Monthly Archives: August 2010

St. Augustine of Hippo


On this date in 430 St. Augustine of Hippo died (born 354).

Yesterday we quoted Frye on Hegel from his student essay written in 1933, “The Augustinian Interpretation of History.”  That essay is a good place to start today too.  In the essay, by the way, Frye cites a quote from Hegel that might be kept in mind: “We learn from history that we never learn anything from history” (CW 3, 193).

First then, for Augustine, the political problem, the collapse of the Roman Empire.  It was easy to accuse the upstart religion to which Augustine belonged of having caused the downfall, and the first ten books [of The City of God] are taken up with defending the Christians and attacking the pagans.  For our present thesis this is important in clearing the ground for the doctrine of the two cities.  The immediate, obvious opposition Augustine had to contend with was that of paganism and Christianity; not until that was outlined could the theory of the two cities follow.  The latter is an abstract conception of some difficulty, and to introduce it at the outset would upset what balance the book still retains.  Although it is not deliberately a philosophy of history, but an apologetic, the germ is there.  Almost at once Augustine outlines the essential change that the coming of Christianity has made in the world.  Christianity is not responsible for the fall of Rome (I, i), in the sense that the Romans have failed through deserting the gods that could have helped her.  These same gods lost Troy (I, iii); how should they preserve Rome?  On the other hand, Christianity has brought an entirely new note of gentleness: Rome’s Christian conquerors spared her to an extent which Rome herself never practiced toward her foes (I,ii).  In the ancient world there was no idea of anything else than the most brutal revenge in warfare (I, iv).  No, the cause of the Roman defeat lay in herself (II), in her essential weakness and wickedness.  Her empire, allotted to her as a reward for certain terrestrial virtues (V), such as justice, temperance, courage, and so on–on which Augustine dwells with much enthusiasm–has been forfeited by her vice. (CW 3, 200)

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Frye Sculpture: Very, Very Close!


According to the latest Frye Festival Newsletter, the Frye sculpture proposal has jumped from fifth to third place.

The top two finishers receive a $25,000 prize.  That means the good people at the Frye Festival are very close to realizing this project.

Voting closes on Tuesday, August 31st.

You can vote daily for the sculpture here.

Latest Frye Festival Newsletter here.

Frye on Hegel


Hegel is the central philosophical figure in Words with Power.  In one of his late notebooks, Frye writes, “If Hegel had written his Phenomenology in mythos-language instead of in logos-language a lot of my work would be done for me.  The identification of Substance with Subject-Spirit in the Preface is mythically the central issue of the Reformation, overthrowing the sacramental ‘spiritual substance’ of the Eucharist & replacing it with the growing Spirit that takes over the Subject.”  (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 192).  Later he writes, “The rush of ideas I get from Hegel’s Phenomenology is so tremendous I can hardly keep up with it.” (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 631)


The extent to which Hegel enters into Frye’s thinking as he was writing Words with Power and The Double Vision can be seen in the following selections from the Late Notebooks:

I suppose the whole book turns on the thesis that the spirit is substantial: it’s the realizing of primary concern out of the language (Word) of primary mythology.  Only the total Word can make the spirit substantial.  Everything else, including Marx’s critique of Hegel, is ideological.  I don’t want to become a conservative Hegelian, and my goal is not absolute knowledge, whatever that is, but the Word & Spirit set free by each other and united in one substance with the Other detached from Nature and identified as the Father.  This doesn’t subordinate the female: it wakens and emancipates her, Eros Regained in short.  Jesus’ establishing of the identity of the other as Father is what makes him the definitive prophet. (CW 5, 9)

Perhaps I’ve been overlooking the narrative of, first, heaven and earth locked together in a sexual union, second, an Oedipal Son or Logos pushing them apart to form the world of consciousness-creation, third, this Logos growing, like the Begriff in Hegel, until Heaven and Earth reach the Tao balance as Father and Spirit. (ibid., 10)

If I’m right about the Word growing like the Begriff in Hegel [previous entry], the Phenomenology is an Odyssey as well as a Purgatorio climb.  The Odyssey is the cycle redeemed, beginning & ending at home; the Purgatorio is the climb to polarization. (ibid., 11)

