Category Archives: Notebooks


An extended excerpt from Abel Gance‘s restored 1927 masterpiece, Napoleon

On this date in 1799 Napoleon left Egypt en route to seize power in France.

Frye in “The Drunken Boat”:

The self-identifying admiration that so many Romantics expressed for Napoleon has much to do with the expression of natural force, creative power, and revolutionary outbreak.  As Carlyle says, in an uncharacteristically cautious assessment of Napoleon: “What Napoleon did will in the long-run amount to what he did justly; what Nature with her laws will sanction.” (The Stubborn Structure, 209)

And here he is in one of the late notebooks on the same quote:

Carlyle said that what Napoleon did will ultimately become what he did justly: people like Napoleon never really do anything, certainly not justly.  They’re thunderstorms in the hell-world.  (CW 6, 672)

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)

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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.

P. D. James


Today is P. D. James‘s 90th birthday.

Thanks to Bob Denham’s wonderful compendium, Northrop Frye Unbuttoned, we have at our fingertips what Frye had to say in his notebooks about the detective novel.  Here’s a selection:

Why am I obsessed with detective stories?. . . I’ve completely forgotten the Freudian explanation I came across recently.  In my own terms (which wouldn’t of course exclude Freud) a really top-flight detective story has two levels of meaning throughout.  Every sentence, every fact given, may be potentially a “clue”: it has its surface meaning in the narrative, and its teleological meaning as part of what you “see” in the final cognitio.  Also, of course, the descent of the police as a Last Judgment symbol, reaching for the guilt that’s in everyone, and the scapegoat as the primal anxiety symbol. (Unbottoned, 66)

The detective story is written backwards, & belong to creative & dream time, not to the ordinary beginning-to-end, cause-and-effect time.  It’s written in the way one composes a dream after having the alarm go off.  This event-to-cause order is the mythical as distinct from the historical order. . . . I think my dream life demands these stories. (ibid.)

There are some Freudian reasons (except that I’ve forgotten what they are) for the appeal of detective stories: Freudianism itself owes much of its popularity to the same kind of appeal, Freudian therapy of neurosis being essentially a search for who done it in childhood.  Or what done it. (ibid.)

I have often wondered why I’m so hooked on detective stories. . . . One thing that occurs to me is double meaning: a casual remark or incidental episode suddenly becomes relevant in that second world where the murderer is identified.  Miniature apocalypse with Satan cast out and all the other details moving together in identity. (ibid.)

You can watch a complete television adaptation of James’s Shroud for a Nightingale by linking here.

Frye on Religion in the Late Notebooks: A Little Anthology


Notebook 27.

[87]  Re the previous (but one) note: expanded consciousness is not religion, of course, but it may be the precondition for any ecumenical or everlasting-gospel religion.  Note that the gospel-church begins with ecstatic phenomena (speaking in tongues), and that our own time is rich in frenzies and hysterias along with more genuine phenomena.  LSD (when it’s a good trip) appears to increase the intensity of the feeling of oneness with the object.

[104]  The Word-Spirit dialogue is slowly assuming a spiral or ladder shape: it conceivably might work out to a counterpart of Hegel’s Ph [Phenomenology of Spirit], only in images instead of concepts, with a religion of parable forming its crisis.  And, of course, there’s the other great hope that it would follow the four levels of meaning.

[106]  The dialectic movement from creation to exodus is clearing.  The forming of a specific mythology is the only possible response to a hidden creation.  As Blake says, religion is a specific social development of the Poetic Genius [All Religions Are One].  In a sense a mythology negates or denies the creation, on Hegelian principles.

[128]  In metaphor, as I said, across [par. 122], we have Joseph “here” and bough “there”: by identifying them in an assertion which “everybody” knows is not “real” identity we eliminate space and have only verbal space.  Similarly with myth and time.  The god, I said, stabilizes the metaphor: all religions lean in a subjective (Dionysian) direction, where you identify with the god through a group, or an objective one where the god remains transcendental and adored.

[136]  I’ve mentioned how in the 19th c. religion gets identified with the find-the-true-church puzzle [par. 43].  Newman is the pattern here.  I suppose S.K.’s [Kierkegaard’s] attack on “Christendom,” perhaps even Nietzsche’s anti-Xn [anti-Christian] polemics, are a kind of neo-Protestantism.

[151]  Thus, without losing its specific historical orientation through Judaism and Christianity, the Bible is an archetypal model of a perennial philosophy or everlasting gospel.  At least, that’s what I’d call it if I were writing a book on religion.  We really do move from creation to recreation.

