Frye and the Funny


Frye says of Robert Burton that his “tremendous erudition never blunted the edge of his sense of humor” (“The Times of the Signs”), and we might say the same about Frye. Here are a few of the hundreds of passages in which Frye writes of humor:

For many readers of Paradise Lost the contrast between the domestic, highly cultivated atmosphere of Eden and the nudity of the inhabitants seems grotesque, like Manet’s picture Déjeuner sur l’herbe. But Milton’s approach to his subject is thoroughly consistent with his view of the human state, and it is by no means humorless: in fact a careful reader of Paradise Lost can easily see that one of the most important things Adam loses in his fall is his sense of humor. Humor, innocence, and nakedness go together, as do solemnity, aggressiveness, and fig leaves. (Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 86)

A sense of humor, like a sense of beauty, is a part of reality, and belongs to the cosmetic cosmos: its context is neither subjective nor objective, because it’s communicable. (Late Notebooks, 1:227)

All literature is literally ironic, which is why humor is so close to the hypothetical. If you don’t mean what you say, you’re either joking or poetizing. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism,” 264)

In Synge’s Riders to the Sea a mother, after losing her husband and five sons at sea, finally loses her last son, and the result is a very beautiful and moving play. But if it had been a full-length tragedy plodding glumly through the seven drownings one after another, the audience would have been helpless with unsympathetic laughter long before it was over. The principle of repetition as the basis of humor both in Jonson’s sense and in ours is well known to the creators of comic strips, in which a character is established as a parasite, a glutton (often confined to one dish), or a shrew, and who begins to be funny after the point has been made every day for several months. Continuous comic radio programs, too, are much more amusing to habitués than to neophytes. The girth of Falstaff and the hallucinations of Quixote are based on much the same comic laws. Mr. E.M. Forster speaks with disdain of Dickens’s Mrs. Micawber, who never says anything except that she will never desert Mr. Micawber: a strong contrast is marked here between the refined writer too finicky for popular formulas, and the major one who exploits them ruthlessly. (Anatomy of Criticism, 168-9)

Two things, then, are essential to satire; one is wit or humor founded on fantasy or a sense of the grotesque or absurd, the other is an object of attack. Attack without humor, or pure denunciation, forms one of the boundaries of satire. It is a very hazy boundary, because invective is one of the most readable forms of literary art, just as panegyric is one of the dullest. It is an established datum of literature that we like hearing people cursed and are bored with hearing them praised, and almost any denunciation, if vigorous enough, is followed by a reader with the kind of pleasure that soon breaks into a smile. (ibid., 224)

Humor, like attack, is founded on convention. The world of humor is a rigidly stylized world in which generous Scotchmen, obedient wives, beloved mothers-in-law, and professors with presence of mind are not permitted to exist. All humor demands agreement that certain things, such as a picture of a wife beating her husband in a comic strip, are conventionally funny. To introduce a comic strip in which a husband beats his wife would distress the reader, because it would mean learning a new convention. The humor of pure fantasy, the other boundary of satire, belongs to romance, though it is uneasy there, as humor perceives the incongruous, and the conventions of romance are idealized. Most fantasy is pulled back into satire by a powerful undertow often called allegory, which may be described as the implicit reference to experience in the perception of the incongruous. The White Knight in Alice who felt that one should be provided for everything, and therefore put anklets around his horse’s feet to guard against the bites of sharks [Through the Looking Glass, chap. 8], may pass as pure fantasy. But when he goes on to sing an elaborate parody of Wordsworth [ibid.] we begin to sniff the acrid, pungent smell of satire, and when we take a second look at the White Knight we recognize a character type closely related both to Quixote and to the pedant of comedy. (ibid., 225)

Yes, I think you are right in ascribing the failure of so many earnest men to a lack of humor. Humor arises from the perception of incongruities and discrepancies in human nature. The reformer is impatient of these discrepancies; he calls them the result of cynicism and skepticism. His outlook is too exclusive and narrow for them, because he wants to apply a few formulas to the world which, universally accepted, would cure all of that world’s evils. Now a man who has a panacea in any sphere is a quack. And a quack is always a nuisance, generally a menace. Whether he makes himself ridiculous or not depends on the amount of humor possessed by his portrayer or auditor, not on his own. (This is the sample of the workings of a mind with mould clinging to it, as aforesaid). (Frye to Helen Kemp, on his 20th birthday, 15 July 1922)

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7 thoughts on “Frye and the Funny

  1. Michael Happy

    I need to check the reference — I believe this is in John Ayre’s bio — but Frye of course was quick with his wit when he needed to be. The story goes that once, after giving a lecture at Trent U, he was confronted with a windy response from someone in the audience, to which Frye responded, “Yes, we a technical term for that in criticism: bullshit.”

