Sunday, July 12, 2015

Joining The Frygian Evangelists


Northrop Frye, coming into focus in 1929.
"There are winners and losers every time intellectual capital changes hands," says Michial Farmer. "The upside of that process is there are always figures from the past waiting to be rediscovered and repurposed for a new generation." By interviewing Claude le Fustec, author of Northrop Frye & American Literature, Farmer joins her in giving the Canadian man of letters a nudge toward contempo rediscovery and repurposing.

As do I -- to the extent I can.

When I was concluding my university studies in the late-80s, Frye's influence in theory circles was already well on the wane, as Derrida and Lacan were in the ascendant. Out of all his texts, only Fools Of Time was required reading -- for a course in tragedy and comedy. And our prof was among the more elderly cohort.

She was a spirited thing, however, entirely hip to the Reader Response revolution that was just beginning to flush out the Prescribed Archetypal approach favored by her peers -- she even required us to keep response journals she would later peruse (and grade -- she was apparently a little hazy on the course of implementation). But any appreciation of Shakespeare pretty much required an appreciation of Frye's appraisal of how the Bard's plays worked. In this, Frye was good at what he did -- thanks to him I finally learned that the Wheel of Fortune was something of magnificent narrative significance, and not merely a gaudy contraption of light and noise spun by the son of Polish immigrants in "America's Game."

But that's pretty much where it ended for me and Frye, until I moved to Toronto. I finished my studies in the University of Toronto, where Frye was still delivering lectures between doctors visits, in the final few months of his life. A classmate encouraged me to drop by, give the old man a listen, but I resisted. Nor is that a cause for regret -- even in his prime, Frye's delivery was a soporific (quibblers should consult the digital record).

So not exactly an ideal launching point for an adult history spent wrestling with the man's ideas. But when I began working at the book store, a co-worker lit up when I self-identified as Mennonite (because where else would I start?). Said he: "Hey, that's cool -- I'm Catholic!" Another less-than-promising launching point, perhaps, but after I confessed to some ambivalence toward my religious heritage, my new friend admitted to similar misgivings about his, but said Frye's work reinvigorated his relationship to the religion his ancestors had bequeathed him. "You have got to read him, man. Seriously -- there is no going forward without Frye."

This struck me as odd -- I didn't know much about Frye the man, but I was certainly aware he self-identified as Protestant. If his theoretical POV had a catholic, if not Catholic, embrace, perhaps he was worth a closer look. So I committed my Sunday mornings to reading the copy of The Great Code I'd purloined from my father's library. Reading prompted note-taking, which prompted further, closer reading, which eventually prompted me to self-identify (when tipsy) as a Frygian Mennonite.

Prof. Farmer lauds Prof. Frye as "one of the most important writers on the relationship between Christianity and literature" -- a not-bad summary, but somewhat wide of the insight that seems to have taken possession of Frye's POV. One-sentence summaries are perilous, of course -- I can't do it, myself. But one insight Frye impressed me with is a sense of the immeasurably deep penetration the Christian narrative has achieved in Western consciousness. The comic cosmic narrative the New Testament writers espoused is, after 2000 years, inescapable -- at this point, western narratives embody or react negatively to this narrative, or work along the spectrum of these extremes. That's quite the "relationship," to be sure -- and Farmer and le Fustec do a terrific job of unpacking some of this as played out in US literature.

As they do touching on other elements in Frye's critical acumen. Looking over my notes, I see a heady variety of referential touchstones, sure to please listeners (such as myself) keen to play the egghead: Heidegger, Bultmann, Barthe -- "Rilke's contempt for allegory!" earns an especially enthusiastic emphasis from my ballpoint pen. And Derrida, of course -- I particularly dug the comparison of Derrida's late-in-life theory with Frye's earliest. It's just a suggestion on the part of Farmer and le Fustec, and a brief one at that, but it almost seems like Derrida's "end-point" is the rough equivalent of where Frye began.

Which, for you youngsters who've had enough of egocentric Reader Responses and Trigger Warnings for everything from The Great Gatsby to Bear In The Big Blue House, is precisely what recommends The Old Duff With The Odd Coif to your parched and starving brains. Take and read, kids; take and read.

"Read Blake, or go to Hell" -- Northrop Frye
Links: Michial Farmer's interview with Claude le Fustec podcastNorthrop Frye & American Literature, by Claude le Fustec, U of T Press page. Personally recommended: The Educated Imagination is probably the best place to start with Frye -- his public radio lectures are a compact and breezy intro to what he was about. If it's the religious impulse you're puzzlin' over, by all means dig into The Great Code and Words With Power. Farmer and le Fustec refer to Frye's notebooks, but, man, that's some heavy (and at times discomfitingly prurient) reading. Better to tuck into Marshall McLuhan & Northrop Frye: Apocalypse & Alchemy, by B.W. Powe (U of T Press page). McLuhan and Frye were contemporaries, of course, but Powe successfully portrays them as ideological and theoretical antagonists -- the Catholic vs. the Protestant, for starters -- who used each other to sharpen and hone their particular insights into the human condition and human potential. Powe's a super-sharp purveyor of their era, and a judicious parser of their various interactions. He's energetic and readable, and his book is highly recommended. And I just read Alec Scott's survey today -- you might like it, also.

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