Northrop Frye: “There are bigger fools in the world”


Frye and Helen: the expression on his face is sweetly suggestive of his impassioned letters to her during the 1930s

Today is Frye’s birthday (1912-1991) and an opportune moment to hear what Frye has to say about himself.

His intermittent diaries between 1942 and 1955 contain just two birthday entries.

From his 1942 diary:

Thirty today.  Many good resolutions, most broken already.  (CW 8, 6)

From his 1950 diary while staying at Harvard and writing his seminal “Archetypes of Literature“:

Today was my thirty-eighth birthday.  Helen & I went down to the Harvard Co-operative Store (they call & pronounce it the “Harvard Coop”) & got me a summer suit & a lot of miscellaneous things, socks & tie & so on . . . On the way back I stopped at a liquor store & asked if if there were any formalities about purchasing liquor.  He said the formality consisted only in the possession of cash…

It’s important for me to get along on a concentrated job as soon as possible, because travel, which is said to broaden the mind, only flattens mine.  The exposure of my naturally introverted mind to a whole lot of new impressions confuses me, because I’m more at home with ideas, I’m not naturally observant, and what impressions I do get are random & badly selected.  Also they’re compared with the more familiar environment back home and, as I don’t know the new environment, the comparison is all out of focus. (ibid., 406)

We get much more of this sort of autobiographical detail in his letters, written between the ages of 19 and 24, to Helen Kemp.

Postmarked 14 June 1932:

The Muse is still stubborn.  I have a good idea but no technique.  I have a conception for a really good poem, I am pretty sure, but what I put down is as flat and dry as the the Great Sahara.  I guess I’m essentially prosaic.  I can work myself up into a state of maudlin sentimentality, put down about ten lines of the most villainous doggerel imaginable, and then kick myself and tear the filthy thing up.  However, I got out the book of twentieth-century American poetry from the library and that cheered me up.  There are bigger fools in the world.  (CW 1, 19-20)

Postmarked 25 August 1932:

What I am worried about is my own personal cowardice.  I am easily disheartened by failure, badly upset by slights, retiring and sensitive — a sissy, in short.  Sissies are very harmless and usually agreeable people, but they are not leaders or fighters.  I would make a very graceful shadow boxer, but little more.  I haven’t the grit to look the Wedding Guest in the eye.  “Put on the armor of God,” said a minister unctuously to me when I told him this.  Good advice, but without wishing to seem flippant, I don’t want armour, divine or otherwise — snails and mud-turtles are encased in armour — what I want is a thick skin.  (ibid., 63)

11 October 1933:

You say I am necessary to your existence.  Does that mean:

a) That I am 135 pounds of mashed turnip; something necessary in the way of companionship — somebody to tell one’s troubles to — somebody who will pet you and spoil you and cuddle up to you when things go wrong?

b) That I am a condiment, bringing a sharp tang and new zest to existence, reminding you of the world, the flesh and the devil, and so humanizing you?

c) That I am a stimulant, helping to correlate your activities, encouraging your talents and spanking you for your weaknesses?

d) Or, that I am a narcotic, a drug, very powerful, to be taken, as you say, in small doses, temporarily relieving you, like a headache powder, from your ethereal worries by plunging you into an orgy of physical excitement which leaves you exhausted and silenced?

e) Or that I am an insufferable bore who stays too late?

f) Or a combination of the above?

