Category Archives: Language

“Free Speech” and “Mob Language”

Michael’s recent posting of Sarah Palin’s latest free association on, er, whatever that guy’s name is, came to mind today as I was reading The Well-Tempered Critic, one of Frye’s undeservedly lesser known books. Frye’s discussion of the dangers of a bastardized use of language casts a glaring light on America’s ongoing descent into mental darkness. Characteristically, he approaches the problem from the perspective of education, language, and the imagination. What he has to say bears directly on the kind of “automatic gabble,” to borrow his phrase, that issues from the mouths of so many American politicians and pundits, this being the only verbal form that could possibly give expression to the mob mentality of the most recent incarnations of the American right-wing. His insights clarify, in particular, ongoing debates about freedom of speech, and what that freedom actually demands of us as members of a free and democratic society.

To set the context, Frye points out that “rhetoric from the beginning has been divided into three levels, high, middle, and low,” “originally suggested by the three classes of society,” but which Frye suggests should be used in a way that dispenses with “the misleading analogy of social classes” and “some of the metaphors lurking in the words ‘high’ and ‘low’.” The middle style is “the ordinary speaking style of the articulate person,” and “its basis is a relaxed and informal prose, that is, prose influenced by an associative rhythm.” This is “the language of what ordinarily passes for thought and rational discussion,” Low style is “a colloquial or familiar style,” which Frye believes “should be regarded simply as a separate rhetorical style, appropriate for some situations and not for others.” High style, he observes, is, conventionally, more often identified with its literary form, those moments of the sublime associated, for example, with “great passages in Shakespeare or Milton.” But in ordinary speech it “emerges whenever the middle style rises from communication to community, and achieves a vision of society which draws speaker and hearers together into a closer bond. It is the voice of the genuine individual reminding us of our genuine selves, and of our role as members of a society, in contrast to a mob.” It is “is ordinary style, or even low style, in an exceptional situation which gives it exceptional authority.”

Frye, typically, illustrates his argument at one point with a number of historical allusions appropriate to the time (the book was published in 1961): he refers, for example, to Joseph Welch, the man whose spontaneous and impassioned eloquence abruptly ended the career of Joe McCarthy. The insights, it is safe to say, are just as resonant and illuminating with reference to our contemporary scene:

Genuine speech is the expression of a genuine personality. Because it takes pains to make itself intelligible, it assumes that the hearer is a genuine personality too—in other words, wherever it is spoken it creates a community. Bastard speech is not the voice of the genuine self: it is more typically the voice of what I shall here call the ego. The ego has no interest in communication, but only in expression. What it says is always a monologue, though if engaged with others, it resigns itself to a temporary stop, so that the other person’s monologue may have its turn to flow. But while it seeks only expression, the ego is not the genuine individual, consequently it has nothing distinctive to express. It can express only the generic: food, sex, possessions, gossip, aggressiveness, and resentments. Its natural affinity is for the ready-made phrase, the cliche, because it tends to address itself to the reflexes of its hearer, not to his intelligence or emotions. I am not suggesting that society can do without a great deal of automatic babble on ready-made subjects: I am merely saying that we limit the aspects of our personality that we can express with words if we devote ourselves entirely to such verbal quackery. (CW 21, 351)


But of course freedom has nothing to do with lack of training. We are not free to move until we have learned to walk; we are not free to express ourselves musically until we have learned music; we are not capable of free thought unless we can think. Similarly, free speech cannot have anything to do with the mumbling and grousing of the ego. Free speech is cultivated and precise speech, which means that there are far too many people who are neither capable of it nor would know if they lost it.

