Category Archives: Culture

Frye on Privacy

Thanks to Jim Bronskill of the Canadian Press, we now know that the RCMP kept a classified dossier on Frye between 1960 and 1972. Here he is on privacy and the free mind:

If certain tendencies within our civilization were to proceed unchecked, they would rapidly take us towards a society which, like that of a prison, would be both completely introverted and completely without privacy. The last stand of privacy has always been, traditionally, the inner mind. . . A society entirely controlled by slogans and exhortations would be introverted, because nobody would be saying anything; there would only be echo, and Echo was the mistress of Narcissus. It would also be without privacy because it would frustrate the effort of the healthy mind to develop a view of the world which is private but not introverted, accommodating itself to opposing views. (CW 11, 20)

Frye: “Democracy is in essence cultural laissez-faire”

A perhaps unexpected but delightful inversion of values: Laissez-faire may be anti-democratic, but democracy is culturally laissez-faire. From “War on the Cultural Front,” (written in August 1940, when the war was going badly for the British Imperial forces, including Canada):

Democracy is in essence a cultural laissez-faire, an encouragement in art, scholarship, and science. The list of people tortured and banished by Hitler includes Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Freemasons, homosexuals, and sponsors of rival brands of Nazism like Strasser. No one can be equally sympathetic with all these groups, but in the last century English culture has received contributions from Jews (Disraeli), Catholics (Newman), Protestants (Browning), Freemasons (Burns), homosexuals (Wilde), and a spokesman of potential English Nazism (Carlyle). Obviously there has been some considerable anarchy in English culture, a hopelessly inconsistent inclusiveness about it, and that large inconsistently is the basis of democracy. For it implies the acceptance and practice of the scientific attitude on the part of the people as a whole: the inductive suspending of judgment until enough, not only of the facts and discoveries and techniques, but of the viewpoints and theories and gospels and quack panaceas, are in, before changing the direction of social development. Opposed to this is the crusading religious temperament of the dictatorships working with a partial and premature cultural synthesis. Out of this inclusiveness of outlook springs everything else we associate with democracy, and it is on that basis that democratic countries rest their claim to be more hightly civilized. (CW 11, 186)

Nazi Book Burning


Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels oversees a book burning rally in front of the Berlin Opera House. A translation of Goebbles’ speech to the students assembled there after the jump.

On this date in 1933, the Nazis engaged in nationwide public book burnings. The Hitler regime had drawn up lists of scholars and writers unacceptable to the New Order as decadent, materialistic, and representative of “moral decline” and “cultural Bolshevism.”  These included: Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Döblin, Erich Maria Remarque, Carl von Ossietzky, Kurt Tucholsky, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Erich Kästner, and Carl Zuckmayer.

Frye in Anatomy:

The only way to forestall the work of criticism is through censorship, which has the same relation to criticism that lynching has to justice. (CW 22, 6)

In “The Only Genuine Revolution”:

Historical imagination is a difficult thing to develop, and I’m not surprised that people shrink from trying to do it. But I’m always terrified when I hear the word “relevance” applied to education, because I can never forget that it was one of the jargon terms of the Nazis, and particularly the Nazi youth, around 1933 to 1934. That is, the professors around the universities that were being shouted down and hounded out of the place because they didn’t like Hitler were the people who didn’t understand the relevance of everything that was being studied to the Nazi movement. (CW 24, 167)

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British North America Act

Queen Victoria gave royal assent to the British North America Act on this date in 1867, to take effect on July 1st.

Frye in “Criticism and Environment”:

The second stage of cultural development in Canada revolves around the Confederation of 1867, the union of the two Canadas, now Ontario and Quebec, with two Maritime Provinces, and eventually British Columbia. This stage is characterized by a search for a distinctively “Canadian identity,” more particularly in English Canada, and attached to this search are a number of critical fallacies that are important to diagnose. The first and most elementary of these is the fallacy of the exclusive characteristic, or nonexistent essence, the attempt to distinguish something that is, in this case, “truly Canadian,” and is not to be found in other literatures. There are no exclusive or even defining characteristics anywhere in literature: there are only degrees of emphasis, and anyone looking for such characteristics soon gets as confused as a racist looking for pure Aryans. (CW 12, 573-4)

Alfred North Whitehead

Today is Alfred North Whitehead‘s birthday (1861-1947).

