Category Archives: Ideology

Tunisia and Egypt: Primary Concern and Ideology

A young Egyptian woman demonstrating in Cairo

Whenever we see something like what is happening now in Tunisia and Egypt — and what was brutally stifled in Iran two years ago — it is heartening to recall Frye’s observations on the liberation movements in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  There are no guarantees when it comes to the triumph of primary concern over ideology, but there is always hope.

In conversation with David Cayley:

Cayley: Partly what I’m trying to understand are the political or real world implications of your thought.

Frye: The political implications are, again, in the direction of what I’ve called primary concern.  What has thrilled me about the movements in Eastern Europe is that they are not ideological movements.  They are movements for fundamental human rights to live and eat and to own property.  The authorities there, insofar as they are opposing these demands, are no longer saying, “We are conducting a certain course in the interest of a higher socialist identity.”  They are saying, with George Orwell, “The object of power is power, and we’re going to hang on to it as long as we’ve got the guns to shoot you with.”  The protest is made in the direction of something which breaks out of the ideological framework altogether. (CW 24, 1029-30)

Frye on Rhetoric, Mobs and Ideology

Glenn Beck exhibits his brute talent for race-baiting and incitement to violence

Frye in Words with Power:

When the rhetorical occasion narrows down from the historical to the immediate, as at rallies and pep talks, we begin to see features in rhetoric that account for the suspicion, even contempt, with which it was regarded so often by Plato and Aristotle.  Let us take a rhetorical situation at its worst.  In intensive rhetoric with a short-term aim, there is a deliberate attempt to put the watchdog of consciousness to sleep, and the steady battering of consciousness become hypnotic, as the metaphor of “swaying” an audience suggests.  A repetition of cliche phrases is designed to bring about a form of dissociation.  The dead end of all this is the semi-autonomous monster called the mob, of which the speaker is now the shrieking head.  For a mob the kind of independent judgment appealed to by dialectic is an act of open defiance, and is normally treated as such.

We spoke of the endlessness of argument in the conceptual area, but rhetoric has an ad hominem or personal weapon available to stop argument.  One may be told, “You just say that because you’re an atheist, a Communist, a Jew, a Christian, or because you had a castrating mother,” etc., etc.  Such verbal weapons are illegitimate in the conceptual mode, where an impersonal  basis is assumed.  But they play an important role in ideology–not always a sinister or violent role, as one may also be led to examine one’s position to see what limitations are built into it.  (CW 26, 32-3)

That last point is subtle and reassuring.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with ad hominem arguments in the right context — we may indeed be called upon to rethink our stand on issues in light of personal biases.  Satire, of course, completely depends upon the ad hominem affront, and it is perhaps the most direct assault on the inadequacies of ideology that literature affords.

And that’s the difference I see between left and right in the most readily available public discourse.  The left tweaks the nose of the right with fact-based mockery, and the right responds with death threats and talk of “second amendment remedies,” which predictably leads to violence.  The left has Jon Stewart whose satire is usually most devastating when running a piece of footage that provides a missing piece of crucial information; the right has Glenn Beck whose involuted paranoid fantasies seem only intended to leave his audience unmoored and waiting for him to tell them who to hate next.  While it’s true that you don’t want to mess with Matt Taibbi, he’ll  never threaten you with violence or unleash a horde of angry minions upon you.  But if you cross Sarah Palin, she’s capable of putting a target on you while barking “RELOAD” to an already irrational mob.  One is acceptable and enriching civilized behavior, the other is psychopathy.

Frye and Apocalyptic Feminism

On this date in 1913, militant suffragette Emily Davison was struck by King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.  She died four days later.  She ran out onto the track (as you can see from the footage above) with a suffragette flag, which she evidently intended to attach to the king’s horse.

One of Frye’s entries in notebook 44 consists of this single sentence: “I don’t think it’s coincidence or accident that feminism and ecology should become central issues at the same time” (CW 5, 206).

A modified version of the phrase appears again in chapter six of Words with Power, “Second Variation: The Garden”:

Here we are concerned with the oasis-paradise of gardens and fountains that derives from the Biblical Eden and the Song of Songs.  It may be an impossibly idealized vision of a very tame aspect of nature, especially when in Isaiah it extends to a world in which the lion lies down with the lamb (11:6 ff.).  But it is the beginning of a sense that exploiting nature nature is quite as evil as exploiting other human beings.  Admittedly, the Bible itself has done a good deal to promote the conception of nature as something to be dominated by human arrogance, for historical reasons we have glanced at.  Contact with some allegedly primitive societies in more modern times, with their intense care for the earth that sustains them, has helped to give us some notion of how skewed many aspects of our traditional ideology are on this point.  But even in the Bible the bride-garden metaphor works in the opposite direction by associating nature and love, and I doubt if it is an accident that feminism and ecology have moved into the foreground of social issues at roughly the same time.  (WP 225)

As a matter of myth manifesting primary concern, the equalization of the sexes is implicit in biblical typology.  As a social and historical development, of course, it is all too often an ugly business typical of issues pertaining to power.  But the equalization of the sexes also has an apocalyptic dimension, as Frye’s rendering it in chapter six of Words with Power suggests.

