Category Archives: Literary Criticism

Frye and War Literature


Manitoba Cemetery, Somme, France, where Frye’s brother Howard (killed in action 18 August 1918) is buried.  It is worth noting that Canada’s last known First World War veteran died just this past week — John Babcock, who enlisted at age 15 and died aged 109.

Responding to Peter Webb’s post and a subsequent exchange in the Comments:

Peter, I don’t by any means think that Frye’s biography explains the general absence of attention to war stories in his writing, but his own painful experiences might have caused him to cast his glance elsewhere.

In 1944 he did review Joseph Schull’s I, Jones, Soldier, a narrative poem, about which he said: “describe[es] the thoughts in the mind of an officer just before zero hour. Jones is a sensitive soldier, and is not content to go into action with a merely physical integration; he wants a spiritual one, too, and some insight into the fundamental faiths which are the laws of his own being and consequently the causes of his being there. He reviews his military career up to that point with a good deal of detachment and humour, and rejects the ready-made formulas—patriotism, justice of one’s cause, product of a Depression generation, and the rest—with a sharp insight. When he gets down to his mental bedrock, he finds ‘one earth, one Man, one Truth’ [48]: perhaps in answer, though the poet does not say so, to the ‘Ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Führer’ with which he is challenged by his enemy. These are of course inarticulate ideas, and he talks very vaguely about them, but fundamental ideas usually are inarticulate, and the poem does not lose its narrative logic.”

Frye reviewed as well, also in 1944, Karl Shapiro’s V-Letter and Other Poems. Shapiro, Frye writes, “is not a ‘war’ poet: he is simply a poet who happens to be in the army, and because he is a poet patterns go on forming and metres go on clicking in his mind, regardless of what else is happening [vi]. Sometimes, of course, the war enters the poetry—most poignantly, perhaps, in the poem on the amputation [The Leg]—but on the whole Mr. Shapiro makes no attempt to ‘interpret’ the war to us by composing metrical editorials.”

I think the only time Frye glanced at war from the Nazi point of view was in his review of Ernst Jünger’s On the Marble Cliffs (reprinted in Northrop Frye on Modern Culture), but it’s clear that he doesn’t know quite what to make of Jünger’s allegory.

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Reading as Resistance to Reading


Responding to Quote of the Day

Thanks for this, Mike. The quotation and the article in full made me think of Frye’s references to the lamentable disappearance of the old Honour course at the University of Toronto. It would be interesting to know more about that. Perhaps our Southern Pez-dispenser can cough something up for us.

I certainly identified with what the guy was saying about the frayed sense of purpose in the classroom when the discipline itself is so incoherent and uncertain. Interesting he uses the term “secondary considerations” in the quote you provide: what he means of course is what Frye calls secondary concerns. Just a coincidence?

Even in my grad class . . . though maybe “even” isn’t the right adverb, given that, at least in my department, there is a concerted effort to train any spontaneous responses to literature out of our students long before they are in any danger of attending a graduate seminar . . .

I was going to say how predictable it is now that the immediate response by students to an image in a novel or a textual detail or a set of such images or details is to explain or rationalize them by referring, in one way or another, to the world outside the work. (This has always been the case but it is now actively encouraged.) And this centrifugal impulse is usually accompanied by a critical attitude that undermines in a knowing and dismissive, even contemptuous way the author and the work. This is called “critical thinking,” much touted in the last decade or so as one of the great skills that humanities students can bring to their employers. The training that goes into it is analogous to those educational kid’s books which present pictures in which the details are out of place or wrong and the child is supposed to point out all the errors. Please point out, class, the relevant errors in Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale” . . . Yes, exactly: the Ruth image is indeed a perfect example of the patriarchal aestheticization of exploited female labor . . .

I think part of the explanation for why such a critical approach has caught on is that it is so damn easy to do: it spares the students and more importantly the professors from having to really think critically about what they are reading, since the technique is to short-circuit from the beginning the imaginative energy of the text, the electrical linking, if you like, of one image to another, within the text or in other works of literature.

