Author Archives: Guest Blogger

On Frye and Don McKay, Ecopoet


Don McKay (photo by Shelley Banks; the original copyright photo appeared on

We are delighted to publish the following article. John Nyman is a graduate student and Toronto-based poet. He is currently beginning PhD studies in Theory and Criticism at Western University.

Frye’s Social Function of Literature and the Ecopoetry of Don McKay

John Nyman

When Northrop Frye claims, in The Educated Imagination, that “literature belongs to the world man constructs, not to the world he sees; to his home, not his environment” (12), his vision seems radically disconnected from that of the nature poet or ecopoet, who seeks to represent or even protect nature by portraying it in literary language. For example, “com[ing] to grips with the practice of nature poetry in a time of environmental crisis” is the central concern of Vis à Vis (9), the first of three books of philosophical and field notes by Don McKay, one of Canada’s foremost ecopoets. In accordance with this aim, McKay begins his book with an ethical stance against the “one pole of our relations to material existence” he calls “matériel,” a “second-order appropriation” which “address[es] things in the mode of utility” (Vis 20)—an address which feels very much like an important part of Frye’s literature as the language of “what [we] want to construct” (Educated 7). Considering these key images in both thinkers’ works, Frye’s vision of the social function of literature and McKay’s deployment of poetry appear to come up against each other in deadlock. However, a deeper reading of these thinkers shows that Frye’s and McKay’s bodies of thought coalesce on an understanding of nature and society as ethically inseparable, which gives shape to their shared vision of poetry. While each thinker approaches this model from a different direction—Frye from a central interest in humanism and McKay from the political standpoint of ecology—reading their understandings with rather than against each other helps us produce a fuller and more fruitful picture of the relationship between humanity and our natural environment.

In Frye’s most direct discussions of the social function of literature, all of the elements he incorporates into his model are linked to the human and defined by their relationship to the human, initially making his perspective very different from McKay’s. In Words with Power, Frye argues that literature is significant because it engages with the language of myth—the “sacred ground” of human society which defines what a human subject “must know” (as an assumption, not a prescription) in the first place (41)—to focus attention on what he calls “primary concerns”: food, sex, property—“in the sense of what is ‘proper’ to one’s life”—and “liberty of movement” (51). In this way, literature moderates society’s normally overwhelming focus on less important “secondary concerns,” which “include patriotic and other attachments of loyalty, religious beliefs, and class-conditioned attitudes and behavior” (Frye, Words 50). But primary and secondary concerns are still both human concerns, and both the language of mythology and the dialectic or logos Frye opposes it to are human forms; nowhere is the nonhuman implicated in the work of the poet. In contrast, McKay’s explorations of poetic practice highlight a concern with “wilderness,” which is essentially nonhuman and unknown, before even the understanding of “place.” At the outset of Deactivated West 100, McKay explains the contours of his central aim, which involves thinking a perspective outside of Frye’s “sacred ground” of human society:

Suppose we try to define place without using the usual humanistic terms – not home and native land, not little house on the prairie, not even the founding principle of our sense of beauty – but as a function of wilderness. Try this: ‘place is wilderness to which history has happened.’ Or: ‘place is land to which we have occurred.’ Our occurrence to the land – the act which makes place place – could be a major change (homestead, development, resource extraction) or a smaller claim (prospector’s stake, survey marker, plastic tape, souvenir stone), but it shifts the relationship; it brings the wild area into the purview of knowledge and makes it – perhaps momentarily, perhaps permanently – a category of mind. (17-18)

This explanation is corroborated by further elaboration of McKay’s concept of wilderness, which he describes in Vis à Vis as “the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations” (21). “Wilderness” is an element of what we commonly call nature which is before or beyond humans’ “primordial grasp,” the gesture which leads us to create our non-natural identity by marking nature as ‘other’ and “establish[ing] the place where representation and recollection occur” (McKay, Vis 22). Wilderness also, then, stands against the extreme form of human “grasping” which is the ruthless appropriation or utilization of the natural world amounting to “the colonization of its death” or “a denial of death altogether” (McKay, Vis 20). This process, for McKay, is the making of “matériel,” or “matérielization” (McKay, Vis 20).

