Category Archives: Literary Scholarship

The Influence of Anxiety

I’d like to add to the recent discussion thread on Harold Bloom

The reason Bloom, in this interview, does not mention Frye in his list of “my greatest influences” is that Frye’s influence ended when Bloom had a nervous breakdown and began to write nonsense after deciding that literature was primarily “based upon agonistic competition,” as he puts it in the interview. It is all about the Oedipus complex and castration anxiety. It is all about which writers are greater, stronger, more powerful than others: in other words, which writers Bloom identifies with, and which ones he dismisses. His judgment of Poe is a perfect instance (see his attack on Poe in the New York Review of Books, “Inescapable Poe”): “Poe’s survival raises perpetually the issue whether literary merit and canonical status necessarily go together. I can think of no other American writer, down to this moment, at once so inescapable and so dubious.” He ridicules, for example, the overwrought prose style of the narrators in Poe’s great tales, a style that is in fact carefully attuned to the states of mind of the characters, who are often criminally insane or on the threshold of consciousness. It is as if a critic were to ridicule Mark Twain’s prose style in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because the narrator writes ungrammatically and uses cuss words. In contrast, Frye regarded Poe as a literary genius.

Here is how Bloom sums up his ‘literary theory’ of influence: ”I use the Shakespearean term ‘misprision,’ which is a kind of deliberate creativeness. The later work overturns an earlier work in order to get free of it. The new poem, new story, new drama or new novel is a creative misreading of the work that engendered it.” Literature is thus reduced to a Nietzschean or Oedipal struggle between grand creative minds. When literature is not that, for Bloom, it is the “touchstone theory” all over again: as he quotes Curtius, literature is “a reservoir of spiritual energies through which we can flavour and ennoble our present-day life.” Is this really what literature is all about? A kind of aesthetic and spiritual gilding of our prosperous middle-class life? Such an ennobling influence, however, doesn’t seem to have had much effect on Bloom. Read the interview, which starts, not very nobly, with a rant about attacks on the canon and his “desperate” but futile attempts to defend the curriculum of great books against the invasion of feminist Visigoths:

I do not give in to political considerations, however they mask themselves. All this business about gender, social class, sexual orientation and skin pigmentation is nonsense. I’m 81. I’m not prepared to temporise any more. I’ve been prophesying like Jeremiah since 1968, warning the profession that it was destroying itself. And it has.

It is interesting that Bloom began his jeremiad around the same time he broke with Frye. That’s over forty years, I guess, of not temporising. But this harangue is no better than Lynne Cheney (“not for me”) and Alan Bloom in the Closing of the American Mind. It is the tedious and angry voice of a reactionary. Frye was certainly concerned about the ascendency of ideological criticism but he countered it with a defence of the liberality and autonomy of imaginative culture. He did not speak contemptuously (“all this business about gender, etc.”), and he never whined and railed. He did not dismiss other people’s genuine concerns, even when he thought they were misguided; he tried to engage them, with as much graciousness as possible. And then there is Bloom’s vanity, transparent throughout, and the maudlin sentiment, the name-dropping, the emphasis on close “personal” friends (“Those are the five books. Four of them are by personal friends, and one is by someone I corresponded with.”), the nauseating idolatry of genius, and the wheedling allusions to the enormous number of enormous books he has written, one volume after another dedicated to the memory of his own opinions.

As Frye points out,

Criticism founded on comparative values falls into two main divisions, according to where the work of art is regarded as a product or as a possession. The former develops biographical criticism, which relates the work of art primarily to the man who wrote it. . . . Biographical criticism concerns itself largely with comparative questions of greatness and personal authority. It regards the poem as the oratory of its creator, and it feels most secure when it knows of a definite, and preferably heroic, personality behind the poetry. If it cannot find such a personalty, it may try to project one of out of rhetorical ectoplasm, as Carlyle does in his essay on Shakespeare as a ‘heroic’ poet.

