“If you spend much time in libraries,” the late Northrop Frye wrote at the start of an essay from 1959, “you will probably have seen long rows of dark green books with gold lettering, published by Macmillan and bearing the name of Frazer.” These were the collected works of the Victorian classicist and anthropologist Sir James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough (15 volumes) and a great deal else besides.
Frye’s remarks -- originally delivered as a talk on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio network -- were aimed for a much broader public than would have read his then-recent book Anatomy of Criticism, which made its author the most-cited name in Anglophone literary studies until at least the early 1980s. (Frye was professor emeritus of English at Victoria College, University of Toronto, when he died in 1991.) He told listeners that it would require “a great many months of hard work, without distractions, to read completely through Frazer.”
And the dedicated person making the effort probably wouldn’t be an anthropologist. The discipline’s textbooks “were respectful enough about him as a pioneer,” Frye wrote, “but it would have taken a Geiger counter to find much influence of The Golden Bough in them.”
And yet Frazer’s ideas about myth and ritual and his comparative approach to the analysis of symbolism exercised an abiding fascination for other readers -- in part through the echoes of them audible in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but also thanks to Frazer’s good sense in preparing an abridged edition of The Golden Bough in one stout volume that it was entirely possible to finish reading in no more than a year.
If you spend much time in libraries these days -- wandering the stacks, that is, rather than sitting at a terminal -- you might have seen other long rows of dark green books with gold lettering, published by the University of Toronto Press and bearing the name of Frye.
The resemblance between The Collected Works of Northrop Frye (in 30 volumes) and the Frazerian monolith is almost certainly intentional, though not the questions such a parallel implies: What do we do with a pioneer whose role is acknowledged and honored, but whose work may be several degrees of separation away from where much of the contemporary intellectual action is? Who visits the monument now? And in search of what?
Part of the answer may be found in Essays on Northrop Frye: Word and Spirit, a new collection of studies by Robert D. Denham, professor emeritus of English at Roanoke College. The publisher named on the title page is Iron Mountain Press of Emory, Va., which appears not to have a website; the listing for the book on Amazon indicates that it is available through CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, a print-on-demand service.
Denham has written or edited more than 30 books by or about Frye, including several volumes of notebooks, diaries, letters and works of fiction in the Collected Works, for which he also prepared the definitive edition of Anatomy of Criticism. The second of the three sections in Word and Spirit (as I prefer to call the new book) consists of essays on the Anatomy, examining Frye’s ideas about rhetoric and the imagination and brandishing them in the face of dismissive remarks by Frederick Crews and Tzvetan Todorov.
Frye’s relative decline as a force to be reckoned with in literary theory was already evident toward the end of his life; at this point the defense of Frygian doctrine may seem like a hopelessly arrière-garde action. (“Frygian” is the preferred term, by the way, at least among the Frygians themselves.) But the waning of his influence at the research-university seminar level is only part of the story, and by no means the most interesting part. The continuing pedagogical value of the Anatomy is suggested by how many of Frye’s ideas and taxonomies have made their way into Advanced Placement training materials. Anyone trying to find a way around in William Blake’s poetic universe can still do no better than to start with Frye’s first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947). Before going to see Shakespeare on stage, I’ve found it worthwhile to see what Frye had to say about the play. Bloggers periodically report reading the Anatomy, or Frye’s two books about the Bible and literature, and having their minds blown.
Northrop Frye is the rare case of a literary theorist whose critical prose continues to be read with interest and profit by people who are not engaged in producing more of the stuff. In the talk on Frazer, he noted that The Golden Bough appealed to artists, poets and “students of certain aspects of religion” -- which seems, on the whole, like a fair guess at the makeup of Frye’s own posthumous constituency.
What’s been lacking is the single-volume, one-stop survey of the Frygian landscape. The Collected Works have complicated things -- not just by being vast and intimidating (and too expensive for most of individuals to afford) but by adding thousands of pages of unpublished material to the already imposing mass of Frye’s work.
Denham is as responsible for adding new turns to the labyrinth as anyone. He is the scholar dedicated enough to have solved the riddle of the great man’s handwriting. Most of the lectures and papers in Essays on Northrop Frye: Word and Spirit draw on the private papers, which are of considerably more than biographical interest. Frye used his notebooks to think out loud and to explain himself to himself, working out the links among the work he’d published and things he wanted to write.
They reveal elements of his inner life that remained unstated, or at most implicit, in Frye’s public writings -- for example, his studies in Buddhist and Hindu thought. He also explored the whole gamut of esoteric and mystical writings from the Corpus Hermeticum and Nicolas of Cusa (respectable) to Madame Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley (shady but undeniably fascinating) to titles such as The Aquarian Conspiracy and Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati (“kook books,” as Frye called them). Connections existed between this material and his scholarship (you can’t study Blake or Yeats for long without picking up some Gnosticism and theosophy) but Frye also needed to understand his own religious beliefs and occasional experiences of the ineffable. He was interested in the cosmological side of the literary imagination, but also compelled to figure out his own place in the cosmos.
