Category Archives: Birthdays

Edward Lear


“The Owl and the Pussycat”: listen right through to the end and you’ll be rewarded with some of the sweetest, most spontaneous and relevant literary criticism you’re ever likely to encounter

Today is Edward Lear‘s birthday (1812-1888).

Frye cites Lear to define the boundaries of satire in “The Nature of Satire”:

Again, we said that the humour of gaiety was the other boundary of satire. But as Juvenal truly said that whatever men do is the subject of satire, and that in consequence it is difficult not to write it, it follows that most humorous situations are at least indirectly satiric. Non-satiric humour tends toward fantasy: one finds it most clearly in the fairy worlds of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and Walt Disney, in Celtic romance and American tall tales. Yet even here one can never be sure, for the humour of fantasy is continually pulled back into satire by means of that powerful undertow which we call allegory. The White Knight in Alice who felt that one should be provided for everything, and therefore put anklets around his horse’s feet to guard against the bites of sharks, may pass without challenge. But what are we to make of the mob of hired revolutionaries in the same author’s Sylvie and Bruno, who got their instructions mixed and yelled under the palace windows: “More taxes! Less bread!” Here we begin to smell the acrid, pungent smell of satire. (CW 21, 44-5)


Salvador Dali


The persistence of memory: Dali in a commercial for Lanvin chocolate. “Je suis fou de chocolat Lanvin!”

Today is Salvador Dali‘s birthday (1904-1989).

From “Men Walking as Trees,” a review of a surrealist exhibition at the CNE in the October 1938 issue of Canadian Forum:

Yet surely, in the balanced mind, the critical consciousness is the interpreter of the symbols produced by the creative imagination, and symbolic art in consequence has to strike a medium between the unintelligible chaos of private associative patterns and the dead conventions imposed by a Philistine religion. For this reason, surrealist art is certain to develop in the direction of more explicit and fundamental symbolism, from which consistent commentaries can be more easily inferred; one thinks of the development of the highbrow classical allegories of the Renaissance, now forgotten, into the art of Botticelli and Mantegna. Revolutionary painting today, at any rate in the hands of such a master as Orozco, depends upon this communal symbolism, and in such a picture as Dali’s Autumnal Cannibalism, deeply felt and universally shared feelings about the autumn as a time both of the maturity and of the dying of the world and its connection with the approaching butchery of the human race, perhaps as a necessary prelude to its rebirth, are what appear on canvas. How far the surrealists can go in their apocalyptic attempt to make the human mind create a new heaven and a new earth [Revelation 21:1], no one can say. But it’s worth trying. (CW 11, 95)

Dali’s Autumnal Cannibalism after the jump.

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Karl Barth

Today is Protestant theologian Karl Barth‘s birthday (1886-1968).

The responses to Nicholas Graham’s query posted Sunday mention Karl Barth and include a digression into Frye’s attitude toward fascism, so we’re putting up two anniversary posts today: one relating to Barth and the other (below) to Nazi book burning.

Frye cites Barth on the metaphor of creation in Creation and Recreation:

I want to begin with what is called “creativity” as a feature of human life, and move from there to some of the traditional religious ideas about a divine creation. It seems to me that the whole complex of ideas and images surrounding the word “creation” is inescapably a part of the way that we see things. We may emphasize either the divine or the human aspect of creation to the point of denying the reality of the other. For Karl Barth, God is a creator, and the first moral to be drawn from this is that man is not one: man is for Barth a creature, and his primary duty is to understand what it is to be a creature of God. For others, the notion of a creating God is a projection from the fact that man makes things, and for them a divine creator has only the reality of a shadow thrown by ourselves. But what we believe, or believe that we believe, in such matters is of very little importance compared to the fact that we go on using the conception anyway, whatever name we give it. We are free, up to a point, to shape our beliefs; what we are clearly not free to do is alter what is really a part of our cultural genetic code. We can throw out varieties of the idea of creation at random, and these, in Darwinian fashion, will doubtless descend through whatever has the greatest survival value; but abolish the conception itself we cannot. (CW 4, 36)

Howard Carter and Tutankhamen


From the BBC, the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb

Today is the birthday of Howard Carter (1874-1939), an English archaeologist and Egyptologist who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen.

From “The Metaphor of Kingship” section of the lecture series, “Symbolism in the Bible”:

The society that went furthest in identifying the entire society with and as the king was ancient Egypt. If you look at, say, the Tutankhamen collection, you would say to yourself that it would be absolutely incredible that all that labour and expense went into the constructing of the tomb for a pharaoh. We’d never believe it without direct evidence. And yet, when we understand how pervasive royal metaphors are in Egypt — that Pharaoh is not only a king, he is an incarnate god, identical with the god Horus before his death and with the god Osiris after it, and that he was called “the shepherd of his people” — it becomes more conceivable. And unlike the Hebrew practice, he was high priest as well as king. So it is possible that the ordinary Egyptian found an identity for himself within the mystical body of Pharaoh which was of a kind that our mental processes simply cannot recapture. (CW 13, 490)


Sigmund Freud


From an interview with the BBC in December 1938

Hard upon the birthdays yesterday of Kierkegaard and Marx, today is Sigmund Freud‘s birthday (1856-1939): another passenger in “the drunken boat”:

From “The Drunken Boat”:

