Monthly Archives: March 2011

Stanislaw Lem


From Steven Soderburgh’s 2002 film adaptation of Solaris. This clip is especially beautiful; you’ll want to see it (although it is not, unfortunately, embedded; click on the image and hit the YouTube link)

Stanislaw Lem died on this date in 2006 (born 1921).

Frye read Lem and alluded to him regularly to illustrate the relationship between science fiction and romance:

The twofold focus on reality, inside and outside the mind at once, is particularly important when we are reading what is called fantasy. Stanislaw Lem’s story of a kingdom created from robots, The Seventh Sally, raises questions that have tormented us for centuries, about the relation of God or the gods to man, about the distinction between an organism and a mechanism, about the difference between what is created and what has come into existence by itself. (CW 18, 190)

Quotes of the Day: Stephen Harper

Actual photo

For non-Canadians, here are some observations from Stephen Harper after the defeat of the government on Friday for “contempt of parliament” (video after the jump):

*Canadians don’t care about the wording of bills in Parliament.

*The Canadian public care about their economic well being and their standing as a country in the world.

*Coalition governments are illegitimate and unprincipled.

All of these assertions are, of course, wrong.  The first is consistent with the finding of contempt of parliament, which also apparently extends to the people it represents; the second is a half-truth at best, and what it leaves out amounts to a lie of omission; and the third is absurd on its face — our mother-parliament in the U.K. is currently home to a coalition government. Besides, Harper’s minority government is about as corrupt as a government with so short a lifespan can be. A government actually representing a majority of the people would make a nice change.

Jonathan Allan reminded me today of this quote from Frye, which we’ve posted before and is much closer to the truth.  We’re not angels, but we’re just principled enough to make a difference:

Then again, Canada has had, for the last fifty years, a Socialist (or more accurately Social Democrat) party which is normally supported by twenty-five to thirty per cent of the electorate, and has been widely respected, through most of its history, for its devotion to principle. Nothing of proportional size or influence has emerged in the United States. When the CCF, the first form of this party, was founded in the 1930s, its most obvious feature went largely unnoticed. That feature was that it was following a British rather than American tendency, trying to assimilate the Canadian political structure to the British Conservative-Labour pattern. The present New Democratic Party, however, never seems to get beyond a certain percentage of support, not enough to come to federal power. Principles make voters nervous, and yet any departure from them towards expediency makes them suspicious. (CW 12, 643-44)

(Thanks to Lyla for the tip.)

Continue reading

Saturday Night at the Movies: “A Streetcar Named Desire”


It’s Tennessee Williams‘s 100th birthday.

Here’s his best-known play, A Streetcar Named Desire — but not the 1951 film version everybody’s seen, with Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. This is the 1995 television adaption of the very well-received 1992 Broadway revival, with Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lang.

A previous post with a citation by Frye of Williams here.

Continue reading

The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon was first published on this date in 1830.

We posted on Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s new musical, The Book of Mormon, yesterday.  You can watch their South Park episode, “All About Mormons,” here.

Complementing the satire of Parker and Stone, here’s a pertinent observation on parody, with the Book of Mormon cited, in Notebook 44:

All irony, whether of content or of form, is relative to a norm, and is unintelligible without the norm. It seems essential to keep on saying this is an age of “deconstruction,” where the illusion grows up that the norms are no longer there. Tristram Shandy was “odd” to Johnson and “typical” to some Russian formalist [Victor Shklovsky], but it’s not typical of anything but a fashion. (When parody becomes very fashionable, the illusion grows up that the norms have disappeared.)

I suppose the Mormon Bible is a parody of the lost histories of the great civilizations that came pouring over the Bering Straits into the New World. (CW 5, 205-6)

Quote of the Day: “The Book of Mormon”


A reminder that Parker and Stone are also brilliant writers of catchy satirical songs: “It’s Easy, M’Kay,” from Bigger, Longer and Uncut

“All religions constitute an intellectual handicap; the worth of a religion depends on the intellectual honesty it permits. It’s silly to respect all religions: Anglo-Israelitism, for example, is pure shit, and cannot be accepted without destroying one’s whole sense of reality. The Mormons, the Christian Scientists, the fundamentalists, increase the handicap by crippling the brain. Some handicap, probably, one must have: to accept a crippling one. . .is neurotic.” (Denham, Northrop Frye Unbuttoned, 146-7)

An excerpt from Andrew Sullivan’s review of the premier of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s new Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon.

