Rereading Frye

by Salusinszky,
ISBN: 080204252X

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Retiring the Sacred Cow of Ideology
by Nella Cotrupi

Northrop Frye, one of Canada's outstanding intellectuals, was also an ordained minister of the United Church of Canada. Except for a brief and tortured stint in 1937 as a student minister in Saskatchewan (which he painstakingly documented in letters to his wife-to-be, Helen Kemp), he never formally followed through with this training for the pulpit. And yet, as the contributions to this new and important collection of essays attest, his professional life as a scholar and teacher was very much a response, if "undercover", to this call.

Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Works, edited by David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky of the University of Newcastle in Australia, consists of eight probing, perceptive essays on topics as apparently remote as Salusinszky's "Frye and the Art of Memory" and Péter Pásztor's "Reading Frye in Hungary: The Frustrations and Hopes of a Frye Translator". Remarkably, the collection, which represents an important initial public exploration of Frye's soon-to-be-published personal notebooks and diaries, emerges as a coherent and powerful reassessment, not only of Frye's life work and the spiritual goals it very clearly sought to fulfill, but also of his place in the turbulent world of contemporary critical theory.

Northrop Frye, the man, about whom we learn a great deal in this volume, was obsessed with time and with his own perceived inability to make good use of it. In a 1937 letter to Helen Kemp, he wrote: "I am ...weary of my apparently inexhaustible capacity to waste time, rush wildly down blind alleys, overexert myself, do all sorts of fool things." This obsession is both ironic and telling if we consider Frye's output over his fifty-three-year teaching career as summarized in Alvin Lee's succinct Preface to this volume: thousands of lectures, thirty-three books, fifteen edited books, essays and chapters in more than sixty books, many more published monographs, journal papers, introductions, and reviews.

But, as Salusinszky has noted, "Frye was not just a prolific writer, but a prolific jotter as well." After his death in 1991, the main body of these jottings, which occupy, as Robert Denham describes, "some twenty-three metres of shelf space" and which were generated over approximately fifty years, were deposited with Frye's other materials in the Frye archive at the Victoria University Library, University of Toronto. Victoria was Frye's alma mater and his place of work over the entire span of his academic career. Robert Denham, one of the editors of the unpublished papers (the other is Michael Dolzani, another of the contributors) has catalogued, in the first essay of this collection, the nature and extent of this archive. The private papers are slated to be published as part of the thirty-volume Collected Works of Northrop Frye, a series under the general editorship of Alvin Lee, and now in progress with the University of Toronto Press. Denham's second paper, the other "book-end" of the volume, complements this topographical survey of the Frye papers with a probing inquiry into the visionary spiritual core of Frye's private meditations, and it is this core which represents the key thematic thread binding this group of essays into a unified whole.

As the highs and lows in Frye's currency as a critical thinker attest, Frye was not one to heel to the call of prevailing critical tastes. Although we may question the claim of the editors that he was "cheerfully indifferent to the demands of fashion", it is certainly the case that Frye had, as he tells us in a notebook entry made shortly before his death, "spent the better part of his seventy-eight years writing out the implications of insights that at most occupied a few seconds of that time." The nature of these insights, and his lifelong attempts to formulate a comprehensive and enduring theory of criticism around them, are the poles around which these new and important essays gravitate.

This volume of essays is extremely timely in that it catapults Frye back into the central ring of the currently raging culture debates over ideology, where he clearly belongs. What is, of course, unique and not at all new is Frye's insistence (in the past so often curtly and unfairly dismissed as naive, romantic, and out-of-date) that, among all the possible ways in which words may be used, there is something in language which permits it to operate at a supra-ideological level, beyond, as Frye was wont to say, "the rat trap" of various ideologies.

