Category Archives: Anniversaries

William Faulkner

Clip from an interview in which Faulkner explains why The Sound and the Fury is his personal “best beloved” novel

William Faulkner died on this date is 1962.

Frye in The Modern Century. The reference is brief, but the context — the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity considered in a religious context — is telling. We can just sneak this one into our continuing consideration of Frye on God.

Matthew Arnold warned the dominant bourgeoisie of Victorian England that a society could pursue liberty to the point of forgetting about equality. Today, with capitalism in a counter-reformation period and with totalitarianism  thought of a something foreign, we prefer to be reminded that society — that is, other societies — can purse equality to the point of forgetting about liberty. But neither political democracy nor trade unions have developed much sense of the third revolutionary ideal of fraternity — the world “comrade” has for most of us a rather sinister and frigid sound. Fraternity is perhaps the ideal that the leisure structure has to contribute to society. A society of students, scholars, and artists is a society of neighbors, in the genuinely religious sense of that word. That is, our neighbor is not, or not necessarily, the person in the same national or ethnical or class group with ourselves, but may be a “good Samaritan” or person to whom we are linked by deeper bonds than nationality or racism or class solidarity can provide. There are bonds of intellect and imagination as well of love and good will. The neighbor of a scientist is another scientist working on similar lines, perhaps in a different continent; the neighbor of a novelist writing about Mississippi is (as Faulkner indicated in his Nobel Prize speech) anybody anywhere who respond to his work. (CW , 57-8)

Isaac Newton’s “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica”: “God is not a mathematical diagram”

The BBC’s documentary, “Isaac Newton: The Dark Heretic,” on Newton’s secret study of alchemy and his speculations on God and the Bible

Sir Isaac Newton published his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica on this date in 1687. The occasion contributes nicely to our ongoing thread, Frye on God.

Blake and Newton in “The Drunken Boat”:

Blake’s view, in short, is that the universe of modern astronomy, as revealed in Newton, exhibits only a blind, mechanical, sub-human order, not the personal presence of a deity. Newton himself tended to think of God still as “up there”; but what was up there, according to Blake, is only a set of interlocking geometrical diagrams, and God, Blake says, is not a mathematical diagram. Newtonism leads to what for Blake are intellectual errors, such as a sense of the superiority of abstractions to actual things and the notion that the real world is a measurable but invisible world of primary qualities. But Blake’s main point is that admiring the mechanisms of the sky leads to establishing human life in mechanical patterns too. In other words, Blake’s myth of Urizen is a fuller and more sophisticated version of the myth of Frankenstein. (CW 17, 79)

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The Globe Theatre

A panoramic view of the interior of the reconstructed Globe

The Globe Theatre, of which Shakespeare was part owner, burned to the ground on this date in 1613.

Frye in “The Stage is All the World” considers the theatre as an analogy of the cosmos.

The theatre as a metaphor for the universe was extremely common in Shakespeare’s day, and one reason was that the universe was assumed to have been intelligently designed by its Creator, and intelligent meant having some relation to human life. . . Similarly, the stars are not just up there: they have been put there to influence the character of living things. . . In so designed a cosmos all facts and all ideas are linked together, potentially in the human mind, actually in God’s. The image of a totally participating theatre begins to take shape. All facts and principles have their assigned and ticketed places, and step forward on the stage when needed. Courses in the training of memory were taught in which you constructed a theatre-shaped encyclopedia in your mind, and remembered something by pulling it out of its numbered place in your auditorium. The scholar who did most work on these memory theatres, the late Dame Frances Yates, was convinced that the design of the Globe was influenced by them. (CW 28, 448)

Michel Foucault and the Invisible God


Foucault on the disciplinary society (part 2 after the jump)

Michel Foucault died on this date in 1984 (born 1926).

This observation from one of Frye’s late notebooks stemming from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish dovetails with our ongoing consideration of Frye on God:

Michel Foucault has written about the control of a space of visibility as the central idea of the 19th c. hospitals and the like, and cites in particular Bentham’s invention invention of a Panopticon. Ramifications include 1984 and its “telescreen.” The idea of a watching God, developed partly to inspire children with guilt feelings about masturbation, is closely bound up with the sense of shame about sex, the need for covering the body which Adam felt when he realized that God was looking for him and wanted to see him. The etymology of dragon means the all-seer. The God who watches is a demonic God; as I’ve said, the true God is invisible because he does the seeing. But what does he see? Something to do with seeing to recreate and not to judge, much less to punish. The taboo about seeing God is of course the reverse side of this. (CW 6, 559)

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It’s Bloomsday.

Radio Bloomsday will be reading the text all day. You can listen to it here.

