Category Archives: Frye & Contemporary Criticism

Criticism and Society


While looking for a quotation in David Lodge’s 1990 book After Bakhtin, I rediscovered his review of Imre Salusinszky’s Criticism in Society, which is reprinted as the last essay in After BakhtinCriticism and Society is a collection of interviews with Northrop Frye, Jacques Derrida, and a group of influential critics at American universities, recorded by Salusinszky in the mid-1980s, at the moment when deconstruction was beginning to give way to schools of criticism more concerned with ideology and social identity.  Some readers of this blog will know Imre Salusinszky’s work on Frye; he left academe some time ago to work for the newspaper The Australian and is now a well-known political and cultural commentator in Australia.

Criticism in Society came out the year that I defended my PhD, and I remember that it was read avidly by everyone with an interest in literary theory.  I’m sure most readers were like myself in not fully taking in the prominent position that Frye was given in the book: we were mostly too interested in what the stars of Yale, Columbia, and Duke had to say.  Lodge sums up Salusinszky’s premise in his own words as follows: “since literary criticism was virtually monopolized by the universities, it has become of all-absorbing interest to its practitioners and a matter of indifference or incomprehension to society at large.”

Lodge’s review is particularly resonant at the moment, as the humanities in the university seem to be returning to the same austerity conditions that prevailed during the 1980s.  He observes that among the critics interviewed, “only Frye and Derrida . . . mention the problem of obtaining public funds for the humanities.  If Mr Salusinszky had interviewed a batch of British academic critics at the same time he would have heard about little else.”

Lodge quotes Frank Lentricchia defending socially engaged criticism from an attack by Harold Bloom, then observes:

But there is a certain factitiousness about the counter-attack, betrayed by the familiar ‘Harold’.  Nearly all the interviewers refer to each other, even when expressing strong disagreement, by first names – Harold, Geoffrey, Jacques, etc. (though not ‘Northrop’ – in this as in other respects, Frye is the odd man out.  I wonder if anyone dares to call him Northrop).  This style of naming again reminds one of the world of sport, where top athletes who compete fiercely against each other on the football field or tennis court share a kind of professional camaraderie at other times, a mutual respect based on their sense of belonging to a professional élite.

I wonder, however, whether criticism or theory has such an absorbing interest even for aspiring practitioners today?  Are there nine critics today whose words in interview would be eagerly perused – and if not, is that a good or a bad thing?  Has the pendulum swung back to interest in the creative writer?  Perhaps we would rather read interviews with – to pick a few names randomly – Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Nino Ricci, Martin Amis, or Lorrie Moore.

Frye’s “Relevance”


Here is a recent comment from Glenna Sloan:

Frye and Bloom? It would never occur to me to consider them together. My interest in Frye’s work is pragmatic and begins with the Anatomy and other writings. The interest centers on his views on education which are immensely important to me and have been the basis of graduate courses in education that I have developed and taught at Queens College, CUNY for decades. At the Frye symposium in Ottawa in 2007 we heard papers about Frye and Bakhtin, Frye in relation to other scholars. Provacative, perhaps. But Frye is in a class by himself. Let’s have more comment on what he had to say.

Earlier posts on this blog have recommended or suggested just the opposite of what Glenna is saying here: that we have to bring Frye into dialogue with current criticism and theory if he is to be made relevant again. But the term relevance simply means trendy, the idea that Frye’s thought can only be vindicated by its relevance to contemporary concerns. So I tend to be very much of Glenna’s school of thought. It is in fact easy to make Frye relevant to contemporary concerns, since his theory of literature and culture already includes them as modes of criticism and theory that have–to use a trendy term–”always already” been there. Much of contemporary criticism and theory are just recurrences of the same old fallacies. That is why the polemical introduction to Anatomy of Criticism has never dated: the only thing that has changed are the proper names. Literary and cultural criticism keeps looking outside itself for inspiration, and we end up with a host of historians, sociologists, and psychologists manqués masquerading as literary critics and scholars.

In a similar way, Frye always astonishes me by the way in which he has so much to say about current events today. Here, for example, is Frye on Obama:

One diachronic illusion is the democratic election ritual: the pretence that the new leader will begin afresh. Actually, every leader inherits a situation; almost everything he can do is prescribed for him. The head of a great power, like the President of the U.S., has a considerable potential power of destruction, but relatively little chance for creativity or innovation. Again, many things are technologically feasible which will not be done without a sufficiently powerful economic or political compulsion to do them: hence the sense of science-fiction unreality in so many gazes into the future. (para. 359, Notebook 12; CW 9: 219)

Richter, Alter, Frye


The opening panel of R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis, translated by Robert Alter

Thanks to David Richter for the engaging discussion of the last couple of days. I hope I am not belaboring matters by “piling on,” but I wanted to address some points that I believe are worth clarifying.