You see, being a man, I’m so densely stupid.  I haven’t any sort of intuitive tact.  I am your typical male — whenever you get depressed I don’t know anything except what I personally want to do — that is, take you in my arms and strike solicitous and protective attitudes.  If there’s any crying to be done, I want it done on my shoulder.  I want to be present and look helpful whenever you are in difficulties.  (ibid., 90)

28 August 1934 (Frye in Saskatchewan on his student ministry):

Threshing season has commenced.  Got on the dirtiest shirt in West Canada, and have to preach in it tomorrow.  Wish you were here.  Tired.  Wish dogs wouldn’t bark at the moon, damn them.  Wish the moths would quit flying into the light.  Wish I knew what in hell Blake means by the Limit of Translucence.  Wish I had a decent sermon for tomorrow.  Wish I could see you.  Called on the Devers yesterday . . . Took off my shoes. Hired girl — husky German wench from near Hamburg –: “You ain’t English.”  “Why?”  “Feet don’t stink.”  I got a room with an electric light in it.  Feel sophisticated.  Dreamed about you.  Felt lonesome.  (ibid., 321)

19 October 1934 (on reading The Golden Bough for the first time):

It’s a whole new world opening out, particularly as that sort of thing is the very life-blood of art, and the historical basis of art.  My ideas are expanding and taking shape so quickly that they frighten me; I get seized with terror that somebody else will think them out before I do, or that I shan’t live long enough to complete anything.  I shan’t live very long, in any case, or course; but doesn’t matter if I make the contribution I seem destined to make.  But, having been dragged far along the straight and narrow path of intellectual development, I don’t think I’ll be thrown away just yet.

I wish to hell I wouldn’t think so much of myself.  It wastes time.  And I waste a lot of time.  (ibid., 355)

4 December 1934:

. . . I think I am going through a rather critical transitional stage, unless it is merely a prelude to decadence, which is a possibility one naturally hesitates to face.  Whenever you urge me to take care of myself, I think you have some idea, perhaps, that there must be something slightly rotten-ripe about my precocity; or, at least that whatever possibilities for development there are in me may easily destroy or stultify me through my abuse of them.  At present I am excessively morbid, give a great deal to self-loathing almost, certainly self-contempt, engaged in being utterly sick and weary of my apparently inexhaustible capacity to waste time, rush wildly down blind allies, over-exert myself, do all sorts of fool things.  I have a fearful lassitude in me, inherited by both parents (Dad’s life consists of letting things slide and Mother’s in not doing anything about it) which has been increasing every year of my college life, and is I hope gradually working itself out.  Working out by the simple process of becoming horribly bored by everything except what I ought to be doing.  But it means something very like a crisis, and I am waiting for one to pass if it is going to.  (ibid., 374-5)

16 January 1935:

Oh, darling, if I have strained and longed and suffered for you, it isn’t solely because I want our bodies to touch.  That comes up when I try to write letters; the sense of your physical absence.  But I don’t feel that you are absent, ordinarily.  What really pulls and tears at me is a compulsion to struggle to educate myself, to mature and grow serene and strong, to become too big for irritation and sulkiness, to prepare myself for a glorious and terrible life with you.  My words sound inflated, but they are inadequate and not false.  To live with another human being on equal terms must be by far the most difficult and subtle of arts, and yet the most thrilling and satisfying.  But love and friendship with you!  That delicate interplay of wills in a higher plane of existence, where they unite and don’t conflict, on the level that you set, would take a genius to sustain.  Perhaps I am a genius, in a sense, but when I think of my gawkiness and tactlessness and the mechanical barrenness of my infernally precocious brain, I shudder.  The ministry, with its requirement of almost absolute versatility at an indefinitely high pitch, compelled me and yet finally frightened my away. But you don’t frighten me: I feel taut and nervous, with shivers in my stomach, as though before a piano recital, but joyous and ecstatic none the less.  (ibid., 397)

31 March 1935:

At the present time, what with my tremendous exhilaration over having finally bitten the kernel out of Blake, with being sick at the pit of my stomach when I realize how long it is since I’ve written you, with feeling so utterly lost because I’ve just finished something big and I can’t come to you with it, I feel as though I had fallen over a precipice and hadn’t hit ground yet.  I don’t expect you to understand all this, because I don’t understand it in the least myself, and because I can work more or less normally when you’re around.  They say that women have an intuition that can dispense with rational processes: I don’t believe it, but if you’ve got such a thing for God’s sake use it.  I’m all right, of course; once I get some theology done and my exams are over with I’ll feel comparatively all right.  But your sympathy last fall wasn’t wasted, as you seemed to think; I’m not dying, but I am unhappy, and I do so want that summer with you.  I’m not doing any more Blake for the rest of of the year, so I’ll write again soon, more coherently.  God knows I make the world’s worst lover at this distance.  (ibid., 416)

