Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

Mervyn Nicholson: Frye Was Different (4)


Many, many sentences and even phrases of Frye’s have stayed with me.  For example, in the Introduction to Anatomy of Criticism, he says that “the elementary principles” of criticism “could be explained to any intelligent nineteen-year-old,” if criticism—I’m paraphrasing here—made sense.  The “intelligent nineteen-year-old” should be able to understand what criticism is about.  As a professor of English myself who has spent years teaching writing at all levels, from home-schooling children to teaching graduate students, I have found this ideal deeply credible, deeply compelling in its logic.  “Any intelligent nineteen-year-old” should be able to understand criticism and what criticism is about.  People should be able to read and understand what critics, theorists, and anybody in English studies, setting aside, of course, technical information requiring years of reading to be familiar with.  He did not want a criticism that functioned like a “mystery religion,” as he explicitly argues in Anatomy: something exclusive, like a country club with high entry fees and a membership selected by itself.  He was not a mystagogue.  A lot is involved here, as always with Frye.

It is true that the terms “criticism” and, even more, “literary criticism,” terms that Frye took for granted, have lapsed in academic discourse.  Frye described himself as a literary critic: how many academics in English would identify themselves in the same way?  New Historicism, like poststructuralism before it, rejects the category of “literature,” and since the category “literature” is to it a mystification, it does not see itself as producing “criticism” (of literature), whereas for Frye, the category of literature definitely worked, and criticism should be conceived as the theory of literature, the study of how it works and what it says.

But this point, important as it is, is not what I want to focus on here.  Frye believed that “any intelligent nineteen-year-old” should be able to understand criticism.  He wrote in order to be understood; he wrote in order to communicate.  Anything that got in the way of that communication was wrong, as far as he was concerned.  Therefore, he wrote in a style that is consistently lucid and straightforward, and, while there are definitely difficult passages that need re-reading (not to mention plenty of wit), Frye’s prose is as clear as it is possible to imagine, given the material he is discussing.

If we hold this ideal for a moment, we have to be struck by how different Frye is from the commanding figures in English studies.  In Frye’s last decade, Paul de Man, in the shadow of Jacques Derrida, was a commanding figure, treated with extraordinary reverence as a kind of saint of intellectual integrity and brilliance.  De Man is basically gone, perhaps because when you subtract his elegant writing style and his Olympian mannerisms, there isn’t really that much in the way of ideas in what he says.  The reply, that “meaning” is a contested concept, works really well for about 15 minutes and especially with uninstructed nineteen-year-olds, but for the rest of us, meaning—communicating—is what English, as a subject and as a profession, is all about.

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John Robert Colombo: Request for Your Favourite Quotes


For the last four years I have been preparing for eventual publication a large-scale compilation that has the working title “The Northrop Frye Quote Book.” It will consist of some 4,000 alphabetically arranged quotations, the texts of which are taken from the Collected Works.

I would like to correspond with FOF (Friends of Frye) who wish to draw my attention to remarks that should appear in this collection. Included will be aphoristic expressions but also passages of two or three sentences in length that, while far from being aphoristic, make strikingly odd though often obvious points. Already I have some 3,500 such remarks in place, but the man is so quotable I may have missed your favourite formulations. I would love to know about them.

I am currently an Associate of the NF Centre at Victoria College. My website is www. colombo – plus. ca and my email address is jrc @ ca . inter. net.

Ed Lemond Responds to “More on Thoreau”


Ed Lemond lives and writes in Moncton, New Brunswick. He owns and operates the Attic Owl Bookshop in Moncton. He is also one of the planners for the Northrup Frye Literary Festival.

Ed writes, in response to “More on Thoreau.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals gives a good accounting of Lincoln’s temporizing strategy. Here’s one example of many. When John Brown was executed on Dec. 2, 1959, Lincoln (in Goodwin’s words) “wisely sought the middle ground between the statements of radical Republicans, like Emerson, who believed that Brown’s execution would ‘make the gallows as glorious as the cross,’ and conservative Republicans, who denounced Brown for his demented, traitorous scheme. He acknowledged that Brown had displayed ‘great courage’ and ‘rare unselfishness.’ Nonetheless, he concluded, ‘that cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.’”

