Monthly Archives: June 2010

“It was a dark and stormy night. . .”


This year’s winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Prize is Molly Ringle for this cubic zirconia of a gem:

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil.

Northrop Frye School, Cont’d


On the importance of children’s literature and early education Frye had this to say in 1980 when he gave the Leland B. Jacobs lecture (entitled ‘Criticism as Education’) at the School of Library Service, Columbia University:

In a book published over twenty years ago, I wrote that literature is not a coherent subject at all unless its elementary principles could be explained to any intelligent nineteen-year-old. Since then, Buckminster Fuller has remarked that unless a first principle can be grasped by a six-year-old, it is not really a first principle, and perhaps his statement is more nearly right than mine. My estimate of the age at which a person can grasp the elementary principles of literature has been steadily going down over the last twenty years. So I am genuinely honored to be able to pay tribute to an educator who has always insisted on the central importance of childrens’ literature.

Glenna Sloan’s The Child as Critic is a wonderful expansion of this idea.

So it’s appropriate, for this and other reasons, that Frye’s name be given to the new K to 8 school in Moncton.

Voting Starts Tomorrow!



Just a reminder that the Frye Festival needs your help to win $25,000 to create a bronze life-sized sculpture of Northrop Frye sitting on a park bench reading a book outside the Moncton Public Library. As part of a national competition presented by Pepsi Canada, the Festival has submitted a proposal to win the funds to create an enduring reminder of our community’s most famous son.

Vote to Refresh Moncton! Beginning on Thursday, July 1st and running until Tuesday, August 31, 2010, everyone is invited to visit the website daily and vote for “Feed your imagination” in the Arts and Culture section. The winner will be chosen exclusively on the number of votes it receives, so vote daily and get your friends and family to do the same!

Quote of the Day: Frye on Police and Society


Riot police confront demonstrators in Toronto over the weekend

Frye in his May 30th, 1969 Convocation Address at York University during a period of general campus unrest:

“In the past week I have seen, and heard about, the most incredible acts of police brutality and stupidity against the students.  And yet even this is not one society repressing another, but a single society that cannot escape from its own bungling.  Whatever we most condemn in our society is stll a part of ourselves, and we cannot disclaim responsibility for it.”  (CW 7, 393)

NY and LA Times and “Torture”


Some Harvard students have produced a comprehensive study to show that, pre-9/11,  the New York and the Los Angeles Times and other high-circulation dailies unequivocally referred to waterboarding as torture.  Once the story of the Bush administration waterboarding detainees broke in 2004, however, not so much:

Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding. From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27).

By contrast, from 2002‐2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.

In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.

Frye cites Orwell on the social degradation of language in “The Primary Necessities of Existence”:

Then there are various epidemics sweeping over society which use unintelligibility as a weapon to preserve the present power structure.  By making things as unintelligible as possible, to as many people as possible, you can hold the present power structure together.  Understanding and articulateness lead to its destruction.  This is the kind of thing George Orwell was talking about, not just in 1984, but in all his work on language.  The kernel of everything reactionary and tyrannical in society is the impoverishment of the means of verbal communication.  The vast majority of things that we hear today are prejudices and cliches, simply verbal formulas that have no thought behind them but are put up as a pretence of thinking.  It is not until we realize these things conceal meaning, rather than reveal it, that we can begin to develop our own powers of articulateness. (CW 12, 747)

Another Eyewitness Account


The Black Bloc on their unimpeded rampage through the financial district.  Where are the police?

Paul Manly, a B.C. film maker and community organizer, describes at the CBC’s Your Voice website his experience of watching the police bully, harass, and needlessly detain people over the course of a week, culminating with his detailed account of following the Black Bloc vandals on their 24 block, 90 minute spree of destruction while the police held back.  Here is how he concludes:

For a week I watched the police search, push, provoke and arrest people, the majority of whom only wanted to express their opposition to what they view as a corrupt and illegitimate organization.

How is it possible, with a $1-billion security budget and a 20,000 strong security force, that 75 to 100 Black Bloc anarchists can rampage 24 blocks through the city for 90 minutes without being stopped? What is going on here? Are the police completely incompetent or were the so called ‘Black Bloc’ led or infiltrated by police provocateurs or government agents?  Why were police cars abandoned on the street when they could have been moved? Was there a covert operation in play to help justify a massive security bill when it has been made clear by CSIS that there were no credible terrorist threats to the summit? If the Black Bloc were the only credible threat, why were they allowed to run amok?

