Monthly Archives: January 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: “The Third Man”

Russell Perkin has already posted on Graham Greene and Frye and evidently will be doing so again soon with something on “Shakespeare, Greene and ideology.”  This seems like a good time, therefore, to feature a movie written by Greene, enjoyed by Frye, and now of course regarded as a classic in its own right: The Third Man.

In his diary entry for April 26, 1950, Frye records having seen the movie with Helen the night before and describes it as “very good’:

The musical accompaniment — a zither playing the same series of chords over & over — was very effective, & the whole atmosphere of post-war Vienna, its spirit broken by occupation & its poverty grinding everyone down to a squalid sort of mutual prostitution, was horribly convincing. The villain, done by Orson Welles himself, was the type Hollywood movies generally idealize — a cheerful, handsome, appealing boy who was a complete psychopath, & the curiously empty & helpless horror that such a character inspires came through in a magnificent scene — the only one where he said anything — on a Ferris wheel with the American hero [Joseph Cotten], whose inept honesty made just the right foil. The ferocity of the heroine’s devotion [Alida Valli] to the man whom she knew had betrayed her tied up what was really a pretty grim story, for all the melodramatic chase-through-the-sewers that made it more reassuring for the young women behind us.

It’s funny now that Frye turns his nose up at the “melodramatic chase-through-the-sewers.”  At the very least it proves that he did not reflexively fall into archetype spotting simply because it might niftily prove a point.  Every Frygian since would recognize the sequence as a nicely framed descent into the underworld, and all no doubt sooner or later comment on it.  Furthermore, this particular “melodramatic chase” is artful and modest compared to the Wagnerian tumescence of the formula as it is rendered these days.  Over Christmas I went with my neighbors and their kids to see Avatar.  For the first 90 minutes I was enchanted by it — in terms of cinematic art and technology, it is undeniably a watershed — and I considered posting on it in the context of Frye’s observations about how comprehensive an art form the movies actually are.  But, oh my, then the formula kicked in (this is a James Cameron movie after all, the director who included a chase scene on the sinking Titanic in which gunshots are fired), and all of the care and ingenuity that went into creating the world of Pandora in 3D sickeningly descended for almost a full hour into a futuristic hightech blood letting.  It was like falling out of love and waking up cold and hungover all at once.  I joked to my friends afterwards, if only Cameron believed in the movie he’d been making up to that point.  If every life is precious (as Avatar unrelentingly insists), then why was so much of it so readily expendable?

In any event, The Third Man is literarily grounded popular film making at its best: smart with a sharp tongue and a sound ear and at least a couple of unexpected moments of cinematic genius.

Ed Lemond: Report from the Frye Festival



The Frye Festival takes place every April in Moncton, New Brunswick, where Frye lived for the greater part of his youth, from 1919 to 1929, when he left to study at the University of Toronto.  He was born in Sherbrooke, and Moncton, especially for his mother, was hard exile, as John Ayre’s biography makes clear.  But Moncton is where he grew up and Moncton shaped him in crucial ways.  In a talk he gave at the 2003 festival, titled “Moncton, Did You Know?”  Bob Denham looked at Frye’s years in Moncton and asked the question, What happened to Frye in Moncton that set him, at age 17, firmly on the path that he was to follow.  A copy of this talk can be found on the festival website,, and in the book Verticals of Frye/Les Verticales de Frye, a collection of festival talks I edited in 2005.

The first festival took place in April, 2000, with about 50 authors – poets, novelists, playwrights – in attendance.  And we invited David Staines to talk about Northrop Frye.  Thus began a splendid series of talks by scholars and others with intimate knowledge of Frye, including Branko Gorjup, Nella Cotrupi, Bob Denham (who has given 3 talks over the years), Naïm Kattan, John Ayre, Michael Dolzani, B.W. Powe, Alvin Lee, Jean O’Grady, Glenna Sloan, and Germaine Warkentin.  As well, each year we’ve organized, as part of the same ‘Frye Symposium’, at least one roundtable in which these same speakers and others, including Glenn Gill, Jeffrey Donaldson, Joe Velaidum, Peter Singer, and Jean Wilson.

