Category Archives: Post-modernism

The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon was first published on this date in 1830.

We posted on Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s new musical, The Book of Mormon, yesterday.  You can watch their South Park episode, “All About Mormons,” here.

Complementing the satire of Parker and Stone, here’s a pertinent observation on parody, with the Book of Mormon cited, in Notebook 44:

All irony, whether of content or of form, is relative to a norm, and is unintelligible without the norm. It seems essential to keep on saying this is an age of “deconstruction,” where the illusion grows up that the norms are no longer there. Tristram Shandy was “odd” to Johnson and “typical” to some Russian formalist [Victor Shklovsky], but it’s not typical of anything but a fashion. (When parody becomes very fashionable, the illusion grows up that the norms have disappeared.)

I suppose the Mormon Bible is a parody of the lost histories of the great civilizations that came pouring over the Bering Straits into the New World. (CW 5, 205-6)

Jan Gorak: Frye and the Instruments of Mental Production


I’ve recently been shelving some of the volumes I inherited this summer following the death of my much-missed colleague and friend Edward Twining.  As I stacked some of them, I remembered how when we first came to Denver, Ed and his wise and witty wife Mary-Beth took us on a drive into the Rocky Mountains.  As we rose in altitude, Ed began to recollect, with all the vigor and enthusiasm he commanded so easily, the occasion of Frye’s visit to Denver about twenty years before.  Unusually, I thought then—but not now—he warmed to the memory of Frye’s unassuming and apparently capacious knowledge of the region’s geology.  (I was later to discover that Frye had been a longtime lunch partner of Charles Currelly, Professor of Geology at Toronto and had ghost-edited [ghost-written?] his volume of reminiscences We Brought the Ages Home.)   Throughout, Ed punctuated his discussion with regular, and obviously warmly felt, exclamations like “What a generous mind!  What an honest man!”  There was no reference to Frye’s various institutional and professional honors, still less any asides about cultural power or academic acclaim.  Although there were frequent reflections on admired passages from unexpected sources—the CBC broadcasts that became The Educated Imagination and The Great Code.

It was the professional Frye with whom I started to reacquaint myself as I continued in my shelving.  My own paperback edition of The Stubborn Structure is no longer stubborn—invertebrate might be a more appropriate adjective.  So a hardback copy was most welcome to me.  As I started to leaf through the book, thoughts rapidly started to form.  I became particularly interested in the essay on “The Instruments of Mental Production.”  In the rest of this entry, I shall be largely concerned with what Frye says in this piece, but I pause for a moment to note that I think the network of connections he forged with universities across the world is worth thinking about: what is the relationship between the international Frye and the Frye of the 40s and 50s, who wrote for The Canadian Forum.  How did he adjust his discourse to the different conditions of his utterances at that time?   

One answer is of course that he didn’t, unlike many contemporary academics, who are conference revolutionaries and weekend consumers of Gucci.  Instead, he brought to different audiences the fruits of what he discovered in Blake and Milton.  In so doing, he rejected the premises that liberal or humanistic knowledge was ever instrumental, or that the language of ownership and production had much to do with what we do when we teach King Lear or Emma.  He reiterated his conviction that education in “the creative arts” was intimately concerned with structured possibilities, not just with fitting bits of the curriculum together in what a faculty might be willing to accept after long processes of consultation and self-study had worn them down into demoralized exhaustion.  He emphasized how much of what was most valuable in a liberal education was not negotiable in a roundtable manner, but depended on self-identification, unconscious commitments and, memorably, the articulation of inner vision into structured communication.  “It is worth reminding ourselves,” he says, “that in Plato, who seems to have invented the conception, dialogue exists solely for the purpose of destroying false knowledge.  As soon as any genuine knowledge (or what Plato regarded as such) is present, the dialogue turns into a punctuated monologue” (SS 4).

There is no substitute for reflection in the educated imagination, not any escaping the need to translate the results of that reflection into organized utterance.  A punctuated monologue is not a dialogue, but it isn’t a withdrawal into deep silence either.  Because even if your commitments or preferred forms of identification are not with those of a humanist education, you will still need to use the humanist instruments of word and image to communicate them.  This is why a humanistic education is so seminal for Frye and for us.

