Daily Archives: July 17, 2010

“The Circus”


The Circus (1928) seems to be regarded as Chaplin’s “little-seen masterpiece,” so let’s see it.

Frye in “The Eternal Tramp” (1947):

Chaplin’s tramp is an American dramatic type, and Rip Van Winkle and Huck Finn are among his ancestors.  The tramp is a social misfit, not only because he is too small and awkward to engage in a muscular extroverted scramble, but because he does see the point of what society is doing or to what purpose it is it is expending all that energy.  He is not a parasite for he possesses some occult secret of inner freedom, and he is not a bum, for he will work hard enough, and still harder if a suitable motive turns up.  Such a motive occurs when he discovers someone still weaker than himself, an abandoned baby or a blind girl (students of Jung will recognize the “anima” in Chaplin), and then his tenderness drives him to extraordinary spasms of breadwinning.  But even his normal operations are grotesque enough, for in the very earnestness with which he tries so hard to play society’s game it is clear that he has got it all wrong, and when he is spurred to further efforts the grotesqueness reaches a kind of perverse inspiration.  The political overtones of this are purely anarchist — I have never understood the connecting of Communism with Chaplin — the anarchism of Jefferson and Thoreau which sees society as a community of personal relationships and not as a mechanical abstraction called a “state.”  But even so the tramp is isolated by his own capacity for freedom, and he has nothing to do with the typical “little guy” that every fool in the country has been slobbering over since Pearl Harbor.  (CW 11, 117)

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Centre for Comparative Literature Update


Thanks to everyone; please be sure that you sign the petition: http://www.petitiononline.com/complit/petition.html

We are working very hard to ensure that the Centre for Comparative Literature stays at the University of Toronto and that this aspect of Frye’s many achievements is maintained.  If you have further thoughts and ideas, please share them with us: www.savecomplit.ca.

Please send a letter to the President of U of T, cc’ing the Provost, Dean of Arts and Sciences, the Chair of Comparative Literature, and the Save Comparative Literature Campaign (contact information: http://www.savecomplit.ca/Protest.html).  Stories like the one provided yesterday by Nicholas Graham are exactly what the University needs to be made aware of and, the Frye blog is doing an excellent job of publishing these.  Meanwhile, I am preparing a post on the History of the Northrop Frye Professor in Literary Theory.

These links are cross-posted on our Facebook page under the Discussions tab.

Centre for Comparative Literature: Globe & Mail Editorial


Globe Editorial

Northrop Frye’s greatest gift: his books

Northrop Frye was not much attached to the term “comparative literature,” and it would be a mistake to gather that his legacy is embodied in any academic institution.

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail

Northrop Frye was not much attached to the term “comparative literature,” and it would be a mistake to gather, from a controversy at the University of Toronto about the merger into a larger entity of that university’s Centre for Comparative Literature, which he founded, that his legacy is embodied in any academic institution.

Rather, Professor Frye left us his books, especially three of them.

Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947) is a strange book for a scholar starting out in his career; as has often been said, it is hard to tell whether one is reading views that Prof. Frye attributes to Blake, or Prof. Frye’s own; the reserved intellectual seems to have become fused with the prophetic poet.

The Great Code (1982) may have gone as far as anyone could in wrestling with the relationship between literature and the collection of Jewish and Christian writings often called “the Bible” – but the fact that its second part, Words with Power, took eight more years to appear (almost his last book) may have disclosed the unwieldiness of the premise of “the Bible as literature.”

Paradoxically, it is a book with an even more ambitious scope that is his best work. Anatomy of Criticism (1957) is a comprehensive account of literature as a whole. It might be accused – falsely – of being an arid, rigid classification system, but an English critic, Frank Kermode, was right when he wrote that this work of literary criticism had turned into literature.

That was an understatement. The intense shape that rules Anatomy of Criticism makes it a work of art, one with an overstrained hypothesis that is compelling and fruitful, a book of vision – it does not compare one national literature with another, though examples are drawn from far and wide.

Instead, Prof. Frye tried, as he put it, to “postulate a self-contained literary universe,” but toward the end of the Anatomy he took a new turn, finding that some prose writings which were intended to persuade, but were somehow literary – such as Milton’s Areopagitica and the Gettysburg Address – went beyond any such independent realm, so that the literary cosmos “expanded into a verbal universe,” in which literature is analogous to mathematics.

These are daring conceptions. Someone who has read Anatomy of Criticism cannot read any literary book in quite the same way thereafter. It is a great Canadian book – more of a heritage than any centre or department.

Link directly to this editorial here.

Adam Smith


Adam Smith died on this date in 1790 (b. 1723).

Frye in “Varieties of Eighteenth Century Sensibility”:

We saw that Locke, like Descartes before him, based his philosophy on a philosophical man abstracted from his social context, in short, a theoretical primitive.  Also that Robinson Crusoe was an allegory of another abstract primitive, the economic man of capitalist theory, whose outlines are already fairly complete in Adam Smith.  These are the individual primitives at the core of Augustan culture.  But such primitives have voluntarily entered a social contract and a historical tradition.  For this attitude nothing in the area of culture can develop except on the other side of the social contract: literature and the other arts are rooted in a historical context in both time and space.  (CW 17, 33)