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Frye, Orwell, Hoggart: On Popular Culture


The following post is from Brian Russell Graham, author of The Necessary Unity of Opposites: The Dialectical Thinking of Northrop Frye (University of Toronto Press, 2010):

Interestingly, Frye, unlike postmodernist critics, thinks in terms of literature which is “beyond the pale.” In his view, it is judicious to distinguish between popular culture proper and the sham article. In relation to a conventional art such as literature, Frye invites us to work with the distinction between the genuinely popular and what he seems to view as the pseudo-popular, which seems to point to the run-of-the-mill “mass” product – the “bestseller” (Frye 2006, 22). Of course, cultural studies makes interesting study objects of all texts. But Frye also demands of us that we consider the aesthetic merits of works of literature. Having invoked the specter of “a packaged commodity which an overproductive economy, whether capitalist or socialist, distributes as it distributes foods and medicines, in varying degree of adulteration” (Frye 2006, 21), he then proceeds to speak even more damningly of pseudo-popular literature:

Much of it, in our society, is quite as prurient and brutal as its worst enemy could assert, not because it has to be, but because those who write and sell it think of their readers as a mob rather than a community. (Frye 2006, 21-2)

Frye provides us with very little in terms of information about the fiction he views as pseudo-popular. It’s not difficult to imagine the kind of material he had in mind, however.  In the 1960s, populist literature had been  represented by, for example, Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers, described in a New York Times review at the time of its release as “an excuse for a collection of monotonous episodes about normal and abnormal sex – and violence ranging from simple battery to gruesome varieties of murder.” But what precedents are there in literary criticism for Frye’s rather bold judgment? Is he working within a particular tradition of moral criticism?

It seems highly probable that when distinguishing between the genuinely popular and the pseudo-popular, Frye is consciously following the lead of Orwell and Richard Hoggart. Orwell and Hoggart shared something of a common outlook. Both believed that American mass-market fiction was wandering into an ethical gray area. But both were above-all focused on British imitations of that American fiction – No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase, in the case of Orwell, and the British “sex and violence novelettes” published under pen-names such as “Hank Janson” in the fifties, in the case of Hoggart.

In “Raffles and Miss Blandish,” Orwell argues that in Chase’s narrative there is no moral difference between detective and gangster. Chase’s “whole theme is the struggle for power and the triumph of the strong over the weak” (Orwell 1984, 262). Claiming that the idolization of criminals in characteristic of American mass culture, he argues that the appearance of the book in the U.K. is evidence of the Americanization of British reading proclivities: “In America, both in life and fiction, the tendency to tolerate crime, even to admire the criminal so long as he is a success, is very much more marked” (Orwell 1984, 270). Such storytelling may be indicative of an inversion of the underlying myth of Western literature, he goes on to argue: “Perhaps the basic myth of the Western world is Jack the Giant-killer, but to be brought up to date this should be renamed Jack the Dwarf-killer” (Orwell 1984, 272), he concludes. (Interestingly, Orwell uses “brutal” and “brutality” five times in the short piece.)

Similarly, in The Uses of Literary, Hoggart focuses on the mass culture embodiment of literature, considering the categories of “Crime,” “Science” and “Sex novelettes” (Hoggart 1957, 205). It is the third category that Hoggart devotes most time to. These works are variously referred to as “Sex-and-violence novels,” “‘blood-and-guts’ sex novelettes,” “novelettes of sex-adventure”. In the stories all sex is violent, and “there must be violence all the time” (Hoggart 1957, 213); “it is violent and sexual, but all in a claustrophobic and shut-in way” (ibid.). Crucially, “it exists in a world in which moral values have become irrelevant”: “‘forgiveness,’ ‘shame,’ ‘retribution,’ and ‘to be sullied,’ ‘to fall’ or ‘to pay’ are all concepts outside their moral orbit” (ibid.). “Crooks” are defeated in the end, but the texture of the writing is bereft of moral reference. When men and women have sex, they do so as “physical enemies” (Hoggart 1957, 215). The aim of the writing is to make the readers feel “the flesh and bone of violence” (Hoggart 1957, 217). Gangster fiction, Hoggart admits, “moves […] with a crude force as it creates the sadistic situation”; but even here “it has the life of a cruel cartoon” (ibid.). In Faulkner’s Sanctuary (actually something of a pot-boiler, argues Hoggart), a scene of violence (sexual violence in this case) strikes us as “real”: “and the more real”, he continues, “because there is, implicit in the passage, a sense of a saner world outside [which] gives a moral perspective to the whole passage” (Hoggart 1957, 220). But in gangster fiction “we are not aware of a larger pattern”: “We are in and of this world of fierce alleyway-assault, the stale disordered bed, the closed killer-car, the riverside warehouse knifing. We thrill to those in themselves; there is no way out, nothing else; there is no horizon and no sky. The world, consciousness, man’s ends, are this – this constricted and overheated horror” (ibid.).

