by Warren S. Moore III
Northrop Frye’s importance to modern literary thought is incontrovertible. As Jonathan Hart observes, Frye “has been one of the most-cited and quoted people in the humanities” in the last forty years (160). Outside of the academy, as recently as 1998 Maclean’s magazine named Frye the outstanding “Thinker and Writer” in Canadian history (Granatstein 20). However, in recent years, Frye’s work seems to have fallen out of fashion, a trend which had begun even before Frye’s death in 1991.
There are several reasons for this. As Terry Eagleton noted in 1984, “literary theory, in the forms in which we now know it, is a child of the social and political convulsions of the 1960s” (quoted in Hamilton 216-17), which is to say that it postdates Anatomy of Criticism (1957), the central book of the Frye canon. In more concrete terms, much of latter-day theory seems to concern itself with (often politicized) issues of difference, and most readers leave the Anatomy convinced that Frye wished to unite texts under the rubrics of mythoi, seasons, and genres as if he were the master file clerk of literature. A.C. Hamilton observes that Frye’s emphasis on “the individual’s personal identity. . . is rejected by Marxist claims that identity is a product of social and historical forces,” and that the “metaphysics of absence” behind deconstructionism is antithetical to Frye’s unifying metaphor, “the centre of Logos through which literature forms an order of words” (218).
Frye’s expressed desire for a sort of field theory of literature also works against current pluralistic fashions (Hart 161). Confronted by Frye’s efforts to create “a synoptic view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism” (Anatomy 3), modern critics react either by proclaiming its irrelevance to real life (which they contend is more of a dialogic exercise) or, more ominously, by suggesting that such interest in unity is at best quietist and at worst totalitarian (Hart 161).
When faced with such charges, Frye’s defenders must wonder just how much of his work his accusers have actually read. At the very least, those accusers must be unfamiliar with Frye’s own real, lived experience, which included a feud with T.S. Eliot over what Frye saw as Eliot’s flirtation with fascism, and his 1935 statement that the world must either “read Blake or go to Hell” (Ayre 114). As Hart observes, to seize on a notion of Frye as an abstracted “myth critic” is to forget that Frye’s mentors were Blake and (indirectly) Milton, both of whom were decidedly radical (161). Frye’s profound connection to Blake (who in fact can be seen as the root of Frye’s own Romantic cosmology [Hamilton 111-12]) seems to steer him away from the sort of blood-and-soilism that taints such writers as Pound, Eliot, and Paul de Man.
But it is not enough merely to say that Frye’s own life was spent in opposition to totalitarianism. An examination of his written work reveals an aspect of Frye’s thought that can only be regarded as liberational. While Jonathan Hart examines Frye’s final books (1990’s Words with Power and 1991’s The Double Vision) to discover a focus on “the return of a repressed liberational theology” (170), a 1962 collection of CBC lectures (published as The Educated Imagination in 1964) reveals Frye’s hopes, just five years after Anatomy, for the resistive power of his criticism.
The book is framed as a sort of justification of literary scholarship, but eventually turns into an explanation of the role literary criticism plays in a rhetorical/ideological world. At the book’s beginning, Frye explains the role of the imagination (and thereby of art) as the first step toward a human effort to change the world. “Art begins as soon as ‘I don’t like this’ turns into ‘This is not the way that I could imagine it’” (28). Ultimately, we discover that for Frye, everything one does with words is literary/rhetorical — an imaginative act, and ultimately (as for Blake) an act that creates reality. Put another way, Frye defines literature as “the central link of communication between society and the vision of its primary concerns” (Hart 162).
This is certainly true of the social functions that make up civilization. In fact, one can suggest that social life is a text, and accordingly, that the imagination plays a central role therein:
In ordinary life, as in [what we ordinarily consider] literature, they way you things can be just as important as what’s said. . . You may have some social job to do that involves words, such as making a speech or preaching a sermon or teaching a lesson or presenting a case to a judge or writing an obituary on a dead skinflint or reporting a murder trial or greeting visitors to a public building or writing copy for an ad. . . Society attaches an immense importance to saying the right thing at the right time. In this conception of the “right thing,” there are two factors involved, one moral and one aesthetic. (135-36)
It is this aesthetic, or rhetorical, aspect that Frye sees as the object of criticism.