A group of individuals, who retain the power and desire of genuine communication, is a society. An aggregate of egos is a mob. A mob can only respond to reflex and cliche; it can only express itself, directly or through a spokesman, in reflex and cliche. A mob always implies some object of resentment, and political leaders who speak for the mob aspect of their society develop a special kind of tantrum style, a style constructed almost entirely out of unexamined cliches. Examples may be heard in the United Nations every day. What is disturbing about the prevalence of bad language in our society is that bad language, if it is the only idiom habitually at command, is really mob language. (352)


High style in ordinary speech is heard whenever a speaker is honestly struggling to express what his society, as a society, is trying to be and do. It is even more unmistakably heard, as we should expect, in the voice of an individual facing a mob, or some incarnation of the mob spirit, in the death speech of Vanzetti, in Joseph Welch’s annihilating rebuke of McCarthy during the McCarthy hearings, in the dignity with which a. New Orleans mother explained her reasons for sending her white child to an unsegregated school. All these represent in different ways the authority of high style in action, moving, not on the middle level of thought, but on the higher level of imagination and social vision. The mob’s version of high style is advertising, the verbal art of penetrating the mind by prodding the reflexes of the ego. As long as society retains any freedom, such advertising may be largely harmless, because everybody knows that it is only a kind of ironic game. As soon as society loses its freedom, mob high style is taken over by the new masters, to become what is usually called propaganda. Then, of course, the moral effects become much more pernicious. Both advertising and propaganda, however, represent the conscious or unconscious pressure on a genuine society to force it into a mass society, which can only-be done by debasing the arts. (353)


Except in the nonverbal arts, like mathematics or music, there are no wordless thoughts, nor can any genuine ideas be expressed in undeveloped speech or writing. The undeveloped associative rhythm can only reproduce the associative process: by itself it can never express thought, much less imagination. What it can express, and effectively, is hatred, arrogance, and fear. This makes it a considerable danger at a time when, though some of us are afraid of science, we hive so much less to fear from science than from a misuse of words. However uninhibited, it is not free speech, and at a time when most of us feel rather helpless about how much we can do in the world, free speech is the one aspect of a genuine society that we all hold in our hands, or mouths. What the critic as a teacher of language tries to teach is not an elegant accomplishment, but the means of conscious life. Literary education should lead not merely to the admiration of great literature, but to some possession of its power of utterance. The ultimate aim is an ethical and participating aim, not an aesthetic or contemplative one, even though the latter may be the means of achieving the former. If free speech is cultivated speech, we should think of free speech, not merely as an uninhibited reaction to the social order, a release of the querulous ego, but as the verbal response to human situations, a response which establishes a context of freedom. The subliterary associative response is antisocial; the cliche or accepted idea response is a symptom of social stagnation; the free response, when verbal, is one participating in the lucidity of prose and the energy of verse. (353-354)

Jacques Lacan


A lecture on the unconscious and language with a dramatic interruption by a young audience member

Today is Jacques Lacan‘s birthday (1901-1981).

From “Lacan and the Full Word”:

I am not trying to kidnap Lacan for a religious program: I am merely trying to indicate the places where, in my study of the Bible, epigrams and observations I had read in Lacan began it reverberate. Both the Bible and Lacan present visions of the human situation, with occasional points of contact. But to see these points clearly we have to separate Lacan’s vision from his practice as a psychoanalyst, and the Biblical vision from questions of faith, with their many emotional imponderables. Any contemporary journal devoted to religious topics will confirm that thinkers who have withdrawn from most or all religious belief — Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger — are quite as useful in defining those topics as those who have aligned themselves with such beliefs. The reason for this must be sought for within the nature of language, and the study of language, as I imagine few will deny, has not yet progressed so far into its real depths. (CW 18, 395)

Verbal Poltergeists

Our earlier post on runaway autocorrect functions suggests that they are slapstick parodies of the observations below. We are our own poltergeists.

“Do we use language or are we used by it?” (CW 6, 595)

“Nobody is capable of free speech unless he knows how to use language, and such knowledge is not a gift: it has to be learned and worked at.” (The Educated Imagination, 64)

George Orwell


From the 1985 film adaptation of 1984: The principle of perpetual war explained (video not embedded: click on the image and hit the YouTube link)

On this date in 1950 George Orwell died (born 1903).

