Category Archives: Primary Concern

“Primary Concerns Must Become Primary, Or Else”


Gaia, Goddess of the Earth, Mother of the Gods

Thanks to extensively funded and aggressively concentrated efforts on the political right, there is still a high degree of global warming denialism going on out there.  In fact, recent polls in the U.S. indicate that the sudden sharp rise in denial is almost exclusively on the right side of the spectrum, which confirms that for such people the issue is not scientific but political.  It’s a familiar enough phenomenon, and it’s the M.O. most conspicuously of Fox News: if the “libruls” are for it, then it is hippy-dippy bullshit that must be shouted down.

The best case scenario (at least for those who understand that science is not a political brickbat to advance the interests of Exxon Mobil) is that we have very little time — measurable in just a handful of years — to reverse trends before the ecosystem tips and the warming process becomes fatally self-sustaining.  The only “debate” here is generated  by the sophistry of shills for the fossil fuel industry who between them cannot produce one piece of scholarship that passes peer review.  This is worth emphasizing: for all of the “debate” as it is characterized by a feckless and complacent mainstream news media (as it may be fairly characterized in the U.S.), there is not one piece of peer reviewed scholarship that denies the fact of anthropogenic climate change.

Again, that’s the best case scenario.

The worst case scenario is provided by James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis.  An outline of his doomsday vision can be found here.  Here’s a brief sample:

This article is the most difficult I have written. . . . My Gaia theory sees the Earth behaving as if it were alive, and clearly anything alive can enjoy good health, or suffer disease. Gaia has made me a planetary physician and I take my profession seriously, and now I, too, have to bring bad news.

The climate centres around the world, which are the equivalent of the pathology lab of a hospital, have reported the Earth’s physical condition, and the climate specialists see it as seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years. I have to tell you, as members of the Earth’s family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilisation are in grave danger.

Our planet has kept itself healthy and fit for life, just like an animal does, for most of the more than three billion years of its existence. It was ill luck that we started polluting at a time when the sun is too hot for comfort. We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state like a coma. She has been there before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years. We are responsible and will suffer the consequences: as the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade in temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics.

By Lovelock’s estimation, billions may be dead by the end of this century.  But even if he is wrong, the best case scenario confirms what ought to be our worst fears.  We are all Romanovs now.  Everyone is culpable and everyone is vulnerable.

As anyone who knows Frye’s Words with Power is aware, one of the primary concerns Frye identifies is sex and love, and the prophetic manifestation of that concern in literature is represented by the Garden where the generative power of nature and the recreative power of the human imagination are identified.  Its social vision is pastoral rather than competitive, and it is evocative of the Christian apocalyptic vision of the Book of Revelation in which nature in its present state falls away to reveal a city-garden at the end of time where God and humanity are one.  The point of course is that this is not an “event” that will “occur in the future.”  The apocalypse, according to Frye (following Blake), is potential in every moment in every one of us.  As that nice Jewish rabbi Yeshua once observed, “the kingdom of heaven is within you.”  In our current fallen state, our power to act in the name of love is the first power we deny, and our loveless rape of an “objective” nature from which we somehow consider ourselves distinct and independent is a delusion that will soon overtake us if we cannot push aside the veil of denial and see where we really are.

As Frye rather ominously put it, “primary concerns must become primary, or else.”

This is not a “partisan” issue — except insofar as partisans make it one with greed, cowardice, and lies.  Canada’s failure to live up to its legally binding commitments to the Kyoto Protocol, for example, falls into that category.

The Demonic and Desire


Responding to Michael Happy’s post

I am glad you posted on demonic modulation, Michael, because I think demonic parody is integral to Frye’s conception of Romance, which itself seems integral to his view of literature in relation to primary concerns.

It may be useful to consider demonic modulation in terms the Anatomy’s description of demonic imagery and parody. The apocalyptic world, Frye writes, “present, in the first place, the categories of reality in the forms of human desire, as indicated by the forms they assume under the work of human civilization.” Demonic imagery embodies what desire rejects, and “one of the central themes of demonic imagery is parody, the mocking of the exuberant play of art by suggesting its imitation in terms of ‘real life.’”. In The Secular Scripture he points out that, as the conventions of myth and Romance become gradually displaced into “realist” modes, there is also a parallel gradation of parody serving to assimilate those conventions.

