Monthly Archives: August 2011

Quote of the Day: “Harold Bloom on Literary Criticism”

Our quote of the day doesn’t refer to what was said but what was not. A recently published interview with Harold Bloom under the title, “Harold Bloom on Literary Criticism,” in which he reviews twentieth century criticism but makes no reference to Frye.

The Decline of Literary and Critical Theory

In response to yesterday’s quote of the day on the decline of literary studies, Jonathan Allan commented:

I think this is a debate that is needed, but at the same time, I appreciate and enjoy literary theory. Whenever I hear the “death of the discipline,” I always, for one reason or another, feel a need to rebel. I don’t think it is “theory” that killed literary studies or devalued literary studies, and yet, I am not certain what is the cause of this devaluation.

The problem with the term “literary theory,” is that it has come to mean anything but literary theory: what passes as literary theory is sociology, or linguistic theory, or psychoanalytic theory, or history, or queer theory, feminist theory, even evolutionary theory now, as Scott Herring alludes to in his article. None of this is, properly speaking, literary theory, which would be a theory of literature as an imaginative form of communication that is distinct from other uses of language. This is all laid out in the opening chapters of Words with Power, where Frye distinguishes the logical, descriptive, and rhetorical uses of language from “mythological” or “imaginative” uses of words. The same goes for the term “critical theory,” which is not in its current use a theory of (literary) criticism at all. The latter can only be, according to Frye, a theory concerning the principles of literary criticism, the contexts of which he attempts to outline in Anatomy of Criticism: historical criticism (theory of modes), ethical criticism (theory of symbols), archetypal criticism (theory of myths), rhetorical criticism (theory of genres).

What Lynne Cheney and the radical left (as it has manifested itself in literary studies) have in common is an ideological bias that cares little for literature as an autonomous activity of imaginative recreation, as Frye understands it. By “autonomous,” Frye does not mean that literature is “pure” of historical or ideological content, but that what most matters in literature is the imaginative shaping of that content. This aspect is also the genuinely “critical” aspect of literature that gives it its authority and has the power to remind us of how far, how grotesquely the world we have created departs from a world that makes human sense.

In that light, I do think we can speak of a deterioration, if not the death, of a discipline, when so many of its practitioners are seduced and distracted by principles belonging to other academic or scholarly disciplines than its own, and especially when the approach subordinates the study of literature and culture to socially and politically activist agendas, right or left. It is in fact in pursuing his theory of literature and criticism as an autonomous activity and discipline that Frye came to produce at the same time cultural and social criticism of a very high order–not because he turned for his insights to the worlds of sociology and history.

Frye’s RCMP File

Frye’s Spies: Documents in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Security Files on Northrop Frye

Jim Bronskill’s uncovering the security files that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police kept on Frye for a dozen years has been reported in the blog, a story that was picked up by numerous news organizations.  The entire episode seemed so unlikely that I felt obliged to get a copy of the files, which I requested from the Library and Archives of Canada and which were kindly provided me.  Reading the files is like watching a Beckett play where nameless bureaucrats with not enough serious work to do write memos and shuffle papers around as if their trivial actions were of great moment.  One finds oneself laughing at the absurdity of it all.

Still, we do learn something from the security files that we didn’t previously know: the extent of Frye’s involvement with a number of left‑wing committees and organizations precisely at the time he was writing all those critiques of the student protest movement.  From the files we discover that Frye was involved, as a sponsor or signatory, with the following:

  • Montreal Hemispheric Conference to End the Vietnam War
  • Opposition to Trudeau’s invoking the War Measures Act
  • International Conference on Racism and War
  • Corporation des enseignants du Québec
  • International Commission of Inquiry (Vietnam War Tribunal)
  • Vietnam Moratorium Committee (Montreal)
  • Faculty Committee on Vietnam (University of Toronto)
  • Alexander Defence Committee
  • International Forum Foundation
  • Canadian Committee for Amnesty in Portugal
  • International Teach‑in on China
  • Canadian teachers opposed to “ the U.S. policy of ‘genocide’ in Vietnam”
  • Committee established to aid the students accused of violating the Anti‑subversion Act of 1951
  • Toronto Committee on Disarmament

Many of the security files are heavily redacted and some 40 of the 142 pages have been withheld altogether, pursuant to the regulations of the Access to Information Act.  But as I read the files, slogging through the deadening bureaucratic prose, there are 39 separate entries.  What follows is a brief abstract of  each of the 39 entries.