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More from Frye on Relevance


Herbert Marcuse

Frye on Zweckwissenschaft:

One main theme of Part Three is: the N-S axis of concern is revolutionary, & the W-E one is liberal, not speculative, but simply broadening & enlarging. Revolutionary characteristics are: the enforced loyalty of a minority group (Jews, early Christians); belief in a unique historical revelation; resistance to “revisionism”; establishment of a rigorous canon of myth; rejection of knowledge for its own sake (demand for relevance or Zweckwissenschaft). Judaism was the only revolutionary monotheism produced in the ancient world, and Christianity inherited the characteristics that made Tacitus scream & Marcus Aurelius talk about their parataxis [sheer obstinacy].

(The “Third Book” Notebooks, Notebook 12, par. 304)

A certain amount of contemporary agitation seems to be beating the track of the “think with your blood” exhortations of the Nazis a generation ago, for whom also “relevance” (Zweckwissenschaft, u.s.w.) was a constant watchword. Such agitation aims, consciously or unconsciously, at a closed myth of concern, which is thought of as already containing all the essential answers, at least potentially, so that it contains the power of veto over scholarship and imagination. Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance,” that concerned issues have a right and a wrong side, and that those who are simply right need not bother tolerating those who are merely wrong, is typical of the kind of hysteria that an age like ours throws up. That age is so precariously balanced, however, that a closed myth can only maintain a static tyranny until it is blown to pieces, either externally in war or internally through the explosion of what it tries to suppress.

(The Critical Path, 155)

Shakespeare, Frye & Ideology


The “Sanders portrait,” the “Canadian” Shakespeare unveiled in 2001, purportedly painted from life in 1603.

Russell’s post on Greene and Shakespeare raises a number of questions about the relation between literature and ideology — a subject that has always been at the centre of literary criticism and shows no sign of going away.

Frye, in a display of irreverence as cheeky as Greene’s, famously observed (referring both to the relatively thin biography and the posthumously published Droeshout portrait) that we have very little hard data about Shakespeare: a few signatures, a handful of addresses, “and the portrait of a man who is clearly an idiot.”  As Russell points out, Frye is always able to make a distinction between the “man” (who may possess idiotic personal qualities and even more idiotic ideological views) and the “writer.” For current critical theory and practice, this must seem an indefensible position.  How is it possible for anyone to produce work independent of their all-encompassing social conditioning and the prejudices it spawns?

For Frye, the answer begins with the fact that literature possesses both “autonomy” and an “authority” unique to it.  Literary archetypes — whose universality can be discerned by the widest possible inductive survey of literature throughout history and across cultures — are expressive of imaginative constants and primary existential concerns.  Moreover, the context is fundamentally different.  Language in its everyday social function is “work”: expressing beliefs, necessities, truths, and so on.  Literary structures, on the other hand, are, in their imaginatively recreational function, “play”: they “exist for their own sake” and provide no requirement of belief or claim to truth.   Ideology, in short, compels; literature invites.  And upon that distinction everything follows, including the fact that the writer (like, say,  T.S. Eliot, about whom Frye directly addresses this very issue) may be consciously pushing a personal ideological agenda from which the literature itself displays a stubbornly independent purpose.  This is why literature is potentially “visionary”: it provides us with a clarified sense of what we want and who we would like to be without providing any compulsory program of action or belief.  Literature as recreation merely provides the opportunity for re-creation; it does not and cannot compel it.  What we choose to do in response to the existentially concerned but still aesthetic experience of literature is always entirely up to us, including (as we know all too well) doing absolutely nothing at all.

