Frye and Critical Practice: Against the Grain

A Talk Presented at Western Washington University, 15 October 2003

by Robert D. Denham

I need to say a word about my title, which was extracted from me only a few days ago. When I was in school in the late medieval period we made a distinction between theoretical criticism and practical criticism. This was before the word “theory” became theorized, to use that ungainly verb, and before critical practice, with its emphasis on difference, became identified with the claims that we can never get outside of theory. In those halcyon days we thought of theory as a body of principles offered to explain some literary phenomenon, and the practice of criticism was the actual commentary on a literary text, as in Dryden’s analysis of Ben Jonson’s The Silent Woman, which in the history of criticism is the first extended analysis we have of an English poem or play. The idea of practical criticism didn’t exist, I think, before the publication of Dryden’s essay 325 years ago (1668). Thus, we would have said in the dim past of the 1960s that Aristotle’s Poetics embodied a critical theory, offering principles for explaining how a particular literary form, dramatic tragedy, was put together and how it worked to achieve its end. Critical practice, or practical criticism as we called it, could then take the theory and use it to read a play—using the four-cause method or the six qualitative parts of tragedy or any number of Aristotle’s other theoretical observations to illuminate through commentary or interpretation particular plays. But the phrase “critical practice” today is used differently, usually in the context of ideology and power. “Critical practice,” for Catherine Belsey in a book of that title, means that the focus of attention is on the social and cultural framing of a text, and there is no denying that that is one kind of critical practice. “Theory,” says another recent voice, “is shaped by the practices of organizing, asserting, and controlling power in society, which means, just as importantly, that it in turn shapes the very bodies that such power engages” (Ray Rice). That may be true in some cases, but I’m hard pressed to see how, say, Longinus’ theory of the sublime is shaped by any power but the power of certain uses of language to transport the body beyond itself: that’s what ekstasis means. “Ideology,” to quote Catherine Belsey again, “is inscribed in signifying practices—in discourses, myths, presentations and representations of the ways “things” “are”—and to this extent it is inscribed in the language.” I’m not certain I understand this, and one wonders if Belsey does, as she puts both “thing” and “are” in double quotation marks, advertising to us that she really doesn’t mean “thing” and “are.” But the intent seems to be that there is no escaping ideology. If we take the metaphor of inscribing to mean written or engraved in and thus a part of, then the syllogism is this: all language is ideological; all discourse is made from language; therefore, all discourse is ideological. Granted the premises, the syllogism is valid. But whether the premises are true is another matter altogether. I happen to believe that both premises are false. If I were to say, “It’s now after 4:15” or to say “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” I don’t see how either statement embodies an ideology, except in the most trivial of senses. But I’ll leave such questions to the linguists among us to decide, and my point anyway is not to debate Belsey but simply to indicate how she conceives of the phrase “critical practice.” In a recent book called The New Romanticisms: Theory and Practice the editors say that they are not simply concerned to examine Romantic writers from the perspectives of contemporary theory but in addition to employ theory “in a critical practice which brings out the distinct ways in which Romanticism theorizes and examines itself from within,” “to theorize” here meaning apparently to interrogate or deconstruct or whatever the current word is for calling things into question. I don’t see anything particularly new in this idea that cultural movements like Romanticism can examine themselves from within. There is a ninety-four page essay written in 1933 that does precisely this: it was written by a twenty-year-old named Northrop Frye.

My purpose in all this is simply to say that the phrase “critical practice” is used in a myriad of ways. It is what W.B. Gallie calls an “essentially contested concept,” that is an idea that is open to interpretation and so necessarily involving disagreements about its meaning and use.[1] One is reminded of Alice’s admonition to Humpty Dumpty: “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.” The answer is that, yes, we can indeed, and what I would like it to mean in the context of my remarks about Northrop Frye is something fairly simple, though I hope not simple-minded. I should add that I think the distinction between practical and theoretical criticism still holds, though nowadays, as in, say, Derrida’s The Post Card, the two often collapse in on each other in very complicated ways. In addition, in my student days discussions of theory were not always so innocent as they are made out to have been today by the critics of the unenlightened past. I cut my critical teeth with the Chicago Aristotelians, and we were constantly enjoined to be very self-conscious about critical assumptions and critical methods and critical language, even though we were not so aware as the cultural theorists today that the world is nothing but wall-to-wall discourse.

