Posted by Jonathan Allan on September 5th, 2011
It is no secret that I have written about Harold Bloom and often enough try to provide some balance when his name is invoked here at The Educated Imagination. Professor Bloom has always been generous and reading Professor Bloom has always been productive for me. And herein lies the problem: I am a PhD Student at the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto. The Centre for Comparative Literature, as many likely know, was at one time and in sense still is the home of high theory. One need only look so far as the post of the Visiting Northrop Frye Professor of Literary Theory, which was initiated in 1977 and Fredric Jameson was the first academic to hold this post. Following Jameson, the Centre was visited by: Paul Ricoeur, Robert Weimann, Barbara Hernstein-Smith, Mieke Bal, Edward Said, Sander L. Gilman, Julia Kristeva, Charles Taylor, L. M. Findlay, Tillotama Rajan, Emily Apter, Carol Mavor, and current Franco Moretti, who is teaching a course called “The Bourgeois.” Moreover, just about every major influential theorist has, at one time or another, passed through the Centre for Comparative Literature. Indeed, for students who come to the Centre, these times seem like memories and myths of a time lost. The Centre for Comparative Literature has also been home to every Canadian President of the Modern Language Association. And, recently as the Centre’s homepage announces, “Professor John Zilcosky was recently elected President of the Literary Theory Committee of the International Comparative Literature Association.”
The Centre for Comparative Literature is, in a sense, the centre for theory; at least this is the image that the Centre presents for itself.
Theory is essential to Comparative Literature. But, what does the scholar do who prefers not to read Derrida and instead prefers Bloom (Harold or Allan)? Or, how does one approach Northrop Frye at the Centre (after all, to date, only two or three “Frygians” have held the Visiting Professorship: Alvin Lee and Jonathan Hart, and, though to a lesser degree—less declared more influenced—David Damrosch)? Theorists, writers, critics like Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, Frank Kermode, Stanley Fish, M. H. Abrams, William Empson, canonical voices in their time, are now part of a time gone by. These masterful critics, for they all were and are masterful, are no longer a part of the mainstream of literary theory and criticism.
So what does the scholar of today do if that scholar is riddled by the anxiety of admitting that he or she finds people like Frye, or the Blooms, or Abrams, or Empson more engaging and more productive to his or her literary pursuits than the voices of “high” theory?
As much as I appreciate the critiques of Harold Bloom that are often enough advanced on this site, I have to reluctantly admit that I hear similar critiques aimed at Northrop Frye. Are these critiques true? Probably not. But they are common enough that we are reminded over and over again of Terry Eagleton’s infamous question: “Who now reads Frye?” The question, perhaps, contains the answer. Those of us who read theory, read what is “now” called theory, if we read Frye we are not reading the “now” of theory, which is to say, we are not reading what is now available, now considered au courant. The theorists that I most often turn to are hopelessly not part of the “now” of theory; instead, they are part of a generation once removed, their time in the “now” was before the rise of theory, before the theory boom, before the Centre for Comparative Literature.
Indeed, the scholar’s anxiety is probably a balance between reading enough of the now to appear cognizant of what is going on in the world of literary theory and reading enough to satisfy the reader’s search for a theoretical approach that works and still resides in the literary.