Category Archives: Modern Century

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 on Democracy and Religion: “An open mythology has no canon”

Continuing with Frye on religion and democracy, here he is in The Modern Century:

[D]emocracy can hardly function with a closed myth, and books of the type I have mentioned as contributions to our mythology, however illuminating and helpful, cannot, in a free society, be given any authority beyond what they earn by their own merits. That is, an open mythology has no canon. Similarly, there can be no general elite in a democratic society: in a democracy everybody belongs to some kind of elite, which derives from the social function a particular knowledge or skill that no other group has.

The earlier closed mythology of the Western world was a religion, and the emergence of an open mythology has brought about a cultural crisis which is at bottom a religious crisis. Traditionally, there are two elements in religion, considered as such apart from a definite faith. One is the primitive element of religio, the collection of duties, rituals, and observances which are binding on all members of a community. In this sense Marxism and the American way of life are religions. The other is the sense of a transcendence of the ordinary categories of human experience, a transcendence normally expressed by the words “infinite” and “eternal.” As a structure of belief, religion is generally weakened; it has no secular power to back it up, and its mandates affect far fewer people, and those far less completely, than a century ago. What is significant is not so much the losing of faith as the losing of guilt feelings about losing it. Religion tends increasingly to make its primary impact, not as a system of taught and learned belief, but as an imaginary structure which, whether “true” or not, has imaginative consistency and imaginative informing power. In other words, it makes its essential appeal as myth or possible truth, and whatever belief it attracts follows from that. (CW 11, 67)

This is not what we’re seeing from the highly politicized religious right: it tends to be aggressive and exclusionary, and the agenda seems largely driven by intolerance of secular values as well as resentment of the freedoms they promiscuously provide irrespective of belief, gender or sexual preference. Issues relating to these areas, at any rate, always seem to be top-of-the-list targets. Want to make a religious conservative group resolutely committed to political action? Just raise the issue of gay marriage or the rights of women over their own bodies. It never misses.

I will be posting a list of agencies and organizations that have already been defunded by the Conservatives. Those no longer worthy of government assistance unmistakably have the “wrong” set of priorities: women’s organizations, agencies offering various kinds of assistance to the poor, including immigrants and children, and organizations promoting gay rights, among a number of others with a recognizable progressive mandate. It is a persistent pattern of behavior.

Vladimir Nabokov


Nabokov in conversation with Pierre Berton and Lionel Trilling about Lolita. (Part 2 of the interview after the jump.)

Today is Vladimir Nabokov‘s birthday (1899-1977).

From The Modern Century:

In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire, a gentle, wistful, rather touching pastoral poem falls into the hands of a lunatic who proceeds to “annotate” it with a wild paranoid fantasy about his own adventures as a prince in some European state during a revolution. Poem and commentary have nothing to do with each other, and perhaps that is the only point the book makes. But the title, taken from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens [4.3.438], suggests a certain allegory of the relation of art to the wish-fulfillment fantasies that keep bucking and plunging underneath it. Such forces are in all of us, and are strong enough to destroy the world if they are not controlled through release instead of repression. In my last lecture I want to talk about the way in which the creative arts are absorbed into society through education. Meanwhile we may notice that the real basis for the opposition of artist and society is the fact that not merely communications media and public relations, but the whole structure of society itself, is an anti-art, and old and worn-out creation that needs to be created anew. (CW 10, 48)

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“The Canada We Have Failed to Create”

Paul-Émile Borduas, “Leeward of the Island (1.47),” 1947, National Gallery of Canada

At the end of The Modern Century, Frye speaks of a

genuine America buried underneath the America of bustling capitalism which occupies the same place. This buried America is an ideal that emerges in Thoreau, Whitman, and the personality of Lincoln. All nations have such a buried and uncreated ideal, the lost world of the lamb, and the child, and no nation has been more preoccupied with it than Canada.

He then goes on to mention Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, Riopelle, Borduas, and of  Pratt and Nelligan, as well as the novels of Grove and artists and writers he sees as constantly in search of that ideal, that “something to be found that has not been found, something to be heard that the world is too noisy to let us hear.”

