Why Moncton? Or Culture As Interpenetration

[Paulette Theriault, founder of the Frye Festival]

Frye’s 100th birthday, on July 14, came and went without too much fuss anywhere, except here at the Frye Blog and in Moncton, where a statue of Frye, in brilliant bronze, was unveiled in front of the public library, Bob Denham’s donation of Frye books and related items (valued at over $40,000) was announced and showcased, and there were speeches followed by a barbecue and a birthday cake. Oh, the CBC rebroadcast the Cayley conversation, the  Toronto Star featured a laudatory article, and The Globe and Mail printed a dismissive, ill-informed article by Bruce Meyers. Otherwise, not much. Throughout the year there have been and will be conferences and celebrations, but on the actual birthday, Moncton may have been the only place in Canada, the only place on the planet, to go out of its way. (I stand to be corrected.) So, the question is, Why Moncton?

In the early years of the Frye Festival, about 10 years ago, I remember Alvin Lee asking the same question, Why Moncton? Why is there a festival in Moncton and not in Toronto, where Frye lived, taught, and did his great work? Moncton seems (or seemed) an unlikely place to do justice to Frye. He lived here fewer than 10 years, graduated from high school in 1928 (at 16 years of age), left as soon as he could, and only came back a few times during the 1930s, to visit his parents. When his mother died in 1940, he returned to Moncton to see her one final time. As far as I know he did not return until fifty years later, in November, 1990, two months before his death, at the invitation of the Université de Moncton. Part of the answer is that Moncton is where Frye grew up and for that reason holds an importance in his life proportionally greater than the number of years he lived here. John Ayre, in his 1988 biography, paints a fairly detailed picture of Frye’s years in Moncton, which he calls “Moncton Exile” – a term that applies more to Frye’s mother than to Frye himself, though he admits he picked up some of the feeling from his mother. In 2003 Bob Denham gave a talk at the festival called “Moncton, Did You Know? Northrop Frye’s Early Years” in which he makes it clear that

[a]lthough Moncton was a place that Frye wanted to escape from, as with most things in life, there is always an “on the other hand,” and Frye’s experience there during a formative decade – from about 1920 to the time he went off to college in 1929 – was in many ways crucial to what “grew” him, in George Johnston’s phrase.

Bob makes use of newly discovered Frye material to show that “Frye’s experience in this place during his early years did bring into focus a number of key features in his imaginative and critical life.” I’ll mention just three of the points that Bob makes. (For the complete text of his remarks, search the title, Moncton, Did You Know?, on the blog website, or purchase of copy of “Verticals of Frye,” a collection of Frye festival talks I edited in 2005.) In one of his notebooks from the 1960s Frye says “that I cannot really get at the centre of a problem unless something in it goes back to childhood impressions.” And he reports that some of his “most vivid dream settings have been on Moncton streets. Streets are, of course, a labyrinth symbol, full of Eros: they recapture not past reality but my reality, reality for me.” His experience of Moncton, then, continued to give shape to his interior life for decades.

In his talk Bob gives an example of an early experience of Frye’s that directly influenced something he later wrote, in this case the Second Essay of Anatomy of Criticism. In a notebook entry Frye writes, “[The] line of descent begins when at the age of ten, on 340 High St., I started trying to imitate the style of that idiot Cramb’s book on Germany and England.” What is extraordinary here, in Bob’s words, is “the fact that Frye can trace his rhetorical skill back to that single experience on High Street.”

Perhaps the most important way in which Moncton “grew” Frye is as the place where he developed his fantasies of being a great composer, and later a great novelist. These early fantasies took the form of what Frye called his “ogdoad,” that is, an eight-part project. At nine years of age Frye dreamed of writing eight concerti. After reading Scott’s novels he imagined writing a sequence of historical novels, which, with further reading, became “a sequence of eight definitive novels,” each with its own one-word descriptive name. Later, when Frye had given up his dream of being a musician and a novelist, the ogdoad, as Bob Denham says, “became the blueprint for eight works of criticism.” In an unpublished typescript in the Northrop Frye Fonds at the University of Toronto, Bob found this remarkable entry:

 Suddenly, & simultaneously with the final & complete conversion to criticism, my old adolescent dream of eight masterpieces rose up again and hit me finally and irresistibly. Blake became Liberal [Frye’s one-word descriptive name for the first novel in the sequence], the study of drama Tragicomedy, the philosophical book, now a study of prose fiction, became Anticlimax, Numbers became Rencontre, Deuteronomy Mirage, & three others took nebulous shape. For several years I dithered, doodled, dawdled, dreamed & dallied. It was silly to let an adolescent pipe-dream haunt me like that: on the other hand, it did correspond to some major divisions in my actual thinking. So I kept on with it. When I finished the Blake, it became zero instead of one, & its place was taken by a study of epic. In my notes the initial letters of the eight books were cut down to hieratic forms.

