Monthly Archives: December 2010

Merry Christmas

Frye’s 1947 Canadian Forum Christmas editorial, “Merry Christmas?”  Read it while enjoying this Yuletide fire.

A passage in the Christmas Carol describes how Scrooge saw the air filled with fettered spirits, whose punishment it was to see the misery of others and to be unable to help.  One hardly needs to be a ghost to be in their position, and as we light the fires for our Christmas they throw into the cold and darkness outside the wavering shadows of ourselves, unable to break the deadlock of the UN, unable to stop the slaughter in China or India or the terror in Palestine, unable to release the victims of tyrannies still undestroyed, unable to deflect the hysterical panic urging us to war again, unable to do anything for the vast numbers who will starve and freeze this winter, and above all to break the spell of malignant fear that holds the world in its grip.  Yet Dickens’s ghosts were punished for having denied Christmas, and we can offset our helplessness by affirming Christmas, by returning once more to the symbol of what human life should be, a society raised by kindliness into the community of continuous joy.

Because the winter solstice festival is not confined to Christianity, it represents something that Christians and non-Christians can affirm in common.  Christmas reminds us, whether we put the symbol into religious terms or secular ones, that there is no in the world a power of life which is both the perfect form of human effort and all we know of God, and which it is our privilege to work with as it spreads from race to race, from nation to nation, from class to class, until there is no one shut out from the great invisible communion of the Christmas feast.  Then the wish of merry Christmas, which we now extend to all our readers, will become, like the wish of a fairy tale, a worker of miracles.  (CW 12, 248)

Harold Pinter

A scene from The Homecoming with Vivian Merchant and Ian Holm

On this date in 2008 Harold Pinter died (born 1930).

Frye cites Pinter to make a point about about genre and cultural priorites in The Modern Century:

Some arts, like music and drama, are ensemble  performances for audiences; others, like the novel and the easel painting, are individualized.  In an intensely individualized era like the Victorian age, the novel goes up and the drama goes down.  Up until quite recently, the creative person, say in literature, was typically one who “wanted to write,” and what he wanted to write was usually poetry or fiction.  He might dream of rivalling Shakespeare, but he would be unlikely to want Shakespeare’s job as a busy actor-manager in a profit-sharing corporation.  It looks as though creative interests were shifting again to the dramatic: it is Pinter and Albee and Beckett on the stage, Bergman and Fellini and others in film, who seem to be making cultural history today, as the novelists were making it a century ago.  (CW 11, 56)

“Northrop Frye on the Meaning of Christmas”

This is a good time to look at Russell Perkin’s article “Northrop Frye on the Meaning of Christmas” in the Denham Library here.

An excerpt:

The Christmas editorials Frye wrote for the Canadian Forum magazine are haunted by the shadows of the war that had just ended and the Cold War that had already begun. There are four of these editorials, appearing from 1946 to 1949; between 1948 and 1950, Frye served as the managing editor of the magazine (Gorak xx; see also “Frye at the Forum”). They were evidently popular, for Frye’s diary of 11 January 1950 records: “Went over to the Forum office: they say they can’t let me off Christmas editorials for a while yet: they give the Forum too much publicity. Some Indianapolis paper that scrounges quotable things covered the back of its Xmas issue with it: somebody in the States mimeographed it & sent it out as a Xmas card; McAree (this I didn’t know) referred to it & quoted a slab of it. I generally read McAree too” (D 225). John V. McAree was an editorial columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail (see the “Directory of People Mentioned in the Diaries,” D 648). In spite of this, the Christmas editorial for 1949 was Frye’s last.

Samuel Beckett

An excerpt from Not I, featuring the lips, teeth and tongue of Beckett collaborator Billie Whitelaw: “Words were coming.  Imagine!  Words were coming.”

On this date in 1989 Samuel Beckett died (born 1906).

Frye in “The Nightmare Life in Death,” his review of Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, published in Hudson Review in 1960:

Many curiously significant remarks are made about silence in the trilogy.  Molloy, for example, says: “about me all goes really silent, from time to time, whereas for the righteous the tumult of the world never stops.”  The Unnamable says: “This voice that speaks, knowing that it lies, indifferent to what it says, too old perhaps and too abased ever to succeed in saying the words that would be its last, knowing itself useless and its uselessness in vain, not listening to itself but to the silence that it breaks.”  Only when one is sufficiently detached from this compulsory babble to realize that one is uttering it can one achieve any genuine serenity, or the silence which is its habitat.  “To restore silence is the role of objects,” says Molloy, but this is not Beckett’s final paradox.  His final paradox is the conception of the imaginative process which underlies and informs his remarkable achievement.  In a world given over to obsessive utterance, a world of television and radio and shouting dictators and tape recorders and beeping space ships, to restore silence is the role of serious writing.  (CW 29, 167)

After the jump, a recent version of Play, featuring the heads of Juliet Stevenson, Alan Rickman and Kristin Scott Thomas.