Let us now criticize famous writers seems to be the general idea: or rather let us “critique” or “problematize” them. Or my favorite: let us “resist” them. The books are no longer being read: they are being resisted, as if a poem were trying to put one over on you, like some sleazy salesman trying to sell you a highly overpriced and shoddy vacuum cleaner.

Reading as resistance: which really means resisting reading. Resist, don’t fall for that image, don’t pick up that theme–you have no idea where it might have been . . . Remember: your soul is in peril of eternal incorrectness.

Quote of the Day


From The American Scholar, “The Decline of the English Department”:

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

More Frye and the Bible


Blake’s Plato

Reponding to Nicholas Graham’s post

I certainly agree that Frye’s reading of the Bible is guided by typology and that there is a certain prophetic power in his biblical criticism. I was by no means trying to give a full account of Frye’s reading of the Bible. My remarks were in the context of the earlier posts about the meaning of the phrase “literary criticism of the Bible.” All I was trying to suggest was that Frye’s approach relies on two fundamental literary principles, myth and metaphor or narrative and image––the mythos and dianoia that Frye devoted so much space to in Anatomy of Criticism. Typology and prophecy, as I understand those terms, are terms from biblical, rather than literary, criticism. I agree also that “vision” is also absolutely central to Frye’s enterprise, and I wrote a fairly long chapter in my book on Frye and religion (89–125) trying to make a case for its centrality and relating it to terms such as “insight,” “enlightenment,” “epiphany,” “recognition” and (the central visionary faculty) “the imagination.” But again “vision” is a term that does not spring from the vocabulary of literary criticism, though it is perhaps obliquely connected to Aristotle’s opsis. No one would want to reduce Frye’s reading of the Bible to myth and metaphor. But they are literary principles, and so no one would want to ignore them either. As I understand Frye, “vision” and “prophecy” belong to what I called the Bible’s centrifugal, kerygmatic thrust.

What Would a Science of Literary Criticism Look Like?

detail of an automated analysis of King Lear
Bob Denham quotes Frye saying he is not himself interested in turning literary criticism into a science but thinks it will happen one day. I like to play with this idea. In particular, that there might be an intersection of my two disciplines, literary criticism and computer science, has always been tantalizing to me.

It seems that a scientific study of literature has to begin with a cataloguing of conventions, and by conventions I mean the kind that are more or less obvious to anyone familiar with an area of literature and easily communicable to an outsider. Two books I really love are The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute and John Grant, and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Clute and Peter Nicholls. Together I think they contain an excellent start and model for this kind of endeavour. Once this data is collected, we have a set of subjects that can be analyzed, compared and whose general structure can be described. This would produce an “anatomy” of conventions. Just to be clear, by “anatomy,” I do not mean what Frye meant by anatomy. I am using the word to refer strictly to the description of the structure of obvious conventions.

A science of literary criticism could be built up from works of literature to conventions and from a catalogue of conventions to a language or theory for speaking about the structure of conventions, and from this understanding of the structure of conventions to theories about higher level conventions such as genre, and from such higher level theories to a general theory of the structure of literature.

So here are the phases that I believe are needed in a scientific study of literature.

Stage   Input                       Output
first   works of literature         conventions
second  conventions                 catalogue of conventions
third   catalogue of conventions    anatomy
fourth  anatomy                     theories of higher level conventions
fifth   higher level theories       general theory

I think the really essential point is at the anatomy stage. How do we begin to talk about conventions in a structured and objective way? Several answers suggest themselves to me. It may be that we can never get past a semi-formal technical language of convention. But what is more interesting for my purpose is a formal encoding of convention which can be manipulated algebraically and computationally. Admittedly a computational literary criticism would not be a social science as Frye envisioned, but a hybrid discipline combining computer science and literary criticism.

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Peter Yan’s Top Ten Reasons for Literature


10. Literature is a genuine human creation, a language like math and music, which does not occur in nature. What is defined as culture is a) giving nature a human form (the sounds of nature are not the sounds of music), b) the best that has been thought and said.

9. Political/Scientific reasons: Literature presents different visions of the world we want or don’t want, a way to measure and choose politicians and policies when we vote. It even guides and inspires science, as the visions of literature are being realized, such as Icarus and hang-gliding, or computers that write and respond to vocal commands, even the cellular phone, an influence from sci-fi Star Trek. Also, politicians and governments do not sink to their lowest level of brutality, inflicting the greatest misery on the greatest number, until they rationalize it in words. See Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Be able to read to know difference between ideas which are for or against life, and not accept them passively.

