Category Archives: Frye & Contemporary Criticism

More Frye and Bloom

As Bob Denham keeps reminding us, Frye continues to be read and used by scholars. Robert Milder, a very influential Americanist, uses Frye extensively in both his most recently published books, on Thoreau and on Melville, and he does so unapologetically. I am reading a book on Poe right now–admittedly published twenty years ago, but that would be at the very apex of high theory–by Charles E. May, the short story theorist, and the basic paradigm he uses is drawn from Anatomy of Criticism. I am also reviewing a book on Victorian poetry at this moment, and again the use of Frye is deep and extensive.

Frye saw his role for other critics and scholars as something to be measured by his usefulness. And for anyone honestly interested in literature and criticism and who reads him without prejudice, he is enormously useful. And this is why his work has lasted: it makes sense, it coheres, it is insightful. It opens up the doors of perception and cuts away the mind-forged manacles. Not to mention that it`s always a delight to read, unlike the portentous grandiloquence of so many other critical theorists, Bloom among them.

Frye comes up with a great way of describing such prose style in one of his notebooks. The entry concerns, in fact, Frye`s feeling that he was old and out of fashion, but also his suspicion that the new wave of theory was long on cleverness, and short on insight.

I am old and on the shelf now, and much that is going on I no longer understand. I’m reading Samuel Delaney, an sf [science fiction] writer interested in semiotics, and he begins with a sentence from Julia Kristeva I can no more understand than I could eat a lobster with its shell on. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from masticating and ruminating such sentences, but I`d like to think (or perhaps only my ego would) that my greater simplicity came from a deeper level than the labyrinth of the brain. (CW 5: 61-62)

Note the introspection and examination of conscience here–the questioning of possible egotistical motivation. The next entry runs:

Except that my ego has also intruded into my writing and caused me to write nonsense. My adversary has not, like Job’s, written a book [Job 31: 35], but he’s written IN all my books, and not always on the margins. I’d like to write one book free of the ego before I go. I also wish my clearest intervals of thought weren’t accompanied by laziness and selfishness.

If Frye could castigate himself for his laziness and selfishness, what terrible Dantean afterlife awaits the rest of us? Sorry to beat a dead horse, but this defines for me the problem I have with Bloom: his ego keeps getting in the way; any possible insight he might have is smothered by it. He became a lunatic of one idea, and it wasn’t even a very good idea to start with: a strange amalgam of Nietzschean will to power and Freudian castration anxiety. As Christopher asks in his comments (here and here), how does this obsession with the power struggle between poetic geniuses help us understand literature better? The letter in the LRB Christopher refers us to is even more telling: it demonstrates the speciousness of Bloom’s “knee-jerk” interpretive procedures. It is really no better when he is dealing with literary texts written in English and not making obvious errors in translating Hebrew. You can’t trust the man.

Perhaps, Jonathan, you might explain in more detail why you find Boom so useful. The post-Anxiety of Influence Bloom, that is (he actually did valuable work when he saw himself as a Romantics scholar and still regarded Frye as his mentor.)

The Scholar’s Anxiety

It is no secret that I have written about Harold Bloom and often enough try to provide some balance when his name is invoked here at The Educated Imagination. Professor Bloom has always been generous and reading Professor Bloom has always been productive for me. And herein lies the problem: I am a PhD Student at the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. The Centre for Comparative Literature, as many likely know, was at one time and in sense still is the home of high theory. One need only look so far as the post of the Visiting Northrop Frye Professor of Literary Theory, which was initiated in 1977 and Fredric Jameson was the first academic to hold this post. Following Jameson, the Centre was visited by: Paul Ricoeur, Robert Weimann, Barbara Hernstein-Smith, Mieke Bal, Edward Said, Sander L. Gilman, Julia Kristeva, Charles Taylor, L. M. Findlay, Tillotama Rajan, Emily Apter, Carol Mavor, and current Franco Moretti, who is teaching a course called “The Bourgeois.” Moreover, just about every major influential theorist has, at one time or another, passed through the Centre for Comparative Literature. Indeed, for students who come to the Centre, these times seem like memories and myths of a time lost. The Centre for Comparative Literature has also been home to every Canadian President of the Modern Language Association. And, recently as the Centre’s homepage announces, “Professor John Zilcosky was recently elected President of the Literary Theory Committee of the International Comparative Literature Association.”

