Friday, March 19, 2010

Edward Said and Northrop Frye

I’ve toiled a bit further in Said’s Humanism and Democratic Criticism.  On page 39 he gets around to attacking Northrop Frye.  Said writes, “. . . humanistic education was in the end all about a certain unstated idea of freedom that was believed to derive from a noncoercive, albeit triumphalist attitude towards our supposedly ‘better’ reality.  The climax and at the same time the strangely exasperated transcendental expression of this elaborate, not to say febrile machine was the publication in 1957 of Northrop Frye’s summa, The Anatomy of Criticism.  Its purpose was nothing less than an attempted Blakean-Jungean synthesis of the humanistic system organized into a mini-life-world with its own seasons, cycles, rituals, heroes, social classes, and utopian pastoral as well as urban settings.  The core of Frye’s amazing invention is what Blake called the human divine, a macrocosmic man doing service as the embodiment of a Judeo-Christian Eurocentric norm, all of it with reference to precisely the same literature that, for all their differences, Arnold, the New Humanists, and Eliot favored, though without the invidious rankings that crippled their findings and rendered their schemes unpleasantly elitist.  Frye too claimed to be talking about literature humanistically, liberally, and democratically, as his admirers Angus Fletcher and Geoffrey Hartman emphasized.”
The tone of Said’s treatment of Frye is clearly critical, but aside from all those Blakean-Jungean syntheses, what exactly was wrong with Frye’s book?  In the next paragraph Said tells us:  “Certainly the notion that there was a genre called ‘women’s’ or ‘minority’ writing never entered Frye’s system, nor that the humanistic world of agency and work whose quietly militant conclusions he represented.”  And that isn’t all he tells us.  He goes on to find Frye to having fallen far short of Said’s own ideals which are clearly Marxist. 
Note that Said finds it telling that Frye is in agreement with critics he under other circumstances disagrees with.  Said mentions Arnold and Eliot.  What does Said mean by this?  He means that all these reactionary fellows had the temerity to judge a work in accordance with its merits and not in accordance with (as Said does) political presuppositions.  Notice that Said makes no claim that the writers who proliferate Said’s genres have produced works of high literary quality such that they ought to qualify as members of Frye’s syntheses.  Said’s writers are politically (according to Said’s politics) correct and not writers who produce works of high literary merit.  Let me hasten to add that I have nothing against writers who are women or members of some minority, but if we are to criticize their works, let the standard be literary merit and not the fact that they are members of some politically-correct group.
I’ve read several books by Frye over the years and rummaged about in my library and found half a dozen, but not The Anatomy of Criticism.  So I resorted to Wikipedia where I found “Frye also accuses a number of methods of criticism (e.g. Marxist, Freudian, Jungian, Neo-classical, etc.) as being embodiments of the deterministic fallacy. He is not opposed to these ideologies in particular, but sees the application of any external, ready-made ideology to literature as a departure from genuine criticism. This results in subjecting a work of literature to an individual's pet philosophy and an elevation or demotion of authors according to their conformity to the pet philosophy.”   How outrageous of Frye to hold that literary works should be judged according to their merit and not according to their political-correctness.  No wonder Said draws and quarters him in his book.

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