Bob concludes his 2003 talk by stating, “Moncton, then, was the seat of the chief organizing scheme for Frye’s entire writing career.” Moncton was important for Frye, but what importance does Frye have for Moncton?

The answer to that question, and to the original question (Why Moncton?), has to do with the nature of Moncton as it exists now, the centre of an explosive cultural scene, especially within the Acadian population, that had its beginnings, as in other parts of Canada, in the 60s and 70s. It is a bilingual city with the two language communities committed to friendly and fruitful interaction. It is, in fact, Canada’s only officially bilingual city, on the basis of a resolution passed unanimously by city council ten years ago, on August 6, 2002. This means money dedicated to providing services and information in both languages. It’s not just talk; it’s the life-blood of the city. This combination of cultural revival and committed, official bilingualism allows Moncton to seriously present itself as Canada’s ‘iconic’ city. It is what inspired the founder of the Frye Festival, Paulette Theriault, to envision a bilingual literary festival that would bring together great writers from all over the world. And why not name the festival in honour of Moncton’s greatest cultural gift to the world, Northrop Frye? Why not celebrate him, as one of our own?

On his return to Moncton in November, 1990 Frye was pleased to note that the city had what it did not have when he was growing up – a university. He was even more pleased to note that it was a French language university, signalling a definite end to “the state of more or less amiable Apartheid” of his era, as he described it in the preface to The Bush Garden. Apartheid, amiable or not, means apart-ness, separation, segregation. On the streets of today’s Moncton, as in Montreal, but perhaps even more so, the language being spoken switches from French to English and back to French so frequently and with such ease that it’s easy to forget which language is being spoken. Often it’s both languages at once. The two languages (and the two language communities) “interpenetrate” in this obvious sense of the word.

In his essay, “Culture as Interpenetration,” reprinted in Divisions on a Ground, Frye sets out to explore “the relations between a culture and the social conditions under which it is produced.” In a colonial situation, which was Canada’s situation for such a long time, “in culture, as in religion and politics, the homeland is the source of authority, and the first duty of a colonial culture is to respond to it.” The standards for what is good writing or good music or good art are set elsewhere, in the homeland, maybe Toronto. As colonial culture develops, it becomes more interesting, more nuanced, more drawn into a real community. “It is still a mercantilist situation, but some initiative has gone into the provincial manufactures.” But the colonial mentality still prevails.

The final phase, in which provincial culture becomes fully mature, occurs when the artist enters into the cultural heritage that his predecessors have drawn from, and paints or writes without any sense of a criterion external to himself and his public. Here the anxieties about meeting proper standards or being up to date or expressing a distinctive subject-matter with enough emphasis (or what was once called, in connection with Hemingway, false hair on the chest) have all disappeared.

A colonial culture has a built-in hierarchy, beginning with the outposts and leading back, and up, to the ultimate authority in the homeland. Frye draws a parallel with the kind of Christianity, which he calls Baroque Christianity, that colonized New France and New England. Baroque Christianity contained within it “the rigidly authoritarian world-picture inherited from medieval times,” in other words, a hierarchical world-view, which allows, even invites an “attitude of arrogant ascendancy over nature.” The radical despoiling of nature that we see now on a grand scale is the result.

 In proportion as Canada shook off its external and subordinating assumptions about its English and French cultural heritages, the genuine form of cultural development became more obvious. This genuine form is what I mean by interpenetration. As Shelley demonstrated in his Defence of Poetry, the language of the creative imagination is a language that cannot argue: it is not based on propositions that do battle with their implied opposites. What it does is to create a vision that becomes a focus for a community. This means that it has, at least at the beginning, a limited range. Shelley himself, writing in a culture that had been London-dominated for a thousand years, suggests (in his preface to Prometheus Unbound) that for the best future developments in culture England should break down into about forty republics, each with a central city about the size of Periclean Athens or Medicean Florence.

Moncton is not Athens or Florence or San Francisco or San Antonio, but it is a “central city” that has a language all its own, a language that does not argue and is not built on propositions that do battle. It is built on a vision that has become a focus for a community. And because of that vision, or within the context of that vision, it is the “perfect place” to hold a festival to celebrate and honour Northrop Frye.

The centre of the universe is wherever one happens to be, Frye learned from Whitehead. Everything is everywhere at once, is another verbal formula for the same concept. This is ultimate interpenetration. Facebook and Twitter make it a reality, or bend it that way. So the answer to the question Why Moncton? is, perhaps, Why Not?

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One thought on “Why Moncton? Or Culture As Interpenetration

  1. Greta Doucet

    Thank you Mr Blogger for recognizing my dear friend Paulette Theriault as the founder of the Fry Festival which we both know she was. I often get upset when others do not recognize the wonderful work that this lady has done for Moncton over the past few years. This includes saving the Aberdeen Cultural Center and her major effort in attempting to save the Moncton High School and now her work in attempting to save the building that has been Moncton High School. I salute you and Paulette through this comment..


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