and in other ways fascinating.  Among other questions Alexis raises, we might ask is John Metcalf really the primary culprit in the changes in Canadian criticism?  Is James Wood’s How Fiction Works a way forward out of a criticism too limited to individual assessments of worth?  Has Alexis captured something of what the anti-Frye reaction is all about?  I think this piece might stimulate our own debate.

Magna Carta


The earliest surviving film adaptation of Shakespeare, an 1899 British production of King John.  (This clip cannot be embedded: hit the arrow and then hit the YouTube link that appears.)

On this date in 1215 King John of England put his seal on Magna Carta.

Shakespeare, of course, wrote a play about King John that makes no mention of Magna Carta.  Happily, Frye has a point or two to make about Shakespeare by way of King John.

The action of King John has proceeded only for a few lines when the king says:

Be thou as lightning in the eyes of France;
For ere thou can’st report I will be there,
The thunder of my cannon shall be heard.

King John, of course, had no cannon.  It is habitual for us to say the audience would never notice.  Audiences in fact have rather a quick ear for such things.  Or we may say that Shakespeare was in a hurry, and was unwilling to spoil his record of never blotting a line.  The assumption that Shakespeare was a hasty and slapdash writer has often been made, by hasty and slapdash critics, but has never proved fruitful.  If we say that Shakespeare had more important things on his mind, we come closer to the truth: certainly the fine image of the thunderstorm is more important than fidelity to the date of the introduction of gunpowder.  But it is better to think of such anachronism positively and functionally, as helping to univeralize an historical period, as representing a typical rather than a particular event.  The past is blended with the present, and event and audience are linked in the same community. (A Natural Perspective, 20)