That is not so say that Matt and Trey are proselytizing. They are merely judging faith by its actions, and judging Mormonism by Mormons. We need a higher calling, they seem to say as an empirical observation; we need a grander narrative; and if religion can do that, and bring compassion to the world, why should we stand in the way?


It is the best thing they have ever done – musically, theatrically, comically. They are slowly becoming the Hogarths and Swifts of our time – because by trashing the world with anarchic humor and biting commentary, they are obviously also intent on saving it. And loving it regardless.

Shelley’s Atheism

A page from Shelley’s pamphlet

Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford for atheism two hundred years ago today after publishing his pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism.

Frye discusses with David Cayley Shelley’s “atheistic” cosmology compared to Blake’s Biblically-based one:

Cayley: How does Blake relate to the Romantic movement?

Frye: I think Blake wraps up the whole Romantic movement inside himself, although nobody else knew it. You can find a good deal of the upside-down universe in all of the other Romantics, most completely, I think, in Shelley, where a poem like Prometheus Unbound everything that’s “up there,” namely Jupiter, is tyrannical, and everything that’s down in caves is liberating.

Cayley: But Shelley takes this in a more atheistical direction than Blake does.

Frye: Shelley doesn’t derive primarily from the Biblical tradition in the way that Blake does. Blake is always thinking in terms of the Biblical revolutions, the Exodus in the Old Testament and the Resurrection in the New Testament.

Cayley: In other words, Blake has a given structure of imagery from the Bible that he works with, and that distinguishes him from the other Romantics.

Frye: It certainly distinguishes his emphasis from Shelley. (CW 24, 959)

“The Great Western Butterslide” Revisited

In the current issue of the New York  Review of Books, Garry Wills reviews All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, who, according to Wills, recycle once again the notion that the Middle Ages presented a uniquely unified culture free of the taint of modernism and post-modernism.

Here is the first paragraph of Wills’s review:

This book, which was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, comes recommended by some famous Big Thinkers. It is written by well-regarded professors (one of them the chairman of the Harvard philosophy department). This made me rub my eyes with astonishment as I read the book itself, so inept and shallow is it. The authors set about to solve the problems of a modern secular culture. The greatest problem, as they see it, is a certain anxiety of choosing. In the Middle Ages, everyone shared the same frame of values. One could offend against that frame by sinning, but the sins were clear, their place in the overall scheme of things ratified by consensus. Now that we do not share such a frame of reference, each person must forge his or her own view of the universe in order to make choices that accord with it. But few people have the will or ability to think the universe through from scratch.

Everything old is new again. Frye called this the “butterslide” theory of history, sometimes rendered as “the Great Western Butterslide,” whose roots lay in an idealized conception of the Middle Ages.

Here he is in a 1947 Canadian Forum review of F.S.C Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West:

Hence, for many American thinkers today the gigantic synthesis of religion, philosophy, science and politics achieved in the Middle Ages looms up in front of them like an intellectual Utopia which complements that of their own moral idealism. American magazines and books are thickly strewn with admiring references to Aristotle, St. Thomas, the seven liberal arts and the medieval preservation of personal values; and of deprecatory ones to the cult of self-analysis, the dehumanizing of the individual, and the centrifugal movements in politics and science which came with the Renaissance and sent us skittering down the butterslide of introversion into our present Iron Age. (CW 11, 198)

And here he is at the other end of his career in conversation with David Cayley, providing an alternative to the butterslide view:

Cayley: We stand at what sometimes seems to be the end of a tradition. . . . At one time Spengler was important to you. Later on you satirized him and made jokes about the Great Western Butterslide. Do you accept the idea of decline in Spengler, and do you wonder now what’s next?

Frye: I’m not sure I ever reacted to the word “decline” in Spengler’s work. The vision I got from Spengler was not a vision of decline. It was a vision of maturing to a certain point. The question of cycle always turns up. There is a cycle in Vico, it’s a little different in Spengler, but it’s a cycle again in Toynbee. As I’ve said often, every cycle is a failed spiral. When you get to the end of the cycle, what should be done is to encompass the entire structure up to that point on another level, not just to go back to the beginning, although there’s going to be a certain amount of that. (CW 24, 1034-5)