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Quote of the Day

Post-structuralist t-shirts available here

“My guess is that [literary] theorists are motivated partly by a desperate realization that, in the process of deconstructing the profession, we in the literature business have shot ourselves not in the foot, but in the head. At a time of contracting education budgets, the public is no longer willing to pay for courses titled ‘Bat[woman] and Cat[man]: Queering the Canonical Comix.'” — Scott Herring in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Of Madeleines and Memories of a Love Past


During most of the summer, I have spent my time reading about love and loss. I have delved into literary theory, theology, psychoanalysis, and literature.  In a recent article – “Can We Read the Book of Love?” in PMLA – Richard Terdiman writes: “people love being in love, and when they are they talk and write about it with an expansive intensity.” I am struck by a persistent desire as readers to read about love. Romance novels continue to be the largest portion of book sales in the United States, and during a recession romance novels increase in sales. Indeed, “we love being in love.”

Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse observes that “to try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region where love is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive submersion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it).” Barthes and Terdiman seem to agree that love and to write about love is to be excessive: both too much and too little.

In his recent novel, A Familiar Rain, John Geddes explores the problem of love and loss: the problem being one where we strive to return, always, to a love lost. While reading A Familiar Rain, I was also reading and writing about Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; more specifically, I was writing about The Fugitive, a book that opens, “Mademoiselle Albertine is gone,” and narrates the loss of Albertine and Marcel’s reactions. In A Familiar Rain, we are presented with a protagonist who falls in love and loses his first love. Throughout the novel, he is researching memory and returning to our memories (at times the novel seems to recall H. G. Wells’ Tono-Bungay). Of course, the novel illustrates the problems of this search for lost time.

The problem with reliving memories, we learn, is that “all of the sorrows and the trauma we usually get over by forgetting, she can still recall. It could torment her. I’m not sure if this is a blessing or a curse.” And indeed, this is precisely the problem with remembering: intrinsic to a memory is not always a positive experience. Memory can force us to long for that which is now lost and yet persistently present because we cannot, we do not, forget. Nowhere is this more true than in the story of love, where “memory is burned into your consciousness.”

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TGIF: Jack Layton on “22 Minutes”

A compilation of Jack Layton’s appearances over the years on This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

For non-Canadians, a couple of cues. First, the title of the show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, is a Canadian in-joke that is so convoluted that it’d be too tedious to relate. Suffice to say, it’s our joke, we share it, we get it.

Second, and most importantly, 22 Minutes is primarily a Newfoundland thing, and that really matters. No other place like it, certainly not in Canada. Their humor is much more like British humor: broad, knockabout, profane, with a bit of a cruel streak. (Cast member Mary Walsh once so publicly humiliated Prince Philip in an improvised routine at a news conference that I still cringe to think about it.) Keep that in mind. Note also that Jack gets more comfortable with the whole thing with each appearance.

Frye‑McLuhan Rivalry?