Hegel himself calls the Ph. [Phenomenology] a ladder (II.2.5). (ibid., 18)

Forms of spiritual growth: the father-soul and the mother-body (dying to) bring forth the spirit-child.  I think this is alchemic.  Odyssey pattern: the old beggar, least likely to succeed, growing in reverse of ordinary aging until he becomes not just master of the house but the body of the house.  Hegel’s Begriff, the infant exposed and abandoned by the common-sense world, turning out to be the Prospero of the whole show. (ibid., 18)

I’ve often said that Hegel’s Ph G [Phänomenologie des Geistes] interests me deeply in itself, but not as a preface to Hegel’s system.  This is linked on my part with my feeling that Moses was the only person who ever saw the Promised Land.  The system is only a Prussian Canaan. (ibid., 19)

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Frye Alert: Sci Fi Frye


Frye appeared as a character (above) in Marvel Comics’ The New Defenders in a story called “The Pajusnaya Consignment.”

iO9, a science fiction blog (“We Come from the Future”), cites Frye in a post today: “How many definitions of science fiction are there?”

[Science fiction is] a mode of romance with a strong inherent tendency to myth.” — Northrop Frye.

Here’s Frye on “parallel world” science fiction:

I’ve been reading, more or less at random, in science fiction for varieties of the parallel-world conception which seems to me a possible exit from the present up-down mythical universal dilemma.  Reincarnation is now being trumpeted as practically established scientifically; it isn’t, and I still think there’s a fallacy buried in it somewhere, but there’s probably a pattern it fits.  I read the four volumes of Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riverrun” series, but they were a bust.  Now I’m reading Zelazny’s two-volume “Amber” series, which at least has better patter.  They seem to me a development of the Eddison series, where the ideal world is conceived as an archaic one, reminding me of Lawrence’s proposal that if men wanted to fight they should repudiate modern hardware, get into armor and have a good old heroic hack.  Eddison isn’t quite as silly as that sounds, but his fantasy world is simply the old chivalric-romance one back again.  We seem to be in an age of neo-Ariosto. (Northrop Frye Unbuttoned, 254)

G.W.F. Hegel


Today is Hegel‘s birthday (1770-1831).  He is simultaneously one of the most influential, widely cited philosophers and also one of the most daunting.  Frye says in an interview with Imre Salusinszky in Criticism in Society that he enjoyed reading Hegel and was quite moved by the experience.  He doesn’t mention that he first read (and seems to have wholly absorbed) Hegel at the age of 20.  Here are a couple of selections on Hegel from Frye’s student essays written in the early 1930s:

The connection of Hegel with romanticism rests chiefly on Hegel’s own conception of the Zeitgeist as symbolic of the inner unity of the time-problem.  He disliked romanticism because its idealism did not press forward into reality.  His own chief interest, as well as his interest for posterity, centres on the strong impulse to unify and cohere to the spiritual side of life into a conception sufficiently clear to be recognized as the driving force of material.  He wanted the idea to penetrate the innermost interstices of reality; and in this he revolted against romanticism because he attempted what they desired but shirked.  He started out with Schelling, attacking earlier critical philosophers, notably Kant and Fichte, because their approach had destroyed the systematization resultant from the matching of subject with object.  Like the romantics, he was necessarily a subjectivist critic; yet he hated subjectivity because he faced out to the world-as-idea and was bent on its idealistic conquest, a process easily ruined by introspection.  Then he broke with Schelling because of the arbitrary and formalized schemata of that philosopher, which represented to him an immature and hasty jumping at conclusions.  He wanted to realize idealism and idealize reality, and no one can attempt this without in some measure being answerable to the charge, when the approach is made from the ideal side, of having butchered facts to make a theorist’s holiday. (“Romanticism,” CW 3, 41-2)

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Edward III


The sword of Edward III

On this date in 1349 Edward III led the English forces to victory over the French in the Battle of Crécy, one of many battles fought during the Hundred Years’ War through the reigns of four English kings — Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V — and which ultimately ended in English defeat after Joan of Arc appeared on the scene to rally the French in their cause.

