Author Archives: Trevor Losh-Johnson

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.

Centre for Comparative Literature: Playing Devil’s Advocate


Forgive me if, in response to Jonathan Allan’s latest post, I play the devil’s advocate.  I am an admirer of his advocacy on behalf of the Centre, and I too have been thinking about the Centre constantly.  But my thoughts are tempered by my own recent academic choices and my outsider’s perspective.  Not being a graduate student at the Centre for Comparative Literature, I am thoroughly clueless about what goes on within, and all of Jonathan’s posts have provided a helpful perspective.  My own perspective, however, is that of an undergraduate with a BA in Comp Lit who chose to abandon the field for the English Department. The reasons for that decision were many, but they ultimately hinged on the bet that, in the face of a fiscal crisis, the vernacular departments will likely stay open longer.  That was a bet I made a year ago, and within just a few months the recommendation was made to close the program Frye created.  It is not a hunch I ever expected to pan out so soon, nor is it one I relish.  It is, however, one on which I have wagered my future career.

About half a year ago, Michael Happy linked to an article in the American Scholar titled “The Decline of the English Department,” the most damning passage of which exemplifies the reasons for my departure from Comp Lit:

What are the causes for this decline?  There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of these books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.  What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture).  In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in books.

Without wading into the swamp of what makes a discipline unified versus what makes it ideologically or bureaucratically centralized (in the manner Bob Denham condemned in his letter to President Naylor), it seems to me that if the scholar seeks to read a text as literature, he or she would benefit most from approaching that text as such.  If literature exists, it has a literary context, which is a melancholy hypothesis to still have to pose after all these years.  That the world of literary words is ordered and coherent is, if anything, a heuristic principle that can facilitate and articulate the critical impulses of the reader, as well as of communication between readers.  There may be a certain equivalence here with the Periodic Table, a diagram that has expedited the discovery of further elements.  And it is something that must be taught in an equally principled manner.  This is not a constraint on diversity, but rather a facilitating context for it.  This seems to be the Frygian position.

Taking postcolonialism as a “commonality” is an ideological centralization for the study of literature, and cannot help working against the diversity of background and opinion that it claims to promote.  Such is also the case with taking any of the “secondary considerations” listed above as commonalities.  Though such methods can bring an additional contingent of readers to the table and an essential expanded perspective, it certainly cannot engage the whole of the text or the totality of readers.  While postcolonialism is a fascinating and broad perspective, and one without which the study of literature would be inconceivable today, it is still a canonical ideology and it cannot itself be a unifying principle.  If it is, to advocate further for the devil, why read Proust?  Just how subaltern is he, or how imperialist?  If a text is read as a cultural artifact, would not the time one spends in seminar be better spent reading other (and shorter) artifacts such as newspapers, graffiti, and sundry bricolage?  Would not the money spent on conducting the seminar be better spent on a course that does just that?  And would not the literature departments be better off subsumed into Cultural Studies?  I suspect that potential students and university administrators both share this view.  It is possible that I may be very misguided in my characterization of Comparative Literature.  But I hold a BA in the field, and my characterizations illustrate the gulf that lies between not only the undergraduate and graduate levels, but also the elementary, secondary, and university levels.  The spiraling changes in emphasis give the student little idea of what to expect.  And given the manner in which promising students are dissuaded from engaging the subject, and the confusion that identifies the department more than anything, the lack of a shared experience is hardly a merit.

From the perspective of an administration encumbered by ballooning budgets and debt, the option of a departmental consolidation makes a lot of sense.  As someone who has worked in California public schools for a few years now, I know from experience that education is the first to suffer in any fiscal crisis.  I am as against it as anyone, but a department of misfits must still make a case for how it fits in broader society (and not only by the manner that it digests broader society).  If the arts—the academic body’s most fleshly and permeable organ, the skin that is most easily cut but also holds all other organs together—are to survive, they must be addressed in ways that take into account the creative, articulating impulse.  As Glenna Sloan has attested here, the transfer of imaginative energy is primal to learning, and it should be primary to the study of literature.

The Demonic and Desire


Responding to Michael Happy’s post

I am glad you posted on demonic modulation, Michael, because I think demonic parody is integral to Frye’s conception of Romance, which itself seems integral to his view of literature in relation to primary concerns.

It may be useful to consider demonic modulation in terms the Anatomy’s description of demonic imagery and parody. The apocalyptic world, Frye writes, “present, in the first place, the categories of reality in the forms of human desire, as indicated by the forms they assume under the work of human civilization.” Demonic imagery embodies what desire rejects, and “one of the central themes of demonic imagery is parody, the mocking of the exuberant play of art by suggesting its imitation in terms of ‘real life.’”. In The Secular Scripture he points out that, as the conventions of myth and Romance become gradually displaced into “realist” modes, there is also a parallel gradation of parody serving to assimilate those conventions.