Postmarked 3 May 1935:

I’ve got tremendous ideas, but they’re like the myth in a primitive religion, huge but monstrous, not consolidated, disciplined or defined.  Only Blake — I know Blake like no man has ever known him — of that I’m quite sure.  But I lack so woefully of subtlety.  I haven’t got a subtle mind — only a pounding bourgeois intellect.  I don’t insinuate myself between two factors of distinction — I push them aside: if I meet a recalcitrant fact, I knock it down; which doesn’t get rid of it, but puts it in a different position.  Consequently I’m damnably lonesome, intellectually.  I resent criticism, because I don’t know, in most cases, what the hell I mean myself, so how should anyone else pretend to do so?  Besides, in conversations I take up most of my positions through intellectual arrogance rather than reasoned conviction, and consequently won’t back out of them. . . This is one side of me — the synthetic intellectual.  I’m a critical capitalist.  The English conquered India, the largest, richest, most complicated empire in the world, with a handful of soldiers.  I can sail into Blake or Shakespeare or St. Augustine or the Christian religion or aesthetics with facts and a thesis, and I can conquer it.  I may be baffled and obstructed: I may get stuck in a Black Hole, as I have been more or less for a year now; but I emerge with my territory painted all one colour, anyhow.  But if you paint everything one colour you over-simplify.  And so I have to reckon with the other side to me, the creative artist side: at least I call it that because it sounds so swell — it really doesn’t get beyond the criticism of criticism.  And this side says: You’re not working with realities, but with phenomena: go write a novel.  A few years ago the challenge was even more uncompromisingly direct: go preach the gospel.  And it goes on and says that all this student life is frightfully artificial and deracinated, mechanical rather than organic: all professoring ends in pedantry, pedantry in social parasitism. If you’d gone into music, says the conscience, or the fiend, whichever it is, you’d be caught up in the rhythm of a genuine art: if you must work with debased coinage, words being simply tones encrusted with various kinds of patina, work with them properly.  If you were a woman with Helen’s brains, physical appearance, capacity for writing and forming a career, would you throw yourself away on your self? (no, it must be the fiend: surely even my conscience would have a better prose style).  Do you love Helen as she deserves? can you do so, you snuffing pot-bellied hay haired old friar?  And thus I stand more or less paralyzed, wanting badly to commit myself to something, communism, Catholicism, pedantry in any line, and realizing that I can’t; that the only thing I can commit myself to is my religion and my wife, one being in the clouds and the other in Europe.  So I rush around squealing like a pig in a fire, or sit around with large ideas and not doing anything about them, like a eunuch with an erection.  (ibid., 434-6)

Postmarked 28 June 1935:

Within about two years a lot of things will have clicked, and I shall be established, if nothing happens.  I know that, and yet there remains this horror of insecurity, the humiliation of feeling dependent upon other people’s good nature, the dread of what a social error, a serious illness, a change in someone else’s attitude toward me, might mean; together with the panic of what I don’t know, haven’t thought through, haven’t read, and the desperate struggle to get some sort of balance, some sort of self-possession.  If this were nothing but the self-pity incident to such a situation I might kid myself out of it: I’ve tried hard enough.  But I don’t think it is, altogether; it isn’t my concern over my own fortunes that drives me to work, but the compulsion, which I think is both internal and external, to hammer out my ideas and get them expressed.  But you need the conditions controlled for that, and I haven’t got them controlled.  So I get into some funny states of mind: states in which any simple routine act, like sending out my laundry or getting a cheque cashed, takes on a huge significance; all my energy absorbed in finally doings what all my inertia rebels against because it’s an irrelevant act, unconnected to my work.  States in which the doing of some supremely silly or disgusting action at the wrong time suggests itself until I have to yell out to put it out of my mind.  And so on.  Silly enough, but that’s the way I acted a good deal of last term, and it felt as though it were definitely headed for breakdown. . .