In April, 2006 the festival inaugurated a second series of talks, which we call the Antonine Maillet-Northrop Frye Lecture, featuring a well-known writer/thinker with no necessary connection to Frye.  Neil Bissoondath spoke in 2006, followed by David Adams Richards in 2007, Alberto Manguel in 2008, and Monique LaRue in 2009.  Paul Curtis at the Université de Moncton, a member of the Frye Board of Directors, has been the driving force behind these talks.  Goose Lane Editions of Fredericton has published each talk in a handsome, bilingual, paperback format.

In April, 2010, our invited speaker for the Frye Symposium lecture is Craig Stevenson, who will give a talk on Jung and Frye.  Our invited speaker for the Maillet-Frye lecture is Noah Richler.  The tentative title for Noah’s talk is “The Unknown Soldier” and it will be a polemic on Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan.  I don’t know if he will have anything to say about Frye.  I take it as a sign of growth on our part that we’ve invited Noah, and a token of Noah’s sense of adventure that he would gladly accept an invitation to a festival named for Northrop Frye.  In his book This Is My Country: What’s Yours? Noah takes Frye to task on several fronts.  He finds the phrase ‘garrison mentality’ especially objectionable.  With this phrase “he was expressing (a) Eurocentric judgment and planted a stigma on the Canadian literary psyche for a good few decades afterwards.”  Much of Noah’s book is an exploration and celebration of the aboriginal contribution to Canadian culture and literature and so for him “the bush is not empty but occupied.  And if it was occupied, then it was therefore habitable and safe – and the towns were not ‘garrisons.’  Recognizing, in particular, that aboriginal peoples were living in spaces that Northrop Frye and others of his generation had previously considered wild, dangerous, and empty of culture if not of people, was the spur of a creed of ethnic and cultural sensitivity that was learned in the bush and then transferred to the cities.”

Branko Gorjup, in his talk at the April, 2001 festival, entitled “Northrop Frye and His Canadian Critics,” recounts some of the previous negative reaction to Frye’s ‘Canadian’ criticism.  The common theme of these negative assessments seems to be that Frye’s ideas about Canadian literature are based on “imported theories and values.”  Perhaps this is all a misreading of Frye.  Frye, in conversation with David Cayley, says, “The phrase ‘garrison mentality’ has a certain historical context, and the phrase has got overexposed.”  This is a very gentle way of saying that it’s usually not a good idea to take things out of historical context.  Branko ends his essay, however, by asking: “Was Frye really ‘misread’ or was it simply that his work required multiple readings?”  And he quotes Eli Mandel, as conceding that “the real influence of Frye is to have shown the precise points where local creation becomes part of the civilized discourse he speaks of as criticism and creativity, the world of wonder, the universe of words.”

The Bush Garden, where so much of the damage was done, if I can put it that way, was first published in 1971, and I have in my possession, a precious fruit from my years as a bookseller, Timothy Findley’s signed copy of the first paperback edition.  It’s interesting that the first words he underlines, on page 213, are these: “And Canada has produced no author who is a classic in the sense of possessing a vision greater in kind than that of his best readers (Canadians themselves might argue about one or two, but in the perspective of the world at large the statement is true).”  I like to picture Timothy Findley at Stone Orchard reading these words and saying to himself, By God, just you wait.  (In 1977 he published The Wars.)  Of course, Frye did wait, for it all to happen, as he knew it would.  Findley also underlines, and gives two long slashes in the margin, to this from page 222: “Again, Canadian culture, and literature in particular, has felt the force of what might be called Emerson’s law.  Emerson remarks in his journals that in a provincial society it is extremely easy to reach the highest level of cultivation, extremely difficult to take one step beyond that.  In surveying Canadian poetry and fiction, we feel constantly that all the energy has been absorbed in meeting a standard, a self-defeating enterprise because real standards can only be established, not met.”  Whether he agreed or disagreed with Frye’s historical perspective, Findley was intent on lifting himself above and beyond the force of Emerson’s law.  That he succeeded, as did so many others of his generation, is something we can all celebrate.