This might provide for an alliance between demonic modulation, which relates to the inversion of customary associations, and the Promethean Furnace in Words with Power. “The world of titans,” Frye writes, “has usually been regarded as simply evil, and the word ‘demonic’ is normally used… to mean a death-centered parody of human life.” (pg. 276). However, “Prometheus is the patron of the attitude, which has sporadically appeared in literature ever since Lucretius, of ignoring the gods on the ground that even if they exist they can only be alien beings unconcerned with human life.” (pg. 277). In this modulation, what would customarily be associated with the demonic is in fact an affirmation of life through desire, over a world that more closely resembles our own.

That is to say that there comes a point when what is displaced in the text, because it is repressed by the ascendant moral values it flaunts, becomes in fact a life affirming principle. Prometheus becomes Christ-like, the demonic becomes apocalyptic. This may inform the simple and more humane Robin Hood motifs that run through Literature, and our experience, from Huckleberry Finn protecting Jim from the slave “masters”, to what makes it obscene for certain ideologies to speak against aid for suffering countries. And it is why, for example, the homophobic (and perhaps homicidal) work of Christian evangelicals in Uganda has been so repellent a parody of the Christian exhortation to good works.

Demonic Modulation


The Educated Imagination was the first book by Frye I read, and it’s therefore always a touchstone for me.  You never forget your first love. Meanwhile, Fearful Symmetry remains Frye’s most mind-blowing text, The Great Code his most challenging, and Words With Power his most expansive for practical critical purposes.  But like many Frygians, I’m guessing, I regularly return to Anatomy of Criticism, and, it seems, almost involuntarily. Every once in awhile I find myself preoccupied by something from it that I seem to recall out of the blue.  Thanks to an email exchange with Peter Yan and the cumulative effect of posts over the last week or so, I have been pondering an issue Frye briefly raises in Anatomy that gets relatively little attention (the exception perhaps being Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye and Critical Method): “demonic modulation.”

With demonic modulation Frye makes a much needed distinction between “the moral” and “the desirable”:

The moral and the desirable have many important and significant connections, but still morality, which comes to terms with experience and necessity, is one thing, and desire, which tries to escape from necessity, is quite another. Thus literature is as a rule less inflexible than morality, and it owes much of its status as a liberal art to that fact. The qualities that religion and morality call ribald, obscene, subversive, lewd and blasphemous have an essential place in literature but often they can achieve expression only through ingenious techniques of displacement. (AC 156)

How does demonic modulation manage this? By way of “the deliberate reversal of the customary moral associations of archetypes.”  For example, in literature, whatever the current status of received moral standards,

a free and equal society may be symbolized by a band of robbers, pirates, or gypsies; or true love may be symbolized by the triumph of an adulterous liaison over marriage, as in most triangle comedy; by a homosexual passion (if it is true love that is celebrated in Virgil’s second eclogue) or an incestuous one, as in many Romantics. (AC 156-7)

A.C. Hamilton in Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism describes Anatomy, published in 1957, as very much a book of its time — so Frye’s reference to various forms of forbidden love as “modulations” must have been eyebrow-raising for many conventionally-minded readers.  Frye does not call it that here, but what he is clearly talking about is literature’s unique ability to express primary concerns beyond the pervasive gravitational pull of secondary ones.

I’m pretty sure I can remember the first time I ever became aware of this in my own reading experience: Graham Green’s The Power and the Glory, which was an assigned text back when I was in the 11th grade.  I remember struggling with the contradiction between Greene’s “whiskey priest”‘s all too human frailty and his compelling nature as a human being I felt I could love and identify with, despite his obvious failings.  I’m also pretty sure that even though I wondered about it at the time, I was nevertheless grateful to accept that it was so. Literature was showing me something I otherwise couldn’t account for with any certainty; and within a year I read The Educated Imagination for the first time which articulated what I in some sense already knew but simply could not yet say.

Literature references ideology but does not promote it.  Literature gives expression to primary concerns, most especially when they are contrary to the ideologies that readily suppress them.  Desire may on occasion be moral, but the moral can never contain desire — and in the struggle between the moral as a secondary concern and desire as a primary one, desire always prevails.  That, paraphrasing Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, is what fiction means.

Typology, Kerygma, and Literature


Blake's Elohim Creating Adam

Russell’s latest post on Alter and Frye has got me thinking about my longstanding assumptions about Frye, particularly with regard to the Bible and literature.  The Bible and literature occupy the centre of Frye’s critical universe, and understanding what he says about both is to appreciate the full potential of his critical vision.

The Judeo-Christian Bible as the supreme artifact of Christian culture down to about the 18th century is of course easy enough to assume.  As Frye points out, the Bible is a primary source of imagery and stories well into the 20th century — and, in these apparently apocalyptically-minded times, into the 21st century as well.