A sensitive, intelligent person in love today is a kind of pioneer.  The Greeks started the antithesis between cultured, intellectual love and emotional physical love by making the first homosexual and the second heterosexual — or at least the Christian Church completed the antithesis.  I think we might resolve that antithesis today, but with economic conditions as primitive and barbaric as they are, it would only work in isolated cases, of which you and I, thank God, are one.  A lot of people, including yourself, squawk and squirm and giggle occasionally when talked to like this — but, while I may sound silly in my manner of expression, or pompous or what not — I know all the automatic reactions — to be educated intellectually is so easy, and to be educated emotionally so difficult — I despise a Philistine so much in the arts, that I can’t be satisfied to be one in love. (ibid., 459-60)

Postmarked 24 July 1935

When you come back [from England], dear, I don’t think you’ll find the sulky and irascible small boy you left with a lump in his throat in Montreal.  I’ve put in a lot of time meeting older people and teaching younger ones, so I’m less precocious and more complete a personality.  However, that remains to be seen.  You know the famous story of the species of South American flying condor, which became extinct through its habit of flying in spirals till it vanished up its own rectum.  Well, that is the inevitable penalty of subjectivity, and I think I’ve realized it.  (ibid., 480)

Postmarked 9 October 1936

Why do I protest so much?  Partly because I am a little nervous at seeing you holding my happiness in your volatile and temperamental little hands.  Partly because I am one of those people who have to give some form of expression to their feeling or burst.  And of course I may be simply dramatizing myself, overwhelming you with flatulent words and egotistic emotions over a comparatively simple matter.  That is your own opinion — at least it has been your opinion — so I have gone into it more carefully and from more points of view than you ever did.  And what emerged was: it is quite true that I sound like an intolerable prig and am making an abject fool of myself continually.  And I don’t care; and I shall never care.  I don’t mind if you laugh at me and say to yourself; “That’s Norrie hypnotizing himself again.”  Because a love which is dignified can never be more than liking or respect: love itself is ridiculous and grotesque, like the sex act itself.  I could hardly be a lover without being a clown first.  That is because I am blissfully and completely in love with a very real woman.  Why do the say “head over heels in love” if they don’t mean that a lover will do absurd things, like writing absurd letter to bore his sweetheart with?  (CW 2, 592)

Finally, here’s Frye at the other end of his life in the late notebooks, completing what would turn out to be his final works and occasionally looking back over his life and career.

The “Frye myth”:

The first question any audience would ask is, “How do we tell the difference [between “genuine & phony mythology”]”?  And I don’t know.  As long as truth is linked to correspondence, all myth, including “gospel truth,” will lie.  I’ve caught myself lying to sustain the Frye myth — nothing serious except perhaps to my own moral fibre, but I have.  And I’m damned if I see any methodological difference from what the Gospel does.  (CW 5, 66)

His life as purgatorial:

My whole conscious life has been purgatorial, a constant circling around the same thing, like a vine going up an elm.  I note that I’m repeating even things from earlier pages of this notebook.  And “purgatorial” is only a vague hope: maybe I’m not really going up to a final apocalyptic vision but just going in circles, like a senile old man who thinks the two-hundredth repetition of the same old story is new.  Perhaps the end is the choking up of the host.  Well, when it’s vertigo to look down and despair to look up, one can only keep going.  But there again I’m assuming an up and down, and assuming I’m going somewhere.  Actually I keep revolving around the same place until I’ve brought off a verbal formulation I like.