Joseph Adamson's lengthy but compelling paper targets this issue head-on as he explores the "treason of the clerks". He suggests that what is perhaps Frye's greatest contribution to the history of ideas is "his highly sophisticated and complex defence of the autonomy of literary and artistic culture, his insistence on the priority of a fully developed imaginative response to literary works and on the central role of the imagination in human culture in general". Unlike the most recent waves of critical mandarins (deconstructionists, New Historicists, proponents of gender studies, cultural relativists, and cultural materialists), Frye did consistently, and for the better part of his life, preach the existence and importance of a literature which is detached and concerned, as opposed to that which is ideologically aligned and which, as Adamson summarizes, is instead "anxious and interested". Frye, who in good Canadian fashion was much more circumspect and restrained in his published statements, wrote in one notebook: "I know that when I suggest the possibility of a human primary concern that overrides all conceivable ideologies I'm flying in the face of Roland Barthes and the rest of the Holy Family. It's high time that sacred cow was turned out to pasture. By the sacred cow I mean the omnipresence of ideology, and the impossibility of ever getting past it" (Notebook 27).

As Adamson and all the other essayists in this collection point out in one way or another, there is, for Frye, a discontinuity between ideology and literature, and that discontinuity arises through the operation of myth. Whether myth is presented directly, or displaced and projected in writing closer to the mode of realism, there is in myth and in myth-based literature the fundamental element of primary concerns which "transcends time and place and difference" and thus distinguishes it from the secondary and divisive preoccupations of ideology. Accordingly, Frye emerges in this volume as a timely champion of a renewed liberal humanistic ethos which is fundamentally hopeful, if not naively optimistic. The wellspring of this hope lies, for Frye and his successors, in the transformative power of imaginative creativity and disinterested artistic engagement. Although we may detect the undercurrent of this conviction in all of Frye's published works, we are shown, by Adamson and other contributors, just how much more direct and vehement was Frye's private response to the critical and intolerant orthodoxies of the day. In his personal, uncensored, and sometimes downright obscene writing (which he knew would become one day anything but private), Frye takes off the veneer and polish of the academy, and in precise, if episodic and fragmented, entries, exposes his impatient and often furious opposition to the ideological wave in critical thinking, defining his own bourgeois liberalism as "the sense of the ultimately demonic nature of all ideological constructs" (Notebook 44).

Frye's personal vision of the redemptive power of imagination and artistic expression is nothing new for those who have read the public Frye. With this volume and the publication of the private writings which it explores, we are privileged to access some of the tortuous intellectual "busy work" and the personal struggles that went into the public Frye's gestation and cultivation.

Jonathan Hart's piece on Frye's (frustrated) "Quest for the Creative Word" is one of a number of essays which focus on this aspect of the Frye papers. Hart's exposition is deeply moving. In it we are presented with the failures of the great Frye, the world-acclaimed critic and teacher who has been compared, at various times by various scholars, in all seriousness and with good reason to Aristotle, and only half-jokingly referred to occasionally as "God" by students. Here we meet a Frye struggling and baffled by his own inability, notwithstanding repeated and prolonged attempts over many decades, to produce fictional works of any merit. As Hart explores Frye's personal accounts of this frustration and failure, as he surveys the lists and inventories of creative projects compiled yet seldom, and then only indifferently, realized, we recognize the irony of Frye's quest for poetic identity. Having reached the early and ardent conviction, as Hart writes, that "the poet's vision of human life" is what moves humanity forward beyond the "ideological and instrumental", Frye repeatedly set himself the task of reaching this pinnacle of creative achievement. However, as Hart has explored at length and convincingly, Frye's was a theoretical, not a poetic, imagination, one founded on prodigious feats of memory and association, able to pierce with lazer-like acuity the essential units, structures, and processes of human imagination. Hart goes on to posit the interesting, if not fully explored, possibility that Frye's personal diaries and notebooks represent, in their totality, his most accomplished and sustained attempt at creative writing. Hart leads us through many fascinating notebook entries which at times do take on "the dramatic power of fiction itself" as he builds his case for reading the notebooks as an ironic and satiric literary quest for poetic expression.

