The gospel according to Frye

Mark Czarnecki April 5 1982

The gospel according to Frye

Mark Czarnecki April 5 1982

The gospel according to Frye


Mark Czarnecki

Halfway through a lecture on the Book of Job, Northrop Frye stops his hypnotic flow of thought and asks, “Are there any questions?” Another lecturer would resume talking immediately if no hands appeared, but not Frye. He waits, and waits, and waits. The class squirms. Who dares ask a question of the great Northrop Frye? The twin lobes of his massive forehead twitch under the strain —his longest pause has been timed at more than three minutes—but still he waits. Sometimes, a student will ask a question, any question, just to dispel the mutual embarrassment choking the room, and the daunting ivory tower in which Frye’s reputation has incarcerated him is scaled— if only for a moment.

The answer comes back, swift and complete, as if Frye had been thinking of nothing else all week. The lecture resumes, the students pick up their pens and the legend of Northrop Frye grows apace.

This month, the legend began to assume near-mythical proportions. Frye, Canada’s pre-eminent teacher, literary critic and cultural philosopher, has just published what Victoria College: many consider his

finest work, The Great Code (Books, page 56). This freewheeling study of biblical narrative and imagery will consolidate his reputation as one of the century’s master thinkers. Not only that, the University of Toronto’s Media Centre has launched a 30-part video series of Frye’s lectures and seminars on the Bible for use in archives, on TV and in classrooms around the world. Said Frye with a grin: “I am glad to be pickled and preserved for posterity.”

For more than 40 years Frye’s courses on literature, criticism and the Bible at Victoria College in the University of Toronto have been earning him a worldwide reputation. The respected

American scholar Harold Bloom has hailed him as “the leading theoretician of literary criticism among all those writing in English today.” On a recent lecture tour to Italy he was lionized by academics and featured in the opening episode of a television series on the century’s most influential personalities. Frye’s 19 books and hundreds of articles have fuelled doctoral theses from Sweden to Guyana. Fearful Symmetry, his pioneering work on the late 18th-century Romantic poet William Blake, is regarded even now, 35 years after it first appeared, as the classic in its field. Meanwhile, his monumental Anatomy of Criticism, published in 1957, has redefined the ground rules of literary crit-

icism and still sells thousands of copies a year. His fame is such that the new book threatens to become a runaway best seller as well. Says Toronto bookseller Bob Miller: “We went through 100 [copies] in two days—we can hardly keep it on the stands.”

Ten years in the writing, The Great Code almost did not appear at all. “The thing scared the pants off me from the beginning because it seemed an endless job—like writing the Encyclopaedia Britannica,” Frye recalls. His task was not made any easier by endless production problems—300 stylistic changes made without his approval had to be reversed—and the whole experience has left F rye “numb.” But with his magnum

opus finally on the book stands, he is relieved that the daily subway ride to his tiny, book-crammed office at Victoria will no longer end up with pages of The Great Code marching out of his IBM Selectric.

Still, as Frye approaches 70, there is more work to be done. In progress is a companion volume examining the Bible’s influence on Western literature; a book of essays on Canadian culture; a series of lectures on Shakespeare’s problem comedies; the editorship of the collected works of the seminal Canadian communications philosopher Harold Innis; and various critical essays. “I’ve got this damn monkey on my back and it won’t get off,” he says, bemused by his own tyrannical creativity. And now, increasingly frail and hard of hearing, Frye wonders whether his mind’s reach will exceed his body’s grasp. He notes tersely, “At my age, time is it— time is everything.” Nevertheless, Frye continues lecturing to .^undergraduates at a Spoint in his career when most scholars ¿have gleefully shucked ±their teaching loads. i“All of my books ihave essentially been äteachers’. manuals Irather than works of ^scholarship,” he says, 2not intending to sound ¡Emodest. Teaching is a sacred charge for him, ~ and knowledge is useless unless it is communicated and directed toward a more civilized society. There is an unmistakable evangelism in his willingness to promote his theories of literature on countless lecture tours around the world. His ideas in effect constitute a way of life. Says Frye: “I’m really building everything around a highly personal vision, a vision! think I’ve had since I was a child.”

Frye expresses this vision in familiar terms. In essence, it is the story of “how man once lived in a Garden of Eden, how that world was lost and how we some day may be able to get it back again.” He does not consider this an exclusively Judaic or Christian story, nor is he concerned with the dogma and ethical codes that have accompanied it. His vision is spiritual in the broadest sense, and he sees the same pattern of loss and redemption repeated throughout Western literature.