The drives were mutually reinforcing. But references to these interests in his published work were few and far between, and often enough too oblique to notice. With Denham’s close knowledge of Frye’s writings (scholarly and subterranean alike) Word and Spirit seems like the book that’s been necessary for some while -- the thread that can take readers into the depths of the Frygian labyrinth. So on those grounds, I can recommend it -- without guaranteeing you’ll find the way back out again.
A colleague from another department passed me on campus the other day, a week before the end of classes. “Hi,” I said as we approached one another.
“Glad the semester is almost over!” she exclaimed in response and walked on.
“Glad the semester is almost over”? What kind of greeting is “Glad the semester is almost over”?
Is this how people acknowledge each other’s presence in a fleeting moment of recognition -- with a declaration regarding the semester’s demise? I’m familiar with common phatic addresses of greeting: hello, how are you, what’s up, how’s it going, hey, nice day, looking good, nice weather we’re having and many others. But why would a nod to the semester’s conclusion be treated as a greeting?
“Glad the semester is almost over” is unique among all phatic exchanges in that it is not actually a greeting at all. “Glad the semester is almost over” is specific to one type of encounter, the academic exchange.
Greetings are phatic. That is, greetings serve no real rhetorical purpose other than to perform a social task or ritual that recognizes the encounter taking place among at least two individuals. Greetings are like small talk. They make the social moment easier to deal with. There is no reference point for the repeated phatic greeting other than its communal recognition (we all know what “hello” is supposed to do when two people meet). There is no real meaning in the greeting.
“Hello” conveys no information in and of itself. One does not walk away from the greeting with new information, only the greeting. In the moment of social encounter, two individuals coming into proximity with one another search for a way to -- even in passing -- acknowledge the other without conveying any information other than the expression itself. Hello. How are you? What’s up? How are things? Glad the semester is almost over!
“Glad the semester is almost over” would not be a greeting in any profession other than academia. “Glad the semester is almost over” marks the academic anxiety and apprehension about work (we work in semester blocks) and about not working (whew, the semester is finally over and I can go on with my life). Besides this interest in a semester’s length, academics excel at phatic expressions and greetings.
In hallways, at conferences and in the grocery store in town, when two academics come together -- and I am usually one of the two -- we greet each other in phatic expressions. Some traditional, professional phatic greetings found in many places of work include “Thank God it’s Friday” or “Hump day!” Academic phatic greetings, however, center on the supposedly rigid occupation of reading books for a living and working with students on a daily basis. This labor tension creates such a level of exasperation one can only exclaim upon seeing a colleague, “Glad the semester is almost over!”
Semesters begin and end. In the fall, we work with X number of students, and in the spring, we work with another X students. We likely go to some departmental meetings along the way, and maybe we are conducting some research during the semester when we have time. The important point about semesters is that they do not really end. Each one replaces the other. My only response -- when I have the chance -- to “Glad the semester is almost over” is “Yes, but another one will begin right afterward.” Is “Glad the semester is almost over” really an expression of joy that these 16 weeks have concluded and another 16 weeks will begin again?
Knowing that we will do the semester all over again after a short break, what does it matter that the semester is almost over, and why should I be glad? Or is “Glad the semester is almost over” a statement about how little academics -- who should have so much to talk about with each other given their political, disciplinary and social interests and concerns -- have to say to one another in any real fashion?
“How’s your semester going?” “Can’t wait for spring break!” “I am so busy!” “What are you teaching this semester?” “What are your summer plans?” “Busy, busy, busy!” “I have so much grading to do.” “Grading! Grading! Grading!” “Can’t wait for summer!” “What are you teaching next semester?” “Glad the semester is almost over!”
At conferences, phatic greetings including the endless discussion of the weather where one lives. “Does it get hot there in the summer?” “I bet the winters are cold.” With each new job I have been offered, friends who learn of the news respond by asking me about the weather in the new city I will live in. Such greetings do not actually express interest in weather or lack of knowledge over seasonal change (winter and summer are regular occurrences in most locations, after all), but signify the lack of interest in the topic (“Who cares, you have a new job!”) or lack of ability to respond with any real content (“You have a job/I have a job/I have nothing else to add”).
In Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega stop talking for a brief moment while having dinner at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. “Don’t you hate that?” Mia asks Vincent about the lull in conversation that has occurred.
“What?” Vincent responds.
“Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?”