Well, as I say, I propose briefly think with you about Frye from the perspective of what he was doing at different stages of his career as this practice relates to the critical currents that were swirling around him. So by “practice” I mean nothing more than a series of generalizations about what critics do, taking my cue from the primary meaning of the Greek pratikos, what is habitually done, or of praxis in the Aristotelian, though not the Marxist, sense. This is a long story, as Frye had an extensive and prolific writing career: he began writing for publication in the early 1930s and his last book, published posthumously, though only several months after his death, appeared in 1991—in other words he had a sixty-year writing career.

My thesis is this: when we look at the broad contours of this career, Frye is generally writing against the grain, except perhaps during those years when his influence was at it height, a period of fifteen years or so in the 1960s and 70s, when he was the grain. The first example of Frye the maverick—his independence from ordinary critical practice—appears in Fearful Symmetry, published in 1947 but begun at least ten years before. In the nineteen thirties there were two general tendencies in Blake criticism, the mystical, which focussed on Blake and his occult and religious sources, and the historical. Both approaches were in a sense allegorical, relating Blake’s work to things outside of it. Frye was interested in the grammar of Blake’s symbolism, and this grammar he located in literature itself. He was trying to uncover the “argument” of Blake’s prophecies, and he was eventually able to demonstrate that Blake was not a mad poet on the lunatic fringe but a typical poet, that is his poetic thinking was not unlike that of other poets. Fearful Symmetry was something of a watershed book, and it was generally conceded that with his centripetal approach Frye had cracked Blake’s symbolic code. The title of Joseph Natoli’s bibliography, Twentieth-Century Blake Criticism: Northrop Frye to the Present, indicates the importance of Frye’s views. Meanwhile the historical approach was working away, eventually producing books by such critics as Jacob Bronowski, Mark Schorer, and most importantly David Edrman, whose book, Blake: Prophet against Empire appeared seven years after Fearful Symmetry. In his 1949 diary Frye complains mildly about a letter he got from, in his words, “somebody in Minnesota named David Erdman who’s finished 600 pages of a book on Blake & has roughed out 300 more, & will I read it?” (The Diaries of Northrop Frye, 160–1). The manuscript arrived two months later and Frye did read it. A year later Frye received in the mail what he called “another half-pound of Erdman,” and Frye felt encouraged enough about the book eventually to recommend it to Princeton University Press.

These two approaches, the symbolic and the historical, can be seen as having dominated Blake criticism in the meantime, and I gather that among Blakeans the Erdman approach has won out—that the next generation of Blakeans has been more interested in centrifugal questions—questions about the social and political and cultural context of Blake’s work—than in the symbolic or archetypal. “Archetype” is a word that Frye uses only once in Fearful Symmetry, but the book is an example of mythical or archetypal criticism even though by Frye’s own account he was unconscious of this at the time.