A great deal has been made of the claim that Frye and McLuhan were rivals.  But were they?  W. Terrence Gordon’s Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding: A Biography says twice that they were rivals, without indicating any basis for the claim.  Philip Marchand’s Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger (Toronto: Random House, 1989), takes a different view, showing McLuhan to be jealous of Frye’s eminence and noting several small-minded actions on the part of McLuhan to chip away at that standing.  Take for example this episode from Marchand’s biography:

A panel of graduate English students was organized by the Graduate English Association at the University of Toronto to discuss Frye’s book [Anatomy of Criticism] shortly after its publication.  One of the panellists, Frederick Flahiff, recalls, “One morning after the announcement of the panel had gone out, Marshall appeared in my room carrying a copy of [an] essay entitled “Have with You to Madison Avenue; or, The Flush Profile of Literature.”  The essay, written by McLuhan, was an attack on Frye’s criticism as the formation, via literature, of a perceptive mind to a pseudo‑scientific charting of the features of literature vaguely analogous to Madison Avenue profiles of consumer groups (“Flush profile” is a reference to a method of measuring viewer response to radio and television programs by gauging the incidence of toilet flushing. [“Flush Profile” is reproduced below.]

McLuhan was not at his best in this essay.  His argument, studded with tortured metaphors, was extremely convoluted, and would have succeeded in confusing any audience, no matter how well versed in Frye’s book.  One thing was clear though: no one but McLuhan could have written it.  Nonetheless, McLuhan asked Flahiff if he would read the essay on the panel as if it were his own response to Frye.  We went out and walked around and around Queen’s Park, Flahiff recalls.

McLuhan was at his most obsessive.  I don’t mean that he was hammering away at me to do this thing, but he was obsessive about Frye and the implication of Frye’s position in the same way he had talked about black masses.  It was the first time I had seen this in McLuhan––or the first time I had seen it so extravagantly.  As gently as possible I indicated that I could not do this and that I was going to write my own thing. . . . Later, on the night of the panel, he phoned me before my appearance and asked me to read to him what I had written.  I indicated that he could come to the session if he wanted, but he said “Oh, no, no.” (105–6)

Marchand also reports on a letter from McLuhan to a close friend in which “McLuhan mentioned Frye’s leaving Toronto for a conference and added that he hoped Frye would not bother to return” (105).  Perhaps McLuhan did see Frye as a rival, but I find no evidence in all of Frye’s comments on McLuhan that Frye considered McLuhan to be a rival.  Nor does Frye say anything unkind about McLuhan, except perhaps for the remark that McLuhan had a reputation as a great thinker but he didn’t think at all.

If Frye saw McLuhan as a rival it seems doubtful that he would have argued long and hard that McLuhan should be given the governor general’s award for Understanding Media. Or that, as David Staines reports, he would have said to Corrine McLuhan after Marshall’s death, “I always wanted to be closer to Marshall than I was.”

After the jump, McLuhan’s review of Anatomy.

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Frye’s References to McLuhan in the Correspondence

From Northrop Frye: The Selected Letters, 1934-1991, ed. Robert D. Denham (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Co., 2009)

Letter to Robert Heilman, 29 October 1951

. . . I am very deeply obliged to you for being responsible for my having a wonderful summer.  I have seldom enjoyed a summer so much.  We topped it off with ten days in San Francisco and two weeks in New York—one at the English institute, which turned out to be a very good one.  I got Marshall McLuhan down to give a paper [“The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry,” in Alan Downer, ed., English Institute Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 168–81; rpt. in The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan 1943-1962, ed. Eugene McNamara (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 91–7].

Letter to Richard Schoeck, 24 November 1965

You may know that Marshall and Ernest have asked me to do a collection of comments on myth and criticism as one of the Gemini books.  I gather that their original idea was to collect contemporary essays on the subject, but I thought it might be more interesting and useful to go back into the history of the tendency.  Things like Raleigh’s History, the opening of Purchas, Camden, Reynolds’ Mythomystes, Bacon’s Wisdom of the Ancients, Sandys’ Ovid, from that period; some of the “Druid” stuff from around Blake’s time; some of the material used by Shelley and Keats, and so on down to Ruskin’s Queen of the Air, but without incorporating anything much later than The Golden Bough and the turn of the century.  An introductory essay would of course indicate the relevance of this to what came after Frazer.  I’ve spoken about this to Marshall and he suggested that I might consult the other editors.  [Frye wrote a preface for the proposed collection, but the project was for some reason aborted.  His preface was published forty years later in CW 25:326–8.]

