Daily Archives: July 15, 2010

Centre for Comparative Literature Update


Events seem to be moving quickly at this point, and we’ll keep you apprised as best we can.  Here, therefore, are the posts that have gone up so far on this issue:

Jonathan Allen discusses the proposal when it first became public two weeks ago here.

Globe & Mail story here.

Bob Denham’s letter to U of T President Naylor here.

Jonathan Allen describes the unique work the Centre does and provides futher links in support of it here.

Natalie Pendergast discusses the closure of the centre in the context of Canada’s wider “cultural famine” here.

Alvin Lee’s letter to the editor of the Globe & Mail here.

Michael Dolzani’s letter to President Naylor here.

Frye Sculpture: Vote Early, Vote Often!


Just a reminder, folks, to vote daily for the Frye sculpture proposal here: http://www.refresheverything.ca/fryefestival

A reminder also that, as Dawn Arnold pointed out yesterday, YOU MUST BE SIGNED IN FIRST IN ORDER TO HAVE YOUR VOTE REGISTER.  The site as it’s designed might fool you.  You can hit the vote button before signing in, but that is not actually a vote, it is just a cue to sign in.  So once you have signed in, hit the vote button a second time.  You’ll know you’ve successfully entered your vote because the vote button will then disappear till the next day, at which point you can vote again.

Remember also that Dawn and her colleagues at the Frye Festival are setting up a “voting team” for those who, because they’re at the cottage for a month or vacationing away, may not have access to the internet and therefore cannot vote.  If you would like to have the voting team vote on your behalf, you can contact Dawn at dawn@frye.ca

Finally, some tangible proof that your votes count.  Over the last 24 hours the Frye proposal has moved from 6th to 4th place.  That matters, because only the first and second place finishers will receive the $25,000 prize.  We’re moving tantalizing close to being one of those top two contenders.

Centre for Comparative Literature: Letter to President Naylor


Here is my letter to University of Toronto president Naylor regarding the Centre for Comparative Literature

Dear President Naylor,

I write this on the 98th birthday of Canada’s most famous literary scholar, Northrop Frye.  It turns out, unfortunately, not to be a very happy birthday.  I have just learned, with considerable shock, of the plan to abolish the Centre for Comparative Literature, founded by Frye back in 1969.  I am writing, as an alumnus of the University of Toronto, as Frye’s former research assistant, and as one of the editors of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye project published by the University of Toronto Press, to ask the University to reconsider its decision.

I will always be grateful to the University for taking a chance in 1978 and admitting a student from an unknown small college in Ohio.  Although my experience in English was completely positive, I was sometimes told by other graduate students that Comparative Literature was where the really exciting stuff was going on.  From everything that I have read, that Centre is as vigorous and important now as it was then, yet that has not been a factor in the decision. Yes, it is good that people are not going to lose their jobs, but there will be another kind of loss, for the kind of scholarship enabled by Comparative Literature will become impossible.

To non-academics, “comparative literature” may seem just one more arcane, narrow specialization.  If people do not even know what comparative literature is, it is understandable if they are not motivated to fund it.  Comp Lit is a centrifugal approach to literary studies that reverses the centripetal approach of a traditional English department.  What I mean is that, if you have a degree in English, your program restricts you to the literature of one language, and usually one country and historical period.  When you go on the job market, you peddle yourself as, say, “eighteenth-century British.”  The centripetal approach originated in the nineteenth century and remains valid; my own degree is in English.  However, it is next to impossible within such a framework to study English centrifugally, in terms of its connections with other languages, literatures, and cultures.  Yet those connections are crucial on three levels, linguistic, literary, and social.  As Frye pointed out in an address to the Canadian Comparative Literature Association in 1974, “In English literature, the major influences have been Latin, French, and Italian:  the influence of Old English on later developments has been minimal, as has that of medieval English apart from Chaucer.  The most familiar schemata of English poetry, rhyme and meter, were taken over from French.  And underlying a great deal of its fiction is a solid basis of popular literature, in folktale and ballad, which has travelled around the world without regard to linguistic barriers.”  To this we may add that when literary theory came of age in the second half of the twentieth century, there was great difficulty accommodating it in traditional English departments, because theory by definition asks general rather than specialized questions.  Frye’s own wide-ranging work was an influential example here.  In a world that is becoming more and more interconnected, and more and more obsessed by its own interconnectedness, it seems incomprehensible that the University would seek to abolish a discipline that studies exactly those connections.

