Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Electronic Symposium

(Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s  “The Symposium”)

On 17 August 2009 Michael Happy launched the Northrop Frye weblog.  Michael wrote at the time that “the purpose of this blog is to provide an online meeting place for the Frye community, which, we hope, will extend beyond the university to include those who maintain a lively interest in literature and the arts.”  Michael, who ran the blog almost singlehandedly for more than two‑and‑a‑half years, poured an enormous amount of energy into it.  He has recently taken a break from the daily attention the blog requires.

Joe Adamson, who was a correspondent from the beginning, has taken over the administrative duties from his post at McMaster University (the library at McMaster hosts the blog).  This month marks the third anniversary of the blog, which continues to receive between 8000 and 9000 visitors each month.  In light of that anniversary and of Frye’s 100th birthday earlier this month, it seems to be an appropriate moment to renew the call for contributors.  If you have something to say about Frye or about what others have said about him and his work, then by all means let us hear from you.  Just write to us at, or if you would like to remark on someone else’s post, simply go to “Leave a Comment” at the end of the post.   All contributions are, of course, moderated.

Ed Lemond, bookseller, poet, novelist, and longtime advisor to the program committee of the annual Frye Festival, has recently agreed to be a regular correspondent from the Maritimes.  We would like to have other regular correspondents.  This doesn’t mean that you would be obligated to post something every week or even every other month.  But it does mean committing yourself to engaging in the conversation periodically.

The ideal is to create an electronic conversation somewhat like the Platonic symposium––a dialectic of both different points of view and of a common vision of the subject under discussion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Joe Adamson and Bob Denham

Frye Alert: Index to the Collected Works

The Index to the Collected Works of Northrop Frye, magisterially compiled by Jean O’Grady, is now out.  See here

The Index will turn out to be the most valuable of the thirty volumes.  Thanks once more to Jean for this exceptional achievement and, of course, to Alvin Lee for his equally exceptional leadership in seeing this grand project to a glorious conclusion.

The Broken Estate

[Wesley Memorial United Church, Moncton, NB]

In his book Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, Bob Denham lists the half-dozen spiritual illuminations that Frye experienced during his lifetime, and quotes Frye from the late notebooks: “I have spent the greater part of seventy-eight years in writing out the implications of insights that occupied at most only a few seconds of all that time.”

“Moments of intensity,” Frye called them. Epiphanies. Insights. Illuminations. Intuitions. The first occurred in Moncton, one day when he was walking from his home on Pine Street to Aberdeen High School, a distance of about 10 blocks. In an interview with Robert Sandler (recorded Sept. 20, 1979, and quoted in John Ayre’s biography), Frye

remembered walking along St. George St. to high school and just suddenly that whole shitty and smelly garment (of fundamentalist teaching I had all my life) just dropped off into the sewers and stayed there. It was like the Bunyan feeling, about the burden of sin falling off his back only with me it was a burden of anxiety. Anything might have touched it off, but I don’t know what specifically did, or if anything did. I just remember that suddenly that that was no longer a part of me and would never be again.

In April, 2011, when Michael Happy was in Moncton to give a talk at the Frye Festival, he and I spent an afternoon exploring the various Frye sites that mark the city, sites that go back to his time here in the 1920s and new sites created by the festival in the last 13 years. From his house at 24 Pine Street and the Wesley Memorial Church on Cameron we drove and walked along St. George Street, trying to imagine where it was exactly that the albatross was lifted. A likely spot seemed to be at the corner of St. George and Lutz, where the Roman Catholic Cathedral towers above all else and is suitably massive, dark, and forbidding. (Though I know from experience it houses one of the great organs in Canada, and is central to Acadian culture and history.) We snapped pictures of the near-by gutter, thinking we’d surely found the spot. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Cathedral, a fact I should have known, was only built in 1939. So we still do not know where it happened. The important thing, for Frye and for us, is that it did happen.

