Deep Frye

Reviewed by Graham Nicol Forst

To the 7 ½ million words of the Northrop Frye Collected Works (CW), Robert D. Denham has added another 200,000 which, “for reasons which are murky,” did not get included in the CW. Chief among these entries is the almost one-hundred-thousand-word “notes” that Frye composed in preparation for his Norton Lectures of 1973, which led to The Secular Scripture. These notes comprise plot summaries, largely of Renaissance and Victorian romance narratives, some of which take up many thousands of words. Denham refers to this note-taking as “spadework,” but it seems more as if Frye is back-hoeing, considering just one of these plot summaries takes sixteen thousand words (after summarizing which Frye says “silly story, except for the archetypes”).

Literary archetypes of course are Frye’s prey, and he finds more than eighty in these “mazelike” plots of shipwrecks, pirates, kidnappings, enchanted islands, and loss and recovery of identity. And although few will want to wade through, for example, a four-thousand-word summary of Scott’s Guy Mannering, those who do will be rewarded with the interesting references to Shakespeare, and amused by Frye’s salty self-deprecations, if not put off by his frequent use of the “f-word.” What we have here, then, is a tale of two obsessions: Frye’s with romance, and Denham’s with Frye (Denham even tells us when Frye changes his pen nibs!).

Other entries in Northrop Frye’s Uncollected Prose include a newly discovered notebook from the early 1930s, some early book reviews, various cancelled pages, prefaces, and transcriptions of radio addresses and discussions. Northrop Frye’s ongoing appeal in Europe is in evidence with the publication of the French scholar Claude Le Fustec’s Northrop Frye and American Fiction and by Body of Vision: Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Mind by the Canadian scholar Michael Sinding, who teaches at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Le Fustec opens her study with a rambling, twelve thousand word Introduction (with 153 footnotes) positing the end of secularism, and an imminent “return of transcendence in Western culture.” To make her case that American Literature is the exemplar of this “transcendence,” Le Fustec enlists the later Bible-centred work of Frye—principally the first part of his Words With Power. But, no less than those of Frye, her efforts are largely Procrustean. First, the philosophers she uses to set her “post-secularism” theme (Mark C. Taylor, William Connolly, Charles Taylor) are all Catholics; and second, of the six American authors she chooses to analyze, two were raised Catholic (Fitzgerald and Kerouac) and the other four (Hawthorne, James, Morrison, Steinbeck) “absorbed Christianity through their skins” as the latter confessed. Also like Frye, she restricts the word “religious” to “an explicitly Christian, theological frame of reference.” Thus, as with Frye, when le Fustec refers to “the Bible,” she means the Christian Bible; moreover (again like Frye), her commitment to a Christian point of view directs her to ignore completely the powerful tradition of American Jewish fiction (Roth, Bellow, Mailer, Malamud etc.), much of which wouldn’t fit into her self-defining schemata.

An essential flaw in Le Fustec’s argument is this: in openly adopting Frye’s “romantic” belief that literature itself is “redemptive,” her focus on Christian symbols and references in the chosen authors is simply redundant. In what way is The Grapes of Wrath really a gospel of “immanent Christianity”? How definitively “Christlike” is Sal Paradise’s (Kerouac’s) rebellion? Is his (essentially Buddhist) “beat way” redemptive in a truly Christian sense? Is Jay Gatsby really “Jesus God’s-boy”; and if so, is Fitzgerald not openly mocking traditional Christian redemptiveness? American literature, in other words, is only “haunted by religion” when its ghosts were religious to start with, and it remains a great stretch to say that American literature reflects, as Le Fustec says it does, “the wisdom and love of God embodied in the cross.”

Michael Sinding’s Body of Vision: Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Mind applies the principles of “cognitive poetics” to literary criticism, clearly reflecting the modern European interest in stylistics. Essentially, “cognitive poetics” in Sinding’s thought spins off from George Lakoff’s conceptual metaphor theory, which holds that metaphors are not merely ornamental but are actually “informative” of the very act of reasoning.

In itself, this view of metaphor squares precisely with Frye’s, but Sinding has bigger fish to Frye: he wants to use conceptual theory to defend Frye against (primarily) New Historicism but also against the “shaky” principles of post-structuralism and cultural studies in general. Of course, since Sinding is starting from a cognitive-structuralist position, his approach is largely circular: for example, he sees the metaphor as reflecting a “grammar of the unconscious—a set of fixed, general principles,” which of course simply “proves” what structuralism assumes.

Sinding’s subtitle is “The Poetics of Mind,” but poetics in the narrow sense is not his only concern here; he is equally interested in the larger issues (so prominent in Lakoff) of how metaphor “frames” social thought. This interest leads him to a long analysis of non-literary discourse, primarily of Hobbes’ Leviathan and Rousseau’s Social Contract, the conservative/liberal conclusions of which are, he shows, determined by inherent metaphorical references to body, city, and family. This part of Body of Vision does not refer to Frye, and is better thought out by Lakoff himself in his Metaphors We Live By and Moral Politics.

Sinding’s rejection of New Historicism informs his long fourth chapter, nominally on the genre of the pastoral. He believes that Frye’s theories can “bridge” the New Historicism with structuralism. But again he argues petitio principii: we may not, he circularly insists, “deny the humanly universal,” or, for that matter, “literary universals” which Frye so famously thought derived from myth. Moreover, Frye’s theories are said to be inherently “more satisfactory” than those of (the New Historicist) Stanley Greenblatt because they “connect the past with the present” (which of course is exactly what Greenblatt would deny), leaving the New Historicism “hanging in the air.” Better to “hang in the air,” Greenblatt may respond, than build castles in the air: there’s more room for movement.

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