Lincoln, ironically, himself walked down the road of violence and bloodshed, thinking himself in the right – as we too think of him. (Adam Gopnik’s discussion of ‘the problem of liberal violence’ in his book Angels and Ages is very interesting in this regard.) Lincoln said or wrote, I believe, something to the effect that if he could end the war and save the union with slavery still in place, he’d take the deal. The difference between Lincoln and Rowan Williams is that Lincoln knew, even while temporizing and compromising, that slavery was an evil doomed to extinction. And, even with all his temporizing, he had moments, we know, when his words attained the level of kerygmatic intensity, spiritual proclamation. And he had his great moment, when he stopped temporizing and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Now we have a new, young President in Obama, with the same sort of instinct to look for the middle ground. Is it too much to hope that he will follow a similar path, when it comes to action to ensure full equality for gays and lesbians? Or is he in danger, as it sometimes looks, of being all talk and no (or little) action? Depending on what happens with health care, we might know part of the answer.

The Demands of Primary Human Welfare


Another word from Clayton Chrusch:

A further note about Rowan Williams and the gay issue.

“The one adversarial situation that does not impoverish both sides is the conflict between the demands of primary human welfare on the one hand and a paranoid clinging to arbitrary power on the other. Naturally, this black-and-white situation is often very hard to find in the complexities of revolutions and power struggles, but it is there, and nothing in any revolutionary situation is of any importance except preserving it.”

There is a class of people who discuss theological issues including homosexuality at a very high level. These are people of liberal and conservative and moderate persuasions, but they have enough in common that they can speak to each other at conferences, in academic institutions, and on the internet ad infinitem. Rowan Williams is their high priest. These are generally people who hate the brutishness of popular homophobia, but nor do they accept the popular progressive call to immediate change. They are plagued by a tentativeness that sends them back into discussion, back to scripture, back into theological studies of all kinds. The prose they produce is elegant, reasoned, intelligent, clear. Their expressions of concern for gay people and for the various sides of the debate are clearly sincerely felt. To them, the gay issue is an issue affecting real flesh and blood people, and they make a point of never forgetting that, and yet they also know that sincerity is in bed with self-deception, and so there are no easy answers and the discussion must continue, and no one should do anything disrespectful of anyone else, most certainly should not cast the issue in black and white terms or generally be loud, brash, or make a nuisance of themselves. They are the height of the intellectual world. They have every spiritual and cultural attainment except truth and obedience.

What I love so much about Frye is that he also operates at the very highest intellectual level (and spiritual level), and yet he has a conscience and guts and is not afraid to cut through all the cowardly, sissified, hand-wringing bullshit that happens there:

Primary Concerns, Gay Rights, and the Anglican Communion


Clayton Chrusch, in response to Frye, Alter, and Rowan Williams:

I have no doubt that Rowan Williams is one of the smartest people on the planet and a prayerful and spiritual man. And yet he is a homophobe. He chooses the unity of the Anglican communion over the blessing of same-sex couples, secondary concerns over primary concerns. He has a very sophisticated and compelling theory of the body of Christ that justifies all this. I’m not saying that he is obviously wrong. He is smarter than I am. But to accept the whole of what Rowan Williams says is to deny Frye the primacy of primary concern.

Rowan Williams reminds me of Frye when he says the the crucifixion of Christ is not only something that “bad” people are responsible for, but is the considered conclusion that we all come to because it is expedient for one man to die for the people. Of course he turns this around and says that it is schism, and not the destruction of human beings that is the real analogy to the crucifixion of Christ. Two kinds of Christians. It is expedient that gays should be executed in Uganda as long as the church remains unbroken.

Fearful Symmetry Chapter Five: The Word within the Word


Here is Clayton Chrusch’s detailed summary of Chapter Five of Fearful Symmetry:

The greater the work of art, the more completely it reveals the gigantic myth which is the vision of this world as God sees it, the outlines of that vision being creation, fall, redemption and apocalypse.

1. The Bible as archetype of Western culture

For a Christian, the totality of creative power is called the Word of God or Jesus. This creative power sees a vision of all time and space whose mythic shape is the same as that of the Bible: “creation, fall, redemption and apocalypse.” Frye writes, “all works of art are phases of that archetypal vision,” and the greatest art, such as the Bible, most completely reveals this vision.