Welcoming Clayton Chrusch

Joe and I were fortunate enough to have dinner tonight with Clayton Chrusch and his husband, Mike.  We were even more fortunate to be able to convince Clayton — who has been a regular contributer here almost from the first day — to become our latest byline correspondent.  However, there was just one condition.  So, here, as promised, Clayton, are the fireworks.  Almost ten minutes worth.  Enjoy!

Fact, Imagination, Language


Responding to Michael Dolzani, Matthew Griffin and Clayton Chrusch

I think the issue of whether or not imagination and fact are incompatible in Frye has to be seen in terms of his theory of language. We get two elaborate accounts of this theory in the first chapters of both The Great Code and Words with Power. A briefer version is to be found in chapter 1 of The Double Vision, where Frye says, “The reason for basing kerygma on mythical and metaphorical language is that such a language is the only one with the power to detach us from the world of facts and demonstrations and reasonings, which are excellent things as tools, but are merely idols as objects of trust and reverence” (18) A bit earlier he has remarked, “if we encounter metaphors in poetry, we need not worry about their factual absurdity.” That’s because poetic metaphor, like myth and all other products of the imagination, belong to a phase of language different from the language of fact, reason, demonstration, historical truth, and the like.

The opposition between fact and imagination is related, I believe to Hegel’s distinction between the “for-itself” and the “in-itself,” which Frye glances at in “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision.” The distinction is to be found in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 294 ff. Hegel’s very abstract and difficult prose provides a formidable obstacle to my small brain. But if I understand what he’s getting at in describing these two opposing forces, the “for-itself has to do with thought, with the self-consciousness that comes from our being post-Enlightenment people. It’s limited. It’s related to actuality, human law, the external world of culture and civilization, faith expressed in conceptual or Enlightenment terms, truth as objective factual description. On the other hand, in-itself is a matter of getting beyond Enlightenment rationality to something above and beyond historical self-consciousness. It’s related to possibility, faith, harmony, consciousness of the Notion (Begriff), the spiritual world. It’s a matter of vision. “For-itself” belongs to the world as it is––the world of fact. “In-itself” belongs to the world as it might or should be––the world of the imagination.

Frye’s account of this distinction immediately precedes his commentary on Hebrews 11:1, the passage mentioned by Matthew Griffin that Frye continued to puzzle over, most fully in his sermon “Substance and Evidence.” For those who might be interested in following up on the passage that Griffin says is the key to his reading of Frye, I reproduce immediately following four of the chief places Frye seeks to untangle the meaning of “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” the commentaries having been written over a seventeen-year span.

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Welcoming Jan Gorak


We are very pleased to announce that Jan Gorak of the University of Denver will be joining us as our latest byline correspondent.  If you’re keeping score at home, Glenna Sloan, Ed Lemond, Michael Dolzani and Jonathan Allan have all joined us since Christmas, and we’ve still got a few more prospects in the works.

If any of you out there are interested in doing the same, please drop us a line.  We’re delighted to have you.

Male Virgins


Reubens, Venus and Adonis, c. 1635

Responding to Jonathan Allan.

“Virginity means a transcending of sex”––“Third Book” Notebooks

I suspect that Frye associates females with virginity because that is the typical association he found in the tradition of literature, sacred and secular. But he clearly recognized the category of the male virgin. In Words with Power he writes,

The original adam, alone in his garden, was involuntarily virginal, and illustrates the theme of the virgin who has a peculiarly intimate relationship to an idealized natural environment. The term virgin is usually associated with females, but long before Genesis we have the pathetic story of Enkidu in the Gilgamesh epic, the wild man of the woods made by the gods to subdue Gilgamesh, but so feared by human society that they send a whore to seduce him. After she completes her assignment the link between Enkidu and the animals who once responded to his call was snapped forever.

The figure of Orpheus in Greece, if not strictly virginal, also has a magically close affinity with nature: he is a musician, and music symbolizes the harmony that holds heaven and earth in union on the paradisal level of existence. Female virgins, again, have been credited for centuries with magical powers over nature, including the taming of wild beasts, the attracting of unicorns, and an uncanny knowledge of herbs.