While this may sound conspiratorial it is not without precedent. In 2007, I videotaped three police officers with masks and rocks in hand attack their own riot squad in Montebello, Que. The video shows one masked officer hit a member of the riot squad in the face-mask and bang his rock into a shield, a clear incitement of violence and a provocation against the riot squad. These masked thugs (as Stephen Harper likes to refer to them) were unmasked and exposed and after four days Quebec provincial police had to admit they were indeed police officers “performing their duty.”

Was Toronto a larger replay of Montebello? Only a full inquiry with unimpeded access to information regarding police tactics will reveal the truth.

Saving the Centre for Comparative Literature


As many readers of this blog know, Northrop Frye was the founder of the Centre for Comparative Literature.  The Centre recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary, and today, a year later, we are mourning its demise.  The University of Toronto has in effect decided that the Centre for Comparative Literature will be closed and the graduate program in Comparative Literature will be suspended, effective the end of the upcoming academic year.  All students in the program will be permitted to finish their Comparative Literature degrees, but this will also mark the end of the road for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto.

I provide here a paragraph from the “recommendation” (well, it is less a recommendation, it seems, and more an order) from the University of Toronto:

The Strategic Planning Committee (SPC) has recommended that the Departments of East Asian Studies, Germanic Languages & Literatures, Italian Studies, Slavic Languages and Literatures and Spanish & Portuguese be incorporated into a proposed School of Languages and Literatures, a new unit designed to strengthen the profile of teaching and research in languages in the Faculty.  The SPC has also recommended that the Centre for Comparative Literature be transferred to the proposed School and be redefined as a Collaborative Program. The School will have a single Director and centralized administrative services; individual language groups will retain responsibility for their undergraduate and graduate programs. The specific structure and operating principles of the School will be determined through a process of consultation with academic administrators, faculty members, and other stakeholders in the relevant units.  The Dean will appoint an Advisory Committee to complete this process by December 2010.

All of our current faculty will be “returned” to their home departments despite the fact that the kind of teaching they do in Comparative Literature may very well not mesh with their home departments.  For instance, I think here of Eva-Lynn Jagoe, about whom I blogged earlier this year, who will be returned to Spanish and Portuguese, and then, of course, to the School of Languages and Literatures.

We are all shocked by this “recommendation,” and students and faculty have responded with the creation of two Facebook Groups where information is being posted about the situation as it develops.  The links for the groups are here:

Save Comp Lit at U of T:

Students  Against the School of Languages and Literatures at U of T:

It is a sad day when we witness the demise of Frye’s Centre for Comparative Literature, and yet we see the inspiring success of the Northrop Frye Festival in bringing Frye to the forefront and reminding Canadians (and the world) of just how influential and important Frye was as a public intellectual, writer, and teacher.

“A Dangerous Experiment”


From today’s New York Times:

The world’s rich countries are now conducting a dangerous experiment. They are repeating an economic policy out of the 1930s — starting to cut spending and raise taxes before a recovery is assured — and hoping today’s situation is different enough to assure a different outcome.

In effect, policy makers are betting that the private sector can make up for the withdrawal of stimulus over the next couple of years. If they’re right, they will have made a head start on closing their enormous budget deficits. If they’re wrong, they may set off a vicious new cycle, in which public spending cuts weaken the world economy and beget new private spending cuts.

Remember, according to Stephen Harper, it’s a “Canadian-led plan.”

Frye in Our Colleges and Universities Today (2010)



The critical canon, like the literary one, naturally changes over time.  The anthology of criticism I used as a student in the 1960s––The Great Critics, ed. Smith and Parks (3rd ed., 1951)––included a number of critics very seldom read nowadays (e.g., Henry Timrod).  The first edition of this anthology (1932) included Marco Girolamo Vida; the second edition (1939), Antonia Sebastian Minturno.  The fact that critics come and go is a commonplace observation.  Henry Hazlitt’s The Anatomy of Criticism, widely read in the 1930s, has more or less disappeared.  Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism has had a much better fate, but the question is frequently raised about Frye’s status today.  Has he, like Henry Timrod, disappeared into the dustbin of history?  “Who now reads Frye?” asks Terry Eagleton, rhetorically.