It’s difficult to avoid the sense that, for better or for worse, this tradition in letters petered out in the twentieth century. It may well be that Frye’s distinction between the genuinely popular and the sham-popular represents a late restatement of the Orwell/Hoggart approach. Perhaps, however, the distinction will be adopted by literary and cultural studies again. The feeling that some mass culture is better than other mass culture seems to be quite widespread in society today. The distinction, indeed, seems to be built into mass culture. When watching Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais’s Extras, we get a clear sense that while Extras represents one type of mass culture, When the Whistle Blows, the low-quality “play-within-the –play,” represents another.

Works Cited

Hoggart, Richard. The Uses of Literacy. London: Chatto and Windus, 1957.

Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory: 1976 – 1991, edited Joseph Adamson and Jean Wilson. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2006.

Orwell, George. “Raffles and Miss Blandish.” In The Penguin Essays of George Orwell. London: Penguin Books 1984.

The Paradisal Pole: A Frygean Perspective on European Irony

[Ugolino and his sons in their cell, William Blake, circa 1826]

The following paper, by Sára Tóth, was presented at the international Frye conference in Budapest (“Northrop Frye: 100 — A Danubian Perspective,” September 7-8, 2012, Budapest).

The Paradisal Pole: a Frygean Perspective on European Irony:
The Example of the Danish Film Green Butchers

Sára Tóth 

In this paper I will attempt to apply what I believe is Northrop Frye’s perspective on one significant feature of European élite culture. I do not use the term European in a geographical but in a sociological sense, having in mind the culture of the secularised élite all over the world, which, according to Peter Berger, constitutes, as it were, a European island even in America (Berger 11). This feature happens to be an attitude of extreme irony, more precisely, the tendency of interpreters to overlook textual data which may counterpoint or call into question the predominance of the ironical vision of alienation. The concept of irony is thus brought into play not simply in the traditional sense of a rhetorical trope, but in a philosophical or existential sense, first theorised by Romantic philosophers, and afterwards by thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Paul de Man or Frye himself.


It is well known for readers of Anatomy of Criticism that irony, coupled with satire, is a very important point of orientation in Frye’s literary universe. In his circle of the four pregeneric plots or mythoi (comedy, romance, tragedy, irony/satire), or in his U shaped quest irony is the lowest point. Whereas tragedy, associated with autumn, implies the downward movement of a hero of great power of action, irony implies the lack of action. Characters are not traveling downward because they are already down, totally paralysed as it were. This scheme corresponds to Frye’s historical modes which proceed from myth through romance, through the high and low mimetic to the ironic mode. Whereas in the mythic mode the “hero” is superior to us, normal beings in degree and kind, at its opposite, in the ironic mode he or she is worse than us and has the least power of action. Whereas in Frye’s polarized world of imagery the apocalyptic group of images belongs to the mythic mode and presents a world of fulfilled desire, its opposite, demonic imagery belongs to the ironic mode, a repudiated world of unfulfilled desire, of unrelieved suffering and alienation.