The Centre for Comparative Literature is, in a sense, the centre for theory; at least this is the image that the Centre presents for itself.

Theory is essential to Comparative Literature. But, what does the scholar do who prefers not to read Derrida and instead prefers Bloom (Harold or Allan)? Or, how does one approach Northrop Frye at the Centre (after all, to date, only two or three “Frygians” have held the Visiting Professorship: Alvin Lee and Jonathan Hart, and, though to a lesser degree—less declared more influenced—David Damrosch)? Theorists, writers, critics like Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, Frank Kermode, Stanley Fish, M. H. Abrams, William Empson, canonical voices in their time, are now part of a time gone by. These masterful critics, for they all were and are masterful, are no longer a part of the mainstream of literary theory and criticism.

So what does the scholar of today do if that scholar is riddled by the anxiety of admitting that he or she finds people like Frye, or the Blooms, or Abrams, or Empson more engaging and more productive to his or her literary pursuits than the voices of “high” theory?

As much as I appreciate the critiques of Harold Bloom that are often enough advanced on this site, I have to reluctantly admit that I hear similar critiques aimed at Northrop Frye. Are these critiques true? Probably not. But they are common enough that we are reminded over and over again of Terry Eagleton’s infamous question: “Who now reads Frye?”  The question, perhaps, contains the answer. Those of us who read theory, read what is “now” called theory, if we read Frye we are not reading the “now” of theory, which is to say, we are not reading what is now available, now considered au courant.  The theorists that I most often turn to are hopelessly not part of the “now” of theory; instead, they are part of a generation once removed, their time in the “now” was before the rise of theory, before the theory boom, before the Centre for Comparative Literature.

Indeed, the scholar’s anxiety is probably a balance between reading enough of the now to appear cognizant of what is going on in the world of literary theory and reading enough to satisfy the reader’s search for a theoretical approach that works and still resides in the literary.

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.”

Video of the Day: “I am going to grad school in English”


There is not much to add to this wry and wintry little video.  It expresses a truth that can just barely be rendered as satire, and a lot of people may find themselves squirming uncomfortably.  The Humanities are under siege like never before.  Not “relevant,” certainly not career stream, and, frankly, priced out the market.  Who is going to run up a debt of tens of thousands of dollars to get a degree in a subject few people care about, and, it needs to be said, is taught in a way that hardly recognizes the subject is in fact literature?

But it wasn’t always so and certainly does not need to be so now.  Here is Frye in a 1979 interview talking about the enduring imaginative value of literature in its social context.  In the background you can unmistakably hear the post-modernist tide rising and beginning to flow under the door:

My own interests have always been centred upon literature itself, upon what might be call the social context of literature, its real function in society.  I was educated in the authentic philistine tradition: literature was something you only concerned yourself with after the day’s work, that is, after you’d earned your living and had success.  Literature was a luxury article, a thing one could easily do without, an amusement to be cultivated only after the real problems had been resolved.  However, when I started to study a truly primitive culture, for example, the culture of the Inuit, a culture in which their problems of survival of food, and of shelter, are very serious and direct, I noted that both poetry and the poetic tradition were for them of vital importance.  The more primitive the society, the more important poetry is for its survival.  In more contemporary societies, complex and sophisticated as they are, literature and life are suffocated under a vast weight of false priorities.

So I decided to study the original functions of literature in order to discover what literature can still do for us today.  In fact, I think an individual participates in society principally through his or her imagination.  In the last hundred years there has been a fracture between appearance and reality, between language and reality.  In the Middle Ages, this division — or fracture — did not exist: symbol and reality, language and reality, were one and the same.  You just have to think of the “realism” of Thomas Aquinas.  However, from Rousseau, Marx, and Freud, we have learned not to trust appearances: we’ve learned to look for the reality which is hidden behind the facade of society and of language.  We have learned to refuse to believe the myths imposed by the authorities because they are patently false and absurd.  The collapse of the myths which make society and authority cohesive has, in turn, provoked a collapse of commitment and faith.  Now it seems to me that literature can help us to disover, behind and beyond the various facades offered by society, the real sources and structures of our personal and collective imagination, and thus of commitment and faith.