We do, however, feel that it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in academe. The uncomfortable academic -- always hyperbolic in his/her semesterlong anxiety of teaching -- does not know what to say when passing a colleague on campus or chatting in a book exhibit at a conference or spending a minute in the elevator as it proceeds to one’s floor. There’s an uncomfortable silence. What to do? Express something phatic. “How’s your semester going?” “Busy, busy, busy!”
Phatic academics do not only occur on campus or at events. Via the status update, we greet each other online phatically as well. Disaster and social unrest turn us into phatic machines: Ferguson, celebrity RIPs, Nepal, Baltimore. On a daily basis, there is no shortage of phatic posting. It’s not that such events do not deserve commentary (they do). It’s not that the events don’t move us to emotions (they do). It’s that the update is not a moment of commentary or discussion but rather a ritual or social gesture of digital greeting where content is not emphasized. The update is meant to greet the follower or friend, not engage them, since engagement typically can lead to blocking or unfriending. The update says phatically: “Something terrible has happened in the world; look at me.” The update is not content based, but is a social ritual of online posturing as greeting, the way “Hello” can be in the physical world or even “Glad the semester is almost over” can be among academics passing each other on campus.
Do you care what happened in Baltimore or that Joni Mitchell is in a coma? Probably. But the update does not convey any meaning regarding either event beyond the headline. The shared headline is the repeated phatic greeting that avoids content by only focusing on address. A phatic address such as “hello” or “what’s up” avoids content by focusing attention on the empty greeting and not the actual encounter. I say “Glad the semester almost is over” because I do not know what else to say. I repost Baltimore headlines because I do not know what else to say. I want to avoid the uncomfortable silence that should accompany some of the world’s worst moments.
This ritual is the social media equivalent of “Glad the semester is almost over!” I really do not know if my colleague is glad the semester is almost over. I know she has heard this statement repeated for what is likely many years as an address from one academic to another when neither knows what else to say. “Spring break is almost here!” “What are you teaching this semester?” “Things are really crazy this time of year.” Is she glad the summer is over? Is she outraged suddenly by the socioeconomic and racist situation in Baltimore that has led to a senseless death and consequent rioting? Does she actually care what I’m teaching this semester or any other? Are things really that crazy? As academics, we are supposed to, after all, meet a few times in the semester as a department and assess student work toward semester’s end. Then we plan for the next semester.
Phatic addresses are comforting. They allow us to pass over that awkward silence that arises among academics who spend their days with so much to discuss (their own work, classroom lectures, theory, administrative issues, politics, race, gender), but when confronted with the casual moment know only the at-hand phatic comment. “Glad the semester is almost over” comforts both sides of the conversation. Thank God I don’t have to actually inquire into your life; thank God I don’t have to respond. Thank God I don’t have to know what really caused certain things to occur in a certain city in America. Thank God I don’t have to deal with any yak or bullshit.
Jeff Rice is professor of writing, rhetoric and digital studies at the University of Kentucky.
Were it so… that some little profit might be reaped (which God knows is very little) out of some of our playbooks, the benefit thereof will nothing near countervail the harm that the scandal will bring unto the library, when it shall be given out that we stuff it full of baggage [i.e., trashy] books.
-- Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, explaining why he did not wish to keep English plays in his library (1612).
On William Shakespeare’s birthday this year, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) issued a report, “The Unkindest Cut: Shakespeare in Exile in 2015,” which warned that “less than 8 percent of the nation’s top universities require English majors to take even a single course that focuses on Shakespeare.” Warnings about the decline of a traditional literary canon are familiar from conservative academic organizations such as ACTA and the National Association of Scholars. What increasingly strikes me, however, is how frozen in amber these warning are.
In a nation obsessed with career-specific and STEM education, there is scant support for humanities in general. Where are the conservative voices advocating for the place of English and the humanities in the university curriculum? One would think this advocacy natural for such academics and their allies. After all, when Matthew Arnold celebrated the “best that has been thought and known,” he was proposing cultural study not only as an antidote to political radicalism but also to a life reduced, by the people he called philistines, to industrial production and the consumption of goods.
We have our modern philistines. Where are our modern conservative voices to call them out? Instead, on the shrinking support for the liberal arts in American education -- the most significant issue facing the humanities -- organizations such as ACTA and NAS mistake a parochial struggle over particular authors and curricula for the full-throated defense of the humanities.
Worse, these organizations suggest that if one does not study Shakespeare or a small set of other writers in the traditional literary canon (moreover, in only certain ways), then literature and culture are not worth studying -- hardly a way to advocate for literary studies.