In short, Frye in the Anatomy of Criticism suggests that irony has a demonic quality to it, and later in Words with Power he calls the pole of irony quite consistently “hell world” and its opposite – referred to in Anatomy as the mythic and apocalyptic – the paradisal pole. Quite logically, Frye’s world of irony and satire, being the mythos of winter, is a cold hell, a frozen and motionless sphere. (Not quite accidentally, the film I am about to discuss to has some important scenes in the meat freezer of a butcher shop.) The positive energy in Frye’s universe is human desire, which transforms nature into a home, helping us achieve oneness with other people, with the exterior world and with God, and thus finding true identity. At the other pole action and motion are absent, no transformation takes place, which leaves us in the hell world of alienation: from nature, from other people, from God, and from ourselves. As opposed to identification with who and whatever is other, in the hellish state of irony we experience extreme detachment and objectivity to the point of being overpowered by the objective world we cannot change, even being turned into objects ourselves.[1]

This account is very similar to Paul de Man’s ironic vision of language and of the human condition, with the substantial difference that for de Man irony is not one pole but it is the only authentic interpretation of existence. For de Man words do not have the power to unite subject and object, self and world, language being a network of signs referring endlessly to other signs and never achieving oneness with something other and real. Neither can the self achieve oneness with the non-self or with itself for that matter. In an endless series of acts of consciousness attempting to grasp its own reality, the self is doubled, multiplied and is finally dissolved in the “narrowing spiral of a linguistic sign … more and more remote from its meaning” (De Man 222). De Man picks up Baudelaire’s example of a stumbling and falling man laughing at himself falling, and invests this scene with a philosophical significance, turning it into a symbolical Fall, in the course of which the divided or split self comes to view himself as object, treated by Nature “as if he were a thing … whereas he is quite powerless to turn the smallest particle of nature into something human.” (214)

Decisive thinkers of the last century such as Paul de Man tend to absolutize or essentialize the hell world of irony and satire, the state of alienation and split. To mention another towering figure, Jacques Lacan’s vision of the self and its relation to the world, is dominated, as Frye would say, by the archetype of satire which is sparagmos: fragmentation or tearing to pieces. The self or ego as seen by Lacan is always already fragmented, in bits and pieces, the integrated imago being the deceptive result of an imposition of a rigid and artificial unity on this chaotic turbulence (see Lacan 97). According to one of his critics, Joel Whitebook, in Lacan’s work synthesis and integration are suspected as inauthentic, and contrary evidence tends to be overlooked. Lacan, Whitebook argues, tendentiously misrepresents Freud by placing almost sole emphasis on the death drive as opposed to the integrating Eros (see Whitebook 122–128).

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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 <>

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 <>

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 <>

Centennial Campaign: ‘Northrop Frye on the Bible and Literature’.

I’m writing to let you know about our Centennial Campaign: ‘Northrop Frye on the Bible and Literature’. This web based series, if successfully financed, recovers, augments, and enhances 24 Frye lectures from Frye’s Religious Knowledge course given in 1981/82, the only video in existence of Frye behind the lectern in a classroom.

Take a moment to check it out on Indiegogo and also share it with your friends. All the tools are there. Get perks, make a contribution, or simply follow updates. If enough of us get behind it, we can make ‘Northrop Frye on the Bible and Literature’ happen.

Full information on the project is available here.

Bob Rodgers

Christopher Batty: More on Bloom and Value Judgments

Further to Jonathan Allan’s response to my earlier post, I’d like to clarify that I didn’t mean to imply that Bloom is wrong to have preferences, or wrong about the selections for his poetry anthology. I only intended to rebut Bloom’s erroneous claim – which he has repeated many times – that Frye was against value judgments. He wasn’t. Frye made no secret of the fact that he considered Blake the greatest English language poet of his generation, and one of the greatest of all poets. That’s an overt value judgment, and Frye made no effort to conceal it. Bloom is entitled to like or dislike whatever he chooses. But it is unfair that he keeps repeating false claims about Frye. His hostility appears to have grown over time, and he seems to mention Frye frequently in interviews these days, but always misleadingly and always entirely to Frye’s detriment.

Frye’s point about value judgments is that any attempt to approach literary criticism based upon them is a dead-end. I love Shakespeare, but Bloom’s incessant bleat about Shakespeare’s supremacy over all other writers gets in the way of his ability to say anything fresh about the plays. And the assertion is unproveable. What does Bloom’s assessment even mean? Is it really the case that Shakespeare was wiser and smarter than all other writers in all ways? Bloom is entitled to his opinion, but what good does it do to hammer away at this point?

