Monthly Archives: August 2010

More Frye ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll: “This is exactly the spread that I want”


“What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?” from the Mothers of Invention‘s We’re Only in it for the Money (above), their absurdist parody of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (“What’s the ugliest part of your body? / Some say your nose / Some say your toes / I think it’s your mind”)

Frye in “The Only Genuine Revolution”:

Mickleburgh: What about modern ballads and film criticism? Some people quite strongly argue that the English department should assume a major responsibility for film criticism and for teaching such things as the Beatle records. Some people think it helps to make Beowulf contemporary if you relate the Beowulf themes to some of the Beatle records.

Frye: I think that I’d actually prefer to let the student make those connections himself, because this is where the student can find an immediate sense of discovery on his own. If he can find that the kind of rock and roll records which he is going to be listening to anyway really have a family likeness in their symbolism and their imagery to the kind of literature he’s learning about at school, this creates a personal discovery which I wouldn’t want to take away from him and put into the regular curriculum. I teach a graduate course in university on literary symbolism, and I tell my students that they are to write essays on anything in literature that happens to interest them. One year I picked up two essays side by side: one was on the Gilgamesh epic of ancient Sumeria—about 3,000 years older than the Bible; the other was on the rock and roll group called The Mothers of Invention. And I thought, “Oh boy, this is it—this is exactly the spread that I want.” Naturally most of the other essays fell somewhere in between those two extremes. (CW 24, 165)

Earlier post, “Frye ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll

Henry V


Shakespeare’s Henry V, the St. Crispin’s Day speech before Henry and his outnumbered English forces win the Battle of Agincourt: “We happy few, we band of brothers.”  Once again, like Edward III’s victory at Crecy (post here), this is an English victory in the Hundred Years War with France they will eventually lose.

On this date King Henry V died unexpectedly (1387-1422), throwing England into a virtual state of civil war for the next sixty years.

Frye in The Critical Path offers some incisive comments on the finely woven subtext of wanton violence and destruction beneath the nationalistic bravado of Shakespeare’s play:

Shakespeare also shows the identification with the audience’s attitude that the oral poet has.  On the level  of explicit statement, or what the play seems to be saying, he seems willing to accept the assumption, or implication, that Henry V was a glorious conqueror and Joan of Arc a wicked witch, that Shylock is typical of Jews and Judaism, that peasants are to be seen through the eyes of the gentry, that the recognized sovereign is the Lord’s anointed and can cure diseases in virtue of being so. . . . When we examine the imagery of Henry V, and listen carefully to the moods and overtones which that imagery suggests, we realize that the play is very far from expressing the simple-minded patriotism that it appears to be expressing.  (CW 27, 46-7)

In A Natural Perspective he reminds us that, thanks to the archetype of the wheel of fortune, the apparently comic resolutions of history are an illusion:

The wheel of fortune is a tragic conception: it is never genuinely a comic one, though a history play may achieve a technically comic conclusion by stopping the wheel half-way.  Thus Henry V ends with triumphant conquest and a royal marriage, though, as the epilogue reminds us, King Henry died almost immediately and sixty years of unbroken disaster followed. (120)

And in Words with Power he observes that a “history play” has ultimately very little to do with history and much more to do with play:

So we cannot say that, because it is a historical play, Henry V is “following” history, with a few alterations allowed only to poets.  If we look at the total myth, or whole story, of the play, we get a history with another dimension of meaning.  As he goes on, Shakespeare tends to leave English history for the more remote and legendary periods of Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth, where the titanic figures of tragedy can emerge as they could not have emerged from the battle fields of Agincourt or Tewkesbury.  In time these periods are more remote from us; in myth they are far more immediate and present. (CW 26, 46)

Glenn Beck: “There will be rivers of blood”


A mashup by Media Matters for America of Beck’s appropriation of the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech on Saturday, including a long string of incendiary lies and provocation from his radio and Fox News shows.

A taste of those lies and provocation: “I can tell you there will be rivers of blood.” “Very dark dudes are coming for us.” “There are Satan worshipers who are in office.” “That’s when the arrests start . . . that’s when the shootings start.” “Drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsucker.”  And much, much more.

He’s no Martin Luther King.

Where I come from, we call that “eliminationist rhetoric.”

You decide.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley


A real rarity: the Edison Studios 1910 film adaptation of Frankenstein — thirteen minutes and one reel, as was the fashion of the time.  It is startling to think that just barely one lifetime after her death, Shelley’s novel was already being adapted at the very dawn of the film industry, making her monster one of the most recognizable of all movie characters, even if that character usually bore little resemblance to her original literary creation.

Today is Mary Shelley‘s birthday (1797-1851).

