Author Archives: Michael Dolzani

Centre for Comparative Literature: Letter to President Naylor


Here is my letter to University of Toronto president Naylor regarding the Centre for Comparative Literature

Dear President Naylor,

I write this on the 98th birthday of Canada’s most famous literary scholar, Northrop Frye.  It turns out, unfortunately, not to be a very happy birthday.  I have just learned, with considerable shock, of the plan to abolish the Centre for Comparative Literature, founded by Frye back in 1969.  I am writing, as an alumnus of the University of Toronto, as Frye’s former research assistant, and as one of the editors of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye project published by the University of Toronto Press, to ask the University to reconsider its decision.

I will always be grateful to the University for taking a chance in 1978 and admitting a student from an unknown small college in Ohio.  Although my experience in English was completely positive, I was sometimes told by other graduate students that Comparative Literature was where the really exciting stuff was going on.  From everything that I have read, that Centre is as vigorous and important now as it was then, yet that has not been a factor in the decision. Yes, it is good that people are not going to lose their jobs, but there will be another kind of loss, for the kind of scholarship enabled by Comparative Literature will become impossible.

To non-academics, “comparative literature” may seem just one more arcane, narrow specialization.  If people do not even know what comparative literature is, it is understandable if they are not motivated to fund it.  Comp Lit is a centrifugal approach to literary studies that reverses the centripetal approach of a traditional English department.  What I mean is that, if you have a degree in English, your program restricts you to the literature of one language, and usually one country and historical period.  When you go on the job market, you peddle yourself as, say, “eighteenth-century British.”  The centripetal approach originated in the nineteenth century and remains valid; my own degree is in English.  However, it is next to impossible within such a framework to study English centrifugally, in terms of its connections with other languages, literatures, and cultures.  Yet those connections are crucial on three levels, linguistic, literary, and social.  As Frye pointed out in an address to the Canadian Comparative Literature Association in 1974, “In English literature, the major influences have been Latin, French, and Italian:  the influence of Old English on later developments has been minimal, as has that of medieval English apart from Chaucer.  The most familiar schemata of English poetry, rhyme and meter, were taken over from French.  And underlying a great deal of its fiction is a solid basis of popular literature, in folktale and ballad, which has travelled around the world without regard to linguistic barriers.”  To this we may add that when literary theory came of age in the second half of the twentieth century, there was great difficulty accommodating it in traditional English departments, because theory by definition asks general rather than specialized questions.  Frye’s own wide-ranging work was an influential example here.  In a world that is becoming more and more interconnected, and more and more obsessed by its own interconnectedness, it seems incomprehensible that the University would seek to abolish a discipline that studies exactly those connections.

I know that there are financial considerations involved.  Fifty-five million dollars is from one point of view a lot of money.  From another point of view, it is the bonuses of perhaps six CEOs.  The question is what our values are.  The University’s financial crisis has been largely created from outside itself.  We owe the global financial meltdown to people who did not study the humanities, and who consequently made foolish and destructive decisions out of blindness.  No, the study of literature does not necessarily lead to wisdom and sensitivity—but it is one of the few things that can enlarge our being if we are open to it.  That was Frye’s faith.  I truly hope the University may reverse its decision and find other ways to close the budget gap.


Michael Dolzani

Professor of English

Chair, English Department, Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio

The Void Between the Stars


Blake’s Song of Los

Response to Sára Tóth,  Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham

These responses appear suddenly and unexpectedly, like fairy rings on the front lawn:  you wake up in the morning, and there they are.  Most gratifying, particularly when one’s respondents are as stimulating as Sára Tóth, Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham.  I begin to see the uses of this blog thing:  it has a rhythm of its own, quite different from academic criticism.

Joe, I thank you for reminding us of that passage from Creation and Recreation, as it is probably Frye’s most extended treatment of the concept of spiritual otherness.  Both Joe and Sára point to the dialectical nature of Frye’s later thought, and that puts its finger on something central. The Late Notebooks show that Words with Power was going to be organized according to a “dialectic of Word and Spirit.”  I keep wondering why that dropped largely out of the final book—especially as it is still there implicitly.  Is Sára right that there are signs of occasional vacillation on Frye’s part?

She is definitely correct about Frye’s vacillation on the subject of kerygma.  Another thing I like about the blog is that I feel free to introduce occasional anecdotes that are, I hope, instructive, yet which would be out of place in a more formal setting.  In the later Eighties, some time after the appearance of The Great Code, I managed to work up my nerve to question Frye about what seemed an either-or distinction in that book between literature and kerygmatic rhetoric.  I asked him whether literature couldn’t at times take on a kerygmatic quality.  Frye was tactful, but wouldn’t back down.  He used as example the refrain from the Bard’s Song in Blake’s Milton:  “Mark my words! They are of your eternal salvation!”  Notwithstanding, Frye told me, since that assertion appears in a work of literature, we take it hypothetically.  This is why The Great Code insists that the Bible is not a work of art.  I was somewhat troubled by this, for personal as well as intellectual reasons.  Certain works of literature, even certain passages, have changed me, have changed my life.  For that matter, certain passages of Frye have changed my life:  I have had the “This is for me” response Frye speaks of as characteristic of kerygma; the passages have become “myths to live by.”  So I read Chapter Four of Words with Power with delighted surprise.  Frye just about never admitted that he changed his mind—but he did.  I am much more satisfied with the treatment in the later book, in which literature can sometimes take on kerygmatic qualities and, presumably, kerygmatic works such as the Bible can exhibit literary qualities.  The latter would take Frye full circle to Fearful Symmetry, which says in no uncertain terms that the Bible is a work of art, not just a code of art.  To be sure, Frye is speaking there from Blake’s perspective, but there is no indication that he does not share it.

As for the question of criticism as science, I am betting that that is fuel for at least three dozen blog entries–starting with this one.  I concede that Frye did talk sometimes as if he felt that criticism could be organized on an empirical basis, like science.  He was clearly irritated when he said in “Expanding Eyes” that “The order of words is there, all right, and there is no use writing it off as a private hallucination of my own.”  Harold Bloom had just got done comparing him to Proclus and Iamblichus—private hallucinators, in Frye’s book.  But he did seem to retain as late as 1975 a faith that we could achieve some consensus by showing repeated patterns “in the text.”  However, criticism for at least a decade before that had been insisting on exactly the opposite:  what seems to be “in the text” is a product of ideology or interpretive communities operating upon authors, readers, and critics alike.  This is why talk of a “scientific” criticism seems so dated now.

Continue reading