I’ve been thinking about these things as I stacked some of Ed Twining’s books, and wondering if it wasn’t for reasons like these that Frye could have meant so much to a man who, for all his large reserves of play and erudition, would surely have perished in the present academic dispensation.  Not so much because this regime emphasizes constant publication—in fact many administrators are anything but concerned about publication—but because we are now so pinioned on the treadmill of constant production that Frye identified in this essay as so deeply anti-educative.  Only now the things we aim to produce are not articles and monographs but tolerance, a comfortable learning environment, the public good and God knows what else.  In this, the postmodern academy is so often only a parody of what Frye talks about in “The Instruments of Mental Production.”   Instead, it is a place best imaged in Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels where, you will remember, Gulliver talks about the proneness to disease of the Yahoos. What strikes him as odd is that no one has: “Any more than a general Appellation for those Maladies, which is borrowed from the Name of the Beast, and called Hnea Yahoo or the Yahoo’s-Evil; and the Cure prescribed is a Mixture of their own Dung and Urine, forcibly put down the Yahoo’s Throat” (GT 4).

The perpetual administration of dubious remedies is what the postmodern academy craves and thrives on, not productive scholarship (identified as the source of rich ironies by Frye) and still less the possibilities of human life that he enjoins on us for our lifetime study in his final paragraph.  But even the impossibilities, even what you don’t want, ultimately assumes “a poetic shape” as this passage from Swift shows.

In circumstances like these, I think Frye’s international presence in the scholarly community brings him into territory contemporary readers will recognize from Adorno’s Minima Moralia. Adorno’s response, it seems to me, is much more like Gulliver’s: recalcitrant misanthropy takes over from hope and, to a degree, vision—much of his discussion in MM proceeds like a discharge of tiny pellets into his own flesh.  I’d like to say that, of course, Frye’s is the example we all should follow.  But I’m not at all sure about this: what I do think is that the global context that a particular kind of inquirer moves towards seems to produce utopian and misanthropic types in the scholarly drama it hosts.  I mean types to carry the meaning Frye has alerted us to: recurring figures in a specific structure.

Katabasis and Popular Culture

The movie that haunted Frye as a child: Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera, 1925.

I am reading Bob Denham’s wonderful book, Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World.  It is divided into two main parts, “Exoterica” and “Esoterica”, the first of which I am making my leisurely way through. I have always called myself an exoteric Frye scholar, which means that I try to approach him as a general reader would through the published work and with the assured assumption that it possesses total coherence.  This approach has never failed me.  But what Bob manages to demonstrate is how the esoteric element of Frye’s critical vision illuminates the exoteric: and, appropriately enough, illuminates it from within.  I’m not even bothering to annotate or highlight the book — that can come with subsequent readings.  This first time round I simply enjoy being startled by the clarity of Bob’s insights while tucking away little bits of miscellaneous information here and there, like a chipmunk filling its cheeks.

Here are a couple of observations that stand out for me at this point, and I hope are at least tangentially related to the posts that have been going up the last few days.

The first has to do with Frye’s notebooks, which Bob characterizes as the “imaginative free play” where Frye’s mind displays its tendency to dianoia or the gestalt perception of pattern rather than the narrative continuity of mythos.  Here Frye is associative, oracular, synchronicitous.  Bob mines a number of excellent quotes from the notebooks to illustrate the tendency, but this one stands out:

[I]n beginning to plan a major work like the third book, don’t eliminate anything. Never assume that some area of your speculation can’t be included & has to be left over for another book. Things may get eliminated in the very last stage . . . but never, never exclude anything when thinking about the book. It was strenuous having to cut down FS [Fearful Symmetry] from an encyclopedia, but . . . major works are encyclopedic & anatomic: everything I know must go into them — eye of bat & tongue of dog. (25)

The second observation relates to the emphasis on katabasis or descent in Frye’s later work, which Bob astutely notes “appears to be even more important” than the theme of ascent.  Once again, he comes up with a superb quote from one of Frye’s 1960s notebooks to make the point:

Everybody has a fixation.  Mine has to do with meander-and-descent patterns. For years in my childhood I wanted to dig a cave & be the head of a society in it — this was before I read Tom Sawyer. All the things in literature that haunt me most have to do with katabasis. The movie that hit me hardest as a child was the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera. My main points of reference in literature are such things as The Tempest, P.R. [Paradise Regained], [Blake’s Milton], the Ancient Mariner, Alice in Wonderland, the Waste Land– every damn one a meander-&-katabasis work. (29)

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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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Show business kids makin’ movies of themselves / You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else. Steely Dan, “Show Biz Kids“. (Rickie Lee Jones‘s superior cover of the song is featured above).

