Author Archives: Peter "StirFrye" Yan

Frye and Oedipus Rex


Responding a little more to Russell Perkin’s last post:

Your “superstitious” response to teaching Oedipus Rex is understandable. I recall a workshop, where a teacher (after 30 years experience) didn’t feel ready to tackle Oedipus Rex, which struck me as odd, seeing that the plot seems pretty reader friendly, as opposed to “writerly,” to use Roland Barthes’s term. But now I know how deep the play is after applying Frye to it.

Frye’s archetypal criticism effectively places the work at the centre of the literary and social universe, where the Bible, Literature, Film, Popular Culture, Literary Criticism, Psychology, and Sociology orbit around it.


Reuben sleeps with Israel’s concubine (Genesis 35:22).

Adam rejects the Sky Father to be with the Earth Mother.

Jesus is the opposite of Oedipus: Oedipus kills Father and possesses mother sexually. Jesus obeys Father (Father kills son) and marries mother spiritually, as He is everyone’s (The Church’s) bridegroom.

The curse and plagues and unknown suffering echoes Moses and the Pharoahs and Job.


Countless stories of Father killing son, son killing father, incest, search for origins, prophecy: see “My Oedipus Complex” by Frank O’Connor.


Too many to count, but most popular include Killing of the Father (James Bond: The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day; Gladiator, Star Wars).

Popular Culture:

The Rap song by Immortal Technique Dance with the Devil where gang initiation results in son raping and killing mother.

Literary Criticism:

The Oedipus myth is used as a critical term/conceptual myth by Harold Bloom, in ways the writer writes (anxiety of influence) and readers read (misreading), both trying to kill off earlier influence.


Obviously, The Oedipus Complex. Even the 5 Stages of Grief (Oedipus goes through Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Acceptance) appear here first. And Jung’s idea of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, is the basis of every literary action/plot.


The search for the adopted parents, usually the father, is a major issue given the popularity and technology of sperm donors.

Video of Immortal Technique’s Dance with the Devil after the break.

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The Final Interview: 29 November 1990


The following is the final interview with Northrop Frye, by Peter Yan, one of our regular bloggers and then a reporter for The Varsity. The interview is introduced by Peter’s commentary:

Anyone with a surname spelled like mine is used to being last. Of course, I never expected to conduct what would turn out to be the last interview with Frye. His secretary, Jane Widdicombe, at the time said he was sick and had interview requests the “length of my arm”. Widdicombe said she would ask but not to expect anything.

Despite his ill-health, Frye acceded to my request because I was writing for students and a lay public, his favourite audience. On the day of the interview, I recall knocking on his office door with trepidation, an Evian bottle in hand for him, thinking I am about to interview one of the most brilliant men to ever grace this planet. What if he calls me ‘stupid’? Do I have enough money for the therapy sessions to recover from that?

Frye never called me stupid. But I am sure at least one of my questions irritated him. After the interview, he did pay me the favor of autographing about 10 of his books for me. I remember him adoring the cover of his latest, Myth and Metaphor, which he had not seen yet.

The interview was one of the most nerve wracking of my life, right up there with filing my first income tax return, getting my driver’s license and getting married. I remember his final words to me, raising the Evian bottle to me: “Thanks for the lubrication”.

Yan: I want to talk about education because there is so much teacher-bashing going on right now. You mention that a theory of literature should lead to a theory of education because a theory of literature will tell you indirectly what kind of books to read. In your theory of litera­ture what would be your implied theory of education?

Frye: It’s pretty complicated. I have written several books on the theory of education, what I would consider the fight from the beginning to the end for the central importance of the humanities in education, and within the humanities for the central importance of poetry, going out from poetry to literary prose. So much teaching of English backs into it the wrong way: starting out by trying to write various forms of applied prose and often not getting to poetry at all.

Yan: In your work you often refer to Aristotle’s four causes.* Is there a correspondence between the four causes of literature and education? If the efficient cause is the writer, and the material cause is his life experi­ences, what are the formal and final causes of literature?

Frye: The formal cause is the shape of the poem he produces and the final cause is the culture to which it contributes.

Yan: Does the writer define that culture and decide what the final cause would be?

Frye: Oh, he doesn’t decide—he inherits it. He has no choice in the matter.

Yan: The writer inherits it from the work of previous poets?

Frye: Just from being what he is: the fact that he is going to write in his own language with the previous poets in that language as his models.

