Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

Todd Lawson, “Frye and the Koran: Typology, Apocalypse & Epic”

Todd Lawson is professor of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto

In several, scattered places in his later writings, Frye treats the Koran as a text that deserves to be read very carefully as both literature and “more than literature”.  For example, in The Great Code he points out that those who see in the Koran’s version of the story of Mary and the birth of Jesus a confusion of Biblical material have simply got it wrong and are deaf to the music of typological figuration.

The third Sura of the Koran appears to be identifying Miriam and Mary; Christian commentators on the Koran naturally say this is ridiculous, but from the purely typological point of view from which the Koran is speaking, the identification makes good sense. (GC 172, italics added)

Several similar instances demonstrate Frye’s characteristic perspicacity and even unto a text as foreign in cultural presuppositions, form and content as the Koran. I am studying Frye’s relationship with the Koran through both printed and unpublished works where he either explicitly refers to the text or where his remarks on other texts are equally apposite in the case of the Koran. I am also exploring, with the able and valuable assistance of Rebekah Zwanzig (who actually also discovered this blog), the Frye archive to study his marginalia and notes on related texts, such as English translations of the Koran and of Rumi’s poetry.  Results so far suggest that Frye’s faith in the “sacrament of reading” allowed him to develop a remarkably open, if critical, attitude towards the Koran, something in which he was certainly then – and may still well be – ahead of his time.

My interest in Frye’s Koran began in the early ‘80’s when I was working on a PhD thesis at McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies. My subject was a particularly challenging unpublished manuscript of an Arabic Koran commentary. In taking a break, reading the newly published Great Code, I saw that Frye had solved one of the problems that had been eluding me. His discussion of the above-mentioned typological figuration and its persuasive power and efficacy was in fact a revelation and provided a key I had not found elsewhere. When I started teaching at U of T in 1988 I secretly held the hope that I would one day be able to meet the great man and express to him my gratitude for his unbeknownst help. Of course, I also hoped of thus being able to search further the Frygian experience of the Koran. Alas, this meeting never happened. In fact, and in the context of the present research, a rather ironic signal brought the possibility to a clear, cold end . . . it was the evening of January 23, 1991. In those days I was in the habit of listening to the radio about the Gulf War while I worked in the evening in my office at Robarts Library. The bombing of Baghdad — home and scene of the great efflorescence of Arabo-Islamic learning and culture from the 8th to the 13th centuries — had begun five or six days earlier and was commencing apace.  The reports of this massive (and in retrospect perhaps phobic) attack were interrupted on the CBC to announce the passing of Northrop Frye. He had just been there, virtually across the street. Now he was gone. But, it seems, not forever.

Fifteen years later, I decided to have our conversation anyway. Having returned to the University of Toronto from McGill, and encouraged in my general research by a SSHRC award to study the Koran as an example of literary apocalypse, I decided to weave Frye’s very illuminating work into my methodology. In order to be as rigorous as possible about this, I organized two successive, year-long graduate seminars, entitled the Koranic Apocalyptic Imagination, around the above-mentioned later works of Frye, which included the Double Vision. It was as if the students recognized a long lost friend. It is amazing the way these young Islamicists became excited and encouraged by Frye’s remarks about the structure and content of the Bible because they could apply many of them to their own reading of the Koran, a text which for many of the students was certainly more than literature. And they also discovered how it was literature as well.

The current project, bringing into some kind of order the various aspects, apparent contradictions and other problems of a Frygian Koran, is meant to be background for a chapter in the eventual monograph on the Koran as apocalypse, a topic that has thus far attracted an astonishing lack of attention. Why this lack of attention? It is an interesting question, but one which I will forbear from addressing here. I look forward to hearing from scholars who may be interested in or actually working on Northrop Frye’s reading of the Koran and his understanding of Islam. I am grateful to Bob Denham for the extremely helpful postings here on Frye and the Koran and for general encouragement. And I am grateful to Michael Happy for passing along my initial note to the blog to Bob and, of course, for all of his hard work and creativity that has gone into this invaluable website.

