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Brian Russell Graham. The Necessary Unity of Opposites: The Dialectical Thinking of Northrop Frye.

Brian Russell Graham. The Necessary Unity of Opposites: The Dialectical Thinking of Northrop Frye. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2011, xvi + 137 pp.

The recent resurgence of interest in Northrop Frye, sparked in part by the ongoing publication of Collected Works by the University of Toronto, has worked to reestablish Frye's relevance to contemporary criticism. Aside from the work of a handful of dedicated scholars, Frye's work had fallen to the wayside either because his work on myth has been considered anachronistic or because his disinterest in political criticism has been considered regressive or simplistic. Brian Russell Graham's new book, The Necessary Unity of Opposites: The Dialectical Thinking of Northrop Frye, contributes to this increase in interest and argues that Frye's thought is unified by a dialecticism heavily influenced by William Blake's Orc/Urizen cycle.

The introduction presents Graham's goal of demonstrating the suprahistorical and "post-partisan" nature of Frye's thought. While critics such as Robert Denham and Satra Toth have turned their attention to Frye's concept of "interpenetration" that appears in his notebooks--a concept that bears some similarity to the Blakean dialectic--Graham instead relies on Frye's published work to demonstrate the dialectical approach that characterizes his thought process. Throughout the introduction Graham stresses the importance of the dialectic to Frye's thought, that when faced with conflicting terms Frye's thought "moves dialectically beyond the level of opposition onto a higher level where seemingly antithetical modes of thought prove to be complementary" (6). The spatial metaphor of resolution on a separate, "higher" level also aligns with Frye's invocation of the Apocalyptic world as the space of revelation. Ultimately, it is this ability to move beyond simple conflicts and to see the inherent unity of opposed concepts that permits Frye's insights into literature, education, and a great variety of social questions.

In the second chapter "Mandarin and Rebel: Frye's Dialectical Secular Thinking," Graham establishes the structure he will use throughout the book. Each chapter presents opposing terms and supplies evidence from Frye's writing to show the inadequacy of either of the terms and the need to transcend the opposition. In the second chapter, for example, Graham touts Frye's exceptionalism by citing his "avoidance of such political dead ends" as either radical or reactionary politics (18). For Graham, Frye follows a middle path that facilitates a broader, truer perspective. This method is surprisingly effective, and reading this slim volume the reader continually finds parallels between Frye's various modes of thought. Graham strengthens this structure through his invocation of Blake's Orc/Urizen cycle, likening the opposition to "the cyclical nature of human history" (20). This chapter corrects the false assumption that Frye's seeming disinterest in partisan politics was rooted in his own apoliticism. Rather, Graham argues that Frye assiduously avoided "political dead ends" by refusing to succumb to partisan bickering. Post-partisan Frye acknowledges the importance of the conflict as a part of politics but remains above the controversy. As Graham presents it, Frye's dialectical thought is purged of association with marxist dialectical criticism through this avoidance of political engagement.

Chapters 3 and 4 take up the opposition of beauty and truth in regard to Blake's poetry and secular literature, respectively. Graham continues his case for the centrality of Blake's influence on Frye, building on the Orc and Urizen metaphor of irresolvable conflict to include Los, the spirit of work which separates the two, and Ulro, a cosmological counter to Eden (27-30). The expansion of this metaphor solidifies the work of mediation that must take place between the dialectically opposed pairs. The second of these paired chapters defines Frye's place in the world of literary criticism. Graham writes that Frye was opposed to both New Criticism and Marxist criticism for being overly concerned with the aesthetic and "historical determinism," respectively. Graham argues that Frye transcends these differences just as he transcended the left-right partisan dialectic. Transcending these sets of opposed concepts, Frye is free to speculate on "the whole of literature" (47). Graham models Frye's dialectical reasoning by presenting what Frye terms the mythos and dianoia of literature, providing a parallel to the opposition between the aesthetic and historical criticism that he discusses at the beginning of the chapter. For Graham, Frye's conception of the whole of literature "is profoundly dialectical, encapsulating radically opposed ideas about the nature of literature," and that the whole of literature is "a source of authority in society" (59, 60).

