Daily Archives: December 4, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: “Marat/Sade”

The anniversary of the death of the Marquis de Sade passed a few days ago, so tonight it’s Peter Brooks’s film adaptation of Marat/Sade.

Frye in “The Drunken Boat”:

We said earlier that a Romantic poet’s political views would depend partly on whether he saw his inner society as concealed by or as manifested by actual society.  A Romantic poet’s moral attitude depends on a similar ambivalence in the conception of nature.  Nature to Wordsworth is a mother-goddess who teaches the soul serenity and joy, and never betrays the heart that loves her; to the Marquis de Sade nature is the source of all perverse pleasures that an earlier age had classified as “unnatural.”  For Wordsworth the reality of Nature is manifested by the reflection of moral values; for de Sade the reality is concealed by that reflection.  (CW 17, 88)

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The Essence of the University

Frye in his robes as Chancellor of Victoria College

“Academic freedom is the only form of freedom, in the long run, of which humanity is capable, and it cannot be obtained unless the university itself is free.”  (CW 7, 421)

I have recently posted on my concerns regarding a series of donations made to the University of Toronto by benefactors like Peter Munk, Leslie Dan, and Joseph Rotman.  Even given all of the ways we might characterize their generosity, the issue that remains most important is the essence of the university.  What precisely is the purpose of the university and what are its goals?  What is the role of the university in society?  In an age of global capitalism, it seems all the more important to ask such questions.  It may be that I am nostalgic for a time I never knew, when the university was assumed to be the epicentre of thought, and whose value to the public good was never in question.   Even so, I still want to ask the question: what is the university?

Northrop Frye writes that “a university is not, like a church, a political party, or a pressure group, primarily a concerned organization” (CW 7, 401).  I wish all universities would work this principle into their Statements of Institutional Purpose. The university is not a political faction, not an ideological platform, not a pressure group, not a corporate enterprise.  As Frye says, “the university itself stands for something different: it is not directly trying to create a certain kind of society. It is not conservative, not radical, not reactionary, nor is it a façade for any of those attitudes” (CW 7, 401).  This is may be the kind of university setting some of us long for.  Today, however, the university is increasingly caught up in the special interests of its private and corporate benefactors.

The issue is not simply a matter of questioning these interests for the sake of attacking them, but for the sake of preserving an institution whose role is unique:

As [its] authority is the same thing as freedom, the university is also the only place in society where freedom is defined.  We may think of freedom, first of all, as something to be gained or increased by attacking the symbols of external compulsion in society.  A good many of these, in every society, deserve to be attacked. But if we destroyed the external compulsions, we should still have the internal compulsions that made us attack them, and they would instantly produce a whole new set of external ones. (CW 7, 403)

Where does this lead us?  Perhaps we must return to Frye’s singular vision of authority: “[t]he authority of the logical argument, the repeatable experiment, the compelling imagination, is the final authority in society, and it is an authority that demands no submission, no subordinating, no lessening of dignity” (CW 7, 403).  And the notion of an authority like this one must be defended by the the most senior administrators at the university: the President, the Chancellor, the Principal, the Provost, the Deanery.

I have quoted this passage before, but it is probably worth repeating:

When anyone is considered for a deanship or a presidency, one of the first questions asked about him is, ‘How good a scholar is he?’ It sounds absurd to associate a man’s administrative ability with his specialized knowledge of a scholarly discipline, but the question is relevant none the less. If he has never been a scholar, he doesn’t know what a university is or what it stands for, and if he doesn’t know that, God help the university that gives him a responsible job.  (CW 7, 314)

Finally, when it comes to the relation to the university to society, Frye observes in “The Definition of a University”:

The university belongs to its society, and the notion of autonomy of the university is an illusion. It is an illusion which it would be hard to maintain on the campus of the University of Toronto, situated as it is between the Parliament Buildings on one side and an educational Pentagon on the other, like Samson between the Pillars of a Philistine temple. But the university has a difficult and delicate job to do: it is responsible to society for what it does, very deeply responsible, yet its function is a critical function and it can fulfil that function only by asserting an authority that no other institution in society can command. It is not there to reflect society, but to reflect the real form of society, the reality that lies behind the mirage of social trends. It is not withdrawn or neutral on social issues: it defines our real social vision as that of a democracy devoted to the ideals of freedom and equality, which disappears when society is taken over by a conspiracy against these things. (CW 7, 421)

In this regard, the university is, as Frye would have it, the closest to a utopian space as we can manage, and it is therefore an ideal we must strive to realize today as much as we ever did in the past.

“The humanities in all of us”

Gate House, Victoria College, Frye’s undergrad residence

Here’s an article on the current state of the humanities in today’s Mail & Guardian.

A sample:

Public funding of universities, especially national research strategies, now emphasise the idea of innovation, which has become a code word for quality. As a result, in both Canada and South Africa, solid academic fields in the humanities — comparative literature is a good example — are either threatened or have already fallen away. Given this thinking, it is not surprising that students and their parents came to consider higher education as a form of private investment rather than, as it once was judged, a public good.

But the old saw remains: making things happen in a university (or elsewhere, for that matter) doesn’t mean that thinking happens. The challenge for the humanities remains not to return to some “golden age” but rather to inspire students — and, quite simply, this can happen only by encouraging them to think.

Frye in conversation with David Cayley:

The university is the source of authority in society.  It’s the only one there is that I can see.  But, of course, by authority I mean spiritual authority, the kind that doesn’t give orders. . . The university is where you go to learn about an authority that is not externally applied.  It doesn’t tell you to do this or that.  (CW 24, 989)

Council of Trent

Pope Pius IV

On this date in 1563 the Council of Trent held its final session.

Frye in The Double Vision:

In many respects the Cold War repeated the later stages of the situation that arose with the Reformation in the sixteenth century.  Then, a revolutionary movement, at first directed mainly toward a reform of abuses in the church, showed signs of expanding and breaking open a tightly-closed structure of authority that claimed exclusive and infallible power in both spiritual and temporal orders.  What was centrally at issue was reformation itself, the conception of a church that could be reformed in principle and not merely through modifying the corruptions that had grown up within it.  The Reformers thought of the church as subject to a higher criterion, namely the Word of God, and as obligated to carry on a continuous dialogue with the Word in a subordinate position to it.

Established authority reacted to this movement as established authority invariably does.  The Council of Trent gives an impression of passing one reactionary resolution after another in a spirit of the blindest panic.  Yet the Council of Trent succeeded in its main objective, which was to persuade Catholics that post-Tridentine Catholicism was not only the legitimate descendant of the pre-Reformation church, but was in fact identical with it.  The logical inference was the claim of a power of veto over the Bible, a position set out in Newman’s Essy on the Development of Christian Doctrine, where a historical dialectic takes supreme command in a way closely parallel to the contructs of Hegel and Marx.  (CW 4, 173-4)