New Article by Denham: “Frye and Bruno”

Brian Russell Graham, author of the recently published The Necessity of Opposites: The Dialectical Thinking of Northrop Frye, introduces Bob Denham’s latest offering in his “Frye and…” series. This second paper in the series, “Northrop Frye and Giordano Bruno,” is newly posted in the journal. Bob’s earlier paper, “Northrop Frye and Soren Kierkegaard,” can of course be found there too. (Two earlier posts on Bruno can be found here and here.)

When we think of the unity of opposites, at least within a modern context, we automatically think of Hegel, a philosopher with whom Frye engages in his studies on the Bible and literature. But Frye’s early essays and notebooks reveal a fascination with Giordano Bruno’s thoughts on the notion of the coincidentia oppositorum. In this very erudite essay, “Northrop Frye and Giordano Bruno,” Denham, whose work on Frye is always informed by his encyclopedic knowledge of his subject, pinpoints and defines the significance of Bruno for Frye, painstakingly providing us with an entire career’s worth of examples of Frye’s reflections on Bruno’s ideas. Throughout Denham steadily moves towards his conclusion that Frye’s crucial notion of ‘interpenetration’ owes, in part, a debt to the legacy of Bruno.

Brian Russell Graham: “The Necessary Unity of Opposites”

Brian is a graduate of the University of Glasgow. He has written extensively on Frye and has published a number of reviews of the Collected Works. He is an assistant professor at Aalborg University in Denmark.

My monograph on Frye, The Necessary Unity of Opposites, has just been released by the University of Toronto Press. The study deals with each of the main areas of Frye’s work: Blake’s poetry, secular literature, education and work, politics and Scripture. For Frye, the history of ideas is characterized by sets of opposing values which result in repeated cyclical movements in that history. However, Frye’s thinking, I argue, can be thought of as a dialectical, “suprahistorical,” and – in the secular context – “post-partisan.”

In each area of interest, Frye deals with the fact that opposing ideas represent a unity; that is, they are “in agreement” with one another. The nature of the “agreement” is different  in each case: beauty and truth are “in agreement” because they both inhere in Blake’s poetry and, more generally, secular literature; leisure and work are “in agreement” because, complementing one another, both must be incorporated into the life of the individual in society; freedom and equality are “in agreement” because the two are simultaneously achievable in society; belief and vision are “in agreement” because the individual must manifest both in his or her own identity. But, in each case, “agreement,” and therefore unity, characterizes the opposition.

Throughout my study, I contend that it is the thinking of Blake which provides the inspiration for Frye’s dialectical thinking. More specifically, it is Blake’s conceptions of innocence and experience which provide the inspiration for Frye’s characteristic mode of thought.

In part, my study also attempts to explain the appeal of Frye through consideration of the relationship his thinking bears to what I call the ordinary history of ideas, with its political divisions. I conclude my study with a consideration of Frye’s thought in relation to “end-of-history” theses, drawing out the implications of my argument that Frye’s thinking can be described as “suprahistorical.”

A study of Frye as a dialectical thinker. An examination of Frye as a thinker whose ideas can be described as “suprahistorical.” An investigation into the notion that Frye’s thought is “post-partisan.” And a thorough exploration of the nature of Blake’s influence on Frye. In writing The Necessary Unity of Opposites I discovered that these four projects are one in the same, a much-needed fourfold study of Frye, which ideally does justice to each concern.

Prof. Mondo: More Thoughts On “Overrated Writers” — What Lasts?

The Huffington Post published the article on America’s most overrated writers that inspired the National Post’s article previously discussed here at TEI. Having read both articles, I was reminded of a conversation I had with detective fiction grand master Lawrence Block this past Winter.

