Category Archives: Frye and Contemporary Scholarship

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the stuffiness of the church I was brought up in, being marred by teaching a compromise with communism and a hopelessly outdated, shallow piety.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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Margaret Atwood, “In Other Worlds”

Margaret Atwood in extended conversation at Emory University last year where she delivered the Ellmann Lecture, “Science Fiction and Human Imagination.”

The Globe and Mail and The Star have articles on Margaret Atwood’s new collection, In Other Worlds, that make reference to her relationship to Frye. The Telegraph fills in a little more detail.

A previous post on Frye and Atwood here.

Stéphane Mallarmé

Ravel, “Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé”

More treasure from Bob Denham’s Essays on Northrop Frye, Frye and Stéphane Mallarmé”:

[A]lthough Mallarmé speaks of God as an old scarecrow whom he has at last overcome,[i] he also speaks in his letters of a symbolic death and resurrection that he has attained through his search for a pure poetry, and speaks also of the poet who creates in the teeth of the creation, so to speak, as though he were the vehicle of a holy spirit.  “Man’s duty,” he says, “is to observe with the eyes of the divinity; for if his connection with that divinity is to be made clear, it can be expressed only by the pages of the open book in front of him.”[ii]  He also describes himself, in a letter to Cazalis, as “one of the ways the Spiritual Universe has found to see Itself, unfold Itself through what used to be me.”[iii] (457)

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[i] Frye is referring to the oft‑quoted passage in Mallarmé’s letter to Henri Cazalis, 14 May 1867: “I struggled with that creature of ancient and evil plumage [vieux et méchant plumage]––God––whom I fortunately defeated and threw to earth” (Selected Poetry and Prose, 87)

[ii] The passage is from Mallarmé’s “The Book: A Spiritual Instrument” (Selected Poetry and Prose, 80).

[iii] Letter to Henri Cazalis, 14 May 1867 (Selected Poetry and Prose, 87).  In one of his early plans for Words with Power Frye proposed organizing the first three chapters on a Trinitarian scheme––the Book of the Father, the Book of the Son, and the Book of the Spirit––based on Joachim of Floris’ theory of the three epochs.  Only in the Age of the Spirit, according to Joachim, would humankind be able fully to understand spiritual truth.  Mallarmé was to be a part of the Book of the Spirit (Late, 171).    

“Alice in Wonderland”

The first film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, made in 1903, with the entire story rendered in just under nine minutes. For the time, the special effects are Spielbergian.

Here’s Frye in one of the late notebooks, cited by Bob Denham in his newly posted Essays on Northrop Frye: “I’ve often said that if I understood the two Alice books I’d have very little left to understand about literature.” (“Frye and Lewis Carroll,” 284)


Bob Denham on Frye, Esoterica, and Education

Bob Denham’s “Northrop Frye’s ‘Kook Books’ and the Esoteric Tradition,” mentioned earlier in a recent discussion here, is now available in his new book published in our library. The essay was originally published in Frye and the Word, and appears in an expanded version in Bob’s Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World. It makes for very stimulating reading. It is, among other things, a powerful demonstration of what it means to have a genuinely open mind. Frye had one, and so does Bob, who takes seriously Frye’s interest in a host of books, most of which no self-respecting critic would normally be caught dead with. The material covers an astonishing variety of subjects usually regarded as lacking any scientific or scholarly credibility – the kinds of things you’d expect to see in occult or New Age bookshops. It is almost unbelievable the number of these volumes Frye went through and annotated. Bob’s essay offers an exhaustive catalogue of Frye’s reading in this area – a list that is itself over nine pages long – and painstakingly clarifies the source and nature of Frye’s critical interest in such apparently bizarre and arcane texts. As Bob shows, Frye was not just a liberal thinker, he was an utterly free thinker in view of what he refused to dismiss as unworthy of attention simply on the basis of restrictive scholarly norms. He was compelled solely by the degree to which any of these works offered a door of perception into the mythological, imaginative, and spiritual universe. Frye, it is clear, had pretty well permanently removed the mind-forged manacles most of us wear most of the time. This is a very lively essay, and I wish we had a YouTube version of Bob reading it with that wonderful smile and warm Southern drawl of his, as he did at the Frye and the Word conference a decade ago.