8. Literature reminds us of our need for primary concerns which we share with animals (especially our concerns for food and water, sex, clothing, shelter, and unimpeded movement) over secondary concerns which are our loyalties to a group/mob and beliefs like capitalism, religion, communism. Too often we go to war because we don’t like how another group thinks. Many stories are also of a paradise lost and gained (e.g. story of Eden, Atlantis, the Garden of Hesperides) and we can’t go anywhere unless nature is looked after as well, a strong message for the troubled environment we live in.

7. One often missed point: art and literature are therapeutic. Watching Hollywood movies is the most obvious application of art to cheer us up. Most movies are adaptations of books. No books = no movies, as scripts themselves are written in a literary form, and are direct descendants of drama and theatre. Books and other arts (role-playing) provide a healthy catharsis and emotional release, as a healthy mind is the basis of all health.

6. Reading stories force us to identify with the main character who often is very different from us. This ability to identify, to walk in someone else’s shoes, helps us to identify with and learn tolerance for people who dress, think, speak, act and worship differently.

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Daniel Deronda’s “Double Heroine”


Joe Adamson notes that the “double-heroine” structure is worthy of further study whether it be (and I hope I am not over-reading here) in canonical literature or in popular literature.  In his response to my post, he mentions one of my favourite novels, Daniel Deronda by George Eliot.  The novel itself was added to my field exam bibliography late in the process, and I remember groaning when it happened (and also questioning why a realist novelist was to be included).  However, as I started to read the novel, I quickly became entranced by it and ended up getting through it in a single day.  But, after thinking about Joe’s response, I’d have to say our readings are different.

It seems to me that Daniel Deronda’s selection of Mirah isn’t that he selects the “dark Jewish heroine” as a rebellious move, but rather that the choice is, in many ways, a reinscription of Frye’s structure of romance.  The great “surprise” of Daniel Deronda is the protangonist’s realization that he is Jewish and not Christian. His marrying Mirah is really, I think, quite similar to Ivanhoe – although in Eliot’s novel, what has been reversed or inverted is not structural, but religious.  That is, the structure of the marriage hasn’t been disrupted nor has the definition of community – if anything, Deronda is the sort of pharmakos character (rather than hero) who must be accepted by the Jewish community.

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The Void Between the Stars


Blake’s Song of Los

Response to Sára Tóth,  Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham

These responses appear suddenly and unexpectedly, like fairy rings on the front lawn:  you wake up in the morning, and there they are.  Most gratifying, particularly when one’s respondents are as stimulating as Sára Tóth, Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham.  I begin to see the uses of this blog thing:  it has a rhythm of its own, quite different from academic criticism.

Joe, I thank you for reminding us of that passage from Creation and Recreation, as it is probably Frye’s most extended treatment of the concept of spiritual otherness.  Both Joe and Sára point to the dialectical nature of Frye’s later thought, and that puts its finger on something central. The Late Notebooks show that Words with Power was going to be organized according to a “dialectic of Word and Spirit.”  I keep wondering why that dropped largely out of the final book—especially as it is still there implicitly.  Is Sára right that there are signs of occasional vacillation on Frye’s part?