Concerning Alter’s catching Frye in his mistranslation of the word that is translated as “vanity” in the King James Bible: Frye does not say the word means fog; he says that the word “has a metaphorical kernel of fog, mist, or vapour” (143) –Alter translates it as mist, vapour, breath – and that “[i]t thus acquires a derived sense of ‘emptiness,’ the root meaning of the Vulgate’s vanitas.” Frye also notes that the word is echoed in James in the New Testament. The passage in James is: “Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” The difference between fog and mist is the density of the vapor, a fairly hazy matter. Frye does go on in his discussion of Ecclesiastes to speak of “dense fog,” but this is a page later and in a different context: “We see by means of light and air: if we could see air we could see nothing else, and would be living in the dense fog that is one of the root words of the word ‘vanity’” (144). So actually, it hardly qualifies as a mistranslation and it does seem like quibbling on Alter’s part. Alter hardly skewers him, except perhaps in his own mind; he is skewering a phantom, since he doesn’t bother providing a fair representation of what Frye says in the first place.

As for “overarching unity,” Alter makes the very same point as Frye about the Bible’s unity and coherence in his discussion of allusion in The World of Biblical Literature: he writes that for all the Bible’s “diversity, there is also a kind of elastic consensus that expresses itself in certain shared values and concepts, accompanied by a shared set of images, idioms, model figures, and exemplary stories. . . . certain notions of God, man, nature, and history that came to define national consciousness were locked into these habits of allusion. God’s sovereign power seen as a transformation of primal chaos into order and the liberation from Egyptian bondage seen as the great sign of Israel’s historical election were so central that writers of the most disparate aims and backgrounds repeatedly rang the changes on these ideas as they had been classically formulated in Genesis and Exodus, respectively. Allusion, then, becomes an index of the degree to which ancient Hebrew literature was on its way from corpus to canon, even if certain later institutional notions of canonization would have been alien to it. For the prominent play of allusion requires that the sundry texts be put together, taken together, seen, eve in in their sharp variety, as an overarching unity.”

Alter of course downplays this unity (he admits it but resists the dynamic imaginative logic of the allusiveness he is discussing), and that is fair enough, since it is not what Alter is particularly interested in as a realist or mimetic critic (and he is a very good one, there is no doubt). But he does see the Bible as having, even in its “sharp variety,” “an overarching unity.”

Also, why such a denigration of typology? The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, as Frye points out, “is much more genuinely typological without the New Testament than with it. There are, in the first place, events in the Old Testament that are types of later events recorded also within the Old Testament. . . . For Judaism the chief antitypes of Old Testament prophecy are, as in Christianity, the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of Israel, though of course the contexts differ” (102). Where else did the Jews who wrote the Gospels get the idea in the first place? They got it from their own Bible. Biblical typology and narrative are the basis of the West’s dialectical and revolutionary sense of history, and it didn’t come from Christian myth alone, but originally from Judaic myth. The Christian Bible and the way it presents itself to be read is not illegitimate simply because it includes as part of its canon the Hebrew scriptures and reads them in a different way and according to a different typology from that of the Hebrew Bible.

Nor is Frye a biblical scholar who can be readily accused of reading the Bible through Christian doctrine. As he points out, quite to the contrary his own Methodist roots gave him a strong sense of the Bible as story, as narrative, not as doctrine. His primary reading of the Bible is a reading of the King James Bible, precisely because he is interested in the Bible in its own right as an imaginative and “kerygmatic” structure, but also as a mythological and prophetic language of imagery and story that has deeply informed Western literature. Why should such an approach be scorned or dismissed out of hand, when it can give us deeper understanding of that culture and its literature?

I can certainly understand why one might want to call a critic like Bloom to task (and Alter does a very good job of it in The World of Biblical Literature), given the erratic and idiosyncratic nature of his criticism. But why make Frye, a critic and thinker of genuine genius and consistent and systematic interpretive principles and practice, the subject of the same ill treatment? Why is his form of criticism – which is in fact the farthest thing from free association – not as legitimate as the other biblical critics and theorists mentioned in your course outline, all of whose approaches are bound to be limited in one way or another? Some of the other critics you mention – but certainly not all – may have better Hebrew but, compared to Frye, their grasp of narrative structures and metaphorical imagery is rudimentary at best.