And what if he’s wrong? It might seem foolhardy to question the supremacy of Shakespeare, yet surely there are crucial ways in which someone like Chekhov, for example, could be considered a greater artist. Nobody ever spoke the way Hamlet speaks. Chekhov’s greater mimetic realism makes him, in some crucial ways, more accessible, just as Vermeer’s or Rembrandt’s paintings are in some ways more accessible than Michelangelo’s titanic renditions.

Yet this is the sort of thing Bloom doesn’t even like to think about. Artists are constantly being ranked: Shakespeare is #1, Dante is #2, Joyce is #3. . . It is silly and pointless. Recently, he declared Beckett the greatest English language writer of the 20th century, surpassing Conrad, Woolf, Lawrence. How is Beckett “better” than Conrad? They deal with different aspects of existence and illuminate different experiences of life. Where do we go next with this sort of critical criteria? Are we going to declare Mozart superior to Beethoven and Bach? Or maybe it is Bach who’s the supreme musical genius. But then again, it must be Beethoven because of the symphonies. It is always possible to play this parlor game, but it can only remain a parlor game.

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Veronica Abbass: “Democracy Is More Than Just A Ballot Box”

Brigette DePape is escorted from the Senate during her protest in last June’s Speech from the Throne

Former Senate page Brigette DePape’s silent “Stop Harper” protest on the floor of the Canadian Senate during the June 3, 2011 Speech from the Throne eclipsed the speech itself everywhere it was reported. One of the first organizations to respond to DePape’s gesture was The Council of Canadians. The Council’s chair, Maude Barlow, contacted DePape on June 4, offered her solidarity, as well as the Council’s support for DePape’s report: Thinking Outside the Ballot Box: How People Power Can Stop the Harper Agenda and Create Fundamental Change.

In the Introduction to Thinking Outside the Ballot Box, DePape expresses her gratitude to “the thousands of people who were excited by my action. It shows that people in Canada are burning for change” (3). Throughout the twenty-four  page report, DePape draws upon her own experience and the experience of others to suggest how and why “people power” can change for the better the way Canada is governed (5). She cites former Governor-General Ed Broadbent, who, in response to DePape’s protest, likewise advocates the principle of people as a legitimate form of resistance to unfair and inequitable government policies: “What is the real offence,” Broadbent asks, “silently watching growing injustice, or upsetting the sensibilities of those who should be doing something about it?” (9).

“People power” is a more restrained rallying cry than “power to the people,” and yet DePape’s confidence in it is unshakable.  “People power rises from the bottom-up,” DePape suggests, and goes on to observe that “people are more powerful when they. . . remove their consent.”  Those who possess power, consequently, “become powerless, and power shifts to those” from whom all power proceeds, the people themselves (5).

DePape maintains that “collective indignation is a first step in building a movement to stop injustice,” and asks us to “imagine the movement we can build if we use our collective indignation to create the Canada we want” (10-11).  DePape reminds us that “[d]emocracy is not just about voting every four years,” and asks that those who dissent to join together in protest against the inequitable policies of the Harper government (7).

On November 1, DePape was guest speaker at a Peterborough-Kawarthas chapter of the Council of Canadians event, “Stop Harper: the Arts, Youth, and the Future of Canada.” Sara Ostrowska reported in Trent University’s student newspaper:

There were over 100 people in attendance, of all ages and walks of life, but everyone had one thing in common: they were inspired by Brigette DePape’s small act of civil disobedience.

Near the end of the presentation, an older woman in the audience shouted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Stephen Harper must go,” and the chant broke out, with DePape joining in.

The second chapter of Thinking Outside the Ballot Box is “Democracy Is More Than Just A Ballot Box” (7), which nicely echoes Northrop Frye in “The Analogy of Democracy”: “Law is the expression of temporal authority; justice is law informed by freedom and equality” (CW 176). This is something we must keep in mind every day as citizens of a democracy. The law requires that we recognize that Stephen Harper is, by way of the ballot box, our properly elected prime minister, and as such he has the legal right to govern. However, justice requires that we resist the policies we believe to be unfair, inequitable, unjust as an expression of the people power which is the first and last authority of any democracy.