Yan: I was trying to see if there is a link between the causes of literature and the causes of the educational process. What do you think are the four causes in the educational process?

Frye: I don’t know—I suppose the efficient cause of education is teaching, the material cause is the books read and the subjects studied in education, the formal cause would be the educated man, and the final cause is the vision of which education is a part.

Yan: In answer to the critics reading Fearful Symmetry who said they couldn’t tell where you started and ended and where Blake started and ended, you mentioned that was a good thing because when teaching Blake the only person who deserved to be in the room was Blake and the students. Who is in the room or what is happening in the room when you teach the Bible and literature?

Frye: Well, I suppose it is the same general principle. It is the vision which constitutes the Bible which is the one presence in the room. But you put it in orthodox terms by saying only the presence of Jesus Christ is in the room. That suggests a dogmatic approach, an attachment or belief not really relevant. If I’m teaching Blake I don’t necessarily believe in Blake. It’s the same thing here. I wouldn’t want that misunderstanding to crop up. But we’re looking at the same thing: the vision which constitutes the Bible is the presence.

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Maslow and More


Responding to Russell Perkin’s Celebrity Critics:

Your post reminded me of the last popular critic who had a bestseller on the NY Times List, Harold Bloom, the disciple of Frye, more akin to Judas than Peter. (Frye did say he disliked disciples, as one will betray you anyways.)

The Invention of the Human and The Western Canon were huge and had great implications for literature and literary critics.

I have been reading Terry Eagleton, and he is not my cup of tea. Not only did I feel he misrepresented Frye in his Literary Theory potboiler; he also took many riffs off of Frye. Read Frye’s “Polemical Introduction” in the Anatomy and compare it to Eagleton’s introduction of Literary Theory. Eagleton has a similar outline, if not the arguments.

I feel he made his critical mark, like other critics, by knocking Frye, in a classic David versus Goliath. I still think Eagleton and critics like him turned out to be the real Philistines.

In Response to Russell Perkin’s RE: “Beyond Suspicion”:

The Fusion of Text and Reader and Guilty Pleasures:

As for the fusion of text and reader, Frye speaks of this fusion in Words with Power: to paraphrase, just by reading, we are resurrecting from the past into the present, the work, the speaking voice, in the site of the reader. The centre of the logos is in the reader, not under the text, and changes place with the Logos at the circumference which encloses both.

Existential Projection: Frye noted in The Practical Imagination that it is difficult to read from the point of view of an evil character. Put another way, our reading habits/personal ideology, will not allow us to become in Iser’s phrase, the ideal reader in a work like American Psycho, to walk in that character’s shoes so to speak. Coming from the other direction, one of my guilty pleasures is a song by Nine Inch Nails which I enjoy, but then my ideology/reading habits and superego come in to censor my id, to cancel that enjoyment. It’s a cognitive dissonance not unlike eating something you are not supposed to.

Should we just trust the imagination when we merge with the text to protect us and pull us out after our reading?

In response to Joe Adamson’s The Social Function of Literature:

The Authority of Literature and the Arts:

Short Answer: Literature shows us the world we want (comedy and quest romance) and the world we don’t want (tragedy, irony, satire).

Long Answer: At the risk of sounding glib, for my younger students who could not read Words with Power or understand primary and secondary concerns, I point to Abram Maslow’s needs of life. The authority of literature is to remind us of the needs for life. Every story shows these needs either being fulfilled or denied/subordinated. Usually my students watch their favourite movie and report on the following checklist whether these needs are fulfilled or denied.

1. Physical Needs (movement, food/air/water, reproduction/family, clothing, shelter, property, technology and money).

2. Safety

3. Love/Belonging

4. Self-Esteem

5. Cognitive needs (need to know)

6. Aesthetic needs (need for beauty/art)

7. Humour/Optimism

8. Self-Actualization (power to help oneself)

9 Transcendence (power to help others).

I once had a parent angry that I screened the Eminem movie 8 Mile (13 kilometres in Canada), saying it was crap. After giving her the list, she understood what art does as a whole, even popular art.

As Frye says, his ideas are for the average 15 or 19 year old. A vision of heaven, anagogy, should be open to anyone with a imagination.

The interesting thing is that Maslow’s Needs are most often taught in high school marketing/business courses to brainwash the public.

It’s time that literature reclaimed the imagination, showing how advertising is applying literature’s disinterested vision of an ideal world.

[Eminem’s Lose Yourself after the break.]

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