Yet looking back on the Moncton illumination, Frye realized, as he said to David Cayley in December, 1989 (having said something similar in the Sandler interview):

I wasn’t really brought up with that garment on me at all. Mother told me a lot of nonsense because her father had told it to her, and she thought it must be true and that it was her duty to pass it on. But something else came through, and you know how quick children are at picking up the overtones in what’s said to them rather than what is actually said. I realize that Mother didn’t really believe any of this stuff herself… She thought she did believe it. She thought she ought to believe it. But I can see now that as a child I picked up the tone of common sense behind it. Mother had a lot of common sense in spite of all that stuff.

It’s easy to hear in these words a great affection for his mother, who is the one after all who got him going at the age of 3 or so, with reading and music and much else. It’s one of the reasons no doubt, this affection, that brought him to Moncton in Nov., 1990, two months before his death, to lecture at l’université de Moncton, give a talk at Moncton High School, and in general receive a hero’s welcome. This may have been his only visit to Moncton since the 1940s, when his mother died. One of his primary wishes was to visit her gravesite in Elmwood Cemetery. Continue reading

Photo from the Centenary in Moncton

From “Frye Statue Celebrates an Icon,” by Margaret Patricia Eaton, Moncton Times, July 12, 2012:

At the unveiling of the Northrop Frye sculpture on July 13 am, standing (from left), Janet Fotheringham, resource and art critic for the project; Dawn Arnold, Frye Festival chair and a Moncton city councillor, Darren Byers and Fred Harrison, sculptors. Sitting next to the Frye statue is Robert Denham, Professor Emeritus at Roanoke College in Virginia, who donated his entire personal collection of writing by and about Frye, valued at $40,000, to the Moncton Public Library. Next to Frye on the bench seat is a book with the following bilingual inscription: “Northrop Frye: Canadian literary critic and theorist considered one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th Century. He spent his formative years in Moncton where he developed the ideas that he would go on to explore the rest of his life and where he established his deep commitment to an informed and civil society.”

And from Bread ‘N Molasses,  “Community Birthday Party to Celebrate Northrop Frye’s 100th Birthday,” by Kellie Underhill, June 28, 2012:

Before the unveiling of the sculpture, the Frye Festival in collaboration with the New Brunswick Public Library Service will announce a major donation by Robert D. Denham to the Moncton Public Library. Professor Emeritus at Roanoke College in Virginia, Robert D. Denham is donating his complete collection of books and objects that belonged to Northrop Frye, along with Frye’s manuscripts, first editions of his books and many other works that feature Frye.

“The New Brunswick Public Libraries Foundation, the New Brunswick Public Library Service, and the Moncton Public Library would like thank Dr. Robert D. Denham, the foremost Northrop Frye scholar in the world, for his generous donation of one of the largest Northrop Frye collections,” says Sylvie Nadeau, Executive Director of New Brunswick Public Library Service. “This eclectic collection includes signed editions of Frye’s works including first editions, paintings and caricatures depicting Frye, audio-visual materials featuring Frye and other treasures that both researchers and the public will enjoy. A highlight of the collection is Frye’s own writing desk and chair from the upstairs room in his Toronto home, which will join Frye’s typewriter at the library. The value of the donation has been appraised at over $40,000. I would like to thank the Frye Festival organization and the Board of the Moncton Public Library for their key role in facilitating this donation.”

Frye’s Personae

Frye’s “I had genius” remark reveals one of the masks he wore.  Another is revealed in his statement that The Great Code “was a silly and sloppy book” by the standards of traditional scholarship.  Frye was aware that all of us have countless personae, some no doubt troubling to himself and some troubling to others.  Here is an account of the “village” of characters in his own psyche:

