How Frye Might Lead Us Forth Into the 21st Century

By Germaine Warkentin

A few months ago I was asked by a colleague to lecture at an American university of good repute, and he asked me to send him several different topics to choose from. I produced four, one of which was a paper on Northrop Frye. About a week later he got back to me. “I think we’d like you to talk about the 17thC Jesuit,” he said; “I can’t find anybody here who is interested in Frye.”

That’s an academic response, and it came from young people who are still in grad school, people who were probably about six or eight years old when Frye died in 1991. And it’s contradicted by the excellent sales figures of Frye’s books, from Fearful Symmetry (1947) to The Double Vision (1991). Forty-four years of work, still being attended to by someone out there, as this wonderful festival clearly shows. What’s going on here?

The first thing to note is that the loss or diminution of the repute of a major intellectual figure is almost inevitable in the years after his or her death; we can all think of examples. But this is clearly a diminution in only one area, the academic study of literary theory. It doesn’t seem to be the case with a wider audience. As a matter of fact, Northrop Frye is almost alone among critics in commanding a wider audience in this day of intensely specialized academic critical discourse.

Perhaps my own response to The Educated Imagination offers a clue here: I edited it, with his other early critical writings, for the “Collected Works,” and I asked for the job because I love it as a piece of writing. It operates on me in just the way Jean Wilson just described in her presentation. Frye can be a marvelous writer: coolly compassionate, sometimes slangy, immensely literate of course, and as engaging as a favourite uncle. In life he wasn’t much like an uncle — he was actually rather shy, at least when I knew him, between his early fifties and his death. But his writing created that uncle-like impression.

This is one of the best examples I know of Frye’s own theory about how literature functions: the writer’s imagination creates not a mirror of the external world, but a possible model of experience for the reader to work with — and within. In his writing Frye provided the model of an immensely wise and witty reader of the canonical works of western literature. It’s a model that invites the reader into that imagined world, composed of King Lear, The Divine Comedy, the poetry of Paul Valery and Wallace Stevens, the criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, and of course what for him were the really big books: Blake, Finnegan’s Wake, the Bible.

But there were aspects of Frye’s approach that did not season as well as his writing persona: his rhetorical structure, for one thing, with its relentless exploitation of the copula verb: “This is that.” In The Critical Path he proclaims “The kernel of law is the commandment, the prescribed ritual or moral observance. The kernel of philosophy is the aphorism, which has several different social contexts” (41), and goes on to tell you what those social contexts are. Readers immune to his wit and his learning squirm under what they see as the imposition of some kind of severe orthodoxy. Then there’s his claim that literature comes only from literature. This seems like reducing writing to mere imitation; what Patrice just told us certainly contradicts this. Frye’s immoderate habit of systematization is another problem: it too seems to demand assent to an imaginative model that requires everything to be coherent, no matter what. Very few academics have yet assimilated the alternative experience of Frye we get in the explosive energy and hilarious self-mockery of his Notebooks, unknown for years but now edited in the Collected Works. It would help our understanding of Frye a lot if we had a “selected” version of those remarkable notebooks.

The Educated Imagination represents both the best of Frye – which is why I am so fond of it – and the worst. Looked at narrowly it can seem schoolmasterish and doctrinaire, perhaps even historically outdated. This is why it is important not to look at it narrowly, but to execute one of Frye’s own contextualizing maneuvers and look at it in terms of what he articulated in the work that follows it in time, The Critical Path (1971) Here he developed the interpenetrating concepts of the myth of concern and the myth of freedom. (Don’t forget Frye’s use of the term “myth” – it doesn’t mean something false, but rather signifies the innate shape of an imaginatively important narrative.)

A society’s myth of concern (CP 36) is what holds the society together; it is set of intensely traditional beliefs about that society and what their authority ought to be: the elders, the Church, the constitution, the Mafia Godfather, whatever. A society’s myth of freedom (CP 44) comprises the critical response to those beliefs, in particular its forms of dissent. For Frye, the two are always in tension with each other, a fruitful, never resolved situation that ideally creates both stability and openness.

In The Educated Imagination Frye is in fact writing as a schoolmaster; he admits it himself and rejoices in it. It is Frye in the classroom, where he loved to be. In The Critical Path he takes up all the same themes, but does so as a man living in historical time, struggling as we all must with the interaction between our concern for a coherent social world and our joy – his word – in the freedom towards which a healthy society aspires.

He didn’t find much of that health in his own times. Frye’s work was accomplished roughly between the shadowed and apprehensive years just before and during the Second World War, and the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. It is an oeuvre that is profoundly of the twentieth century. This is not to commit the fallacy that Frye condemns, of explaining the contents of the imagination by relating them to something in the natural world, but rather to accept, as he accepted, that as historical individuals we can only have the vision we have. Yet the mind in the act of creation remains his standard: “it is only those who have embarked on some critical path,” he writes, “who are living in the history of their time.” (CP 157)

Much of the critical theory that has dominated Anglo-American criticism since the early 1960s has been a probing of the terrible sense of contingency that people living in the twentieth century experienced. There are of course philosophical roots – and social ones as well — that go much deeper in time than that, but in the discourse of the last century that sense of contingency has been hypertrophied. A careful reader of Frye, and especially of the socially concerned works of his middle period, becomes aware of his deep and terrible sense of the dissonance of the times, and of his compassion for those who share the times with him and are less fortunate: “all those who are too cold and hungry and sick” he says, to attain the completing experience of imaginative life that poetry urges us to have, but that we never quite get to (CP 171). One of the things he remarks on in The Critical Path is the figure of the circle, which in Frye’s diagrammatic mind is the symbol of lost direction (CP 151). Frye’s preferred figure is the spiral, which moves ever upward, and never closes.

Thus it is with genuine joy – my word this time – that he always pulls himself up into a more fruitful vision, enacting in the upward spiral of his thought the myth of freedom that he articulates — under the dark shadow of race riots, the Bomb, and Vietnam — in the writings of his middle period, including The Educated Imagination.

This brings us back to our book today, and how it might lead us into the twenty-first century. I would know more about that if I knew what the twenty-first century was going to be like: what fruitful achievements it might produce, or what dark shadows. What I do know is that The Educated Imagination is Frye’s supreme achievement as a teacher. Despite its flaws it presents us with a model we badly need for the new century: a vigorous, creative mind working fiercely to teach anyone who would listen what it is to be vigorous and creative, and therefore free: the spiral at work in history and time.

My colleague Linda Hutcheon and I have adopted this model for a project we are working on to honour Frye in 2012, the centennial of his birth. Frye published his first article in the University of Toronto Quarterly in 1943, when he was quite young. Linda and I are going to edit an issue of the UTQ devoted not to writing about Frye, but to using Frye’s questions about literature and society – the kind sketched in what I’ve just said — to address the century ahead of us. It’s going to be called “The Future of Northrop Frye: Centennial Perspectives.”

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