Archetypal criticism, of the variety found in Anatomy of Criticism, also went against the grain, the grain in the 1950s being , on the one hand, historical criticism or what Frye called “documentary criticism,” and on the other, the new criticism. In his 1950 diary Frye refers to an upcoming MLA session on Milton featuring A.S.P. Woodhouse and Cleanth Brooks, and he says of Brooks that he “apparently belongs to a group called the ‘New Critics’ who are supposed to ignore historical criticism & concentrate on texture, whatever texture is” (The Diaries of Northrop Frye, 288). M.H. Abrams happened to be lecturing at Toronto at the time, and Frye asked Abrams “if being in the Kenyon Review would make [him] a new critic,” adding, “I certainly can’t claim to be au courant in such matters” (ibid., 289), au courant being a watery version of my metaphor “against the grain.” This is quite typical of Frye’s position as a loner. He read very little criticism of the theoretical variety, almost never engaged in critical debates, refused to reply to his detractors, never thought of himself as having founded a “school,” and eschewed discipleship. Still, he learned enough about the general critical currents of the time to divide them into five phases in the second essay of the Anatomy, and he hoped by that book to provide a synoptic view that could bring them all together under one umbrella, one of the many evidences of Frye’s lifelong drive toward unity. But while he agreed with the new critics that literature was autonomous, his emphasis was altogether different: they focussed on the uniqueness of literature; he stressed the ways that the conventions of literature connected it with other literature. This was a version of Eliot’s “order of words” thesis and Frye’s mantra was that literature was made out of other literature. The shorthand for this is identity not difference, a principle that Frye maintained through his long career. In the phases of criticism in the second essay of the Anatomy, one ascended up the latter of critical perspectives, from the new or “textural” criticism through historical and documentary criticism and then through commentary and interpretation until one arrived at archetypal criticism (the criticism of convention and genre) and finally at anagogic criticism (which is connected with religion). This is a version of the medieval levels-of-meaning scheme that was used in Biblical typology and that is most familiar to us through Dante’s account. Frye did very little with anagogic criticism in the Anatomy, but he returned to it, devoting the whole last phase of his career, as I will shortly try to demonstrate, to anagogy or spiritual meaning.

Anatomy of Criticism was, of course, the book that made Frye’s reputation, moving him from a place of eminence in Blake circles into the larger Anglo-American scene, indeed the international scene. The Anatomy seems now so far removed from everything we associate with post-structuralism and post-post-structuralism that it is perhaps difficult to comprehend the influence it had in the several decades following its publication. Only seven years after it appeared that rather conventional and staid group of Ivy Leaguers know as the English Institute devoted a session to Frye, and writing on that occasion Murray Krieger declared that in the English-speaking world Frye’s importance since 1957 had been unique (his word). Krieger went on to say that “Frye has had an influence—indeed an absolute hold on a generation of developing literary critics greater and more exclusive than that of any one theorist in recent critical history.” When the Lipking and Litz anthology of Modern Literary Criticism: 1900–1970 appeared in 1972, a decade an a half after the Anatomy was published, they declared of Frye, whom they linked with Eliot, Richards, and Pound as the major critics of the century, that “more than any other critic he stands at the center of critical activity.” Harold Bloom, not given to praising his contemporaries, proclaimed a few years later (1976) that Frye had “earned the reputation of being the leading theoretician of literary criticism among all those writing in English today.” During these years, then, Frye was not writing against the grain for the grain had begun to lean in his direction. And this was ten years after Derrida had given his celebrated talk, “Structure, Sign, and Play,” at Johns Hopkins. Frye’s rather celebrated status held firm for at least a quarter century. Twenty years after its publication the Anatomy was the most frequently cited book in the arts and humanities by a writer born in the twentieth-century. And of all writers in the arts and humanities cited in some 900,000 items, only Marx, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Lenin, Plato, Freud, and Barthes were more frequently cited than Frye.[2] Ten years later, in the mid-1980s, the number of citations of Frye’s work had diminished somewhat, comparatively speaking, but he remained in the top eleven of all writers in the arts and humanities category, and third among those born in the twentieth century, surpassed in the intervening decade by Roland Barthes and by, my daughter will be pleased to hear, Noam Chomsky.