The individual man comprises a multitude of other characters—Jung’s archetypes are surely only a few threshold dwellers. There is at least a good-sized village inside me. Many are children, some are women, & a few may be animals or even monsters. Some are replicas of other people I know, either in personal acquaintance or in reading. They die, but new ones move in & grow up. All this is not pure whimsy—I’m trying to get at a real fact of existence. Ever since Plato people have talked of the state in terms of the individual: what would happen if one were to look at the individual in terms of a society? Suppose Jung’s “anima” were not a feminine figure in me, but the aggregate of all the female characters in me? He says himself that the animus is regularly a group or council. So with me: in the course of a day, even a day spent in pure solitude, I should go through a bigger dramatic repertoire than any commedia dell’arte. Pedants, buffoons, comedians, debaters, politicians, hermits, saints, sages, middling-sensual men, suburban bourgeoisie all dispute within me, & everything I do & say is the calculus of probabilities resulting from their competition within me. A good deal of behavior shows this. The “censor” could be a whole Sanhedrin, & the kind of experience of conversion described by William James in his chapter on healthy-mindedness corresponds point for point to a political revolution [The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: New American Library, 1958), 76–111 (Lectures 4 and 5)]. In Victorian times it was fashionable to be patriarchal or matriarchal: only the older & graver heads spoke, & within the individual, as within society, children were seen but not heard. Nowadays democracy is fashionable: we disapprove of censors, allow our women & even children a voice in our assemblies, & if we do not allow our perverts or Calibans to speak, at least we try to locate them & keep a police record of them. Democracy turns easily into a police state, & it is easy for people with liberal & open societies inside them to become converted to a rigorous totalitarian dialectic. I suppose two-party opposition-patterns are more common—nearly everyone is aware of some dividing contrast in his attitudes & moods. I think of all these characters as dramatis personae, speaking masks. Perhaps most of them inhabit a sort of Gentiles’ outer court, the real decisions (every thought is a decision, a bill that’s had two readings & committee in a well-regulated mind) being made by a small cabinet within of high priests. Whether there is one high priest or supreme pontiff I don’t know. This veers toward an idea I’ve had for a long time, that Jesus’ cleansing of the temple & his casting of devils out of individuals were exactly the same act. The thing that’s difficult to grasp is that it’s only the holiest of holies that are socially visible: all the outer courts are hidden. Thus each man looks consistently like one man: only in anarchy do the money-changers & dove-sellers suddenly appear in his face or conversation. Ordinarily he presents the appearance of one man interpreting the will of a small & fairly homogeneous group. Thus for an elect Christian, Christ cleanses the temple, or casts out devils, or harrows hell, redeeming & releasing the bound spirits, or separates sheep from goats, all of these activities being the same.

Northrop Frye and Public Libraries

 Northrop Frye and Public Libraries

Robert D. Denham

Moncton Public Library, Moncton, New Brunswick, 13 July 2012


As Northrop Frye devoted his life to the word, it goes without saying that he had great affection for those wonderful repositories of the word that we call libraries.  But for all of the connections between Frye and academic libraries, he had a special fondness for the public library.

During the summer of 1930, after his first year at Victoria College, Frye got a job pasting labels into books at the Toronto Reference Library––which was a public library, not a university one.  It was here that he discovered––“by accident” he says––Colin Still’s book on The Tempest, a book that significantly influenced Frye’s reading of Shakespeare.  Two years later (Frye is 19 at the time), he returned to Moncton for the summer, taking the two-day journey by way of Montreal.  He was able to land a job at the public library, which had opened in 1927 in what became known as the “Archibald House” at the foot of Archibald Street.

In the summer of 1932 Frye was not altogether happy about being back home: he had become separated from the Toronto he’d grown to like, from his classmates, and of course from his girlfriend Helen Kemp.  But his discontent is mitigated somewhat by his being close to the books he loved.  In the Moncton library he discovered Louis Untermeyer’s American Poetry since 1900, a book that was to introduce him to Wallace Stevens, who turned out to be one of Frye’s literary heroes.