Blake viewed the central myth of the Bible as a genuine vision of reality, and his work as aligned with it. This Biblical vision is an imaginative one, however, and Blake dismissed as irrelevant questions of historical veracity. Blake also rejected what he considered stupidly orthodox readings of the Bible of the kind that attempted moral justification of God’s Old Testament bloodthirstiness. Rather he saw such passages as true visions of a false god, and he saw such perverse orthodoxy as Anti-Christ. The Bible, though, is not a unique or exhaustive expression of the Word of God, rather all nations, in Blake’s view, had the same genuineness of vision, though the ancient Greeks in particular obscured and forgot theirs.

In art, the most complete vision is cyclic, and in poetry this complete form is called epic and properly covers “the entire imaginative field from creation to the Last Judgement” though, like the Bible, it is most concerned with the the world’s cyclical movement between the opposite states of falleness and redemption. Non-epic forms can be considered as particular episodes within the universal epic vision. As such, literature, at least Western literature, can be seen as more conventional than is commonly acknowledged.

2. The poet’s meaning is often different from what he thought he meant.

Blake sees creative actions as an artist’s real life. Actions and thoughts “on the ordinary Generation plane” may have nothing to do with an artist’s creativity. This is why Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads is “twaddle,” while the poems themselves are clear visions, and why in general we cannot trust or limit the meaning of art to the artist’s conscious intention. The real intentions that produce art are often sub- or super-conscious.

3. “Reality is intelligibility, and a poet who has put things into words has lifted ‘things’ from the barren chaos of nature into the created order of thought.”

Blake held diction to be very important though he makes few statements about it. His position begins, as it usually does, with a rejection of Locke, in particular, he rejected the notion that words are inadequate substitutes for real things. On the contrary, words make things intelligible and therefore more real. The meaning of a word, beyond generalities, is undefinable because it depends both on its context and its relation to human minds. The sounds, rhythms, and associations of a word–attributes that have little to do with its general definition–are functional in poetry and can give a word a meaning that is beyond the capacity of any dictionary to capture.

As for rhyme and meter, Blake insists that “the sound, sense and subject are to make a complete correspondence at all times” which means that fixed stanzaic patterns may be appropriate for short lyrics but rhyme is dropped in the longer works and meter and line length are varied according to the content.

4. Right and wrong kinds of allegory

We should understand poetry by unified and immediate perception. We might have to do hard intellectual work in order to unify the poem in our minds, but it is the direct experience that is the meaning of the poem. The intellectual scaffolding that helped us achieve that experience should just fall away. “For,” as Blake writes, “[a poem’s] Reality is its imaginative Form.” The wrong kind of allegory is “merely a set of moral doctrines or historical facts, ornamented to make them easier for simple minds.” The wrong way to read allegorical literature is to reduce it to such a set of abstractions. Great allegorical writing exists, and it is great not because of the quality of ideas it represents but because of the imaginative power of its vision.

5. The power of religion lies in its poetry.

We cannot hold to art as good or true because art envisions both good and bad, true and false. Religion does claim sure and reliable knowledge of truth and goodness, but there is something false about this claim. The power of religion lies not in dogma but in the visionary masterpieces that the dogma is derived from. The poet’s task is to go back to the symbols of those masterpieces and to recreate them. The meaning of these symbols (for example, the gods of ancient Greece) becomes more vague over time and the artist’s function is to clarify it.

This is what Blake does. One of his tactics is to use unfamiliar names for his characters. Though he could have called his sky father Zeus, Blake called him Urizen to head off the vagueness that comes with Zeus’s large cloud of associations.

Christianity is not more true than other religions, but its imaginative core, what Frye calls, “its vision of the humanity of God and the divinity of risen Man” is that characteristic imaginative accomplishment of Christianity that “all Christian artists have attempted to recreate.” Even secular writers like Shakespeare and Chaucer are informed by “the universal Word of God, the archetypal vision of ‘All that Exists.'” This vision provides the most profound kind of signficance to all worthwhile art and makes such art allegorical in the sense Dante used when he spoke of anagogy.

6. In art, all creatures are human.

Frye writes, “It is the function of art to illuminate the human form of nature.” By this he means that art “interprets nature in human terms.” Only a human being can create a design, but that does not stop art from seeing design in the pattern of a snowflake. Blake’s tiger has a human creator that makes the tiger’s form, which is therefore a human form.

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Frye Was Different (3)


The latest from Mervyn Nicholson, on how Frye was different:

When was the last time you laughed out loud reading De la Grammatologie? or, well, guffawed or chuckled, if not actually laughed? Derrida tickle your funny bone lately? How about Blindness and Insight? Paul de Man was quite a clown, wasn’t he? Or how about Stephen Greenblatt? or Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick? or Judith Butler? lots of LOL there.