Frye’s influence has of course diminished in the academy, where the generation following has had other things on its mind: the anxiety of influence works in the critical world just as it works in the literary one—at least in that part of the academy with the power and the money. Elsewhere, I’m not so certain. When I published a bibliography of Frye’s writings and of the secondary sources in 1987, there had been eight books devoted exclusively to Frye’s work. Since that time, that is, during the past fifteen years—there have been nineteen more. And if the translation of Frye’s books is an index of interest and influence, his books continue to appear in other languages at what appears to me to be an astonishing rate. There are more than one hundred translations to date, and in addition to the Western European languages, one can now read Frye in Farsi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese—in twenty-one languages altogether. Eastern translators have been especially industrious in recent years: one can read sixteen of Frye’s books in Japanese, eleven in Korean, and nine in Chinese. Again, more than one half of all the translations have appeared since my 1987 bibliography.

Still, the formalism of the Anatomy, with all of its elaborate taxonomies and catalogues of literary structures and conventions, may seem a little quaint now. In some ways Frye anticipated structuralism (I’ve wondered whether Jonathan Culler knows that the title Frye used in his notebooks when he was writing the Anatomy was Structural Poetics). But now we’ve been through structuralism and post-structuralism and have entered into whatever –ism we call the cacophony of voices, defined by difference, that bombard us now.

Almost thirty-five years ago I picked up Anatomy of Criticism, read it, and realized I was in the presence of an extraordinary mind. For a number of years I was convinced that this was the central work in the Frye canon, even though in the 1960s the canon was not all that large—only a fraction of his more than thirty books had appeared by then. I was attracted to the Anatomy‘s schematic ingenuity, its power as a teaching manual, and, as I had come under the sway of the new criticism as a student, its claims for the autonomy of both literature and criticism. Had I come to Frye by way of Fearful Symmetry, I suspect that my view of his work would have caused me to take a different course. In any case, as I have followed the contours of Frye’s career, I have become more and more convinced that what is fundamental to his work is not so much the principles outlined in the Anatomy, though that is surely, as just suggested, a book that will remain with us, but the values that emerge from those works that serve as the bookends of his career, Fearful Symmetry at the beginning and fifty years later the two Bible books and The Double Vision. During the past two decades I have had a developing intuition that the central feature of the superstructure Frye built is its religious base. This intuition has been strengthened during the ten years that I have been pondering Frye’s notebooks, especially his late notebooks.

It is Frye’s willingness to confront matters of the spirit that is the third way we see him going against the grain. I say this because of the anxieties that generally surround discussions of religion and spiritual vision in the academy. These anxieties have resulted in a general resistance to religion, and while there are some signs that this resistance might be diminishing in Frye studies, the generalization holds true, I believe, in the academy as a whole, where the pride in secularism is stronger than it has ever been. Frye himself insisted in the Anatomy, that criticism must free itself from all forms of which he called “determinisms,” the social, psychological, political, and religious world views that would determine the direction of one’s criticism, whether theoretical or practical. One should proceed, rather, centripetally, the principles of criticism arising from literature itself. But Frye write some thirty books following the Anatomy. But the scope of Frye’s work as a whole is now coming into focus with the publication of his Collected Works. What I have tried to show in a study I’ve just completed is that we cannot properly understand Frye’s large body of work without considering the ways his views on religion interpenetrate practically everything he wrote. His religious ideas emerge unmistakably, though often behind a Blakean mask, in Fearful Symmetry (1947); they are clearly present in his account of anagogy and, though somewhat muted, elsewhere in Anatomy of Criticism; and the coda of the Frye canon, The Double Vision (1991), is subtitled “Language and Meaning in Religion,” suggesting that in Frye’s end is his beginning. But the chief sources for my argument come from the large body of Frye’s writing that was not published (and not written for publication) during his lifetime—his student essays, diaries, and, essays left in manuscript, and notebooks. This material, especially the notebooks, an extraordinary record of Frye’s critical and imaginative life and his religious reflections, is not so much a supplement to his books and essays as it is a major component of his work. The notebooks were the Daedalean workshop out of which Frye crafted his books and his several hundred major essays. The notebooks are expansive. I spent three or four years just transcribing the hieroglyphic scrawl Frye used to record his notebook speculations. This material amounts to close to a million and a half words—eight or nine very thick volumes when they are all published. Four are now published, and two more are in press.