If there is a genuine Canada, it seems all the more elusive today. It is hard to believe that the cynicism and dishonesty of the current government has had, if we are to trust the polls, so little impact on a disturbingly large part of the electorate. Elsewhere, with reference to the inability of the NDP ever to garner enough support to win federal power, Frye pithily observes: “Principles make voters nervous, and yet any departure from them towards expediency makes them suspicious” (CW 12: 644). We can only hope that the current government’s venality and contempt for democracy, not to mention the wishes of his fellow citizens in the name of “stability” and a spurious economic expediency, will create enough suspicion to defeat Harper once and for all.

The Modern Century was published in 1967, the year of Canada’s centenary. Whatever ensues in the upcoming ballot, the eloquent words of the closing peroration are worth keeping in mind over the next weeks:

One of the derivations proposed for the word Canada is a Portuguese phrase meaning “nobody here.” The etymology of the word Utopia is very similar, and perhaps the real Canada is an ideal with nobody in it. The Canada to which we really do owe loyalty is the Canada that we have failed to create. In a year bound to be full of the discussions of our identity, I would like to suggest that our identity, like the real identity of all nations, is the one that we have failed to achieve. It is expressed in our culture, but not attained in our life, just as Blake’s new Jerusalem to be built in England’s green and pleasant land is no less a genuine ideal for not having been built there. What there is left of the Canadian nation may well be destroyed by the kind of sectarian bickering which is so much more interesting to many people than genuine human life. But, as we enter a second century contemplating a world where power and success express themselves so much in stentorian lying, hypnotized leadership, and panic-stricken suppression of freedom and criticism, the uncreated identity of Canada may be after all not so bad a heritage to take with us.

Frye on McCarthyism: “The big lie as a normal political weapon”


Edward R. Murrow’s closing remarks in his report on McCarthy, which was instrumental in ending the hysteria

CBS broadcast its See It Now piece, “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy,” on this date in 1954.

From The Modern Century:

The collapse of Communist sympathies in American culture was not the result of McCarthyism and other witch-hunts, which were not a cause but an effect of that collapse.  The object of the witch-hunt is the witch, that is, a helpless old woman whose dangerousness is assumed to rationalize quite different interests and pleasures.  Similarly the Communist issue in McCarthyism was a red herring for a democratic development of the big lie as a normal political weapon: if internal Communism had been a genuine danger the struggle against it would have taken a genuine form. (CW 11, 42)

Boris Pasternak


The conclusion of Pasternak’s translation of King Lear (with English subtitles).  Lear’s “howl” speech begins at the six minute mark.

Today is Boris Pasternak‘s birthday (1890-1960).

Frye cites Pasternak in The Modern Century to distinguish between an ideologically enforced “stupid realism” and a fully liberated “revolutionary realism”:

It seems clear that an officially approved realism cannot carry on the revolutionary tradition of Goya and Daumier.  It is not anti-Communism that makes us feel that the disapproved writers, Daniel and Babel and Pasternak, have most to say to us: on the contrary, it is precisely such writers who best convey the sense of Russians as fellow human beings, caught in the same dilemma that we are.  Revolutionary realism is a questioning, exploring, searching, disturbing force: it cannot go over to established authority and defend the fictions which may be essential to authority, but are never real. (CW 11, 33-4)

Frye on Advertising and Propaganda


Conservative attack ad on Michael Ignatieff, accusing him of (wait for it) attack ads — and, a la Kory Teneycke, not being sufficiently Canadian.  This is now a very familiar tactic from the right.

Further to the previous post

Frye in “City of the End of Things” in The Modern Century:

Similarly, the technique of advertising and propaganda is to stun and demoralize the critical consciousness with statements too absurd or extreme to be dealt with seriously by it.  In the mind that is too frightened or credulous or childish to want to deal with the world at all, they move in past the consciousness and set up their structures unopposed.

What they create in such a mind is not necessarily acceptance, but dependence on their versions of reality.  (CW 11, 13)