[197]  I have very few religious books, & those I have stress the mystics.  I have great difficulty, nonetheless, in reading, say, Boehme, because mystics (less true of Boehme than of others) seem so masochistic: isn’t this stuff just wonderful that we have to say we believe anyway?  But now Boehme is making more sense as I move closer to light and signature symbolism.  Once more, it’s not that I “believe” him but that this is the kind of link between the Bible and the creative imagination that I’m looking for.

[206]  I need more on primary & secondary concern.  I want the Innis stuff about Reformers & Marxists settling into an adversary situation.  Marxism in theory transcends ideology, & some bourgeois masochists (Barthes) go along with this.  But when we look at what Lenin says about religion it’s clear that a counter-ideology is being set up: there’s no transcendence of ideology.  So my faith-ideology-secondary concern and charity-transcendence-primary concern still stands.

[207]  Anyway, the religious-secular dichotomy doesn’t work, except as an illusion of ideological adversaries.  A “pro-religious” attitude merely keeps an “anti-religious” one in business, and vice versa.  That’s the real implication of my aligning revolutionary psychologies in Biblical religions and Marxism, not some bromide like “Marxism is really a religion after all” (though I’ve said it is in interviews).  Everybody knows that all religious social phenomena are inextricably bound up with “secular” elements in politics and economics.  So in reverse.

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Richard III

From Ian McKellen’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Was ever woman in this humour woo’d? / Was ever woman in this humour won? / I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.” (I. ii. 232-4)

On this date in 1485, Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet line, was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field, which brought the first Tudor king, Henry VII, to the throne.

Frye in the Notebooks on Renaissance Literature:

In the H6 – R3 tetralogy [1, 2, 3 Henry VI; Richard III] it isn’t until R3 emerges from the final play that we feel any dramatic integrity of character standing out from the tapestry.  The reason is that he’s an actor, and a hypcrite or masked character, and he suggests a kind of real life, however reprehensible, which he & the audience at least know about. (CW 20, 240)

. . . R2 is isolated in the opposite way from R3.  The latter is pure de facto & hypocrite; R2 is pure de jure, and is an actor who throws himself into every role suggested to him, most notably that of the betrayed Christ . . . (CW , 241)

The other world exists in Shakespeare, as in Dante, mainly to confirm the social set-up of this one.  Jack Cade, according to Iden, goes to hell; Edward IV goes to heaven.  Hubert is “damned” if he kills the rightful heir Arthur, yet H4 seem to get away with dodging the responsibility for killing R2.  This principle of presenting a wish-fulfilment world as aristocratic is in the romances.  It’s a bugger to try to understand a writer who has no personal attitude.  The king de jure has a magical aura around him: the logic of such a superstition is that a king de facto who has any claim to the throne at all should exterminate everybody with a better one, & will thereby acquire that aura.  R3 thinks he’s done it; this I why I call the principle of legitimacy comic: {the hidden eiron gimmick we’ve forgotten about}. (CW 20, 242)

Northrop Frye: “There are bigger fools in the world”


Frye and Helen: the expression on his face is sweetly suggestive of his impassioned letters to her during the 1930s

Today is Frye’s birthday (1912-1991) and an opportune moment to hear what Frye has to say about himself.

His intermittent diaries between 1942 and 1955 contain just two birthday entries.

From his 1942 diary:

Thirty today.  Many good resolutions, most broken already.  (CW 8, 6)

From his 1950 diary while staying at Harvard and writing his seminal “Archetypes of Literature“:

Today was my thirty-eighth birthday.  Helen & I went down to the Harvard Co-operative Store (they call & pronounce it the “Harvard Coop”) & got me a summer suit & a lot of miscellaneous things, socks & tie & so on . . . On the way back I stopped at a liquor store & asked if if there were any formalities about purchasing liquor.  He said the formality consisted only in the possession of cash…

It’s important for me to get along on a concentrated job as soon as possible, because travel, which is said to broaden the mind, only flattens mine.  The exposure of my naturally introverted mind to a whole lot of new impressions confuses me, because I’m more at home with ideas, I’m not naturally observant, and what impressions I do get are random & badly selected.  Also they’re compared with the more familiar environment back home and, as I don’t know the new environment, the comparison is all out of focus. (ibid., 406)

We get much more of this sort of autobiographical detail in his letters, written between the ages of 19 and 24, to Helen Kemp.