Frye wrote in a letter from that summer, “I rather like working in this library.  It’s such an interesting psychological study.  The number of ways a taxpayer can think up to bully me are practically infinite.  There’s one charming old gentleman who comes in about three times a week, tosses disgustedly a couple of detective stories in front of me and says: ‘Trash, absolute trash! Got any more of that author?’  Then he explains shamefacedly that he uses them as soporifics.  Then there are French youngsters who suddenly become most hopelessly ignorant of English whenever they have a fine due on their books.”

During the summer of 1936 Frye checked out two volumes of Frazer’s The Golden Bough from the Moncton Public Library, and Frazer became, of course, one of the key sources for Frye’s understanding of myth and ritual.  In the early 1950s when Frye was at Harvard on a Guggenheim Fellowship he had at his disposal, of course, the famous libraries at Harvard, but one of the first things he and Helen did was to get cards from the Cambridge Public Library.  And even though in Toronto he had access to one of the great university libraries in the world, he patronized the Deer Park Library, a public library on St. Clair Avenue.

When I first talked to Dawn Arnold and Tina Bourgeois about donating my Frye collection to the Moncton Public Library I had in mind that it might serve as a kind of monument to Frye’s achievement.  I didn’t think of it as becoming much of a research center.  At the heart of the collection are the various editions and translations of Frye’s books.  There are 114 translations in 25 languages.  It seemed very unlikely that researchers would travel to Moncton to read Frye in Farsi or Lithuanian or Arabic, or even any of the 21 translations of Frye into Italian.  In other words, I saw Frye’s books and his writing desk and the drawings and caricatures and paintings as belonging more to the holdings of a museum than a library.  But then I asked whether the library might be interested in the secondary literature––the books and articles written about Frye, the reviews of his books, and so on.  When the answer was yes, then I began to think that the Moncton Public Library might well become a destination for those interested in Frye’s work.  If some researcher, for example, were interested in the reception of The Great Code, he or she would want to consult the almost 200 reviews of that book.  It would require a great deal of time to dig all of these out from a research library, or rather research libraries, since no one library, including the National Library of Canada, would have them all.  But now here they all are in Moncton––photocopies of all of the reviews of The Great Code.  Or take the books devoted exclusively to Frye’s work.  There are 46 of these.  Researchers wanting to consult what is written about Frye might set off for the libraries of the University of New Brunswick, where they would discover 28 of the 46.  But now, why not come to Moncton where they’ll find all but one of these books––98% rather than the 60% they’d find in Fredericton and Saint John?

We do make a distinction between public and research libraries.  I myself have done a great deal of research in public libraries, the Toronto Reference Library, which is the centerpiece of the Toronto Public Library system, being a notable example.  Frye himself liked to go to the Toronto Reference Library because, as he says in his diaries, it was “clear of [his] environment,” that is, it provided a momentary refuge from the university.  It was in the Toronto Public Reference Library that Frye read The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Jung’s Secret of the Golden Flower.  It was also in this public library that he began to write Anatomy of Criticism, the greatest work of critical theory of the last century.  

In his 1950 Diary Frye reports that on a trip to London, Ontario, friends drove him and Helen to see what he calls “the famous public library,” noting that the public library was “also an art gallery, a film & record library, & a community center generally.  It is a most pleasant little building, & I’d have liked to see more of it.”  Here Frye is getting at one difference between the academic and the public library.  Academic libraries tend to be detached and impersonal and sometimes not very user friendly.  Public libraries, on the other hand, are the focus of a community.  I like to think that having the Frye papers here at the Moncton Public Library will help to foster that sense of community.

I wouldn’t expect that there will be a long queue next week of people elbowing their way into the Frye Collection, but it could be that over time the Collection will serve as a magnet to draw Frye scholars and others to the library.  Moncton may not yet have a Northrop Frye Street, as Sherbrooke, Quebec, does, but it does have its Northrop Frye School and its terrific Northrop Frye Festival and now a Northrop Frye sculpture and a collection of Northrop Frye books and papers and other Frygiana––all of which serve to honor the city’s most famous son, the one who Don Harron says possessed “the finest literary mind in the Western world.”