I know that there are financial considerations involved.  Fifty-five million dollars is from one point of view a lot of money.  From another point of view, it is the bonuses of perhaps six CEOs.  The question is what our values are.  The University’s financial crisis has been largely created from outside itself.  We owe the global financial meltdown to people who did not study the humanities, and who consequently made foolish and destructive decisions out of blindness.  No, the study of literature does not necessarily lead to wisdom and sensitivity—but it is one of the few things that can enlarge our being if we are open to it.  That was Frye’s faith.  I truly hope the University may reverse its decision and find other ways to close the budget gap.


Michael Dolzani

Professor of English

Chair, English Department, Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio

Alvin Lee: Letter to the Globe & Mail


Here is my letter to the editor yesterday regarding the Centre for Comparative Literature

Dear Editor,

I have not seen the Gertler report with its recommendation to close the Centre for Comparative Literature at the U of T and to fold it (what would be left of it) into a School that would also include the five departments of Italian, German, East Asian Studies, Slavic languages and Spanish and Portuguese. As a university scholar/teacher and a university administrator, I saw firsthand what precedes and follows such decisions.

Because each individual language and literature department is a linguistic minority in an English-language university, its very existence depends on unusual professional commitment and hard work. It also depends on its ability to convince budget officers that when you fold the cultural milieu of a language and literature department into a broader English-speaking mix, you destroy the identity of the original, and much of its reason for being. The professors no longer use the identifying language in most of their daily work, the staff have to function mainly in English, and the language context in which students are meant to become proficient ceases to exist.

The paramount strength of the graduate programs in the Centre for Comparative Literature has been its ability to attract, for work at an advanced level, able students from around the world who have had deep exposure while undergraduates to more than one language and literature in at least two of the kind of department that would disappear into the proposed new School. There is a close symbiotic relation between the U of T Centre and the separate language and literature departments at the U of T and the other universities from which the students come. As the Northrop Frye Professor of Literary Theory in the Centre in 1991-2, I saw this fact in every class discussion: the accuracy and incisiveness of what a young scholar says about a literary text is convincing only when the text is being read in its original language. It is an important part of Frye’s legacy that he knew this and that he championed the need for just the kind of intellectual and imaginative work that the U of T Centre has been doing for 41 years.


Alvin A. Lee

Professor of English Emeritus and President Emeritus, McMaster University

General Editor, The Collected Works of Northrop Frye, 30 vols (University of Toronto Press)

Natalie Pendergast: Canada’s Cultural Famine


Bryan Lee O’Malley‘s cover for Shojo Beat

Is it any coincidence that the terms “starving artist” and “poor student” have become stereotypes in this country?  As one of the latter I can tell you that although these terms may stick around for a long time, what they refer to—their “signified”–certainly will not. No, I’m afraid that if one continues to get poorer and poorer, hungrier and hungrier, he/she will eventually waste away. If left to starve, if left homeless for long enough, the artist and the student will die.

Right now, this type of negligence is occurring at the University of Toronto. The Centre for Comparative Literature is in a battle for its life. By extension, this battle is only one example of the perpetual struggle for artists and humanities scholars who promote and study culture in Canada. We are in the midst of a bona fide arts and culture famine.

Margaret Atwood, in an article published in the Globe and Mail, on Wed., Sept. 24th, 2008 and updated on Tues. Mar. 31, 2009, wrote the following:

[Prime Minister Stephen Harper] told us that some group called “ordinary people” didn’t care about something called “the arts.” His idea of “the arts” is a bunch of rich people gathering at galas whining about their grants. Well, I can count the number of moderately rich writers who live in Canada on the fingers of one hand: I’m one of them, and I’m no Warren Buffett. I don’t whine about my grants because I don’t get any grants. I whine about other grants – grants for young people, that may help them to turn into me, and thus pay to the federal and provincial governments the kinds of taxes I pay, and cover off the salaries of such as Mr. Harper. In fact, less than 10 per cent of writers actually make a living by their writing, however modest that living may be. They have other jobs. But people write, and want to write, and pack into creative writing classes, because they love this activity – not because they think they’ll be millionaires.” She prefaced these concerns by citing that the Conference Board estimates Canada’s cultural sector to have generated $46 billion, or 3.8 % of Canada’s GDP in 2007. She threw in another quote from the Canada Council that the sector consists of 600,000 jobs, which is the same as agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining oil and gas and utilities combined.

Her frustration is directed toward the lack of funding given to Canadian artists, but there is another—perhaps more painful—reality that lends to the anxious tone of her words: the lack of support and appreciation from Stephen Harper. It seems that “ordinary people” have trouble seeing the value in arts and culture, and this simple point is at the very core of the current Canadian divide between humanities scholars, writers, researchers, teachers, students, enthusiasts, and others. What will it take to prove that arts and culture are important?

