Monthly Archives: November 2012

Frye on Moby-Dick

In response to Trevor Losh-Johnson’s recent post, this passage  from Words with Power:

Themes of descent often turn on the struggle between the titanic and the demonic within the same person or group. In Moby Dick, Ahab’s quest for the whale may be mad and “monomaniacal,” as it is frequently called, or even evil so far as he sacrifices his crew and ship to it, but evil or revenge are not the point of the quest. The whale itself may be only a “dumb brute,” as the mate says, and even if it were malignantly determined to kill Ahab, such an attitude, in a whale hunted to the death, would certainly be understandable if it were there. What obsesses Ahab is in a dimension of reality much further down than any whale, in an amoral and alienating world that nothing normal in the human psyche can directly confront.
The professed quest is to kill Moby Dick, but as the portents of disaster pile up it becomes clear that a will to identify with (not adjust to) what Conrad calls the destructive element is what is really driving Ahab. Ahab has, Melville says, become a “Prometheus” with a vulture feeding on him. The axis image appears in the maelstrom or descending spiral (“vortex”) of the last few pages, and perhaps in a remark by one of Ahab’s crew: “The skewer seems loosening out of the middle of the world.” But the descent is not purely demonic, or simply destructive: like other creative descents, it is partly a quest for wisdom, however fatal the attaining of such wisdom may be. A relation reminiscent of Lear and the fool develops at the end between Ahab and the little black cabin boy Pip, who has been left so long to swim in the sea that he has gone insane. Of him it is said that he has been “carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro . . . and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps.”

Moby Dick is as profound a treatment as modern literature affords of the leviathan symbolism of the Bible, the titanic-demonic force that raises Egypt and Babylon to greatness and then hurls them into nothingness; that is both an enemy of God outside the creation, and, as notably in Job, a creature within it of whom God is rather proud. The leviathan is revealed to Job as the ultimate mystery of God’s ways, the “king over all the children of pride” (41:34), of whom Satan himself is merely an instrument. What this power looks like depends on how it is approached. Approached by Conrad’s Kurtz through his Antichrist psychosis, it is an unimaginable horror: but it may also be a source of energy that man can put to his own use. There are naturally considerable risks in trying to do so: risks that Rimbaud spoke of in his celebrated lettre du voyant as a “dérèglement de tous les sens.” The phrase indicates the close connection between the titanic and the demonic that Verlaine expressed in his phrase poète maudit, the attitude of poets who feel, like Ahab, that the right worship of the powers they invoke is defiance.

Melville’s Romance-Anatomy: Narrow and Expansive Criticism

I lately came across the following article by Carl Zimmer entitled, “Herman Melville, Science Writer.” You can find it here.

It is a rather polemical piece, underneath its avuncular tone, and it makes some very trenchant points about literary criticism from an anecdotal perspective. He recounts how when, as an English major, Zimmer read Moby-Dick under the guidance of his professors, those literary experts excised or ignored the portions of the book dealing with scientific writing, particularly the chapter “Cetology.” His complaint deserves to be quoted at length:

They only paid attention to a fraction of the book–the fraction that followed Ishmael on his adventures with Captain Ahab. This was the part of the book that they could easily compare to other great novels, the part they could use for their vague critiques of imperialism, the part–in   other words–that you could read without having to bother much with learning about the particulars of the world beyond people: about ships, about oceans, and, most of all, about whales. How many teachers, assigning Moby Dick to their students, have told them on the sly that they could skip over great slabs of the book? How many students have missed the fine passages of “Cetology”?

He goes on to praise Melville for this scientific writing, noting that Melville was working at cataloging and describing whale species before Darwin’s comprehensive theory of evolution. He ends with the rather damning conclusion that perhaps Moby-Dick would best be taught by an English professor in tandem with a biology professor.

Given the state of events described, Zimmer is right. This is a rather depressing reflection of how much the field of literature has been acceded to the narrowness of pseudo-scholars who, on the basis of either a narrow, extraliterary ideology or a disdain for their students, ignore entire swathes of the books they are teaching. Granted, it is difficult to teach a book like Moby-Dick (I did so as a TA during my semester at McMaster, where we had a week or so to do it) without taking recourse to abridged versions. This is true of any large and complicated work. But to do so while giving the impression that a chapter like “Cetology” is irrelevant to the book’s structure is ludicrous, and leaves a vacuum to be filled by assertions that those aspects of the book can be understood through other extraliterary modes of critique.  Since fields like biology are much more empirical than political theoretics, those assertions are rather sympathetic.