Two other papers in the collection, like Hart's contribution, offer us intriguing insights into the mental and emotional life of this notoriously shy and private man, and into the inner workings of his prodigious intellect. Michael Dolzani is co-editor with Robert Denham of the notebooks for the Collected Edition of the Works of Northrop Frye, and was, for many years, Frye's research assistant. His essay, "The Book of the Dead: A Skeleton Key to Northrop Frye's Notebooks", is, like the others in the volume, well-honed and informative. However, it stands out from the others in the eloquence of its construction, the vividness of its poetic phrases and imagery, and the intensity of its tone: "For several years, my own fixation has been exploring the labyrinthine caverns of the Northrop Frye notebooks. A certain portion of the astonishing volume of Frye's unpublished writing has been the sort of literary remains one would expect: notes on his reading, drafts, the bones and discarded flints on the floor of the cave". Harnessing imagery rooted in such seminal works as Plato's Republic and Dante's Divina Commedia, Dolzani delves into the "peculiar nature of Frye's creative processes", identifying and investigating the variety of creative formulations Frye used to posit and solve the ambitious, encyclopaedic intellectual puzzles that he set out to master.

Dolzani's account unveils a number of fascinating discoveries about Frye's modus operandi. Chief among these is the centrality and continuity of a meta-project consisting of "eight masterpieces in one genre" first conceived when he was a child, and which, over the decades, was transposed through apparently seamless, though radical, modulations from the realm of music, to the realm of fiction and, lastly, to the realm of criticism. It was here, finally, in the critical realm that the greatest, if still incomplete, success was achieved by Frye in attempting to realize his herculean ambitions. Dolzani's description of the nature and significance of Frye's schematized thematic structures, which Frye sometimes jestingly called the "Great Doodle" or "ogdoad", with its intricate web of symbolism, pattern, and numerology, is a most intriguing account of critical creativity at work. And, although Frye may never have accomplished the musical or fictional or even the ambitious critical version of this great opus, the basic methodology involved in spatializing or schematizing large quantities of information and ideas into particular structuring patterns and interrelationships is certainly in evidence in his published work, and played a key role in the composition of his great encyclopaedic masterworks, Anatomy of Criticism and The Great Code.

Dolzani's paper does not end here, however. He proceeds to use this account of Frye's symbolic schemas and spatialized blueprints of human imaginative realms as a springboard for a richly informed, expansive exploration of Frye's visionary faith and the dialectical forces which, in Frye's view, drive the spiritual and social imperatives of literature. This faith, we are led to see, is really not a faith but a hope in the progressively transformative power of imagination: "The ego cannot solve the problem of the One and the Many, either for itself or for society; it is stuck with a Hobson's choice between repressive unity and disintegrative difference. But the imagination perceives in configurations of patterns, in a unity-in-diversity of contraries that Frye usually calls interpenetration." In what is one of the key paragraphs not only of this essay, but of the entire book, Dolzani summarizes the essential connection between the formal structures of literature and the yearnings of the spirit: "Imaginative patterns are focussed around the primary concerns; these have a physical basis but expand into a spiritual dimension where they become the more abundant forms of human life, as sex expands into love, eating and drinking into communion and community. The ultimate expansion of the supreme fiction is into an entire cosmology, a recreated human universe...."

Dolzani then dexterously moves his discussion from the realm of society to that of the individual, exploring how the interpenetrating power of imagination may facilitate a Eucharistic act of possession in which "we die each other's lives and live each other's deaths". He guides us, respectfully and with great restraint, to share in Frye's great loss, the loss of Helen, his Beatrice. This move of Dolzani's into the intensely personal realm is neither gratuitous nor prurient. It is in Frye's private writings on this loss that we see his own hopeful formula for faith, a belief in the redemptive processes and products of the imagination, come up against the hardest tests of life, and not only remain intact, but emerge reinforced: "Since Helen's death I've felt my love for her growing increasingly beyond the contingencies of the human situation. I begin to understand more clearly what Beatrice and Laura are all about. If relation is reciprocal, there is nothing to regret beyond the inevitable mechanisms of regret" (Notebook 44).

