Author Archives: Jonathan Allan

Bloom’s “The Best Poems of the English Language”

Further to Christopher Batty’s earlier post, I do not want to seem to be coming to Bloom’s defense any time he is mentioned here, and I have been reluctant to comment, but…

In Bloom’s introduction to The Best Poems of the English Language, he states, “this vast book is intended for every kind of personal use” (his emphasis). He later on the same page says: “Essentially, this is the anthology I’ve always wanted to possess. It reflects sixty years of deep and passionate reading, going back to my love of William Blake, Hart Crane, and of William Shakespeare and John Milton, that vitalized my life from my twelfth year onward.” This book is very much about Bloom and he admits as much on the first page of his introduction.

This is not to say that his name alone doesn’t endow the book with a certain power, Bloom-as-canonizer or Bloom-as-Pontiff. But, a close reading of the Introduction and “The Art of Reading Poetry” (included in Best Poems and published separately) shows that Bloom is speaking as Bloom and for Bloom:

One of the few gains from aging, at least for a critic of poetry, is that taste matures even as knowledge increases. As a younger critic, I tended to give my heart to the poetry of the Romantic tradition, doubtless spurred to polemics on its behalf by the distortions it suffered at the hands of T. S. Eliot and his New Critical academic followers: R. P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt among them. In my early seventies, I remain profoundly attached to the sequence that goes from Spenser through Milton on to the High Romantics (Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats) and then on to the continuators in Tennyson, Browning, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, Stevens, Lawrence, Hart Crane. With Chaucer and Shakespeare, these remain the poets I love best, but maturation has brought an almost equal regard for the tradition of Wit: Donne, Ben Jonson, Marvell, Dryden, Pope, Byron, and such modern descendants as Auden and Eliot (a secret Romantic, however).

Bloom is speaking about Bloom and for Bloom — his ideas and preferences have changed over time. The exegetical work that follows is Bloomian to be certain, but what else could we expect?

Literary critics — all of us, I imagine — make value judgments about literature. We make these judgments when we decide what to teach and what not to teach. Having just returned from a conference on the popular romance novel and pedagogy, I am keenly aware of the fact that when we design a syllabus, we are, in a sense, canonizing authors/texts (at least within the context of our seminar rooms and lecture halls). Even in teaching miserable texts and calling them miserable texts, we are acknowledging that there is some value in studying the text (likely to show students what a bad text does that good texts don’t do). The solution, I suppose, is that we could discard all value judgments, but I’m all too certain that the subjectivity of the reader will come out, we will decide if we like a text or not, we will call it good or bad.

All readings are deeply personal, and that is precisely the point. I don’t think Bloom denies “blind spots,” actually it seems he recognized that he had them and has matured with age. We all have “blind spots,” and that is, as Michael notes, Frye’s point — and Frye certainly had blind spots as well. All literary critics do. Bloom is at his most polemical in The Western Canon but, I think, if we read it closely, Bloom’s argument is less with a canon and more with an argument against cant, against the School of Resentment, and so on. He is frustrated that the text has been lost to ideological theorizations of texts. Now, that is yet another value judgment and some of us may agree that we should discard theory altogether, and others will want more of Derrida, Butler, Spivak, Foucault, and so on.

The point of all of this, if there must be one, I suppose, is that the literary experience is deeply subjective. This deep subjectivity is perhaps what makes the institutionalization of literature so problematic. How do we position literature in the academy and still maintain the academy’s faith in literature as an area of study? If literature is deeply personal, deeply subjective, how then can it be studied in an institutional setting? What is the role of the institution in the study of literature?

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.

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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New on the Shelf: Harold Bloom’s “The Anatomy of Influence”

I have just read Harold Bloom’s most recent book, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (2011). This is Bloom at his finest. In many ways, it is the last statement of a living giant – a characterization he in fact makes a point of relaying to the reader who may not already know this. Bloom opens his book by acknowledging Frye’s influence on him:

I do not recall reading any literary criticism, as opposed to literary biography, until I was an undergraduate. At seventeen I purchased Northrop Frye’s study of William Blake,Fearful Symmetry, soon after its publication. What Hart Crane was to me at ten, Frye became at seventeen: an overwhelming experience. Frye’s influence on me lasted twenty years but came to an abrupt halt on my thirty-seventh birthday, July 11, 1967, when I awakened from a nightmare and then passed the entire day composing a dithyramb, “The Covering Cherub; or, Poetic Influence.” Six years later that had evolved into The Anxiety of Influence, a book Frye rightly rejected from his Christian Platonist stance. Now, in my eightieth year, I would not have the patience to reread anything by Frye, but I possess almost all of Hart Crane by memory, recite much of it daily, and continue to teach him. (3)

As readers here likely already know, I have published an article on Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom’s relationship and how they react to one another. In my article, I demonstrate how Bloom was theorising influence through a series of letters to Northrop Frye. However, unlike earlier critics of the relationship, I also argue that Frye was influenced by Bloom. and that we must now begin to think about what it means to have influence, in other words: the anxiety of influencing.