Block has spent his virtually his entire career (more than sixty books) writing genre fiction, from lesbian porn in his college days to his award-winning series featuring recovering alcoholic PI Matt Scudder. He was the visiting writer here at Mondoville, and as the fan/stalker who did the most to get him here, I escorted him around town, and among other things, we talked about fiction, mainstream and otherwise. He noted that with very few exceptions, almost no one reads the “serious [read mainstream or literary] novelists” of fifty or more years ago. On the other hand, people are still reading and rediscovering the writers of genre fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy, and detective fiction (which was, after all, a favorite of Frye’s.) For that matter, people still read Verne and Doyle, long after such contemporary best sellers as E.D.E.N. Southworth have been consigned to the ash heap of doctoral dissertations.

Meanwhile, bestselling fantasist David Eddings observed that when a writer enters the area of the mythic (as distinct from the self-consciously mythologically allusive), he or she “may as well be peddling dope,” and he meant it as a good thing. These genre novels are highly conventionalized, of course; in the same conversation, Block mentioned that Robert B. Parker (who wrote a dissertation using Frye) described himself as  writing Westerns on a frontier that was paved over, and that the Western itself was a romance.

It’s worth noting that the writers both Posts beat up on are mainstream writers, the sort that Joan Hess described as “writing stuff where nothing much happens to people you didn’t like to begin with.” However, if Block’s observation holds up, it’s the Parkers and Blocks that will continue to engage readers decades from now, and perhaps even a century later, and it may well be because their works tapped into the archetypes and myths in a way that the “serious” writers (and the critics) found to be infra dignitatem. Frye would have understood.

Jeannine M. Pitas: Reaching Beyond the Ivory Tower


“So, what do you do for a living?”

It’s a question that makes me cringe. “I’m a Ph.D. student in comparative literature,” I say. And even though this admission is almost always received positively, I’m still hesitant to tell people.

But now, after two years of study at University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature, I’ve been rethinking this attitude. Why should I be reluctant to tell people what I do? I wouldn’t respond so timidly if I were studying law, or medicine, or engineering. Why should comparative literature – or any discipline in the humanities – be so different?

For many the answer is obvious. Wherever you go, there is a huge demand for doctors, lawyers and engineers. But humanities scholars? What do they contribute? Even though thousands of undergraduate students continue to major in the liberal arts each year, many in society question the value of an education which grants knowledge and critical-thinking skills but little practical vocational training.

Another reason, perhaps, for society’s skepticism toward academics is the archetypical image of the university as an “ivory tower” whose existence has little bearing on the world outside.

After several years spent studying and working in various educational institutions, I’ve come to accept the validity of both these concerns. When I started my undergraduate education at Sarah Lawrence College, a liberal arts school in New York, I knew that I was choosing a rough road. Five years after graduation, many of my old friends are deeply in debt, shuffling from job to job, and still unsure of their place in society.

And after two years of advanced graduate study, in which I occasionally have read opaque, jargon-filled academic articles, I too must question the value of ideas that don’t make it outside of the ivy-covered walls and into the real world.

But all these doubts dissipate whenever I enter a classroom full of undergraduate students.

As a teaching assistant for a class entitled “Ancient and Medieval Literary Modes,” I spent this past year leading 25-person discussions on some of the great works of the literary canon: Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Inferno, among others. As we discussed such topics as the meaning of honour, the nature of familial love, and the age-old question of what constitutes a good life, I dared to hope that my students’ insights would make their way beyond those classroom walls.

I chose to study the humanities because I wanted answers. I wanted to know why people who seem honest turn out to be liars. Why war, violence and injustice persist in every part of the world. I wanted to know how it is that people have overcome the most terrible conditions to fight for human dignity. And I wanted to know how, in this time of global terrorism, economic crisis, continued human rights violations and environmental destruction, we as individuals are supposed to live.

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Sylvia Maultash Warsh: Recreating Frye, Preserving a Legacy


Sylvia Maultash Warsh is the author of the recently published The Queen of Unforgetting.

When I was at the University of Toronto years ago, like many young undergrads, I didn’t know my own mind and somehow ended up in Psychology instead of English.  So though I was a student at U of T, I never had Northrop Frye for a professor. It wasn’t until I had to research the venerable critic for my new novel, The Queen of Unforgetting, that I realized just how much I had missed.