I should say how pleased I am that the Frye Collection is now in Moncton, and to say what a pleasure it has been to working with Dawn Arnold and Danielle LeBlanc of the Frye Festival, and with the library representative, Tina Bourgeois, and with my old friend Ed Lemond who spent five days in Emory, Virginia, appraising the collection.  And thanks too to Léon Cormier and Victor Gautreau who hauled it all safely across the border.  Everyone I’ve worked with has been a model of efficiency and, like Frye himself, supplied with a generous measure of good will.

As it’s a great deal more fun to hear Frye talk rather than me, let me close with the opening of a letter to Helen written exactly eighty years ago, on Frye’s twentieth birthday:

My dear Helen:

I have recently completed another decade of my alleged career and feel quite old-fashioned.  My birthday, which is the same as that of France, has been signalized by a pouring rain on the last sixteen occasions of its celebration, which is as far back as my memory—or at least the pre-Freudian part of it—goes.  This time the day dawned clear as a mirror; no vestige of a cloud anywhere. It stayed that way until eight o’clock at night, when suddenly and without warning a horrible-looking black thundercloud leered up over the horizon, like the devil coming for the soul of Faust, and for an hour the world was a stringy mass of water.  I got a present too—a tie, from an aunt.  I shall keep it as a souvenir of that aunt, but as an adornment for the neck it would rank approximately with the Ancient Mariner’s albatross, I should think.

Kind thanks for inviting me to Moncton on this grand occasion.

Happy Birthday, Northrop Frye!

It is Frye’s centenary today, his 100th birthday, an occasion of celebration for anyone interested in the way a great thinker can change the way we think about literature, society, and culture, and the way a public intellectual can touch not just academics and scholars and those who are part of a university environment, but of so many individuals who are not. He spoke for and to us all, and with an insight and eloquence that are unparallelled. Most importantly, he spoke the language of love, not the language of power.

Happy Birthday, Norrie!

Above is a  photo of the bronze state which was unveiled yesterday in Moncton.

In Response to Comments on Frye and Religion

In response to comments on my post on Rowan Williams and Frye (here), I am not really interested in getting into a discussion about whether the world would be better or worse without religion or the belief in God. The question is what are Frye’s views on the subject. It would be patently false to say or suggest that Frye rejects religion.  Frye is a a dialectical thinker and was quite capable of holding apparently antithetical positions and letting them grow into a more comprehensive view that includes them both. Yes, the history of the Christian religion,  as Frye discusses in some detail in The Double Vision, is a ghastly one. He points out that religious communities have tended so often to resemble what he calls a  “primitive society,” or “embryonic society,” “[o]ne in which the individual is thought of as primarily a funciton of the social group,” and hierarchical power structures and tight control of individuals are deemed necessary. Frye opposes this to what he calls a mature society– the likes of which, of course, we have never really seen–in which the “primary aim is to develop a genuine individuality in its members,” and “the structure of authority becomes a function of the individuals within it” (DV, 8). Churches and religious beliefs are always plagued by what Frye calls secondary or ideological concerns as opposed to human primary ones; and religious insitutions adapt the Gospel’s “myth to live by” to suit the power structures of their community and society. This does not prevent Frye from insisting at the same time that a mature society, if we are ever to see one, can only be one in which the individuals are spiritual people:

The New Testament sees the genuine human being as emerging from an embryonic state within nature and society into the fully human world of the individual, which is symbolized as a rebirth or second birth, in the phrase that Jesus used to Nicodemus. Naturally this rebirth cannot mean any separation from one’s natural and social context, except insofar as a greater maturity includes some knowledge of the conditioning that was formerly accepted uncritically. The genuine humanthus born is the soma pneumatikon, the spiritual body (I Corinthians 15:44). This phrase means that spiritual man is a body: the natural man or soma psychikon merely has one. The resurrection of the spiritual body is the completion of the kind of life the New Testament is talking about, and to the extent that any society contains spiritual people, to that extent it is a mature rather than a primitive society. (14)