When Joe Adamson and I were thinking about setting up this blog, Joe said that he wanted it to be like the best aspects of a conference: people milling around amid the serious business of papers and panels, talking, laughing, enjoying one another’s company, with all of the unexpected pleasures and discoveries that come with it.  It’s a good analogy.

For me the analogy is more like a gin joint.  The occupants — having knocked, identified themselves, and gained ready admission — are smart, know what they’re about, and, their tongues loosened, are free to say whatever they want.  We keep good company but are up for shenanigans, maybe even fisticuffs, if necessary.  But the most important thing is that the talk take any form that follows and follow any path it finds.

And that has certainly been true this last week. Over the last couple of days, for example, the conversation — initiated by Russell Perkin and with significant contributions from Clayton Chrusch, Matthew Griffin, Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham — has  centred on Frye, religion, the Bible, and The Great Code.

One of the best things about administering the blog with Joe is that we must deal with every comment and post that comes our way; and, of course, there’s a rich email correspondence going on behind the scenes.  That combination — posts, comments, email — has really clarified at least a couple of things for me this past week.  The first is that even with our small core of regular contributors, we speak with many voices, and that’s exactly what Joe and I hoped for.  What we all have in common are varying degrees of admiration for Frye, but it’s also very clear how diverse our views can be.  The debate we’re having is the sort of thing I’ve dreamed of for a very long time, and I’m enjoying it now with some of the best company imaginable, whose numbers I expect will only increase.

The other issue that’s been clarified for me is confronting what it means to be the kind of Frygian I am, and that’s been helped especially by the email correspondence.  What I’ve had to deal with in particular are the implications of truly, genuinely believing that there was an historical divergence in literary theory and criticism about forty years ago, represented primarily by Derrida and deconstruction on one side and Frye and recreation on the other, and that the road not taken was the better one. Frye, for me — and I know I’m not alone in this — is more than just another literary critic, a great among greats.  For many of us, he is a rare sort of genius whose presence on the scene changes it. As Joe put it the other day, picking up on a suggestion by Michael Sinding, maybe Frye was the paradigm shift that literary scholarship as a whole just can’t see yet.  Jonathan Allan earlier this week cited McMaster’s David Clark’s remarks on Frye and Derrida:

I want to say right away that Frye’s work is richly significant. He played a crucially important role in the history of Canadian letters and in the life of a particular Canadian academic imaginary, signs of which are still to be found in the university. One of the things we have yet to see, though, are slow readers–to remember something Nietzsche once said–of Frye’s work, i.e. readers who put enough confidence in the complexity and critical power of his work to be willing and able to read it resistantly and against the grain, and to read it symptomatically, with an eye to its productive self-differences, occlusions, and unconsciousnesses.

Well, okay: “a particular Canadian academic imaginary, signs of which are still to be found in the university”?  Maybe. But perhaps scholars like Clark might acknowledge at this point that insisting upon “against the grain” readings is not exactly kicking at the pricks, and the reflexive demand “to read it symptomatically” is possibly only a symptom of a deeper pathology.  Today’s established literary scholars may still think of themselves as plucky revolutionaries dismantling various hegemonies, but, after a generation of dominance, they seem much more like post-revolutionary commissars with quotas to fill and vested interests to protect.  In any event, I’m not so slow a reader that I’m unable to recognize what Frye calls “the squirrel’s chatter” of academic cant when I see it.