Christopher Batty: Bloom, Frye and Value Judgments Cont’d

Philip Larkin reads his poem, “The Trees”

Contra Bloom, Frye never claimed that “evaluation has nothing to do with literary criticism.” He claimed that criticism can’t comfortably rest on a foundation of mere evaluation. Bloom himself is a good judge of literary merit but far from an infallible one. I’d give Bloom an A- or B+ score if I were evaluating his ability to evaluate and rank.

When Bloom edited a collection he entitled The Best Poems of the English Language, he excluded dozens of conventionally recognized masterpieces and included several idiosyncratic choices of his own I found to be not so great, and sometimes downright mediocre. Bloom can’t see his own blind spots; none of us can. That’s why they’re called “blind spots.”

Frye’s real point is that there never has been, in the entire history of literary appreciation, a single individual with anything resembling infallible taste. Everyone has blind spots, everyone who claims to have identified a perfect canon invariably gets shown up as misguided in a few generations time. I don’t see how it’s possible to argue against Frye’s view of this matter. The history of taste, with all its fluctuations and reversals, clearly shows him to be correct about this.

As for how this applies to Bloom: it’s easy for me to assent to his admiration of Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon among living American novelists, but when Bloom (in his younger years) dismissed T.S. Eliot as inferior to John Ashbery and not a “strong” poet, when Bloom tried to write Poe out of the canon altogether, and when Bloom writes a rave blurb for poet Philip Levine but declares poet Philip Larkin trivial and minor, all I can say is, “Harold, you’ve got some major blind spots. Your aesthetic compass is anything but perfect — which is precisely Frye’s point.” Does Bloom honestly foresee a future in which Larkin, Eliot, and Poe are forgotten, but “common readers” are avidly devouring the “strong” verse of Levine and Ashbery?

Péter Pásztor: “Translating Frye into Hungarian”

Paper read at the conference ‘Canada in Eight Tongues’ organized by the Central European Association for Canadian Studies and Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, October 21-22, 2011

More often than not, discussing Frye is a reward and treat. That I have been invited to speak to you about Frye among learned women and men of letters is also a great honour, which I worry I shall not be able to live up to. After all, I am just a practical translator, not one who can deliver gems of theory. Moreover, I have been an unfaithful Frygian, who now finds it difficult to pick up the thread. But perhaps some of my insights might be worthy of your attention.

I first heard Frye’s name from a professor I perhaps unfairly hated. He mentioned Frye as an example of mythopoeic understanding of American history, and, as I had already come to the sophomoric conclusion that history was a nightmare from which I was trying to awake, I thought I had no time for any concept embracing history, let alone a reductionist model of history. Then I remember desultorily picking up a copy of the TLS or the New York Review in the English department library in Debrecen and reading of a Canadian professor capable of making sense of the Bible in literary terms. I instantly knew this was something I had been looking for. I asked the librarian to order the book, which was rather unusual for a student and for such a subject matter at the time. This was in 1982-83, when, though rotted at the core, communism was still showing no sign of collapsing. For all I know, the request may have been conveniently forgotten. The book eventually got to me through the U.S. Presbyterian Reader Service about two years later, and it lived up to my best expectations.

I am a PK, a priest kid; I had gone to a protestant school founded in 1538, and, as a 16-year-old snob, I had tried reading my Milton in the original from a time-worn octavo in the reading room of the old library. I had a keen sense of my cultural tradition, but a likewise keen sense of the stuffiness of the church I was brought up in, being marred by teaching a compromise with communism and a hopelessly outdated, shallow piety. However stifling this illuminating-tradition-turned-ghetto seemed to me in the late 1970s, the Marxian stance of the immediate world outside, particularly its fresher, seemingly truer Lukácsian brand, could hardly have had a lasting attraction for me, not to mention the fact that it soon went down like ninepins. But the lacklustre anti-metaphysical attitudes it was leaving behind seemed to me unimaginative and bleak. What was cast out of official and semi-official intellectual inquiry most lured me – irrationalism, esotericism, and archaic modes of thought, identifying the accidents of our existence with myths and archetypes, as brilliantly expounded by Mircea Eliade, whom I later happened to not-so-accidentally translate. This was walking on thin ice because archetypal repetition, for all its spiritual imaginativeness, implies a necessity that leads to authoritarianism on the social plane – recall Eliade’s own Romanian Nazism. This is particularly dangerous in Central-East Europe where archaic attitudes were not naturally outgrown, but trampled underfoot by communism. Though I believe I was always aware of this danger, I was much in need of saving.