Frye believes that although man may never recreate his lost paradise on earth, his ability to imagine such a world is what makes him human. “The real utopia is a world not to see but to see by,” Frye explains. The imagination at play between these eternally separate poles of reality and desire is the source of literary inspiration and man’s greatest liberating force. In the words of poet and critic Frank Davey: “Frye calls for a return to wholeness—a wholeness in which the dream transforms and humanizes the actual. Thus for Frye literature is educative, enlarging both the reader’s tolerance for his fellow man and his understanding of life.”

Although Frye’s vision has been with him all his life, it did not find a specific focus until he was a graduate student. Late one night writing an essay on Blake, he experienced an epiphany, a sudden overwhelming insight into the meaning of his poetry. In that moment Frye realized that Blake’s complex “prophetic” poems were not the ravings of a madman, as critics had claimed, but reflected fundamental patterns that could be found in all of Western literature. These patterns, he believed, were “all related to a central myth whose primary basis is the Bible.”

Frye’s deep affinity for Blake has few parallels in literary criticism, and the two men are strangely similar in many ways. Like Frye, Blake was short and stocky, married but had no children, was largely self-educated and spent his life elaborating a single compelling vision of man and art. “Everybody has a certain number of ideas built in, like eggs in a female,” says Frye, and his own ideas matured under Blake’s influence. On that night Fearful Symmetry was born, and it laid the foundations for all his later work, culminating in The Great Code, whose title is in fact taken from a marginal scribble on one of Blake’s engravings: “The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art.”

With his Selectric working overtime transcribing his vision to paper, Frye has little time for leisure. In any case, the distinction between work and play is largely meaningless to him. Whether reading for pleasure (science fiction ranks high) or playing the piano (18thand 19th-century composers are favored), Frye is never really off duty. He has to wall himself off in order to complete his work and he has paid hard human coin for his privacy. Although an acute sense of responsibility drives him to accept such figurehead positions as membership on the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission and the chancellorship of Victoria University, he is ill at ease in social situations and abhors small talk. Not that many people try. His fervent spiritual vision, brilliant intellect and extremely shy nature have conspired to make him appear uninterested and aloof.

That problem has not escaped his attention. “I get approached in stereotypes,” notes Frye dolefully. “People say, ‘Look at that great double-dome— he actually eats breakfast.’ ” Yet those who know him are unanimous in extolling his warmth and generosity. Bob Sandler, a former student who has just completed the video series on Frye, comments: “He knows the world feelingly—his head and heart aren’t divided. But I don’t think he realizes how much he loves and is loved.” Adds Jane Widdicombe, Frye’s personal assistant for the past 14 years: “He thinks of himself as just a regular guy.” She speaks of him with filial affection. When she asked him to give her away in marriage, he replied, “No—but I’ll lend you.”

True wit from a scholar is always unexpected. But Frye is a trickster at heart, an impish monkey god whose many jokes—delivered deadpan and often ribald in nature—are frequently at his own expense. Before the filming of the video series, he suggested to Sandler that “the camera might find i't easier to follow me if I painted my bald spot red.” And among the voluminous anecdotes about him is the story (true, as it happens) about the graduate student who had T-shirts printed with biblical symbols circling a head shot of the master.

Tickled by the result, Frye—a man to all appearances born in a tweed jacket and tie—stunned his students by wearing one to class. When he laughs, the Precambrian folds of his face melt in the warmth of an inner light, transforming the dour sage into a beaming Buddha.

Yet Frye is neither saint nor hero. Asked once how he coped with the adulation heaped upon him, he replied, “For a teacher, patience has to be a substitute for heroism.” Patience can also replace saintliness, however. A former

The scholarly ediñce Frye constructs is mortared in lanyuaye so persuasive it is hard to refute

student recalls that Frye’s effective method of expressing displeasure at a late arrival was to halt in mid-sentence until the offender had settled down, then pick up his train of thought as if nothing had happened. That tactic drove at least one habitual laggard to change courses.

One of the many paradoxes about Frye is that, despite the timeless nature of his thought, he bears the strong imprint of a childhood he describes as one “I always wanted to get away from.” Born in Sherbrooke, Que., in 1912, he soon moved with his family to Moncton, N.B. A devoted and devout mother taught him to read and play piano at the age of 3 and educated him at home until Grade 4. The Bible was omnipresent in

Frye’s childhood, and he terms the fundamentalism he absorbed then a “load of crap” which only released its grip when he was a young teenager. Although Frye always wanted to be a writer, he eventually realized he “didn’t have the right eye for fiction—I just saw theoretical patterns.” Nicknamed “Professor” for his bookish ways and athletic inadequacies, he finished high school and entered a national typing contest in Toronto. His second-place finish was no fluke: if typing were an Olympic sport, Frye would still stand a chance of winning a medal.