From Frye’s review of New Directions in Prose and Poetry in Canadian Forum (December 1942):

Pendulum theories of art don’t work. Poems and pictures are real things; “tradition” and “experiment” are abstract nouns. To judge a concrete thing in terms of one abstract quality is to study it in one of many possible aspects. Which may well be worth doing. But to look at all art as split down the middle into an antithesis of abstract qualities hamstrings all criticism and insults all masterpieces; for the better the work of art, the more rewarding it will be to study it from opposing points of view. Thus, one could write an interesting essay on Ulysses as an experimental novel, and an equally interesting one on Ulysses as a traditional novel. But Ulysses is not “essentially” either; it is not “essentially” anything but a novel. (CW 29, 21)

The Tank Man of Tiananmen Square


The “Tank Man,” otherwise known as as “Unknown Rebel,” single-handedly on this date in 1989 brought to a halt a line of tanks the day after the deadly forcible removal of student protesters from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Given that these soldiers had likely assisted in the mass murder of as many as thousands of young peaceful protesters, the stubborn bravery of this still unidentified man is inspiring.

The Chinese do not allow access to this clip on Google. Virtually no one under the age of thirty even knows about it.

Frye in Notebook 50:

June 1989. The massacre of the students in Tiananmen Square and the utter complacency of the senility squad about it, their confidence that all they have to do is to keep repeating the big lie, has definitely established Marxism, from Lenin on, as what Blake calls the Synagogue of Satan. Nobody can support a Marxist political movement anywhere now without being, on the Burke principle, not just a mistaken man but a bad man. (CW 5, 406)

Ruholla Khomeini and False Literalism


News report on the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini

Our thread on fundamentalism continues. Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini died on this date in 1989 (born 1900).

From The Double Vision:

I am, of course, isolating only one element in Christianity, but cruelty, terror, intolerance, and hatred within any religion always means that God has been replaced by the devil, and such things are always accompanied by a false kind of liberalism. At present some other religions, notably Islam, are even less reassuring than our own. As Marxist and American imperialisms decline, the Moslem world is emerging as the chief threat to world peace, and the spark-plug of its intransigence, so to speak, is its fundamentalism or false literalism of belief. The same principle of demonic perversion applies here: when Khomeini gave order to have Salman Rushdie murdered, he was turning the whole of the Koran into Satanic verses. In our own culture, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a future New England in which a reactionary religious movement has brought back the hysteria, bigotry, and sexual sadism of seventeenth century Puritanism. Such a development may seem unlikely just now, but the potential is still there. (CW 4, 177-78)

Reinhold Niebuhr: America and the Promised Land

Reinhold Niebuhr died on this date in 1971 (born 1892). From a circa 1952 CBC radio review of Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History:

American history is ironic, according to Dr. Niebuhr, because it has not turned out the way that the great Americans of the Revolutionary period expected. To Jefferson, for instance, America was the new Promised Land: it was making a new beginning in history, and was avoiding the mistakes of the past by getting rid of kings and nobles. As far as possible America turned her back on the rest of the world and tried to work out her own destiny. She got very rich and prosperous, and this seemed like a reward for her merits. But now Americans have suddenly found themselves, not out of the world, but practically holding it up, like Atlas. They also find that their prosperity, which has given them this position, is the very thing that makes it hardest for them to hold their allies. Now if America strikes an attitude of outraged virtue, she will succeed in isolating herself, and if she does that she’s done for. She has to realize that, with all her good will, a lot of the ideas she has cherished about her destiny are sentimental illusions, not very different from the illusions the Communists use as bait for mass support. The best American attitude for today is the one represented by Lincoln during the Civil War. Lincoln was sure of the justice of his cause, and he was convinced that the United States, like the world today, couldn’t survive half slave and half free. But still he warned against self-righteousness, against assuming that those who were fighting the Union were sub-human, and so he adopted the Christian principle of malice toward none, and charity toward all. (CW 10, 321-2)

Rameses the Great and “Literal” Meaning in the Bible


“New evidence linking Rameses and Moses”

A little synchronicity: Rameses II the Great became pharaoh of Egypt on this date in 1279 BCE; Frye makes reference to him in “Symbolism in the Bible” to correct misapprehension about the “literal” meaning of the Bible. The Bible records not history, but a typological manifestation of concern:

[W]hen John the Baptist is asked if he is Elijah, he says that he is not. Now, there is no difficulty there, unless you want to foul yourselves up over a totally impossible conception of literal meaning: reincarnation in its literal there’s-that-man-again form is not a functional doctrine in the Bible. At the same time, metaphorically, which is one of the meanings of “spiritually” in the New Testament, John the Baptist is a reborn Elijah just as Nero is a reborn Nebuchadnezzar or Rameses II. So, it is not surprising that the great scene of the Transfiguration in the Gospels should show Jesus as flanked by Moses on one side and Elijah on the other — that is, the Word of God with the law and the prophets supporting him. Again, that has its demonic parody in the figure of the crucified Christ with the two theives flanking him on either side. (CW 13, 499-50)