As for science, precisely because it is a description of what is it cannot provide any spiritual vision of human ends. Ultimately, it has only a single, not a double vision of the world. It is not concerned, Frye would say, the way that art/literature and religion are. Art and literature and the Bible are about the world we want and the world we don’t want. They show us a world that makes human sense.That doesn’t concern science. Science and democracy have been great forces in changing and improving the world, and they have forced religious institutions to change for the better. They have separated church and state and diminished the secular and temporal power of religion, which is a necessary step to a much more open and non-dogmatic church, to a much greater openness of belief. For all Frye’s dissatisfaction with the United Church–where gays and lesbians are, by the way, fully accepted in every aspect and function of the church–he also praises it for its ability to remain open and improve:

I have been trying to suggest a basis for the openness of belief that is characteristic of the United Church. Many of you will still recall an article in a Canadian journal that emphasized this openness, and drew the conclusion that the United Church was now an ‘agnostic’ church. I think the writer was trying to be fair-minded, but his conclusion was nonsense: the United Church is agnostic only in the sense that it does not pretend to know what nobody actually ‘knows’ anyway. The article quoted a church member as asking. If a passage in Scripture fails to transform me, is it still true? The question was a central one, but it reminded me of a story told me by a late colleague who many years ago was lecturing on Milton’s view of the Trinity. He explained the difference between Athanasian and Arian positions, and how Milton, failing to find enough scriptural evidence for the Athanasian position, adopted a qualified or semi-Arian one. He was interrupted by a student who said impatiently, ‘But I want to know the truth about the Trinity.’ One may sympathize with the student, but trying to satisfy him is futile. What ‘the’ truth is, is not available to human beings in spiritual matters: the goal of our spiritual life is God, who is a spiritual Other, not a spiritual object, much less a conceptual object. That is why the Gospels keep reminding us how many listen and how few hear: truths of the gospel kind cannot be demonstrated except through personal example. As the seventeenth-century Quaker Isaac Penington said, every truth is substantial in its own place, but all truths are shadows except the last. The language that lifts us clear of the merely plausible and the merely credible is the language of the spirit; the language of the spirit is, Paul tells us, the language of love, and the language of love is the only language that we can be sure is spoken and understood by God. (20)

These are not the words of a man who rejects religion. They are the words of a religious visionary. Again, I highly recommend Bob Denham’s comprehensive treatment of this subject in Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World (U of Virginia P, 2004).

Review of the University of Toronto Quarterly’s Special Issue on Frye

Review of the University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 81, no. 1

Robert D. Denham


Recently three journals have each published a special issue in connection with the centenary of Frye’s birth, 14 July 1912:


University of Toronto Quarterly 81, no. 1 (2012): 1–186.  Special Issue: The Future of Northrop Frye: Centennial Perspectives.  Articles by Michael Dolzani, Merlin Donald, Travis DeCook, Ian Balfour, Jean Wilson, Yves Saint‑Cyr, Adam Carter, Jonathan Allan, Gordon Teskey, plus an interview with Margaret Atwood by Nick Mount, responses to Frye by nine poets, and a previously unpublished essay by Frye on poetic diction.


Ellipse: texts littéraires canadiens en traduction/Canadian Writing in Translation 87–88 (2012).   Giant in time/un géant plongé dans le temps: An Anthology of Writings in Honour of Northrop Frye’s 100th Birthday/Textes en homage à Northrop Frye à l’occasion de son 100eanniversaire.  Articles on Frye by Susan Glickman, Michael Happy, Serge Morin, and Bruce Powe, a memory of Frye by Robert Denham, Yann Martel’s “Letter to Stephen Harper,” poems by Troni Grande, Nella Cotrupi, and Valerie LeBlanc that engage Frye directly, poems by Paul Bossé, Gabriel Robichaud, and Jessie Robichaud that take their inspiration directly from the Frye Festival in Moncton, works by Lee D. Thompson, J.D. Wainwright, Jim Racobs, Edward Lemond, Anne Leslie, and Daniel Dugas that were written “in the spirit of Frye,” and other stories and poems, with no direct connection to Frye, written in his honor.