Frye in conversation with David Cayley:

Cayley: Frazer and Spengler, recognizing all their liabilities, were the two people who gave you the key pieces, then.  They were not the ones you admired, but the ones who gave you something you could borrow or use?

Frye: Yes, that’s right.  It was, again, a matter of looking for what I could use, but not for something to believe in.

Cayley: What about Whitehead and the idea of interpenetration?

Frye: The conception of interpenetration, as I said, I found in Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World.  Other people have found it in Mahayana Buddhism and the Avatasaka Sutura.  It’s the way of accounting for the fact that the centre is everywhere.  Traditionally we’ve always defined God as a being whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.  But I would think of God as a being whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is everywhere too. The opposite of interpenetration, where everything exists somewhere at once, is an objective centrality, which, it seems to me, is a most tryannical conception.

Cayley: Objective centrality–what does that mean?

Frye: In political developments, for example, it’s a matter of an empire getting so big that everything gets centred in Rome or London or New York of Tokyo.  That seems to me an anti-cultural direction.  In the interpenetrating world every community would be the centre of the world.  (CW 24, 933-4)

Three examples off the top of my head: Tunisia, Egypt, and, this week (again), Iran.

Coming soon?  The overburdened middle class and the trod-under-foot working poor perhaps reassert their right to everything that has been swindled from them by corporatist greed, lies, and daylight theft  — and aided and abetted all the while by  a political class who use our votes against our interests.

Umberto Eco


A short piece about Eco produced in 2009

Today is Umberto Eco‘s birthday (born 1932).

Frye in an interview with Eco in Milan:

Eco: You have spoken of romance as a polarized narrative — good and evil, black and white — a structure similar to that of chess. In The Secular Scripture, you refer briefly to the fact that the university unrest of 1968 produced “manic” situations; and you also suggested (even while attributing the idea to others) that there was a link between the polarized paradigm of war (us versus them, the enemy) and the structures of television and melodrama.  If this is so, do you see the new taste for romance as the result (even the sublimation of) that generation’s point of view?

Frye: I referred earlier to the two levels of realism: the level that accepts the veneer of social authority, and the level that penetrates and goes beyond it and that is the genuine form of realism.  Advertising and propaganda reinforce the veneer, the appearance, of the social, and the invention of television has made the impact so overpowering that, in America, the youngest generation, starting from at least 1965, has been pushed almost to the point of hysteria.  It has not been able to grasp a sense of the reality that goes beyond the veneer: it has not produced a Marx who could offer a comprehensive understanding of how the surface was contrived, as Marx did in his analysis of capitalism.  All that they could do was adapt and regurgitate the categories of television itself: the struggle between the good guys and the bad, between the forces of light and darkness.  Enemies were described in paranoid terms such as “the politico-military establishment.”  I don’t see how a different point of view is realistically possible for sensitive, imaginative young people, although there are, certainly, enormous dangers inherent in transforming a conflict into an apocalypse.  The most promising approach is to see the struggle as a clash of ideas rather as one of individuals.  (CW 24, 447-8)

Here’s John Ayre’s account of the interview in his biography of Frye:

In Milan…Frye was taken out to dinner by an admiring Bologna-based semiologist by the name of Umberto Eco representing the journal alfabeta.  While Eco had consulted with his fellow editors about appropriate questions, the “interview” itself was an impromptu performance.  Far from thrusting a microphone in his face, Eco took Frye out to dinner and scribbled out questions on a napkin for Frye to answer later based on the recently translated The Secular Scripture.  Eco himself was just a half-year away from finishing the phenomenally successful The Name of the Rose, and his non-fictional Postscript showed interesting echoes from Frye’s book. (370)

