John Robert Colombo: Request for Your Favourite Quotes


For the last four years I have been preparing for eventual publication a large-scale compilation that has the working title “The Northrop Frye Quote Book.” It will consist of some 4,000 alphabetically arranged quotations, the texts of which are taken from the Collected Works.

I would like to correspond with FOF (Friends of Frye) who wish to draw my attention to remarks that should appear in this collection. Included will be aphoristic expressions but also passages of two or three sentences in length that, while far from being aphoristic, make strikingly odd though often obvious points. Already I have some 3,500 such remarks in place, but the man is so quotable I may have missed your favourite formulations. I would love to know about them.

I am currently an Associate of the NF Centre at Victoria College. My website is www. colombo – plus. ca and my email address is jrc @ ca . inter. net.

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16 thoughts on “John Robert Colombo: Request for Your Favourite Quotes

  1. Nicholas William Graham

    Reading Frye’s first book, Fearful Symmetry, had a huge impact on me and the two quotes that keep coming to mind and that I find most helpful and encouraging are: “a literary education cannot be rushed” and
    “you don’t have to die to go the heaven”


  2. Michael Happy

    Frye, like Wilde, provides quotes that can be trotted out just about anytime. A recent favorite of mine is Frye on Toronto in the 1930s: “A good place to mind your own damn business.”

    Can anyone tell me the source of this quote, which I’ve never been able to track down: “history doesn’t repeat itself; history repeats myth.”

  3. Russell Perkin

    I have posted this before, but I find it funny so I will repeat it here. Not perhaps a very profound contribution, but a memorable one from 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.”

  4. Clayton Chrusch

    I have a stack of index cards about 2 inches high, each with a quote by Frye on it. These were the core of my intellectual, moral, imaginative, and spiritual education for many years.

    Here are a few. I can provide more if you like.

    The reasonable person proceeds by compromise, halfway measures, illogical agreements, and similar signs of mature human intelligence. Rationalism is a militant use of language designed to demonstrate the exclusive truth of what it works on and with. (The Double Vision, 66)

    The authority of the logical argument, the repeatable experiment, the compelling imagination is the final authority in society, and it is an authority that demands no submission, no subordination, no
    lessening of dignity. (On Education, 90)

    You can become fluent by simply repeating formulas that are supplied for you where the speech is semi-automatic. But articulateness means developing your own rhythm of speech and speaking in your own voice, and that takes independence and not a little courage. So the skill involved is not purely technical: it’s partly moral as well. (On Education, 197)

    It must be admitted that there is a certain aggressiveness in framing fully articulate sentences. Like the songs of birds, they set up a territorial claim and create a space and a silence around them. You look at the speaker, perhaps with attention, perhaps only with resentment, but you look at him anyway, in a way that separates him from others. (On Education, 197-98)

    The futility of trying to accomplish anything without a social context makes it obvious that human individuality is also a social product rooted in law, and not antecedent to society. (WP, 307)

    The release of creative genius is the only social problem that matters, for such a release is not the granting of extra privileges to a small class, but the unbinding of a titan in man who will soon begin to tear down the sun and the moon and enter Paradise. The creative impulse in man is God in man. (FS, 163)

    But originality does not break with convention: it rediscovers it at a deeper level. (OE,200)

    All goals and aims may cheat us, but if we run away from them we shall find ourselves bumping into them. (GC, 123)

    And creation, whether of God, man or nature, seems to be an activity whose only intention is to abolish intention, to eliminate final dependence on or relation to something else, to destroy the shadow that falls between itself and its conception. (AC, 89)

    “Better is the sight of the eye than the wandering of desire.” Great literature is what the eye can see: it is the genuine infinite as opposed to the phony infinite, the endless adventures and endless sexual stimulation of the wandering of desire. But I have a notion that if the wandering of desire did not exist, great literature would not exist either. (SS, 30)

    It is the function of poetry to keep the metaphorical habit of thought alive. (WP, 73)

    Man does not sink to his lowest level of brutality until he has worked out some rationalization for doing so. (WP, 140)

    …no human effort worth making can possibly be completed in one life. (WP, 305)

    The real world is beyond time, but can be reached only by a process that goes on in time. (GC, 76)

    The whole argumentative side is something that critics, without examining the matter, think must be true of criticism if not of literature. (NFIC, 94)

    We must cling to a God who approves of blasphemy because he hates Jehovah & Nobodaddy & Zeus & Isvara & all the other kings of terrors & tyrants of the soul. To a God who appreciates obscenity because he looks not into the secrets of our hearts but into the hearts of our secrets, & knows that our blood filled genitals & cocking guts are the real battle fields, not that dull & respectable pumper.(notebook 3, note 39)

    As we can really choose only what commits us, this means that, like Adam in Eden, we can express our freedom only by annihilating it. (CP, 132)

