Monthly Archives: December 2010

Julian Assange

Julian Assange in custody in London

Like a lot of people, I’m still trying to stake out a reasonably informed position regarding Julian Assange.  That’s difficult.  What is not so difficult, however, is to be repulsed by the vast and co-ordinated effort to destroy Assange and WikiLeaks by extra-judicial means — including death threats from people whose word carries weight.

And now there’s the Swedish “rape” charge against Assange, which emerges at a conspicuously opportune time for his antagonists.  There are at least two issues to consider here.  First, the “rape” in this instance evidently turns upon an implied withdrawal of consent due to a broken condom.  The senior local prosecutor reviewed the matter back in August and dismissed the possibility of charges.  She, in fact, said at the time, “I don’t think there is reason to suspect that he has committed rape.”  That’s pretty unequivocal, and it comes from someone whose duty is to prosecute wherever there is sufficient evidence to do so.

By the begining of September, however, Sweden’s state prosecutor had overruled the finding of the local prosecutor and re-opened the investigation which eventually led to the charges Assange now faces. It is difficult to deny that the laying of these charges at the same time as Assange’s release of American diplomatic cables is an astonishingly convenient coincidence.  Assange need never be convicted of any crime to bear the stigma of those charges for the rest of his life.  The very fact of the charges will likely be enough to compromise his credibility.  If death threats were acceptable two weeks ago, then character assassination seems a sound enough alternative this week.

It would be unwise to insist on partisan grounds that Assange is not guilty simply because greater powers have a demonstrable motive and sufficient means to bring him down.  But it is still required as a matter of law that his innocence be presumed and that the authorities prove their case against him beyond a reasonable doubt.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much study into the behavior of prosecutors in high profile cases to know that they are occasionally willing to fix the game wherever it needs to be fixed.  Even the least attentive of us has some notion that innocent people can be ground up by a justice system that is sometimes driven by the pursuit of political or personal gain rather than by the pursuit of justice.  And whenever a higher authority unnecessarily intrudes upon a lesser one on a matter already in hand, as appears to have happened with the rape investigation, it is usually a sign that someone’s agenda has come into play.  There seem to be few genuine coincidences when the game is played this rough for stakes this high.  Both the timing and the disposition of the charges against Assange betray too many coincidences for comfort.


From an obscure but powerful post-Soviet film, The ChekistEven though this clip is in Russian without subtitles, it is worth watching.  It captures the murderous claustrophobia of Stalinism where assembly-line executions were ordered up by bureaucrats with quotas to fill.

Today is Joseph Stalin‘s birthday (1878-1953).

Frye in the “Conclusion to the Second Edition of Literary History of Canada“:

I remember the thirties, when so many “intellectuals” were trying to rationalize or ignore the Stalin massacres or whatever such horrors did not fit their categories, and thinking even then that part of their infantalism was in being men of print: they saw only lines of type on a page, not lines of prisoners shuffling off to death camps.  (CW 12, 460)

Thomas Chandler Haliburton

Today is Thomas C. Haliburton‘s birthday (1796-1865).

Frye in “Haliburton: Mask and Ego”:

Haliburton would never have called himself a Canadian.  He was a Nova Scotian, a Bluenose, and died two years before Confederation.  He was born and brought up in Windsor, and represented Annapolis in the legislature.  There he did good work in fighting the Family Compact, and became the friend of an every more brilliant man than himself, Joseph Howe.  It was in Howe’s paper that he began the series of sketches later know as The Clockmaker: the sayings and doings of Sam Slick of Slickville, Onion County, Connecticut.  The Sam Slick books extend from 1835 to 1860, there are eight of them, and they take in nearly everything Haliburton wrote that we still read, except for some sketches of Nova Scotia called The Old Judge.

After his first skirmishes as a Liberal, Haliburton became a judge, a judge like the one in Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches, who says he has no politics because he’s on the bench, but — and then we get a belligerent Tory speech.  To call Haliburton a Tory would be an understatement.  He fought responsible government; he fought the Durham Report, and until toward the end of his life he fought Confederation.  He didn’t want Great Britain either to give Nova Scotia self-government or run it from London; but to appoint Nova Scotians to the government.  In other words, he wanted patronage on a grand scale.  As for the kind of person who should be appointed — well, there are several hints, sometimes not very subtle hints, about one in particular who has deserved well of his country. (CW 12, 316-17)

Jane Austen

The happy ending of Mansfield Park

Today is  Jane Austen‘s birthday (1775-1817).

Here’s Frye reminding us that the prevailing concerns of literature are the surest source of our desire for a more equitable world.

The Fanny Price of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park also has a double social identity, being a poor relation brought up in a wealthy home.  She has, in typical heroine fashion, decided on her cousin, Edmund Bertram, but she has to cope with a most flattering proposal favoured by everybody except her.  Fanny appears to be a humble, acquiescent, even passive young woman, but while she blushes and weeps and agonizes and is overwhelmed with confusion, she is also directed by a steely inflexible will that is determined to have Edmund or nobody.  As her guardian Sir Thomas Bertram says, with the exasperation of a man who discovers that his society is less male-dominated than he had been assuming: “But you have now shewn me that you can be wilful and perverse, that you can and will decide for yourself.”