Consider how much damage has been done by ignoring modular theories of literature, comprehensive attempts to account for books as synoptic and complete visions, both in and of themselves and within the larger literary contexts of genres and archetypes. I would wager that no serious student reads Moby-Dick because it is the best way to understand the natural world. Nor would a student make a work of fiction her primary source for understanding pre-Darwinian biological theory.

When I read that sprawling book, after three aborted attempts, I only managed to finish it after reading The Anatomy of Criticism and certain works by Frye on literary Romance. In the Anatomy, one of several offhand comments, he classifies Moby-Dick as a romance-anatomy, using the work of Rabelais as a model and stating that “a later example is Moby-Dick, where the romantic theme of the wild hunt expands into an encyclopaedic anatomy of the whale.” (313). That affiliation, rightly or wrongly, placed  the encyclopaedic tendencies of the text into the realm of the psychological landscape of romance. It made me consider chapters like “Cetology,” as part of an ongoing dialectic in Ishmael’s narrative between intellectual and material comprehension of the world and transcendental communion with it. That dialectic fixed Ahab in my reading as a kind of demonic parody of comprehension and communion, a wounded man attempting to replace his loss “monomaniacally.”  The quest could also be read as a demonic parody of the kind ventured by the Redcrosse knight in an earlier sprawling romance, who seeks to slay the dragon and restore a fallen kingdom. I don’t know if that reading was particularly sound or correct, but it was more useful to have Spenser in the back of my mind than histories of US mercantilism. I was not fettered by false mimesis, a sort of overly-literal search for corresponding “reality,” a kind of historical/biological allegory which at best gives a backwards orientation to the reader and is at worst unverifiable. I had a framework and a context for my reading, one which did not ignore the encyclopaedic nature of the text. It gave me a framework for explanation while teaching, a theory to account for the disparate styles and tones in the book. And, fundamentally, it gave me intense joy and pleasure while reading it.

Frye’s books have become an a priori to a great amount of unaccountable literature. I could not have attempted behemoths like The Faerie Queene or Finnegans Wake without his Vergilian frameworks. Frankly, I couldn’t have enjoyed the novels of Raymond Chandler as much as I did without having first read Frye (and so many other critics for whom writing about literature is primarily an attempt at accessible education). I don’t know how much I absorbed out of those texts, but I had so much fun with them and they marked me for it. However good of a reader I am, I am better than I would have been because of generous, education-oriented criticism.

Zimmer’s contention that Moby-Dick cannot be dissociated from its scientific writing is correct, but that scientific writing must first be considered within the context of performative, anatomical writing, where the style imitates the vastness of its subject matter. That is a literary contention. And it is a contention which has been abandoned by many professors and departments of literature.

House of Cards

Jeffery Donaldson has given us permission to publish this lovely poem:


House of Cards

Jeffery Donaldson

For Garry Sherbert



“Ah, that fine fragile cathedral,”

said Jacques Derrida of Northrop Frye’s

Anatomy, one evening he was asked,


and there implied that, sooner or later,

literature’s whole top-heavy elaborate estate,

its fictive papers gingerly assembled,


would come crashing down on itself,

your canny devotions notwithstanding.

Said Frye himself: the world we create


in our imaginations is above time;

when the whole structure is finished,

nature, its scaffolding, is knocked away….


For Monsieur, you have fiction’s ephemera,

the broad-footed obelisk’s weightless

undergirdings, giddy and unhinged.


For the Canuck, nature is the provisional

gizmo, down and out, all gauze and gimcrack,

a mustered rigging’s trial-and-error.


Something between them will have to give.

Look this way and let us watch a moment

this child at work on a house of cards,


her painstaking piecemeal agglomerations,

rows of card-pair tee-pees’ touching tips

rising pyramidal, fine-flicked and unquibbling,


frangible as Tiffany. Her gangly,

jeweller’s-eye-tuned hand at widdershins

and dodging round buttresses athwart


must have a knack for stealth, that furtive

gesture, nearly, of not putting a thing

where you leave it, lifting your fingers free.


The testy habiliments climb to a single point,

light headed, slackening upwards,

all the more shouldering less and less,


next to nothing in the end. Fixed on little

more than the touchy gossamer integra,

she knows its equilibrium is a travesty,


how far from sound-footed, how possessed

of no greater poise than that each

tipped buttress is already half-toppled.


And she knows how we wait for hubris

to come knocking the moment she gingers

a last card onto the ticklish pinnacle.


Her staying it was never in the cards,

we like to say. The rooms are empty.

Once the whole is done, she’ll need to wreck it.


How that last one didn’t trigger the upset

let-down already settled upon, who knows?

Her patience is dizzying. Her fingers, feathers.


In the end she will not keep us guessing,

or leave unproven for a Derrida or Frye

what comes next once she is finished with it,


this dwelling she had a hand in making

that tapers at all odds above the fallen world,

once she is above knocking it down.