Imre Salusinszky is, like Dolzani, fascinated by the inner workings of Frye's mind and, in his inquiry into "Frye and the Art of Memory", he seeks to map out certain key regions of Frye's mental landscape. He examines Frye's knowledge and implementation of mnemonic devices which were very much in vogue during the Renaissance, especially those that utilize visualization of a spatial or architectonic nature. As the editors note in the introduction, there is a great deal in the preoccupations of the private Frye that recalls earlier periods-from the inspired meditations of the monk, Joachim of Floris, to Renaissance mystic Giordano Bruno and the great systematisers of knowledge of the 16th and 17th centuries. Indeed, Frye appears to emerge at times as a man not only out of fashion, but also out of step with the tenor of his times. Seeing these connections and the preoccupations that propel them, Salusinszky delineates the contours of a visionary critical faculty audaciously anachronistic in its ambition to sketch out, in the broadest of strokes, the vast reaches of human imaginative range in a summa or complete vision. There is nothing, says Salusinszky, that stands out as an attribute of Frye's work more than "a relentless imaging and spatializing of knowledge". As the notebook materials reveal, Frye did indeed utilize mandala-like diagrams and memory theatres for visually ordering his critical cosmologies, even if he had, in his published works, attempted to deflect inquiries along those lines.

Salusinszky provides a rich overview of the early medieval and Renaissance humanistic traditions to which Frye was deeply committed, and deftly surveys the techniques and disciplines of artificial memory which Frye studied with great zeal. He also intimates a portrait of a twentieth-century Frye nostalgic for an age when others shared such interests even if then, as now, these interests had to remain covert-if for entirely different reasons. Salusinszky's Frye is caught "Janus-like" between the role of proselytizer for a "militant Blakean-Romantic imagination" and a personal commitment to the classical and humanistic ideals of order, decorum, and judiciousness. What follows is a fascinating account of how these tendencies are reconciled and of the way in which Frye's major theoretical and critical insights are intimately linked to his diagrammatic and spatializing methodology and the techniques of artificial memory.

The final stretch of Salusinszky's exploration brings us, inevitably, to examine the link between Frye's art of memory and his formula for a visionary faith. Here too we are brought to a recognition of the spiritual yearnings driving Frye's critical agenda; his conviction that literature as a whole expresses, in Salusinszky's words, "man's revelation to man" and that the myths that emerge from "humanity's vast unconscious memory-palace", myths expressing the loss and recovery of identity, are "something deeper than an ideology-something like the buried memory of all mankind-and hence [transcend] different social formations." Salusinszky shows us that, for Frye, memory is a crucial player in this process for memory is what "selects, rejects, rearranges, condenses and displaces. In short, it mythicizes our history" (Notebook 27).

The remaining three essays in this volume make quite diverse though complementary attempts to explore aspects of Frye's challenge to existing orthodoxies. A. C. Hamilton's three-part essay casts a telescopic eye over Frye as a "bred in the bone" cultural theorist. Hamilton lucidly scans the developments in twentieth-century critical theory, showing us the context in which Frye, the critical thinker, operated, outlining changes which he himself brought about, and finally offering suggestions as to Frye's place in the current cultural arena.

One accomplishment of this essay is that it reminds us of Frye's impressive intellectual longevity. He first made a splash with the publication of his book on Blake, Fearful Symmetry, in 1947 and has, since then, been close to the centre of critical debates-if sometimes only in the role of sacrificial lamb. Hamilton, one of three contributors to this volume to have produced a book-length study of Frye (the others are Robert Denham and Jonathan Hart), is particularly intent on examining Frye in relation to the cultural theorists, and specifically the New Historicists with their socio-cultural preoccupations. In doing so, he poses a number of important and difficult questions, questions that others have sought to invoke in order to place Frye beyond the pale of contemporary developments in critical thinking: "What is culture? Whose culture is it? Who speaks for it?"