    Mythological thinking cannot be superseded because it forms the framework and context of all thinking. (WP, intro)

    There’s also a difference between the biblical and the Oriental religions. In Buddhism you have a compassionate Buddha and in Christianity you have a compassionate Jesus, but he’s also a Jesus who confronts and condemns the world…. The fact that the world is always trying to kill God is what, it seems to me, is distinctive of the biblical religions. (NFIC, 181)

    The world we desire is more real than the world we passively accept. (FS, 27)

    Any belief that’s not an axiom of practical life is useless mental lumber. (NFOR, 323)

    Life is a slow & laborious process of discovering that reality inheres in what we make and not what’s presented to us. (LN I:34)

    Striking out a line is a denial of all inertia and paralysis, all doubt and hesitation and reflection: it expresses the triumph of imaginative energy over a fallen world. (FS, 101)

    1. Joseph Adamson

      I was struck, Clayton, by the following quotation: “The reasonable person proceeds by compromise, halfway measures, illogical agreements, and similar signs of mature human intelligence. Rationalism is a militant use of language designed to demonstrate the exclusive truth of what it works on and with. “(The Double Vision, 66)

      So the reasonable is being favorably contrasted here with a militant rationalism. The context is the intolerant attitude of Christianity, when it refuses to “soft-pedal” the exclusiveness of its own revelation, towards other forms of revealed or demonstrated truth.

      The quotation brought to mind Rowan Williams’ compromising over the issue of homosexuality in the Anglican Communion. Could it not be argued that in his temporizing, if that is what he is doing, he is an exemplar of what Frye calls “mature human intelligence?” This is not to say that a more uncompromising pro-gay position on the issue is unreasonable, since it is advocating tolerance, not rationalizing or justifying intolerance and brutality. It is the homophobes who are using rationalism or a militant use of language. This recalls another one of your quotations: “Man does not sink to his lowest level of brutality until he has worked out some rationalization for doing so. (WP, 140)”

      I agree very much with your position on the matter, as I agree with the kind of position taken by Thoreau in his time against slavery. It is more a matter of clarifying the issue for myself. I would be interested, for my own edification, to know what you think: at what point do we decide that the reasonable attitude, which we cherish for its ability to dialogue and effect those reforms which are within the realm of the possible, has in fact become unreasonable.

      It is interesting that Williams’s apparent strategy is not unlike the “reasonable” posture, on a number of issues (gay rights being one of them), adopted by Obama to effect reform: compromise, halfway measures, illogical agreements. Ed Lemond alluded to this, I believe, in his previous post.

      Another way of putting it: at what point does such a reasonable attitude put us in the position of sounding like Caiaphas? You alluded to the rule of expediency as the justification for crucifixion in one of your previous posts. As Frye writes in Words with Power:

      “When the high priest Caiaphas said, ‘It is expedient that one man die for the people’ (John 11:50), he said something we all agree with—in fact Christian doctrine itself agrees with it, and makes Caiaphas one of the first people in the Christian era to be justified by faith.”

  5. Joseph Adamson

    One of my favorites Frye quotations goes something like this: “The purpose of a university education is to make students maladjusted to their societies.”

    Frye makes the statement in slightly different formulations in several places, and as early as his Canadian Forum period.

  6. Michael Happy

    Further to Joe’s comment above, from the conclusion to “The Beginning of the Word”:

    “But if Canada ever becomes as famous in cultural history as the Athens of Socrates, it will be largely because, in spite of indifference or philistinism or even contempt, he has persisted in the immortal task granted only to teachers, the task of corrupting its youth.”

  7. Robert D. Denham

    Northrop Frye Unbuttoned (Anansi, 2004) contains hundreds of pithy, profound, irreverent, humorous, epigrammatic, and otherwise memorable quotations, drawn largely from Frye’s diaries and notebooks. Fee free to steal any of those.

  8. Jonathan Allan

    “Glanced over a book on nudism. I don’t see the point myself: I don’t wear clothes out of modesty. I wear them because they have pockets.” (CW VIII:13)

  9. Clayton Chrusch

    Thanks Joe, for bringing up this topic again. Certainly Rowan Williams is the epitome of “mature human intelligence.” He says in _Where God Happens_ that “one of the most obvious characteristics of the church ought ot be a willingness to abandon anything like competitive virtue (or competitive suffering or competitive victimage, competitive tolerance or competitive intolerance or whatever).” I’ve sometimes noticed a “competitive reasonableness” in the Anglican church that is used as a cudgel to silence people with a real grievance. Anything can be used as an idol, anything can be used as a weapon, including charity, including God, including reasonableness.