Fifty-five years ago Edith Sitwell said to Frye in a letter, “I think you will . . . prove to be the religious teacher we have been waiting for.” [3] It is a testimony to Sitwell’s prescience that she recognized after reading Fearful Symmetry and Frye’s first essay on Yeats that the religious base of Frye’s thought is a defining feature. That base is what I’ve tried to understand and I hope elucidate in my recent study. The weak claim for such an argument would be that, yes, of course, religion was important for Frye. He did, after all, serve as an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada for fifty-five years. Early in his career he wrote a trenchant essay on American civil religion and another one on the relation of the church to society.[4] He preached and married and buried and composed some exceptionally eloquent prayers, and he got rather testy with the church bureaucrats when they wrote to him suggesting, apparently because of his absence from the parish or his liberal views or his failure to attend church on Sunday mornings, that it might be time for him to surrender his holy orders. Frye replied, a bit irritably, that he had no intention of doing so.[5] And, yes, he wrote about Blake, who was a deeply religious poet; he wrote about and taught the Bible; and he addressed religious subjects on numerous occasions: Northrop Frye on Religion, volume 4 in the Collected Works of Frye, contains forty-three texts. Only the uninformed, then, would claim that religion was not important for Frye. But to say that religion was of interest to Frye the literary critic, or even of some consequence, would be the weak claim.

The strong claim would be that religion was central to practically everything Frye wrote, the foundation upon which he built the massive superstructure that was his life’s work. The strong claim, which is the one I make, would be to take Frye at his word when he says, “I’m an architect of the spiritual world” (Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1:414). I would not have made that argument twenty-five years ago, when I wrote a book that centered on the structure and method of Anatomy of Criticism, and I would not be able to make the claim now had I not been immersed in Frye’s notebooks for the past decade. My focus, then, has been on the final cause of Frye’s work. The structural poetics of Anatomy of Criticism “moves toward a telos,” as he says in one of his notebooks, (The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 54), but is not itself the telos. “Post-structuralists,” Frye writes, “say that it’s illusory to use the spatializing metaphor of structure, but that’s just the idling machinery of negativism running on its own: to gain a simultaneous understanding of a poem as a unit is both possible and highly desirable. The only thing is that it isn’t an ultimate goal: as soon as you’ve reached it you discard it like a snake’s skin or a nautilus’s shell.”[6] Structure, then, is a means toward the ultimate goal, which, according to the strong claim I make, is spiritual vision.

Frye was naturally aware of the widespread perplexity in contemporary thought about whether we use language or language uses us, and the case can be made that Frye’s language—the material cause of his work—pulls him along one critical path rather than another. His central terms tend to expand beyond ordinary usage, taking on such a variety of subtexts and overtones that they actually become the formal cause of his work, linguistic matter transformed into conceptual substance. One can hardly grasp Frye’s intent in Anatomy of Criticism without looking closely at the different meanings that cluster around such central words a “myth,” “archetype,” “displacement,” ” dianoia,” “allegory,” “rhythm,” “radical of presentation,” and scores of other key words. In that book Frye refers to himself as a “terminological buccaneer”(362)—one who pirates words from here and there and adapts them for his own purposes, and he also says in the Anatomy that exploring the “range of connotations” of individual words used by philosophers can provide a key to understanding their systems (335). The own book tends to follow this procedure, probing a number of key words in Frye’s poetics, including “interpenetration,” “kerygma,” “identity,” “imaginative literalism,” “revelation,” “vision,” “recognition,” “consciousness,” “dialectic,” ” Aufhebung,” “imagination,” “vortex,” “love,” and even the preposition “beyond.” Because the meanings of these words are not transparent, representing, again, what Gallie calls “essentially contested concepts,” it is important, I felt, to examine the range of their connotations. In this respect the present study, mutatis mutandis, is not unlike R.B. Onians’s examination of Homer’s vocabulary in The Origins of European Thought and by Owen Barfield’s in What Coleridge Thought, both of which studies Frye admired.

