Monthly Archives: February 2010

A Birthday Panegyric


[Editor’s note: Bob insists on calling this “doggerel.”  We call it “Skeltonic.”  And the answer to Bob’s closing question: Yes, yes, yes!  We intend to inaugurate the annual Robert D. Denham BBQ and Scotch Quaff come May.]

Last week this blog
Was six months old.
It’s earned a bronze,
A silver, gold.

Record we now
The debts we owe
To Michael, Clayton
And to Joe.

They’ve trod a maze
And shined the lights
On our meanders
And forthrights.

A panegyric
To all three.
Come quaff a stein,
Won’t you, with me?

Frye on Hockey


Gordie Howe and Denis Brodeur

Here’s Frye on pucks
For all Canucks
And others who like
Sports on ice.

Tim Horton knew
That Norrie flew
Around the rink
Not once but twice.

Watching a hockey game is not directly a spectator sport, because anyone interested enough in hockey to watch a game knows how the game is played, & through that knowledge can see much more of what is going on, with or without a commentator, than the players.  (CW 13, 95)

The difference between leisure and distraction or boredom is not so much in what one does as in the mental attitudes toward it.  It’s easiest to see this if we take extreme examples.  Our television sets and highways are crowded on weekends with people who are not looking for leisure but are running away from it.  Leisure goes to a hockey game to see a game: distraction or boredom goes to see one team trample the other into the ice.  (CW 10, 224)

Wherever we turn in this problem, we keep falling over the word “education”: but if education means trying to get people to stop going to hockey games and go to discussion groups on great books instead, education isn’t going to help much either. (ibid., 225)

We get bored because we feel that something is missing inside ourselves.  We look outside ourselves for the missing place, either aggressively, by trying to bully somebody, or by trying to forget about ourselves by throwing ourselves into some kind of illusion.  For this state of mind, illusion is a lot better than reality.  Far better to go into squealing hysterics over a rock‑and-roll singer than over a dictator: far better to fight the Russians in a hockey game than on a battlefield.  But illusion can’t fool everybody all the time.  Some people, sooner or later, have to wake up and look for the missing piece inside themselves. (ibid., 225)

The television camera, being essentially an extension of one person’s eyes, peers, squints, and pries; it is looking for a single visual focus.  The focus is “where it’s at,” and television has a great deal to do with the obsession of the last few years with this phrase.  If we ask what television does best in extending the individual’s visual range, it seems clear that it is particularly good at, for example, football and hockey games.  These are, as I suggested earlier, different from baseball in that they are specifically “where it’s at” games, where it’s at being usually where the ball or puck is.  Focussing on the ball or puck also clarifies the pattern of opposition in the game being played: that is, it illustrates the strategy of one team confronting another.  The result is that television tends to report everything as though it were some kind of football or hockey game, and the vogue for “confrontation” and polarized issues is a major social feature of society’s effort to absorb the television way of seeing.  (ibid., 296)

I wish the makers of such films would realize that no event has any meaning without its visual context and without its historical context.  This program was what André would call incestuous: it was begotten, born, and bred of the television medium.  It looks dead now, for the same reason that no one wants to hear about last year’s football games.  The assumption throughout was that a person’s “real” character is the one he would demonstrate on one side or the other of a polarized issue, and this assumption is preposterous.  The confrontation issue, including football and hockey games, is a form of social ritual.  (ibid., 298)

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Frye and the Honour Course


In response to Joe Adamson’s post:

Frye’s earliest defense of the Honour Course is in a piece he wrote for Acta Victoriana at the end of his fourth year at Victoria College:  “The Pass Course: A Polemic.”  There he argues that one of the virtues of the Honour Course is that “the subjects are all grouped around a restricted and clearly defined area of knowledge” (CW 7, 38).  In his “Response to the Macpherson Report,” which is posted in the blog’s Library, Frye wrote “The Honour course represents a unique contribution to undergraduate teaching on the continent, and at its best it affords as good an undergraduate training as can be got anywhere.”  This was a judgment he continued to defend, repeating it, for example, in a 1973 letter to Martha England (Selected Letters, 151) and elsewhere.  Otherwise:

The General Course in arts assumes that an integrated curriculum, even in so specialized a world as ours, is, up to a point, possible at the university level. The Honour Course, on the other hand, is based on the assumption than any genuine discipline can be used as a centre of knowledge, the radius of expansion from the centre being the student’s responsibility. Either assumption is justifiable, but that of the Honour Course is perhaps closer to this age of intellectual pluralism. (“The Critical Discipline,” CW 7, 113)

I have been accused, if that is the word, of defending the Honour Course whenever I get a chance, and this is one more chance. I remain obstinately of the opinion that the Honour Course, with all its rigidity and built-in administrative absurdities, gave the best undergraduate training available on the North American continent, and the best teacher training for the instructor as well. (“The Beginning of the Word,” CW 7, 540)

Other of Frye’s judgments about the Honour Course can be found by following the entries in the index to Northrop Frye’s Writings on Education (CW 7).

