Frye and the Canadian Forum


Perhaps the sweetest of Anthony Jenkins‘s caricatures of Frye

Now that the journal and the library are taking on the burden of the website’s scholarly purpose, we’ve begun to include in the daily blog a little bit of politics and current affairs, which raises the issue of Frye’s status as a public man, particularly his role as editor of the Canadian Forum.

In the May 1970 issue of the Forum marking its fiftieth anniversary, Frye contributed a piece that turns a specific occasion into an opportunity for remarkably clearsighted prophecy.  Given that the article was written forty years ago and that the Forum itself folded ten years ago, Frye’s assessment of the past in relation to his expectations for the future is extraordinary.  His outlook, not surprisingly, is a complement of the cyclical and the dialectical, history and culture, the past as the “rear-view crystal ball” of the future that gives his piece its title.  Take, for example, his estimation of the previous fifty years and his quick snapshot of what it might mean to the next fifty:

What is surprising about the last fifty years is how little of what has happened is really surprising.  It was already obvious in 1920 that Fascism and Communism were going to cause a lot of trouble, that capitalism would have to be modified and become less laissez-faire, that Canada would soon become a satellite of the United States, that our natural resources were being recklessly plundered and wasted, that separatist agitation in Quebec would continue, that colonies would want and eventually take independence, that the influence of middle-class religion would decline, that man’s capacity to injure himself would increase, not merely in wars but in the growth of cities and industries.  Nearly all these issues are discussed repeatedly in the early issues of the Forum and its predecessor the Rebel, discussed in every tone from hope to fear, and with that uneasy sense of a future looking over one’s shoulder which is so characteristic of twentieth-century prose and yet so hard to characterize.  Similarly, it is possible that nothing will be happening in 2020 except what is obvious now: the future that may be technically feasible is not the future that society can actually assimilate. (CW, 12, 408-9)

That last sentence catches like a burr.  2020 is just ten years into our future, and Frye seems to have rendered it with, well, 20/20 foresight: “the future that may be technically feasible is not the future that society can actually assimilate.”  The reasons for this are many and all are suggested by humanity’s pathologically bad habits which Frye enumerates throughout.

He then goes on to review the Forum in its heyday during the 20s, 30s and 40s, and characterizes the period for its editors as “days of leisure, not in the sense of having nothing to do, but in the sense of being able to choose what one did.”  By 1970 that time had passed, and Frye identifies the present as an era of “introversion” because

nearly all our technological developments — the automobile, the passenger airplane, the high-rise apartment, the television set, even the cocktail party — make for increased introversion, and our traditional communities, the school, the home, the university, the church, the labour temple, the corner store disintegrate in direct proportion.  In such an atmosphere the journal of opinion becomes obsolete (410).

Once again, that last sentence catches hold with its unsentimental suggestion that the Forum would not necessarily see its hundredth anniversary — and it in fact struggled mightily to survive to its 80th, at which point it quietly slipped away almost unnoticed.

Frye concludes by unobtrusively turning his attention to the future he acknowledges at the outset he will not live to see.

Fifty years ago, the little magazine was the means of creating what is now called “dialogue”, the opposite voice in the thunder of advertising propaganda, platitude, and bumbling rhetoric.  Today, we are preoccupied with the feeling that communication has to become a two-way street if mankind is to stay sane.  The voices that bellow and wheedle and plead through our television sets have become intolerable, and apathy is no defence.  Some take to drugs; some to rock music, wrapping themselves up in an impermeable cloak of noise; some loot and smash and scream obscenities — anything to hit back at that unceasing roar of sound.  In the age of the global village the strongest political force is separatism.  Whatever else happens in the next fifty years, some righting of the communications balance, some loosening of the stranglehold of introversion, is bound to happen, and we may find, like Elijah, that the quiet voice is more audible than the earthquake and the fire.  A journal of independent opinion, a monthly, trying to live on subscriptions, not paying for contributions, seems as far out of the contemporary world as a coelacanth.  But history has an odd way of coming back to the same point.  Perhaps the obsolete creature is, just because it is that, a portent of the future; and perhaps its unquenched vitality is a sign that we may after all have a future.