But the Bible is not just a source of mythos and dianoia, to use the Aristotelian terms Frye adapts in Anatomy.  It is the source also of a “unique” arrangement of myth and metaphor represented by typology, the progressive succession of type-antitype-type (e.g. Creation-Incarnation-Revelation).  Although Frye rather conspicuously only says it once, he nevertheless observes on page 80 of The Great Code:

The typological organization of the Bible does present the difficulty, to a secular literary critic, of being unique: no other book in the world, to my knowledge, has a structure even remotely like that of the Christian Bible.

That structure is the “double mirror” of the Old Testament and the New Testament — the latter concealed in the former and the former revealed by the latter — which provides the Christian Bible’s kerygmatic vision of the human condition that Blake characterizes as the revelation of  the “human form divine.”  The typological structure of the Christian Bible that furnishes its distinctive double mirror character, however, does not originate with Christianity: the Hebrew Bible is the source of these typological principles, and the first “Christians” were themselves Jews who compiled what would become their “new” testament using the same typological structure of their traditional holy scriptures.  As Frye observes:

Typology in the Bible is by no means confined to the Christian version of the Bible: from the point of view of Judaism at least, the Old Testament is much more genuinely typological without the New Testament than with it. There are, in the first place, events in the Old Testament that are types of later events recorded also within the Old Testament.  (GC, 83)

When Frye suggests, therefore, as he does in The Great Code (and there alone, it might be pointed out) that the culturally ascendant phases of language we have observed so far — the hieroglyphic, the hieratic, and the demotic — may be, for the first time in human history, about to be succeeded by a kerygmatic phase, he is making about as revolutionary a statement as he ever made.  I’m not sure it is possible to approach his work as a whole without thinking about its implications.

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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:


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: Russell Perkin’s Response to “Beyond Suspicion”


It’s interesting, Russell, that we’ve both said in separate posts this past week that the issues we are addressing come down to a matter of “emphasis.”  For you, what needs to be emphasized is that Frye seems “to downplay the difficulty” of achieving what Gadamer characterizes as the “fusion of horizons” between literature and life.  As you go on to observe, “What [Frye] calls anxieties may be the product of painful experience that cannot be readily cast aside.”  Earlier in the week, meanwhile, I said in response to a post by you that what needs to be emphasized is the priority of literary over ideological meaning, of centripetal over centrifugal reference.

It seems therefore that the difference in emphasis really does account for the apparent divide between us.  To my eyes, what you say about ideology, anxiety, and the potential for misrepresentation of a literary text in the classroom (The Taming of the Shrew once again standing duty on the issue) only does an end run around what Frye is trying to get us past.  If we insist on the primacy of ideological anxiety, whatever its source, we only perpetuate that anxiety.  This is what I mean when I say that all of our limitations when it comes to literature are self-imposed.  As Joe illustrates very concretely in his post yesterday, the centripetal direction of literary meaning is the revelation of primary concern, and that is what literature is saying when it is otherwise saying nothing about what we ought, must, are obliged or compelled to believe as a matter of our prevailing ideological anxieties. 

In The Educated Imagination Frye observes that the purpose of a “liberal education” centred around the study of literature is to liberate.  We are, as Blake says, enchained by mind-forged manacles.  The source of our freedom lies in the perception that we ourselves serve interchangably as master and slave, and no verbal context offers such a perception more comprehensivley than literature precisely because it is not ideological in reference, and because it is motivated by concern rather than compelled by anxiety.

You suggest that some “anxieties may be the product of painful experience that cannot be readily cast aside,” and that may very well be true, as far as it goes.  But just because some anxieties cannot be readily cast aside does not mean that they cannot ultimately be cast aside.  None of this is merely given to us.  The human creative endeavor is fraught with our frailty and failings.  But any notion of human “progress” has an implicit teleology, and in Frye’s case it is the revelation of primary concern, which is, like the gestalt of literal metaphor (the centripetal foundation of all verbal meaning), a universal condition that is individually experienced and expressed. 

Apocalypse, says Blake, relates to the perceiver and not to the perceived.  It is the distinction Frye makes in The Great Code between “panoramic” and “participating” apocalypse.  Only the latter is a source of liberation, and that is up to each of us, one at a time, and at just about any time of our choosing.  But first we have to become aware that it is available to us because we are the source of it, as evidenced by our ongoing acts of creation and recreation manifesting the emergence of primary concerns over ideological ones.  And that, evidently, is the “intensified” state of consciousness Frye suggests in Words with Power is the aim of all critical endeavor.  However, our consciousness cannot be so intensified if it stubbornly entangles itself in a state of ideological anxiety, which is as self-defeating as it is self-perpetuating.

