Monthly Archives: July 2011

Frye at the Movies: “Whisky Galore!”

It’s Frye’s birthday week, and posting a movie he’d seen and enjoyed is a good way to go.

Although I want to say this first. There is almost no video and audio of Frye available online. The CBC is sitting on a treasure trove of interviews and features. A few months ago, TVO posted a link to a Frye interview from the 1970s-era “Education of Mike McManus,” but the link was dead. I wrote TVO about it, was promised the link would be fixed, and then it disappeared altogether.

Now that the centenary is on the way, people should weigh in and convince these public institutions to make this material available. There’s stuff everywhere on Marshall McLuhan (whose centenary is on 21st), including YouTube. There is potentially a lot of audio and video of Frye that could be had from many sources. We should be able to access it.

Now this movie, Whisky Galore!, is a classic from Ealing Studios, which made smart little British comedies during the 1950s. Frye saw it under the title, Tight Little Island, which was the name attached to it for North American release. Frye records seeing it and makes an extended comment on it in his 1950 diary, a time we now know the work that eventually became Anatomy of Criticism was gestating. It really shows in this comment:

The show itself was pleasant: “Tight Little Island,” about a small Hebridean community & how it dealt with a wreck bearing fifty thousand cases of whisky. An immemorial theme, but pleasantly handled. As I was looking for comic archetypes, I noted that the Saturnalia is an upsetting of an existing social order which recalls a Golden Age before that order was established, & which is therefore the Saturnalia’s grandfather, so to speak. Hence the existing social order is a kind of deputy rule, a viceregent custom, like the rule of Angelo in MM [Measure for Measure]. In this movie the only antagonist, a Malvolio churl, was captain of the home guard, & tried, like Malvolio, to act like a steward locking up the drinks. One of the most unsympathetic people was his own colonel. This, of course, was as corny as Plautus himself really: the drunks weren’t slaves, but they were poor people, & there was a restive agin-the-government tone to the whole picture. (CW 8, 312-13)

Continue reading

Frye on God: “Hell is in front of us because we have put it there; paradise is missing because we have failed to put it there”

Part of the evolution of the universe sequence in The Tree of Life

Over the last little while we’ve been running a Frye on God thread, which has already become part of a skein that weaves together a number of themes, not all of them obviously related.

In a post yesterday we had a look at Job, who seems to get us closer to a notion of God that consolidates these apparent incongruities. So let’s see how much further Job’s God can take us. From Words with Power:

The mysteries of birth and death. . .can never be understood because they can never be objectified. But there is a creation that mystifies and a creation that reveals, and the latter is identical with the former. Except that the mysterious creation, the one infinitely far back in the past, is the one that Job has heard about but cannot directly see (42:5). When the infinitely remote creation is re-presented to him, he becomes a participant in it: that is, he become creative in himself, as heaven and earth are made new to him. He is given no new discovery, but gains a deeper apprehension of what is already there. This deeper apprehension is not simply more wisdom, but an access of power.

Myths of a paradise lost in the past or a hell threatening us after death are myths corrupted by the anxieties of time. Hell is in front of us because we have put it there; paradise is missing because we have failed to put it there. The Biblical perspective of divine initiative and human response passes into its opposite, where the initiative is human, and where a divine response, symbolized by the answer to Job, is guaranteed. The union of these perceptions would be the next step, except that where it takes place there are no next steps (CW, 264-65).

TGIF: Comedians Say What We’re All Thinking

Jon Stewart takes on homophobic presidential candidate Michelle (“Gays are a part of Satan”) Bachmann’s equally homophobic husband, Marcus Bachmann, who runs a “clinic” to help “pray the gay away” but leaves the impression that he protests a little too much. It is a pattern that is familiar enough by now: closeted men on the Christian right who repress their sexuality, which then manifests as hostility toward openly gay people — including efforts to “cure” them through Bible-based “reparation therapy.”

In a nice meta-comical turn, Stewart recruits Jerry Seinfeld to counsel him on how to repress his urges to make jokes about a man who may be repressing urges of his own.

You can watch the video here.

Gay activist and author Dan Savage provides some perspective:

Straight people haven’t just gotten used to gay people—to openly gay people—they’ve come to the realization that they prefer openly gay people to lying closet cases. They would rather have a beer with an honest Cam than a glass of champagne with a lying Liberace. And that’s why Marcus Bachmann is being ridiculed: it’s not because he’s perceived to be gay—it’s not because he pings on everyone’s gaydar save Michele’s—it’s because he’s perceived to be dishonest. He appears to be a lying closet case, a lying closet case who’s made convincing other gay people to join him in the closet his life’s work. And straight people don’t like being lied to.