I had good reasons for making Frye a character in my story. I like to set my books in Toronto—my first three are historical mysteries that take place on and around Beverley Street, near the university.  For this book (not a mystery) I needed an academic superstar, and Frye was the obvious choice. My protagonist, a grad student more ambitious than most, needs a supervisor for her thesis. But not just any supervisor. She knows that a Frye protégé will have a good chance at an academic placement when the time comes.  To this end, she chooses a thesis topic that will interest him: E.J. Pratt’s epic poem, Brébeuf and His Brethren.  Pratt was Frye’s mentor and he is pulled in. For my research, I pored over many of Frye’s books and journals; I watched videotaped interviews in which he sits before the camera and gives dazzling little lectures in his famous deadpan.

He doesn’t look the part, but he was a mythic figure in his own time. Sometimes referred to as The Buddha, the shy brilliant scholar had assimilated vast quantities of literature, philosophy, art, and religion. It was this storehouse of knowledge that let him connect disparate ideas and themes into meaningful patterns. His omnivorous reading made it possible for him to cross borders and draw comparisons between cultures, and particularly their literatures.

Our world has shrunk almost beyond imagination since 1969 when Frye founded the Centre for Comparative Literature at U of T. Today’s global realities require, more than ever, broader understanding of the world around us. Through literature we recognize the similarity in the other, the stranger who looks nothing like us but who lives, loves and dies just the same, only defined by a different set of symbols. A centre dedicated to looking outward toward the other is in a unique position to forge cross-cultural and interdisciplinary ties. A university that doesn’t recognize the value of such an enterprise is in the wrong business.

Sign the petition in support of the Centre for Comparative Literature here.

Olga Bazilevica: Studying in Toronto, Learning from Canada


Every time I return to Europe, my friends and family members ask me the same question: “Why exactly did you move to Canada?”  And, as if I hadn’t asked that question  myself often enough, it appears the University of Toronto’s plan to close the Centre for Comparative Literature requires me to account for my decision yet again.

I was born in a small post-Soviet country where the humanities are in a position hardly comparable to the Western world. “Interdisciplinarity” and “theory” are still pretty much foreign concepts and, because I wanted to study comparative literature, I had to go abroad. Germany seemed the most obvious choice. I’d lived in that country for over a year, I was familiar with its people and customs and its university system.  I speak and read both vernacular and academic German. However, this familiarity was actually the reason I didn’t choose Germany, but rather chose the mysterious and terrifying and yet fascinating Canada.

When discussing my choice with my professors (all of them German), I heard many positive things about the Centre for Comparative Literature at U of T, particularly its international reputation which could only enhance the opportunity for a budding Comp Lit scholar to obtain significant international experience. Indeed, the wish to explore a new approach to comparative literature and new ways of thinking was probably the most compelling reason for me to choose Canada and Toronto – I was fighting the Eurocentric in myself. I was especially attracted to post-colonialism, a widely studied area in North America but still quite underdeveloped in Germany.  I was also attracted by the Centre for Comparative Literature itself, which I’d had the chance to experience during a brief visit the year before, and where I discovered a close and unmistakably open-minded community, where someone like me — new to the country, the continent, and to academia — wouldn’t feel lost.

I am glad to say that all of my expectations were met. In just this past year, I’ve learned more than during my entire undergraduate career.  I have learned what it means to do rigorous research, and what a scholarly paper should offer to the wider academic community.  I have learned to open my horizons and explore the most arcane theories and approaches because you never know what they may reveal.  Not only have my professors been willing to help me, but my fellow students have proven to be great teachers and loyal friends. I continue to be amazed by their intelligence, vivacity and professionalism. A recent comparative literature conference, organized by the Centre’s students, even made me change my dissertation topic – after hearing Svetlana Boym and a whole panel on nostalgia, I discovered that this is what I really want to pursue as a scholar.