She is definitely correct about Frye’s vacillation on the subject of kerygma.  Another thing I like about the blog is that I feel free to introduce occasional anecdotes that are, I hope, instructive, yet which would be out of place in a more formal setting.  In the later Eighties, some time after the appearance of The Great Code, I managed to work up my nerve to question Frye about what seemed an either-or distinction in that book between literature and kerygmatic rhetoric.  I asked him whether literature couldn’t at times take on a kerygmatic quality.  Frye was tactful, but wouldn’t back down.  He used as example the refrain from the Bard’s Song in Blake’s Milton:  “Mark my words! They are of your eternal salvation!”  Notwithstanding, Frye told me, since that assertion appears in a work of literature, we take it hypothetically.  This is why The Great Code insists that the Bible is not a work of art.  I was somewhat troubled by this, for personal as well as intellectual reasons.  Certain works of literature, even certain passages, have changed me, have changed my life.  For that matter, certain passages of Frye have changed my life:  I have had the “This is for me” response Frye speaks of as characteristic of kerygma; the passages have become “myths to live by.”  So I read Chapter Four of Words with Power with delighted surprise.  Frye just about never admitted that he changed his mind—but he did.  I am much more satisfied with the treatment in the later book, in which literature can sometimes take on kerygmatic qualities and, presumably, kerygmatic works such as the Bible can exhibit literary qualities.  The latter would take Frye full circle to Fearful Symmetry, which says in no uncertain terms that the Bible is a work of art, not just a code of art.  To be sure, Frye is speaking there from Blake’s perspective, but there is no indication that he does not share it.

As for the question of criticism as science, I am betting that that is fuel for at least three dozen blog entries–starting with this one.  I concede that Frye did talk sometimes as if he felt that criticism could be organized on an empirical basis, like science.  He was clearly irritated when he said in “Expanding Eyes” that “The order of words is there, all right, and there is no use writing it off as a private hallucination of my own.”  Harold Bloom had just got done comparing him to Proclus and Iamblichus—private hallucinators, in Frye’s book.  But he did seem to retain as late as 1975 a faith that we could achieve some consensus by showing repeated patterns “in the text.”  However, criticism for at least a decade before that had been insisting on exactly the opposite:  what seems to be “in the text” is a product of ideology or interpretive communities operating upon authors, readers, and critics alike.  This is why talk of a “scientific” criticism seems so dated now.

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More on Frye and Otherness


I wanted to respond just briefly to Michael Dolzani’s excellent “Necessary Angels” post. I have quoted the passage below in a previous post, and even though it appears in the closing paragraph of the second chapter of The Secular Scripture, a book devoted not to the Bible but to the romantic tradition, it still seems one of the most pertinent passages touching on the relationship between literature and otherness. Interestingly, Frye uses the image of the human struggle with an angelic dimension to describe this relationship, in which the mythological universe created by the human imagination is also an uncreated reality or revelation coming from elsewhere. Thanks to Sarah Tóth for the beautiful formulation of metaphor from Ricoeur, but surely the dialectic Frye points to here (and elsewhere) is just as balanced in its paradoxical formulation. Frye is contrasting the secular and the sacred scripture, the story of the creature and the story of the creator, and he casts back to his earlier evocation, in the same chapter, of none other than Wallace Stevens discussion of “imagination and reality” in The Necessary Angel:

Reality, we remember, is otherness, the sense of something not ourselves. We naturally think of the other as nature, or man’s actual environment, and in the divided world of work and ego-control it is nature. But for the imagination it is rather some kind of force of power or will that is not ourselves, an otherness of spirit. Not all of us will be satisfied with calling the central part of our mythological inheritance a revelation from God, and, though each chapter in this book closes on much the same cadence, I cannot claim to have found a more acceptable formulation. It is quite true that if there is no sense that the mythological universe is a human creation, man can never get free of servile anxieties and superstitions, never surpass himself, in Nietzsche’s phrase. But if there is no sense that it is also something uncreated, something coming from elsewhere, man remains a Narcissus staring at his own reflection, equally unable to suprass himself. Somehow or other, the created scripture and the revealed scripture, or whatever we call the latter, have to keep fighting each other like Jacob and the angel, and it is through the maintaining of this struggle, the suspension of belief between the spiritually real and the humanly imaginative, that our own mental evolution grows. Meanwhile we have on principle to go on with. The improbably, desiring, erotic, and violent world or romance reminds us that we are not awake when we have abolished the dream world: we are awake only when we have absorbed it again.

I love this baleful image of man as Narcissus, “staring at his own reflection” and unable “to surpass himself ” as long as he deprives himself of this sense of an otherness, of a revelation that transcends him even though it is also a human creation. The Narcissus image speaks volumes to the ultimate dilemma of so much of the criticism and theory of the last decades in its obsession with ideology and the incapacity of human beings ever to imagine anything that is not simply a shadow or projection of their own self-interested social constructions. God and the imagination are one, which is why we are really asleep when we have “abolished the dream world” of literature, and why we “are awake only when we have absorbed it again.”