Turning away from Frye's literary criticism, chapter 5 "Work and Leisure" examines the role of Frye as an individual in society. Graham writes on Frye's integrated view of education, again pointing to his idiosyncratic theory "which is beyond conservative and radical sympathies, and ... which transcend the ordinary history of ideas and may be considered post-partisan" (63). This chapter helps to establish the degree to which Frye's thought on a variety of topics are complementary, so that, for example, his theory of "unification" is a concept that permeates every aspect of Frye's intellectual life. For example, Graham relates Frye's concept to the dialectic opposition of work and leisure:
   For radicals work would be the proper activity for a class which
   ideally would include every member of society; leisure consists of
   the pursuits of a decadent class that should be squeezed out of
   society as quickly as possible. In Frye's dialectical,
   suprahistorical, and post-partisan view, work and leisure should
   not be associated with different kinds of individuals or classes;
   indeed in Frye's view, his own time is one in which leisure and
   work are of almost equal importance on the individual level. (68-9)

Education, for Frye, encompasses both work and leisure and elevates education to the apocalyptic unity beyond conflict. Leisure, properly conceived, is a vital counter to work, and vice versa in this rather Protestant train of thought.

Chapter 6 continues Graham's exploration of Frye's social commentary, focusing on "Freedom and Equality." Graham writes of Frye's politics in the context of the Cold War, the dystopian Communist world, and Frye's later anti-war stance. Frye at once saw the danger of left-right thinking as embodied by the extremes of McCarthyism and Communism. This develops into a conflict between the extremes of Laissez-faire capitalism and Communism, options that Frye also rejects. The oppositions Graham defines come a little too neatly and one has the inkling that Frye's politics might fall onto a separate axis than the sharply divided ones that Graham provides: the capitalist-Communist opposition, for example, embeds both a political and economic valence here. Graham seems determined to construct Frye as a visionary figure whose critical project transcends binary thinking, even if it means diluting any kind of political frame for Frye's thought.

The last chapter turns to the scriptural roots of Frye's criticism. Graham defines Frye's dialectic of belief and vision in relation to the apocalyptic vision of the Bible's Book of Revelation. The Bible has a powerful double meaning for Frye as he considers it both a spiritual text and the central encyclopedic text of Western literature. Graham recognizes the centrality of the Bible and spirituality to Frye's thinking and links these, in turn, to other areas of Frye's thought. Graham brings together Frye's conception of metaphor, myth, liberalism, and his Protestant affiliation to consider the importance of Scripture to Frye's thought as. indeed, Frye's dialectic thought reveals Biblical influence in the form of the Apocalyptic vision. For Graham, all of these elements of Frye's thought coalesce around the apocalyptic revelation of the truth of unity that transcends dialectical opposition. Graham writes, "Having focused on secular themes and reached conclusions which point to an affirmation of the ideals of the French Revolution, Frye affirms the authority of the Christian Bible, and more specifically the three conceptions suggested by the Trinity" (112). Graham takes this blending of the political and the religious as evidence of Frye's overarching unity in thought.

Graham's book urges the reader to read and accept Frye's work as a syncretic whole, making leaps and inferring connections that Frye does not make. This strikes me as correct and it begins to capture the trust that Northrop Frye placed in his reader. Frye's genius lies in the cognitive leaps that a careful consideration of his work forces us to make. This occasional reliance on inferred connections can lead to unexpected blind-spots, however. In Graham's discussion of "post-partisan" Frye, he emphasizes Frye's distanced consideration of political conflict but does not take into account the Eurocentric and Christian emphasis of Frye's work that is, itself, politically inflected. When Graham later accounts for Frye's religious belief, the political content is more abstract. The interaction of the religious and the political deserves the same careful attention that Graham gives to each of these topics individually.

Graham's desire to follow a dialectical structure occasionally leads to inconsistent applications of terms but his careful clarification of the Blakean dialectic amply makes the case for both the importance of Blake's influence and Frye's visionary status. Graham ultimately succeeds in demonstrating Frye's intellectual consistency across his many critical perspectives despite what W.K. Wimsatt called his "elusively varied repetitions and his paradoxes" by showing that the paradoxes themselves are consistent with his repetitions.

Matthew W. Raese

University of Tennessee, Knoxville
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Author:Raese, Matthew W.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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