English Studies in Canada 37, no. 2 (June 2011).  Special Issue: Northrop Frye for a New Century.  Ed. Mervyn Nicholson.  Reflections by John Ayre, Stan Garrod, Monika Hilder, William N. Koch, and Rick Salutin.  Articles by Melissa Dalgleish, Timothy A. Delong, Robert D. Denham, Diane Dubois, Paul Hawkins, David M. Leeson, Duncan McFarlane, Mary Ryan, and Sára Toth.



Here we consider the first of these, the UTQ special issue, edited by Germaine Warkentin and Linda Hutcheon.  The editors’ introduction rehearses the debates surrounding Anatomy of Criticism, and then moves on to express the hope that the essays in the special issue, “The Future of Northrop Frye: Centennial Perspectives,” will reveal “what a critic of today will find challenging, provocative, fruitful, and productive in the rich record of a critic at work” (7).  The editors hasten to observe that this rich record includes the previously unpublished writing which, with the launching of the Collected Works of Frye project, began to become available in 1996.  The new material more than doubled the Frye canon, the Collected Works having brought to light almost ten thousand pages of previously unpublished writing, constituting now some 58% of the total Frye canon.  We are encouraged to think that the contributors to the special issue will take advantage of this new material.  But except for Michael Dolzani, and to a lesser extent Ian Balfour, Travis DeCook, Yves Saint‑Cyr, the contributors are practically silent about anything Frye wrote, especially the holograph texts, during the last decade‑and‑a‑half of his life.  The last volumes of the Collected Works came off the presses only two years ago, and no one can be expected to have read the 4,700,000 words that constitute the thirteen volumes of the previously unpublished material.  But even the published work of the late Frye, beginning with The Great Code and continuing through Words with Power, Myth and Metaphor, The Eternal Act of Creation, and The Double Vision, gets only the scantiest attention.  Toward the end of their introduction the editors do remind us that Frye’s career is rounded off with his two books on the Bible, but the contributors remain largely silent about the great burst of activity in Frye’s final years.

Why the lack of attention, even resistance, to the religious accent that is sounded so strongly in the last decade of Frye’s life?  The editors do say that from the pages of the CW as a whole “emerges a picture not only of Frye the literary theorist, but Frye the historical and social thinker, the theologian, the musician, and the satirist” (6).  I don’t see much evidence for calling Frye a theologian, but there is a wealth of evidence for calling him a religious visionary, one who is on a spiritual voyage.  The editors indicate that Frye “addressed a wide audience, not only a purely literary readership, but students of music, history, science and the general public as well” (9).  Anyone who has read the books from the 1980s and early 1990s and especially anyone who has looked into the Late Notebooks will find it strange that students of religion have been excluded in the editors’ understanding of Frye’s readership.

What then is the “future of Frye”?  Or the future of Frye studies?  Gordon Teskey’s answer to the first question in the “Afterword” is affirming: “I would bet on Frye, of course,” he says (180).  But  on the basis of the essays presented here the answer to the second question is, “The several bright spots notwithstanding, not altogether encouraging.”


* * *

  Continue reading

Rowan Williams, Frye, and the Church Prophetic

Rowan Williams is stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of this year, and has taken the opportunity to remove the muzzle and openly attack David Cameron’s idea of Great Britain’s “big society.” He calls it

aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable. And if the big society is anything better than a slogan looking increasingly threadbare as we look at our society reeling under the impact of public spending cuts, then discussion on this subject has got to take on board some of those issues about what it is to be a citizen and where it is that we most deeply and helpfully acquire the resources of civic identity and dignity.