Continue reading

Ask. Tell.

A shameful display by Stephen Harper in a world where shame is on the wane

It is a nice coincidence that the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell fell on Jean Genet’s birthday. If you’ve watched Un chant d’amour all the way through, you might be surprised to know that, as frank and courageous as the film is, Genet — who otherwise seems uncompromising and unbreakable — felt compelled to disown it after he’d made it.

The gradual realization of gay rights over the last generation may be the best marker for the triumph of our better instincts.  As Frye says, sexual shame is fallen consciousness itself.  The little less shame in the world today is the real measure of our progress.

Previous posts on Frye and homosexuality here, here, here and here.

Oh, and lesbians who look like Justin Bieber and other fun stuff here and here.  There’s a reason why they call it gay.

Christians and Muslims

This date represents a couple of significant anniversaries in the history of Christian-Muslim relations.

In 1192 Richard the Lion-Heart was captured and imprisoned by Leopold V of Austria after signing a treaty with Saladin ending the Third crusade.

And in 1522 Suleiman the Magnificent accepted the surrender of the surviving Knights of Rhodes, who were allowed to evacuate, eventually settling on Malta to become the Knights of Malta.

Frye in “Substance and Evidence”:

And just as hope is the beginning of faith, so love is the end of it.  Let us think, for example, of a Christian and a Muslim, facing each other in one of the Crusades.  Neither of them knows the first thing about the other man’s religion, but they’re both convinced that it is utterly and damnably wrong; they are even prepared to die for that conviction.  There must be something the matter with a faith that expresses itself as a desire to kill somebody who doesn’t share it.  A profoundly Christian writer, Jonathan Swift, remarked that men have just enough religion to make them hate, but not enough to make them love one another.  To which we may add that those who have no religion don’t seem to hate any the less on that account.  The general principle here is that whatever reflects any credit on humanity is always attached to something else that’s silly or vicious.  As Jesus ben Sirach, the author of Ecclesiastes, says: “What race is worthy of honour?  The human race.  What race is unworthy of honour?  The human race.” [10:19, RSV] (CW 4, 324)

Jean Genet

An excerpt from Genet’s only film Un chant d’amour

Today is Jean Genet‘s birthday (1910-1986).

Frye in The Modern Century:

Jean Genet is the most remarkable example of the contemporary artist as criminal: his sentence of life imprisonment was appealed against by Sartre, Claudel, Cocteau, and Gide, and even before his best-known works had appeared, Sartre had written a seven-hundred page biography of him called Saint Genet.  Genet’s most famous play, in this country, is Le Balcon.  Here the main setting is a brothel in which the patrons dress up as bishops, generals, or judges and engage in sadistic ritual games with the whores, who are flogged and abused in the roles of penitents or thieves.  The point is that society as a whole is one vast sadistic ritual of this sort.  As the mock-bishop says, very rudely, he does not care about the function of the bishop: all he wants is the metaphor, the idea or sexual core of the office.  The madam of the brothel remarks, “They all want everything to be as true as possible . . . minus something indefinable, so that it won’t be true” — a most accurate description of what I have been calling stupid realism.  A revolution is going on outside: it is put down by the chief of police, and the patrons of the brothel are pulled out of it to enact the “real” social forms of the games they have been playing.  Nobody notices the difference, because generals and judges and bishops are traditional metaphors, and new patrons come to the brothel and continue the games.  The chief of police, the only one with any real social power, is worried because he is not a traditional metaphor, and nobody comes to the brothel to imitate him.  Finally, however, one such patron does turn up: the leader of the revolution.  There is a good deal more in the play, but this account will perhaps indicate how penetrating it is as a sadist vision of society.  (CW 11, 57-8)

Not One

The Toronto Star has a story about complaints of police violence at last June’s G20 summit submitted to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD).  Of the 400 official complaints, not one has resulted in an officer being reprimanded for injuries inflicted upon members of the public, despite eyewitness testimony corroborated by photos and video.  This reflects the fact that in many instances the police are allowed to investigate themselves.

Frye, once more, on police authority:

But in an atmosphere of real fear and real suspicion the police must become both more efficient and more tolerant if they are to be of any use in defending democracy. Otherwise, they will be not only unjust to individuals, but dangerous to their own community. (Canadian Forum 29, no. 346 [November 1949]: 170)