More Frye and Bloom

As Bob Denham keeps reminding us, Frye continues to be read and used by scholars. Robert Milder, a very influential Americanist, uses Frye extensively in both his most recently published books, on Thoreau and on Melville, and he does so unapologetically. I am reading a book on Poe right now–admittedly published twenty years ago, but that would be at the very apex of high theory–by Charles E. May, the short story theorist, and the basic paradigm he uses is drawn from Anatomy of Criticism. I am also reviewing a book on Victorian poetry at this moment, and again the use of Frye is deep and extensive.

Frye saw his role for other critics and scholars as something to be measured by his usefulness. And for anyone honestly interested in literature and criticism and who reads him without prejudice, he is enormously useful. And this is why his work has lasted: it makes sense, it coheres, it is insightful. It opens up the doors of perception and cuts away the mind-forged manacles. Not to mention that it`s always a delight to read, unlike the portentous grandiloquence of so many other critical theorists, Bloom among them.

Frye comes up with a great way of describing such prose style in one of his notebooks. The entry concerns, in fact, Frye`s feeling that he was old and out of fashion, but also his suspicion that the new wave of theory was long on cleverness, and short on insight.

I am old and on the shelf now, and much that is going on I no longer understand. I’m reading Samuel Delaney, an sf [science fiction] writer interested in semiotics, and he begins with a sentence from Julia Kristeva I can no more understand than I could eat a lobster with its shell on. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from masticating and ruminating such sentences, but I`d like to think (or perhaps only my ego would) that my greater simplicity came from a deeper level than the labyrinth of the brain. (CW 5: 61-62)

Note the introspection and examination of conscience here–the questioning of possible egotistical motivation. The next entry runs:

Except that my ego has also intruded into my writing and caused me to write nonsense. My adversary has not, like Job’s, written a book [Job 31: 35], but he’s written IN all my books, and not always on the margins. I’d like to write one book free of the ego before I go. I also wish my clearest intervals of thought weren’t accompanied by laziness and selfishness.

If Frye could castigate himself for his laziness and selfishness, what terrible Dantean afterlife awaits the rest of us? Sorry to beat a dead horse, but this defines for me the problem I have with Bloom: his ego keeps getting in the way; any possible insight he might have is smothered by it. He became a lunatic of one idea, and it wasn’t even a very good idea to start with: a strange amalgam of Nietzschean will to power and Freudian castration anxiety. As Christopher asks in his comments (here and here), how does this obsession with the power struggle between poetic geniuses help us understand literature better? The letter in the LRB Christopher refers us to is even more telling: it demonstrates the speciousness of Bloom’s “knee-jerk” interpretive procedures. It is really no better when he is dealing with literary texts written in English and not making obvious errors in translating Hebrew. You can’t trust the man.

Perhaps, Jonathan, you might explain in more detail why you find Boom so useful. The post-Anxiety of Influence Bloom, that is (he actually did valuable work when he saw himself as a Romantics scholar and still regarded Frye as his mentor.)

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3 thoughts on “More Frye and Bloom

  1. Veronica Abbass

    I was rereading the articles in the textbook I use for the English and Communications course I teach and came across an article entitled “It’s a Lonely Business, Caring about Beauty” by Heather Mallick. One paragraph in the article mentions Frye:

    “Growing up, I read every book in my small-town library but didn’t understand the connection between literature and art until I went to the University of Toronto and saw a Douglas Martin portrait of Northrop Frye floating over the Victoria College library.”

    I will definitely include Mallick’s article as required reading in my class this fall. Assigning the article will give me the opportunity to introduce this blog and talk about the October 10, 2009 post “Gloria Boyd: Norrie dans le metro,” especially the part where Boyd says:

    “It suddenly dawned on me that the very building where I was taking my French course at Victoria University was named after the old man, and that the person floating on a cloud in a tweed jacket in the painting I used to look at when working on my papers was none other than my subway friend.”

  2. Bob Denham

    As for Joe’s remark about the continuing presence of Frye, I just checked my lists of things that have been written about Frye since the turn of the millennium:
    –number of books devoted completely to Frye since 2000: 21
    –number of articles, essays, contributions to books about Frye since 2000: 589
    –number of dissertations and theses devoted to Frye or in which Frye is a substantial subject, 2000-2010: 106

  3. Jonathan Allan

    I don’t doubt that Northrop Frye continues to be read and continues to be written on — I count myself as one of those readers.

    As for how Bloom has been useful to my own work. Firstly, I imagine we can all agree that there are a few Bloom’s out there. There is the Bloom pre Anxiety of Influence, there is the Anxiety of Influence Bloom, and then there is the post Anxiety of Influence Bloom (the canonizer).

    Bloom was a great critic of Romantic Poets and he is a great theorist of influence. These are the Blooms that most interest me, and have been most productive in terms of thinking about relations between texts and authors.

    I think, but I could be wrong, that the Bloom that most bothers people is the post Anxiety Bloom, the canonizing Bloom. And even with a book like The Western Canon, I still find Bloom a formidable critic. I may not agree with the choices for his canon, but I cannot help but acknowledge that he has provided a way to think about the canon. In the end, I imagine many of us end up teaching some sort of canon when we teach a literary survey: Beowulf to Virginia Woolf; letters of Discovery to Garcia Marquez, etc. These are “important” writers that students “should” know if they are to continue in literary studies. What Bloom does is reduce the list down to 26 writers, and then the appendix at the back of the Western Canon (an appendix that does not appear with all editions/translations of the book).


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