Bloom is not a serious critic or a serious literary theorist. He has no critical theory to speak of. He is an extremely well-read man with an inflated ego and a photographic memory. It is no accident that he feels the need to present such a personal list of great works of literary scholarship, a list of the works that most influenced him, not the profession, as the interviewer requested. It is exactly what he does with literature. His books, as he says himself, reveal a man “desperately trying to battle for canonical standards.” It is the critic as judge, as maker of value-judgments. Frye, of course, demonstrated the perversity of such a basis for literary study in his polemical introduction to Anatomy; it is an essay that is always worth reading again, because value-judgments, like bedbugs, seem impossible to eradicate: they just keep coming back in new mutations. Enough of Bloom. Frye has already summed it up: “The odious comparisons of greatness, then, may be left to take care of themselves, for even when we feel obliged to assent to them they are still only unproductive platitudes.”

Quote of the Day: The Sokal Hoax Fifteen Years Later

Michael Bérubé has an article in the liberal quaterly Democracy on the Sokal Hoax.  You can read the entire thing here.

An excerpt:

What, you ask, was the Sokal Hoax? While I was chatting with my colleagues at the Postmodern Science Forum, New York University physicist Alan Sokal, having read Higher Superstition, decided to try an experiment. He painstakingly composed an essay full of (a) flattering references to science-studies scholars such as Ross and Stanley Aronowitz, (b) howler-quality demonstrations of scientific illiteracy, (c) flattering citations of other science-studies scholars who themselves had demonstrated howler-quality scientific illiteracy, (d) questionable-to-insane propositions about the nature of the physical world, (e) snippets of fashionable theoretical jargon from various humanities disciplines, and (f) a bunch of stuff from Bohr and Heisenberg, drawing object lessons from the uncertainty at the heart of quantum mechanics. He then placed a big red bow on the package, titling the essay “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The result was a very weird essay, a heady mix–and a shot heard ’round the world. For Sokal decided to submit it to the journal Social Text, where it wound up in a special issue edited by Ross and Aronowitz on . . . the “Science Wars.” Yes, that’s right: Social Text accepted an essay chock-full of nonsense and proceeded to publish it in a special issue that was designed to answer the critics of science studies–especially, but not exclusively, Gross and Levitt. It was more than a great hoax on Sokal’s part; it was also, on the part of Social Text, one of the great own-foot-shootings in the history of self-inflicted injury.

Cannily, Sokal chose Lingua Franca, a then-influential (since folded) magazine that covered the academy and the humanities, as the venue in which to publish his “gotcha” essay, in which he revealed that the whole thing was a great big joke. And as if on cue, Ross and Aronowitz fired back almost precisely as Sokal believed they would: Aronowitz called Sokal “ill-read and half-educated,” while Ross called the essay “a little hokey,” “not really our cup of tea,” and a “boy stunt . . . typical of the professional culture of science education.” Aronowitz and Ross had every reason to feel badly stung, no question; but the terms of their response, unfortunately, spectacularly bore out Sokal’s claim that “the targets of my critique have by now become a self-perpetuating academic subculture that typically ignores (or disdains) reasoned criticism from the outside.” It was not hard to wonder, after all: If indeed Sokal’s hokey boy-stunt essay was not really your cup of tea, why did you publish it in the first place?

For many people, the answer to that question was simple: because the theory-addled, jargon-spouting academic left, of which Social Text now stood as the symbol, really didn’t know squat about science and really was devoted to the project of making shit up and festooning it with flattering citations to one another’s work. It was what critics believed all along, and now they had the proof. The disparity of audience response was–and remains–stark: In my academic-left circles, Sokal’s name was mud, his hoax an example of extraordinary bad faith; everywhere else, especially on the rest of the campus and in the world of journalism, Sokal was a hero, the guy who finally exposed the naked emperor (and there was much talk of naked emperors) and burst the cultural-studies bubble that had so drastically overinflated certain academic reputations–and academic egos.