In his notes on Achilles Tatius, The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon, Frye observes that when the

hero is making row about sacrilege in temple he says he’s a free man and a citizen of no mean city (ouk aemou poleos polites), which is quoted from Acts 21:39. Maybe Achilles Tacitus was a bishop after all: his bishop, anyway, if the translation is right, is a most urbane character, said to be familiar with Aristophanes, whose speech in court is full of double entendres about his opponent’s character (Thersander). Note the continuity of Paul’s wanderings around the Mediterranean and later romance. It must mean something that the heroine’s virginity is preserved only by accident and the hero’s isn’t at all.

In Notebook 50, par. 9, Frye writes about the passage in Revelation 14:4––“the business about those not defiled with women.” Later in the same notebook (par. 242) he says, “The male virgins in Revelation [14:4] (I probably have this) are the antitype of the fucking sons of God in Genesis 6.” Then again (par. 453), “It’s bloody confusing to read in Revelation that the redeemed are all male virgins, never ‘defiled’ with women [14:4]. [See Words with Power, 127, 275.] Not that anyone ever took it––well––literally: cf. the 14th c. Pearl. [The Pearl-poet did take the Revelation account literally. See Pearl, ll. 865 ff., where the poet takes pains to insist that the account of the male virgins in Revelation is true.] Its demonic parody, as I’ve said [par. 242], is Genesis 6:1-4: the Rev. [Revelation] bunch are sons of God who stay where they are, & don’t go “whoring” after lower states of being.”

In Words with Power Frye refers approvingly to Meister Eckhart telling “his congregation that each of them was a virgin mother charged with the responsibility of bringing the Word to birth; but then Eckhart did understand the language of proclamation that grows out of myth, and its invariable connection with the present tense.”

The notion of male virginity is implicit in this passage from Notebook 3 (par. 67):

Virginity is of course a Selfhood symbol, and the surrender of virginity in marriage is part of the losing one’s life to gain it pattern. By entrusting their virginities to one another, husband & wife recover their individualities, & advance from the purely generic physical relation to the purely human one of companionship. Possessiveness & jealousy are thus the perversions or analogies of what really happens in marriage. Blake would say that the hymen was the home of the Amalekites.

And then this, from “The Third Book” Notebooks (Notebook 12, par. 394):

Pound’s remark, a far more incisive one than Nietzsche’s, about the difference between those who thought fucking was good for the crops & those who thought it was bad for them, defines the contrast between the shy virginal Adonis, the women lamenting his virginity like Jephtha’s virginal daughter, Attis with his castrating priests, Jesus with his “touch me not” & his homosexual refinement—chaste, anyway—& his elusive ascension, are all in the upper sphere of the purified soul. [Pound’s remark: ““The opposing systems of European morality go back to the opposed temperaments of those who thought copulation was good for the crops, and the opposed faction who thought it was bad for the crops (the scarcity economists of pre-history)” (Ezra Pound, Make It New [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935)], 17).]

In short, I think the notion that “virginity [is] uniquely concerned with the female subject” in Frye needs to be qualified by considering his occasional remarks about male virginity.

Griffin and Chrusch: Responding to Michael Dolzani


Bosch’s Epiphany, 1495

Michael Dolzani’s first post has drawn a couple of thoughtful responses:

Matthew Griffin:

Thanks so much for this piece. It’s proven quite helpful to me, as I try to come up with some coherent thoughts for a pair of Epiphany sermons.

Epiphany is one of the principal feasts of the Church year, and celebrates the greater spread of God’s saving work beyond just the Israelites. It’s the time of year when we read the account in the gospel of Matthew of the magi coming to see the child, led by a star–and I think that one could argue that such is the quintessential example of natural religion (and then absorbed into Christianity). After all, the magi follow a star and bring tribute, ill-understanding (in the gospel writer’s eyes, at any rate) the full import of who they were meeting.

Where I would want to offer nuance to your argument is around the assertion that “the imgaination does not ‘believe in God’: belief is concerned with the evidence for or against objects, and God is not an object.” I think my quibble stems from a passage of scripture close to Frye’s heart–”Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11.1). In fact, it was a passage that kept cropping up in papers given at the Frye & the Word conference a few years back, and it’s key to my own reading of Frye: he’s sure that faith isn’t, as he quotes “believing what you know ain’t so”–but is something other than factual, other than straight subject/object dichotomy. It’s how Frye does this that makes Words with Power such an important book in my life, and I thank you for reminding me of that as I try to think about what it means to help others re-read a myth that reveals something of how God is.