So literature itself has always been at the centre of my interests, and that makes me somewhat rare among contemporary literary critics.  Much interesting progress in recent literary criticism, in fact, has come from nonliterary fields, from sectors such as linguistics, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and so on.  Critics such as Roland Barthes, who adopt the conceptual instruments from these sectors, often stray from literature and from criticism — in the narrow sense of the word — towards those other parallel fields.  But I have remained centred on literature–on its role in the creation and transmission of our personal and collective imagination.  (CW 24, 455-6)

(Thanks to the superlative Amanda Etches-Johnson for the tip on the video.)

Frye and The Critical Path

In Bob’s announcement yesterday on the posting in the Denham Library of Frye’s previously unpublished letters to his secretary Jane Welch, he includes this tidbit:

[The Critical Path] is the first book since the Anatomy of Criticism that I’ve actually written, i.e., that hasn’t been a series of public lectures.  It’s also a very important book.  I probably won’t live to see it recognized as such, but you may.

I thought I might post on this and explore the reasons why Frye regarded this work as so important — and why its importance might not be immediately recognized.  But then I discovered that Bob Imre Salusinszky had already outlined as much in his introduction to volume 17 of the Collected Works:

In The Critical Path, in 1971, Frye talks about a “myth of concern” as comprising “everything that most concerns its society to know” and as functioning to “hold society together, so far as words are can help to do this” (36). This, then, is the equivalent in Frye’s thinking to the New Historicism focus on ideology.  But, for Frye, literature is not the same as concern: “it displays the imaginative possibilities of concern” (98).  Much later, in Words with Power, published in the same year as “Varieties of Eighteenth Century Sensibility,” Frye develops this discussion into a dialectic of “primary concern” — those things that concern all peoples in all societies at all times — and “secondary concern,” the ideological preoccupations of specific societies at specific historical moments: and literature is where secondary and primary concern are brought into relationship (42-3).  These reflections are where Frye’s veer sharply away from both the literary Marxism he engaged in the first quarter of his career, and the New Historicism he confronted in the final quarter.  It is in maintaining the distinction between an ideology and a myth that Frye’s criticism preserves the multicultural component that A.C. Hamilton has suggested will give it permanence in “an increasingly globalized world.” (CW 17, xxv)

To which I can only add that the inability of a whole generation of literary scholars to maintain a distinction between ideology and myth is at the root of the problems literary criticism now faces, including its steady decline in influence upon the general reading public.  In our current post-post-structuralist age, scholars tend only to talk to one another in a rarefied language only they understand.  But much of this is no more than what Frye calls the “squirrel’s chatter” of specialized scholarship.  He knew better than most that, because literature belongs to everybody, literary criticism belongs to everybody as well and can be written in a way that is accessible to anybody, as surely as every literary work is available to every reader who cares to engage it.  What makes literature accessible –and ought to make literary criticism equally accessible — is the universality of primary concern and literature’s unique ability to explore its imaginative possibilities.  As Frye puts it in Words with Power, any work of literature will reflect the secondary ideological concerns of its time, but it will also place those ideological concerns in the context of “making a living, making love, and struggling to stay free and alive.”  And that’s something everyone can understand.  We can only hope that literary scholarship will recognize sooner rather than later what Frye could already lucidly articulate forty years ago.

Harold Bloom


Today is Harold Bloom’s birthday (born 1930).

Bloom has said a lot about Frye over the years, not all of it good or even consistent, but today let’s go with this one:

Frye is surely the major literary critic in the English language . . . . a kind of Miltonic figure.  He is certainly the largest and most crucial critic in the English language since the divine Walter [Pater] and the divine Oscar [Wilde]; he really is that good.