Frye on Frankenstein in A Study of English Romanticism:

An almost equally remarkable example of Romantic irony is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  The story is not, as it often is said to be, a precursor of science fiction: it is a precursor rather of the existential thriller, of such a book as Camus’ L’Etranger.  The whole point about the monster is that he is not a machine, but an ordinary human being isolated from mankind by extreme ugliness, Blake’s “different face.”  The number of allusions to Paradise Lost in the narrative indicate that the story is a retelling of the account of the origin of evil, in a world where the only creators we can locate are human ones.  Frankenstein hunts down his monster in the same way that moral good attempts to destroy the moral evil that it has itself created: Frankenstein is as much a death principle as his quarry, and is surrounded by the vengeful spirits of his monster’s victims.  (CW 17, 122)

The Beatles, Candlestick Park


Today is the 44th anniversary of the Beatles’ last concert at Candlestick Park, San Francisco.

Fifty-five seconds of lousy video that nicely captures what it must have been like to be there, here.

This was the Beatles’ last concert but not their last public performance, which didn’t occur till three years later on January 30th 1969.  A much better clip of that event after the jump. (Notice how Austen Powers-y London looks: check out Ringo in his red plastic mac.)

Frye in discussion with Robert Fulford and Marty Gross on the ritualistic element of Beatles concerts:

[Fulford discusses the human need for ritual, as seen for instance in the intense emotion of the audience at a Beatles concert where the music could not be heard above the audience’s screams.]

Frye: You need different rituals at different times.  There is something in the pantomime, where you don’t hear the words, that has a very direct childlike appeal.  So it didn’t matter whether you heard the Beatles, as long as you saw them.  The response to the aural stimulus is something that develops much more gradually. (CW 24, 542)

Perhaps that’s what makes the next clip so poignant.  There’s no more Beatlemania, no more adolescent girls screaming like Bacchantes.  The Beatles’ last audience was just a random collection of people (including a number of noticeably middle-aged Londoners, who are somewhat stiff and formal but evidently still fans) who found their way to nearby rooftops so that they could watch and hear the Beatles in public for what turned out to be the last time.

Continue reading

Quote of the Day: “Conservatives and ‘Limited Government'”


Tim Lee adds a much-needed dose of sanity to the anti-big-government movement.  Full post here.

Is the Tea Party “the most dynamic anti-big government political movement in modern American politics?” I think it’s helpful here to unpack the concept of “anti-big government,” because the right uses it in a peculiar and rather perverse fashion.

In the conservative (and fusionist) worldview, government activities are evaluated using a simplistic “size of government” metric that treats every dollar of government spending as equally bad, regardless of how it’s used. This has some unfortunate results. It means that cutting children’s health care spending is just as good as cutting a dollar from subsidies for wealthy corporations. And since wealthy corporations typically have lobbyists and poor children don’t, the way this works out in practice is that conservative politicians staunchly oppose the former while letting the latter slide.

Worse, mainstream conservatives give programs involving the military and law enforcement a free pass. Conservatives vociferously (and correctly) oppose giving the FCC expanded power over the Internet, but they actively supported the NSA’s much more comprehensive and intrusive scheme of domestic surveillance. Conservatives support a massive expansion of government power at our southern border to restrict the freedom of Mexican migrants. They seem unconcerned by the fact that we have more people in government-run prisons than any other nation on Earth.

This distinction makes no sense. When American soldiers gun down Iraqi civilians and blow up a van that comes to rescue the survivors, that’s a government program. When a SWAT team conducts a military-style raid on the home of an innocent Maryland mayor and kills his dogs, that’s a government program too. Obviously, law enforcement and national defense are important functions of government, but these highly coercive government programs should be the subject of more public scrutiny, not less.

In-depth investigation of plutocratic interests behind the Tea Party and global warming denialism movements here.

Saturday Night Documentary: “Outfoxed”


Today is the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s historic “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial (video here).  Self-confessed “rodeo clown” Glenn Beck chose to hijack the occasion to give a speech of his own on the very spot that great speech was delivered (or, as Beck hilariously put it in a smarmy show of false humility, “a few steps down” from the actual spot).  That makes this an opportune time to take a closer look at Fox News as the nihilistic propaganda machine it really is.

Louis Menand in a recent online posting at the New Yorker writes about the documentary scene after Fahrenheit 9/11, including this powerful, widely viewed but never distributed indictment of Fox News, Outfoxed.