Fanny clearly has Jane Austen’s own sympathy, as is obvious from the way the story is worked out.  At the same time it is also clear that the kind of authority Sir Thomas represents seems to Jane Austen a right and natural authority.  It is not that Jane Austen is a woman novelist expressing a woman’s resistance to social conditions governing the place of women in her time.  She accepts whose conditions, on the whole: it is the romantic convention she is using that expresses the resistance.  This principle that an element of social protest is inherent in romance is one that we can only suggest now, and will return to later.  Meanwhile we may note that in Emma the hero has a moral ascendancy over the heroine which is fully justified by his greater maturity and common sense.  Yet what actually happens at the end of the book is that the heroine takes on a matriarchal role, and compels him to move from his house into hers, in order not to disturb her father’s dedication to inertia.  (CW 18, 51-2)

Frye on Hooch

Here’s some seasonal cheer, one of a number of gifts we’re rolling out for the Holiday Season.  Today it’s Frye on scotch, whiskey and martinis.


I knew an old man once who settled for drinking straight Scotch, and he said, “I find it agrees with me.” I find the same thing. (“Chatelaine’s Celebrity I.D.,” Chatelaine 55, no. 11 (November 1982), 43.

Claude Bissell had a few drinks ready for us afterwards before Clawson’s dinner.  Very typical of Clawson that his dinner should come on a day when congratulations were being showered on Blissett & me.  I drank Scotch very hard & fast & was quite high until I had my dinner.  (Diaries, 11 April 1950)

There’s getting to be too damn much God in my life.  After lunch I went over to hear Crane’s paper on the history of ideas, but instead of staying for the discussion after tea I went off and had three Martinis—Carpenter doesn’t drink and I decided against giving him the handicap of a slug of Scotch, so it was the first drink I’d had in three days.  (Diaries, 23 February 1952)

We had dinner at Jean’s hotel and I went along with the two girls to the theatre: they had tickets to Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra but I couldn’t get one, as it was the last performance.  I waited until the man said it was a waste of time to wait longer, then went home and had a couple of Scotches & went to bed early. (12 April 1952)

Felt very sleepy after Woodhouse’s whisky & didn’t make much out of Vaughan or Traherne.  The kids didn’t cooperate either: the final Huxley lecture was brilliant—Freudian slip again—I meant to write wasn’t brilliant.  (Diaries, 15 March 1950)

So I sneaked off to collect Helen from some women’s meeting at Wymilwood, and we went down to the Oxford Press to a cocktail, or rather a whisky, party, given for Geoffrey Cumberlege.  I couldn’t get much charge out of Cumberlege, but enjoyed the party.  (Diaries, 17 May 1950)

In the evening the Macleans [MacLeans] had a supper party for the Cranes, and a very good party it was.  (Very good of Ken too, as Crane wrote one of his typically slaughterous reviews of Ken’s book). The Grants, the Loves, the Ropers, and Ronald Williams (I suppose because of the Chicago connection) were there (I suppose Mrs. Williams is pregnant again).  Martinis to begin with, and whisky afterward, so what with a very late dinner I got sick again afterward.  My own damn fault.  I was well into my fifth drink before I realized that I’d had practically no lunch.  The party did a men-women split, unusual for the Macleans [MacLeans], and we gossiped about jobs and they about curtains.  We were, as I faintly remember, beginning to get slightly maudlin about Eliot and Auden just at the end.  Douglas Grant of course talked very well, and remained sober enough to drive us home.  I suppose a car, to say nothing of children and sitters and things, does make one very temperate.  Crane is a very charming man, but remains a most elusive one. (Diaries, 22 March 1952)


It is not hard to ridicule the fallacy of the distinctive essence, and to show that it is really a matter of looking for some trade mark in the content.  A satirical revue in Toronto some years ago known as Spring Thaw depicted a hero going in quest of a Canadian identity and emerging with a mounted policeman and a bottle of rye.  If he had been Australian, one realizes, he would have emerged with a kangaroo and a boomerang.  One needs to go deeper than ridicule, however, if one is to understand the subtlety of the self-deceptions involved. (“Criticism and Environment”)

It’s Sunday afternoon, and there is a bag-pipe parade in Queen’s Park.  A Scotchman blowing at a bag-pipe with great earnestness and concentration, and producing nothing but a dispirited sterile wailing squeal, like a hungry shoat or a sick banshee, seems to me the profoundest symbol of Scotland I know. All the red-faced humorless energy and superfluous wind that went into their forgotten and ferocious theologies, and no permanent result but their shrill squeaking poetry that sounds like a degenerate piccolo on top of the English orchestra. Now how much Scotch poetry have I read?  Burns, of course. All that dog-trot verse about whisky and whores and preachers and democracy and mice and lice and the devil. What’s the rest of Scotch poetry about?  Sheep, mostly, I think.  Bleat.  Baa.  (Frye‑Kemp Correspondence, 30 June 1935)