For those who actually remember it, 1970 may seem a comparatively peaceful and promising time.  The counter-culture of the hippie era during which Frye wrote was at least progressive in its expectation if awkward in its execution.  That’s certainly not true of the reaction brought on by the rise of a radical brand of conservatism fully embodied by the presidency of George W. Bush, which in turn capped off a 30 year period that oversaw the flattening of middle-class wealth and an unprecedented global transfer of wealth upward to the top 1% of the population.  The poor, of course, only got poorer.  We’ve also seen the kinds of things such a misappropriation of riches buys, such as the cynically corporatist demagoguery of those Frye elsewhere calls “parasites of democracy”, well represented by (but by no means restricted to) the 24 hour cycle of lies and provocation that is Fox News.  What such a state of affairs costs us is the security of citizenship to be found in institutions like education and health care and civil discourse.  Margaret Thatcher once famously observed that “there is no such thing as society.”  After the implosion of financial markets in the fall of 2008, it is arguably much more accurate to say that there is no such thing as the self-correcting marketplace in which people like Thatcher so fervently believed, just selfish individuals who are willing to throw the world into turmoil as long as it is personally profitable for them to do so, as it has undeniably proven to be.  All in all, the intolerable level of noise has only increased since 1970, the looting and smashing have escalated, and screamed obscenities (not to mention barely coded threats) are now just a daily part of the political vocabulary of the increasingly mainstreamed far right.  Everywhere there is evidence of a human community at war with itself and its own best interests.  We see it objectively in the disdainful despoiling of the environment as though it were an inexhaustible treasure trove rather than the vulnerable companion of our shared fate.  One way or another, much of our behavior amounts to slow but sure suicide.

Frye’s tribute to the Canadian Forum begins with an acknowledgment that he won’t see the future fifty years hence, accompanied by the somewhat disconcerting suggestion that he doesn’t much care because for him “it will not exist.”  Frye does this occasionally — and does so quite emphatically in his last posthumously published work, The Double Vision.  Like a good teacher, he passes on the responsibility to his students with no desire to distract them with any obligation of personal devotion.  His modesty lies in his mortality, his legacy in his spirit, which — as Frye scholars in particular know very well — can only be freely engaged.  There’s no compulsion, no necessity; only the potential for the recognition of shared concern and common cause, despite all our worst habits of introversion.

If Frye had lived just a handful more years, he’d have seen the rise of the internet and might have appreciated that the “netroots” possibly constitute the “righting of the communication balance” that the Forum in its way and its time represented.  He says that “some loosening of the stranglehold of introversion is bound to happen.”  Is it too much to suggest the “two-way street” he envisages for enhanced social dialogue is being laid here and now in phenomena like the blogosphere, that our sense of community is being recreated by our ability to encounter one another singly at great distances or to tap into groups of any size in real time and with an intimacy never possible before now?  The Fox News demographic, meanwhile, is not just irrationally angry and willfully ignorant, it is elderly and self-centred and has no vision of the future, just an authoritarian yearning for an illusory past.  (The median age of Fox viewers is 65 and Rush Limbaugh listeners is 67.)  This is a group that is, in every sense, doomed by its hysteria and the fearfully suppressed sense of mortality that seems to lie behind it.  There’s no getting around that the generation that produced the hippie movement now constitutes most of the “dittoheads” who seem determined to repeat the hateful nonsense they recite by rote until they have no more breath to do so.  Frye’s lesson to the rest of us seems to be that as long as we live, we are not just in the present facing the past, we are also creating the future out of shared primary concerns to the fullest extent we are willing to make available for ourselves.  As Auden observes in his last poem, “Archeology”: History records the criminal in us; goodness is timeless.  And as he says in a much earlier, much more famous poem written at the outbreak of the Second World War: in the midst of deepening darkness, let those who are made of Eros and dust show an affirming flame.  Eros and dust, love and death — our mortality serving as the portal to the love that is the only thing we can be sure will survive of us in a future that for us will not exist.

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