Frye more or less takes up these issues in the opening pages of the Introduction to On Shakespeare.  In fact, here is the complete second paragraph of that Introduction:

We have to keep the historical Shakespeare always present in our minds to prevent us from trying to kidnap him into our own cultural orbit, which is different from but quite as narrow as that of Shakespeare’s first audiences.   For instance, we get obsessed by the notion of using words to manipulate people and events, of the importance of saying things. If we were Shakespeare, we may feel, we wouldn’t write an anti-Semitic play like The Merchant of Venice, or a sexist play like The Taming of the Shrew, or a knockabout farce like The Merry Wives of Windsor, or a brutal melodrama like Titus Andronicus. That is, we’d have used the drama for higher and nobler purposes. One of the first points to get clear about Shakespeare is that he didn’t use the drama for anything: he entered into its conditions as they were then, and accepted them totally. That fact has everything to do with his rank as a poet now.  (On Shakespeare, 1-2)

So what does Shakespeare’s “rank as a poet” really amount to?  It may be summed up by the fact that he does not ever subordinate the autonomy and authority of his art to any external consideration: “all the world’s a stage” is not just a clever conceit in Shakespeare, it is a radical metaphor of his imaginative worldview. As Frye puts it, “In every play Shakespeare wrote, the hero or central character is the theatre itself” (OS 4). He may reflect the beliefs, biases, anxieties and prejudices of his time in a way his audience might recognize and even approve of, but he doesn’t promote them.  The Merchant of Venice is nowhere close to reducible to the anti-Semitism it conjures; The Taming of the Shrew overturns the complacent sexism it renders; The Merry Wives of Windsor unexpectedly offers up a more egalitarian and tolerant vision of society once the knockabout farce has played itself out; and Titus Andronicus proves to be a powerful meditation upon the grisly absurdity of the human capacity for cruelty. Why? Because Shakespeare allows his plays to play without ever feeling the necessity of putting them to work in the name of some ideology, however noble or well-intentioned it may otherwise claim to be.

Shakespeare the Establishment Conformist, or The Virtue of Disloyalty: Northrop Frye and Graham Greene (3)


The “Cobbe portrait,” allegedly a newly-identified image of Shakespeare fully decked out in establishment conformist finery

In an earlier post, I compared Northrop Frye’s and Graham Greene’s readings of Henry James.  Greene’s criticism often seems eccentric, a product of the same obsessions that drive his fiction.  His discussion of Shakespeare is as distinctive as his essays on James.  In 1969, Greene received the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize, endowed by an Anglophile German, and awarded to British citizens for artistic achievement.  He marked the occasion with an address entitled “The Virtue of Disloyalty” which begins,

Surely if there is one supreme poet of conservatism, of what we now call the Establishment, it is Shakespeare. . . .  If there is one word which chimes through Shakespeare’s early plays it is the word “peace.”  In times of political trouble the Establishment always appeals to this ideal of peace. . . .  Peace as a nostalgia for a lost past: peace which Shakespeare associated like a retired colonial governor with firm administration.

In what follows, two of Greene’s major obsessions, Roman Catholicism and betrayal, coalesce in a discussion which, however inadequate as Shakespeare criticism, reveals much about Greene’s view of the writer’s role in society.  One should bear in mind that the speech was given during the Cold War, at a time when Russian dissident writers were much in the minds of people in the west, and that it was given to a German audience, about twenty-five years after the end of the second world war.

Greene is deliberately provocative in the sardonic manner in which he discusses the great national poet after whom the prize was named.  “There are moments,” he says, “when we revolt against this bourgeois poet on his way to the house at Stratford and his coat of arms, and we sometimes tire even of the great tragedies, where the marvellous beauty of the verse takes away the sting and the last lines heal all, with right supremacy re-established by Fortinbras, Malcolm and Octavius Caesar.”  Greene then continues:

Of course he is the greatest of poets, but we who live in times just as troubled as his, times full of the deaths of tyrants, a time of secret agents, assassinations and plots and torture chambers, sometimes feel ourselves more at home with the sulphurous anger of Dante, the self-disgust of Baudelaire and the blasphemies of Villon, poets who dared to reveal themselves whatever the danger, and the danger was very real.

Shakespeare does not, for Greene, belong in the company of Russians such as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, though, anticipating recent postcolonial critics, he detects a note of rebellious outrage in Caliban’s speech “You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.”

Greene then goes on to contrast Shakespeare, “the great poet of the Establishment,” with the brilliant but minor poet and Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell.  If only Shakespeare had shared Southwell’s disloyalty, Greene says, “we could have loved him better as a man.”  The remainder of the short essay argues that the writer should be opposed to the State, acting as a devil’s advocate in the face of official efforts at scapegoating.  The writer should always be counter-cultural, “a Protestant in a Catholic society, a Catholic in a Protestant one.”  The writer should be ready to change sides at a moment’s notice, for “He stands for the victims, and the victims change.”  This does not mean that the writer is a propagandist, but rather someone who enlarges the bounds of sympathy, “making the work of the State a degree more difficult.”  Greene concludes, perhaps to the discomfort of some in his audience – apparently the lecture was received enthusiastically by the students who were present – by presenting, as his final example of the virtue of disloyalty the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who “chose to be hanged like our English poet Southwell.  He is a greater hero for the writer than Shakespeare.”