I suppose they must have a disease for lies, as they have kleptomania for stealing.  This chap had “spent years in the South Seas”: rubber plantations and trading vessels were at the top of the whisky bottle, waving palm-trees and pounding surf around the middle, and island paradises and brown-eyed mistresses near the bottom.  It bored me a bit, I must say, and after we’d finished the whisky and he started looking inscrutable over a lighted cigar butt I thought I was in for some pretty involved brooding.  (opening paragraph, “Face to Face”) [Frye’s Conrad‑imitation phase]

Marked a few essays & took Helen, who had just finished writing an article for the Star Weekly, out for a cocktail.  I had a sidecar, which, I’ve been told, works on the backfire principle: you swallow down one lemonade after another trying to get a faint alcoholic taste in your mouth, when suddenly there’s a dull boom in your stomach, a sudden ringing in the ears, crimson clouds before the eyes, & there you are as drunk as a coot.  I had only one, so I don’t know.  A businessmen’s dinner was in the dining room, and as I came out I heard the hostess say to the waiter, “How are they getting along with eleven bottles among twelve men?” (Diaries, 5 January 1949)

Ran into Ned [Pratt] & told him my woes.  He says Markowitz tells him that evening drinking is the best way to ward off heart disease.  He went to the liquor store with me & bought me a bottle of rye.  Promised him faithfully I would not have a heart attack in ten years.  (Diaries, 11 January 1949)

On the way back [from the library at Harvard] I stopped at a liquor store & asked if there were any formalities about purchasing liquor.  He said the formality consisted only in the possession of cash.  Even so I didn’t know what to buy, and Canadian rye is $5.75 a bottle—though I think a larger bottle than what we’re allowed to buy.  I got a cheaper rye for $3.75, a Corby’s.  I must investigate California wines.  We came home & had dinner in, after speculating about going out & deciding to renounce the gesture. (Diaries, 14 July 1950––Frye’s 38th birthday)

[Frye tells this story in several places]:  In the year of his retirement he [Ned Pratt] turned up unexpectedly at a meeting of the Graduate Department of English (he hated graduate teaching), and sat through three hours and a half of petitions and what not, and then, under “further business,” announced that this was undoubtedly his last meeting of the Graduate Department, and therefore–at which point he produced a bottle of rye. It was a typical gesture, but he was also reminding us of a certain sense of proportion. (“A Poet and a Legend”)

The Frye Centenary: University of Toronto Conference

University of Toronto professors Alan Bewell (English) and Neil ten Kortenaar (English/Comparative Literature) have forwarded us a preliminary call for papers in anticipation of the Frye centenary.


Educating the Imagination: A Conference in Honour of Northrop Frye on the Centenary of His Birth

September 27-30, 2012, University of Toronto

Twenty years after his death, Northrop Frye, the author of Fearful Symmetry and Anatomy of Criticism, continues to be one of the most read and the most quoted of literary critics.  His attention to form, specifically to genre and mode, and his understanding of literature as a totality have directly influenced two later generations of critics, including Hayden White, Fredric Jameson, and Franco Moretti.  In order to celebrate this ongoing legacy, the Department of English and the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, Frye’s home throughout his career, have organized a three-day symposium in his honour.

There will be panels devoted to Frye’s specific legacy, which we are now in a better position to appreciate because of the completed publication of the Collected Works in thirty volumes.  But we also invite speakers to take inspiration from Frye and to consider literary and cultural topics such as:

1. Educating the Imagination when the Humanities are under threat

Frye and Comparative Literature

2. the place of Western Literature and theory in a global context.

The spread and the provincialization of Europe.

The limits of the Great Code

3. Contemporary manifestations of traditional literary modes:

the popular romance

contemporary tragedy

irony after postmodernism

4. the place of the Bible in an era of fundamentalism and secularism

5. The survival of the literary imagination in a digital age

6. Canadian literature in a postnational age

7. The Great Code and Islam

8. History as Narrative

9. Frye and Ecology

10.  Local literature, local forms

Organizers: Alan Bewell, Chair, Department of English (

Neil ten Kortenaar, Director, Centre for Comparative Literature (

Quote of the Day

“Victoria’s distinctive tradition, then, has three aspects, religious, humanistic, and residential, and removing any of these would destroy, for both staff and students, the double identity of a distinguished college and a great university which they possess now. If all the colleges were weakened beyond effectiveness, the arts and science faculty would still be big and impressive, but no longer great. Such a disaster could occur, not through spiritual wickedness in high places, but simply through the heavy inert pressure of restricted budgets that in time will wear down any university into an academic processing factory. (“Installation Address as Chancellor,” CW 7, 521)