Category Archives: History

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)

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)

“The Great Western Butterslide” Revisited

In the current issue of the New York  Review of Books, Garry Wills reviews All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, who, according to Wills, recycle once again the notion that the Middle Ages presented a uniquely unified culture free of the taint of modernism and post-modernism.

Here is the first paragraph of Wills’s review:

This book, which was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, comes recommended by some famous Big Thinkers. It is written by well-regarded professors (one of them the chairman of the Harvard philosophy department). This made me rub my eyes with astonishment as I read the book itself, so inept and shallow is it. The authors set about to solve the problems of a modern secular culture. The greatest problem, as they see it, is a certain anxiety of choosing. In the Middle Ages, everyone shared the same frame of values. One could offend against that frame by sinning, but the sins were clear, their place in the overall scheme of things ratified by consensus. Now that we do not share such a frame of reference, each person must forge his or her own view of the universe in order to make choices that accord with it. But few people have the will or ability to think the universe through from scratch.

Everything old is new again. Frye called this the “butterslide” theory of history, sometimes rendered as “the Great Western Butterslide,” whose roots lay in an idealized conception of the Middle Ages.

Here he is in a 1947 Canadian Forum review of F.S.C Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West:

Hence, for many American thinkers today the gigantic synthesis of religion, philosophy, science and politics achieved in the Middle Ages looms up in front of them like an intellectual Utopia which complements that of their own moral idealism. American magazines and books are thickly strewn with admiring references to Aristotle, St. Thomas, the seven liberal arts and the medieval preservation of personal values; and of deprecatory ones to the cult of self-analysis, the dehumanizing of the individual, and the centrifugal movements in politics and science which came with the Renaissance and sent us skittering down the butterslide of introversion into our present Iron Age. (CW 11, 198)

And here he is at the other end of his career in conversation with David Cayley, providing an alternative to the butterslide view:

Cayley: We stand at what sometimes seems to be the end of a tradition. . . . At one time Spengler was important to you. Later on you satirized him and made jokes about the Great Western Butterslide. Do you accept the idea of decline in Spengler, and do you wonder now what’s next?

Frye: I’m not sure I ever reacted to the word “decline” in Spengler’s work. The vision I got from Spengler was not a vision of decline. It was a vision of maturing to a certain point. The question of cycle always turns up. There is a cycle in Vico, it’s a little different in Spengler, but it’s a cycle again in Toynbee. As I’ve said often, every cycle is a failed spiral. When you get to the end of the cycle, what should be done is to encompass the entire structure up to that point on another level, not just to go back to the beginning, although there’s going to be a certain amount of that. (CW 24, 1034-5)



From the BBC, Act V of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring the artfully butchered rendition of Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe.”  (The conclusion after the jump.)

Today is Ovid‘s birthday (43 BC – 17 AD).

Frye in The Double Vision picks up on the divergence of Classical mythology and Christian mythology at the dawn of the Christian age:

Later centuries were fascinated by the contrast between the temporal ruler of the world, Augustus Caesar, and its spiritual ruler, Jesus, who was born during Augustus’ reign. Contemporary with Jesus we have the whole mythological side of Classical culture summed up by two great masterworks, Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid provides a kind of encyclopedia of mythology in which the central theme is metamorphosis, the incessant dissolving and reshaping of forms of life. Toward the end of his long poem, he brings in the philosopher Pythagoras  to expound a gloomy philosophy based on the same theme. The Metamorphoses starts with creation and deluge myths, and Pythagoras sees at the end of time a running down of the world into a kind of entropy, or chaos come again. But there are also eulogies of the Caesars, particularly Julius, as the only symbols of what can transcend metamorphosis. In Virgil, similarly, the myth of Rome was founded by Trojan refugees expands into a vision of history in which the Roman Empire represents a kind of goal or telos of the historical process. (CW 4, 216-17)

Continue reading

Crossing the Rubicon

“Julius Caesar and the Crossing of the Rubicon,” Francesco Granacci, 1494

On this date in 49 BC, returning general Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon into Rome with his army, signalling the start of civil war.

Here’s Frye in Fools of Time with some observations on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar relevant to the issues of social order, social authority and their relation to demagoguery, which we’ve been considering the last couple of days.  Money quote: “The good leader individualizes his followers; the tyrant or bad leader intensifies mass energy into a mob.”

This [Elizabethan] view of social order, with its stress on the limited, the finite, and the individual, corresponds, as indicated above, to Nietzsche’s Apollonian vision in Greek culture.  That makes it hard for us to understand it.  We ourselves live in a Dionysian society, with mass movements sweeping across it, leaders rising and falling, and constantly taking the risk of being dissolved into a featureless tyranny where all sense of the individual disappears.  We even live on a Dionysian earth, staggering drunkenly around the sun.  The treatment of the citizens in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus puzzles us: we are apt to feel that Shakespeare’s attitude is anti-democratic.  In my own graduate-student days during the nineteen-thirties, there appeared an Orson Welles adaptation of Julius Caesar which required the hero to wear a fascist uniform and pop his eyes like Mussolini, and among students there was a good deal of discussion about whether Shakespeare’s portrayal of, say, Coriolanus showed “fascist tendencies” or not.  But fascism is a disease of democracy: the fascist leader is a demagogue, and a demagogue is precisely what Coriolanus is not.  The demagogues in that play are the tribunes whom the people have chosen as their own managers.  The people in Shakespeare constitute a “Dionysian” energy in society: that is, they represent nothing but a potentiality of response to leadership.  We are apt to assume, like Brutus, that leadership and freedom threaten one another, but, for us as for Shakespeare, there is no freedom without the sense of the individual, and in the tragic vision, at least, the leader or hero is the primary and original individual.  The good leader individualizes his followers; the tyrant or bad leader intensifies mass energy into a mob.  Shakespeare has grasped the ambiguous nature of Dionysus in a way that Nietzsche (like D.H. Lawrence later) misses.  In no period of history does Dionysus have anything to do with freedom; his function is to release us from the burden of freedom.  The last thing that the mob says in both Julius Caesar and Coriolanus is pure Dionysus: “Tear him to pieces.” (18-19)