    One of the teachings of Christianity is that revelation is denied to the wise (i.e. the mature human intelligence) and given to the child, that the beginner’s mind of a child is the only way to enter the Kingdom. The child knows very little but she knows that some things are right and some things are wrong, and she knows that some things are true and some things are lies. She knows that a lie is wrong and wrong means bad. If you tell a lie against someone, you will hurt them. And if someone is hurting another person, you should stop them if you can.

    There is a strain of Christianity in the U.S. that is hard to distinguish from fascism, and its main weapon is homophobia. It is being actively and systematically exported to Africa and Asia where it is unfortunately finding a very large receptive audience. It is not possible to tolerate fascism. Your choices are to give in to it or to fight it. Sometimes you have to choose a side. Sometimes the situation is black and white.

    It is not that I am giving up on homophobes or want to exclude them from the Church or the body of Christ, but I recognize what human freedom is and has always been, the power to gratuitously turn your neighbour into your enemy. The whole delight of people who do such things is in destroying. Not giving up on these people doesn’t mean keeping dialogue open with them, it means fighting them with all the legitimate power God gives us, but knowing that ultimately they are in the hands of a God who is Love.

    1. Joseph Adamson

      Yes, sometimes the situation is black and white. As Thoreau says in “Civil Disobedience” about the North’s compromises over slavery: “All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counter-balance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.”

      I noticed that Williams was off to see the Pope last week in an effort to ease the tensions over the Pope’s recent invitation to disaffected Anglicans to return to the true church. The disaffected who are being targeted are the misognynists and homophobes who, for all Williams’ efforts to preserve the Church rather than defend the Gospel, can never be satisfied, because they are not interested in dialogue in the first place.

  10. Clayton Chrusch

    As for Caiaphas, it seems to me that you can look at crucifixion ironically or you can look at it in horror. Frye clearly sees it ironically, at least in the passages you quote, and that is certainly more in line with the comfortable religion that he is describing in The Double Vision. Horror, at a far enough remove, is irony. Getting away from horror is certainly a fine goal, but that’s different from denying its reality. I tend to think horror is real. Horror is the human will hell bent on destruction.

    All this reminds me of another quote by Frye, “enlarging the scope of dialogue is easiest for the most indifferent.” Dialogue is great, of course, but if the words that are being said are not being taken seriously, not being taken to heart, not being tested for truth, not being acted upon, then dialogue is futile.

    How do I know that Rowan Williams is doing something wrong? How do I know that his “reasonableness” has gone too far? Because I can’t believe that he doesn’t know that the official position of the Anglican Communion against gay “acts” in fact is the foundation of Christian homophobia, and therefore all the persecutions that arise from Christian homophobia. If he doesn’t see that fruit of that doctrine is black and rotten and stinking, then I am wrong in my blaming of him, but I am also wrong in my respect for him.

  11. Richard Keshen

    I’ve spent my career at Cape Breton University, a small, fledgling university, once the Sydney campus of St. Francis Xavier University. I’ve been here from the time, in the mid-70s, when we struggled to break free of the mother university until now when we offer our own B.A. and B.Sc. degrees.

    I’ve been inspired by a talk Frye gave to Athabasca University in 1985 (I believe at its founding celebrations). The talk is called “Langauge as the Home of Human Life”, and it’s found in Frye’s collection On Education. A passage I found particularly in the talk is as follows (203-4):

    “The educational market functions like all other aspects of the market. It’s centered in populous and wealthy areas like those of Harvard or Chicago or Berkeley, and it ripples out from there until it reaches the youngest, most remote, and most vulnerable seats of learning. The easy way to look at this situation is the cop-out way, to think of a new university as one where students go because they can’t afford to go somewhere more central, and where the staff remains only because the employment situation is too bad to let them move somewhere more central. Such an attitude would kill any university, and would have killed Harvard or Chicago or Berkeley, if it had got there early enough.
    There are no peripheries in scholarship and learning; every university is fighting on the same front line, whatever its morale….”

    Notice by the way Frye’s not saying that students are as good on the average at the remote universities, or that it might not be more stimulating to teach at a prestigious university–Frye would never have spooned out such pabulum. What he is saying, I believe, is that the job is equally important wherever one teaches university because what we teach–Shakespeare or Wittgenstein, for example–are the same wherever one teaches. The books and authors we teach are what makes it true that “every university is fighting on the same front line….”

    1. Joseph Adamson

      Thanks for this, Richard. Frye says, as you do here, that in the humanities the only authority that means anything in the classroom is not the teacher but the subject matter itself: “The kind of authority that the university is interested in is the authority which is inherent in the subject being studied: the authority of the fruitful hypothesis as opposed to the crackpot notion; the authority of the great imaginative classic as contrasted with the mediocre or the merely sensational” (“The Social Importance of Literature,” CW: 331-32). Wherever we are, we are all fighting the same mental fight on the same front line.


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