Here’s the way Mary Culley described the Honours course in English during the early 1950s:

The Honours Course in English Language and Literature was arranged sequentially.  In the first year we started out with Anglo‑Saxon up to the Middle Ages (Chaucer, Malory, the miracle plays); second year, the Elizabethan Age (Shakespeare, the Reformation, Milton); third year, the Age of Reason, the classicists, early Romanticism; fourth year, later Romantics, the Victorian Age, and early twentieth century.  In each time period we took three or four English courses––novels, drama, poetry, essays, plus parallel courses of the same period from Honours History, Honours Philosophy, and Honours French (or another language).  Marvellous.  (Letter of 7 June 1994)

One of the attractions of the Honour Course for Frye was this notion of parallel courses, so that while students were studying medieval literature during their first year, they would be studying medieval history and medieval philosophy at the same time.

Quote of the Day


Ian Brown, The Globe and Mail, 22 February 2010:

“I personally think that the energy here is as good as the arena,” a tall guy named Derek said. He was standing up at the bar with a pal named Dave. Dave was shorter. They knew hockey the way Northrop Frye knew the Bible. “I don’t know if we’re gonna win the gold,” Dave said. “Russia has the best team in the World Cup, Sweden won the last hockey Olympic gold.” They were analyzing training patterns, age, everything. They could easily have been a part of the Canada Line hockey symposium. Still, he thought we’d be in the final.

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 17


“…a blend of the tragic, comic and satiric”

Lecture 17. February 10, 1948

To understand Job, you must see that the book is a blend of tragic, comic and satiric.  All great drama is a blend of these three.  The satiric tone is a blend of the moral and the humorous.  Pure humor is not satire; pure denunciation is not satire.

Satire is a detachment from evil; it brings out its wrongness and ridiculousness.  You can’t find anything more detached from evil than God; therefore, there are some aspects of the sardonic in God, or the gods.  This is inescapable in any serious religion.  Wrath is the reaction of good when confronted with evil, and wrath is the opposite of irritation.  God is incapable of irritation, which is a personal egocentric thing which desires to triumph over and score off someone.  Wrath is impersonal, detached.

God speaks in the tones of the wrath of the sardonic.  Yet these tones are different from Job’s friends who approach him with elaborate friendliness and politeness.  They talk in vague, general terms about the goodness of good and the badness of evil.

Then their approach sharpens; the reproaches come clearer to a point of open antagonism.  They are trying to hint that Job had better “‘get right” with God.  They are trying to interpret their own sense of the wrath of God, of man in an evil state.  But Job insists that he’s done nothing wrong.  The friends become irritated; they want to score him off.  Job tries to score them off, too.  All agree there must be some justice somewhere.  Only Job’s wife suggests something else: curse God and die.  At the end, God curiously enough seems of the same opinion.  Man searches for a God equal to him.  God feels the same way; he wants a man equal to him.

The dialogue breaks down into a deadlock.  If Job has done nothing wrong, then nothing makes sense.  His friends are pious Jews thinking in terms of the Hebrew law, the best of the Pharisaic mind that Jesus condemns.  They try to interpret God’s design in terms of the law.  Job comes to the discovery that rain falls on the just and unjust alike; the sun shines upon evil and good alike.

Job, his three friends, and Elihu are all under the same cloud.  The breakdown point is that there is no revelation of God to Man.  All seems to be mystery. The collapse is tragedy and satire, not comedy.

Tragedy and satire are inseparable.  There is an ironic kernel in all Shakespeare tragedies.  Hamlet’s death is a tragedy, yet it takes place after a muddled attempt at revenge.  Horatio must tell that Hamlet has been a damn fool.  In Othello’s last speech he is trying to cheer himself up and rescue some fragment of dignity.  It is not that he realized what a fool he has been, but what a fool he is.  In Antony and Cleopatra, the Antony who held the stage in Julius Caesar, the demagogue, in this play is crowded right off the stage by Cleo.  She has him killed off in Act IV and has the fifth act to herself.  She puts on a good show, but the irony is that it is a good show.  Octavius comes in at the end of her show and says, “Oh yes, I heard she was doing some research on a painless way to die.”   The hanging of Cordelia, in Lear, blasts any theory that there is a moral order in tragedy.