Samuel Pepys


From Peter Ackroyd’s documentary series, London: A Biography (based upon the terrific book by the same name), Pepys describes the Great Fire of London, 1666

Yesterday was the anniversary of Samuel Pepys‘s death (1603-1703). Frye, in his 1942 diary, makes some observations on perhaps the most famous diarist in the language. Bob Denham’s remarks in the Introduction to the Diaries volume offers commentary that deserves to be included:

Frye placed a high priority on privacy, and after he became a name, his secretary Jane Widdicombe did succeed in protecting him from most of the countless potential invasions of that privacy. He was fond of telling interviewers that he had unconsciously arranged his life to be without incident, the result being, he claimed, that no biographer would have the slightest interest in him as a subject. John Ayre’s biography is, of course, evidence to the contrary. And however much we might like to agree in theory with Eliot’s principle that there is a difference between the man who suffers and the mind which creates, in practice the principle is very difficult to maintain. When one becomes a public figure, there is a natural curiosity on the part of the public to learn about his or her life. Frye was also fond of insisting that his life was his published work, just as he was fond of quoting Montaigne’s remark that his life was consubstantial with his book. One can understand what he meant by that, and yet this opposition between life and work, at the deepest level, cannot finally be sustained, as Michael Dolzani has shown.[14]

Frye is aware, of course, that whatever aims the diarist might have, what will emerge from all diaries is necessarily self-revelation. The self-revelation may be minimal, but it is there. The absence of sufficient self-revelation is what worried Frye about Samuel Pepys’s Diary:

I’ve been reading in Pepys, to avoid work. I can’t understand him at all. I mean, the notion that he tells us more about himself & gives us a more intimate glimpse of the age than anyone else doesn’t strike me. I find him more elusive and baffling than anyone. He has a curious combination of apparent frankness and real reticence that masks him more than anything else could do. One could call it a “typically English” trait, but there were no typical Englishmen then and Montaigne performs a miracle of disguise in a far subtler & bigger way. Pepys is not exactly conventional: he is socially disciplined. He tells us nothing about himself except what is generic. His gaze is directed out: he tells us where he has been & what he has done, but there is no reflection, far less self-analysis. The most important problem of the Diary & of related works is whether this absence of reflection is an accident, an individual design, or simply impossible to anyone before the beginning of Rousseauist modes of interior thought. (42.67)

A few entries later Frye writes that Pepys’s ” genre, the diary, is not a branch of autobiography, as Evelyn’s is. . . . When I try to visualize Pepys I visualize clothes & a cultured life-force. I have a much clearer vision of the man who annoyed Hotspur or Juliet’s Nurse’s husband. . . . He does not observe character either: I can’t visualize his wife or my Lord. Even music he talks about as though it were simply a part of his retiring for physic” (42.69). Frye, on the other hand, engages in a great deal of character observation—the character of his colleagues, his students, his family, his wife, and, most of all, himself. His diaries provide a rich and extensive psychological portrait. He does not set out to write a confession, but by the time we have come to the end of the diaries, he has confessed more than he perhaps realized.

But the diaries are also a chronicle. We peer over Frye’s shoulder as he trudges to his office, teaches his classes, attends Canadian Forummeetings, reflects on movies, socializes with neighbours and other friends, discusses Blake with his student Peter Fisher, works on his various commissions, eyes attractive woman, records his dreams, plans his career, judges his colleagues and his university, registers his frank reactions to the hundreds of people who cross his path, travels to Chicago, Wisconsin, and Cambridge, plans his fiction projects, reflects on music, religion, and politics, shovels his sidewalk, suffers through committee meetings, describes his various physical and psychological ailments, practises the piano, visits bookstores, frequents Toronto restaurants, reflects on his reading, and records scores of additional activities, mundane and otherwise. As a chronicle, Frye’s diaries are like Virginia Woolf’s, putting the most inconsequential event, such as cutting the grass, alongside the most sober reflection, such as the nature of the contemporary church or the unspeakable uselessness of war. His speculations on a wide range of critical and social and religious issues are not unlike those in a typical notebook entry. His notebooks occasionally become quite personal and thus move in the direction of the diary. His diaries very often become quite impersonal and thus move in the direction of the notebook. The context of the speculative passages is sometimes a contemporary event, as when the Korean War triggers his prescient views on the path that Communism will take during the last half of the century. Most often, however, the contexts for Frye’s speculations are the courses he is teaching or his writing projects. (CW 8, xxiv)