Anatomy of Humanism
- Northrop Frye (Author)
Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Graham Good (Author)
Humanism Betrayed. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Goldwin French (Editor) and Jean O’Grady (Editor)
Northrop Frye's Writings on Education. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Graham Nicol Forst
The re-issue of Anatomy of Criticism is essentially a photographic reprint of this 1957 classic of literary criticism, with the addition of a disappointing introduction by Harold Bloom. (Frygians can be quite certain that A.C. Hamilton will have much more interesting prefatory things to say about the Anatomy when the University of Toronto’s edition appears in 2004).
Re-reading the Anatomy now, more than forty years after its meteoric appearance, is every bit as tonic an experience as it was in 1957—perhaps less in spite of the domination in the 1980s and 90s of French literary theory than because of it. And this for two reasons: the Anatomy’s witty and graceful style, and its magisterial architectonic. For Frye combined the elegance and poise of a great prose master with an encyclopedic knowledge of literature to produce nothing less than a comprehensive exposition of the conceptual framework of criticism, based on "an assumption of total coherence." And consequently, one looks back at the Anatomy the way one looks at Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Spengler ’s Fall of the West, seeing them as great works that are very much a product of their time (Frye himself called the Anatomy "a book of its own period"), but no less fascinating because of that.
But has the Anatomy in any sense transcended its time? As a teaching tool, certainly. Rare is the young professor who has read the Anatomy early and has not regaled his or her students with the mimetic modes or the high-to-low-to-high structure of comedy or the recurrence of the archetype of the tricky servant or whatever. And it was, and remains pedagogically perfectly valid to do so: since Frye, teachers of literature can choose to go into their lectures with, at least, some kind of system informing their lectures, and, at best, with a valid respect for the values of literary discourse, sufficient to confirm that it doesn’t need any "ratification" from history or civics or philosophy or biography or the social sciences. A teacher without a background in Frye is like a philosopher without a background in Kant.
Volume Seven of the Complete Works of Northrop Frye contains almost all of his writings directly about education, ranging from undergraduate editorials for the Victoria College literary magazines of the early thirties to some of his last published pieces, which, characteristically, deal directly with issues of pedagogy and the university. As with Volume Four, which contains Frye’s writings on religion, one notices here the consistency of Frye’s thinking on education as the training of the imagination. The place best suited to such training was "the powerhouse of civilization": the university. Throughout these pages, Frye reiterates his conviction that the university is "society’s one light," and the last "fortress" of free thought, of resistance to "the siren call" of the advertising, entertainment, status symbols, slanted news and eroticism of "the world."
Consequently, the most bitter of these pages are concerned with what must be considered Frye’s descent into the inferno: the "People’s Park" riots in Berkeley where he was teaching in 1963, which threatened to politicize the university. Those who recall Frye’s antipathy to the rebellious students of the sixties will find their recollections confirmed here: to Frye, they were "bewildered, frustrated, disillusioned egoists," comparable at their worst to the Hitler Youth and the Gang of Four. Frye never varied from his conviction that universities were to be places of serious, detached studies, not hotbeds of political ideology.
In considering Frye’s educational theories definitively "logocentric" (e.g. "at the centre of literature lie the ’classics,’... and the university student... is there to study them") it is easy to dismiss them as old-fashioned. But to do so would be facile. Every teacher in the humanities should read Frye on education, if not to adopt his high idealism of the university as "a place which co-originates [a] vision of the greatness and accuracy of human imagination and thought," then at least to acknowledge his vision, and realize how high he or she has to aim when conceiving of a better definition.
Unfortunately, a kind of nostalgia envelops the sanguine humanism of Frye’s Writings on Education now, after the hegemony of French theory, and it’s a nostalgia that Graham Good, in his Humanism Betrayed, feels poignantly. In this book, essentially a compilation of articles written by Good during the nineties, Frye, along with George Orwell, Matthew Arnold, Harold Bloom, John Searle and André Malraux, is looked to as an antidote to the "poison" of "presentism" (postmodernism, poststructuralism and postcolonialism) and its historical avatars, Marx, Freud and Nietzsche. Good doesn’t exactly show how the old Greeks of humanism can defeat the young Turks of "presentism" except by rather circularly extolling the talents of the former for "clarity, common sense, con- creteness [and] balance".
Overall, Humanism Betrayed is, like Roger Kimball’s 1990 Tenured Radicalsnor Dinesh D’Souza’s 1991 Illiberal Education, an angry diatribe against everything which seems to the author politically repressive in the modern university: militant feminism, deconstruction theory, the New Historicism, Cultural Studies. One wonders about the book’s intended audience. If it is written for white males like himself, then he is preaching to the converted. But (to choose but one of his targets) few feminists I know would be converted by Good’s insistence that "there is little evidence that women face special difficulties today [in the post-secondary field]." (StatsCan’s Report on Education 2000 would open Good’s eyes here: men still outnumber women in post-secondary full-time teaching jobs by more than four to one.)
Nevertheless, the hits Good scores against "presentism" are palpable, although most of them have already been made elsewhere by Searle, Rorty and others. For example,
it surely is fair to condemn the claim of "theory" to be exempt from ideology, and to condemn its dismissal of the aesthetic dimension, and its fecklessness as a programme of social action.
Good is most eloquent when it comes to totalling up the bill for "presentism." It is expensive: no more personal or political redemption, as there is no shared sense of a collective imagination, or of an artistic and creative past. Also gone are the virtues of detachment, disinterestedness, taste and liberalism.
Well, these gods may be dead. But if they are not, their survival cannot be ensured by scatter-shot attacks on their enemies.
- Au pays de l'inexistence by Laurent Poliquin
Books reviewed: écran total by Laurent Chabin and Romans de la poésie by Yves Boisvert
- Growing Pains, Still? by L. M. Findlay
Books reviewed: Growth and Governance of Canadian Universities: An Insider's View by Howard C. Clark
- Unsettling History and Text by Heather Latimer
Books reviewed: Unsettled Remains: Canadian Literature and the Postcolonial Gothic by Cynthia Sugars and Gerry Turcotte and What the Furies Bring by Kenneth Sherman
- Frye's Critical Commentary by Graham Nicol Forst
Books reviewed: Northrop Frye on Literature and Society: 1936-1989. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Vol. 10 by Robert D. Denham and The "Third Book" Notebooks of Northrop Frye: 1964-1972. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Vol. 9 by Michael Dolzani
- Rewriting Gabrielle Roy by Paul Socken
Books reviewed: Gabrielle Roy réécrite by François Ricard
MLA: Forst, Graham Nicol. Anatomy of Humanism. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #178 (Autumn 2003), Archives and History. (pg. 129 - 130)
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