To give one example: I devote a fifty-page chapter to what Frye means by interpenetration, an idea he picked up from Spengler and Whitehead, whom Frye read as a nineteen-year-old, from two Mahayana Buddhist scriptures, the Lankavatara and the Avatamsaka Sutras, which he encountered in the late 1940s, from Coleridge, and from the world-class physicist David Bohm. In Frye’s late books the idea of interpretation, though found sparingly, appears in a religious context in key passages in The Great Code, his first book on the Bible, and in The Double Vision. In the notebooks, however, the word “interpenetrate” or some form of it appears more than 150 times, and the context is almost always religious.

In 1935 Frye wrote, with particularly acute prescience, to Helen Kemp: “I propose spending the rest of my life, apart from living with you, on various problems connected with religion and art. Now religion and art are the two most important phenomena in the world; or rather the most important phenomenon, for they are basically the same thing. They constitute, in fact, the only reality of existence” (The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1:425–6). As it turned out Frye, who was twenty-two at the time, did devote his whole career to seeking the unified vision of religion and art. To discover verbal formulas for expressing that vision was at the center of his mission. Interpenetration is one of his central verbal formulas. Frye associates interpenetration with anagogy, kerygma, apocalypse, spiritual intercourse, the vision of plenitude, the everlasting gospel, the union of Word and Spirit, the new Jerusalem, and atonement. These are all religious concepts. The paradox of interpenetration involved for Frye a continuous restating of the claim that X is Y, that X identifies itself with Y, that X interpenetrates Y, that X incarnates itself in Y. Incarnation, or Blake’s human form divine, is perhaps the ultimate radical metaphor for Frye. “That God may be all in one,” he says: “that’s the text for interpenetration” (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, 339). Or, in a notebook from the late 1960s, the Incarnation (along with identity, mutual awareness, and natural inclusion) is synonymous with interpenetration: “The conception of interpenetration is that of natural inclusion. We are in God; God is in us. Therefore there are two worlds, as at the end of Paradiso, one the other turned inside out. My consciousness of things put those things inside me, but whatever is conscious has me inside them” (The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 253). In Words with Power Frye observes that the sacred marriage in the New Testament (Christ as bridegroom, redeemed people as bride), as well as the intensely erotic way this relation is represented in mystical literature, is an expansion of the one-flesh union of Adam and Eve “into an interpenetration of spirit” (224). I examine scores of other notebook entries in an effort to flesh out what Frye means by this one-flesh notion of interpretation. Similarly with the ideas of identity and vision, each of which I devote a chapter to. I would never been able to explore the subtleties and the range of meanings of these terms had I not had access to the notebooks.

Similarly, with Frye’s exploration of Eastern religion. Frye was always forthright in acknowledging the significance of the “mythological framework” he inherited. He was inescapably conditioned, he says, by the “cultural envelope” of the Classical and Christian traditions of Western culture, the Methodist heritage of his upbringing, and his white, male, middle-class identity. The antifoundationalists, along with others more interested in difference than identity, refer fashionably to this commonplace as a social construction. The implication has often been that Frye is unable to step outside his own Western conditioning to take a broader and more inclusive view of things, so that what we end up with is an insular, ethnocentric, and outmoded structure of thought. Thus, Jonathan Culler’s attack on Frye for being a dogmatic religious ideologue and Terry Eagleton’s for his being a middle-class liberal and Christian humanist. While there can be no doubt that Frye is rooted in the tradition of Western liberal humanism in its Classical and Christian forms, his notebooks reveal that he was more influenced by Eastern thought than is commonly imagined and thus able not simply to engage worlds outside his own cultural envelope but to assimilate their religious principles into his own world-view. His knowledge of Mahayana Buddhism (both the sutras and Zen), of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Yoga, Taoism, and the I Ching, was actually quite extensive and in some cases formative in his own thinking. I devote a long chapter to this.

