Category Archives: Interview

Jacques Derrida


An interview with Derrida on love and being. (This video cannot be embedded; click on the image, and then hit the YouTube link that appears.)

Today is Derrida‘s birthday (1930 – 2004).  Here is a selection of Frye’s references to Derrida in various interviews.  (Imre Salusinszky’s interview with Derrida in Criticism in Society here.)

In a 1979 interview, “The Critical Path”:

Herman-Sekulic: What, in your opinion, are the major trends in the theory of literature today?  In what direction is literary criticism heading now?

Frye: I think that the word “direction” is over-optimistic.  I think there is a good deal of mining and blowing up being done, and that after the dust settles the context of a foundation may become visible.  I think Lacan’s conception of the subconscious as linguistically structured is worth following up; so is Derrida’s conception of metaphysical presence; and there are many things that interest me in the work of the new Marxist critics who have got away from the old notion that ideology is something that only non-Marxists have.  But I am not capable of making a unifying theory out of this mess, and I doubt if anyone else is either. (CW 24, 481)

In a 1985 interview, “Criticism in Society”:

Salusinszky: If Bloom has, to some extent, challenged the Christian direction of English literary studies, it is Derrida who has challenged the persistent Platonism that one can also see running through English literary studies.  Criticism has always tended to think of any great literary work as possessing unity, with some sort of closure, and as being, in some sense seminal.  Now Derrida seems to have opened up a whole range of new possibilities, where instead of closure and insemination he has his concepts of dissemination, of trace, of displacement.  Derrida, however, is a philosopher, and I wonder if you regard his present influence as merely one of those enclosure movements which you describe in the Anatomy, as coming from outside and wanting to take it over.

Frye: It certainly seems to be the way his influence has operated, yes, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair to Derrida that it has operated that way.  I think he’s genuinely interested in opening up, as you’ve just said, new possibilities in criticism.  The thing is that I don’t see why the sense of an ending and the sense of wholeness and unity, and the kinds of things he’s talking about, should be mutually exclusive.  I don’t see why you have to have an either / or situation.  It’s like those optical puzzles you look at, which change their relationship when you’re looking at them.  (CW 24, 756-7)

In a 1986 interview, “On the Media”:

Interviewer: What about McLuhan’s distinction between the visual and aural societies?

Frye: It’s very difficult to avoid metaphors.  If, for example, you’re reading something, you frequently use metaphors of the ear.  And that’s what critics like Jacques Derrida are attacking: the convention that somebody is speaking, But, still, when you’re following a narrative, you are in a sense listening.  And then at the end you get a sort of Gestalt: you “see” what it means.  When somebody tells a joke, he leads in by saying, “Have you heard this one?” and then, if he’s lucky, by the end you see what he means.  But these are just metaphors.  The hearing is something associated with sequence and time; the seeing is something associated with the simultaneous and the spatial.  (CW 24, 768)

In a 1987 interview, “Frye, Literary Critic”:

Innocenti: Some new trends in criticism, such as deconstruction, deny that we can reach the meaning of a literary work or even that there is a meaning.  All efforts to interpret are ways to proliferate structures and senses in an infinite chain of nuances and differences.  In my opinion, this sceptical position reduces all criticism to a solipsistic and narcissistic exercise.  In your opinion, do literature and criticism possess a sense that might be saved from nihilism?

Frye: The deconstructionists will have to speak for themselves, but I think the “anything goes” stage is headed for the dustbin already.  Derrida himself has a “construal” basis of interpretation that he starts from, and I think his followers will soon discover that there is a finite number of “supplements” that can be based on that.  In another decade they should have rediscovered the polysemous scheme of Dante, or something very like it.  (CW 24, 827-8)

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Merton College, Oxford

On this date in 1214 The University of Oxford received its charter.

Frye attended Merton College (established 1264), completing his studies for an MA in the spring of 1939.  During the summer and fall of 1982 Frye was interviewed by Valerie Schatzker as part of an oral history of the University of Toronto.  Here he talks about his experience at Oxford.

Schaztker: How did [study there] compare with what you remember from the Honour Course [at Victoria College]?

Frye: It was very largely a repetition of what I’d done.  I read more intensively, but, as I said, my real reason for taking it was that I wanted to become fresher in the whole English area.  If you ask about instruction: of course it was tutorial, and my tutor was Edmund Blunden, who was a rather shy, diffident man.  For some bloody reason, which I’ve never figured out, he was pro-Nazi.  I didn’t know who was to blame for that.  But in any case, I seemed to meet fascists everywhere I turned at Oxford, so I was poltically and socially extremely unhappy for that time that I was there.  England’s morale seemed to be the lowest in its history.  If you read Howard K. Smith’s Last Train From Berlin (he’s a CBS announcer, and he was a classmate of mine at Oxford), the first chapter is about his experiences at Merton College and it will give you some idea of what I myself found extremely uncongenial about the place…

It may have been pure accident.  But if I found myself just meeting people casually, I seemed to keep running into fascist groups all the time.  I knew that the Labour group was the largest single group at Oxford, but the general feeling at Merton, certainly, and I think at several other colleges as well, was very much not to my liking…

I wouldn’t say that it was more politially active, but the undercurrents were beginning to swirl around and they were very ugly ones.  There was one man who had gone up to Merton on a scholarship which had been donated by Oswald Mosely [of the British Union of Fascists] and his job was to recruit people as far as he could.  I felt that if England had not been forced into an anti-Hitler position it would have gone in a very sinister direction or at least the intellectual leadership would have done so.