Letter to John Garabedian, 12 September 1967 [In reply to an letter by Garabedian (1 September 1967), a feature writer for the New York Post, wanting Frye to expand on a comment quoted in an article in Time magazine that hippies were inheritors of the “outlawed and furtive social ideal known as the ‘Land of Cockaigne.’” The Time article also referred to Frye as a disciple of McLuhan.]

Thank you for your letter.  I am not sure that I can be of much help to you, as I did not have hippies in mind when I spoke of the Land of Cockaigne as one form of Utopia.  The association was due to the Time writer, and I doubt very much that the Land of Cockaigne is really what the hippies are talking about.  Neither was it correct to describe me as a disciple of McLuhan, although he is a colleague and a good personal friend.

Letter to Walter Miale, 18 February 1969

. . . Korzybsky was, because of his anti‑literary bias, a person I was bound to have reservations about, but there was still the possibility that he might be, like Marshall McLuhan today, probing and prodding in directions that might turn out to be useful.

Letter to Walter J. Ong, S.J., 28 March 1973

. . . I saw Marshall [McLuhan] the other day at a meeting on Canadian Studies, where we were discussing the question of how difficult it is for students in this bilingual country to acquire a second language when they don’t possess a first one.

Letter to William Harmon,  13 August 1974

Harmon had requested (8 July 1974) the source of Joyce’s referring to Eliot as “the Bishop of Hippo,” which Frye quotes in his book on T.S. Eliot (pp. 67–8).  Frye replied that he wasn’t certain as he was quoting “orally from someone who had been working in the Joyce papers at Buffalo.”  Harmon responded with a note of thanks, which prompted Frye to write again to say “Marshall McLuhan was present when this tag from Joyce was quoted, and his memory of it may be more accurate than mine.”

Letter to Richard Kostelanetz, 7 January 1976

. . . Please don’t make me an enemy of Marshall McLuhan: I am personally very fond of him, and think the campus would be a much duller place without him.  I don’t always agree with him, but he doesn’t always agree with himself.

The statement of Colombo’s on page 16 strikes me as curious, but it’s your article. [John Robert Colombo had said that “McLuhan and Frye are Canada’s Aristotle and Plato.  McLuhan is the scientist, and Frye the mystical theorist, with the eternal paradigms and everlasting forms” (qtd. by Kostelanetz, Three Canadian Geniuses, 131).]

Letter to Andrew Foley, 20 April 1976

. . . I think psychologists are now moving away from the Freudian metaphors about an unconsciousness buried below a conscious mind, and are thinking more in terms of the division in the brain between the hemisphere controlling a linear and verbal activity and the one that is more spatially oriented.  It seems to me that the most important aspect of McLuhan is his role in the development of this conception.

Letter to Fr. Walter Ong, December 1977

. . . I saw something of your student Patrick Hogan this year, but he left early.  I don’t know whether he was disappointed in what we did or didn’t do for him.  He was very keen, and one of his proposals was that he and Marshall and I should form a seminar to discuss Finnegans Wake, which hardly fitted my working schedule or, I should imagine, Marshall’s.

 

Letter to Barrington Nevitt, 20 September 1988

This is in connection with your letter about your proposed book on Marshall McLuhan.  I am sorry if I am unhelpful on this subject, but I doubt that I have anything very distinctive to say on the subject.  What I could say I said at the teacher’s awards meeting you referred to [Distinguished Teacher Awards, December 1987], but unfortunately I had no text for that talk.  I think I remember saying that Marshall was an extraordinary improviser in conversation, that he could take fire instantly from a chance remark, and that I have never known anyone to equal him on that score.  I also feel, whether I said it or not, that he was celebrated for the wrong reasons in the sixties, and then neglected for the wrong reasons later, so that a reassessment of his work and its value is badly needed.  I think what I chiefly learned from him, as an influence on me, was the role of discontinuity in communication, which he was one of the first people to understand the significance of.  Beyond that, I am afraid I am not much use.