Remembrance Day: Frye on In Flanders Field and Mythological Peace

On Remembrance Day, remembering how Frye viewed war and peace and poetry, how he says in what is probably my favourite book of his, Words with Power, that working in words and other media, may be our only way to salvation on earth, that is, the only way to show instead of argue with  the warmongers among  the  ideologues and/or the  “psychotic apes”.

On In Flanders Fields:

It is perhaps not an accident that the best known of all Canadian poems, “In Flanders’ Fields,” should express, in a tight, compressed, grim little rondeau, the same spirit of an inexorable ferocity which even death cannot relax, like the Old Norse warrior whose head continues to gnash and bite the dust long after it had been severed from his body.

The Bush Garden:  150

On Ideologues:

I keep having a vision of a guide or preacher or some professional haranguer standing in front of  a war cemetery in Flanders with a million crosses behind him and explaining how human aggressiveness has such essential survival value.

Late Notebooks 1982-1990: 678

On Human and Divine Commands:

In the Decalogue God says, “Thou shalt not kill,” or, in Hebrew, “Kill not.” Period, as we say now: there is nothing about judicial execution, war, or self-defence. True, these are taken care of elsewhere in the Mosaic code, because the commandment is addressed to human beings, that is, to psychotic apes who want to kill so much that they could not even understand an unconditional prohibition against killing, much less obey it.

The Great Code: 232

Cayley: Does the word also become a command?

Frye: It often takes the form of a command, yes. I think that the word of command in ordinary society is the word of authority, which relates to that whole area of ideology and rhetoric.  That kind of word of command has to be absolutely minimal. It can’t have any comment attached to it. Soldiers won’t hang themselves on barbed wire in response to a subordinate clause. If there’s any commentary necessary, it’s the sergeant’s major’s job to explain what it is, not the officer’s. Now that is a metaphor, it’s an analogy, of the kind of command that comes from the other side of the imagination, what has been called the kerygmatic, the proclamation from God. That is not so much a command as a statement of what your own potentiality is and of the direction in which you have to go to attain it.  But it’s a command that leaves your will free, whether you follow it or not.

Northrop Frye in Conversation: 182

On Human Peace vs Mythological Peace

In between these visions of creation comes the Incarnation, which presents God and man as indissolubly locked together in a common enterprise. This is Christian, but the answering and supporting “Thou” of Buber, which grows out of the Jewish tradition, is not imaginatively very different. Faith, then, is not developed by clogging the air with questions of the “Does a God really exist?” type and answering them with equal nonsense, but in working, in words and other media, towards a peace that passes understanding, not by contradicting understanding, but by disclosing, behind the human peace that is merely a temporary cessation of a war, the proclaimed or mythological model of a peace infinite in both its source and its goal.

Words with Power:  124-125


Reading Young Frye Reading

I want to communicate to readers of the Frye blog a few ideas that are emerging from my reading of Robert Denham’s splendid edition of the undergraduate essays.  My reading is in its early stages, and I have plunged in where I have least business-into the theological and mythic essays.  In reading them, I was reminded how far Frye’s religious and social ideas were driven by events, real or imaginary, rather than doctrines or propositions.  The Incarnation, the imagined circumstances of what he at that time called ‘the savage’ as he waited to see what happened after the earth went dark, the Wall Street crash—these were the things that got Frye going, not the desire to refute I. A. Richards’s view of emotion as the basis of poetic language or the impulse to contribute to the literature.

In these essays, Frye is already eager to praise “the refusal of a free mind to be bullied by the interpreters of tradition” (266).  There is already a slight revulsion from a Church “settled, respectable and already a bit smug” and a willingness to position James and Paul at “opposed ends of a curve” (159) to make them Yeatsian mask and anti-mask if you like.  Once we say this, of course, it becomes clear that young Frye is already a strong reader, bending the heavy machinery of the big books that appear in his reading lists—very big books, I’m checking some of them out of the library—into the kind of tools he can use himself.