The major constructs which our own culture has inherited from its Romantic ancestry are also of the “drunken boat” shape, but represent a later and a different form of it from the “vehicular form” described above. Here the boat is usually in the position of Noah’s ark, a fragile container of sensitive and imaginative values threatened by a chaotic and unconscious power below it. In Schopenhauer, the world as idea rides precariously atop a “world as will” which engulfs practically the whole of existence in its moral indifference. In Darwin, who readily combines with Schopenhauer, as the later work of Hardy illustrates, consciousness and mortality are accidental sports from a ruthlessly competitive evolutionary force. In Freud, who has noted the resemblance of his mythical structure to Schopenhauer’s, the conscious ego struggles to keep afloat on a sea of libidinous impulse. In Kierkegaard, all the “higher” impulses of fallen man pitch and roll on the surface of a huge and shapeless “dread.” In some versions of this construct the antithesis of the symbol of consciousness and the destructive element in which it is immersed can be overcome or transcended: there is an Atlantis under the sea which becomes an Ararat for the beleaguered boat to rest on. (CW 17, 89)

Kierkegaard, Marx, and the “Drunken Boat”


An excerpt from the BBC documentary, Sea of Faith, which contrasts Marx and Kierkegaard

Two birthdays today: Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and Karl Marx (1818-1883).  (Bob Denham’s recent article on Frye and Kierkegaard can be found in the journal here.)

Despite their fundamental ideological differences, Kierkegaard and Marx share a common mythological root, which Frye describes in A Study of English Romanticism:

[F]or a more conservatively pessimistic Romantic, such as Schopenhauer, it is easier to think of the structure of civilization, or the state of experience, as on top of a subhuman and submoral “world as will,” an ark or bateau ivre carrying the cargo of human values and tossing on a stormy and threatening sea. This figure becomes the prevailing one later in the nineteenth century, both for the revolutionary optimists, with Marx at their head, who see the traditional privileges of a ruling class threatened with destruction from below, and for more sombre thinkers — Schopenhauer himself, Freud, Kiekegaard — all of whom think of the values of intelligence and imagination as above, but very precariously above, a dark, menacing and subhuman power — Schopenhauer’s world as will, Freud’s id, Kierkegaard’s dread. For al of these, the boat and sea image is an appropriate one, and this structure in particular shows us how the Romantic mythological schema, unlike its predecessor, enables poets and philosophers to express a man-centred revolutionary, or counter-revolutionary, attitude to society. (CW 17, 113-14)

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Vladimir Nabokov


Nabokov in conversation with Pierre Berton and Lionel Trilling about Lolita. (Part 2 of the interview after the jump.)

Today is Vladimir Nabokov‘s birthday (1899-1977).

From The Modern Century:

In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire, a gentle, wistful, rather touching pastoral poem falls into the hands of a lunatic who proceeds to “annotate” it with a wild paranoid fantasy about his own adventures as a prince in some European state during a revolution. Poem and commentary have nothing to do with each other, and perhaps that is the only point the book makes. But the title, taken from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens [4.3.438], suggests a certain allegory of the relation of art to the wish-fulfillment fantasies that keep bucking and plunging underneath it. Such forces are in all of us, and are strong enough to destroy the world if they are not controlled through release instead of repression. In my last lecture I want to talk about the way in which the creative arts are absorbed into society through education. Meanwhile we may notice that the real basis for the opposition of artist and society is the fact that not merely communications media and public relations, but the whole structure of society itself, is an anti-art, and old and worn-out creation that needs to be created anew. (CW 10, 48)

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Harold Lloyd


One of the greatest bits ever committed to film during the silent era

Today is Harold Lloyd‘s birthday (1893-1971). Frye was a fan as a child. Above is the signature Lloyd routine from Safety Last!

An earlier post on Frye’s love of silent movies here. Bob Denham’s compilation, “Frye and the Movies,” here.

The movie that haunted the young Frye here.

Arnold J. Toynbee


Arnold Toynbee turns up, in all places, as a character in an episode of Young Indiana Jones, to provide an ominous historical perspective on events in Europe

Today is Arnold Toynbee‘s birthday (1889-1975).

Frye on history, metahistory, myth, and best-sellers in “New Directions from Old”:

We notice that when a historian’s scheme gets to a certain point of comprehensiveness it becomes mythical in shape, and so approaches the poetic in its structure. There are romantic historical myths based on a quest or pilgrimage to a City of God or a classless society; there are comic historical myths of progress through evolution or revolution; there are tragic myths of decline and fall, like the works of Gibbon and Spengler; there are ironic myths of recurrence or casual catastrophe. It is not necessary, of course, for such a myth to be a universal theory of history, but merely for it to be exemplified in whatever history is using it. A Canadian historian, F.H. Underhill, writing on Toynbee, has employed the term “metahistory” for such works. We notice that metahistory, though it usually tends to very long and erudite books, is far more popular than regular history: in fact metahistory is really the form in which most history reaches the general public. It is only the metahistorian, whether Spengler or Toynbee or H.G. Wells or a religious writer using history as his source of exempla, who has much chance of becoming a bestseller. (CW 21, 309)

Yonge-University-Spadina Line

The Yonge-University-Spadina line opened on this date in 1954, the first subway in Canada.

Toronto, of course, was Frye’s hometown from 1929 on, and he regularly referred to the changes he saw there across six decades. Here he is in “Canada: New World without Revolution”:

Some time ago Eric Arthur produced a book on Toronto called No Mean City, full of photographs of its older architecture. If we count the number of buildings that have been destroyed, many of them before the book appeared, we can see that there is something else in the city which is, if not mean, at least reckless and out of control, something that needs strong organizing to resist it. According to John Stuart Mill, there is a liberal and conservative question to be asked about everything: what good is it? and why is it there? If these questions are asked about public, cultural, or historical monuments, the prevailing answer in our day to the question, what good is it? is, no good unless to the present owner of the property it stands on; and the answer to the question, why is it there? is, because it is not yet worth anyone’s while to remove it. Clearly we need more intelligible answers to both questions. (CW 12, 441)