Professor Bloom is at his most interesting in this volume, particularly the first section as he comes to terms with his entire project of influence:

More than any other I have written, this book is a critical self-portrait, a sustained mediation on the writings and readings that have shaped me as a person and a critic. Now in my eightieth year, I remained gripped by particular questions. Why has influence been my obsessive concern? How have my own reading experiences shaped my thinking? Why have some poets found me and not others? What is the end of a literary life? (30)

This is an interesting observation from a critic reflecting on his lifelong obsession with influence. Bloom takes account of the situation of literature and the academy in the twenty-first century, and while he now seems like something of a relic, there is still much to be said about the ways that we teach literature. What are our roles as teachers of literature? Bloom offers a tentative answer:

All literary influence is labyrinthine. Belated authors wander the maze as if an exit could be found, until the strong among them realize that the windings of the labyrinth are all internal. No critic, however generously motivated, can help a deep reader escape from the labyrinth of influence. I have learned that my function is to help you get lost. (31)

Frye’s readers will surely find Bloom’s book of particular interest, not merely because of the relation between the two, but because it is positioned as a final statement on the problem of influence. And, in many ways, Bloom returns to the powerful critic he once was and evidently continues to be.

The History of Violets: Ready for a Frygian Reading

Jeannine Marie Pitas has recently translated a small book of poetry called The History of Violets by the Uruguyan poet Marosa di Giorgio.  Though a slim volume, the poetry is powerful and ripe for analysis.  In her introduction, Pitas writes: “For me, her poems recall the British Romantics – Wordsworth’s image of a child terrified by a jutting crag in his Prelude, or Blake’s awe before the little lamb’s innocence and the burning tiger’s power” (viii).  These poems stand out because of the imaginative power of a poet whose voice, whatever its sources, seems wholly her own.

Though I have not yet found the time to give the poems the critical attention they deserve, I can hear echoes of Frye’s Blake throughout.  As a scholar trained in Latin American Literature, I continue to believe that Frye has a great deal to teach us about a literature with which he evidently had little familiarity beyond an appreciation for Jorge Luis Borges. Just as the appeal of literature is universal, so are its archetypes and expression of prevailing human concerns.  When it comes to these two literary elements, Frye remains most relevant to the study of world literature.

You can order The History of Violets here.  Review here.

Di Giorgio reading one of her poems after the jump.

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Carol Mavor at the Centre for Comparative Literature

The Centre for Comparative Literature is proud to present two lectures by Northrop Frye Professor in Comparative Literature for 2010-2011, Carol Mavor: Wednesday March 9 and Thursday March 10, 5:30, Jackman Humanities 100.

Carol Mavor is Professor of Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Manchester, England. Mavor is the author of four books: Reading Boyishly: Roland Barthes, J. M. Barrie, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Marcel Proust, and D. W. Winnicott (Duke UP, 2007), Becoming: The Photographs of Clementina, Viscountess, Hawarden (Duke UP, 1999), and Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs (Duke UP, 1995) and Black and Blue: The Bruising of Camera Lucida, La Jetée, Sans soleil and Hiroshima mon amour, is forthcoming from Duke UP (2011). Her essays have appeared in Cabinet Magazine, Art History, Photography and Culture, Photographies, as well as edited volumes, including Geoffrey Batchen’s Photography Degree Zero and Mary Sheriff’s Cultural Contact and the Making of European Art. Her most recent published essay is on the French child-poet Minou Drouet.

Mavor’s writing has been widely reviewed in publications in the U.S. and U.K., including the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Times, and The Village Voice. She has lectured broadly in the US and the UK, including The Photographers’ Gallery (London), University of Cambridge, Duke University and the Royal College of Art.  For 2010-2011, Mavor was named the Northrop Frye Chair in Literary Theory at University of Toronto. Currently, Mavor is completing Blue Mythologies: A Study of the Hue of Blue (forthcoming from Reaktion in 2012).