Postmarked 14 June 1932:

The Muse is still stubborn.  I have a good idea but no technique.  I have a conception for a really good poem, I am pretty sure, but what I put down is as flat and dry as the the Great Sahara.  I guess I’m essentially prosaic.  I can work myself up into a state of maudlin sentimentality, put down about ten lines of the most villainous doggerel imaginable, and then kick myself and tear the filthy thing up.  However, I got out the book of twentieth-century American poetry from the library and that cheered me up.  There are bigger fools in the world.  (CW 1, 19-20)

Postmarked 25 August 1932:

What I am worried about is my own personal cowardice.  I am easily disheartened by failure, badly upset by slights, retiring and sensitive — a sissy, in short.  Sissies are very harmless and usually agreeable people, but they are not leaders or fighters.  I would make a very graceful shadow boxer, but little more.  I haven’t the grit to look the Wedding Guest in the eye.  “Put on the armor of God,” said a minister unctuously to me when I told him this.  Good advice, but without wishing to seem flippant, I don’t want armour, divine or otherwise — snails and mud-turtles are encased in armour — what I want is a thick skin.  (ibid., 63)

11 October 1933:

You say I am necessary to your existence.  Does that mean:

a) That I am 135 pounds of mashed turnip; something necessary in the way of companionship — somebody to tell one’s troubles to — somebody who will pet you and spoil you and cuddle up to you when things go wrong?

b) That I am a condiment, bringing a sharp tang and new zest to existence, reminding you of the world, the flesh and the devil, and so humanizing you?

c) That I am a stimulant, helping to correlate your activities, encouraging your talents and spanking you for your weaknesses?

d) Or, that I am a narcotic, a drug, very powerful, to be taken, as you say, in small doses, temporarily relieving you, like a headache powder, from your ethereal worries by plunging you into an orgy of physical excitement which leaves you exhausted and silenced?

e) Or that I am an insufferable bore who stays too late?

f) Or a combination of the above?

You see, being a man, I’m so densely stupid.  I haven’t any sort of intuitive tact.  I am your typical male — whenever you get depressed I don’t know anything except what I personally want to do — that is, take you in my arms and strike solicitous and protective attitudes.  If there’s any crying to be done, I want it done on my shoulder.  I want to be present and look helpful whenever you are in difficulties.  (ibid., 90)

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Saturday Night at the Movies: “Medea”

Maria Callas, in her only film role (and in which she does not sing), in Pier Paulo Pasolini’s film adaptation of Medea.

Frye cites Medea in a couple of places in notebook 13a to clarify his thinking on tragedy:

The sense of tragedy comes from the emphasis on causality in the plot.  Thus Medea begins with the Nurse wishing that a lot of things hadn’t happened which in fact had happened.  The sense of causality is in its turn derived from the primary contract, the sense of the natural law, which operates morally as nemesis.  This is all in AC: what I didn’t get so clear there was the sense of two contrasting falls, one tragic, Adam into the wilderness, & one ironic, Israel into Egypt.  The ironic contract is the social contract properly speaking, an imitation of natural law but without its certainty, hence the arbitrary quality, which being social rather than natural is not genuine fatality.  Hence hamartia, which is really a loophole that prevents fatality: character cooperating with events.  (CW 20, 290)

Jason blandly tell Medea, when she’s reproaching him for deserting her that she’s had all the advantages of a Hellenic education, & learning what justice & fair dealing are.  Good e.g. of the way tragedy concentrates on the natural & primitive & not the social contract.  (CW 20, 293)

The rest of the film after the jump.

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Anne Bronte


On this date Anne Bronte — sister of Emily and Charlotte and author of Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall — died (1820 – 1849).

Frye refers regularly to Emily and Charlotte but doesn’t seem to refer separately to Anne.  However, he does cite the Bronte sisters in this notebook entry to make a crucial point about realism and romance:

As time goes on, the greater seriousness attached to myths, as the stories that really happened or are “true” in some special way, eventually shifts, as with a writing culture the sense of truth or correspondence grows, to the life the story reflects.  Thus realism acquires the moral dignity that romances never had, and which realism itself inherits from myth.

Thus in the nineteenth century the “history” of fiction goes through those who can, for the purposes of the alleged historian, be treated as realists.  Thackeray, George Eliot, Trollope, Jane Austen, and carefully selected aspects of Dickens form the main skeleton; Wilkie Collins and Bulwer Lytton, even the Brontes, don’t fit quite so well, and Le Fanu, George Macdonald, William Morris, Rider Haggard, for various reasons, don’t fit at all.  Neither do the Alice books.  My thesis is, of course that romance illustrates structure and realism only content, hence a genuine literary history would put the romances in the centre and make realism peripheral.  (CW 15, 202)