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Maslow and More


Responding to Russell Perkin’s Celebrity Critics:

Your post reminded me of the last popular critic who had a bestseller on the NY Times List, Harold Bloom, the disciple of Frye, more akin to Judas than Peter. (Frye did say he disliked disciples, as one will betray you anyways.)

The Invention of the Human and The Western Canon were huge and had great implications for literature and literary critics.

I have been reading Terry Eagleton, and he is not my cup of tea. Not only did I feel he misrepresented Frye in his Literary Theory potboiler; he also took many riffs off of Frye. Read Frye’s “Polemical Introduction” in the Anatomy and compare it to Eagleton’s introduction of Literary Theory. Eagleton has a similar outline, if not the arguments.

I feel he made his critical mark, like other critics, by knocking Frye, in a classic David versus Goliath. I still think Eagleton and critics like him turned out to be the real Philistines.

In Response to Russell Perkin’s RE: “Beyond Suspicion”:

The Fusion of Text and Reader and Guilty Pleasures:

As for the fusion of text and reader, Frye speaks of this fusion in Words with Power: to paraphrase, just by reading, we are resurrecting from the past into the present, the work, the speaking voice, in the site of the reader. The centre of the logos is in the reader, not under the text, and changes place with the Logos at the circumference which encloses both.

Existential Projection: Frye noted in The Practical Imagination that it is difficult to read from the point of view of an evil character. Put another way, our reading habits/personal ideology, will not allow us to become in Iser’s phrase, the ideal reader in a work like American Psycho, to walk in that character’s shoes so to speak. Coming from the other direction, one of my guilty pleasures is a song by Nine Inch Nails which I enjoy, but then my ideology/reading habits and superego come in to censor my id, to cancel that enjoyment. It’s a cognitive dissonance not unlike eating something you are not supposed to.

Should we just trust the imagination when we merge with the text to protect us and pull us out after our reading?

In response to Joe Adamson’s The Social Function of Literature:

The Authority of Literature and the Arts:

Short Answer: Literature shows us the world we want (comedy and quest romance) and the world we don’t want (tragedy, irony, satire).

Long Answer: At the risk of sounding glib, for my younger students who could not read Words with Power or understand primary and secondary concerns, I point to Abram Maslow’s needs of life. The authority of literature is to remind us of the needs for life. Every story shows these needs either being fulfilled or denied/subordinated. Usually my students watch their favourite movie and report on the following checklist whether these needs are fulfilled or denied.

1. Physical Needs (movement, food/air/water, reproduction/family, clothing, shelter, property, technology and money).

2. Safety

3. Love/Belonging

4. Self-Esteem

5. Cognitive needs (need to know)

6. Aesthetic needs (need for beauty/art)

7. Humour/Optimism

8. Self-Actualization (power to help oneself)

9 Transcendence (power to help others).

I once had a parent angry that I screened the Eminem movie 8 Mile (13 kilometres in Canada), saying it was crap. After giving her the list, she understood what art does as a whole, even popular art.

As Frye says, his ideas are for the average 15 or 19 year old. A vision of heaven, anagogy, should be open to anyone with a imagination.

The interesting thing is that Maslow’s Needs are most often taught in high school marketing/business courses to brainwash the public.

It’s time that literature reclaimed the imagination, showing how advertising is applying literature’s disinterested vision of an ideal world.

[Eminem’s Lose Yourself after the break.]

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Re: Russell Perkin’s Response to “Beyond Suspicion”


It’s interesting, Russell, that we’ve both said in separate posts this past week that the issues we are addressing come down to a matter of “emphasis.”  For you, what needs to be emphasized is that Frye seems “to downplay the difficulty” of achieving what Gadamer characterizes as the “fusion of horizons” between literature and life.  As you go on to observe, “What [Frye] calls anxieties may be the product of painful experience that cannot be readily cast aside.”  Earlier in the week, meanwhile, I said in response to a post by you that what needs to be emphasized is the priority of literary over ideological meaning, of centripetal over centrifugal reference.