The point of tragedy is not punishment, but that the hero fell, whether he deserved it or not. That is the irony.

The author of the Book of Job is not trying to clear God’s name, as Milton was.  There is no self-defensive, aggressive tone as in Milton’s God.  At the end, God speaks with what seems colossal impudence. He feels he has a right to condemn Job, in a sense, for feeling that he is righteous in his own eyes.  The reader has the curious feeling that God has done something wrong, in view of the prologue.

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Reading as Resistance to Reading


Responding to Quote of the Day

Thanks for this, Mike. The quotation and the article in full made me think of Frye’s references to the lamentable disappearance of the old Honour course at the University of Toronto. It would be interesting to know more about that. Perhaps our Southern Pez-dispenser can cough something up for us.

I certainly identified with what the guy was saying about the frayed sense of purpose in the classroom when the discipline itself is so incoherent and uncertain. Interesting he uses the term “secondary considerations” in the quote you provide: what he means of course is what Frye calls secondary concerns. Just a coincidence?

Even in my grad class . . . though maybe “even” isn’t the right adverb, given that, at least in my department, there is a concerted effort to train any spontaneous responses to literature out of our students long before they are in any danger of attending a graduate seminar . . .

I was going to say how predictable it is now that the immediate response by students to an image in a novel or a textual detail or a set of such images or details is to explain or rationalize them by referring, in one way or another, to the world outside the work. (This has always been the case but it is now actively encouraged.) And this centrifugal impulse is usually accompanied by a critical attitude that undermines in a knowing and dismissive, even contemptuous way the author and the work. This is called “critical thinking,” much touted in the last decade or so as one of the great skills that humanities students can bring to their employers. The training that goes into it is analogous to those educational kid’s books which present pictures in which the details are out of place or wrong and the child is supposed to point out all the errors. Please point out, class, the relevant errors in Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale” . . . Yes, exactly: the Ruth image is indeed a perfect example of the patriarchal aestheticization of exploited female labor . . .

I think part of the explanation for why such a critical approach has caught on is that it is so damn easy to do: it spares the students and more importantly the professors from having to really think critically about what they are reading, since the technique is to short-circuit from the beginning the imaginative energy of the text, the electrical linking, if you like, of one image to another, within the text or in other works of literature.

Let us now criticize famous writers seems to be the general idea: or rather let us “critique” or “problematize” them. Or my favorite: let us “resist” them. The books are no longer being read: they are being resisted, as if a poem were trying to put one over on you, like some sleazy salesman trying to sell you a highly overpriced and shoddy vacuum cleaner.

Reading as resistance: which really means resisting reading. Resist, don’t fall for that image, don’t pick up that theme–you have no idea where it might have been . . . Remember: your soul is in peril of eternal incorrectness.

Quote of the Day


From The American Scholar, “The Decline of the English Department”:

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

New Additions to the Journal and Library


Bob Denham (or “the human Pez-dispenser,” as Joe Adamson calls him, thanks to his uncanny ability to turn out new work for us) has provided our latest additions to the journal and the Denham Library.

First, a biography of Frye’s early years in Moncton, New Brunswick, posted in the journal here.  He’s also provided us with two previously unpublished talks given at Victoria College, “Who Is This Guy Frye?” and “The Significance of ‘Beyond’ in Frye’s Visionary Poetics”, both now posted in the Library.

And here’s a heads up: we will soon be posting in its entirety Bob’s first book on Frye: Northrop Frye and Critical Method. Given that is advertising new copies of the book at 175 bucks a pop, that’s quite a coup for us — and we’re passing on the savings directly to you.



Joe’s post on abduction as hunch reminds me of how often Frye uses the word “hunch.”  It doesn’t appear in Fearful Symmetry or Anatomy of Criticism, but in The Educated Imagination there are two apposite passages:

Imagination is certainly essential to science, applied or pure. Without a constructive power in the mind to make models of experience, get hunches and follow them out, play freely around with hypotheses, and so forth, no scientist could get anywhere. But all imaginative effort in practical fields has to meet the test of practicability, otherwise it’s discarded. The imagination in literature has no such test to meet. You don’t relate it directly to life or reality: you relate works of literature, as we’ve said earlier, to each other. Whatever value there is in studying literature, cultural or practical, comes from the total body of our reading, the castle of words we’ve built, and keep adding new wings to all the time.  (CW 21, 470)

You can’t distinguish the arts from the sciences by the mental processes the people in them use: they both operate on a mixture of hunch and common sense. A highly developed science and a highly developed art are very close together, psychologically and otherwise. (CW 21, 442)

In his notebooks Frye repeatedly writes about his hunches: I count 158 instances of the word strung out over the eight volumes.