I have read the essay before, including its earlier versions, but this time it resonated in a completely new way with my ongoing reading of Poe, who has been much on my mind after three weeks of engagement with him in my American literature course. Bob very acutely draws the distinction between Frye’s negative view of religious Gnosticism and its rejection of the creator and the material world as inherently evil, and his sympathetic attitude to those gnostic poets who viewed the imagination as a means of spiritual transcendence. The latter are “bees of the invisible,” as Rilke called them: masters of metaphor, visionaries in service of the anagogic and kerygmatic, they transform the pollen of the visible into the golden honey of the invisible world of spiritual reality. As Bob points out, the exemplary poets for Frye in this regard were Mallarmé, most notably, and Rilke. He may also have had in mind Poe, whose literary genius he held in high regard. Poe of course was a revered figure for Mallarmé and the Symbolists, the first to “purify the language of the tribe,” and Rilke is clearly a descendent of the same movement. Many knowledgeable readers of Poe have never really come to terms with this critical judgment, underestimating Poet’s artistry and attributing his exalted reputation in Europe to the creative misprisions that occur when translating from one language and culture to another.  Fortunately, there are exceptions to the obtuseness with which American and English critics have treated Poe. The most splendid instance is the American poet and translator Richard Wilbur, whose take on Poe, though not devoid of moral reservations, is unmatched for its ability to read on an esoteric and allegorical level – that is, archetypally. Wilbur never cites Frye, and I don’t know if he was at all informed as a critic by his work, but his approach to Poe as a brilliant symbolic writer is reminiscent of Frye’s in many respects. They would have benefited greatly from reading one another.

In the Anatomy Frye calls Poe an uninhibited and “more radical abstractionist than Hawthorne” (139). Another way of putting it is that Hawthorne resisted his own “kookiness” and consequently his social and moral anxieties were at odds with his archetypal genius. Poe had no such anxieties. It was the clarity and lucidity of Poe’s cosmological vision, his unapologetic gnosticism and his trust in the power of imagery, that made him a great symbolic writer, one whose poetic vision is perhaps most fully realized not in his lyric poetry but in his tales. His writings always reveal both an exoteric and an esoteric level. There is no question about Poe’s exoteric appeal; he is an extremely popular writer even today. At the esoteric level, the level that appealed to the Symbolists, and to Wilde and Borges, the tales are all, in one way or another, about the destiny and struggle of the soul to escape the fetters of space and time and achieve transcendence in the invisible world. As did Blake, Mallarmé, and Rilke, Poe viewed art and literature as the Great Code, another Way – another way than religion – to achieve that transcendence.

Even the mystifications and hoaxing in Poe’s writings appear to be part of the hermetic tradition, as is the smearing of his reputation by accusations of charlatanism and immoral behaviour. Bob points out that Frye’s final judgment on Helena Blavatsky was a positive one, and that he ascribes her reputation as a confidence woman to the inevitable adversity of someone communicating an oracular wisdom that is out of the ordinary and difficult to make public without meeting scepticism and hostility. This is doubtless why, as Bob reminds us more than once, any references to the hermetic tradition, and all the more so to the “kooks,” Frye mostly confined to his notebooks. Be gentle as the dove, and wise as the serpent. It may have been a whiff of this interest in the occult on Frye’s part that Marshall McLuhan recruited as one piece of evidence in his paranoid fantasy that Frye was a Freemason. As Bob’s essay makes clear, there is no question about Frye’s interest in the occult and the paranormal. Frye made use of everything he could lay his hands on, but very little of what he used was a matter of belief.