Cited in Robert D. Denham, Northrop Frye Unbuttoned (309).


Frye in a letter to Bloom dated 23 January 1969, responding to Bloom’s still developing theory about the “anxiety of influence”:

You don’t say much about the general direction or scope of your book.  If you mean influence in the more literal sense of the transmission of thought and imagery and the like from an earlier poet to later one, I should think that this was simply something that happens, and might be a source either of anxiety or of release from it, depending on circumstances and temperament.  But of course it is true that a great poet’s maturity bring with it a growing sense of isolation, of the kind one feels in Yeats’s Last Poems, Stevens’ The Rock, and perhaps even Blake’s Job series.  I should very much like to hear more about the book and about your progress with it. (Northrop Frye, Selected Letters, 1934-1991, edited by Robert D. Denham, 101)

Frye in a letter to John E. Grant dated 20 May 1975, responding to Grant’s apprehensions about Bloom’s A Map of Misreading:

I am disappointed with Harold’s book: it seems to me such a perverse application of a quite sound critical principle.  You are quite right using the word “anxieties” about him: I’m afraid they’re almost on the point of taking him over. (Selected Letters, 174)

Frye in a letter to Morton D. Paley dated 17 January 1978:

Thanks very much for your offprint of your review of Harold Bloom. I hope it isn’t too arrogant for me to think that I represent Bloom’s chief anxiety of influence; in any case he seems to me to be increasingly isolating himself from the general critical condition, and I find his books progressively less rewarding.  (Selected Letters, 201)

Despite this growing misgiving, however, Frye recommended Bloom for the MacArthur Fellowship (otherwise known at the “genius grant”), which Bloom received in 1985.  (Selected Letters, 262)

The Function of Criticism at the Present Time?


The July/August issue of the Walrus has a piece called “The Long Decline” by André Alexis.  In it, he argues that there’s been a marked degeneration of criticism in popular fora.  He suggests, strikingly, that Frye’s work was one of the principal “catalysts” against which critics reacted to move away from taxonomy to  personal opinions and something more akin to the stock market of authors’ worth.  The attack  Alexis makes is in some ways predictable — there has been a marked decline in both the quantity and the quality of mainstream book reviewing — and in other ways fascinating.  Among other questions Alexis raises, we might ask is John Metcalf really the primary culprit in the changes in Canadian criticism?  Is James Wood’s How Fiction Works a way forward out of a criticism too limited to individual assessments of worth?  Has Alexis captured something of what the anti-Frye reaction is all about?  I think this piece might stimulate our own debate.

Jean O’Grady: Re-Valuing Value


This is Jean O’Grady’s first post — and the first paper to be added to our new Frye Festival Archive in the Frye Journal.  Jean is the associate editor of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye, published by University of Toronto Press.  She gave this paper at the Frye Festival in Moncton in 2007. An expanded version of it appears in Northrop Frye: New Directions From Old, published by University of Ottawa Press.

Sir Edward Elgar, composer of sublime symphonies, concertos, and choral works, found it infuriating to be almost universally identified as the author of the Pomp and Circumstance marches. I suspect that Frye found it similarly irksome, after the publication of his Anatomy of Criticism in 1957, to be known, not for having mightily mapped the literary universe, but as the critic who said that critics shouldn’t make value judgments. Of course he had made it clear that he was talking about the academic critic, the theorist of literature, and not the reviewer in the local newspaper, but still his assertion had been found highly controversial. The polemical introduction to the Anatomy had actually made two points which kept coming back to haunt Frye: first, that criticism was, or should be, a science; and second, that the critic’s function was not to say whether a work of literature was good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, but to tell us what sort of work it was. The two points are in fact related, since Frye was trying to move away from the stereotype of the critic as a gifted amateur of exquisite discrimination who journeyed among the masterpieces, poking disdainfully at the second-rate with his gold cane. Instead, he proposed a survey of all the literature that has been written, highbrow or popular, in fashion or out of fashion, in order to map out its genres, types, and archetypes: this was a structure of knowledge that, just like the sciences and social sciences, could be taught and that each scholar could help to build up. As Frye said in The Well-Tempered Critic, “Without the possibility of criticism as a structure of knowledge, culture . . . would be forever condemned to a morbid antagonism between the supercilious refined and the resentful unrefined” (136).