The Social Function of Literature


Thank you so much for your comment, Clayton, in response to my previous post. You ask some big questions: “What does a life look like that has listened to what literature has to say? How does having an educated imagination affect one’s commitments? Or does concern replace commitment?” Any answer I offer here will simply be a stab in the dark, but here goes.

Frye, as you well know, does not assume that an active reader of literature automatically becomes a “good person.” I am reading the Third Book Notebooks right now, and I am struck with the emphasis he puts on education or the “educational contract” over the social contract as informing society and therefore social and political action: in other words, for him, the university is the ideal or Utopian form of society. In one of his previous posts Michael Happy cites Frye’s statement that universities are, or should be the engine room of society. Criticism and literature are, for Frye, a central, indeed perhaps the central part of that engine room, which is the world of the arts and sciences. This world, along with–in a much more complicated way–religion, seem to be the only thing that proves we are something more than “psychotic apes” on a berserk rampage bent on destroying both human society and the earth. I love Michael’s image of the crowbarring and “hacking away that has been done by self-declared iconoclasts and comfortably tenured revolutionists” that in the end have only weakened public support for liberal education, and thus undermined any strong intellectual defence against the very clear and present danger: the increasing privatization of the universities and the very sinister encroachments of corporate capitalism.

In terms of concern and commitment, as you also well know, Frye places ideology (political or religious belief) and  kerygma (spiritual proclamation) on the opposite sides, as it were, of literature, and the lines here tend to blur in certain forms of literature. Obviously, there are more rhetorical forms which aim at persuasion. On the kerygmatic side, in my own field of study, I think of Thoreau, whose Civil Disobedience and Walden are obviously much more prophetic and geared towards informing our actions than something like Poe’s poetry and tales which, if you could ever treat them as prescriptions, would lead you straight to suicide, murder, or a mental institution. A serial killer might read Poe that way, and indeed Poe pops up famously in thrillers and crime fiction precisely in that guise: as a guru for psychopaths. There is a killer in one of Michael Connolly’s novels, for example, who reads Poe “kerygmatically,” if one can use the term in such a context. Fictional though it may be, this is an extreme example of the countless possible illustrations of Milton’s famous statement: “a wise man will make better use of an idle pamphlet than a fool will do of sacred Scripture.”

It is often difficult to find something like a later concept in Frye–one is so often proved wrong–but it is my impression at least that he puts a greater emphasis in his later writings on the prophetic dimension of literature, especially post-romantic literature. Here the prophetic is not conceived of so much as informing a program of action as confronting history with vision. Writers like Dostoyevsky or Kafka seem to leap over their times in their capacity to give us an unsettling vision of the most nihilistic and catastrophic potential in their respective Zeitgeists, as though they had a sixth sense of the cultural fissures that were going to lead straight to the horrors of the Holocaust, concentration camps, and the Gulag.

On the ideological side, as Frye points out, literature is always more or less compromised. In the pre-eighteenth century dispensation the imagination is almost completely constrained by what the calls in The Critical Path a central “myth of concern.” In The Third Book Notebooks, he observes that “ literature, being part (the central part) of the myth of concern, is profoundly impure” (CW 9: 67). According to him, in the post-romantic age this myth of concern breaks down, but slowly, and is still with us to some extent. At the same time, with the ascendancy of science and a liberal myth of freedom the writer is increasingly freed from any central ideological constraint. (This was Melville‘s point in a letter when he said that even Shakespeare for all his truth-telling was constrained by the feudal order of his time, and that “the declaration of independence makes a difference.”) The dark side of this is that ideologies become polarized and you end up with writers like Celine–or “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot/fighting in the Captain’s tower,” as Bob Dylan’s lyric goes– writers whose personal programs of action are often repugnant, at least to those of us who are not authoritarians, anti-Semites or fascist sympathizers. Literature gets both more imaginatively pure (Poe, Mallarme, etc) and messier, if that makes any sense.

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Beyond Suspicion: What Literature Isn’t Saying When It Is Actually Saying Something


I wanted to respond a little more thoughtfully to Russell’s posts of the 28th and 30th. They demand some serious thought and a more considered response than what I offered in my previous post.  I hope that this one may provoke further discussion.