Any time I had doubts about my place at the Centre – either personal (being so far from my friends and family), or professional (I am a European working on European literature, is my place really in Canada?) — I also had to acknowledge that there are still so many things I need and want to learn from the Centre, from Toronto, and from Canada. The entire experience has always been very special, coming as I do from a xeno- and homophobic part of Eastern Europe and making my home in a wonderful city like Toronto, which was recently dressed with the festive rainbow flags of Gay Pride Week. This remarkable country by its singular example manifests a humane and tolerant diversity, and it is definitely something we can learn from in my home country. I believe that as literary scholars we can be the crucial link between cultures and communities.  As cliche as that may sound, part of the delight of my experience here has been to discover how true it remains.

Moving to Canada was not an easy step.  But I have never regretted it because I knew that this is where I want to be – the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Toronto.  I do hope, therefore, that we can save the internationally renowned Centre so that for many years to come people like me from all of the world will have a chance to benefit from the treasures it has to offer.

Nicholas Graham: Fruits and Legacy of the Centre for Comparative Literature


In the 70s I took a course offered at the at the Centre under the direction of Prof. Graham Nicholson, entitled “Hermeneutics”.  We focused on Gadamer’s Truth and Method. It was that course that changed my life. I had come to Canada from Ireland where it was thought to be revolutionary to be reading the Canadian Lonergan and his book, Insight (1957). What the Centre allowed me to do was to explore the notion of “method” in Gadamer’s book and so expand the notion of “method”, which I had from Lonergan’s Method in Theology (1972)

This course offered by the Centre also inspired me to organize the York Literary Society and hold the international conference on “Hermeneutics and Structuralism: Merging Horizons,” 1978,  at York University. The guest speakers included: Gadamer, Voegelin, Allan Bloom and Lonergan. The entire conference was video taped and is now available on DVD entiled, Voeglin at York ‘78 and is available from Amazon on line. Here you can see all the guest speakers in action, which is perfect for any classroom.

The Centre for Comparative Literature was also the inspiration and source for the founding of the York Literary Soeciety of which in those years I was president.  We made an appointment to visit Frye at his Massey College, office, to invite him to the conference. He asked to see our poster listing all the guests and speakers and after some time he said he regretted that he had to decline our invitation because of a schedule conflict, but added graciously that we had picked all the right guys.

So the course at the Centre  not only served as an excellent introduction to Gadamer, the founding of the York Literary Society,  but was also the catalyst for what my friends like to say was my “conversion” from Lonergan to a lifetime commitment to Frye and his writings and his legacy.

I am presently working on a book, Frye on Dante, with the chairman of the Italian Department at U of T, Domenico Pietropaulo, who was also a student of Prof. Graham Nicholson and a graduate of the Centre.

Alvin Lee: Letter to the Globe & Mail


Here is my letter to the editor yesterday regarding the Centre for Comparative Literature

Dear Editor,

I have not seen the Gertler report with its recommendation to close the Centre for Comparative Literature at the U of T and to fold it (what would be left of it) into a School that would also include the five departments of Italian, German, East Asian Studies, Slavic languages and Spanish and Portuguese. As a university scholar/teacher and a university administrator, I saw firsthand what precedes and follows such decisions.

Because each individual language and literature department is a linguistic minority in an English-language university, its very existence depends on unusual professional commitment and hard work. It also depends on its ability to convince budget officers that when you fold the cultural milieu of a language and literature department into a broader English-speaking mix, you destroy the identity of the original, and much of its reason for being. The professors no longer use the identifying language in most of their daily work, the staff have to function mainly in English, and the language context in which students are meant to become proficient ceases to exist.

The paramount strength of the graduate programs in the Centre for Comparative Literature has been its ability to attract, for work at an advanced level, able students from around the world who have had deep exposure while undergraduates to more than one language and literature in at least two of the kind of department that would disappear into the proposed new School. There is a close symbiotic relation between the U of T Centre and the separate language and literature departments at the U of T and the other universities from which the students come. As the Northrop Frye Professor of Literary Theory in the Centre in 1991-2, I saw this fact in every class discussion: the accuracy and incisiveness of what a young scholar says about a literary text is convincing only when the text is being read in its original language. It is an important part of Frye’s legacy that he knew this and that he championed the need for just the kind of intellectual and imaginative work that the U of T Centre has been doing for 41 years.