And, finally, here’s Frye in an interview conducted for Acta Victoriana:

The distinction between popular culture and highbrow culture assumes that there are two different kinds of people, and I think that’s extremely dubious.  I don’t see the virginal purity of highbrow literature trying to keep itself unsullied from the pollutions of popular culture.  Umberto Eco wasn’t any less a semiotics scholar for writing a bestselling romance [The Name of the Rose].  There isn’t a qualitative distinction.  It just doesn’t exist.  And I think that the tendency on the part of the mass media as a whole is to abolish this distinction.  (CW 24, 766)

T.S. Eliot


Eliot reading “The Burial of the Dead” from The Waste Land

Today is T.S. Eliot‘s birthday (1888-1965).  Eliot, besides being one of the primary poets of the age, was also the dominant literary critic in English when Frye was a young man, and had a unique position in Frye’s life and career.  While Frye always admired the poetry, he regarded Eliot’s “reactionary” book After Strange Gods as a “betrayal” which made him aware of his “own responsibilities as a critic” (Northrop Frye in Conversation, 107).

Here’s Frye in his 1963 book, T.S. Eliot, on the poet’s anti-progressive view of history and his anti-Romantic view of literature:

The progressive view of history produced the post-Romantic conception of English literature which Eliot challenged.  According to this, originality in poetry is an aspect of individual freedom in life; hence Shakespeare, who drew individuals so well, and Milton, a Protestant revolutionary, express the real genius of English literature.  The era from Dryden to Johnson was an inferior and prosier age, but the Romantic movement re-established the main tradition, which continued in Britain through Tennyson and Swinburne, and in America through Whitman’s conception of poetry as self-expression.

Eliot’s historical view of English literature is a point-for-point reversal of the progressive one.  The post-Romantic conception of “personality,” failing to distinguish the craftsman from the ordinary personality, assumes that the former is the medium or vehicle of the latter, instead of the other way around.  In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” Eliot speaks of the poetic process as “impersonal,” not an expression of personality but an “escape” from it.  The poet’s mind is a place where something happens to words, like a catalyser which accompanies but does not manipulate a chemical action.  In other early essays, though Eliot agrees with Arnold about the immaturity of the Romantic poets, he means by “Romanticism” chiefly the popular post-Romantic residue of their influence which is contemporary with himself.  This Romanticism, he says, “leads his disciples only back upon themselves.”  Romanticism, then, as a creative process emanating from and returning from the ego, occupies the foreground of Eliot’s historical dialectic, the contemporary world at the bottom of the Western mountain, as far as we can get from the “anti-romantic,” “practical sense of realities” in Dante’s Vita nuova. (CW 29, 191)

Chart of the Day: Only the Rich Get Richer


And it’s only gotten worse, thanks to — you guessed it — the unrelenting trend of tax cuts for the richest of the rich:

The gap between the wealthiest Americans and middle- and working-class Americans has more than tripled in the past three decades, according to a June 25 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

New data show that the gaps in after-tax income between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the middle and poorest parts of the population in 2007 was the highest it’s been in 80 years, while the share of income going to the middle one-fifth of Americans shrank to its lowest level ever.

The CBPP report attributes the widening of this gap partly to Bush Administration tax cuts, which primarily benefited the wealthy. Of the $1.7 trillion in tax cuts taxpayers received through 2008, high-income households received by far the largest — not only in amount but also as a percentage of income — which shifted the concentration of after-tax income toward the top of the spectrum. (From The Huffington Post)

Now that’s redistribution of wealth!  As Nouriel Roubini has noted, “We have invented socialism for the rich.”

The Canadian trend in income disparity is virtually identical.