I’m trying to distinguish a millennial vision, which is social & geared to the future (this is what humanity would do if it really tried) from an apocalyptic one, the individual confronted with the present reality he has only to step into.  The social vision is approximate freedom, & ends in releasing the individual.  The individual who is released, however (a) has to go back out to society like a Bodhisattva (b) face his own future of death.  (CW 5, 89)

His twilight years:

I’m 75 years old, and my wife is dead.  There are a lot of what look like winding-up symbols — the Italian conference, the G.G. [Governor-General’s] medal, the Oxford degree, the San Francisco meeting — but I know they’re not connected to other symbols or processes.  I have what seems like one more major book in me, which I might conceivably finish before too long — perhaps by the time I reach the age at which Helen died.  I don’t feel suicidal: I just have no more resistance to death, though of course I still have the normal anxieties about it.  (CW 5, 197)

Not a dualist:

I’ve been called a (Platonic) dualist, but I’m not one, and neither was Plato.  There is only one form of dualism, the Cartesian cloven fiction of subject & object, a formidable barrier to thought because our language is Cartesian.  But it isn’t dualism to say that an embryo and a baby live in different environmental worlds, nor to say that before life and after death are also different worlds.  I said that, dammit.  (CW 5, 177)

The chattering in his mind:

I know from experience, and I’ve read the statement often enough, that if one could turn off the incessant chatter in one’s psyche one would be well on the way to freedom.  In all my life I’ve never known an instant of real silence.  That, of course, is because I’ve never gone through the years of discipline and practice in meditation.  To come to it cold (as I’ve said in another notebook) would be like rolling back the waves of the Red Sea and walking across the bottom.

And yet I wonder if there isn’t a contrast between chatter and inner dialogue, and that the latter is important to preserve.  Chatter is (a) mechanical, triggered by the associative mechanisms that psychology has studied from Hartley to Pavlov.  And (b) it’s partly repressed, conforming to censorship but full of disguised malice and resentment.  The psyche is a Tower of Babel, a structure of pride and dictatorship with a “babble” of voices inside, all intelligible to each other.  Perhaps the ideal is a Quaker meeting, silent until the Spirit speaks from somewhere.  (CW 5, 200)

His illnesses:

Dante and the monstrous moral perversions the priestcraft of his day compelled him to accept.  Hell is human life as “mere nature,” as Blake says: purgatory is the effort of the spirit to emerge from this.  I have now a skin cancer and a hiatus hernia, besides other ailments — very petty compared to what other people have.  If I say “thank God,” it’s only because that seems ordinary politeness; my thanks are really for the gift of life and consciousness, and I’m not fool enough to think my ailments are punishments or trials or that the fact that they’re relatively minor has anything to do with my virtues or merits.  Diseases are the revenge of nature for getting born: a lifetime of the nervous irritability of my lifestyle was bound to produce these particular diseases.  If I recover, my spirit is throwing them off in an effort to continue life on this plane; the narrative level anyway, would have had to die again.  So would all of those healed of palsy and the like in the Gospels.  All healing is casting out the devils of nature.  And the psyche we acquire from nature.  (CW 5, 253-4)

As a a great 20th century reader:

Note to cheer myself up with: I’m not a great 17th c. poet like Milton, or a great 18th-19th c. visionary like Blake, but I am a great 20th c. reader, and this is the age of the reader.  (CW 5, 203)

Why do I set up such a deafening chatter of inner talk in my mind?  Probably for the same reason that villagers gossip and urban people intrigue: to keep myself reassured about the reality of the ordinary world.  If I’d shut up and listen I might be able to hear other things.  It corresponds to the senses’ filtering out and giving us the reality we can take.  My whole life is words: nothing is of value in life except finding verbal formulations that make sense.  Yet the great secret kept in reserve is something you can’t reach until you shut up.  That’s what Zen has to communicate.  And how does it communicate?  By flooding the world with books about silence.  Words are to us what water is to fish: dwelling house of being, says Heidegger.  Yuh.  The real temple is the tent.  (CW 5, 267)

Writes the “world’s profoundest poem”:

I am about to write the world’s profoundest poem, with apologies to William James, the only one who has touched my level of genius:

Hogamus, higamus,

God is polygynous.