But the shy lad from Moncton underwent a radical transformation once he enrolled at Victoria in 1929. Photographs in the college literary magazine Acta Victoriana show a handsome youth with gentle eyes and a sly grin. He blossomed as a social being, joined the debating society and wrote a gossip column in Acta, advising frosh on proper behavior at petting parties. During a play rehearsal he met Acta's future art editor, Helen Kemp, whom he later married. Their romance was duly noted in Frye’s gossip column in this supposedly overheard dialogue employing one of his beloved “world’s worst puns”: “Helen G.K.: T could never marry a man who wasn’t tidy.’ Friend: ‘In which case he would probably be unkempt for life.’ ”

Like many intellectuals at the time, Frye was interested in social reform. A longtime friend, Ray Godfrey, remembers evenings with Frye, Morley Callaghan and Barker Fairley when the group “just sat around the fire changing the world.” Although Frye was sympathetic to the League for Social Reconstruction and the CCF, he says: “I always resisted the idea of engagement—political concerns seemed to me a damned nuisance. I was wrapped up in literary studies.”

Originally Frye had intended to be both a writer and a minister, viewing the latter role in the English country parson tradition as a symbol of the cultivated life. But three years at Emmanuel College, Victoria’s theological graduate school, and a rural posting to a Saskatchewan parish in 1936 convinced him he could best serve the church and society by living the academic life he was clearly cut out for. After receiving an MA at Oxford—although he has been awarded 30 honorary doctorates Frye never pursued a PhD—he accepted a teaching post at Victoria in 1939. His life was finally unfolding as it should. “I remember thinking, ‘Now Fve got the wife I want and I’ve got the job I want. Why the hell couldn’t my life have begun at this point instead of stomping all the way up here?’ ” Victoria clearly suited him. Firmly rooted in southern Ontario Methodism, the college has nurtured more than its share of Canadians who have shaped

the elusive national identity. For Frye, teaching at Victoria was also a way of fulfilling his ministry. As he puts it, “I’ve always been attracted to an institution with a religious connection—it’s the only place where you can use the words ‘infinite’ and ‘eternal’ without embarrassment.” The secular chapel of

every university is its library, and Victoria’s is named after one of Frye’s cultural mentors, the poet and scholar E.J. Pratt. It is appropriate that the guardian icon in the Pratt reading room is a portrait of Frye— trousers rumpled, socks at half-mast—sitting suspended

against a tormented sky on an invisible throne.

The publication of Fearful Symmetry in 1947 and his subsequent promotion to full professor marked another turning point in Frye’s life. With that one book he established Blake as a major poet and himself as a major critic. However, growing fame also brought increasing isolation from colleagues and students. Undergraduates who had confided problems both academic and personal stopped knocking at his door. This saddened Frye, but his commitment to teaching remained strong and, ignoring offers from other universities in Canada and elsewhere, he stayed on at Victoria. “A person deeply interested in teaching can’t make too many moves,” Frye believes. “It takes a long time to understand your students’ cultural assumptions.”

Among those students were many who made their own contributions to Canada’s culture, including Margaret Atwood,

Thoughts of a great scholar

On Literature:

“Scholarship in Canada has so often been written with more conviction and authority, and has attracted greater recognition, than the literature itself.”

“Literature is a power to be possessed, not a body of objects to be studied.”

On the Bible:

“The Bible should be taught so early and so thoroughly that it sinks straight to the bottom of the mind where everything that comes along can settle on it.”

On Canadian History:

“When we don’t think of Canadian history as dull we think of it as theatrical—a pageant of canoes, furs and tortures.”

“The human landscape of the New World shows a conquest of nature by an intelligence that does not love it.”

On Nationalism:

“Canada has passed from a pre-national to a post-national phase without ever having become a nation.”

On the Canadian Identity:

“Americans like to make money: Canadians like to audit it. I know of no country where accountants have a higher social and moral status.”

“The fundamental question in English Canada is not ‘Who am I?’ but ‘Where is here?’—of coming imaginatively in contact with the country.”

“We are being swallowed up by the popular culture of the United States, but then the Americans are being swallowed up by it too. It’s just as much a threat to American culture as it is to ours.”

“The Canadian identity is bound up with the feeling that the end of the rainbow never falls on Canada.”

On War:

“War appeals to young men because it is fundamentally auto-eroticism.” ,

On Language:

“There is only one way to degrade mankind permanently and that is to destroy language.”

On Tradition:

“The rear-view mirror is our only crystal ball—there is no guide to the future except the analogy of the past.”

On Writing:

“I certainly do rewrite my central myth in every book, and would never read or trust any writer who did not also do so.”

“The most technologically efficient machine that man has ever invented is the book.”

On Teaching:

“No teaching is worth doing unless it has a militant quality to it.”

On Separatism:

“Separatism is a very healthy movement within culture. It’s a disastrous movement within politics and economics.”

On Education:

“Scientists who consider the study of humanities worthless are just clunkheads.”