Blue Mythologies is a visual, literary and cultural study of the color blue. Blue is a particularly duplicitous colour. For example, blue is often associated with opposites or near opposites: like joy and depression; or the sea and the sky; or infinite life and death. Mavor’s approach is semiological, as prescribed by Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (1953). “Mythology,” because it is truth disguised as fiction and fiction disguised as truth, is, by definition, as duplicitous as blue. The subjects are mostly Anglo-European and include a full range of blues: Chantal Akerman’s 2000 film  La Captive; the Aran islands off the coast of Western Ireland; cyanotypes and blue Polaroids; the Australian Satin Bowerbrid; Agnes Varda’s 1965 film  Le Bonheur; Roger Hiorns Seizure, the 2006 installation of copper-sulfite crystals grown to cover an entire London bed-sit; Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1993 film Blue;  Werther’s Goethe (1774), Novalis’s Henry von Ofterdingen (ca. 1799-80) and Bernardin’s Paul et Virginia (1787). Nevertheless, the research includes blue in non-Western contexts: for example, Krishna’s blue skin in eighteenth-century Jodhpur painting or the powder-blue burqas in Samira Makhmalbaf’s 2003 film, At Five in the Afternoon.

The Formula of Romance

The Axis of Awesome: Forty four-chord songs in five and a half minutes

I have always been inspired by Frye’s work, and his Secular Scripture in particular has been instrumental in how I conceive the romance. My studies have focused on a small detail from Frye’s theory of romance. In The Secular Scripture, he writes:

One can, of course, understand an emphasis on virginity in romance on social grounds. In the social conditions assumed, virginity is to a woman what honor is to a man, the symbol of the fact that she is not a slave.  Behind all the ‘fate worse than death’ situations that romance delights in, there runs the sense that a woman deprived of her virginity, by any means, except a marriage she has at least consented to, is, to put it vulgarly, in an impossible bargaining position.  But the social reasons for the emphasis on virginity, however obvious, are still not enough for understanding the structure of romance. (CW 18, 49-50)

Something about this notion never seemed right to me.  I could agree that virginity served only a structural purpose, but I was left wondering how it could be structural when it only referred to female characters.  Why was there not a male virgin in romance?  To this end, I have written a dissertation on the subject.  I have surveyed well over one hundred romance novels that include virgins, and I have developed something of an anatomy of male virgins in romance.

While laying out this dissertation, however, I was reminded of the issue of “formula,” because romances are of course “formulaic.”  That is, all romances follow a narrative and must have so many key characters, episodes and so on.  Indeed, many critics of romance note this.  Pamela Regis, for instance, argues that there are eight key requirements:

Eight narrative events take a heroine in a romance novel from encumbered to free. In one or more of the scenes, romance novels always depict the following: the initial state of society in which heroine and hero must court, the meeting between heroine and hero, the barrier to the union of heroine and hero, the attraction between the heroine and hero, the declaration of love between heroine and hero, the point of ritual death, the recognition by the heroine and hero of the means to overcome the barrier, and the betrothal. These elements are essential. (30)

Even with these eight elements, however, romance is remarkably varied. Harlequin Publications, for example, produces romances that have varying levels of eroticism and sexuality — and even a NASCAR setting, for those looking for one.  But all romances evidently possess Regis’s eight requirements.  So the question becomes: why do literary critics in general look down upon formulaic fiction?  In many regards, it seems that sticking to and following the formula presents its own challenges, including, how does any writer make a formula new?

So, with this in mind, I am posting the video above to illustrate the point: just four chords can produce forty different pop songs for the purposes of a single comedy bit.  Why shouldn’t eight elements of an expansive literary formula produce any number of romances?

The Frye Centenary: University of Toronto Conference

University of Toronto professors Alan Bewell (English) and Neil ten Kortenaar (English/Comparative Literature) have forwarded us a preliminary call for papers in anticipation of the Frye centenary.


Educating the Imagination: A Conference in Honour of Northrop Frye on the Centenary of His Birth

September 27-30, 2012, University of Toronto

Twenty years after his death, Northrop Frye, the author of Fearful Symmetry and Anatomy of Criticism, continues to be one of the most read and the most quoted of literary critics.  His attention to form, specifically to genre and mode, and his understanding of literature as a totality have directly influenced two later generations of critics, including Hayden White, Fredric Jameson, and Franco Moretti.  In order to celebrate this ongoing legacy, the Department of English and the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, Frye’s home throughout his career, have organized a three-day symposium in his honour.

There will be panels devoted to Frye’s specific legacy, which we are now in a better position to appreciate because of the completed publication of the Collected Works in thirty volumes.  But we also invite speakers to take inspiration from Frye and to consider literary and cultural topics such as:

1. Educating the Imagination when the Humanities are under threat

Frye and Comparative Literature

2. the place of Western Literature and theory in a global context.

The spread and the provincialization of Europe.