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Todd Lawson, “Frye and the Koran: Typology, Apocalypse & Epic”

Todd Lawson is professor of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto

In several, scattered places in his later writings, Frye treats the Koran as a text that deserves to be read very carefully as both literature and “more than literature”.  For example, in The Great Code he points out that those who see in the Koran’s version of the story of Mary and the birth of Jesus a confusion of Biblical material have simply got it wrong and are deaf to the music of typological figuration.

The third Sura of the Koran appears to be identifying Miriam and Mary; Christian commentators on the Koran naturally say this is ridiculous, but from the purely typological point of view from which the Koran is speaking, the identification makes good sense. (GC 172, italics added)

Several similar instances demonstrate Frye’s characteristic perspicacity and even unto a text as foreign in cultural presuppositions, form and content as the Koran. I am studying Frye’s relationship with the Koran through both printed and unpublished works where he either explicitly refers to the text or where his remarks on other texts are equally apposite in the case of the Koran. I am also exploring, with the able and valuable assistance of Rebekah Zwanzig (who actually also discovered this blog), the Frye archive to study his marginalia and notes on related texts, such as English translations of the Koran and of Rumi’s poetry.  Results so far suggest that Frye’s faith in the “sacrament of reading” allowed him to develop a remarkably open, if critical, attitude towards the Koran, something in which he was certainly then – and may still well be – ahead of his time.

My interest in Frye’s Koran began in the early ‘80’s when I was working on a PhD thesis at McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies. My subject was a particularly challenging unpublished manuscript of an Arabic Koran commentary. In taking a break, reading the newly published Great Code, I saw that Frye had solved one of the problems that had been eluding me. His discussion of the above-mentioned typological figuration and its persuasive power and efficacy was in fact a revelation and provided a key I had not found elsewhere. When I started teaching at U of T in 1988 I secretly held the hope that I would one day be able to meet the great man and express to him my gratitude for his unbeknownst help. Of course, I also hoped of thus being able to search further the Frygian experience of the Koran. Alas, this meeting never happened. In fact, and in the context of the present research, a rather ironic signal brought the possibility to a clear, cold end . . . it was the evening of January 23, 1991. In those days I was in the habit of listening to the radio about the Gulf War while I worked in the evening in my office at Robarts Library. The bombing of Baghdad — home and scene of the great efflorescence of Arabo-Islamic learning and culture from the 8th to the 13th centuries — had begun five or six days earlier and was commencing apace.  The reports of this massive (and in retrospect perhaps phobic) attack were interrupted on the CBC to announce the passing of Northrop Frye. He had just been there, virtually across the street. Now he was gone. But, it seems, not forever.

Fifteen years later, I decided to have our conversation anyway. Having returned to the University of Toronto from McGill, and encouraged in my general research by a SSHRC award to study the Koran as an example of literary apocalypse, I decided to weave Frye’s very illuminating work into my methodology. In order to be as rigorous as possible about this, I organized two successive, year-long graduate seminars, entitled the Koranic Apocalyptic Imagination, around the above-mentioned later works of Frye, which included the Double Vision. It was as if the students recognized a long lost friend. It is amazing the way these young Islamicists became excited and encouraged by Frye’s remarks about the structure and content of the Bible because they could apply many of them to their own reading of the Koran, a text which for many of the students was certainly more than literature. And they also discovered how it was literature as well.

The current project, bringing into some kind of order the various aspects, apparent contradictions and other problems of a Frygian Koran, is meant to be background for a chapter in the eventual monograph on the Koran as apocalypse, a topic that has thus far attracted an astonishing lack of attention. Why this lack of attention? It is an interesting question, but one which I will forbear from addressing here. I look forward to hearing from scholars who may be interested in or actually working on Northrop Frye’s reading of the Koran and his understanding of Islam. I am grateful to Bob Denham for the extremely helpful postings here on Frye and the Koran and for general encouragement. And I am grateful to Michael Happy for passing along my initial note to the blog to Bob and, of course, for all of his hard work and creativity that has gone into this invaluable website.