Category Archives: Popular Culture

Frye at the Movies: “City Lights”


Continuing with our Frye at the movies series, here’s Chaplin’s 1931 masterpiece, City Lights.

Frye seems to have been a genuine fan of Charlie Chaplin and wrote two Canadian Forum articles about him: “The Great Charlie” (1941) and “The Eternal Tramp” (1947).  Here’s an excerpt from the latter:

Chaplin’s tramp is an American dramatic type, and Rip Van Winkle and Huck Finn are among his ancestors.  The tramp is a social misfit, not only because he is too small and awkward to engage in a muscular extroverted scramble, but because he does not see the point of what society is doing or to what purpose it is expending all that energy.  He is not a parasite, for he possesses some occult secret of inner freedom, and he is not a bum, for he will work hard enough, and still harder if a suitable motive turns up.  Such a motive occurs when he discovers someone still weaker than himself, an abandoned baby or a blind girl (students of Jung will recognize the “anima” in Chaplin), and then his tenderness drives him to extraordinary spasms of breadwinning.  But even his normal operations are grotesque enough, for in the very earnestness with which he tries so hard to play society’s game it is clear that he has got it all wrong, and when he is spurred to further efforts the grotesqueness reaches a kind of perverse inspiration.  The political overtones of this are purely anarchist — I have never understood the connecting of Communism with Chaplin — the anarchism of Jefferson and Thoreau which see society as a community of personal relationships and not as a mechanical abstraction called a “state.”  But even so the tramp is isolated by his own capacity for freedom, and he has nothing to do with the typical “little guy” that every fool in the country has been slobbering over since Pearl Harbor. (CW 11, 117)

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Tennessee Williams


Blanche meets Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams died on this date in 1983 (born 1911).

Frye in The Educated Imagination cites Williams in his account of recurring archetypes in popular literature:

You notice that popular literature, the kind of stories that are read for relaxation, is always very highly conventionalized.  If you pick up a detective story, you may not know until the last page who done it, but you always know before you start reading exactly the kind of thing that’s going to happen.  If you read the fiction in women’s magazines, you read the story of Cinderella over and over again.  If you read Westerns, you’re reading a development of the pastoral convention, which turns up in writers of all ages, including Shakespeare.  It’s the same with characterization.  The tricky or boastful gods of ancient myths and primitive folk tales are characters of the same kind that turn up in Faulkner or Tennessee Williams. (CW 21, 449)

How Many Groundhog Days?

One Groundhog Day after another

Frye in The Double Vision:

There are two kinds of repetition: one is inorganic, a matter of merely doing the same thing over and over; the other is habit or practice repetition that leads to the acquiring of a skill, like practicing a sport or musical instrument.  Inorganic repetition is precisely what the word “superstition” means: binding oneself to a continuing process that is mere compulsiveness, often accompanied by a vague fear that something will happen if we stop. (CW 4, 208)

For those of you who need to know how many groundhog days Phil Connors must endure before developing a liberating “habit or practice repetition,” here is the breakdown.  The number, whatever you think it might be, is pretty staggering — and it is very ingeniously calculated.

Bob Marley

A gorgeous live version of “No Woman, No Cry” fom the Legend album.  Still gives me chills to hear the audience singing from the opening bar before Bob even gets started.

Today is Bob Marley‘s birthday (1945-1981).  His deeply peaceful instincts, inspired by a full commitment to Rastafari, seemed to match his musical genius:

I don’t have prejudice against meself. My father was a white and my mother was black. Them call me half-caste or whatever. Me don’t dip on nobody’s side. Me don’t dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side. Me dip on God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white.

Frye on peace and choosing life in conversation with David Cayley:

We’ve gone though history thinking of peace as meaning that the war has stopped, and consequently, a lot of people, when you use a word like “peace,” say, “Well, the world of peace sounds awfully dull.  There’d be nothing to do if there’s nothing to fight about.” What I go for is “Blake’s I will not cease from mental fight / Till we have built Jerusalem.”  God says in Deuteronomy, “I have set before you life and death . . . therefore choose life.” [30:19].  Well, nobody, with all respect to God, could possibly say that that was a logical “therefore.” A lot of people choose life choose it only because they have got into the habit of living.  They find it easier to do that than to break clear of it.  Others will choose life, but when life becomes an act of choice, then there’s the question of what you’re goint to do with it, what direction you’re to go in.  (CW 24, 1001-2)

Patricia Highsmith

The trailer for Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game

On this date in 1995 Patricia Highsmith died (born 1921).

From Frye’s 1950 diary:

The thriller is quite a suggestive form actually: it’s the opposite of the detective story, where we get the smug primitive identification with the group & see the individual marked down by a process of hocus-pocus.  In the thriller we’re identified rather with the fugitive from society.  The archetype of all thrillers is The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the refugee from the city of destruction is hounded on by a nameless fear, & has to do battle with various members of its police force like Apollyon.  (CW 8, 343)

The Formula of Romance

The Axis of Awesome: Forty four-chord songs in five and a half minutes

I have always been inspired by Frye’s work, and his Secular Scripture in particular has been instrumental in how I conceive the romance. My studies have focused on a small detail from Frye’s theory of romance. In The Secular Scripture, he writes:

One can, of course, understand an emphasis on virginity in romance on social grounds. In the social conditions assumed, virginity is to a woman what honor is to a man, the symbol of the fact that she is not a slave.  Behind all the ‘fate worse than death’ situations that romance delights in, there runs the sense that a woman deprived of her virginity, by any means, except a marriage she has at least consented to, is, to put it vulgarly, in an impossible bargaining position.  But the social reasons for the emphasis on virginity, however obvious, are still not enough for understanding the structure of romance. (CW 18, 49-50)

Something about this notion never seemed right to me.  I could agree that virginity served only a structural purpose, but I was left wondering how it could be structural when it only referred to female characters.  Why was there not a male virgin in romance?  To this end, I have written a dissertation on the subject.  I have surveyed well over one hundred romance novels that include virgins, and I have developed something of an anatomy of male virgins in romance.