Alvin A. Lee

Professor of English Emeritus and President Emeritus, McMaster University

General Editor, The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, 30 vols (University of Toronto Press)

Natalie Pendergast: Canada’s Cultural Famine


Bryan Lee O’Malley‘s cover for Shojo Beat

Is it any coincidence that the terms “starving artist” and “poor student” have become stereotypes in this country?  As one of the latter I can tell you that although these terms may stick around for a long time, what they refer to—their “signified”–certainly will not. No, I’m afraid that if one continues to get poorer and poorer, hungrier and hungrier, he/she will eventually waste away. If left to starve, if left homeless for long enough, the artist and the student will die.

Right now, this type of negligence is occurring at the University of Toronto. The Centre for Comparative Literature is in a battle for its life. By extension, this battle is only one example of the perpetual struggle for artists and humanities scholars who promote and study culture in Canada. We are in the midst of a bona fide arts and culture famine.

Margaret Atwood, in an article published in the Globe and Mail, on Wed., Sept. 24th, 2008 and updated on Tues. Mar. 31, 2009, wrote the following:

[Prime Minister Stephen Harper] told us that some group called “ordinary people” didn’t care about something called “the arts.” His idea of “the arts” is a bunch of rich people gathering at galas whining about their grants. Well, I can count the number of moderately rich writers who live in Canada on the fingers of one hand: I’m one of them, and I’m no Warren Buffett. I don’t whine about my grants because I don’t get any grants. I whine about other grants – grants for young people, that may help them to turn into me, and thus pay to the federal and provincial governments the kinds of taxes I pay, and cover off the salaries of such as Mr. Harper. In fact, less than 10 per cent of writers actually make a living by their writing, however modest that living may be. They have other jobs. But people write, and want to write, and pack into creative writing classes, because they love this activity – not because they think they’ll be millionaires.” She prefaced these concerns by citing that the Conference Board estimates Canada’s cultural sector to have generated $46 billion, or 3.8 % of Canada’s GDP in 2007. She threw in another quote from the Canada Council that the sector consists of 600,000 jobs, which is the same as agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining oil and gas and utilities combined.

Her frustration is directed toward the lack of funding given to Canadian artists, but there is another—perhaps more painful—reality that lends to the anxious tone of her words: the lack of support and appreciation from Stephen Harper. It seems that “ordinary people” have trouble seeing the value in arts and culture, and this simple point is at the very core of the current Canadian divide between humanities scholars, writers, researchers, teachers, students, enthusiasts, and others. What will it take to prove that arts and culture are important?

In light of the recent World Cup Football Championship, I find myself wondering why it is that sports like soccer and hockey seem to have such a huge cultural following. When Canada won the Winter Olympics hockey final, I knew everything about that game,even though I am not a hockey fan. I could not avoid it—it filled up every space of my life: the people in the streets prevented me from going home, every channel on TV was broadcasting highlights, the neighbours’ celebratory cheers were ringing in my ears. The difference is that, when it comes to hockey, we Canadians feel a personal attachment. We “own” it.

By contrast, the arts are less a part of our culture as Canadians, and more a cultish obscurity. When, for example, I discovered that the Scott Pilgrim manga artist, Torontonian Bryan Lee O’Malley was coming to The Beguiling comic book store this summer, I nearly screamed with excitement. And what is more astounding, the famous artist/author, whose manga series is now being adapted into a major motion picture starring Canadian Michael Cera, is charging nothing for his book release party that includes a concert with four bands. In Toronto, I am sure that most people could not recognize the name Bryan Lee O’Malley despite his fame in the comic reading (under)-world and even in the entire high school and university student world!

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