This critical and prophetic language reminds us of the genuine role of the church in society. Williams’ attack is especially resonant amid the scandal of shameless interest rate rigging at Barclays in Great Britain and of similar fraud and collusion by investment bankers in the United States. For more on the Barclay scandal, go here. For Matt Taibbi’s scathing article in Rolling Stone–his disgust is palpable–go here.

Williams’ book Faith in the Public Square will by published by Bloomsbury this September. Go here for more details. Here are a few more nuggets:

At the individual and the national level, we have to question what we mean by growth writes. The ability to produce more and more consumer goods (not to mention financial products) is in itself an entirely mechanical measure of wealth. It sets up a vicious cycle in which it is necessary all the time to create new demand for goods and thus new demands on a limited material environment for energy sources and raw materials. By the hectic inflation of demand it creates personal anxiety and rivalry. By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term wellbeing. In a nutshell, it is investing in the wrong things.

‘Big society’ rhetoric is all too often heard by many as aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.

The significance of trying to shape public opinion within the Church is something quite different from an institutional programme on the part of the Church to impose its vision on everybody else.

Religion is seen by those who find it unacceptable as essentially an appeal to the will – decide to obey these presuppositions and to obey these commands. Religion in fact is consistently against coercion and institutionalised inequality and is committed to serious public debate about common good.

These remarks bring to mind so many passages in Frye, but his discussion in “The Church: Its Relation to Society” (1949), written at the beginning of the Cold War, is particularly prescient. The managerial or oligarchic dictatorship he describes here perfectly applies to the world of resurgent capitalism and “permanent war” we have been living in for decades now, ever since the Reagan and Thatcher “revolutions”:

It should be realized that Protestantism, like Catholicism, has had to struggle with a sacrilegious parody of itself, a struggle far harder to get one’s bearings in than the other. This parody is best described as laissez-faire, the industrial anarchism which represents the doctrine of individual liberty transferred from the society of love to the society of power.

After benefiting greatly from capitalism as long as it was dissolving the concretions of feudal. authority, Protestantism was considerably baffled when it turned demonic with the Industrial Revolution. The uninhibited grabbing of corruptible possessions, conceived not as a perennial fact of human nature but as a programme of human action, is the first open defiance of law and Gospel in modern history, for even the revolutionary Deism which preceded it made moral ideals out of Christian conceptions. As Ruskin points out in his trenchant polemic Unto This Last, the merchant under laissez-faire, unlike professional men, has no “calling,” no antecedent social reason for his existence.`’ Hence he cannot make any sacrifice of his natural will. From this fact two fallacies designed to rationalize laissez-faire have originated. One which goes back to Rousseau, is the conception of the “rights of man” as identical with the natural will of man. The other is the conception of history as the working out of the will of the natural society. The latter is sometimes called social Darwinism, because it misapplies Darwin’s biological theory to history, and, presents us with a vision of historical progress through the survival of the fit, the fit being those who fit the progress of laissez-faire by the possession of an unusually strong lust for power and profits. These two major fallacies have spawned a fruitful brood of minor ones, which we should take care, in talking about “liberalism,” to distinguish from those which are essential to a coherent Christian outlook.

The defences of laissez-faire offered today usually assume that the political form of it is democracy. This is nonsense: its political form is an oligarchic dictatorship. Every amelioration of labour conditions, every limitation of the power of monopolies, every effort to make the oligarchy responsible to the community as a whole, has been forced out of laissez-faire by democracy, which has played a consistently revolutionary role against it. . . . The essential identity of interest between the tendency to dictatorship in America and the achievement of it in Russia has been stated, though with some distortion of emphasis, in James Burnham’s well known book, The Managerial Revolution. How such a revolution could make its power absolute and permanent by a not-too-lethal form of permanent war is shown with great clarity in George Orwell’s terrible satire 1984, perhaps the definitive contemporary vision of hell. (CW 4, 263-64)