  2. Peter StirFrye Yan

    Another Great Frye Joke:

    Reported in the Toronto Star, during the Harbourfront Reading Series, Frye was with one of the guest speakers from Russia. They were in a bookstore where the Russian author was trying to pick up the cashier. After repeatedly refusing his amorous advances, the frustrated Russian author said to the cashier, “You capitalist bitch!”
    Frye defended her saying, “She’s just trying to protect her private property.”

  3. Joe Adamson

    Concerning Michael Happy’s comment, as I remember the anecdote which I heard when I was a grad student, well before Ayre’s biography, it was a talk Frye was giving at Trent and he was being attacked in a concerted effort by the RMG (Revolutionary Marxist Group, a thuggish Troskyist group, which were very trendy on the Trent campus then) to undermine and rattle him during his talk. From what I heard, his witticism put an end to the argument.

  4. Russell Perkin

    One of the funniest lines in the Notebooks comes in the Third Book Notebooks, concerning Wyndham Lewis’s _Apes of God_: “that’s a book that’s been staring me in the face for forty years as A Book I Ought to Read, although I know quite well that the only reason for reading it is to have documentary evidence that it isn’t worth reading. However, I felt an overmastering urge to transform it from the most boring book I never read into the most boring book I ever read, so that, at the age of sixty, I could be in the position to reflect that never, never, never, would I have to read that fucking book again.

  5. Robert D. Denham

    Don Harron reports that he and other students at Vic organized a beauty contest to raise money for some campus charity. They asked Frye if he would be the head judge. He replied “yes” but added he would like to examine other parts of the body too.

  6. Robert D. Denham

    Margaret Atwood told Jane Widdicombe this classic Frye story: “Norrie was standing there and a very social woman came up to him, gushing on him and saying, ‘Oh, Professor Frye, you’re so intelligent. Surely there isn’t anything that you don’t know everything about.’ And he said, ‘Well, I really don’t know that much about Japanese flower arranging,’ and then proceeded to give a very informed little lecture.”

  7. Robert D. Denham

    In a very sober reflection in his Late Notebooks about primary concerns, Frye writes, “What history does move toward, as my remark about the abstraction of Hegel’s freedom implies, is a growing sense of the primary nature of primary concerns, and along with that the discovery that man is an animal in nature, and as soon as he thinks outside that context he’s in all the unhappy-consciousness crap, loaded down with anxieties and aggressions. Of course the ambiguity of the two natures, the ‘real’ one and the inner paradise, remains: we always say we love nature, not the ferocious predators who animate nature. But if we can’t exactly love sharks we can be curious about them, study their habits, and leave them alone to make their own way in nature, and that’s a kind of love.”

    Frye then concludes with this hilarious burlesque of the four primary concerns––food, sex, property (shelter), and freedom of movement: “Anyway, history moves toward the progressively clearer discovery of the utterly obvious: we want to eat, fuck, own, and wiggle” (Notebook 53, par. 144).

    Which triggered this bit of doggerel:


    First, food, then sex and property
    And movement unencumbered.
    The sum of Frye’s concerns is four,
    If you must have them numbered.

    So you should dine, provide yourself
    With shelter overhead,
    And travel up and down the land,
    Then take your love to bed.

    These are the vital, primal things.
    No ideology.
    They form the basic metaphors
    And shape mythology.

    The second one may eyebrows raise—
    ’Tis common, the reflex
    Of pious folks who claim that they
    Are not too keen on sex.

    But you may get the puritans
    To crack a smile or giggle.
    Just show them Norrie’s earthy form:
    “Eat, own, and fuck, and wiggle.”


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