Frye in The Educated Imagination:

The essential thing is the power of choice.  In wartime this power is greatly curtailed, and we resign ourselves to living by half-truths for the duration.  In a totalitarian state the competition in propaganda largely disappears, and consequently the power of imaginative choice is sealed off.  In our hatred and fear of war and totalitarian government, one central element is a sense of claustrophobia that the imagination develops when it isn’t allowed to function properly.  This is the aspect of tyranny that’s so prominently displayed in George Orwell’s 1984.  Orwell even goes so far as to suggest that the only way to make tyranny permanent and unshakable, the only way in other words to create a literal hell on earth, is deliberately to debase our language by turning our speech into an automatic gabble.  The fear of being reduced to such a life is a genuine fear, but of course as soon as we express it in hysterical cliches we are in the same state ourselves.  As the poet William Blake says in describing something very similar, we become what we behold.  (CW 21, 490)

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Today is Edmund Burke‘s birthday (1729-1797).

Consistent with our postings this week on responsible speech and the broader social compact it manifests, here’s Frye in The Well-Tempered Critic on Edmund Burke, a  conservative who puts to shame jibbering hysterics like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and company:

If we ask what is the natural way to talk, the answer is that it depends on which nature is being appealed to.  Edmund Burke remarked that art is man’s nature, that it is natural to man to be in a state of cultivation, and the remark has behind it the authority of our whole cultural and religious tradition.  What is true of nature is also true of freedom.  The half-baked Rousseauism in which most of us have been brought up has given us a subconsciousness notion that the free act is the untrained act.  But of course freedom has nothing to do with lack of training.  We are not free to move until we have learned to walk; we are not free to express themselves musically until we have learned music; we are not capable free thought unless we can think.  Similarly, free speech cannot have anything to do with the mumbling and the grousing of the ego.  Free speech is cultivated and precise speech: even among university students not all capable of it or would know if they lost it. (CW 21, 334-5)

That’s true also of politicians who have never attempted to process cultivated and precise speech, and whose idea of freedom is accordingly untrammeled licence for the plutocratic elite they represent and diminishing returns for everyone else.

Quote of the Day: “Our job is to resist such language”

“The irritable reaching after fact and reason may take a long time, and there’s no guarantee that we won’t forever remain in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubt about the motives of the Arizona killer. But regardless of what we do or do not discover, the use of language that frames one’s political opponents as prey to be shot has no place in civic discourse. No negative capability is required to take that position. As Frye says, every society has some measure of mob rule and lynch law, and the language of both, in his words, ‘congeals into a mood of anticipatory violence.’ Our job is to resist such language.”  — Bob Denham, in the comment thread today

Ivan Turgenev

Today is Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev‘s birthday (1818-1880).

Frye on Russian literary language in an interview with Matthew Fraser, “Northrop Frye: Signifying Everything”:

Fraser: The language of literature is often very different from the common spoken language of a country.  For example in Russia, because of the strong influence of Pushkin, the literary language is divorced from spoken Russian.  In North America, however, the literary language is virtually the same as our spoken language.  Why do you think that in some countries there is such a gap between literary and spoken language, and in other countries there is no difference at all?

Frye: I think that with Russia it has something to do with the rather late development of their literature.  And of course there are other countries like Norway where the literary language is almost an invented language.  I think that the gap between literary language and ordinary spoke language is a very unhealthy thing, especially in fiction where the dialogue, at any rate, has to capture the spoken word.  I don’t know how countries get along if there is too great a gap between literary language and the colloquial language, but certainly in North America that battle was fought out as early as Huckleberry Finn, where it was clear that the language spoken by the people is the literary language as well.

Frye and Obscenity (2)


Here is a selection from the diaries and notebooks referencing obscenity.

Anatomy Notebooks.

[118] The conception of semniotes is beginning to take shape.  Primitive tribes distinguish serious tales & less serious ones; this distinction appears later as the distinction between myth & legend or folktale.  One has to distinguish between an intensive encyclopaedic tendency, which selects & expurgates & builds a canon, from the extensive one that we find in satire & in prose fiction generally.  The latter is exploratory of the physical world: hence satire & irony are “obscene,” just as painters are forever poking into women’s bedrooms & toilets (the actual process of changing a menstrual pad or cacking on a pot is, however, considered unpaintable).  Hence literature expands through satire & through the genre of fiction (cf. Shaw’s preface to The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet on the “Eliza in her bath” problem in drama).  Folktales expand the original quest-archetype, which is forever collapsing into semniotes.  Cf. The Egyptian masturbating god with Jesus’ clay & spittle.  Semniotes is connected with abstraction was well as morality—we often speak of “pure” abstraction, & the purifying of myth is like the purifying of mathematics. (CW 23, 241)