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Re: Big Picture


Responding to Michael Sinding:

Your points are well taken, Michael.  And it is true that in the comparatively small Frye community, it is easy enough to find a measure of regret about how things have spun out over the last 30 years or so.  Speaking for myself, I was an undergrad when the revolution was fully under way, and I watched as it swept everything out of its path in very short order by appealing to the worst in the academic character, especially the sense of superiority and entitlement.  When I returned years later as a grad student, it was easy to see what had been lost and at what cost.  In your post you describe what sound like small gains — the return of a measure of sanity here and there in an intellectual landscape that has been otherwise ravaged (as you put it at one point, by people who were “brilliant” but “wrong”).  The result is that it’s almost like we are called upon to rediscover fire and reinvent the wheel.  It’s not that there are no good ideas out there, it’s that they do not really compensate for the bad ones that have caused a whole generation of scholars to behave as though, if not actually believe that, literature has no value in itself.  That’s always what set Frye apart: his sure understanding that literature is autonomous and possesses its own unique authority — and, yeah, that authority is “timeless” in the sense that it is constant, even as the literary imagination omnivorously reprocesses whatever cultural, sociological, ideological and historical phenomena that confront it.  I can’t think of anyone else who comes close to asserting as much so consistently, let alone expressing it comprehensively in an extended body of work.

One last point: Frye was not merely superseded during the post-structuralist realignment, he was pushed aside with what can only be taken as shows of bad faith through misreading and misrepresentation.  Russell Perkin’s citation yesterday of Frye’s note to Bob Denham on the enumerative bibliography illustrates the point nicely.  Frye, of course, saw what was going on and often seemed baffled by it, as though he believed that at any moment people would regain their senses.  In one of the late notebooks, he wonders with uncharacteristic despair, “Why am I so revered but so ignored?”  Why indeed?  Frye was a much more revolutionary literary theorist than any who succeeded him because, unlike them, he drew upon the authority of literature itself, knowing that the literary is primary and other verbal structures are secondary derivations.  Like the derivative “instruments” that almost collapsed the financial system last year, the derivative “discourse” of the last generation has denied the public its birthright: the responsible management of an imaginative heritage that not only confronts social injustice in unmistakable terms but empowers us to overcome it.  We need only accept the invitation our shared heritage extends, and to do that we have to recognize the nature of the invitation being offered.  Frye was able to do this — and able to express it in a way that inspires others, as Bob’s post of student testimonials today suggests.  As it turned out, not many other theorists could do the same, and what they couldn’t do became the basis of what literary scholarship was subsequently obliged to do.

Michael Sinding: Big Picture


I’ve got some remarks on the interesting recent discussions about literary theory, cultural studies & new historicism, social aspects of literature, and the like. These remarks started out small but grew rapidly, as remarks are wont to do if they’re not nipped in the bud.

I agree about some of the problems in literary studies today diagnosed by others here. You do seem often to get, as Joe Adamson suggests, an assumption that ethical issues are cut and dried, that it’s obvious what the right opinions or ideologies are, and that they should be monitored. The critical work then gets highly political, without being highly ethical: they’re not interested in thinking about, say, how a text might complicate ideas about what’s right and wrong and why, just in castigating the wrong-thinkers and praising the right-thinkers.

And I would agree with Russell Perkin that cultural studies and new historicist critics do pay a lot of attention to the social function of literature. The thing is, they tend to have quite a narrow notion of that social function—essentially, as Joe says, that literature is a ‘shill for the establishment’. Often it’s just assumed, but here’s Franco Moretti putting it baldly, in Signs Taken for Wonders (1983, rpt. 2005): “let us say that the substantial function of literature is to secure consent. To make individuals feel ‘at ease’ in the world they happen to live in, to reconcile them in a pleasant and imperceptible way to its prevailing cultural norms. This is the basic hypothesis” (27). Moretti is a brilliant guy, but still. Why is the hypothesis so narrow, and basically wholly negative? Literature is just another kind of mystification. He may have changed his views since this book, but throughout, there is no hint that there is any other social function, or any other function at all. And it seems in line with views that persist today.

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“Updike has psoriasis”


Anyone who has seen Todd Solondz’s scabrous Storytelling knows that it’s an uneven but still unsettling satire of the “post-modern condition.” The hapless “documentary film-maker” of the movie’s second half, “Non-Fiction,” hollowly boasts that he intends to get Jacques Derrida to narrate his latest project.  The first half of the movie, meanwhile, “Fiction,” takes place in an English department where the passive-aggressive politics of shame and resentment roil pointlessly in the seminar room.  Perhaps the clip above is something like the seminar-in-hell Clayton Chrusch imagined for himself last week.

Another, more horrific clip, after the break.

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