Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Kingdom of Ends: Nation, Post Nation and National Character in Northrop Frye

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Kingdom of Ends: Nation, Post Nation and National Character in Northrop Frye

Article excerpt

Romance's last vision seems to be that of fraternity, Kant's kingdom of ends where, as in fairy tales, we are all kings and princesses. The principle of the aristocracies of the past was respect for birth; the principle of fraternity in the ideal world of romance is respect rather for those who have been born, and because they have been born.

Frye, The Secular Scripture

... and the end is everywhere the chief thing.

Aristotle, Poetics

THE CONCEPT OF NATION has undergone considerable interrogation from a variety of theoretical and political perspectives in recent decades. Critical studies informed by poststructuralism have been suspicious of the nation's claim to stable unitary identity and its dependence upon tropes of organic growth and maturation. Certain post-colonial theorists have looked upon the concept of nation as the imposition of a European enlightenment project upon other cultures of the world. Critical perspectives foregrounding issues of class, ethnicity, gender and sexuality have argued that a rhetoric of national unity and identity is one of the central means by which the conflictual and heterogenous character of any society is falsely neutralized and homogenized. (1) At the same time, however, there has been a recognition that if the nation can no longer be appealed to unproblematically as simultaneously origin and telos of the life and mind of a particular place (or widely disparate regions) nor can such a concept be exorcized by a theoretical fiat. The nation informs and is assumed by, haunts, even those theoretical positions which would most radically eliminate it. (2) The rejection of nation as a falsely totalizing and homogenizing concept of society begs the question: what concept of society would be less so? To implicitly or explicitly pose such a question does not move us definitively beyond nation but presses for reconceptualizations of parallel ideas. Moreover, the only clear alternative to nation at the present time, the profoundly homogenizing forces of global capitalism, makes certain conceptions of nation seem appealing by contrast. Thus the nation, as Ian Balfour has remarked, "dies hard." (3)

In recent theoretical investigations Northrop Frye has not figured prominently as a theorist with whom to think through questions concerning the complex interrelations of "nation and narration." This is in some senses surprising as Benedict Anderson's influential definition of the nation as an "imagined community" produced in important measure through its national literature, recalls no other literary theorist more strongly than Frye for whom the ultimate purpose of literature was the achievement of community through the imagination. Frye makes this point in explicitly national terms asserting of Canada that "what seems to reason and experience to be perpetually coming apart at the seams may seem to the imagination something on the point of being put back together again as the imagination is occupationally disposed to synthesis. Perhaps that is part of the real function of the imagination in every community" (Bush x). In addition, it is frequently pointed out that the narrative form underlying the ideology of nation is the romance: the fabulous tale of heroic destiny, of the triumph over adversity and the revelation of the hero's true identity. (4) The structure and social significance of romance was of course a central topic for Frye who compellingly isolated a central recurrent trope as being sleep and subsequent awakening to (or amnesia and recovered memory of) this true identity (Secular 104,145 and passim). Anderson, without reference to Frye, has argued for the "astonishing popularity of this trope" (195) in nationalist discourses. Furthermore, although it is often unknown or forgotten, Frye had incisive things to say about the potential ideological uses and abuses, both nationalistically and otherwise, of what he termed "kidnapped Romance" (Secular 168). …

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