Shakespeare, Frye & Ideology


The “Sanders portrait,” the “Canadian” Shakespeare unveiled in 2001, purportedly painted from life in 1603.

Russell’s post on Greene and Shakespeare raises a number of questions about the relation between literature and ideology — a subject that has always been at the centre of literary criticism and shows no sign of going away.

Frye, in a display of irreverence as cheeky as Greene’s, famously observed (referring both to the relatively thin biography and the posthumously published Droeshout portrait) that we have very little hard data about Shakespeare: a few signatures, a handful of addresses, “and the portrait of a man who is clearly an idiot.”  As Russell points out, Frye is always able to make a distinction between the “man” (who may possess idiotic personal qualities and even more idiotic ideological views) and the “writer.” For current critical theory and practice, this must seem an indefensible position.  How is it possible for anyone to produce work independent of their all-encompassing social conditioning and the prejudices it spawns?

For Frye, the answer begins with the fact that literature possesses both “autonomy” and an “authority” unique to it.  Literary archetypes — whose universality can be discerned by the widest possible inductive survey of literature throughout history and across cultures — are expressive of imaginative constants and primary existential concerns.  Moreover, the context is fundamentally different.  Language in its everyday social function is “work”: expressing beliefs, necessities, truths, and so on.  Literary structures, on the other hand, are, in their imaginatively recreational function, “play”: they “exist for their own sake” and provide no requirement of belief or claim to truth.   Ideology, in short, compels; literature invites.  And upon that distinction everything follows, including the fact that the writer (like, say,  T.S. Eliot, about whom Frye directly addresses this very issue) may be consciously pushing a personal ideological agenda from which the literature itself displays a stubbornly independent purpose.  This is why literature is potentially “visionary”: it provides us with a clarified sense of what we want and who we would like to be without providing any compulsory program of action or belief.  Literature as recreation merely provides the opportunity for re-creation; it does not and cannot compel it.  What we choose to do in response to the existentially concerned but still aesthetic experience of literature is always entirely up to us, including (as we know all too well) doing absolutely nothing at all.

Frye more or less takes up these issues in the opening pages of the Introduction to On Shakespeare.  In fact, here is the complete second paragraph of that Introduction:

We have to keep the historical Shakespeare always present in our minds to prevent us from trying to kidnap him into our own cultural orbit, which is different from but quite as narrow as that of Shakespeare’s first audiences.   For instance, we get obsessed by the notion of using words to manipulate people and events, of the importance of saying things. If we were Shakespeare, we may feel, we wouldn’t write an anti-Semitic play like The Merchant of Venice, or a sexist play like The Taming of the Shrew, or a knockabout farce like The Merry Wives of Windsor, or a brutal melodrama like Titus Andronicus. That is, we’d have used the drama for higher and nobler purposes. One of the first points to get clear about Shakespeare is that he didn’t use the drama for anything: he entered into its conditions as they were then, and accepted them totally. That fact has everything to do with his rank as a poet now.  (On Shakespeare, 1-2)

So what does Shakespeare’s “rank as a poet” really amount to?  It may be summed up by the fact that he does not ever subordinate the autonomy and authority of his art to any external consideration: “all the world’s a stage” is not just a clever conceit in Shakespeare, it is a radical metaphor of his imaginative worldview. As Frye puts it, “In every play Shakespeare wrote, the hero or central character is the theatre itself” (OS 4). He may reflect the beliefs, biases, anxieties and prejudices of his time in a way his audience might recognize and even approve of, but he doesn’t promote them.  The Merchant of Venice is nowhere close to reducible to the anti-Semitism it conjures; The Taming of the Shrew overturns the complacent sexism it renders; The Merry Wives of Windsor unexpectedly offers up a more egalitarian and tolerant vision of society once the knockabout farce has played itself out; and Titus Andronicus proves to be a powerful meditation upon the grisly absurdity of the human capacity for cruelty. Why? Because Shakespeare allows his plays to play without ever feeling the necessity of putting them to work in the name of some ideology, however noble or well-intentioned it may otherwise claim to be.