I also had a chance to read another essay in Bob’s book, “Common Cause,” which offers a very perspicuous overview of Frye’s ideas on education. The common cause here is not the society that exists but the society we have failed to create. It is an exhilarating read, especially these days when so much that is most essential to education, at every level, is being swept aside in the name of technological advancement and the requirements of corporate capitalism. The primary role of education, in Frye’s view, had only one final cause, in the Aristotelian sense. The purpose of education is the creation of a society informed by a genuine social vision.  Bob brings this visionary conception of education very much to the fore of Frye’s thought.

One of my favourite moments is a passage by Frye Bob quotes near the close. More and more we are hearing terms like self-directed or inquiry-based learning celebrated as the new and better way to provide for the instruction of our students, more “relevant” – a word Frye excoriated – more aligned to the alleged contemporary economic necessity of “life-long learning.” Necessity is always the apology of ideology. As Frye puts it: “An ideology normally conveys something of this kind: ‘Your social order is not always the way you would have it, but it is the best you can hope for at present, as well as the one the gods have decreed for you: Obey and work’” (WP 24). What these buzz words really come down to is an abdication of the teacher’s responsibility in the classroom, the result, of course, of the hapless response of educational administrations to the expediency of empty pockets and the consequent mushrooming of class sizes beyond any reasonable scale. What is self-directed education if not the demand that students take over their own education, in the absence of a structured classroom and a teacher they can engage with as someone with authority who is genuinely engaged and concerned with them and the subject matter? Imagine a tennis instructor throwing someone a tennis racket and ball, and saying I’ll be back in an hour when the lesson is over and you can tell me how your game is coming along. Bob quotes the following passage from Frye:

[E]verything connected with the university, with education, and with knowledge must be structured and continuous. Until this is grasped, there can be no question of “learning to think for oneself.” In education one cannot think at random. However imaginative we may be, and however hard we try to remove our censors and inhibitions, thinking is an acquired habit founded on practice. . . . We do not start to think about a subject: we enter into a body of thought and try to add to it. It is only out of a long discipline in continuous and structured thinking, whether in the university, in a profession, or in the experience of life, that any genuine wisdom can emerge. (Education, 376–7)

This is all by way of a strong recommendation to take a look at Bob’s wonderful collection of essays. There is no one reading Frye who can do what he does, and with such infallibility and graceful ease.

Robert D. Denham, “Essays on Northrop Frye”

We are delighted to be able to link you at last to Bob Denham’s new collection, Essays on Northrop Frye, the latest addition to our library. They are posted in PDF, making them paginated and searchable and more accessible to students, teachers, and scholars..

We will not be posting again till next week. With twenty-two essays from Bob available to you, you don’t need to hear from us for a while. Enjoy.

Update: The ebook is still a relatively new thing, but like the scholarly texts of old, it is still prone to errata. We’ve picked up a couple of typos, and they will be corrected shortly. We wanted to have this wonderful book up for the holiday long weekend, and, like anything squeezed in on a tight deadline, one or two slipped past the goalie.

Bob Denham’s “Essays on Northrop Frye”

We are very pleased to announce that we will very shortly be posting a new collection of twenty-two essays on Northrop Frye by Bob Denham, which he has very generously decided to publish with us. These essays will examine a number of prevailing themes and influences in Frye’s work, including the more esoteric dimension of his interests. Nine of these essays will examine his relation to a number of other influential thinkers, including Aristotle, Giordano Bruno, Kierkegaard, Mallarmé, and Lewis Carroll. I think we can confidently promise that these will be available in our library for you to read in paginated, searchable, and downloadable PDF by Monday.

The Influence of Anxiety

I’d like to add to the recent discussion thread on Harold Bloom

The reason Bloom, in this interview, does not mention Frye in his list of “my greatest influences” is that Frye’s influence ended when Bloom had a nervous breakdown and began to write nonsense after deciding that literature was primarily “based upon agonistic competition,” as he puts it in the interview. It is all about the Oedipus complex and castration anxiety. It is all about which writers are greater, stronger, more powerful than others: in other words, which writers Bloom identifies with, and which ones he dismisses. His judgment of Poe is a perfect instance (see his attack on Poe in the New York Review of Books, “Inescapable Poe”): “Poe’s survival raises perpetually the issue whether literary merit and canonical status necessarily go together. I can think of no other American writer, down to this moment, at once so inescapable and so dubious.” He ridicules, for example, the overwrought prose style of the narrators in Poe’s great tales, a style that is in fact carefully attuned to the states of mind of the characters, who are often criminally insane or on the threshold of consciousness. It is as if a critic were to ridicule Mark Twain’s prose style in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because the narrator writes ungrammatically and uses cuss words. In contrast, Frye regarded Poe as a literary genius.