Here’s Menand:

One common reaction to “Fahrenheit 9/11” is that it shows you things that have never been seen before—the “Pet Goat” and “Now watch this drive” clips, scenes of carnage and brutality in Iraq, Saudi-schmoozing, Ashcroft singing, Al Gore being forced to reject repeated petitions by black representatives to contest the official counting of the electoral-college votes in the 2000 election. It may be that most of these things were shown somewhere, but the movie is designed to make audiences feel that they have never been seen, or that, having been seen, they have been deliberately suppressed. Robert Greenwald’s “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism,” a movie that has yet to tempt a distributor but has been exhibited in special screenings, and that circulates, samizdat style, on videotape and DVD, is a forceful reminder of how vicious the cheerleading is. “Outfoxed” ought to be a redundant exercise. The right-wing bias of Fox News, whose laughable motto is “Fair and Balanced,” is not something that ought to require a documentary to uncover. But where is the mainstream media? The answer is that the mainstream media is a place where Tucker Carlson is identified as a “political analyst.” Reporting on television is now accompanied by so much partisan yapping disguised as analysis, and there is such a panic to get anything on the air that comes over the transom regardless of the source (like pictures of John Kerry in a silly hat), that the other networks have to feel uncomfortable about accusing anyone else of confusing news with opinion. “Outfoxed” suggests, in fact, that competing news organizations, like CNN, having seen that flag-waving attracts viewers, are starting to imitate Fox.

There may be a few viewers out there who continue to confuse Bill O’Reilly with Eric Sevareid. “Outfoxed” will disabuse them.

The rest of the film after the jump.

Continue reading

Centre for Comparative Literature: The Official Student Response


Below is a statement in response to the July 15, 2010 memorandum from Vice Dean Baker, available here, presented to Vice Dean Baker and Vice Dean Smyth (SGS) in a meeting on August 24, 2010.  Link to the statement here.

The recommendation of the University’s Strategic Planning Committee to disestablish the Centre for Comparative Literature as part of the creation of a new School of Languages and Literatures has caused considerable alarm across the University of Toronto and throughout the global community of humanities scholars. One need only peruse the dozens of letters written by the world’s leading humanists, or scan the thousands of signatures on the petition to preserve Comparative Literature, or spend a few minutes assessing the growing media coverage of the SPC’s proposal, to realize that the Centre is seen globally as unique and preeminent in its mandate and accomplishments, that it stands as one of Canada’s major contributions to humanities scholarship, and that its proposed disestablishment is widely perceived as a symbolic attack on the humanities in general and as a particular statement about Canada’s new scholarly priorities. There now remains no doubt what the proposed disestablishment of the Centre would mean for U of T’s reputation and prestige in the humanities; the voices from our peer institutions have weighed in and continue to weigh in, and their opinions are virtually unanimous. General bewilderment surrounds the SPC’s proposal, which has, so far, failed to publicly offer a defense of itself in budgetary terms and, more importantly, failed to articulate any coherent intellectual justification for its recommendations, including the creation of a School of Languages and Literatures and most especially the disestablishment of the Centre for Comparative Literature. That these proposals were made by a committee of 12 members whose proceedings and deliberations remain confidential only increases the general feeling of isolation, disregard, and inability to understand the proposal or its justifications. The directors and faculty of all the affected departments and centres are left to feel angry and slighted, and to conclude that their disciplines were not understood or treated with respect by the members of the SPC.

No one, however, has been more shocked, confused, hurt or anxious than the current students of the Centre for Comparative Literature. Not only do we concur with the sentiments of our administrators and professors, as well as those of our peers around the world, but we must also consider the implications of this proposal for our remaining years as graduate students at U of T and for our careers as professional academics in the field of comparative literature. Of course, this assessment leaves us with many troubling questions, some shared by all and some highly individual—concerning our own research and supervisory needs. We thank Vice-Dean Baker and Vice-Dean Smyth for making time to field our questions in person and sincerely hope that this session will help us as students to better understand the positions and priorities of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and help the Faculty, represented by Vice-Dean Baker, and the School of Graduate Studies, represented by Vice-Dean Smyth, to better understand our concerns, positions and priorities.

In the interest of maximizing clarity and productivity during our brief meeting together, we respectfully put forward the following points, agreed upon by the members of our student body, as a foundation for today’s discussions:

1) We strongly disagree with the SPC’s assessment of our Centre as home to an outmoded discipline whose work is done. The backhanded compliment that “the Centre has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams” simply does not ring true. The notion of a discipline too successful for its own good is absurd and not applied to any other discipline whose central texts are widely read. We strongly assert that, first, the SPC is incorrect to say that the teaching of critical theory is now widespread in the humanities disciplines. This is not the case, as even a cursory perusal of course lists in the national-literature departments reveals. For this reason, students from all these departments come to comparative literature for coursework in critical theory, and some of these departments require their students to take courses in comparative literature in order to obtain a “theory” minor. Moreover, we remind the SPC that, although comparative literature was historically the home of continental philosophy, disseminating this body of thought was never the sole purpose of comparative literature but only one of its pragmatic tasks. We find it hard to believe that any serious scholarly assessment of the work done in comparative literature at U of T, in its relation to the work done by other humanities departments, would find it redundant, antiquated, or superfluous. Therefore, we are suspicious that such an assessment was not undertaken. If it was, we respectfully request to see it. If it was not, we respectfully request that it be undertaken in good faith and with full transparency before any further discussion of comparative literature’s ostensible redundancy.

Continue reading