This might provide for an alliance between demonic modulation, which relates to the inversion of customary associations, and the Promethean Furnace in Words with Power. “The world of titans,” Frye writes, “has usually been regarded as simply evil, and the word ‘demonic’ is normally used… to mean a death-centered parody of human life.” (pg. 276). However, “Prometheus is the patron of the attitude, which has sporadically appeared in literature ever since Lucretius, of ignoring the gods on the ground that even if they exist they can only be alien beings unconcerned with human life.” (pg. 277). In this modulation, what would customarily be associated with the demonic is in fact an affirmation of life through desire, over a world that more closely resembles our own.

That is to say that there comes a point when what is displaced in the text, because it is repressed by the ascendant moral values it flaunts, becomes in fact a life affirming principle. Prometheus becomes Christ-like, the demonic becomes apocalyptic. This may inform the simple and more humane Robin Hood motifs that run through Literature, and our experience, from Huckleberry Finn protecting Jim from the slave “masters”, to what makes it obscene for certain ideologies to speak against aid for suffering countries. And it is why, for example, the homophobic (and perhaps homicidal) work of Christian evangelicals in Uganda has been so repellent a parody of the Christian exhortation to good works.

Virginity in Book I of “The Faerie Queene”

Copley, Red Cross Knight 1793

John Singleton Copely, The Red Cross Knight, 1793

With this post, Trevor Losh-Johnson joins us as a byline correspondent.

My orientation to romance is by way of The Faerie Queene, where many of the motifs of romance occur in a more condensed form.  And, since Spenser crops up again and again in Frye, it might be worth posting some thoughts regarding the role of virginity in that poem, especially in its first book, which deals with the quest of the Redcrosse Knight.

As she is literally as pure as the driven snow, it is easy to take Una as a prototypical romantic virgin.  In the third essay of Anatomy, Frye notes that Una’s parents, “are Adam and Eve; their kingdom is Eden or the unfallen world, and the dragon, who is the entire fallen world, is identified with the leviathan… Thus St. George’s mission, a repetition of that of Christ, is by killing the dragon to raise Eden in the wilderness and restore England to the status of Eden.” (194). Una’s black wimple, a hymen of sorts, is worn also as a mark of mourning for her parent’s fallen kingdom, and her marriage to Redcrosse (St. George) can only occur once her kingdom is restored.  Indeed, once Redcrosse delivers the kingdom, her veil is lifted to reveal her face, and that deliverance is perhaps a public expression of the perennially deferred, private consummation with Redcrosse.

The doubling of heroines Joe speaks of occurs here in the context of demonic parody.  Duessa, who is allegorically the Whore of Babylon, parodies Una, who is allegorically the one true faith.  An essential function of Duessa is that she briefly tempts and enthralls Redcrosse from this ultimate consummation.  As for the role of gender, virginity is expected of Redcrosse in the context of fidelity.  The purgatorial House of Holiness is attended by, among many virtues, Fidelia and Speranza, who are also virgins.  Their mother is, however, Caelia, who to “a louely fere/ Was lincked, and by him had many pledges dere.”  There may be a buried analogy between the virgin Fidelity in her married mother’s House of Holiness and the virgin Una who shall be married and inherit the regenerated society of her parents.

In the third book, the virtue of Chastity is also framed in the context of fidelity, and it is expected that there will be lots of sex when Britomart finally unites with Artegall.  It is noteworthy that Britomart is to embody the virtue of Chastity, and not the flat virginity that Una embodies until her kingdom is released.  But this may have its basis less in the manifold politics of gender than in the structure of the allegorical romance.  Generally, as far as I can dimly see, the characters and stations that populate the quest are objectified projections of the central figure.  In this solipsistic world, Redcrosse is anatomized by the other characters, and Una’s virginity may be a static expression of his own chastity.  To whatever extent this can be said, I think that the progress of the first book’s quest may be read as an alignment between the progress from the fallen world to Eden and the progress from a hostile virginity to sexual chastity.  It also parallels the process of condensation from the literature of doppelganger heroines to the chastity of Adam and Eve that Frye explores in Words With Power.

As convoluted as this may sound, there seems to be in romance a connection between the upwards movement from virginity to chastity and Frye’s discussion of the Eden metaphor, to wit, “What is significant is the way in which poets preserve and emphasize the metaphorical identity of the bride’s body and the garden, which enables them to associate sexual emotion with visions of a renewed nature.” (198).