- David Rampton (Editor)
Northrop Frye: New Directions from Old. University of Ottawa Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Graham Nicol Forst
The University of Ottawa Press issued this Festschrift under its “Reappraisals of Canadian Writers” rubric, but while there’s some reappraisal here, a lot of the volume is taken up by doctrinally committed Frygians fighting a rearguard action in defence of Frye’s pursuit of “the total subject of study of which literature forms a part.”
Denham confronts Frye’s “obsolescence” in his “’Pity the Poor Frye Scholar?’” which begins by citing as evidence of Frye’s topicality the (just completed) publication of the 30 volume Complete Works of Northrop Frye. This of course begs the question of whether the enormous U of T Press project was a pure boondoggle in the first place. Denham admits that Frye is now “at the circumference” but notes that he is nonetheless “still on the reading list in English and comparative literature courses.” Which of course proves nothing—Greek Mythology is on all university calendars but worship of Zeus has notably fallen off in recent millennia.
Under the rubric “Frye and the Sacred,” Ian Sloan in his “The Reverend Northrop H. Frye” tries to square Frye with his own brand of high church Anglicanism. As evidence of this putative concord, Sloan notes that both Frye and the church “hate value judgements” (he can’t be thinking of how the church feels about gay marriage); and both, consequently, “abjure dogma.” Well, Frye certainly abjured dogma, but he wouldn’t have shed modern church dogma, says Sloan, because it is “supple” and constantly “developing.” In Frye’s terms, of course, anything supple and capable of development isn’t dogma any more. Sloan, one feels here, is trying to rescue Frye for the church by forcing him into a box which Sloane, as a practising minister, can accept and deal with.
Under “Reconsiderations,” Jean O’Grady in her “Revaluing Value” attempts, unconvincingly, to justify Frye’s abjuration of value judgements. She begins by saying that “no judgemental criteria apply in the Anatomy.” Surely that’s naïve, as Frye’s critics have insisted: everyone who’s creating a system preferentially selects those materials which will rationalize the system, and Frye did this no less than do the most “objective” of historians or cultural theorists. His unacknowledged preference for Romance and Comedy, and “kerygmatic” writers are obvious examples of such (implicitly judgemental) personal preferences. If O’Grady means no science of criticism can be based on judgemental criteria, she’s right, but that begs the question raised by Frye as to whether or not there is or can be a science of criticism.
In any case, says O’Grady, “the value of literature is found [only] in the imaginative pattern the reader constructs.” But because of the vagueness of the word “literature,” this is not as value-free as O’Grady suggests. Is it really “private and personal and unpredictable” to say for example that Hamlet is “better” than Animal House? I think not. (Frye is never strong here either.)
Among the other papers by the Frye “old guard,” the best is Michael Dolzani’s “The Earth’s Imagined Corners,” which appears under “Reconsiderations.” Here, Dolzani asks the crucial question as to whether Frye’s utopian vision, like his critical theory, doesn’t end up “[imposing] symmetrical design at the expense of chaotic facts.” Dolzani quietly implies it does, a remarkable admission from a long-time Frye admirer.
Truly “new directions” in Frye studies are offered here by the younger scholars: Sara Toth’s “Recovery of the Spiritual Other” is an original and helpful overview of the similarities (and they are many) between Frye and Martin Buber, and the comparisons she makes between Frye and Lacanian psychology are surprisingly a propos. Interesting also are the links Gary Sherbert makes between Frye, Derrida and Heidegger on the topic of metaphor in his interesting “Frye’s ‘Pure Speech.’” Similar attempts by Jeffery Donaldson to link Frye to the vegetable-brained Daniel Dennett are unsuccessful, and Troni Grande, in her overview of feminist reactions to Frye, completely glosses over feminism’s very valid problems with his work. David Jarraway in his “Frye and Film Studies” attempts to wed Frye’s criteria to film noir, but it is an arranged marriage at best. Michael Sinding in his “Reframing Frye” shows revealingly how Frye can be used to enrich traditional myth discourse.
Like most conference-generated Festschriften, a mixed bag of earth, with nuggets mixed in for patient readers.
- Feminist Debates by Susan Knutson
Books reviewed: Lesbian Utopics by Annamarie jagose and Politics and Scholarship: Feminist Academic Journals and the Production of Knowledge by Patrice McDermott
- Writing, Coupling by Manina Jones
Books reviewed: Literary Couplings: Writing Couples, Collaborators, and the Construction of Authorship by Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson
- Frye in China by Graham Good
Books reviewed: Northrop Frye: Eastern and Western Perspectives by Wang Ning and Jean O'Grady
- Ethical Semiotics by Charles Barbour
Books reviewed: From a Transcendental-Semiotic Point of View by Karl-Otto Apel and Literary Discourse: A Semiotic-Pragmatic Approach to Literature by Jørgen Dines Johansen
- Anatomy of Humanism by Graham Nicol Forst
Books reviewed: Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye, Northrop Frye's Writings on Education by Goldwin French and Jean O’Grady, and Humanism Betrayed by Graham Good
MLA: Forst, Graham Nicol. Different Directions. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 182 - 183)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.