Hamilton nimbly proceeds to demonstrate not only that Frye had, from a very early period, cultivated in himself a pluralistic and inclusive notion of culture from key influences such as Spengler, Coleridge, and Blake, but that Frye had, very consciously and in his usual dialectical and comprehensive way, developed a multi-dimensional model of culture which presaged many of the multicultural sensitivities to be later trumpeted by the New Historicists and others. Hamilton explains that in his three-tiered exploration of culture, Frye, unlike other cultural theorists, incorporates a fundamental distinction between ideology and mythology. And here, Hamilton notes, arises a key distinction: "While for Greenblatt, [one of the key figures in New Historicism,] a poem may subvert ideology by exposing its contradictions, it does so only in a way that may be contained; for Frye, its content may be a product of ideology but not its mythological structure, with the consequence that it transcends ideology."

Frye, we are shown, was not insensitive to the effects of conditioning and contingency. However, unlike some cultural critics who are caught in the vortex of their own reflection and can see nothing beyond "their own prejudices and stereotypes in a mirror", Frye acknowledges difference and yet still perceives archetypes shaped by common and primary concerns that are shared by almost all the human race and which are thus not "culturally specific but multicultural". As Hamilton's essay seems to suggest, in an increasingly globalized world, such acknowledgment of multicultural communion and community provides a much needed reminder that there are other forces behind global convergence than just the bulldozer of world commerce.

Péter Pásztor's "Reading Frye in Hungary: The Frustrations and Hopes of a Frye Translator" presents, in effect, a fascinating case study for these very principles. While describing the linguistic and bureaucratic challenges of translating and publishing Frye, and particularly The Great Code, in Hungary, Pásztor actually translates the dangers of ideological tyranny from the hypothetical and theoretical realm-where we have, for the most part, encountered them elsewhere in the volume-to the day to day vicissitudes of life. Some of the challenges that Pásztor describes in lively and engaging prose result from peculiarities in Frye's own style, such as the aphoristic and discontinuous composition of many of his paragraphs. Others arise from the particular socio-historical context of Eastern Europe, and Hungary in particular. He cites, for example, the difficulty of deciding whether to adopt the terminology of the Hungarian Catholic or Protestant traditions in translating the text. But what is of central concern to Pásztor is the fact that "Frye was not wanted" in the Hungary of the `70s and the `80s, nor was the great Hungarian mythographer Karl Kerényi. What follows is a vivid account of the cultural thaw that followed the demise of institutional Marxism in Hungary, and the consequent flowering of public interest in Western schools of criticism, including Frye's. In attempting to come to terms with the apparent reluctance to publish Frye even in post-Communist Hungary, Pásztor outlines the impasse in contemporary Hungarian society resulting from a mutual demonization by liberal Urbanites and rural conservative Populists and the devastating polarizing effects this has had on culture and society in general.

Pásztor makes the intriguing suggestion that Frye's discussion of the metaphorical identity of pastoral and urban imagery in The Great Code may help to mitigate these suspicions and divisions. He also reminds us that there are those who may still need reassurance that "myth is not by definition authoritarian" and thus should not automatically be linked with the ideology of Nazism. In his hopeful discussion of the positive impact that The Great Code may have on the culture wars of contemporary Hungary, we are given a timely reminder that the distinction between myth and ideology is not just an elegant conceptual formulation, but a living, all too meaningful reality.

And so we have arrived back to Robert Denham and closure. There is a logic in reserving the essay on interpenetration for the end of this review. In doing so we not only respect the symmetrical arrangement of Rereading Frye, but also create the opportunity to move back from an exploration of some of the more social, outwardly directed themes, to the spiritual centre of Frye's preoccupations.