Two chapters are also devoted to Frye’s interest in esoterica, and the material here comes almost exclusively from the notebooks. All I can do here is list the areas of Frye’s interest, almost none of which one would ever infer from his published writings he had the slightest interest in: theosophy (via Madame Blavatsky), mysticism in its various forms from the medieval German mystics on, the cabala, alchemy, Gnosticism, numerology and synchronicity, astrology, the Tarot, channeling and other forms of the paranormal, astral projection, cosmic consciousness and fourth force psychology, new age religion and science (the Tao of physics people), Rosicrucianism and Renaissance hermeticism, and a group of zany books Frye refers to as his “kook books” (Robert Anton Wilson’s The Cosmic: The Final Secret of the Illumaniti, Itzhak Bentov’s Stalking the Wild Pendulum, and similar eccentric texts. I have identified 273 books in Frye’s library, almost all of which are annotated, that fall into the esoteric category. The question is, Why would Frye, whose published work reveals that he is pretty firmly rooted in the great tradition, be drawn to such books? I think there are three answers. First, the esoteric tradition comes to us largely in third-phase or poetic language, which means that its background is imaginative and symbolic and thus, like any other imaginative creation, it has a grammar, the rules of which operate in the same way as, say, the grammar of symbolism in Shakespeare or Dante. Second, esoteric texts for Frye are removed altogether from considerations of belief. This means that they can provide the content for vision. And third, certain forms of esoterica—alchemy, astrology, the cabala, the I Ching, the Tarot pack, numerology—help to confirm Frye’s contention that imaginative or poetic thought is schematic.

Frye is a schematic thinker. He cannot put pen to paper without a diagram in mind. No one I can think of thinks as diagrammatically as Frye, and while one seldom encounters diagrams in his published work, his notebooks are full of them. Because Frye is also an associative thinker, my study did not concern itself much with trying to trace the methods of his argument in a discursive sense, but I did devote a great deal of attention to process of his thought. Here the dialectical mode is pervasive. What I mean by dialectic is that Frye’s mind repeatedly moves back and forth between opposing poles of reference: knowledge and experience, space and time, stasis and movement, the individual and society, tradition and innovation, Platonic synthesis and Aristotelian analysis, engagement and detachment, freedom and concern, mythos and dianoia, the world and the grain of sand, immanence and transcendence, and scores, no, hundreds of other oppositions.[7] A second self-evident feature of his expansive body of work is its drive toward unity—an effort to get beyond oppositions. Perhaps the central thing I discovered in my study was the omnipresence of the Aufhebung process throughout Frye’s work. The word Aufhebung describes a dialectical transition: the term embodies the idea that oppositions can be transcended without being abolished. The verb aufheben has a triple meaning: “to lift or raise,” “to abolish or cancel,” and “to keep or preserve.” Frye is always seeking to go beyond the opposites of a dialectic.


[1] W.B. Gallie, “Essentially Contested Concepts,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 56 (1955–6): 167–98, and Philosophy and Historical Understanding (New York: Schoken, 1984).

[2] Eugene Garfield, Current Contents 32 (6 August 1979): 5-10

[3] Selected Letters of Edith Sitwell, ed. Richard Greene (London: Virago Books, 1997), 294.

[4] “The Present Condition of the World,” in Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 207–20; “The Church: Its Relation to Society,” in Northrop Frye on Religion, 253–67.

[5] Letter to Robert K. Leland, 30 October 1984. For a study of Frye’s relation to the church, see Jean O’Grady, “Frye and the Church,” in Northrop Frye and the Word, 175–86.

[6] Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 2:507. Cf. “[I]n my view of the Bible as a model of kerygmatic criticism, which I think of as getting past the imaginative creation for its own sake without going back to the old ideological dialectics, I think I’m passing beyond ‘deconstruction’ into a reconstruction no longer structural” (Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1:338).

[7] One can discover more than thirty polar categories in the First Essay of Anatomy of Criticism alone.

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