In an entry in this blog some time back (26 September 2009) Jonathan Allan reported on the contempt for Frye he heard at a Canadian Studies Conference.  Allan, however, goes on to surmise that “Frye, in most instances, is now covered in survey courses of literary theory.”  I suspect this is the case, though descriptions of such courses are often so brief and lacking in specificity that without a syllabus at hand it is impossible to know what’s on the reading list.  Still, there are indications that Frye is still being read.  His Fearful Symmetry was among the most frequently borrowed books from the English Faculty Library at Oxford during the Trinity Term 2009 and the Hilary Term 2010, and if we survey what is available on the web, we discover that Frye has not at all disappeared from college and university course descriptions and syllabi.  The list that follows records the results of such a survey.  My guess is that it represents only a fraction of those courses in which Frye is required or recommended reading or is otherwise the focus of an entire course or of a course unit.  (I quit searching after I had recorded 400 entries.)  There are doubtless a number of course in twentieth‑century literary criticism, Shakespeare, Blake, Canadian literature, and other subjects where Frye is read, but, again, this information is not always available in the catalogue course descriptions that are available on the web.

The list represents courses offered during the past ten or so years.  (A few entries are for high school courses and M.A. exam reading lists).  In most instances the entries provide the course title, name of the instructor, the year offered, and a brief account of the “Frye content.”  The list is extraordinarily fluid: instructors come and go, courses and added and dropped, catalogue listing changes from one year to the next, and web sites go dead, and URLs are broken.  Still, the list reminds us of the widespread attention Frye continued to receive during the past decade, and so it serves as an answer, at least in part, to Eagleton’s rhetorical question, “Who now reads Frye?”

Bloggers are invited to send me additions to the list (

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Special Relativity


PBS documentary on Einstein

On this date in 1905 Albert Einstein published “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” laying out his special theory of relativity.

Frye on Einstein in a 1981 interview with Acta Victoriana:

Interviewer: In 1938 Einstein said that “Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.”  Did Einstein’s recognition of the fictional, or, if you like, mythical status of physical concepts open up a new common ground between the activity of the scientist and the activity of the poet?

Frye: Oh, I think so, yes, and I think Einstein knew that.  He was really saying that science is mental fiction just as the arts are and that the question of what is really there underneath the construct we put on it is only a kind of working consensus.  If a painter looks at railway tracks stretching out to the horizon he will see them meeting at the horizon.  But, as Margaret Avison says, “a train doesn’t run pigeon-toed.”  You would get on the train if you knew that was really true; so that what is really there is a matter of working consensus.  Similarly, you can prove mathematically the atomic construction of protons and neutrons and electrons inside an object like this desk, but as a matter of ordinary social working consensus you keep on bumping into it. . .

Interviewer: In the Anatomy of Criticism you suggest that “criticism” must be understood as an organized body of knowledge about art in the same way that “physics” is understood as an organized body of knowledge about nature.  If this understanding of criticism is generally accepted in the intellectual community, will humanists and scientists find themselves in a more fruitful dialogue?

Frye: Yes, I think they would.  With the big revolution in physics that began with Einstein and Planck, you have the principle established that it’s no longer sufficient to work in a world where the scientist is the subject and the world that he’s watching is the object, because the scientist is an object too; the act of observation alters what you are observing.  That of course does bring the arts and sciences close together in a common meeting ground.  The social sciences, which are very largely twentieth-century in origin, are entirely founded on the need to observe the observer.  I think of criticism as ultimately a form of social science.  Of course, that cuts across a lot of conditioned reflexes, and I first said that in the days when my humanist colleagues thought that what characterized the social scientist was that he wrote very badly.  Well, an awful lot of literary critics write very badly too, so that’s not a very safe dividing point.  I think that criticism can never be a science in the physical scientist’s orbit, that is, it can never be quantified experimentally and lead to prediction.  It’s something else; it’s more like a kind of cultural anthropology or certain forms of psychology.  (“Scientist and Artist,” CW 24, 531-2)

Frye interviewed by Loretta Innocenti in 1987:

A work of literature is the focus of a community.  Different people will read it differently, agree and disagree about it, and eventually some kind of consensus emerges.  This consensus is the objective residue, what remains after the subjectivity of individual approaches becomes increasingly dated.  Much the same thing happens in the sciences — for example, Einstein made invaluable contributions to the contemporary picture of the physical world although he never really accepted the quantum randomness of that picture. (“Frye, Literary Critic,” CW 24, 827)

Frye interviewed by Harry Rasky in 1988:

Rasky: Is there any easy way of defining God?

Frye: You can’t define him at all.  It’s not a definable word.

Rasky: I remember asking Chagall that question and he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, even Einstein couldn’t define that.”

Frye: Einstein wouldn’t try.  (The Great Teacher, CW 24, 869)

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