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  • Northrop Frye: New Directions from Old, and: Northrop Frye's Canadian Literary Criticism and Its Influence
  • Joseph Adamson (bio)
David Rampton , editor. Northrop Frye: New Directions from Old. University of Ottawa Press. 2009. 430. $38.00
Branko Gorjup , editor. Northrop Frye's Canadian Literary Criticism and Its Influence. University of Toronto Press. 2009. 368. $65.00

These two books are welcome contributions to the ongoing assessment of Northrop Frye's impact as a literary and cultural theorist. New Directions from Old, edited by David Rampton, is a collection of essays from a symposium commemorating the passing of fifty years since the publication of Anatomy of Criticism in 1957. A number of the essays in the volume are particularly noteworthy. Sarah Toth's paper on Frye and Buber is a deeply thoughtful unpacking of the dialectic of the Word and Spirit addressed by Frye in chapter 4 of Words with Power; this is one of the more difficult zones of Frye's thought, and Toth does a commendable job of elucidating it. Michael Dolzani's essay, an exploration of Frye's understanding of the role of utopian fiction in the literary and social universe, is another excellent piece, focusing as it does on a genre not usually thought of as central to Frye's criticism. Russell Perkin's essay turns to another aspect of Frye's work not often attended to: his relationship to the Victorians, most particularly Frye's affinity for the critical views of Oscar Wilde, who, like Frye, was a great defender of the romantic tradition in an age largely antithetical to its emphasis on the creative imagination. Robert Denham's essay is a vintage piece from the dean and arch-archivist of Frye studies. There is no one better positioned to pronounce withering judgment on the oft-repeated assertion that 'no one reads Frye anymore.' Whatever the judgment of post-structuralist and cultural studies scholars within many English departments, rumours of Frye's obsolescence have been greatly exaggerated, and Denham provides the evidence. As he points out, '[D]uring the past two decades, about twice as much has been written about Frye than in the previous forty or so years.' Some of the more original treatments in the volume include David Jarraway's engaging application of Frye to the reading of one of Hitchcock's early films and Michael Sinding's essay outlining some of the possible links between cognitive literary studies and Frye's schematic conceptions of the verbal universe.

There are also some serious disappointments in the volume. The fact that Garry Sherbert's essay immediately follows Toth's lucid exposition only accentuates the obscurantism of his own take on Frye's exposition of the prophetic and meta-literary registers of language. The method [End Page 322] behind this tortuous yoking of Frye and deconstruction is often exposed in the sentence structures, such as the following: 'Like Derrida, in his essay entitled "The Retrait of Metaphor," Frye believes that whenever we use metaphor, we become the content of the metaphor (103).' I found the parenthetical page reference confusing, given that it follows a predicate whose subject is Frye. The reference, however, is to Derrida's essay. Thus words, by a feint of syntax, are put in Frye's mouth. The overall result is that Frye's conception of the interpenetration of word and spirit, so helpfully explored by Toth in her essay, is simply never examined in its own right, and if examined at all it is, perversely, only inasmuch as Frye ends up sounding as mystifying as Derrida or Heidegger. Ironically, when Frye picked up ideas from Derrida and Heidegger - as was his syncretic way with so many thinkers - he used the rule of charity so that they ended up sounding as clear and illuminating as he is. This is particularly true of his treatment of Derrida. Derrida's invasion of North America coincided with Frye's composition of his two major books on the Bible, and it is evident from his Late Notebooks that he genuinely struggled to understand the significance of what Derrida was saying and how it might relate to his own understanding of the verbal universe. But there...


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