I first read the Anatomy as a student, in 1962, and I can hardly tell you how exciting and liberating this notion was, along of course with the Anatomy‘s actual demonstration of archetypal patterns, of plot shapes that repeated themselves from Spenser to Harlequin romances, and of the unsuspected interrelations among works. Literature was so much richer and more fascinating when one could start to make connections rather than worrying about one’s possibly bad taste! The book opened up wide vistas of intellectual adventure in my chosen field, and made me feel like a participant in and contributor to a glorious endeavour.

The inclusiveness of the Anatomy, its openness to works of popular literature or of dubious morality, should surely endear Frye to the various types of postmodernist, feminist, or postcolonial critics, who complain that the dominant group or class has defined a “canon” that unfairly excludes some works or makes them marginal. Frye was precisely against singling out what he called a “selected tradition” of great works, which would inevitably turn out to have been written by dead white males. No narrow moral criteria apply in the Anatomy, which contends that “morally the lion lies down with the lamb. Bunyan and Rochester, Sade and Jane Austen, . . . all are equally elements of a liberal education” (14). As Frye told Imre Salusinsky in an interview, “The real, genuine advance in criticism came when every work of literature, regardless of its merit, was seen to be a document of potential interest, or value, or insight into the culture of the age”.

Value, as Frye expressed it in this early stage, resides in literature as a whole. As we read, we absorb an imaginative pattern of apocalyptic or demonic imagery and of narratives that fall into the four basic types of comedy, tragedy, romance, or irony; each individual poem or work helps to fill in or reinforce the overall pattern. As Frye put it in The Educated Imagination, “Whatever value there is in studying literature, cultural or practical, comes from the total body of our reading, the castle of words we’ve built, and keep adding new wings to all the time” (39). This total pattern, “the range of articulate human imagination as it extends from the height of imaginative heaven to the depth of imaginative hell” (EI, 44), is what Frye calls “the revelation of man to man”. Such a verbal universe, built up equally by Biblical epics and the most run-of-the-mill adventure stories, provides a model or goal for humankind’s work, thus giving literature a vital role in the building up of civilization.

Continue reading

Nicholas Graham: Myth and Metaphor


Responding to Bob Denham’s post

I would like to suggest that myth and metaphor are a higher form of question and answer.

Myth and metaphor operate on the level of Vico’s priority of poetry, the first level of language, and also the second level of language which is oratory.

Question and answer operate on the third level of language which is philosophical and on the lowest or forth level of language which is scientific or descriptive.

Myth and metaphor are what make poetry and oratory centripetal. Question and answer are what make philosophy and science centrifugal.

These two worlds of a) Myth and Metaphor & b) Question and Answer are perhaps what Blake had in mind when he wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

If we consider what makes Frye different from Derrida it is the fact that Derrida is a philosopher, using a different and constricted form of language; and the problem in the 70s was that the people who took over the English Departments were operating on the level of philosophy or the third level of language. What makes Frye shine, and stand apart, is the fact that he continued to opeate in terms of myth and metaphor: “to guard the vision in the time of trouble.” Blake’s Jerusalem. (See Michael Happy’s incisive article, “The Reality of the Created: From Deconstruction to Recreation”, Frye and the Word.)

Constructive philosophers like Leo Strauss and Bernard Lonergan, Gadamer, Heidegger, etc., provide accounts of the roots of our degraded culture and all agree with Heidegger that the only solution to our problems is to learn that on this earth we must learn to dwell poetically. But that is as far as they go. They do not rise to the higher level and operate, as Frye can, within the language of myth of metaphor.