Frye on Blake’s “King Edward the Third”:

“King Edward the Third” is an exercise in the idiom  of Elizabethan drama, just as the songs are, if more successfully, exercises in the corresponding lyrical idiom.  It is a very curious piece.  Apparently, if one believes that England has always been the home of democracy and constitutional government, and France — at least until the Revolution — a hotbed of tyranny and superstition, one can also believe that the Hundred Years’ War was a blow struck solely in the interests of progress.  The English are famous for transforming their economic and political ambitions into moral principles, and to the naive mercantile jingoism of the eighteenth century, which assumed that freedom of action was the same thing as material expansion, there seemed nothing absurd in thinking that the unchecked growth of England’s power involved the emancipation of the world.  At any rate, Akenside, in his Ode to the Country Gentlemen of England, seems to have had a vague idea that war with France is somehow connected with the principles of Freedom, Truth and Reason as well as Glory, and refers to the Hundred Years’ War as a crusade in favor of these principles.  Akenside was a Whig; Thomson and Young, who wrote a good deal to the same effect, were also Whigs, the liberals of their time, and it is not really surprising if the young Blake, looking for a historical example of the fight of freedom against tyranny, should have selected the exploits of Edward III.  A good deal of the poem is simply “Rule Britannia” in blank verse. . . . (Fearful Symmetry, 179-80)

Frye ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll


AC/DC, “Highway to Hell” — which is not the same as going to hell in handbasket.  There’s a reason that guitarist Angus Young always wore a school uniform onstage.  At bottom, it’s a myth of deliverance, as the lyrics here make clear: “Look at me / I’m on the way to the Promised Land”

It’s a somewhat  guilty pleasure that I regularly post pop music videos on a Saturday night, but I justify it with, “I’m a Frygian; I cover the waterfront.”  However, all of sudden I’ve got back-up.

Thanks to Bob Denham’s canny selection from the notebooks in Northrop Frye Unbuttoned, there are gems to be found that not only enrich any given moment but leave you wondering if there was anything that Frye didn’t think and write about.

For example, under the entry “Literary Education,” the issue of popular culture, including rock ‘n’ roll, makes an unexpected appearance:

Twenty-five years ago, when I started expounding my views, I met with the most strenuous resistance from my students; today I have the feeling of battering down an open door. . . Educators seem to be as silly & ignorant as ever. . . . [But] young people educate themselves today, partly through films and television, media that are capable of great symbolic concentration, partly through listening to folk singers and rock & roll & music that introduces them to what is, for all its obvious limitations, a more normal poetic idiom.  As a result mythical  habits of thought seem natural to them.  (169)

For what it’s worth, that’s what I see among my students.  Even though they’ve been cheated at every level by underfunded education (and face years of indentured servitude while they work off the debt incurred by the post-secondary education we tell them is mandatory), they are still quite enlightened and decent individuals whose sense of social concern and duty seems to exceed that of their parents and grandparents.  It’s got to be coming from somewhere, and it appears to be derived from a popular culture that, “for all its obvious limitations,” is still managing to put them in a much more liberal state of mind and expectation.

The kind of artists who represent that trend here.

Conrad Black


His Lordship and Lady Black

Today is Conrad Black‘s birthday (born 1944).  Once a Canadian press baron, he gave up his Canadian citizenship to become a Peer of the Realm, Lord Black of Crossharbour.

As a boy he was thrown out of Upper Canada College for stealing and cheating.  As an adult he was thrown into U.S. federal prison for cheating and stealing.  He is currently out on bail pending an appeal of his convictions for fraud and obstruction of justice.  John Ralston Saul has observed of him:

Lord Black was never a real “capitalist” because he never created wealth, only dismantled wealth. His career has been largely about stripping corporations. Destroying them.

Frye on aristocrats and proletariats in Denham’s Frye Unbuttoned:

Aristocrats get everything in this life: consequently they are fatalists & accept a Hades shadow-world.  Cults of immortality are proletariat. (15)

Having been stripped of most of his assets — and a convert to the view that the American justice system is brutal and unjust, while also wondering aloud what that system must do to people without his means — it will be interesting to see if Lord Black might again become Citizen Black, this time with a more proletariat than aristocratic view of things.