It seems therefore that the difference in emphasis really does account for the apparent divide between us.  To my eyes, what you say about ideology, anxiety, and the potential for misrepresentation of a literary text in the classroom (The Taming of the Shrew once again standing duty on the issue) only does an end run around what Frye is trying to get us past.  If we insist on the primacy of ideological anxiety, whatever its source, we only perpetuate that anxiety.  This is what I mean when I say that all of our limitations when it comes to literature are self-imposed.  As Joe illustrates very concretely in his post yesterday, the centripetal direction of literary meaning is the revelation of primary concern, and that is what literature is saying when it is otherwise saying nothing about what we ought, must, are obliged or compelled to believe as a matter of our prevailing ideological anxieties. 

In The Educated Imagination Frye observes that the purpose of a “liberal education” centred around the study of literature is to liberate.  We are, as Blake says, enchained by mind-forged manacles.  The source of our freedom lies in the perception that we ourselves serve interchangably as master and slave, and no verbal context offers such a perception more comprehensivley than literature precisely because it is not ideological in reference, and because it is motivated by concern rather than compelled by anxiety.

You suggest that some “anxieties may be the product of painful experience that cannot be readily cast aside,” and that may very well be true, as far as it goes.  But just because some anxieties cannot be readily cast aside does not mean that they cannot ultimately be cast aside.  None of this is merely given to us.  The human creative endeavor is fraught with our frailty and failings.  But any notion of human “progress” has an implicit teleology, and in Frye’s case it is the revelation of primary concern, which is, like the gestalt of literal metaphor (the centripetal foundation of all verbal meaning), a universal condition that is individually experienced and expressed. 

Apocalypse, says Blake, relates to the perceiver and not to the perceived.  It is the distinction Frye makes in The Great Code between “panoramic” and “participating” apocalypse.  Only the latter is a source of liberation, and that is up to each of us, one at a time, and at just about any time of our choosing.  But first we have to become aware that it is available to us because we are the source of it, as evidenced by our ongoing acts of creation and recreation manifesting the emergence of primary concerns over ideological ones.  And that, evidently, is the “intensified” state of consciousness Frye suggests in Words with Power is the aim of all critical endeavor.  However, our consciousness cannot be so intensified if it stubbornly entangles itself in a state of ideological anxiety, which is as self-defeating as it is self-perpetuating.

Re: “Beyond Suspicion”


Responding to Joe Adamson’s post:

Joe, That was a really helpful post. You state that “it may be difficult to separate an author’s anxieties or ’secondary concerns’ about race, sexuality, or class, for example, from his imaginative vision. It is precisely the job of criticism to make that separation, and to do so means the critic should have and show an awareness of all aspects of an author’s work. It is a murky job for criticism in the case of a writer like Celine or Sade–and there may indeed be writers where it just doesn’t seem possible or worth the candle.” I think the point I was trying to make earlier is that to make that separation there has to be what Gadamer calls a fusion of horizons, a meeting of the world of the text and of the reader. In some situations, that will be difficult if not impossible. Some readers and some texts just don’t work together.

I think the main point where we differ is really one of emphasis. Sometimes Frye seems to me to downplay the difficulty of achieving this fusion of horizons. What he calls anxieties may be the product of painful experience that cannot be readily cast aside. To clarify the point about Shakespeare, it’s not that people are likely to be infected by sexist attitudes as a result of  The Taming of the Shrew, so much as the fact that if that play, or many other works of English literature, were presented for example by a professor unconscious of his own sexist assumptions, then young women in the class may well not be able to get past the ideology of the play. I am old enough to remember classes where things like that happened routinely. (Just as professors used to smoke in class, a fact which usually amazes my students!) But, of course, to allude to a point Michael made, one can imagine a great production of The Taming resisting that sexist ideology by emphasizing the aspects of the play that Michael pointed to. And for different readers or audiences different texts will be unrewarding, not “worth the candle.” For instance, I once read enough of American Psycho to know that I didn’t want to read the whole book.

I agree with you about the excessive privilege granted to the critic in much ideological criticism. And also with what you say about the student not being accorded an independent role. Gerald Graff touches on this in his MLA Presidential address, in the recent PMLA. When professors of literature talk of “training” their students I always suspect that their idea of education is closer to Mao’s than to anything one could describe as liberal.

For an example of a critic who can write about literature in its historical and ideological context and at the same time as literature, I would suggest Geoffrey Hill (pictured above). He is acutely aware of power and history, in both his poetry and his prose , but also of the power of poetry and the imagination. Apparently he is a lifelong Labour voter, but he has been accused of nostalgic conservatism and “kitsch feudalism.” He is for me a major figure, though he seems known mainly to specialists in modern poetry and people who have an affinity for his view of literature. And he does seem to me to be doing the kinds of things you are talking about in your post.