Adrienne Clarkson: Opening Address to the Frye Festival

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Cross-posted in the journal’s Frye Festival Archive here

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson

Speech on the Occasion of the Opening of the Northrop Frye International Literary Festival

Moncton, Thursday, April 24, 2003

It’s a pleasure for me to be here tonight to inaugurate the Northrop Frye Literary Festival. As many of you know, John Ralston Saul was instrumental in encouraging the Aberdeen Cultural Centre to have this festival and it is our joy to see that it has come to fruition in such an ample and fecund state.

As Governor General of Canada, it is a privilege to honour one of our greatest thinkers, teachers and literary critics. Northrop Frye came from Moncton. He was educated in this school that has now become the Aberdeen Cultural Centre. So in my official function, I am delighted to welcome you all and to participate with you in this truly literary endeavour.

But before I was Governor General, I was a student at the University of Toronto. After graduating with my B.A. from Trinity College at the University of Toronto, I worked on my M.A. and took a course at Victoria College from none other than Northrop Frye, who had just written his seminal book, Anatomy of Criticism, about six years before. The course I took – and I notice there are several people here, including Dennis Lee, who took that course – was one which helped to shape my mind and my approach to literature.

It’s hard for us to imagine today that Northrop Frye was in the avant-garde of literary criticism, carving out a place for himself and for the way in which he looked at literature and encouraged his students to look at literature. With hindsight we can say: “Of course, we knew that’s what he was getting at all along.”

But at the time, it was not nearly so self-evident. In the academy, there was much grumbling about his approach to the word and to language and to literature. Those of us – and there were thirty of us, I think, in that graduate year – who took his course had no doubt that he was opening our minds to another way of looking at things and that he was also bringing a uniquely Canadian approach to our understanding of world literature.

So this personal knowledge of Northrop Frye as a teacher is one that I treasure deeply. And it continued for the following year, because I was appointed as a lecturer in the undergraduate English department at Victoria College while pursuing further courses towards a Ph.D. At that time, he was Principal of Victoria and took a very personal and affectionate interest in all of his staff and I think particularly in his young staff.

Periodically, as I was trailing across the front hall, he would pop out of his office, look around and beckon me to have a conversation. I always enjoyed these conversations, but I felt I had to tell him late in the year that it didn’t seem possible for me to continue with my graduate studies. I wasn’t cut out for it; I didn’t think I would really be a first-rate professor and I was going to have to move on to other things.

He sat there with a warm little smile on his face, his rimless glasses reflecting his eyes as he nodded encouragingly. He was, it seemed to me, always both encouraging and accepting – a wonderful thing in a teacher.

Even in the manner of lecturing to us, he spoke softly and directly and gave us a feeling that we were watching his mind at work. We knew already that he was an exceptional scholar and that we were lucky to be taught by him. That’s over forty years ago now, and I still think of him – as a mentor intellectually and as a guide emotionally.

He guided us into the whole reason of why we were studying literature at all. In his words: “Literature speaks the language of the imagination and the study of literature is supposed to train and improve that imagination. … We have only the choice between a badly trained imagination and a well trained one. … It’s a social and moral development too.”

I took a lot of notes from the works of Northrop Frye over the years and I constantly use them in my speeches to Canadians. It seems to me that he is quintessentially and unabashedly a representative of what Canadian thought can be – careful, incisive, aware of his surroundings. I have never come across a better description of sophistication than his. Sophistication, he said, is the ability to confront culture with the minimum amount of anxiety. The wisdom of his words, the way in which he gauged their effect, backed by an enormous, scholarly understanding of western Christian civilization and culture, was a wonder then to me as a student – and still is.

He was a great scholar; he was an acute reader. But first and foremost, he was a great teacher. As you all know, he was an ordained Minister. So perhaps this is the background against which we can see the marvellous way in which he felt he could communicate. He was never preachy – I’m not saying that – but he felt a contact and he made you feel it as well.

This he put very well in the preface to The Great Code, his extraordinary book about the importance of the Bible. There he says that the “book has grown directly out of my teaching interest rather than out of scholarly ones. But then all my books have really been teacher’s manuals, concerned more with establishing perspectives than with adding specifically to knowledge. Certainly this book shows all the tactics of teaching.”

He goes on to say: “The teacher is not someone who simply conveys information to somebody else who doesn’t know.” The teacher, according to Frye, is somebody who wants to “recreate the subject in the student’s mind,” and his strategy for doing that is first of all to get the student to recognize what he already potentially knows “… and to recognize what ‘keeps him from knowing what he knows’.”

It seems to me that this spirit of inquiry is one of the reasons why people will continue to read Northrop Frye and why Canadian scholarship owes him a great debt. He taught us a great deal about the applications of mythology; about how it was largely unconscious and how we could recognize it without understanding that we recognized it.

This kind of approach was particularly appealing, as you can imagine, to young graduate students, who had been so drilled with all manner of comparisons of literature, of the chronological developments of literature. What he did for us was to help us organize our cultural tradition, both as Canadians and as scholars on a world literary scale. There was nobody else like him doing that.

He attempted to help us have insight into not only what we thought about what we were reading, but also of what the writer thought about what he was writing. I’ve always been enormously grateful to him for that. And by coming here today to open this festival, I hope to do honour to his memory and to his legacy. He helped the students to see the activity of their imagination. And I’m sure for all of us that we have never forgotten that.

My thoughts have developed a great deal in the 40 years, since I took his Anatomy of Criticism course. But they set me on a path thinking about our country, thinking about my own approach to literature and what it can “teach” us. I believe very much in the dream and the way in which ancestors dream their progeny into being. I have said often that immigrants particularly dream their children into a new kind of life. I don’t think I would have had these thoughts, had I not worked with Northrop Frye and begun to understand what the imagination can actually do for you.

Because, as he said: “No matter how much experience we may gather in life, we can never in life get the dimension of experience that the imagination gives us. Only the arts and sciences can do that, and of these, only literature gives us the whole sweep and range of human imagination as it sees itself.”

This is the richness of the world that he helped to open for me. This is the richness that he taught me to want to share with others. This is what I want to share with all of you at the Northrop Frye Literary Festival.

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