Frye clearly believes that literature says something, and obviously he is in no way a formalist in the sense of believing that it is enough that a poem is beautifully made and so no more need be said about it. In Notebook 19 (one of the so-called 3rd book notebooks),  Frye is struggling with the concept of the twin axes of speculation and concern, and makes the following note to himself:

Of course what I can present of this I must present not as my own speculation but as what I find implied by the order of words, as what poets say when they’re not saying anything. (my emphasis; CW 9: 32)

This defines what is of primary importance to Frye: what poets say when they’re not saying anything. This is right at the time when he is beginning to articulate the idea of literature as speaking the language of concern, and developing what later leads to the distinction between primary and secondary concerns. As he writes in The Critical Path:

Nobody would accept a conception of literature as a mere dictionary or grammar of symbols and images which tells us nothing in itself. Everyone deeply devoted to literature knows that it says something, and says something as a whole, not only in its individual works. In turning from formulated belief to imagination we get glimpses of a concern behind concern, of intuitions of human nature and destiny that have inspired the great religious and revolutionary movements of history. Precisely because its variety is infinite, literature suggests an encyclopaedic range of concern greater than any formulation of concern in religious or political myth can express. (103)

The phrase “concern behind concern,” of a concern that transcends the myth of concern, that transcends social mythology, is the germ of his later distinction between primary and secondary concerns.

That literature says something, and something of the utmost importance, is at the very heart of Frye’s theory of literature. This something that literature says is something very different from what it can very usefully tell you about a lot of other things,  such as customs and rules of conduct, power relations, gender roles, prevalent beliefs and ideologies in a given historical period. These latter may indeed be a particular preoccupation of the author, and it may be difficult to separate an author’s anxieties or “secondary concerns” about race, sexuality, or class, for example, from his imaginative vision. It is precisely the job of criticism to make that separation, and to do so means the critic should have and show an awareness of all aspects of an author’s work. It is a murky job for criticism in the case of a writer like Celine or Sade–and there may indeed be writers where it just doesn’t seem possible or worth the candle.

Frye’s objection to giving a pre-eminent place to what we might, in a new sense, call “secondary criticism,” is that it introduces into the encounter with the literary work another source of anxiety, not the author’s but the critic’s. We hear of the “problematic” or the “dangerous” nature of certain aspects of a given work, as though we, or at least naive and less armored readers, had something to worry about, something to fear from the text, as if it could not be approached without the right protective gear. In Touching Feeling, Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, one of the more sensible “celebrity critics,” as Russell calls them, has related this underlying fear of literature’s potential malevolence to what the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein has called the paranoid position. Paul Ricoeur has called the same stance the “hermeneutics of suspicion”: a prevalent attitude of distrust towards culture that is the legacy of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. These three, among others, contributed to a great paradigm shift in human thought, with enormous and revolutionary consequences, and they have rightly shaped the way we think about culture and literature. Frye has outlined the mythological significance of this shift in his discussion of the romantic revolution, for example, in Studies in Romanticism and chapter 7 of Words with Power.

The form it takes in New Historicism and cultural studies, however, verges at times on parody, and is perhaps a symptom of exhaustion in the paradigm itself. The critic adopts a supervisory attitude to the reader or student, who is assumed to have no critical judgment of her own. It is as if without expert help the untrained reader or student would be vulnerable and dangerously exposed to the bad ideology of the text. This is no doubt a useful posture when teaching communications and the subliminal techniques of advertising and media, but as a way of approaching literature it is woefully inadequate, at times even grotesque. Indeed, it ignores the much more potent critical perspective that only literature provides: the one that derives from what poets are saying when they aren’t saying anything.

I have to ask: are there really readers out there in any significant number who would find themselves infected with sexist attitudes by the reading of something like The Taming of the Shrew, or who might take Othello as an encouragement of abuse and violence against women? I have never met one, but if they exist they are in dire need of an education, not just of their way of thinking but perhaps most of all of their imaginations.

Erich Fromm wrote a book decades ago called The Forgotten Language. The title is a reference to the loss in Western culture of symbolic literacy, the ability to read anymore the archetypal language which is the lingua franca of dreams, fairytales and myths around the world. It is a commonplace now that general readers and students cannot be expected to have the common cultural grounding that would give them the ability to pick up on the significance of allusions and references to the Bible.  But things are worse than that. The educating of undergraduates in the imaginative structures, conventions, and narrative shapes of literature is today not just neglected. It is actively opposed by a politicized criticism that sees  in the myth and metaphor of literature little more than, to use Althusser‘s phrase, “a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.”