Philosophical accounts of our culture are very helpful, if limited verbally, in attempting to recreate our culture. Lonergan provides us with an analysis of the levels of consciousness in terms four imperatives at four levels: Be Attentive, Intelligent, Reasonable, Responsible in his book, Method In Theology. This is hard to contradict unless we want to propose and promote their opposite. And he even devotes an entire book to examining the act of insight in his book, Insight, where we find a section on “The Longer Cycle of Decline”. This along with what Leo Strauss calls “The Waves of Modernity”, are what Frye terms, at a higher level, accounts of the roots of “single vision.”

The act of insight is what connects a question with an answers; questions evoke insights and without insights our answers are mere empty concepts.

An analysis of our culture in terms of myth and metaphor is what Frye offers us, but the question that remains to be examined is what connects myths and metaphors? It is the act of vision. So we must turn our attention to both the act of insight and the act of vision to find the double vision that our society so badly needs. Rollo May entitles his book The Cry for Myth, and James Joyce in the Circe chapter (15) of Ulysses calls our attention to the “intellectual imagination”.

Ironically, it was Rudolph Bultmann (student of Heidegger) who wrote so much about “demythologizing” who also made popular the word, kerygma, which is so central to Frye, who lifts it from the language level of philosophy and theology, and places it squarely in the context of and at the language level of anagogy, poetry and rhetoric.

As our individual acts of insights build up into intelligible emanations or philosophical theories over a lifetime, so our acts of vision, (which we express in poems, paintings, and love songs) create and recreate the visionary emanation that we identify with at the moment of death.

Similarly, a society lives or dies according to its vision. Such a vision is expressed, through the process of creation and recreation, in the Hebrew and Greek Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and through what Blake calls his infernal or Bible of Hell.

Criticism in Society


Imre Salusinszky in his new role as columnist for The Australian

Imre Salusinszky’s Criticism in Society stands above all other similar collections of interviews with contemporary critics.  Here is a footnote to Russell’s post, adapted from something I wrote in the introduction to the Collected Works Anatomy.

In Imre Salusinszky’s Criticism in Society, an exemplary collection of interviews with Frye, Derrida, and seven others in the pantheon of the literary establishment (Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Frank Kermode, Edward Said, Barbara Johnson, Frank Lentricchia, and J. Hillis Miller), it is clear that Frye remained an informing critical presence in the late 1980s in the consciousness of most of these critics. (Outside of Derrida, Barbara Johnson is the only interviewee who does not refer to Frye.)  The interviews begin with Derrida and Frye, and those that follow often play off against the two grand masters.  Each critic read the previous interviews and thus had the opportunity to comment on what had come before. [Note that most of these interviews can be read at the above link to the text.]  This, along with the comments each critic (save Derrida) is asked to give about Wallace Stevens’s “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself,” gives a coherence to the collection. [An animated video of Steven’s reading the poem is included after the jump.] The first interviewee, following the conversations with Derrida and Frye, is Harold Bloom, whose influence of Frye is substantial and longstanding.

Harold Bloom read Fearful Symmetry shortly after it was published, and he reports that it “ravished my heart away.  I thought it was the best book I’d ever read about anything.  I must have read it a hundred times between 1947 and 1950, probably intuitively memorized it, and will never escape the effect of it.”  Bloom adds that he “wouldn’t want to go read it now because I’m sure I would disagree with all of it “Criticism in Society 62).  In his foreword to the Anatomy, Bloom remarks that Frye’s view of poetic influence was, as mentioned earlier, a matter of “temperament and circumstances.”  This is a reference to correspondence the two had in 1969 about Bloom’s theory of “the anxiety of influence.”  Bloom had written Frye: “I can understand why you do not see Poetic Influence as an anxiety or melancholy, as I do, because of what you call the myth of concern” (letter of 18 January 1969).  Frye replied: “If you mean influence in the more literal sense of transmission of thought and imagery and the like from earlier poet to later one, I should think that was simply something that happens, and might be a source either of anxiety or of release from it, depending on circumstances and temperament.  But of course it is true that the great poet’s maturity brings with it a growing sense of isolation, of the kind one feels in Yeats’ Last Poems, Stevens’ The Rock, and perhaps even Blake’s Job series” (letter of 23 January 1969).  Bloom then replied, “I don’t, as you say, mean influence in any literal sense, since I agree that it simply happens, and temperament alone governs whether it causes anxiety or not.  I think that I am studying what your other remark indicates, the deepening isolation of the strong poet’s maturity, particularly as one feels it in the later stages, in Paradise Regained & Samson, in Wordsworth from 1805 on, in Jerusalem, as well as in late Stevens and Yeats” (letter of 27 January 1969).  These remarks suggest that Frye did not at all reject Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence because influence was a matter of “circumstances and temperament”: they agree that anxiety has something to do with the mature poet’s isolation.  Bloom is, therefore, very selective in his Foreword to the Anatomy about what Frye had conveyed to him in their correspondence.