“We must reject that most dismal and fatuous notion that education is a preparation for life.”

Margaret Avison,

George Johnston, Dennis Lee, Jay Macpherson and James Reaney.

Atwood denies the common notion that their work was influenced by his theories. “People assume he exerted some odd Svengali-like influence on young minds,” she says,

“but his great strength was that he took writing seriously.”

Adds Reaney: “He’s not a guru—he makes you your own guru.”

Frye provided encouragement in other ways as well. Atwood credits him with being partially responsible for Victoria’s pioneering efforts in hiring and promoting women. And as editor of The Canadian Forum from 1948 to 1952 and literary reviewer for the University of Toronto Quarterly in the ’50s, he examined the entire spectrum of Canadian writing on a regular basis. Says Atwood: “People forget what a vacuum he was working in—there simply wasn’t anybody else.” Frye’s major statement about literature and the principles of literary criticism appears in his Anatomy of Criticism, one of the most influential works ever written on the subject. Its most controversial assumption is that literature is a world unto itself. In order to understand this “imaginative universe,” according to Frye, the critic does not need to know, for example, that Shakespeare was an actor who lived in Elizabethan England. He skewers this kind of biographical criticism by putting on his country-bumpkin pose. “There are critics who can find things in the public records office,” he says, “and there are critics who, like myself, could not find the public records office.” Nor is it the critic’s job to pass value judgments on literary works. “Odious comparisons of greatness” are irrelevant, he says. All the critic requires is sensitivity, a willingness to be as objective as possible and a comprehensive knowledge of literature.

The scholarly edifice Frye constructs from the patterns of literature is mortared with a language so persuasive it is almost impossible to refute. As Lee puts it, “If you work within its assumptions you end up helping to build it.” Frye has many critics, though not all would agree with University of Toronto English Professor Dennis Duffy, who has

equated Frye’s detachment with inhumanity and has deplored the “disturbing, killingly abstract nature of his vision.” Many students find Frye’s seductive structure appealing, however. Says Victoria undergrad Angela Esterhammer: “He gives a comforting sense of everything being in its place.”

Perhaps overshadowed by his fame as a critic and teacher is the fact that Frye is also a great writer. His chosen form is the literary essay in the tradition of Hazlitt and T.S. Eliot. Even his major “books” are really constructed of indies he becomes increasingly frail, Frye wonders whether his mind's reach will exceed his body's grasp

vidual essays, like bits of glass in a kaleidoscope. The critic George Woodcock calls Frye “one of our finest literary craftsmen.” His work is strewn With beautifully turned phrases and choice tidbits of information: during a discussion of sun-god myths in The Great Code, Frye casually mentions that “the salute is said to have developed out of the ritual shading of one’s eyes before the glory of a superior countenance.” His aphoristic, rhythmical style is more akin to poetry than prose, and one devoted follower has even demonstrated that lines from the Anatomy can be read as blank verse.

Not so well known as the Anatomy but perhaps equally important to Frye

is Uses of the Imagination, a series of highschool readers for which he was the general editor. The selected readings in the 13-volume series are based on his literary theories and are intended to counter the ill effects of a public education system he terms “radioactive with ignorance and illiterate blither.” Frye passionately believes in a traditional humanist education grounded in basic disciplines, especially poetry and other “serious” literature. Such an approach, he says, gives young people a sense of the “real” society—the world transformed by the creative imaginationhidden behind accepted contemporary values. According to Frye, “The primary function of education is to make one maladjusted to ordinary society.” Unfortunately, the series was introduced in the early ’70s when educational philosophy stressed methodology rather than content. But as the pendulum swings back to the basics, sales are picking up. Frye himself believes poetic and mythmaking urges are surfacing again in popular culture, pointing out that Milton’s Paradise Lost will be easier for a student familiar with Bob Dylan’s line, “There are no truths outside the gates of Eden.” Although his works have secured him an exalted niche in the pantheon of contemporary thinkers, the memory of Frye as teacher is what Frye the man hopes will linger on. The essence of his teaching can be found in a distinction he draws between two kinds of art: art that clearly reveals the particular signature of its creator, such as the music of Schumann or Tchaikovsky, and certain works by Bach and Mozart in which, as Frye puts it, “an impersonal element enters, a sense of listening to the voice of music itself. This, we feel, is the kind of thing music is all about, the kind of thing it exists to say.” Likewise, the voice of drama speaks through Shakespeare and Sophocles. Frye’s vision of the ideal teacher is similar: “A teacher has to forget that he’s a teacher. He’s there as a prism between the subject and his students, and the only thing he can do to help his students is to disappear and let his subject teach itself.” Listening to Northrop Frye, it is difficult not to believe that one is hearing echoes from the voice of the human imagination itself.