With this, I also sense some of the ambivalence that makes position in twentieth-century thought so difficult to assess.  Even if we take this in parochial, Eng. Lit. terms, we have the Frye who can emerge from the smoke, fire, and grease of the literature of sacrifice with the confident comment that “The fundamental experience is the problem of the good life: how best self-development may be integrated into the social relationship…. the separate and sometimes conflicting claims of the individual and group.” Here is a Frye who the recently-deceased Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling could have welcomed onto the Great Books course, had Columbia been able to recruit him.  But then we have the Frye who sees “the horror of isolation for the savage, the absolute and irrevocable doom of anyone cut off from the protection of the tribe” (112) as the beginnings of science, mythology—of ultimately his own myths of speculation and concern, to stretch a point, a Frye Jean O’Grady was eager to question Michael Dolzani about at our recent centenary confidence.  This is a Frye who did not take the Schools Inspector track to English studies, but the other quotation shows that Frye was no self-congratulating advocate for the “hermeneutic of suspicion.”  The myths or, if you like, the experiences of cooperation and anxiety appear to shape Frye’s intellectual history throughout his career and they shape the way he frames his critical inquiries. In this volume, I noted that Frye observes “The moment that man becomes critically [my emphasis] aware of the world, he is aware of the world, he is aware of a rhythmic recurrence of heavenly bodies, an organic living world independent of the will, which augurs a larger concept of forces than he himself has” (116).  This is a long way from the shibboleths of “critical thinking” some of my well-intentioned colleagues foist on their students.  Yet it seems to come as naturally as the leaves on the trees as a source for Frye’s speculations—you never feel he is straining himself into sublimity in the way you do with Bloom, feasting on fears and irrationalities as with De Man.

This is early days in my reading of this volume.  But I thought it useful to offer it to the blog in the hope that it might be worth reading.

Frye on Elections in General

With the U.S. presidential elections coming up,  Frye’s comments on elections in general might help see the hoopla for what it is. One quotation is from a special lecture and the other is from an American interview with Bill Moyers. Enjoy.

It has been said that those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it: this means very little, because we are all in the position of voters in a  Canadian [or American] election, condemned to repeat history anyway whether we learn it or not. But those who refuse to confront their own real past, in whatever form, are condemning themselves to die without having been born.

(Creation and Recreation: 1980)


MOYERS: Is television here influencing politics the way it is in the United States, making it a sporting event or entertainment?

FRYE: Very much so. I would like it better if I thought we had people who could play up to it. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter all that much who’s president of the United States. What did it matter in twentieth-century history that George [Gerald] Ford was a President of the United States?

MOYERS: Are you saying that the President is the front man for a system that continues to operate irrespective of his leadership?

FRYE: I’m not sure that the pyramid myth, the notion of the man at the top of society, really conforms to the realities of twentieth-century life. There is a whole machinery that is bound to continue functioning, so that ninety-five percent of what any President can do is already prescribed for him – unless he’s a complete lunatic. For that reason, it doesn’t seem so profoundly significant who is in the position of leadership.

MOYERS: What does that say about the role of the leader in the modern world?

FRYE: It means that the leader has to be a teammate. The charismatic leader, to the extent that he is that, is a rather dangerous person if he starts taking himself seriously. I’m a little leery about the adulation bestowed on Gorbachev. He has a very complex piece of machinery to try to help operate. The historical process works itself out in ways that really don’t allow for the emergence of a specific leader. It’s only in the army that you have the specific leader because that’s the way the military hierarchy’s set up.

MOYERS: But historical processes are the accumulated actions of autonomous individuals expressing their wills, appetites, desires, passions in the world out there. Those are subject to being changed by leaders, are they not?

FRYE: People are much more pushed around than that by the cultural conditioning in which they’re brought up and the social conditions under which they have to operate. The person who emerges as leader is really the person who is the ultimate product of that social conditioning.

MOYERS: There was an Italian Marxist in the 1920s who said that in the future all leaders will be corporate. There will not be single leaders. Of course that was before Mussolini and before Hitler.

FRYE: He was right to the extent that the charismatic single leader turned out to be a disaster.

MOYERS: So maybe the corporate Leader is not only an historical necessity, but a desirable phenomenon as well.

FRYE: He’s desirable because I think he’s essential for movement in the direction of peace. When I said that it was only the military that gives you the person on top, the supreme command, you notice that the dictators, the supreme leaders, have always been leaders of an army and have always imposed what is essentially martial law on their communities.

(Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas, 1989)


Frye, St. Thomas and Basketball

The first Toronto Raptor home game yesterday to start the  new NBA season ( and no NHL games in sight) reminded me of Northrop Frye’s thoughts on the game:

At Princeton I bought four books to keep me up to date with the mid-50s. Maritain’s, Malraux’s Voices of Silence, Auerbach’s Mimesis, and Curtius on medieval literature and Latin. At that time Curtius was the only one I could read with any real profit: Mimesis was all very well but I was working out an anti-mimetic theory of literature; Malraux said a few excellent things but was full of bullshit; Maritain, as I said, kept busting his skull against this preposterous “Art and Scholasticism” thesis, insisting that critical theory just had to come out of St. Thomas, who cared as much about the arts as I do about basketball league playoffs.

           (CW: Late Notebooks 1982-1990)