||Counterpoint Of Meaning
by James Reaney
Before you know it, you're watching
Northrop Frye bicycling through
the prophecies of William Blake
THIS IS the story of a great teacher who discovered the answer to one of our epoch's great soul problems. If a story is not true, what use is it? Since Northrop Frye believes that story and metaphor are the artefacts that hold our societies together, his answer to the above question is supremely important: stories are neither true nor untrue. Whatever they are, like the propositions in Euclid, when you want to bring order "without regimentation" into our disordered world, they work. So this is the story, then, of a man who is himself a walking repository of all the ways stories and metaphors fit into each other, parallel each other on various levels, and eventually provide us with a string through the labyrinth.
Basing his book on 40 interviews with Frye as well as a 20-year fascination with his subject, John Ayre has done an excellent job of showing how Frye's systematic analysis of the verbal universe fits into and grows out of the various potential traps of Frye's natural life as opposed to his spiritual life: heartbreaking poverty in a Moncton, N.B., childhood, a life in a country that with its wolfish landscapes has swallowed many a Jonah, a repressed and repressive school system run by spinsters waving straps, a world of grown-ups who paid lip service to the idea that "in the beginning was the sermon" but meanwhile really worshipped the most banal materialism.
Against these enemies, Frye used verbal skills (literally in the case of the famous typing contest, critically in the scholarships won to Victoria and Oxford) and a teaching career that found him slowly becoming one of the world's most quoted authors. I think that this biography, with its very available journalistic style, will lure thousands of readers into dipping their toes in the Pool of Narcissus and the Well of Mimir, areas of symbolism and mythology they usually avoid, and this simply because Ayre so skilfully slides from events like the boy's first bicycle to the way this bicycle is used -- literally to organize his perceptions of the New Brunswick landscape; before you know it, you're watching Frye bicycling through the prophecies of William Blake, having fun, providing a persuasive and clear road map, so why shouldn't you ... neglect "Dallas" for Finnegans Wake? There should be, there probably has been, a board game made out of Frye's Anatomy of Criticism.
On this popularizing level, I would, though, like to point out to Ayre that in retelling the story of Douglas Fisher's first experience of Frye as a lecturer, he should really leave in the part where Fisher says that listening to the master on George Bernard Shaw was like seeing a good movie.
To my mind, Frye has a talent similar to that of Glenn Gould, who played Bach in such a way that you found yourself "thinking" out the counterpoint. Similarly, Frye plays William Blake, William Shakespeare, and that miserable wreck, the Modern Century, as nobody has ever played them before. He seduces you into sensing the levels, the counterpoint of meaning you never really noticed before. Look at the way he describes Toronto freeways with their cars like "ants in the body of a dying lion." The Duke in Measure for Measure is not Christ, he's a Trickster figure! Each age seeks out the Shakespeare play it deserves: 19th century -- Hamlet; 20th century -- our anguish and evil -- King Lear, and because of our pornographic fascination with horny lovers and stalemate politics -- Antony and Cleopatra will be the script for the 21st century.
Like Oscar Wilde, Frye believes that life imitates art; unlike Wilde, Frye knows how to deal with a repressed and materialistic society. Disguised as a United Church clergyman and a University of Toronto lecturer, he has completed Oscar's work for him without anyone guessing that he himself is really (as Edith Sitwell called herself) an electric eel in a pool of catfish.
Several last thoughts about this stimulating book: how well the United Church, Victoria College, the college system at U of T as well as the old English Honours course come off. They seized the chance Frye gave them to back a winner on a world scale. The saddest moment in the whole book is when, in the late '60s, the hippies, draft dodgers, and CIA agents mob the Honours course to pieces and make collegial life impossible -- at what used to be a first-rate university -- for some decades to come. Frankly, I cannot see the modern bureaucratic university with its antheap of students studying cafeteria courses producing another Frye at all.
I thank John Ayre particularly for one image at the very beginning of his book and that is the small Frye at four years old clutching closely not a Teddy bear, but a copy, much used, of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. What if our children grew up to love poetry and stories as if they were beloved toys? For those of you readers of Books in Canada who were raised clutching Yogi Bear, or a Freddy doll, or a toy machine gun, the book implies that it's still not too late. Ayre's book presents a very tempting key to Frye's thought, and the first way you might want to use it is to change the script for the 21st century. Instead of Antony and Cleopatra, why not The Tempest? Why should we be stuck with these tragic scripts of every century?
As if by magic, while Xeroxing this at the drugstore, I note the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly with an article by Neil Postman called "Learning by Story." The author says that what America and the Soviet Union need is new stories -- the old stories of Divine Constitution by Jefferson and History Goddess by Marx have worn out. So why not The Tempest, before God decides that we deserve Titus Andronicus? In some ways, it is the excellence of this biography that its author has handled his subject so well -- revolutionary thoughts occur.