In light of the recent World Cup Football Championship, I find myself wondering why it is that sports like soccer and hockey seem to have such a huge cultural following. When Canada won the Winter Olympics hockey final, I knew everything about that game,even though I am not a hockey fan. I could not avoid it—it filled up every space of my life: the people in the streets prevented me from going home, every channel on TV was broadcasting highlights, the neighbours’ celebratory cheers were ringing in my ears. The difference is that, when it comes to hockey, we Canadians feel a personal attachment. We “own” it.

By contrast, the arts are less a part of our culture as Canadians, and more a cultish obscurity. When, for example, I discovered that the Scott Pilgrim manga artist, Torontonian Bryan Lee O’Malley was coming to The Beguiling comic book store this summer, I nearly screamed with excitement. And what is more astounding, the famous artist/author, whose manga series is now being adapted into a major motion picture starring Canadian Michael Cera, is charging nothing for his book release party that includes a concert with four bands. In Toronto, I am sure that most people could not recognize the name Bryan Lee O’Malley despite his fame in the comic reading (under)-world and even in the entire high school and university student world!

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Jacques Derrida


An interview with Derrida on love and being. (This video cannot be embedded; click on the image, and then hit the YouTube link that appears.)

Today is Derrida‘s birthday (1930 – 2004).  Here is a selection of Frye’s references to Derrida in various interviews.  (Imre Salusinszky’s interview with Derrida in Criticism in Society here.)

In a 1979 interview, “The Critical Path”:

Herman-Sekulic: What, in your opinion, are the major trends in the theory of literature today?  In what direction is literary criticism heading now?

Frye: I think that the word “direction” is over-optimistic.  I think there is a good deal of mining and blowing up being done, and that after the dust settles the context of a foundation may become visible.  I think Lacan’s conception of the subconscious as linguistically structured is worth following up; so is Derrida’s conception of metaphysical presence; and there are many things that interest me in the work of the new Marxist critics who have got away from the old notion that ideology is something that only non-Marxists have.  But I am not capable of making a unifying theory out of this mess, and I doubt if anyone else is either. (CW 24, 481)

In a 1985 interview, “Criticism in Society”:

Salusinszky: If Bloom has, to some extent, challenged the Christian direction of English literary studies, it is Derrida who has challenged the persistent Platonism that one can also see running through English literary studies.  Criticism has always tended to think of any great literary work as possessing unity, with some sort of closure, and as being, in some sense seminal.  Now Derrida seems to have opened up a whole range of new possibilities, where instead of closure and insemination he has his concepts of dissemination, of trace, of displacement.  Derrida, however, is a philosopher, and I wonder if you regard his present influence as merely one of those enclosure movements which you describe in the Anatomy, as coming from outside and wanting to take it over.

Frye: It certainly seems to be the way his influence has operated, yes, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair to Derrida that it has operated that way.  I think he’s genuinely interested in opening up, as you’ve just said, new possibilities in criticism.  The thing is that I don’t see why the sense of an ending and the sense of wholeness and unity, and the kinds of things he’s talking about, should be mutually exclusive.  I don’t see why you have to have an either / or situation.  It’s like those optical puzzles you look at, which change their relationship when you’re looking at them.  (CW 24, 756-7)

In a 1986 interview, “On the Media”:

Interviewer: What about McLuhan’s distinction between the visual and aural societies?

Frye: It’s very difficult to avoid metaphors.  If, for example, you’re reading something, you frequently use metaphors of the ear.  And that’s what critics like Jacques Derrida are attacking: the convention that somebody is speaking, But, still, when you’re following a narrative, you are in a sense listening.  And then at the end you get a sort of Gestalt: you “see” what it means.  When somebody tells a joke, he leads in by saying, “Have you heard this one?” and then, if he’s lucky, by the end you see what he means.  But these are just metaphors.  The hearing is something associated with sequence and time; the seeing is something associated with the simultaneous and the spatial.  (CW 24, 768)

In a 1987 interview, “Frye, Literary Critic”:

Innocenti: Some new trends in criticism, such as deconstruction, deny that we can reach the meaning of a literary work or even that there is a meaning.  All efforts to interpret are ways to proliferate structures and senses in an infinite chain of nuances and differences.  In my opinion, this sceptical position reduces all criticism to a solipsistic and narcissistic exercise.  In your opinion, do literature and criticism possess a sense that might be saved from nihilism?

Frye: The deconstructionists will have to speak for themselves, but I think the “anything goes” stage is headed for the dustbin already.  Derrida himself has a “construal” basis of interpretation that he starts from, and I think his followers will soon discover that there is a finite number of “supplements” that can be based on that.  In another decade they should have rediscovered the polysemous scheme of Dante, or something very like it.  (CW 24, 827-8)

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