The requirements at my own institution suggest how misleading the ACTA position is, and how thin a commitment to the humanities it represents. With no Shakespeare requirement in the George Mason University English department, it is true that some of our majors won’t study Shakespeare. However, because our majors must take a course in a pre-1800 literature -- nearly all the departments ACTA examined have a similar requirement -- that means they’ll study Chaucer, or medieval intellectual history, or Wyatt, Sidney, Donne, Jonson, Milton, etc. (The study of Spenser, however, appears to me somewhat in decline; ACTA, if you want to take up the cause of The Faerie Queene, let me know.)
How can writers as great as these be off ACTA’s map? Is it because ACTA doesn’t really value them? Its Bardolatry is idolatry -- the worship of the playwright as wooden sign rather than living being, a Shakespeare to scold with, but no devotion to the rich literary and cultural worlds of which Shakespeare was a part. Hence, too, the report maintains that a course such as Renaissance Sexualities is no substitute for what it calls the “seminal study of Shakespeare” -- though certainly such a course might feature the Renaissance sonnet tradition, including Shakespeare’s important contribution to it, not to mention characters from Shakespeare’s plays such Romeo and Juliet or Rosalind and Ganymede.
ACTA also warns that rather than Shakespeare, English departments are “often encouraging instead trendy courses on popular culture.” This warning similarly indicates the narrowness of ACTA’s commitment to literary study. As anyone who’s ever taken a Shakespeare course should know, not only were Shakespeare’s plays popular culture in his own day (English plays were scandalous trash, thought Thomas Bodley), but also the very richness of Shakespeare’s literary achievement comes from his own embrace of multiple forms of culture. His sources are not just high-end Latin authors but also translations of pulpy Italian “novels,” English popular writers, folktales, histories and travelogues, among others. The plays remain vibrant today because Shakespeare allows all these sources to live and talk to one another.
Indeed, the literary scholars William Kerrigan and Gordon Braden point out that in this quality Shakespeare was typical of his age, for the vibrancy of the Renaissance derives in part from its hybridity. The classical was a point of departure, but neither Shakespeare nor Renaissance culture was slavishly neoclassical. Modern English departments, in their embrace of multiple literary cultures, in their serious study of our human expression, evince the same spirit.
Conservatives have suggested that the hybridity of the modern English major is responsible for declining interest in the major. That claim cannot be proved. Anecdotes and intuitions are insufficient to do so. Data on trends in the number of majors over time can only show correlation, not causation.
And in terms of correlation, here are four more likely drivers of the decline in the percentage of students majoring in English: students are worried about finding jobs and are being told (wrongly, according to the actual statistics) that the English major is not a path to one; students now have many new majors to choose from, many no longer in the liberal arts; English has traditionally had more female than male majors, and women now pursue majors, such as in business or STEM fields, from which they used to be discouraged (a good change); political leaders have abandoned the liberal arts in favor of STEM and career-specific education and are advising students to do the same (even President Obama jumped on this bandwagon, though he later apologized).
Regarding this last cause, the voices of organizations such as ACTA and NAS could particularly help, since many of these politicians are conservatives, and leaders of these academic organizations have ties to conservative political circles. In doing so, conservatives could help reclaim a legacy. In 1982, William Bennett, as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, urged colleges to support the humanities against “more career-oriented things.” By 1995, Bennett had become disgusted with what he saw as an overly progressive agenda in the humanities. Picking up his marbles and going home, Bennett urged Congress to defund the NEH. More recently, Bennett agreed with North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory that the goal of publicly funded education should be to get students jobs. “How many Ph.D.s in philosophy do I need to subsidize?” Bennett asked.
Shakespeare was generous in his reading and thinking. We can be, too. Literary scholars may disagree on many things -- on the values to be derived from a particular literary work, on the ways it ought to be framed, on which literary works are most worthy of classroom reading. But such disagreements are just part of the study of the humanities in a democratic society. When we support the humanities, we support an important public space to have these disagreements. We also support Shakespeare -- who really isn’t going away from the English curriculum -- and the study of literature more generally.
The ACTA study, as far as I can tell, was mainly met with silence. That’s because the study is a rehash of an earlier one from 2007, itself a rehash of the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s. No one cared, because most people have moved on from the culture wars, and for many of our political leaders, culture itself doesn’t much matter anymore. Culture wars have become a war on culture. In that battle, all lovers of literature should be on the same side. Advocating for the humanities, even as we argue about them, is walking and chewing gum. We should be able to do both at the same time. I appeal to conservative academic organizations that we need to. The one-sided emphasis on majors that lead directly to careers and the blanket advocacy of STEM fields are far greater threats to the humanities than sustainability studies. And without the humanities, there is no institutionalized study of Toni Morrison. Or pulp fiction. Or Sidney. Or Shakespeare.
Robert Matz is professor of English, with a focus on English Renaissance literature, at George Mason University. He currently serves as senior associate dean for George Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.