The limits of the Great Code

3. Contemporary manifestations of traditional literary modes:

the popular romance

contemporary tragedy

irony after postmodernism

4. the place of the Bible in an era of fundamentalism and secularism

5. The survival of the literary imagination in a digital age

6. Canadian literature in a postnational age

7. The Great Code and Islam

8. History as Narrative

9. Frye and Ecology

10.  Local literature, local forms

Organizers: Alan Bewell, Chair, Department of English (

Neil ten Kortenaar, Director, Centre for Comparative Literature (

Quote of the Day

“Victoria’s distinctive tradition, then, has three aspects, religious, humanistic, and residential, and removing any of these would destroy, for both staff and students, the double identity of a distinguished college and a great university which they possess now. If all the colleges were weakened beyond effectiveness, the arts and science faculty would still be big and impressive, but no longer great. Such a disaster could occur, not through spiritual wickedness in high places, but simply through the heavy inert pressure of restricted budgets that in time will wear down any university into an academic processing factory. (“Installation Address as Chancellor,” CW 7, 521)

The Essence of the University

Frye in his robes as Chancellor of Victoria College

“Academic freedom is the only form of freedom, in the long run, of which humanity is capable, and it cannot be obtained unless the university itself is free.”  (CW 7, 421)

I have recently posted on my concerns regarding a series of donations made to the University of Toronto by benefactors like Peter Munk, Leslie Dan, and Joseph Rotman.  Even given all of the ways we might characterize their generosity, the issue that remains most important is the essence of the university.  What precisely is the purpose of the university and what are its goals?  What is the role of the university in society?  In an age of global capitalism, it seems all the more important to ask such questions.  It may be that I am nostalgic for a time I never knew, when the university was assumed to be the epicentre of thought, and whose value to the public good was never in question.   Even so, I still want to ask the question: what is the university?

Northrop Frye writes that “a university is not, like a church, a political party, or a pressure group, primarily a concerned organization” (CW 7, 401).  I wish all universities would work this principle into their Statements of Institutional Purpose. The university is not a political faction, not an ideological platform, not a pressure group, not a corporate enterprise.  As Frye says, “the university itself stands for something different: it is not directly trying to create a certain kind of society. It is not conservative, not radical, not reactionary, nor is it a façade for any of those attitudes” (CW 7, 401).  This is may be the kind of university setting some of us long for.  Today, however, the university is increasingly caught up in the special interests of its private and corporate benefactors.

The issue is not simply a matter of questioning these interests for the sake of attacking them, but for the sake of preserving an institution whose role is unique:

As [its] authority is the same thing as freedom, the university is also the only place in society where freedom is defined.  We may think of freedom, first of all, as something to be gained or increased by attacking the symbols of external compulsion in society.  A good many of these, in every society, deserve to be attacked. But if we destroyed the external compulsions, we should still have the internal compulsions that made us attack them, and they would instantly produce a whole new set of external ones. (CW 7, 403)

Where does this lead us?  Perhaps we must return to Frye’s singular vision of authority: “[t]he authority of the logical argument, the repeatable experiment, the compelling imagination, is the final authority in society, and it is an authority that demands no submission, no subordinating, no lessening of dignity” (CW 7, 403).  And the notion of an authority like this one must be defended by the the most senior administrators at the university: the President, the Chancellor, the Principal, the Provost, the Deanery.

I have quoted this passage before, but it is probably worth repeating:

When anyone is considered for a deanship or a presidency, one of the first questions asked about him is, ‘How good a scholar is he?’ It sounds absurd to associate a man’s administrative ability with his specialized knowledge of a scholarly discipline, but the question is relevant none the less. If he has never been a scholar, he doesn’t know what a university is or what it stands for, and if he doesn’t know that, God help the university that gives him a responsible job.  (CW 7, 314)

Finally, when it comes to the relation to the university to society, Frye observes in “The Definition of a University”:

The university belongs to its society, and the notion of autonomy of the university is an illusion. It is an illusion which it would be hard to maintain on the campus of the University of Toronto, situated as it is between the Parliament Buildings on one side and an educational Pentagon on the other, like Samson between the Pillars of a Philistine temple. But the university has a difficult and delicate job to do: it is responsible to society for what it does, very deeply responsible, yet its function is a critical function and it can fulfil that function only by asserting an authority that no other institution in society can command. It is not there to reflect society, but to reflect the real form of society, the reality that lies behind the mirage of social trends. It is not withdrawn or neutral on social issues: it defines our real social vision as that of a democracy devoted to the ideals of freedom and equality, which disappears when society is taken over by a conspiracy against these things. (CW 7, 421)

In this regard, the university is, as Frye would have it, the closest to a utopian space as we can manage, and it is therefore an ideal we must strive to realize today as much as we ever did in the past.