The Scholar’s Anxiety


It is no secret that I have written about Harold Bloom and often enough try to provide some balance when his name is invoked here at The Educated Imagination. Professor Bloom has always been generous and reading Professor Bloom has always been productive for me. And herein lies the problem: I am a PhD Student at the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. The Centre for Comparative Literature, as many likely know, was at one time and in sense still is the home of high theory. One need only look so far as the post of the Visiting Northrop Frye Professor of Literary Theory, which was initiated in 1977 and Fredric Jameson was the first academic to hold this post. Following Jameson, the Centre was visited by: Paul Ricoeur, Robert Weimann, Barbara Hernstein-Smith, Mieke Bal, Edward Said, Sander L. Gilman, Julia Kristeva, Charles Taylor, L. M. Findlay, Tillotama Rajan, Emily Apter, Carol Mavor, and current Franco Moretti, who is teaching a course called “The Bourgeois.” Moreover, just about every major influential theorist has, at one time or another, passed through the Centre for Comparative Literature. Indeed, for students who come to the Centre, these times seem like memories and myths of a time lost. The Centre for Comparative Literature has also been home to every Canadian President of the Modern Language Association. And, recently as the Centre’s homepage announces, “Professor John Zilcosky was recently elected President of the Literary Theory Committee of the International Comparative Literature Association.”

The Centre for Comparative Literature is, in a sense, the centre for theory; at least this is the image that the Centre presents for itself.

Theory is essential to Comparative Literature. But, what does the scholar do who prefers not to read Derrida and instead prefers Bloom (Harold or Allan)? Or, how does one approach Northrop Frye at the Centre (after all, to date, only two or three “Frygians” have held the Visiting Professorship: Alvin Lee and Jonathan Hart, and, though to a lesser degree—less declared more influenced—David Damrosch)? Theorists, writers, critics like Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, Frank Kermode, Stanley Fish, M. H. Abrams, William Empson, canonical voices in their time, are now part of a time gone by. These masterful critics, for they all were and are masterful, are no longer a part of the mainstream of literary theory and criticism.

So what does the scholar of today do if that scholar is riddled by the anxiety of admitting that he or she finds people like Frye, or the Blooms, or Abrams, or Empson more engaging and more productive to his or her literary pursuits than the voices of “high” theory?

As much as I appreciate the critiques of Harold Bloom that are often enough advanced on this site, I have to reluctantly admit that I hear similar critiques aimed at Northrop Frye. Are these critiques true? Probably not. But they are common enough that we are reminded over and over again of Terry Eagleton’s infamous question: “Who now reads Frye?”  The question, perhaps, contains the answer. Those of us who read theory, read what is “now” called theory, if we read Frye we are not reading the “now” of theory, which is to say, we are not reading what is now available, now considered au courant.  The theorists that I most often turn to are hopelessly not part of the “now” of theory; instead, they are part of a generation once removed, their time in the “now” was before the rise of theory, before the theory boom, before the Centre for Comparative Literature.

Indeed, the scholar’s anxiety is probably a balance between reading enough of the now to appear cognizant of what is going on in the world of literary theory and reading enough to satisfy the reader’s search for a theoretical approach that works and still resides in the literary.

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3 thoughts on “The Scholar’s Anxiety

  1. Michael Happy

    Maybe what you describe is symptomatic of the problem, Jonathan, and will always remain a problem if the metric is anxiety. A lot of “theory” seems to be pursued for its own sake and doesn’t appear to possess much capacity for self-criticism. The alienation of the general reading public from theory is no secret, and the increasingly elusive relevance of theory-based study seems to be a story in itself.

    When people like Terry Eagleton ask “Who now reads Frye?” they’re really asking for it, aren’t they? Let’s rehearse. “Who now reads Eagleton? Who will ever read Eagleton again ten years after he’s shuffled off this mortal coil?” It’s a silly game. He ought to know better. If what drives “theory” is a matter of changing fashion, as your scenario seems to suggest, then everything is going out of style all of the time. You can never get ahead, let alone keep up. No wonder scholars are anxious.

    When it comes to the study and social relevance of literature, Frye suffered no such anxiety. He assumed that literature has value, and that it can be translated into liberating words with power. He seems more or less to be alone in this. That’s as true today as it was when the now apparently out-of-date scholars you cite were flourishing. Which is why Frye continues to stand out and stand alone. For students of literature who don’t worry about what everybody else is thinking and saying because it makes good career sense to do so, Frye doesn’t induce anxiety and he doesn’t go out of style.

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  2. Jonathan Allan

    I have a variety of thoughts on this, connected and not connected.

    First, the image. If Terry Eagleton is to be remembered for one thing it may very well be his “Literary Theory: An Introduction,” which must be in its third edition by now.

    Upon re-reading the Frye sections in “Literary Theory,” I read: “Northrop Frye and the New Critics thought they had pulled of a synthesis of the two, but how many students of literature today read them? Liberal humanism has dwindled to the impotent conscience of bourgeois society, gentle, sensitive and ineffectual; structuralism has already more or less vanished into the literary museum.” I suddenly feel as though this blog must surely be a museum artifact, if not an entire exhibition. Let alone the fact that at the University of Toronto, I took a course on Structuralism (French) with Roland Le Huenen. Prof. Le Huenen allowed me to explore the relations between French Structuralism and Northrop Frye. So Prof. Eagleton, I still read Frye, I still read New Critics, and I still read Structuralism.

    I can always take comfort in the anecdote about the academic stock market, stocks go up, stocks go down, sometimes stocks split, and so on.

    Michael, I do think that it wonderful that “Frye suffered no such anxiety;” however, I must admit that from my experience, the times have changed. While the idea may very well be true, I think the practical matter is another can of worms. I am convinced that Frye doesn’t go out of style, and I have referred many to Frye, particularly his Notebooks on Romance. I think the matter is up to many of us, the Centennial affords us the opportunity to really re-introduce Northrop Frye, especially in light of the incredible labour of the editors of the Collected Works. I am going to try to put together a panel for the Canadian Comparative Literature Association’s annual meeting at Congress, and would love to see participation from many Frygians and Frye Scholars, or as I have been called: Frye Guys.

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  3. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    What is here called “au courant” may less euphemistically be called “popular.” And what is popular in the academy may have less to do with what everyone wishes to read and more with what one guesses his or her superior wishes to be read. I think that anyone who sits in a highly theoretical graduate course tailors what is read and written to what one infers the professor prefers. That is understandable.

    But what is less understandable is that the euphemism implies that high theory is a snapshot of the collective concerns of all students. I think it works the other way around. Students are accepted and advanced based on the interests of the tenured few, and their work tends to reflect them.

    The choice seems to be less between what is old and what is new than what is useful and what is to be expected from being coerced into the obscure and the politically expedient.

    Whether or not this is a fair point, I still hope the scholar can get away from these false dichotomies, and frame what he or she reads by what is useful and what is not. Otherwise, if the argument is based upon what is fashionable and what is not, there is an implicit and false equivalence between scholars like Frye and Bloom, irrespective of merit.

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