Frye says that advertisers noticed this point fairly quickly (Imagination 138). To evaluate an ad, then, is to consider it as a literary work, and to accept or reject it based upon that analysis:
The end of the process in to to reject all advertising, but to develop our own vision of society to the point at which we can choose what we want out of what’s offered to us and let the rest go. What we choose is what fits that vision of society. (139)
From this point, the leap to political applications is an easy one. Voters choose candidates whose vision of society best matches their own vision of the society in which they wish to live (140).
This is the point at which we can move from social action as literary criticism to social action as Frye’s criticism. Competing visions are competing mythologies for Frye. Conservative calls for a return to some set of “good old days” could be read as a manifestation of the pastoral myth, while at the opposite end of the political spectrum, we have what Frye calls “progress myths” (characterized by calling one’s foes Puritans, Victorians, and the like), which “give the impression that all past history was a kind of bad dream, which in these enlightened days we’ve shaken off” (144-45).
The ability to distinguish and choose between these myths (among many) is again an act of literary criticism — and the definition of freedom. Without that criticism, there is nothing to stop an individual or a society from turning into a mob: “[Mob speech] stands for cliché, readymade idea and automatic babble, and it leads us inevitably from illusion into hysteria” (148). Automatic babble denies choice by definition (147). Most propaganda is bad poetry, drawing on cliché and bad myths, but it requires a critical act to recognize that:
Some years ago. . .I heard somebody say “those yellow bastards,” meaning the Japanese. More recently. . .I heard somebody else use the same phrase, but meaning the Chinese. There are many reasons, not connected with literary criticism, why nobody should use phrase like that about anybody. But the literary reason is that the phrase is pure reflex: it’s no more a product of a conscious mind than the bark of a dog is. (146)
It’s worth noting that when self-styled Maoists at the University of Toronto attempted to smear Frye with a rabidly denunciatory pamphlet couched in running-dog rhetoric, one of Frye’s students called the pamphlet “a message from Ulro” (the Blakean Hell-desert that is devoid of imagination) (Ayre 325). The student was able to recognize that cliches from either end of the political spectrum are negations of imagination.
But while the act of criticism is the source of freedom, Frye reminds us that one must learn in order to achieve the ability to act. “You’re not free to move unless you have learned to walk, and not free to play the piano unless you practice” (Imagination 149). The critical faculty must be trained as well — a notion Frye put in even more concrete terms when he said that a theory that couldn’t be taught to kindergarteners was dubious (Hamilton 202), and which he put into practice as an editor of grade-school literary anthologies based on recurring mythoi (Ayre 340-41). Even with practice, however, “the basis of what you have to say is your vision of society” (Imagination 149). Once more, then, we return to the myth. And once more, we are compelled to notice that Frye intends us to use our ability to recognize and distinguish between myths as a means to the end of self-liberation.
Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. The Arnoldian notion that we are improved by exposure to Culture — “the best that is known and thought” — smoldered in the ashes of the crematoria constructed by the well-educated Nazis. At the end of The Educated Imagination, however, Frye acknowledges a dark side to humanity, and suggests that while it is easy to embrace that aspect, to do so means to surrender imaginative power:
There’s something in all of us that wants to drift toward a mob, where we can all say the same thing without having to think about it, because everybody is all alike except people that we can hate or persecute. Every time we use words, we’re either fighting against this tendency or giving in to it. (154)
The Nazis and the would-be Cultural Revolutionaries in Toronto chose to give in. Frye would rather we use our imaginations to resist this totalitarianizing impulse. By resisting in this way, “We’re taking the side of genuine and permanent human civilization” (154). And that civilization is made up of such imaginative products as “philosophy and history and science and religion and law” (154), which as imaginative verbal structures, are myths as well (155).
Ultimately, then, we see that Frye’s does not wish simply to pigeonhole everything we encounter in some definitive, scientistic fashion. That is the gateway to Ulro. What Frye offers us is a method of seeing that allows us to make our own decisions, and therefore to free ourselves through the power of our own imagination, the Mental Fight that Blake says would build “Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.” This is not a gift that one should refuse lightly, even if the giver seems out of fashion.
Ayre, John. Northrop Frye: A Biography. Toronto: Random
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1957.
—. The Educated Imagination. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP,
Granatstein, J.L. “Northrop Frye.” Maclean’s 111:26 (July
1, 1998) 20-21.
Hamilton, A.C. Northrop Frye: Anatomy of His Criticism.
Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990.
Hart, Jonathan. “Northrop Frye and the End/s of Ideology.”
Comparative Literature 47:2 (Spring 1995) 160-74.