[The issue Shaw examines is the difference between impropriety in books and in plays.  He reports that Sir William Gilbert remarked, “I should say there is a very wide distinction between what is read and what is seen.  In a novel one may read that ‘Eliza stripped off her dressing-gown and stepped into her bath’ without any harm; but I think that if it were presented on stage it would be shocking.”  Shaw proceeds to demolish the illustration as an argument for censorship on stage (Preface, The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet [New York: Brentano’s, 1928], 69).]

[Semniotes appears to be NF’s coinage, derived from σεμνός, decent, modest.  On the Egyptian myth, see AC, 156.]

In the circle of myths, I must work out some more oppositions between romance and irony.  Irony-satire is always what is called “obscene,” & hence is the exact opposite of the element in romance which is the release of erotic fantasy.  Sadist fantasies (Romantic Agony, Spenser’s Amoret & whosit in 6—not Seven, though she fits, but the C of L [Court of Love] one—Mirabell, I think, & my William Morris stuff), masochist ones (I think less common, but cf. the C of L) & other erotica (in Freud’s sense of Eros) are found.  I’ve just been reading an admirable piece of science fiction: [John Wyndham’s] “The Day of the Triffids.”  Catastrophe blinds all the human race except the merest handful of survivors—Flood archetype.  Brought on by human folly—Atlantis archetype.  (The writer is intelligent enough to note both).  Heroine makes her appearance being whipped.  Harem (two extra girls) introduced, but censored out.  Little girl often picked up—erotic archetype censored out.  The flood archetype is the transference of an infantile fantasy: suppose everybody died except me & the people I could boss, or at least play (i.e. work) with.  The comfortable good [?] & the world shut out feeling, the sense of holiday, turns up early when they loot a Picadilly flat: I don’t know if this kind of erotica, which turns up in the dismissal of catechumens theme in ghost stories (Turn of the Screw) has a name, but it’s linked with the regression to the family unit which is a part of the Flood archetype.  Several important things have to be worked out.  Pr. ph. 4. (ibid., 246)

Late Notebooks.

[222] Rimbaud again: “Venus Anadyomene” is a deliberately “shocking” poem, but not obscene: no hatred is expressed for the poor creature.  “Mes Petites Amoureuses” I thought obscene at first, because of the hatred (“Que je vous haïs!”) and sadistic wishes to break their hips.  Yet the real context of this poem is the Lettre du Voyant, in which it is included, and the letter prophesies a new age of poetry where women will have a leading part.  The “amoureuses” are not girls but false Muses.  He says the poem isn’t part of the argument, but (a) it is (b) one can take that remark both ways. (CW 5, 39)

[715]  For mother’s generation Scott was the pinnacle of serious secular reading: no one realized that he inverted a popular formula, and isn’t “serious” in the way Jane Austen or Balzac are.  This point has been confusing me: it’s involved me in one of those “revaluation” antics I detest so much, and which invariably appear when there’s a confusion of genres.  If Scott had been allowed in his day to be, if not “obscene,” at least as sexually explicit as Fielding, he’d have been more centrally in the Milesian tales tradition. (ibid., 247)

[197]  The whole section on the Spirit and the transition to kerygma needs [sic] more careful expression.  Of the chaos of myths waiting for the Spirit to brood on them, ranging from the profound to the frivolous, the reverent to the obscene, which can be “believed”?  Belief here means the creative use of a recognized fiction.  Myths that cannot be “believed” remain in the imaginative corpus, as possibilities only. [See WP, 129.] (ibid., 294)

[593]  I think, with a modicum of that horrible obscene four-letter word (ugh) WORK, these four chapters will come off all right.  Eight will simply extend the ascending ladder into evolutionary & other views that start with nature & end with man.  The intensifying of consciousness bit & the four levels of time & space will fit into the end.

[594]  Now what do I do?

[595]  Well, first you finish the fucking book. (ibid., 377)

Continue reading

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.