Schatzker: Did you find yourself ostracized?

Frye: No, I didn’t.  That’s too strong a word.  I didn’t find myself ostrasized.  And of course there were very intense left-wing people both in Merton College and elsewhere.  Howard Smith was one, and another was a tough egg from Yorkshire who came home drunk to his room and found four or five Fascists roughing it up.  So his head cleared and he went into action and pretty soon the air was thick with Fascists flying out of windows. (CW 24, 599-600)

Frye on Salinger


Interviewer: Do you mean to imply by this that there have been no important new writers or styles since the 1930s?

Frye: No, no. There is no dearth of new writers and new styles. Norman Mailer has been classed as an important new writer.

Interviewer: What do you think of his work?

Frye: Personally, I find his books rather lengthy and somewhat insensitive. That is not to suggest of course that he lacks integrity—I don’t think he does. And then I can only make a personal judgment, not a critical one, since I have never read his books that closely.

Interviewer: What about J.D. Salinger?

Frye: Ah yes! Now there is someone with whom I have much more affinity. His, I think, is a really unique insight into life in this era. Mind you, his preoccupation with Zen and Oriental culture does strike me as a bit phoney. But his study of the Daemon child, for instance, is awfully well done. There is nobody else I know who has done quite that thing. And this work is not just important as an “adolescent scream” to be put on university reading courses because students can easily identify with the characters. It has great tragic and ironic implications. Of course this has very little to do with its wide popularity. Like Nabokov’s Lolita, it is an example of a substantial piece of fiction of this era which has been widely read not for the things that make it great but for its incidental appeal to a certain audience.

The Final Interview: 29 November 1990


The following is the final interview with Northrop Frye, by Peter Yan, one of our regular bloggers and then a reporter for The Varsity. The interview is introduced by Peter’s commentary:

Anyone with a surname spelled like mine is used to being last. Of course, I never expected to conduct what would turn out to be the last interview with Frye. His secretary, Jane Widdicombe, at the time said he was sick and had interview requests the “length of my arm”. Widdicombe said she would ask but not to expect anything.

Despite his ill-health, Frye acceded to my request because I was writing for students and a lay public, his favourite audience. On the day of the interview, I recall knocking on his office door with trepidation, an Evian bottle in hand for him, thinking I am about to interview one of the most brilliant men to ever grace this planet. What if he calls me ‘stupid’? Do I have enough money for the therapy sessions to recover from that?

Frye never called me stupid. But I am sure at least one of my questions irritated him. After the interview, he did pay me the favor of autographing about 10 of his books for me. I remember him adoring the cover of his latest, Myth and Metaphor, which he had not seen yet.

The interview was one of the most nerve wracking of my life, right up there with filing my first income tax return, getting my driver’s license and getting married. I remember his final words to me, raising the Evian bottle to me: “Thanks for the lubrication”.

Yan: I want to talk about education because there is so much teacher-bashing going on right now. You mention that a theory of literature should lead to a theory of education because a theory of literature will tell you indirectly what kind of books to read. In your theory of litera­ture what would be your implied theory of education?

Frye: It’s pretty complicated. I have written several books on the theory of education, what I would consider the fight from the beginning to the end for the central importance of the humanities in education, and within the humanities for the central importance of poetry, going out from poetry to literary prose. So much teaching of English backs into it the wrong way: starting out by trying to write various forms of applied prose and often not getting to poetry at all.

Yan: In your work you often refer to Aristotle’s four causes.* Is there a correspondence between the four causes of literature and education? If the efficient cause is the writer, and the material cause is his life experi­ences, what are the formal and final causes of literature?

Frye: The formal cause is the shape of the poem he produces and the final cause is the culture to which it contributes.

Yan: Does the writer define that culture and decide what the final cause would be?

Frye: Oh, he doesn’t decide—he inherits it. He has no choice in the matter.

Yan: The writer inherits it from the work of previous poets?

Frye: Just from being what he is: the fact that he is going to write in his own language with the previous poets in that language as his models.

Yan: I was trying to see if there is a link between the causes of literature and the causes of the educational process. What do you think are the four causes in the educational process?

Frye: I don’t know—I suppose the efficient cause of education is teaching, the material cause is the books read and the subjects studied in education, the formal cause would be the educated man, and the final cause is the vision of which education is a part.

Yan: In answer to the critics reading Fearful Symmetry who said they couldn’t tell where you started and ended and where Blake started and ended, you mentioned that was a good thing because when teaching Blake the only person who deserved to be in the room was Blake and the students. Who is in the room or what is happening in the room when you teach the Bible and literature?

Frye: Well, I suppose it is the same general principle. It is the vision which constitutes the Bible which is the one presence in the room. But you put it in orthodox terms by saying only the presence of Jesus Christ is in the room. That suggests a dogmatic approach, an attachment or belief not really relevant. If I’m teaching Blake I don’t necessarily believe in Blake. It’s the same thing here. I wouldn’t want that misunderstanding to crop up. But we’re looking at the same thing: the vision which constitutes the Bible is the presence.

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