Higamus, hogamus,

Christ was androgynous.

As a public figure:

Then again, there’s the dialectic of self and persona.  I don’t ordinarily think much of myself as a public figure, but when I see myself on television and realize what other people see, which is no more what I feel myself to be than a cigar-store Indian, I realize the kind of contrast involved in my own separation of the Jesus within each potential resurrection and the Jesus of the gospels.  (CW 6, 457)

On negative criticism:

Regarding things like silly reviews of me: what is important about free speech in a democracy is not only that everyone has a right to express an opinion, however ill considered, but that fools should have full liberty to speak so that they can be recognized as fools.  (CW 5, 410)

I have naturally found Sparshott’s violent critique of The Great Code very disheartening reading, and have wondered ever since if I should simply abandon the idea of a second volume as something that perhaps always was a mirage.  But that would be weak.  The cliche about such things is not to take it personally, but it depends on what one has to take.  The remark about an old man’s book, where the word “senile” is being suppressed with so much difficulty, remind me of how little time I have to accomplish anything at all now, and surely one hardly need such reminders.  The main line of what he says is already in my own introduction, of course, as Peter Richardson, who liked the book quite as little, remarked.  One reason for writing the book I did that isn’t in the introduction is that the legend of the book was becoming intolerable: publishing The Great Code might disappoint people who were looking for something definitive, but that was better than being crippled for life in the way that Woodhouse was.  (CW 6, 556-7)

As a preacher:

In the summer of 1951, in Seattle, I had an illumination about the passing of the oracular into the witty: a few years later, on St. Clair Ave., I had another about the passing of poetry into prose.  They were essentially the same illumination, perhaps the movement from the esoteric to kerygma.  Any biography, including Ayre’s, would say that I dropped preaching for the academic life: that’s the opposite of what my spiritual biography would say, that I fled into academia for refuge and have ever since tried to peek out into the congregation and make a preacher of myself.  (CW 6, 621)

As a mystic:

I’ve been called a mystic as well as a myth critic, because some people think that’s an even more contemptuous term.  If myth is really mythos, story or plot, then mysticism is being initiated into the mysteries.  The mysteries were historically rebirth experiences, and as such they belong to what Jesus tells Nicodemus is central to spiritual life [John 3:3-8].  The connection with shutting the eyes and above all the yacking mouth (turn off the fucking chatter) takes one from the world of convention and tradition that’s always sure it’s going somewhere into the inner world of before life and after death and thrownness and vision in between.  Jesus entered synagogues, even preached in them, but he also talked of going into a closet and shutting the door [Matthew 6:6].  This is the world of the individual experience that isn’t just subjective and egocentric.  It’s also the nothing-world out of which nothingness grows into creation.  (CW 6, 642)

A note on revision to Words with Power:

Int. [Introduction]. I have not tried to set up a system into which things must fit: I am proceeding on the assumption that meaning is derived from context, and that every work of literature has an external as well as an internal context.  The new critics and the like have done their best, or worst, with the internal context; I’m looking for another dimension of meaning.  (CW 6, 664)

Response to a radio program about him:

A recent radio program on me had that Marxist goof from Linacre College [Terry Eagleton] reciting his speech about my lack of historical sense.  By “history” he meant of course the old Marxist “historical process” that betrayed millions of people who tried to believe in it.  I have different, and better, historical categories.  It’s natural that Marxism should find a rest home in the humanities now that it’s on the skids everywhere else.  (CW 6, 698)

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