You know where this is heading. Frye had a sense of humour! His sense of humour was vivid, witty, lively, incisive, satiric, but also playful. The range of humour is significant, too, because he can be light in tone as well as biting. He is good at coining witty phrases, as everyone knows. The impulse to quote him for those who know his work well is irresistible, especially his numerous satiric and witty remarks. I always laugh when I read Frye. All of his books have humour in them, and clearly the humour was important to him—he made sure to use it.

Not only does Frye use humour in his writing, but he was funny in his lectures. Most of his lectures included what might be called jokes—“self-contained verbal structures,” to use his own idiom, that made people laugh out loud. Of course his deadpan manner, his dry and wry style, was not that of a clown: it was definitely that of a great intellectual. He could say funny things without giving any facial cue that saying something funny was what he was doing. But that made the humour funnier, because it came from what had become a legendary professor persona: the figure of the ultimate intellectual. There was always an element of surprise, as if discovering that he was a human being, not just an icon on a pedestal, or someone of such grand pretention that humour must be kept distant from him. Curiously, Frye’s humour never had the effect of undermining or taking away any of the seriousness of what he was talking about. Frye was serious about his humour.

His status as preeminent academic made him a target for hostile comments of the type that Irving Layton specialized in, treating Frye as a dried-up brain without a body—an image totally at odds with the livewire brilliance that Frye displayed. Forget his tweed jacket and nerdy physique—he could be funny. His voice was a perfect instrument—deep and beautifully modulated, with the kind of rhythm that only a musician can achieve—a voice perfect for reading out loud—or for giving lectures. And he was a superb reader. Just as he made a point of saying things that were funny, he made a point of reading out loud in class—including in his graduate classes, something unthinkable in the usual academic milieu inhabited by graduate students and professors suffering from grandiosity issues. But it was important to Frye that people hear the great poets, not just see their work as print marks on a page. Clearly, Frye, the intellectual, believed that learning involved more than arguing over abstractions.

Frye’s humour punctured any pretention that “higher” English studies might demand. The humour shifted attention from the pretention implied by the scene (famous professor lectures naïve novitiates) over to the real point of teaching, namely the content of the class. Frye insisted on this point: the teacher must be “a transparent medium” for the subject, and must never stand between the subject and the students, setting him or herself up to be a kind of idol, someone who receives the attention of the student rather than the subject itself. His humour was important in demoting the professor and enhancing the content. The humorless solemnity of High Theory and the relentless didacticism of the New Historicism are prima facie limited by their lack of this intellectual vitamin.

This point opens up something important about Frye’s humour. It had a function. And this function was not merely to break the ice or release tension. The humour—I am referring now to his writing—is not merely a decoration or a distraction. It always conveys meaning. It is another way of expressing the thought that Frye is working with. Frye was profound in many ways, but one of the most important is his insistence that meaning is communicated in other modes than abstract reasoning or abstract verbal constructs. Meaning is conveyed in non-abstract ways, by means of image and emotion and body. And humour.

By image, of course, I do not mean “symbol”; I mean the sheer act of forming and transforming mental images: the act of visualization. The form/trans/forming of images is a medium of consciousness, of intellection. It is a means of communicating and formulating thought. I explored these issues myself in my own book 13 Ways of Looking at Images [Red Heifer Press, 2003], which is intended to develop and explore Frye’s approach. Thought is not confined to ideas in the sense of abstractions: it is expressed in sensory forms, such as painting and music, but also in forms of mental imagery. Indeed, the key to Blake, he says in Fearful Symmetry, is that “form” and “image” mean the same thing, and if this works for Blake, we can be sure it works for Frye, too—that the image of a thing is the form of that thing.

This is a big conception, too big for a short note, but it is basic Fryethought. Humour is like images: it is a mode of communication, of fashioning and making ideas precise—it is not just a pleasant talent that Frye enjoyed entertaining readers with, though there is nothing wrong with entertaining readers, something that Frye excelled in. You know that well enough when you put down your Derrida or just about anybody else and pick up Frye.

Frye was different, all right.

