Posted by Michael Happy on October 23rd, 2009
When Joe Adamson and I were thinking about setting up this blog, Joe said that he wanted it to be like the best aspects of a conference: people milling around amid the serious business of papers and panels, talking, laughing, enjoying one another’s company, with all of the unexpected pleasures and discoveries that come with it. It’s a good analogy.
For me the analogy is more like a gin joint. The occupants — having knocked, identified themselves, and gained ready admission – are smart, know what they’re about, and, their tongues loosened, are free to say whatever they want. We keep good company but are up for shenanigans, maybe even fisticuffs, if necessary. But the most important thing is that the talk take any form that follows and follow any path it finds.
And that has certainly been true this last week. Over the last couple of days, for example, the conversation — initiated by Russell Perkin and with significant contributions from Clayton Chrusch, Matthew Griffin, Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham — has centred on Frye, religion, the Bible, and The Great Code.
One of the best things about administering the blog with Joe is that we must deal with every comment and post that comes our way; and, of course, there’s a rich email correspondence going on behind the scenes. That combination — posts, comments, email — has really clarified at least a couple of things for me this past week. The first is that even with our small core of regular contributors, we speak with many voices, and that’s exactly what Joe and I hoped for. What we all have in common are varying degrees of admiration for Frye, but it’s also very clear how diverse our views can be. The debate we’re having is the sort of thing I’ve dreamed of for a very long time, and I’m enjoying it now with some of the best company imaginable, whose numbers I expect will only increase.
The other issue that’s been clarified for me is confronting what it means to be the kind of Frygian I am, and that’s been helped especially by the email correspondence. What I’ve had to deal with in particular are the implications of truly, genuinely believing that there was an historical divergence in literary theory and criticism about forty years ago, represented primarily by Derrida and deconstruction on one side and Frye and recreation on the other, and that the road not taken was the better one. Frye, for me — and I know I’m not alone in this — is more than just another literary critic, a great among greats. For many of us, he is a rare sort of genius whose presence on the scene changes it. As Joe put it the other day, picking up on a suggestion by Michael Sinding, maybe Frye was the paradigm shift that literary scholarship as a whole just can’t see yet. Jonathan Allan earlier this week cited McMaster’s David Clark’s remarks on Frye and Derrida:
I want to say right away that Frye’s work is richly significant. He played a crucially important role in the history of Canadian letters and in the life of a particular Canadian academic imaginary, signs of which are still to be found in the university. One of the things we have yet to see, though, are slow readers–to remember something Nietzsche once said–of Frye’s work, i.e. readers who put enough confidence in the complexity and critical power of his work to be willing and able to read it resistantly and against the grain, and to read it symptomatically, with an eye to its productive self-differences, occlusions, and unconsciousnesses.
Well, okay: “a particular Canadian academic imaginary, signs of which are still to be found in the university”? Maybe. But perhaps scholars like Clark might acknowledge at this point that insisting upon “against the grain” readings is not exactly kicking at the pricks, and the reflexive demand “to read it symptomatically” is possibly only a symptom of a deeper pathology. Today’s established literary scholars may still think of themselves as plucky revolutionaries dismantling various hegemonies, but, after a generation of dominance, they seem much more like post-revolutionary commissars with quotas to fill and vested interests to protect. In any event, I’m not so slow a reader that I’m unable to recognize what Frye calls “the squirrel’s chatter” of academic cant when I see it.
And that brings me to the much more serious matter of the state of literary criticism at the present time. Clark’s comment above may be particularly hollow, but it’s not atypical. Bob Denham pointed out a couple of days ago that Frye has not been wholly “excised from the critical canon”: his work continues to be in print, translated, sold and read. But there’s no denying that Frye is not in the mainstream of literary theory and scholarship, perhaps because the two are now so divergent as to be incompatible. The “absences” of deconstruction, which set the stage for the current discourse, are hard to square with the presences Frye reveals everywhere in literature. Frye’s theory of language — effectively a literal-metaliteral dialectic — does not reduce to “self-differences, occlusions, and unconsciousnesses” simply because such considerations do not represent any sort of limit to literary potential. Frye shows us that literature is revelatory, extra-rational, and potentially infinitely powerful because it is not anxiety or ideology-driven. It is imaginative in reference, and both its source and destination are primary concerns. Literature’s perspective, as Frye points out in The Educated Imagination, is stereoscopic: a vision simultaneously of the world as it is and the world as it might be. That “might be” in the context of universal human concern is exactly what sets Frye apart. It’s hard to see where he intersects with an intellectual outlook dedicated to fragmentation rather than to the particularization of the universal that only literature is capable of.
The world is a shitty place at best. We in the “developed” part of it live beyond the means of the environment to sustain us and at the expense of most of the rest of humanity; and, worse yet, we too often behave as though we regard the suffering and degradation as acceptable costs. I put up a fuss about contemporary scholarship because I find it too much like the world at large: engaged in doubletalk and evasive maneuvers while invoking concern for the “other”, wasteful of magnificent and always renewable resources, contemptuous of those who do not meet standards of conformity, and indifferent to those it is supposed to serve. As Frye often put it: the psychotic ape looking into a mirror, whose baseline ambition is to kill his father, God, and rape his mother, Nature. Or in the sardonic refrain from Steely Dan that’s been rattling around in my head all day, the show business kids making movies of themselves, who don’t give a fuck about anybody else.
It does not have to be this way.
But as long as it is this way, I’m grateful I have a place where I can say so in the expectation that our words — as Frye scholars seem especially aware — really do have the power to recreate the world. Literature, Frye says, is the language of love. We need only, therefore, perk up our ears, even as we loosen our tongues.