Category Archives: Irony

The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon was first published on this date in 1830.

We posted on Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s new musical, The Book of Mormon, yesterday.  You can watch their South Park episode, “All About Mormons,” here.

Complementing the satire of Parker and Stone, here’s a pertinent observation on parody, with the Book of Mormon cited, in Notebook 44:

All irony, whether of content or of form, is relative to a norm, and is unintelligible without the norm. It seems essential to keep on saying this is an age of “deconstruction,” where the illusion grows up that the norms are no longer there. Tristram Shandy was “odd” to Johnson and “typical” to some Russian formalist [Victor Shklovsky], but it’s not typical of anything but a fashion. (When parody becomes very fashionable, the illusion grows up that the norms have disappeared.)

I suppose the Mormon Bible is a parody of the lost histories of the great civilizations that came pouring over the Bering Straits into the New World. (CW 5, 205-6)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley


A real rarity: the Edison Studios 1910 film adaptation of Frankenstein — thirteen minutes and one reel, as was the fashion of the time.  It is startling to think that just barely one lifetime after her death, Shelley’s novel was already being adapted at the very dawn of the film industry, making her monster one of the most recognizable of all movie characters, even if that character usually bore little resemblance to her original literary creation.

Today is Mary Shelley‘s birthday (1797-1851).

Frye on Frankenstein in A Study of English Romanticism:

An almost equally remarkable example of Romantic irony is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  The story is not, as it often is said to be, a precursor of science fiction: it is a precursor rather of the existential thriller, of such a book as Camus’ L’Etranger.  The whole point about the monster is that he is not a machine, but an ordinary human being isolated from mankind by extreme ugliness, Blake’s “different face.”  The number of allusions to Paradise Lost in the narrative indicate that the story is a retelling of the account of the origin of evil, in a world where the only creators we can locate are human ones.  Frankenstein hunts down his monster in the same way that moral good attempts to destroy the moral evil that it has itself created: Frankenstein is as much a death principle as his quarry, and is surrounded by the vengeful spirits of his monster’s victims.  (CW 17, 122)

Frye and Obscenity


The 100 Greatest Insults in the Movies.

Anyone who knows Frye well knows that he had no trouble with obscenity and in fact regarded it as creative.  I was fortunate enough to hear Kingsley Joblin, Frye’s first year roommate at Burwash, tell the story of how the 17 year old Frye, with his wild mane of yellow hair, had to pass through a gauntlet of swells and bullies on his way to meals each day to taunts of “Buttercup!”  One day, Joblin reported, Frye’d had enough, turned on his tormentors, and unleashed (as Joblin put it) “an Elizabethan torrent of obscenities.”  The taunting ceased forthwith.  It’d be nice to think that the seed of Frye’s quickly established reputation for genius was planted that day.

Frye himself refers to the story of how one of his favorite writers, Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, liked to go down to the London docks to listen to the sailors swear.  It isn’t obscenity Frye would object to.  It is mindless profanity, the kind of verbal reflex that only communicates the absence of wit or thought:

Obscenity in language is an ornament except when it becomes routine, & in the latter event it approaches mere idiocy.  The most horrid example of passivity & inertia of mind I know is Woodside’s story of the soldier who gazed into a shell hole at the bottom of which a dead mule was lying, and said: “Well, that fuckin’ fucker’s fucked.”  (What sort of person is it, incidentally, whose feelings would be spared by printing the above as “that ____in’ _____er’s ____ed,” or “that obscene obscenity’s obscenitied”?) (CW 8, 10)

Fuckin’ right.  And what sort of person is it exactly who could come across this phrase — “obscenity in language is an ornament” — and not feel challenged about complacent moral reflexes and the unexamined assumptions that lay behind them?

Thanks to Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye Unbuttoned, I gained quick access to this entry on “excremental vision” culled from the late notebooks.  The stanza Frye refers to is from Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (which he also refers to in the same context in Words with Power, HBJ, 263-4):

Thus finishing his grand Survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!

