Necessity of Opposites: The Dialectical Thinking of Northrop Frye. University of Toronto Press
Remembering Northrop Frye: Recollections by His Students and Others in the 1940s and 1950s. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers
With 2012 being the centenary of Northrop Frye’s birth, we are being treated to a number of conferences (Toronto, Budapest) and critical books furthering the work of consolidation and assessment in Frye studies. A hundred years is plenty of time for any writer’s reputation to ride out at least one high and one low, and Frye is no exception. He has gone from seeming to be very nearly the only show in town in the 1950s and 1960s, to the doddering hasbeen of inevitable later configurations, to the more recent eiron figure at court, the winking outsider still waiting for others to catch up. Is the fact that we are now heading back to a more measured response to Frye’s work and legacy part of another swing back—Frye with his mojo?—or a rising above swings back and forth altogether? The issue is important: it has to do with a historical dialectical process, and a process of dialectical thinking, explored by Brian Russell Graham’s Necessity of Opposites: The Dialectical Thinking of Northrop Frye.
Graham’s very readable study takes Frye back to his roots, as others have done, to his essentially Blakean apprenticeship and orientation. The relation in Blake of the imaginative to the actual, the spiritual to the material, provides Graham with a kind of original formula for dialectical thinking that he then traces through broader areas of concern in Frye’s writings, relations between literature and society, between modes of education, between the political left and right. These return to their source in a form of spiritual double vision that lies at the heart of all these concerns and provides us with the model for a mental strife that I think will increasingly become part of Frye’s lasting legacy. Graham quotes Frye himself—from his Words with Power—on the nature of dialectical thinking, as adduced naturally from Hegel:
What Hegel means by dialectic is not anything reducible to a patented formula, like the “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” one so often attached to him, nor can it be anything predictive. It is a much more complex operation of a form of understanding combining with its own otherness or opposite, in a way that negates itself and yet passes through that negation into a new stage, preserving its essence in a broader context, and abandoning the one just completed like the chrysalis of a butterfly or a crustacean’s outgrown shell.
Graham’s careful analysis of dialectical thinking in Frye’s work is a welcome addition to our improving understanding of Frye’s resistance to any kind of either/or thinking. It also gives the lie to a comment by Terry Eagleton—published in 2001 in the London Review of Books—that Frye “seems not to have learnt Yeats’ lesson that no humanism can be authentic which has not passed through its own negation—that nothing can be whole without being rent.” Whenever he writes on Frye, Eagleton seems peevishly disinclined to address Frye’s own insights into Marx and even his partial identification with him, perhaps because Eagleton would have had no taste for Frye’s own revelation of a mythopoeic initiative at the heart of Marx (that Marxism too must be part of a dialectical momentum that will pass through it). It would be nice, in any case, if Graham’s book put to rest these now rather tired “summaries” of Frye’s thought.
At the same time, I’m not sure that Graham doesn’t make things awkward for himself in ways Frye might wish he had avoided. I detect a language of “safe at last” in his account of Frye’s dialectic, where the act of “rising above” an opposition is presented as more or less unproblematic transcendence: “Frye dialectically moves above the level of historical oppositions to a third set of ideas, an alternative on a higher level of understanding, which may be said to represent a supra historical alternative.” Or Frye “aims to combine considerations of both poetic ‘truth’ and beauty and move beyond radical and conservative view points, thereby transcending the ordinary history of ideas.” Such phrasings, which one tends not to find in Frye himself, puts Eagleton back in the driver’s seat, with some idea that Frye lacks the final stage of self-erasure that characterizes a genuinely rigorous attempt to move beyond one’s own limitations. I think I prefer Robert Denham’s account—in his Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World (2005)—of Frye’s use of Hegel’s unique “Aufhebung” (German for transcendence), whereby a superseded idea is both cancelled and preserved by what follows. This is the language of Hegel and Marx that Eagleton himself borrows from when he tries to show Frye wanting. It is the paradox of metaphoric thinking itself, which Frye knew a good deal more about than Eagleton. At the very least, Frye should have returned to him, with interest, his right to the slippery ironies that Eagleton himself prizes. Graham’s rewarding book will add a further voice to this call for a correction.
Those who enjoy the biographical or quotidian side of Frye’s wrestlings with the mundane and spiritual as a dialectic will value Robert Denham’s compilation of epistolary recollections of Frye. A couple of years after the critic’s death, Denham sent out to friends and former students an invitation for personal stories, impressions, and anecdotes of Frye the teacher and scholar. The ensuing correspondence from some eighty-nine respondents may be particularly welcome for those of a later generation who will wish to know more about Frye as a teacher of undergraduate and graduate students. What gives this collection a unique dialectical flavour of its own, and I think distinguishes it from other aural and epistolary memoirs of its sort, is that Denham includes comments that Frye himself made about these later respondents in his early diaries (indeed, the diary entries themselves provided the occasion and the mailing list for Denham’s original invitation). How fitting is the antiphonal spirit of call-and-response that leaves us with the impression of a Frye who was both subject to worldly concerns and capable as always of rising above them, anticipating even his own remembrances from beyond the ruins of time.