Frye was not always as explicit in acknowledging his intellectual debts as he might have been, to the frustration of many scholars. In his private jottings, however, which are comprised, in part, of notes and commentaries on his extensive readings, there is much more food for this type of critical inquiry. Robert Denham has culled from the approximately four thousand pages of notebook materials a remarkable lineage of parallel sources which nurtured in Frye one of the most important, and as yet, relatively unexplored touchstone formulations for Frye's critical preoccupations and for his own personal formula for faith-namely, interpenetration.

Denham's essay, which represents a sweeping and highly evocative overview of the important sources which shaped Frye's understanding of interpenetration, leaves no doubt that there was, ultimately, no difference, for Frye, between critical inquiry and spiritual quest. Frye had this insight early in life. In a 1935 letter to Helen Kemp, he wrote: "I propose to spend 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 phenomena, for they are basically the same thing. They constitute, in fact, the only reality of existence" (The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, volume 1).

Frye's life work, as recorded in the notebooks, represents, Denham tells us, "an extended quest in search of verbal formulas". Given the 150 or so appearances of "interpenetration" in the notebooks and its important, frequent appearances in the published works, this was clearly a pivotal one. Denham identifies a number of seminal sources in a number of discrete intellectual contexts from which Frye proceeded to develop his own extended applications of this concept. He summarises these sources (which he tracks in some detail in both the private and published writings) as "...the historical by way of Spengler, the philosophical by way of Whitehead, and the religious by way of the [Buddhist] Mahayana sutras". Denham's exploration is rich in insights and details and tells us much about the stretch and breadth of Frye's intellectual adventures. Among the thinkers discussed are Plotinus, Vico, Borges, Hegel, Coleridge, Ramon Lull, Giordano Bruno, Owen Barfield, and David Bohm. Denham's survey of the multiple births of this concept in Frye's intellectual formation leads to a discussion of the main contexts in which interpenetration emerges in the Frye papers. As we follow Denham in his analysis of the historical, philosophical, social, and metaphorical contexts of interpenetration in Frye, the ironic realization emerges that the crucial paradoxical juxtaposition which is central to all these versions of interpenetration is operative here too. There are many interpenetrations and yet they are one. Ultimately each face or aspect of interpenetration-from the social vision of a classless, free, decentralized, multicultural, and interpenetrating community to the scientific and philosophical projection of processive and interpenetrating elements of experience in the cosmos where "everything is everywhere at all times"-represents for Frye a mirror, however discrete, of "The Holy Spirit, who being everywhere at once is the pure principle of interpenetration" (Notebook 52).

Interpenetration is a verbal formula for faith that works for Frye because it allows the typical dialectical movement of Frye's ideas to accommodate his yearnings towards unity while avoiding the facile reconciliations or syntheses which he so distrusted: "The bullshitters, of course, are always chasing donkeys' carrots (or bulls' tails), looking for a final reconciliation of all disagreements in the bosom of Marx, S. Thomas, the Great Mother, or what not. The correct form of this is the `God exists in us and we in him' formula of Blake, Juliana of Norwich, and many others" (Notebook 53). Denham traces Frye's spiritual and critical engagement with interpenetration to his earliest scholarly writings, including a paper on Calvin which he wrote at the age of twenty-two. As Denham observes, already at this age, Frye held the belief that "when our understanding of the Spenglerian rise and fall of civilizations and the Incarnation `interpenetration [sic] and focus into one' we shall have a theology that accommodates itself to the twentieth century".

We are now on the last lap of the twentieth century and, yes, of the millennium, and we know, as the bombs continue to fall on Belgrade and ethnic cleansing persists, that this theology has yet to take hold. This book, and the courageous and spirited writings it explores may, it is hoped, move us closer to it. 

Nella Cotrupi is a lawyer and scholar whose book, Northrop Frye: The Poetics of Process, is forthcoming.


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