Archetype and Spengler


Jonathan Allan, in response to Clayton Chrusch’s “Five Questions about Archetype”:

It is interesting here to note that Spengler also makes use of “archetype” in Decline of the West, a book which Frye certainly read as is evidenced by his comment that Spengler’s book was “perhaps the most important book yet produced by the twentieth century” (CW III:212). Spengler writes, “Is it possible to find in life itself — for human history is the sum of mighty life-courses which already have had to be endowed with ego and personality, in customary thought and expression, by predicating entities of higher order like ‘the Classical’ or ‘the Chinese Culture,’ ‘Modern Civilization’ — a series of stages which must be traversed, and traversed moreover in an ordered and obligatory sequence? For everything organic the notions of birth, death, youth, age, lifetime, are fundamentals–may not these notions, in this sphere also, possess a rigorous meaning which no one has as yet extracted? In short, is all history founded upon general biographic archetypes?” Perhaps this is another way of considering Frye’s relation to the archetype.

The Five Phases of Symbolism


Clayton Chrusch, in response to Trevor Losh-Johnson:

First of all, thanks so much to Joe and Bob for extremely helpful responses.

Trevor, my master’s thesis was about the theory of symbols [Five Kinds of Freedom: Northrop Frye’s Theory of Symbols and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Old Path and White Clouds.  McMaster University. 2002 ]

I have to admit the phases are difficult to distinguish. The descriptive phase is the odd one out, but the other phases can be thought of as expanding concentric spheres. In each one, the context of the poem is wider than in the previous. So in the literal phase, the context is simply the verbal structure of the poem itself, and the assumption of its criticism is the unity of the poem. In the formal phase, the context is the imaginative world constructed by the poem, and the assumption of the criticism is the unity of imagery. In the mythical phase, the context is the imaginative structure constructed by all of literature, and its assumption is the reality of such a structure (”the order of words”) and its relevance to the poem in question. In the anagogic phase, which I don’t really understand, I think the context is the infinite potential of the imaginative universe, and the assumption of anagogic phase criticism is that the poem is the expression of infinite creative human power. I’m probably wrong about anagogy, but I’m more certain about the others.

It seems to me that not much of interest happens at the literal phase that is not also part of higher phases. I’ve written an essay about grammar in Virginia Woolf’s writing that probably counts as literal phase criticism. I think of Gertrude Stein’s work but even that can be responded to at the level of imagery. So I would say interesting work on the poem as an imaginative unit all happens in the formal phase. Frye seems to want to associate the new critics with the literal phase but based on my reading of Cleanth Brooks, at least, they belong at the formal phase (or maybe both, but not the literal phase exclusively).

So I would say that if you are interested in the unity of imagery in The Faerie Queene without explicit reference to the use of that imagery in other poems, what you may need is a new critical reading.

Archetype in Spenser


Trevor Losh-Johnson,  in response to Bob Denham’s Frye on Archetype:

Thanks for such a helpful post! I am wondering if Frye addresses anywhere the difference between archetypes that refer to an exterior model (which seems to be his primary concern in this vein) and archetypes that become so by repetition within the bounds of the individual text. By the latter I mean either motifs that become loaded images through repetition, such as crystalline optical illusions in Nabokov, or exterior archetypes that assume different connotations through repetition. I may be confusing his literal and mythical symbolic categories, but the lamentable paper I am writing on Spenser has forced the question.

I am looking at Frye’s essay on imagery in the Faerie Queene, and it seems like a model of archetypal criticism. It is mostly dedicated to imagery as it fits with exterior models, analyzing, for one of many examples, the Venus/Adonis/Diana motifs in the context of the Virgin Mary and the Pietà. This has brilliant implications for Glorianna and the structure of the knights’ quests, but I can’t help but wish he had better outlined how such imagery of chastity and rebirth inveigles itself into other episodes of the poem.

In his notebooks, Frye does address the latter sorts of motifs, in one case noting how in Book I the lion imagery follows Una around [see the painting above, “Una and the Lion” by Briton Rivière (1840-1920)”], first as an actual lion and then as a series of similes describing both her assault by Sansloy and her rescue by the satyrs. In that case, the different connotations of regality, ferocity and savagery seem to to work their way through different inflections at each appearance. This appears to be a great example of archetypal transvaluation, but his emphasis in his essay proved to be towards archetypes that refer to the larger economies of literature. It would also be helpful to know if, such as when he claims that there is Adonis imagery in the first couple books that do not directly refer to the character in the later books, we can connect episodes that are not explicitly connected