Clayton Chrusch:

The passage that Matthew identifies is the same one that I think could use some clarification. God (the Father) may not be an object, but he is, according to the view I am defending anyway, a subject, and subjects (like the human mind, for example) are still facts, and their existence can be treated (more or less) in the same way the existence of objects can be treated. According to the Christian view, God, in the person of Jesus, is actually an object, in the sense of a physical entity. But perhaps you are not contrasting objects with subjects but objects with persons. Persons, though, are also facts, and we can believe in them both in the sense of acknowledging their existence and also in the sense of trusting them.

I certainly understand Blake’s rebelliousness and share his disgust with the church which contents itself with being at best a little less bad than institutions of a similar size, wealth, and power. But I see a distinction between the church and the teachings it espouses, the teachings, in fact, that it usually betrays. And I also see a distinction between the teachings of the church, in all their inadequacy and perversion, and the truth of which they are a distortion.

So I don’t see imagination and fact as incompatible. An imaginative scientist is very good at coming up with theories that articulate and explain facts. An imaginative Christian is very good at envisioning what it means to be a God whose only motive is love and also what it means to be a child of such a God. But a vision may be a vision of what is real. The imagination shows us not only what is not true, but also what is true.

I think I misspoke in my original comment by suggesting that the hope of Christians is the end of suffering. The end of suffering is only a secondary Christian hope, but the primary one is equally factual. Suffering is bearable, but what I cannot bear, what makes me want to pluck out my own eyes or throw myself off a cliff is being bad–hurting other people or behaving dishonestly. If I hate torture, it is not because it is painful but because it reaches down into a person’s will and takes possession of it for evil purposes. If I really knew that I could be good and remain good, I would not be afraid of any amount of pain. This is not something I am making up as an ideal, but something that is a part of real life to Tibetan monks, for example, being tortured in Chinese prisons.

And so I don’t see salvation as admittance into a very pleasant place, but as a renovation of the will so complete and so secure that it doesn’t matter any longer what place we are in.

Jonathan Allan: Northrop Frye’s Virginity


Millais’s Ophelia, 1852

Jonathan Allan, a doctoral candidate in English at University of Toronto, will be joining us as a byline correspondent

As I complete the closing chapters of my dissertation and begin an extensive revision, I realize that I have an ongoing debate with Frye in my own notebooks: a debate that unfortunately does not unfold in the dissertation.  There is one point of contention that I run up against over and over again.

Frye writes of the “magical emphasis on virginity [in romance], the fact that virgins can do things others can’t” (CW XV:219, 236); he adds that “virginity is somehow in tune with an unfallen version of the world itself” (CW XV:219).  More specific to my own concerns is Frye’s observation that “this prudery [about virginity in romance] is structural, not moral” (CW XV:187).  Most of these notions find their way into The Secular Scripture in which Frye writes that “apart from the idealizing of the pre-sexual state, there is a sense in which virginity is an appropriate image for attaining original identity: what is objectively untouched symbolizes what is subjectively contained so to speak” (153; CW XVIII:101).  Earlier in The Secular Scripture, Frye writes: “one can, of course, understand an emphasis on virginity in romance on social grounds.  In the social conditions assumed, virginity is to a woman what honor is to a man, the symbol of the fact that she is not a slave.  Behind all the ‘fate worse than death’ situations that romance delights in, there runs the sense that a woman deprived of her virginity, by any means except a marriage she has at least consented to, is, to put it vulgarly, in an impossible bargaining position.  But the social reasons for the emphasis on virginity, however obvious, are still not enough for understanding the structure of romance” (73; CW XVIII:49-50).  It is clear that virginity becomes a central aspect of the romance structure and that the role of virginity is not moral.  However, if this is really indeed the case, why has Frye gendered virginity?  Why is virginity uniquely concerned with the female subject?