The reason for the links above relating to the implications of homophobia, by the way, is that the response on the right has been to dismiss all of this as stereotyping. However, home truths about homophobia turn out to have both a public record and a scientific basis.

“The Tree of Life” and “The Book of Job”

I saw The Tree of Life last night, and it is a remarkable film. I loved all 14 billion years of it. (Yes, it does stretch back to the creation of the universe, but with emphasis on the last 60 years.)

There are two explicit references to the Book of Job, beginning with the opening title card, which refers to God’s confrontation with Job where God asks in the midst of Job’s terrible suffering what he knows about the origins of creation: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth. . .when the morning stars sang together?” (38:4,7).  The entire movie is keyed to this reference, which even then may not fully penetrate the mood of mystery whose motifs seem to be never-ending rounds of love and loss.

Frye, of course, wrote extensively about the Book of Job — about this climactic confrontation between God and Job especially — and, not surprisingly, offers clarification. From The Great Code:

The fact that God’s speech is thrown into a series of rhetorical questions to which “no” is the only answer seems to give it a bullying and hectoring quality, and certainly there is no “answer” to Job’s problem. But did we ever seriously think that so great a poem would turn out to be a problem with an answer? To answer a question. . .is to accept the assumptions in it, and thereby to neutralize the question by consolidating the mental level on which the question was asked. Real questions are stages in formulating better questions; answers cheat us out of the chance to do this. So even if we are dissatisfied with God’s performance, a God who was glibly ready to explain it all would be more contemptible than the most reactionary of divine bullies.

We remember that Job himself was groping toward a realization that no causal explanation of his alienated plight was possible. In a sense God is speaking out of Job’s own consciousness here: any causal explanation takes us back to a First Cause, that is the creation. The rhetorical questions really mean, then, in this context: don’t look along the line of causes to the creation: there is no answer there, and no help there. How Job got into his position is less important than how he is to get out of it; and it is only because he was not a participant in creation that he can be liberated from the chaos and darkness within it. (CW, 217-18)

Fryeday: Ninety-nine Years and Counting

Frye and Barry Callaghan on the back cover of Callaghan’s memoir, Barrelhouse Kings.

Today is Frye’s 99th birthday, which means we’re in the run-up to what will undoubtedly be an eventful centenary.

Looking back at our posts for Frye’s 98th birthday on July 14, 2010, we’re reminded what a busy and eventful time it was.

First of all, it occurred during a rising storm of protest after the University of Toronto announced the closing of the Centre for Comparative Literature, which was founded by Frye. The closure was eventually cancelled, in large part through the efforts of highly dedicated people, like our own Jonathan Allan. Our first post of the day, therefore, was a letter from Bob Denham to U of T President David Naylor, offering support for the Centre.

Next up was a compilation of birthday entries from Frye’s personal diaries, as well as many more letters to his fiance, Helen Kemp, covering the period 1932 to 1950; and, finally, selections from his notebooks at the other end of his life.

There then followed a post about the legacy and continuing importance of the Centre for Comparative Literature from Jonthan Allan.

Then came an update from Dawn Arnold of the Frye Festival on the competition for funding of a community project. Moncton’s proposal was to raise a statue of Northrop Frye to sit in front of the Moncton Public Library, an institution Frye worked for in his youth. The bid did not succeed, but it was very close. I remain hopeful that, with the centenary approaching, the good people of Moncton will somehow get their wish.

That was followed by a birthday greeting from reader Tamara Kamermans, in the form of a novelty video of the Beatles playing “Birthday.”

Finally, a post to round out an eventful day: an announcement that the website was now on Facebook, and a further announcement of a new addition to our journal, a paper by Ken Paradis.

This is a good time to remind readers that we have a dedicated category, Call for Papers, which includes solicitations related to the centenary. We also have a separate category, Frye Centenary, which we expect will fill with more content as the year progresses.

There’s obviously a story attached to the wonderful photo above, and you can read it after the jump. As it was Alice Munro’s 80th birthday the other day, it’s nice that she appears in it too, along with a number of other Canadian luminaries.

Continue reading

Frye on Mass Media: “If people did not resent this they would not be human”

Prime Minister David Cameron says Murdoch’s withdrawal of a bid for BSkyB is “the right decision for the country”

The wave of anger that threatens to swamp the cynical commercial interests of News Corp. — and Rupert Murdoch more specifically — is presciently characterized in Frye’s essay, “Communications,” published in 1970:

All the mass media have a close connection with the centres of social authority, and reflect their anxieties. . . [I]n the United States they reflect the anxiety of the economic Establishment to keep production running. . . [Such] communication is a one-way street. Wherever we turn, there is that same implacable voice, unctuous, caressing, inhumanly complacent, selling us food, cars, political leaders, culture, contemporary issues, and remedies against the migraine we get from listening to it. It is not just the voice we hear that haunts us, but the voice that goes on echoing in our minds, forming habits of speech, our processes of thought.