Frye and G. Wilson Knight

g wilson knight



G. Wilson Knight (1897-1985) was professor of English at Trinity College, University of Toronto, in the 1930s; he returned to Britain in 1941, where he taught at the University of Leeds until 1962; his main interest was Shakespeare, many of whose plays he produced and acted in; his best‑known book, Wheel of Fire, was published in 1930.  What follows are the references to Knight in Frye’s writing:


1. There’s a series of New Directions studies on “Makers of Modern Literature,” by Harry Levin on Joyce, very well reviewed, & now one by David Daiches on Woolf, said to be not so good.  Wilson Knight is producing another book, this time on Milton.[1] A new Simenon translated, two stories again.  He’s so good that his stories don’t even depend for their interest on the puzzle. [Diaries]

2. Well, Crane’s third lecture was a little easier to follow: more names and historical connections.  But his relativism and pluralism are breaking down into an Aristotle (and Crane) contra mundum attitude.  Everybody’s in the other camp—the camp where poetry is treated as a form of discourse.  Now I’ve lost Aristotle: I don’t understand how he’s distinguishable from this.  Anyway, the discourse people include the Latin rhetoricians, the medieval people, the critics of the Renaissance who thought they were Aristotelians but weren’t, the romantics, and the romantic tradition extending to the new critics & the myth critics.  The last group includes Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Francis Ferguson, Wilson Knight, and me.  [Diaries]

3. King Lear attempts to achieve heroic dignity through his position as a king and father, and finds it instead in his suffering humanity: hence it is in King Lear that we find what has been called the “comedy of the grotesque,”[2] the ironic parody of the tragic situation, most elaborately developed.  [Anatomy of Criticism, 237]

4. But he was quickly bored if the conversation ran down in gossip or trivialities. The personnel at his parties naturally changed over the course of years, but from Bertram Brooker and Wilson Knight in the 1930s to Marshall McLuhan and Douglas Grant in the 1960s, he never wavered in his affection for friends who could talk, and talk with spirit, content, and something to say. [“Ned Pratt: The Personal Legend”]

5. There were many little magazines and attempts at experimental theatre (I can’t answer for the dance groups, of which as I remember there were several), but they fought hard and died quickly—all but the unique and miraculous Canadian Forum, which a dozen university staff members, then as now, worked hard to keep going and up to standard. A few rumours also seeped through from other colleges, of how Wilson Knight at Trinity had revolutionized the study of Shakespeare, of how Gilbert Norwood had written of Classical drama with a sophisticated knowledge of the modern stage, of Charles Cochrane’s mighty struggle with Christianity and Classical Culture. [“Autopsy of a Old Grad’s Grievance,” in Northrop Frye on Education]

6. Surrey, however, established a new pentameter line for his century. Its prestige captured Spenser, who had begun with accentual experiments and contrapuntal singing-matches, but for his epic moved away from musical rhythms, as Milton moved toward them. Shakespeare, however, and most Elizabethan drama with him, grew steadily swifter in movement, breaking out of the line into galloping recitativos, with the diction becoming sharper and more dissonant, the imagery grimmer and more sombre, the thought more tangled and obscure—in short, more musical in every way. The use of music by Shakespeare, however, is outside our scope: his musical accompaniments and imagery have been dealt with, notably by Granville Barker and Wilson Knight, but such features as the contrapuntal construction of King Lear have yet to be analysed.  [“Music in Poetry”]

7. This inductive movement towards the archetype is a process of backing up, as it were, from structural analysis, as we back up from a painting if we want to see composition instead of brushwork. In the foreground of the grave-digger scene in Hamlet, for instance, is an intricate verbal texture, ranging from the puns of the first clown to the danse macabre of the Yorick soliloquy, which we study in the printed text. One step back, and we are in the Wilson Knight and Spurgeon group of critics, listening to the steady rain of images of corruption and decay. [“Archetypes of Literature”]

8. The inductive studies of the recurring imagery of King Lear by Wilson Knight and Caroline Spurgeon have, for me at least, gone a long way to illuminate this meaning, and I think a careful comparison of the different contexts in which such words as “nature” and “nothing” appear would do a good deal more. [Review of Critics and Criticism]

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