The romance as a generic model does not preclude the hero from being a virgin or virginal; thus, it seems imperative to ask why this model of purity is not ascribed to both the male and female if it only serves a structural goal?  Indeed, if one looks to contemporary fiction, it might be demonstrated that the “virginal” male is certainly present: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight goes to great pains to ensure the virginity of its hero; likewise, in a recent review of Dan Brown’s latest opus, The Lost Symbol, Maureen Dowd notes: “[e]ven though Katherine seems like [Robert] Langdon’s soul mate – she even knows how to weigh souls – their most torrid sex scenes consist of Robert winking at her or flashing her a lopsided grin.”  There are surely dozens of examples of this virginal behaviour that extends beyond the female to the male.  It is likely there is debate about whether the male virgin even exists – two recent books on the subject would certainly cast doubt upon such a notion; Hanne Blank’s Virgin: The Untouched History (2007) and Anke Bernau’s Virgins: A Cultural History (2007) seem to evade the question entirely and only refer to it when absolutely necessary.

If virginity affords the heroine “magical powers,” what is the source of the “magical powers” of the hero?  In upcoming work, I aim to reconsider the question of virginity in Northrop Frye’s theorisations of romance; however, such a study, as I am quickly learning, requires a re-reading of the very notion of virginity precisely because cultural historians seem not to recognize the very possibility of such a notion.  In this regard, it is hardly surprising that Frye should not have considered the question of the hero being virginal.  This question of virginity, of course, is not unique to the amorous romance novel alone; one need only think as far as Treasure Island wherein one could define the island itself as virginal – though most of the male characters seem rather virginal as well.  One might also consider a tale like Peter Pan as yet another example of the virginal hero; however, in the case of Peter Pan there is a movement towards asexuality or a sexless identity.   

Thus, the question that I keep returning to is: how can virginity be structural alone and not also part of a greater moral concern?  The romance need not offer a defence of abstinence – as is the case of Meyer’s Twilight – but virginity must, and I would argue does, serve some purpose beyond the structure of the narrative.  The only way, I would imagine, that virginity could serve some structural purpose alone – one that allows for magical things to happen – is if this virginity existed in both hero and heroine.  For this virginity to exist, it must also be recognized, and therein lies the problem – how does one account for this seeming paradox in Frye’s theory of romance?  Thus, the question that now haunts my current research (and as I begin to finish my dissertation with better questions than when I started) is about the nature and theory of virginity in the romance.

Notes on Frye, from Ten Years Ago


Throughout the 1990s, I regularly taught an intermediate course in the Theory of Criticism.  At various intervals in the course, I would give students a brief essay providing an overview of the unit we were studying.  I used the Hazard Adams anthology Critical Theory Since Plato, and always assigned the selection from Frye (the second essay from the Anatomy).  What follows is the last version of my notes on Northrop Frye, from the fall of 2000.  After that semester, I stopped teaching the theory course in order to make room in my schedule for a new course I had developed on the Bible and Literature.

My notes may be of some slight historical interest to readers of this blog; if I were teaching the course again, I would change a few emphases, but I was struck on rereading the essay by how little I would change of the substance.  I’m not sure to what extent the prophecy of my last sentence has been fulfilled; Frye does not seem to me especially influential on the liberal studies and great books programmes that claim to be in the humanist tradition, though I may be generalizing here from inadequate knowledge.  Furthermore, reflecting on these comments at the beginning of 2010, my impression is that there has been something of an accommodation between literary and cultural studies in recent years.  (Joe and Michael may well disagree with this as an overly sanguine opinion.)  I expected to see an increasing polarization between the two approaches, but that does not seem to me to have happened.  I think that PMLA is a more genuinely diverse publication than it seemed in the 1990s, and the graduate students I meet are often eclectic and flexible in their thinking, even if they are also realistic about what they have to do to get an academic job.  Frye’s place in the contemporary scene is something that I am sure we will continue to discuss and argue about.

In one section of the theory class, during the mid-90s, I had an excellent student – let’s call her Antonia – who was the only person ever to choose R. P. Blackmur as an essay subject in all the times that I taught the course.  A colleague told me that she had mentioned Frye in her Canadian literature class, to which Antonia responded, “I love Northrop Frye!”

Here are the notes:

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