David Richter: More on Frye and Bloom

Bible cartoon for blog

Both Frye and Bloom have written some interesting and even wise things about specific Biblical texts, and I hope my course does them justice, but both of them have a “system” for reading literature into which Biblical texts are fitted, sometimes in Procrustes’ manner, by main force, and both of them have the habit, common with us professors, of pushing their commentary beyond their specific knowledge base of history and language.

The Book of J is an embarrassment even to those who find Bloom’s other books admirable because he grounds his commentary on a grotesque translation by David Rosenberg rather than on a more reliable English version (the RSV would have been far better) or on the Hebrew original, which he evidently cannot read since he makes such elementary mistakes. His theory of the authorship of the J narratives says more about Bloom himself and his quarrel with the feminists than about the narratives. But I find his analysis of Yahweh as an uncanny character in some of the J stories genuinely interesting.

Whenever Frye alludes to the Hebrew original he is accurate more often than not (his batting average is way ahead of Harold Bloom’s); his mistranslation of hevel as “fog,” for which Robert Alter skewered him is not a typical mistake.

And there is nothing wrong with his cyclical vision of Biblical history except that any narrative that includes a number of periods of independence and prosperity alternating with periods of oppression and want can be made into a set of cycles. (Frye wasn’t the only one to employ “circular” reasoning like this: a different version of Frye’s cycles on p. 171 of The Great Code appears in “The Sacred Center,” an early article by the great Biblical scholar Michael Fishbane. And sports writers do it all the time, of course, with their cycles of “winning streaks” and “losing streaks.”)

And I guess I can’t quarrel with the way everything in the Bible seems to be squeezed into the categories of Anatomy of Criticism, since many of those categories sprang in the first place from Frye’s readings of the Bible.

I expect my main problem with Frye is the way he free-associates (or should I say frye-associates) in ways that I simply cannot follow (e.g., Joseph’s “coat of many colors” suggests to Frye that Joseph is a fertility god). Maybe I’m dim but I don’t see the connection, and whether it would disappear if we were to translate ketonet pasim correctly.

In Myth II of The Great Code, Frye gives us a moving analysis of the book of Job, much of the time, but we get sentences like “The reintegration of the human community is followed by the transfiguration of nature, in its humanized pastoral form. One of Job’s beautiful new daughters has a name meaning a box of eye shadow.”

This is not just distracting. The narratives, which are often intricately shaped at the level of incident and the level of language, simply disappear into this network of frye-associations. And Biblical characters, some of whom, like Jacob and David, we can follow from youth through maturity to old age and death, disappear into their other avatars.

Similarly, Frye knows that “ha-satan” in OT narratives like Numbers 22 and Job 1-2 is a servant of the LORD and not His demonic adversary as in Mark 1:13 and elsewhere in the NT, but Frye can’t help conflating them, even though he knows better, and even though it totally distorts the Hebrew narratives.

Anyway, I do want to back-pedal a little from my “whipping boys” quip in the syllabus. Whenever I teach theory, and not just in my Biblical Narratology course, everyone is a hero and everyone is a whipping boy, as we try to see both the powers and the limitations of the method of each critic my students and I read together. It isn’t just Bloom and Frye, we also see Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg and Mieke Bal and Jan Fokkelman in the same critical light, as having questions they can answer and questions they can’t even ask. And I wouldn’t include Bloom and Frye in my syllabus if I didn’t think they had interesting methods and interesting things to say using them.

“Our chief whipping boys will be Harold Bloom and Northrop Frye”

Klapper Hall, home of the English Department, Queens College, CUNY

Klapper Hall, home of the English Department, Queens College, CUNY

Here is an excerpt from an online description of a course on Biblical Narrative taught at Queens College, CUNY.  Joe and I saw it a couple of years ago but then lost track of who was responsible for it.  Jonathan Allan recently came across it and sent it to us:

This course will introduce Biblical narrative, its special characteristics, and some of the various theoretical methods that have been recently used to interpret it, primarily from the two main camps of contemporary narrative theory, the structuralist/semiotic school descended from Gérard Genette and the rhetorical-formalist school descended from the late Wayne C. Booth.  But we will also be looking into feminist, queer, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and postcolonial readings.  Our principle narrative texts will be those in Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Jonah, Mark, and Luke.  The literary critics and narrative theorists whose ideas we will be trying out will start with Erich Auerbach, and include, among others, Frank Kermode, Roland Barthes, Mieke Bal, Phyllis Trible, Terry Eagleton, Meir Sternberg, Robert Alter, Stephen Moore, Avivah Zornberg, Robert Kawashima, and Emmanuel Levinas; our chief whipping boys will be Harold Bloom and Northrop Frye.