While laying out this dissertation, however, I was reminded of the issue of “formula,” because romances are of course “formulaic.”  That is, all romances follow a narrative and must have so many key characters, episodes and so on.  Indeed, many critics of romance note this.  Pamela Regis, for instance, argues that there are eight key requirements:

Eight narrative events take a heroine in a romance novel from encumbered to free. In one or more of the scenes, romance novels always depict the following: the initial state of society in which heroine and hero must court, the meeting between heroine and hero, the barrier to the union of heroine and hero, the attraction between the heroine and hero, the declaration of love between heroine and hero, the point of ritual death, the recognition by the heroine and hero of the means to overcome the barrier, and the betrothal. These elements are essential. (30)

Even with these eight elements, however, romance is remarkably varied. Harlequin Publications, for example, produces romances that have varying levels of eroticism and sexuality — and even a NASCAR setting, for those looking for one.  But all romances evidently possess Regis’s eight requirements.  So the question becomes: why do literary critics in general look down upon formulaic fiction?  In many regards, it seems that sticking to and following the formula presents its own challenges, including, how does any writer make a formula new?

So, with this in mind, I am posting the video above to illustrate the point: just four chords can produce forty different pop songs for the purposes of a single comedy bit.  Why shouldn’t eight elements of an expansive literary formula produce any number of romances?

Quote of the Day: Keith Richards on Open Tuning

Rolling Stones performing “Honky Tonk Women” on Top of the Pops in 1969 with Mick Taylor on second guitar — their best lineup ever.  The open G tuning drives the song’s roots very deep into the Delta blues upon which rock ‘n’ roll is based.

I’m reading Keith Richards’s surprisingly good autobiography, Life. Here he is describing his discovery of open tuning, which freed him as a composer and set him apart as a performer:

The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes — the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart.  It’s tuned GDGBD.  Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it’s electric they reverberate.  Only three notes, but because of the different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound.  It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring.  I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers.  The notes are there already.  You can leave strings wide open.  It’s finding the spaces in between that makes open tuning work.  And if you’re working on the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which you’re actually not playing.  It’s there.  It defies logic.  And it’s just lying there saying, “Fuck me.”  And it’s a matter of the same old cliche in that respect.  It’s what you leave out that counts.  Let it go so that one note harmonizes off the other.  And so even though you’ve now changed your fingers to another position, that note is still ringing.  And you can even let it hang there.  It’s called the drone note.  Or at least that’s what I call it.  The sitar works along similar lines — sympathetic ringing, or what they call the sympathetic strings.  Logically it shouldn’t work, but when you play it, and that note keeps ringing even though you’ve now changed to another chord, you realize that that is the root note of the whole thing you’re trying to do.  It’s the drone. (243)

No doubt some will think this is a laughable reach, but Richards is obviously expressing the excitement of finding something in music that is in the potential of music itself and independent of his intention, and about that Frye, of course, has something to say:

Often creative people begin with the sense of a small school to which they belong and they write manifestos defending that school.  However, as they get more authority, they tend to break away from the school and speak more and more with their own voice.  As the maturing process goes on, the voice becomes steadily more impersonal.  If it’s a great creative mind, it moves in the direction of speaking with the authority of the art behind it.  I’ve often drawn the distinction between listening to music, say, on the level of Tchaikowsky, where you feel that this is a very skillful, ingenious, and interesting composer, and music on the level of Mozart or Bach, where you feel that this is the voice of music.  And that’s not to say that the music is impersonal because it obviously couldn’t be anyone but Mozart of Bach.  Nevertheless, the feeling is one of having transcended the ego which is no longer opaque but completely transparent for revealing the authority of the art itself.  (CW 24, 488-9)

After the jump, Son House performing the open G tuned “Death Letter Blues,” demonstrating Frye’s principle that “originality” is really a return to origins.

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Apple and Orwell and “1984”

On this date in 1984 Apple ran their famous Orwell-inspired ad for the Macintosh computer during the Super Bowl.  Yesterday was George Orwell’s birthday, the anniversary for the founding of Apple recently passed, and we’ve already posted this week on journalism, propaganda and advertising, so this is an attention-catching confluence of events.  The Apple commercial was notoriously revived for this independently produced Obama ad during the ’08 Democratic primaries.

The cleverness and high degree of irony in both of these ads does not seem to get us around Frye’s observation that advertising is “a judicious mix of flattery and threats.”  But thank God for the irony, at least, because we’ve also posted this week on the unironic and commercially-funded threats that try to pass for journalism, here and here.

Gregory Corso

Five poems by Gregory Corso

On this date in 2001 beat poet Gregory Corso died (born 1930).

Frye in “World Enough Without Time”:

The “beat” writers are trying to identify the genuine proletariat, the body of those who are excluded from the benefits of society and have sense enough to realize it.  For such a proletariat the road to freedom is not through organizing a revolution to seize power from the squares and become squares in their turn, but through breaking the current of social  energy by drifting, bumming, playing jazz, taking dope, or what not, and entering the world of the pure present through the break.  The beat philosophy may be wrong — that is, it may be crazy itself instead of merely making use of craziness — but its symbolism is a contemporary cultural force to be reckoned with. (CW 21, 292)