Here’s Frye:

Swift’s notorious poem on a woman’s dressing room is usually cited as simply Swift himself being obsessed by the fact that women shit: “insanity,” says Lawrence, “excremental vision,” says Norman Brown.  Well, it’s that, all right: if you haven’t got an excremental vision you have no business setting up as a major satirist.  But “Celia shits” isn’t Swift screaming: it’s Celia’s lover Strephon, whose love for Celia is of the insipidly idealistic kind that hasn’t taken in the fact that women, mutatis mutandis, have the same physical basis to their lives that men have.  Besides, if, like the hero of Berkeley Square, one of us were to wake up in the middle of eighteenth-century London, assailed by all those unfamiliar stinks, wouldn’t we be just as nauseated?  That’s the mark of the great writer: who sees his own time, but with a detachment that makes him communicable to other ages.  (85)

So we might say that the obscene element in comedy and satire is derived from the universal fact that we defecate and fornicate; a humbling but, in the right context, hilarious corrective for an all too human vanity fraught with fear, shame, and resentment when it comes to perfectly natural (not to mention wholly necessary) bodily functions.  As Frye notes in Anatomy, it is important that satire remind us that powerful men and beautiful women have excretory functions and sexual relations as well.  It is a great equalizer: “Obscenity [is] a bodily democracy, also a danse macabre” (CW 8, 19).  In the two clips in our regular TGIF post to follow shortly, for example, it is male sexuality that is the target in the first; and, in the second, anxiety about the still semi-taboo but totally mundane practice of masturbation (again, perhaps more of a male-anxiety problem: as Martin Amis notes, most men think they ought to have outgrown masturbation, but most men also discover they haven’t).

In short, nothing to be ashamed of.  But plenty to laugh about.

Andy Warhol


The first nine minutes of Warhol’s “Blow Job” (1964).  As I outlined in a post yesterday, this is the first in a series of posts today exploring “obscenity” in the arts.  We’ll be citing Frye extensively in the posts that follow.

Today is Andy Warhol‘s birthday (1928 – 1987).

Here’s Frye in “Foreward to English Studies in Toronto“.  As with the reference to Warhol from Words with Power cited in an earlier post (“Andy Warhol Eats a Hamburger”), what is interesting about it is that Frye invokes Warhol to illustrate a bigger point.  In this case, it is the contextualizing experience of art and the role of scholarship in understanding it:

At every step in the liberalizing of the curriculum, some academics will say: “Why should we set up courses and examinations in that?  Shouldn’t students be reading that on their own?  We’ve got a library, haven’t we?”  In one generation Edmund Blunden’s colleague would have applied this to the whole of English literature; in the next it would have applied to contemporary literature; in the next to the study of films, television and pop culture.  In my experience such objectors do not read that sort of thing on their own, but apart from that, there are two very important facts left out of their assumptions.  One is the immense psychological difference between cultivating a leisure-time activity and studying the same material within the context of a university course.  It is a little like, though considerably subtler than, the difference between looking at a row of soup cans and looking at them in Andy Warhol.  The other is the schizophrenia set up in the teacher’s mind.  Two of my teachers at Victoria were Pelham Edgar and John Robins, both interested in the modern novel and Canadian literature.  But all reference to such subjects in lectures devoted to Shakespeare and The Rape of the Lock, had to be bootlegged, so to speak, and lectures got very digressive as a result.  It was very important to our education as students to be told about the short stories of Hemingway and the poetry of Duncan Campbell Scott — it was difficult for us to read these authors “on our own” when we did not yet know they existed.  Edgar, Pratt and Robins at Victoria, and Woodhouse and Brown at least at University College, did very important work in Canadian studies many decades before they got into the curriculum.  (CW 7, 597-8)

After the jump, a superior PBS American Masters documentary about Warhol.  Must-see, if only for the wonderful contemporary footage and extended excerpts from his movies.  (Please note, however, that the entire documentary is comprised of two 90 minute episodes, and only the first part of the first episode is offered here, so Warhol’s early years and early successes aren’t included.  However, the second episode dealing with Warhol at the peak of his success until his death is posted in its entirety.  This really is worth the investment of your time, and I hope you’ll watch it.)

Continue reading