In A Map of Misreading Bloom remarks that Frye’s myths of freedom and concern are a Low Church version of Eliot’s Anglo-Catholic myth of Tradition and the Individual Talent, but that such an understanding of the relation of the individual to tradition is a fiction. “The fiction,” Bloom says, “is a noble idealization, and as a lie against time will go the way of every noble idealization.  Such positive thinking served many purposes during the sixties, when continuities, of any kind, badly required to be summoned, even if they did not come to our call.  Wherever we are bound, our dialectical development now seems invested in the interplay of repetition and discontinuity, and needs a very different sense of what our stance is in regard to literary tradition” (A Map of Misreading 30).  This remark contains more than a hint of the anxiety of influence.  But regardless of whether one agrees with Bloom’s projection about what our development “seems” to involve, it is mistaken to suggest that Frye has failed to observe the “interplay between repetition and discontinuity.”  In words that could stand as a motto for theories of misprision, he says that “the recreating of the literary tradition often has to proceed . . . through a process of absorption followed by misunderstanding” (The Secular Scripture 163).  Even if Frye’s ultimate allegiances are to a continuous intellectual and imaginative universe, to order rather than chaos, to romance rather than irony, he cannot be accused of having turned his back upon the discontinuities in either literature or life.  Nor should we let Bloom’s remark deceive us into thinking that in the 1960s Frye began suddenly to summon continuities as a bulwark against the changing social order.  The central principles in Frye’s universe remained constant over the years.

The history of Bloom’s relationship to Frye is one of attraction and repulsion.  Bloom can say, on the one hand

To compare lesser things with greater, my relation to Frye’s criticism is Pater’s relation to Ruskin’s criticism, or Shelley’s relation to Wordsworth’s poetry: the authentic precursor, no matter how one tries to veil it or conceal it both from oneself and from others.  Frye is surely the major critic in the English language.  Now that I am mature, and willing to face my indebtedness, Northrop Frye does seem to me . . . a kind of Miltonic figure.  He is certainly the largest and most crucial literary critic in the English language since the divine Walter [Pater] and the divine Oscar [Wilde]: he really is that good.  I have tried to find an alternative father in Mr Burke, who is a charming fellow, but I don’t come from Burke: I come out of Frye. (Criticism in Society 62)

On the other hand, Bloom never abandoned his quarrel with his critical father.  In the Salusinszky interview, he reaffirms the statement he made about Frye’s “myth of concern” being a Low Church version of Eliot, though he says he would “phrase it a little more genteelly now, out of respect for Mr. Frye” (ibid., 63).  Moreover, Frye was never agonistic enough for Bloom (“Frye may be the first great critic in English literature whose pugnacity is diverted to other purposes”), and Frye’s view of the common reader and of democratizing the critical process always grated against Bloom’s elitist sensibility:

Mr Frye has, thank heavens, nothing in common with the Marxists, pseudo-Marxists, neo-Marxists, und so weiter, but like them he has idealized the whole question of what might be called––to use his own trope for it––the extension of the franchise in the realm of literature and literary study.  Idealization is very moving: it is also very false.  It allows profound self-deceptions, at both the individual and the societal level.  Literature does not make us better, it does not make us worse; the study of it does not make us better, it does not make us worse.  It only confirms what we are already, and it cannot authentically touch us at all unless we begin by being very greatly gifted. (ibid., 58)

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