Daily Archives: January 6, 2013

Frye and Narratology

In response to the recent “Frye and Bakhtin” post, some thoughts from Michael Sinding, author of Body of Vision: Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Mind (University of Toronto Press, forthcoming):

Following up on Joe Adamson’s excellent post, I second his final point about the need to explore the implications of the intersections of Frye’s and Bakhtin’s thought. (There was some discussion of Frye and Bakhtin at the recent centenary conferences in Budapest and Toronto, and of Frye in comparison with other major genre theorists Claudio Guillen and Franco Moretti, but more needs to be done.)

To that end, I’m doing some work on Frye’s relation to narratology these days. It seems to me that Frye and Bakhtin have a similar odd status with respect to narratology: they are very often drawn on in studies of particular genres, studies of relations of texts to genres, and in genre theory; yet despite their enormous importance for literary criticism, they are not part of the mainstream of narrative theory per se. Narratologists seem uncomfortable with their claims about large-scale patterns and continuities in narratives. More on this later.

I started thinking about this recently when reading through the introductory chapters of the Companion to Narrative Theory edited by James Phelan and Peter Rabinowitz (available online through my university library; maybe yours too). The Companion begins with two excellent histories of narrative theory, one by David Herman and one by Monika Fludernik. Then there is a powerful essay by Brian McHale on the elision of Bakhtin in the two preceding histories. McHale writes,

author of (among other things) two landmark works of narrative theory, and implicated somehow or other in the production of a third, Bakhtin (1895–1975) is certainly the most ubiquitous narrative theorist of the last quarter of the twentieth century, and arguably one of the most influential. He is the one narrative theorist about whom every graduate literature student is certain to know something, even if he or she knows nothing else about narrative theory. Nevertheless, Bakhtin is conspicuous by his near-absence from both Herman’s and Fludernik’s histories of narrative theory — complete absence in the case of Fludernik, scant mention in the case of Herman. How did everyone’s favorite narrative theorist all but vanish from history — or at least, from these histories?

Although McHale is right that Bakhtin is very much downplayed in the two histories he refers to, neither he (McHale), Herman or Fludernik mentions Frye at all. This is another enormous oversight. It might be an even larger oversight than the slighting of Bakhtin, if Frye’s influence on literary criticism and theory, and other areas of narrative study, is greater than Bakhtin’s, which it might be. Think of Frye’s influence on literary narratology via Tzvetan Todorov and Jonathan Culler (both mentioned by Herman) and on history via Hayden White and psychoanalysis via Roy Schafer (both mentioned by Fludernik). (Incidentally, one wonders how to measure this kind of “influence.” McHale registers one important way when he talks about what “every graduate literature student is certain to know”. Frye was part of that common knowledge a couple of decades ago.) McHale even says in a footnote that there is another critic who is important enough that his invisibility in (these versions of) narrative theory could be compared with that of Bakhtin—and that critic is Kenneth Burke:

Nor is he the only the figure to slip through the cracks in this way. Alan Nadel suggests (personal communication) that Kenneth Burke presents a problem comparable to that of Bakhtin. This is true, but only up to a point; Bakhtin’s belated currency and astonishing ubiquity has no parallel in the Burke case.

It’s astonishing to me that a narratologist as knowledgeable and talented as McHale could pick up on the elision of Bakhtin and Burke in histories of narratology, and yet completely overlook Frye. I suppose there are various reasons for this, but I won’t start getting into them at the moment. I’ll just say that if McHale is right that Bakhtin is “a specter … haunting narrative theory”, then Frye must be a specter of a specter. It struck me that while contributors to this blog offer helpful “Frye sightings”, it might also be worthwhile to talk about “non-sightings” such as the one I’ve described.

Works Cited

Fludernik, Monika. “Histories of Narrative Theory (II): From Structuralism to the Present.” A Companion to Narrative Theory. PHELAN, JAMES and PETER J. RABINOWITZ (eds). Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Blackwell Reference Online. 14 November 2012 <http://www.blackwellreference.com/subscriber/tocnode.html?id=g9781405114769_chunk_g97814051147694>

Herman, David. “Histories of Narrative Theory (I): A Genealogy of Early Developments.” A Companion to Narrative Theory. PHELAN, JAMES and PETER J. RABINOWITZ (eds). Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Blackwell Reference Online. 14 November 2012 <http://www.blackwellreference.com/subscriber/tocnode.html?id=g9781405114769_chunk_g97814051147693>

McHale, Brian. “Ghosts and Monsters: On the (Im)Possibility of Narrating the History of Narrative Theory.” A Companion to Narrative Theory. PHELAN, JAMES and PETER J. RABINOWITZ (eds). Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Blackwell Reference Online. 14 November 2012 <http://www.blackwellreference.com/subscriber/tocnode.html?id=g9781405114769_chunk_g97814051147695>

In Response to Ed Lemond’s “Frye, Leviathan, and the Jonah Paradigm”

As an addition to Ed Lemond’s informative post (here) on the often “intemperate”–as Bob Denham calls them–responses to Frye’s take on Canadian literature, here is an excerpt of my review of  two recent collections on Frye, followed by a synopsis of Frye’s views, an excerpt from my own Northrop Frye: A Visionary Life:

First, an excerpt from a review of Northrop Frye: New Directions from Old, and: Northrop Frye’s Canadian Literary Criticism and Its Influence, University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 80, No. 2, Spring 2011, pp. 322-324:

. . . Another disappointment is David Bentley’s essay on Frye’s contribution to the criticism of Canadian literature. The punning title “Jumping to Conclusions” is meant to be at Frye’s expense, but it applies much better to Bentley’s own argument. The essay consists almost entirely of passive-aggressive innuendo: the suggestion, for example, that Frye’s views were the outgrowth of neurotic anxieties about nature and animals, or that he was out of his league as a critic of Canadian literature and culture. How credible is the latter charge about a critic who for a decade annually surveyed the entire yearly output of Canadian poetry for this quarterly? Frye’s intricate knowledge of the Canadian scene–the whole scene: not just literature, but culture, politics, and history–is manifest to anyone who has made his way through the daunting volume of essays in Northrop Frye on Canada (vol. 12 of The Collected Works), which brings together his diverse writings on Canada.  Most egregiously, Bentley’s essay never really confronts the  argument of the epochal ‘Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada’; he simply hints at its contradictions and inaccuracies by quibbling over passages that he does not properly contextualize. Sadly, as Eleanor Cook observes in her essay in the other volume reviewed here, ‘for fifty people who can repeat the phrase “garrison mentality,” only one can repeat the critical argument in the”‘Introduction” to The Bush Garden and get it right.’ At the same time, Bentley conspicuously ignores Frye’s changing view of Canadian literature. Frye’s views altered as the quality of Canadian literature itself did with the emergence of writers like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. Frye, it seems, will never be forgiven for pointing out the limitations of Canadian literature before the seventies.

Any such patronizing treatment of Frye is happily missing from Branko Gorjup’s gathering of essays by different critics who have responded over the years to the influence of Frye’s Canadian criticism. The book opens with a sympathetic introduction by Gorjup and a fine epilogue by Russell Brown. The book serves as an illuminating documentation of  Frye’s impact on Canadian writers and critics. It was the publication of The Bush Garden by Anansi Press under the editorship of Dennis Lee that brought Frye’s influence on Canadian literature to its peak in 1971. Frye’s presence as a cultural authority figure was always controversial, but by the end of the seventies, as the challenge of post-structuralism and ideological criticism waxed in strength, Frye quickly became a whipping-boy for the humanistic sins of his generation of scholars. Eleanor Cook has perhaps the most acute insights into the bad fortune of Frye’s legacy as a critic: she speaks of  the ‘depressing’ reduction of Frye’s work to ‘slogans’ and notes the galling irony that ‘some of the departures from Frye’s criticism seem to me very close to the spirit of his work.’ It is perhaps even more true of his Canadian criticism than of Anatomy of Criticism that it is widely and peremptorily dismissed without any attention to the actual argument. And as with the vast body of writing that followed Anatomy, reconsiderations and developments of his earlier pronouncements in myriad essays and books, such as The Modern Century and Divisions on A Ground, remain largely unexplored. As Francis Sparshot points out, ‘In perceptiveness and in generosity of mind, The Modern Century excels many works in its genre that are far better known.’  Linda Hutcheon rightly observes that Frye’s sensitivity to the socio-cultural context of literature ‘comes out most clearly’ in his Canadian cultural criticism and that ‘those critics who have not looked at these writings frequently miss the important tension in his thought.’ This neglect is apparent even in as astute a scholar as Heather Murray who, in asking us to ‘read for contradiction’ in Frye, restricts her focus to the essays collected in The Bush Garden. The last word of this book review goes to David Staines, who concludes his essay by castigating those who ‘continue to find fault with [Frye’s] theories, not realizing that so much of their writing uses Frye’s enunciated myths as a point of departure.’ As he so nicely puts it, adapting an old epigram about Plato: ‘in whatever direction you happen to be going, you always meet Frye on his way back.’

The following, an excerpt from Northrop Frye: A Visionary Life (ECW Press, 1993):

Frye’s early view of Canadian literature was uncompromising and often unflattering. He saw it as the expression of an immature culture, there being “no Canadian writer of whom we can say what we can say of the world’s major writers, that their readers can grow up inside their work without ever being aware of a circumference” (Bush Garden 214). In retrospect, Frye’s opinion of his reviews of Canadian poetry was that

the estimates of value implied in them are expendable, as estimates of value always are. . . . For me, they were an essential piece of `field work’ to be carried on while I was working out a comprehensive critical theory. I was fascinated to see how the echoes and ripples of the great mythopoeic age kept moving through Canada, and taking a form there that they could not have taken elsewhere. (ix)

Indeed, Frye’s view of Canadian literature was to change dramatically by the end of his life, when he came to recognize that Canadian culture had at long last awakened “from its sleeping beauty isolation” (On Education 7). He would even go so far as to say that “This maturing of Canadian literature . . . is the greatest event of my life, so far as my own direct experience is concerned.”

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