If people did not resent this they would not be human, and all the nightmares about society turning into an insect state would come true. My hair prickles when I hear advertisers talk of a television set simply as a means of reaching their market. It so seldom occurs to them that a television set might be their market’s way of looking at them, and that the market might conceivably not like what it sees. (CW 11, 135)

Today, under pressure from all three parties in the House of Commons, News Corp. withdrew its bid to obtain sole ownership of BSkyB, a satellite service with 10 million viewers in the U.K.

Meanwhile, the scandal threatens to spread to the U.S. with suggestions that News Corp. may have also hacked the phones of American politicians and the families of 9/11 victims.

If this catches on, it will be interesting to see if the Republicans line up behind Murdoch’s most odious creation, Fox News.

If it doesn’t catch on, that could be bad news as Murdoch divests in the U.K. and consolidates in the U.S.

In the meantime, News Corp. stock continues to lose value.

Quote of the Day II: The Sun and the Prime Minister

Just so there’s no doubt about the relationship between Rupert Murdoch and British politicians, there’s this:

“Well John, let me put it this way. I’ve got a large bucket of shit lying on my desk and tomorrow morning I’m going to pour it all over your head.” — Sun editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, to Prime Minister John Major in 1992, an election year (hence the headline above).

Quote of the Day: “The new ecology of political discourse”

Chris Matthews, Joan Walsh and Eric Bates discuss Gore’s article and the corrupted political process — most especially on the right — that prevents anything substantial being done about global warming

Two related themes in at least a couple of our ongoing threads are environmental degradation and political degradation. Al Gore brings them together in “Climate of Denial” in the lastest issue of Rolling Stone:

In the new ecology of political discourse, special-interest contributors of the large sums of money now required for the privilege of addressing voters on a wholesale basis are not squeamish about asking for the quo they expect in return for their quid. Politicians who don’t acquiesce don’t get the money they need to be elected and re-elected. And the impact is doubled when special interests make clear — usually bluntly — that the money they are withholding will go instead to opponents who are more than happy to pledge the desired quo. Politicians have been racing to the bottom for some time, and are presently tunneling to new depths. It is now commonplace for congressmen and senators first elected decades ago — as I was — to comment in private that the whole process has become unbelievably crass, degrading and horribly destructive to the core values of American democracy.

Largely as a result, the concerns of the wealthiest individuals and corporations routinely trump the concerns of average Americans and small businesses. There are a ridiculously large number of examples: eliminating the inheritance tax paid by the wealthiest one percent of families is considered a much higher priority than addressing the suffering of the millions of long-term unemployed; Wall Street’s interest in legalizing gambling in trillions of dollars of “derivatives” was considered way more important than protecting the integrity of the financial system and the interests of middle-income home buyers. It’s a long list.

Almost every group organized to promote and protect the “public interest” has been backpedaling and on the defensive. By sharp contrast, when a coalition of powerful special interests sets out to manipulate U.S. policy, their impact can be startling — and the damage to the true national interest can be devastating.

Frye Alert: Anatomies


Bloom interviewed by the New York Times

Here’s a review of Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence in The Brooklyn Rail.

It’s difficult to be fully comfortable with Bloom when it comes to Frye. Frye himself suggested that Bloom’s “chief anxiety of influence” related to him. The reviewer notes, for example, that Bloom says he derived his title from Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, which he claims to love. It is also, of course, an unmistakable echo of Anatomy of Criticism, which Bloom recently claimed he can no longer read.

From the review:

Bloom has carried the banner for “secular canonization” for a long time, and notes that he fought for it first with the distinguished critic Northrop Frye and later against the New Cynicism. “For more than half a century I have tried to confront greatness directly, hardly a fashionable stance,” he says, “but I see no other justification for literary criticism in the shadows of our Evening Land.”

How is this “secular canon” established?

The weapon of choice in Bloom’s arsenal is the pronouncement. The book abounds in statements that can only be accepted or denied and that are not supported by anything more than the power of his assertions and explanations.

This nicely encapsulates the fact that the subjective response at the centre of Bloom’s criticism is only on the periphery of Frye’s. It is also a reminder that while criticism may include value judgments, it cannot be based on value judgments.

Jonathan Allan’s earlier post on The Anatomy of Influence here.