Frye on McLuhan, McLuhan on Frye

I heard B.W. Powe’s paper on Frye and McLuhan at this year’s Frye Festival in Moncton. It covered a lot of ground and was powerfully rendered. On a couple of occasions Powe seemed to suggest that Frye was in some way envious of and threatened by McLuhan. He cited this anecdote from George Steiner:

Many years ago, one evening in Massey College, I sat with Robertson Davies, Norrie Frye, Kathleen Coburn (the world’s greatest Coleridge scholar), when there walked in a very much younger Marshall McLuhan. Astounded, and without thinking, I turned to Professor Frye, and said, “There’s Marshall McLuhan.” I cannot hope to reproduce the air of sardonic melancholy which immediately invaded Norrie’s features. He had a long look, and said, “So the man alleges.”

If I understood Powe’s point in citing this passage, a display of envy does not seem to be the best interpretation of it. Frye’s references to McLuhan in the Collected Works are evidence of his consistently frank and even-handed appraisal of McLuhan. I think his often repeated concern that McLuhan’s celebrity compromised his full potential as a scholar offers a better read on what Steiner describes as Frye’s “sardonic melancholy.” Frye’s response, “So the man alleges,” similarly recalls his frequent dismissal of the “McLuhan cult” (or as he more pungently puts it at one point, “the McLuhan rumour”) in order to maintain at least some distinction between the scholar and the media guru.

Thanks to the nearly twenty thousand words related to McLuhan that Frye committed to paper, we can see that Frye confidently read him, confidently saw beyond the misguided “nitwit McLuhanism” he inspired, and confidently disagreed with him for reasons he was always willing to articulate in detail. Frye often cites and lucidly critiques McLuhan’s characterization of the “global village” and his distinction between “linear” and “simultaneous” perception. At the same time, he is also characteristically generous wherever McLuhan might be effectively cited (and, again, there are scores of such citations amounting to thousands of words), even if he remained vigilant wherever he thought McLuhan might be reasonably challenged. Throughout it all, Frye regards McLuhan as a scholar first. He in fact observes a number of times that McLuhan was celebrated for the wrong reasons in the 1960s and then ignored for the wrong reasons in the 1970s. Perhaps most tellingly, there is no indication of any sustained personal hostility toward McLuhan himself, whatever their professional differences. In an interview after McLuhan’s death, Frye refers to him as “my beloved colleague.”

If there is any manifest expression of resentment, and even paranoia, in this relationship, it appears to have come from McLuhan’s side. According to Philip Marchand‘s biography, Marshall McLuhan: the Medium and the Messenger, he had a long held belief that he had been targeted by a worldwide Masonic conspiracy. Frye was at least peripherally implicated:

McLuhan had sense enough not to express these views in public, and by the 1960s he pretty well kept quiet about the Masons even with friends and colleagues at St. Michael’s, although, appalled by the post-Vatican II changes in the church, he occasionally voiced the suspicion that some prelates of the church, including Toronto Archbishop Philip Pocock, were secretly Masons. He seems never really to have abandoned his thesis about a Masonic conspiracy and even wondered occasionally whether some of his own employees at the Centre for Culture and Technology (established at the University of Toronto in 1963) might be Masons.

He certainly never abandoned his belief that his great rival in the English department at the University of Toronto, Northrop Frye, was a Mason at heart, if not in fact. (114)

McLuhan seems to have possessed an aggressive personal animosity toward Frye. According to Marchand, McLuhan considered him an “enemy” early in their careers together in the English department at the University of Toronto, and then in later life Frye is referred to as his “old enemy.” McLuhan’s enmity was evidently a longstanding one. The other references to Frye in Marchand’s book do not vary much from this theme.

As already promised, I will be writing a longer paper in which I will provide a more extended and detailed account of Frye’s reading of McLuhan.