- Northrop Frye: New Directions from Old
This volume is one of the University of Ottawa’s series of “reappraisal” collections, based on an annual conference, in Canadian literature/culture. The occasion for this volume was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. It presents a careful selection of papers given at that conference. In order to give the reader an idea of the contents—when there are well over a dozen disparate papers it’s always a bit awkward in a review—here is a list. To begin, the thoughtful introduction by editor David Rampton gives a useful overview and offers a detailed summary of each paper: “The Collected Works of Northrop Frye: The Project and the Edition” (Alvin Lee); “ ‘Pity the Northrop Frye Scholar’? Anatomy of Criticism Fifty Years After” (Robert Denham); “The Genius of Northrop Frye” (Thomas Willard); “Jumping to Conclusions: Northrop Frye on Canadian Literature” (D. M. R. Bentley); “History, Tradition, and the Work of Pastoral: Frye’s ‘Conclusion to a Literary History of Canada’ ” (Robert David Stacey); “The Reverend H. Northrop Frye” (Ian Sloan); “Recovery of the Spiritual Other: Martin Buber’s ‘Thou’ in Northrop Frye’s Late Work” (Sára Tóth); “Frye’s ‘Pure Speech’: Literature and the Sacred without the Sacred” (Garry Sherbert); “Northrop Frye and the Chart of Symbolism” (John Ayre); “The Earth’s Imagined Corners: Frye and Utopia” (Michael Dolzani); “Transcending Realism: Northrop Frye, the Victorians, and the Anatomy of Criticism” (J. Russell Perkin); “Re-Valuing Value” (Jean O’Grady); “The Interruption of Myth in Northrop Frye: Toward a Revision of the ‘Silent Beatrice’ ” (Troni Y. Grande); “Frye and Film Studies: Anatomy of Irony” (David Jarraway); “Reframing Frye: Bridging Culture and Cognition” (Michael Sinding); “An Access of Power: Job, Evolution, and the Spirit of Consciousness in Northrop Frye and Daniel C. Dennett” (Jeffery Donaldson).
I found all the essays in this collection interesting. The papers that have a more factual than interpretative slant were of greatest value to me—of these, perhaps the paper by Frye’s biographer John Ayre on Frye’s “doodles” stands out. The importance of “diagrams”—of symmetrical structures—is fundamental to Frye and often caricatured as though he were a sort of Reverend Casaubon fantasizing about the key to all mythologies. But Frye’s assumption was that such symmetrical structures are an inherent property of human thought generally, creative thought most of all. Some of the papers in this volume strike me as not really interested in Frye but [End Page 235] interested in other things that can somehow be connected to Frye. For instance, David Jarraway’s paper on film: I was looking for either how Frye treats film in his writing or the application of Frye insights to film, but I didn’t find either. It’s a fine paper in its own right, but in the context of this volume its real point in my opinion is simply to link Frye and film—an area that is fertile for investigation. Frye was the supreme scholar of images and would have made an insightful film critic.
The problem with writing about Frye is that Frye is so lucid and clear himself that he explains his ideas better than commentators do. This is not to say that there are no difficulties in Frye, because Frye can be very demanding on a reader, but it leads to a temptation to emphasize things that are not really that relevant to Frye. This brings me to another problem with writing about Frye, and that is simply that Frye does not fit. He is an extraordinarily difficult figure to place. He does not easily connect with some familiar line of thought or school or approach—the sort of thing academics are intensively trained to recognize and look for. Without that, they tend to fix on one, applicable or not. The fact that Frye does not fit has consequences. If he does not fit, therefore he does not make sense. Therefore we can ignore him. Or he makes sense in wrong ways. (To...