In related news, 1 in 7 wealthy homeowners are in default or seriously behind in payments for at least one of their mortgages, which is by far the highest of any cohort: they’re simply walking away from what they consider to be a bad investment.  So much for the vicious right-wing meme that the financial crisis was caused by poor (i.e. non-white) people taking out mortgages on homes they ought never to have had.


Frye in “The Meeting of Past and Future in William Morris”:

We said that culture seems to develop spatially in the opposite direction from political and economic movements.  The latter centralize and the former decentralize.  (CW 17, 321)

So few words, so much truth.  Our culture is remarkable for its lively decentralization (whose proliferating hybridization of course drives retrograde conservatives nuts — a very good sign that it’s the right way to go), while at the same time we see the unmistakable emergence of “plutonomy”: the economic and political domination of society by the few.  As an old boss of mine liked to intone: “This has gotta cease.”

Official Languages Act


On this date in 1969 the Official Languages Act gave French equal status to English in the federal government.

Frye on the influence of French Canadian culture on English Canadian culture:

I believe that the French Canadians discovered their own identity first.  The French Canadian intellectuals and writers, including Quebecers, understood, almost from the beginning, what their function and role should be.  They should be the defenders and the heralds of a language and a culture in a continual state of siege; it is precisely this which allowed them to define, with maximum clarity, their own identity.  English Canadian writers, when they in turn discovered their identity in the 1960s, did it, as it were, by rebound, as a reaction to the problems posed by the French Canadians. (CW 24, 45)

Sir Charles Tupper


Today is the birthday of our sixth and shortest-serving Prime Minister (68 days in 1896), Sir Charles Tupper (1821-1915).  He was a baronet, and one of the eight of our first nine prime ministers (Sir John MacDonald serving two non-consecutive terms) to be knighted: our second, Alexander McKenzie was the exception, and our ninth, Sir Robert Borden, was the last.  The title reveals our close political and cultural ties with the Empire in the early years of the nation, right down to the First World War.

Here’s Frye in a 1984 interview with David Cayley for the CBC Radio program “Richard Cartwright and the Roots of Canadian Conservatism”:

Frye: Nobody coming from the planet Mars and studying Canadian history would believe that Canadians retained loyalty to the British government through a century of total ineptness, where the British had always preferred American interests to Canadian ones and made it clear that they would have more respect for Canada if  it were no longer a colony.  But the problem from the Canadian view is, What else are we going to do?  Where else are we going to find our identity in the continuity of that tradition?


Frye: I tend to think more and more as I get older that the only social identity that’s really worth preserving is a cultural identity.  And Canada seems to me to have achieved that, so I don’t join with other people in lamenting the loss of a political identity.


Frye: I think that culture has a different sort of rhythm from political and economic developments which tend to centralization, and that the centralization process has gone so far in the great world powers that the conception of the nation is really obsolete now.  What we have instead among the great powers are enormous consolidations of social units, and cultural tendencies are tendencies in a decentralizing direction.  If you talk about American literature, for example, you have to add up Mississippi literature and New England literature, Mid-Western, Californian, and so on.  And the theme of cultural identity immediately transfers you to a postnational setting.


Frye: Regional culture, as I see it, is a culture in which the writer has struck roots in his immediate environment.  There’s always something vegetable about the creative imagination, and you can’t transplant James Joyce and Alice Munro to the middle of Brazil and expect them to product the same kind of works.  They’d become different cultural vegetables in that case.  With the poets of the [Sir] Charles G.D. Roberts generation, there was really very little sense of region.  The Confederation Ode of Roberts is inspired by a map, it is not inspired by people.  I think we’re in a period of history now where we’re just beginning to realize that, as one book says, “small is beautiful,” that is, there is a tendency to decentralize and a feeling that the great world powers have grown to the point where they’re not really workable any more.  They’re become increasingly dinosauric in their functioning.  And with that, the sense of a cultural or regional identity begins to emerge as a genuinely human identity.  (CW 24, 273-5)