Here is how Bloom sums up his ‘literary theory’ of influence: ”I use the Shakespearean term ‘misprision,’ which is a kind of deliberate creativeness. The later work overturns an earlier work in order to get free of it. The new poem, new story, new drama or new novel is a creative misreading of the work that engendered it.” Literature is thus reduced to a Nietzschean or Oedipal struggle between grand creative minds. When literature is not that, for Bloom, it is the “touchstone theory” all over again: as he quotes Curtius, literature is “a reservoir of spiritual energies through which we can flavour and ennoble our present-day life.” Is this really what literature is all about? A kind of aesthetic and spiritual gilding of our prosperous middle-class life? Such an ennobling influence, however, doesn’t seem to have had much effect on Bloom. Read the interview, which starts, not very nobly, with a rant about attacks on the canon and his “desperate” but futile attempts to defend the curriculum of great books against the invasion of feminist Visigoths:

I do not give in to political considerations, however they mask themselves. All this business about gender, social class, sexual orientation and skin pigmentation is nonsense. I’m 81. I’m not prepared to temporise any more. I’ve been prophesying like Jeremiah since 1968, warning the profession that it was destroying itself. And it has.

It is interesting that Bloom began his jeremiad around the same time he broke with Frye. That’s over forty years, I guess, of not temporising. But this harangue is no better than Lynne Cheney (“not for me”) and Alan Bloom in the Closing of the American Mind. It is the tedious and angry voice of a reactionary. Frye was certainly concerned about the ascendency of ideological criticism but he countered it with a defence of the liberality and autonomy of imaginative culture. He did not speak contemptuously (“all this business about gender, etc.”), and he never whined and railed. He did not dismiss other people’s genuine concerns, even when he thought they were misguided; he tried to engage them, with as much graciousness as possible. And then there is Bloom’s vanity, transparent throughout, and the maudlin sentiment, the name-dropping, the emphasis on close “personal” friends (“Those are the five books. Four of them are by personal friends, and one is by someone I corresponded with.”), the nauseating idolatry of genius, and the wheedling allusions to the enormous number of enormous books he has written, one volume after another dedicated to the memory of his own opinions.

As Frye points out,

Criticism founded on comparative values falls into two main divisions, according to where the work of art is regarded as a product or as a possession. The former develops biographical criticism, which relates the work of art primarily to the man who wrote it. . . . Biographical criticism concerns itself largely with comparative questions of greatness and personal authority. It regards the poem as the oratory of its creator, and it feels most secure when it knows of a definite, and preferably heroic, personality behind the poetry. If it cannot find such a personalty, it may try to project one of out of rhetorical ectoplasm, as Carlyle does in his essay on Shakespeare as a ‘heroic’ poet.

Bloom is not a serious critic or a serious literary theorist. He has no critical theory to speak of. He is an extremely well-read man with an inflated ego and a photographic memory. It is no accident that he feels the need to present such a personal list of great works of literary scholarship, a list of the works that most influenced him, not the profession, as the interviewer requested. It is exactly what he does with literature. His books, as he says himself, reveal a man “desperately trying to battle for canonical standards.” It is the critic as judge, as maker of value-judgments. Frye, of course, demonstrated the perversity of such a basis for literary study in his polemical introduction to Anatomy; it is an essay that is always worth reading again, because value-judgments, like bedbugs, seem impossible to eradicate: they just keep coming back in new mutations. Enough of Bloom. Frye has already summed it up: “The odious comparisons of greatness, then, may be left to take care of themselves, for even when we feel obliged to assent to them they are still only unproductive platitudes.”