Daily Archives: March 22, 2010

Frye and Fairley


From Barker Fairley: Portraits (Toronto: Methuen, 1981): 48–9

Further on Barker Fairley and the refusal of U.S. customs to grant him a visa to lecture on Goethe at Bryn Mawr because of his leftist sympathies (he had supported a Soviet friendship organization), these passages from Frye’s Diaries:

“Poor old Barker still feels pretty blue: he was just beginning to start exploring U.S.A. & get some real recognition when they slammed the door on him & he has to pick up a trip to England as consolation prize, & of course he knows all about England.”  (20 March 1950)

“Barker [Fairley] is taking the C.P.R. [Canadian Pacific Railway] train to St. John that goes across Maine, so he says he’ll have a chance to piss on the United States.  Just the same Barker has been deeply hurt by his exclusion.  I wish the Americans didn’t do all the silly things the Communists expect them to do and know in advance how to take advantage of.”  (9 April 1950)

The lectures that Fairley was to give at Bryn Mawr were later published as Goethe’s Faust: Six Essays (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953).  Fairley incidentally painted Frye’s portrait in 1969, which is reproduced above.

About his subject, Fairley has this to say:

I first ran into the name of Northrop Frye when, returning to Canada in 1936, I read an article by him in The Canadian Forum about that delightful dance troupe “The Ballet Joos.”  They acted, or rather danced, scenes from social life.  I remember particularly “The City,” which conveyed both gregariousness and loneliness and gave me a pleasure greater than any I got from classical dancing.  Does he remember this too with the same vivid pleasure, I wonder?

He now switches my mind back to the University of Toronto as it was then.  It seemed to me in those days that University College with its undenomina­tional freedom was carrying the torch of the humanities ahead of the other colleges.  This was a pardonable illusion, which any of the four colleges was entitled to.  But what with Northrop Frye and his mastery of the whole field of literature as we know it and his colleague, Kathleen Coburn, with her com­mand of the Coleridge battalion — to say nothing of her very special autobiog­raphy In Pursuit of Coleridge — it appears now that I was wrong and that Victoria is in the lead as taking the University’s name more effectively abroad than I ever expected.

My portrait of Northrop Frye is a third attempt after two ignominious failures.  I was with Aba Bayefsky the first time.  He succeeded — more than succeeded — and I collapsed.  After a second collapse I said, “Norrie, let me try again.”  He agreed.  And sure enough, that inscrutable face of his yielded at last, and his gentle nature came through to my great delight.

Frye and Border Security


Barker Fairley by Frederick Varley, 1920

Further to Michael’s post on Peter Watts’s conviction for obstructing a border guard.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Exhibit A is Frye’s editorial, which appeared in the Canadian Forum 29, no. 346 (November 1949): 169–70.

Nothing to Fear But Fear

For some months now the American immigration authorities have been busily defending our otherwise undefended border. A number of labour leaders, students, and unfrocked Communists have been held up, turned back, or refused visas, and on a principle of chance well known to duck hunters, they have even managed to bag a few authentic members of the Labor Progressive Party. The recent refusal of visas to Professor Shortliffe of Queen’s and Professor Barker Fairley of Toronto, amounting in at least the latter case to permanent exclusion, has brought the matter more into the open. As practically every Canadian has friends or relatives in the States, Canadian protest has been somewhat muffled. When made, it has usually been carefully qualified by two points: first, that it is intelligible that the U.S.A. should want to exclude people with a vocation for overthrowing its government by force; and second, that as a sovereign nation it has a perfect right to exclude whom it likes.

Well, so it has, but its officials need not be so contemptuous of the national sovereignty of Canada, which, even if smaller, is quite as highly civilized, and quite as interested in democracy. It is an insult to Canada to have American authorities in charge of Canadian immigration who do not know the elementary facts of Canadian political life, and who cannot distinguish a Communist from a social democrat. Earlier in the summer a prominent CCF leader had some difficulty in getting a visa because he had been called a Communist in a Trestrail pamphlet. But no American official should be handling Canadian immigration at all unless he knows all about the trustworthiness of Trestrail pamphlets. A similar political astigmatism must have blurred the official view of Professor Shortliffe, who, though he has associated himself with the CCF, was otherwise merely a professor of French trying to proceed to an appointment in French at Washington University.

Professor Fairley wanted a visa to fulfil an invitation to lecture on Goethe at Bryn Mawr. For any normally competent official, the only question of importance would be: is there anything in this man’s record to indicate that he is going to do anything more subversive than lecture on Goethe? And the answer to that question was obviously no. Professor Fairley is a world famous Goethe scholar, and has never made a political speech in his life. But the officials, in a frenzy of misapplied subtlety, looked up all the occasions on which he had lent his name to the support of a Soviet friendship organization, and gravely decided that he was not sufficiently at war with Russia to be admitted even for a month. After all, had not Mrs. Fairley been sent home from the Peace Conference some months before? True, that action was as high handed and foolish as the exclusion of her husband. But perhaps the authorities reasoned that if they made two foolish decisions over the same family, they would save their faces by their consistency.

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Canadian Author/Marine Biologist Peter Watts Guilty of “Obstructing” Border Guard


Canadian science fiction writer and marine biologist Peter Watts

Peter Watts’s “crime” is detailed in a post by Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing:

Canadian sf writer Peter Watts was convicted of obstruction for getting out of his car at a US Border crossing and asking what was going on, then not complying fast enough when he was told to get back in the car. He faces up to two years in jail.


That’s apparently the statute: if you don’t comply fast enough with a customs officer, he can beat you, gas you, jail you and then imprison you for two years. This isn’t about safety, it isn’t about security, it isn’t about the rule of law.

It’s about obedience.

Authoritarianism is a disease of the mind. It criminalizes the act of asking “why?” It is the obedience-sickness that turns good people into perpetrators and victims of atrocities great and small.

I will link to mainstream media outlets when they get the story right!  They have not so far.  They are reporting that Watts was convicted of assualt.  He was not, according to a juror quoted at length in the Boing Boing post.  (Once again, the new media represented by the blogosphere surpasses the old media in getting both the story and its implications right.)

There are serious allegations that Watts was assaulted by border guards and talk of the possibility of civil action against them.  In the meantime, Watts faces two years in prison.

Watts’s version of events here.