Category Archives: Secular Society

Frye and Popular Culture


Hole, “Olympia.” Why it’s Hole, why the song is “Olympia,” and why this version of it is amateur hand-held video of a 1993 performance, is clarified below.

Last Saturday night I put up a brief post to note the passing of R.E.M and the twentieth anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. The next day I posted some observations by Amanda Marcotte on Nirvana and Third Wave feminism, and added a comment to expand a little on the rise of the riot grrrl phenomenon which, like Nirvana, had the same improbable hometown of Olympia, Washington. Tomorrow night I’m putting up more video featuring riot grrrl bands, partly because the movement is so closely associated with the emergence of the Third Wave, but also because the music and the culture around it are interesting on their own.

Whenever I post anything having to do with popular culture, especially if it is music that may be unknown to or disliked by many people, I do the same gut check: is this Frye-relevant?  In this instance I’d say, as I say every time, yes it is, even though it is obviously not for all tastes. This time, however, I thought I’d sketch out my reasons for thinking so.

Frye once observed that soap operas never rise to the condition of fully realized romance because the endless narrative of serial adventures cannot reach a dialectical crisis of identity. It’s tempting to take this sort of comment as licence to dismiss popular culture generally. But Frye himself does not do this. He in fact says that there is no real distinction between high and low culture, and that any imposed distinction is about bias rather than anything intrinsic to the art itself. I have three main reasons to suggest why works of popular culture, whatever their appeal to taste, ought to be of interest to Frye critics.

The first is the assumption of imaginative value. Even the aesthetics of mass produced and distributed cultural phenomenon — particularly music, movies, television — have their own implicit value that can be tapped by critical engagement. The more consistently we are imaginatively engaged, the greater our potential for creative imaginative response. Mass produced culture has the advantage of ensuring mass circulation but introduces the danger of mass conformity. It has, however, also always been a cause for resistance and “counter-cultural” reactions. As long as this continues to happen, it is more likely to provide enough variation to prevent a debilitating decline into cliché and the kinds of reflexive response that undermine a liberated imaginative response.

Second, in much if not most of our popular culture (especially in that element with resistant counter-cultural origins) the dialectic of identity is strongly manifested in the prevailing archetypes of concern. Our only recently developed youth culture has a notably stubborn streak of resistance (which corporate interests, contrary to the conventional wisdom, do not entirely erase, but also search out at street level as the resistance reinvents itself). The lyrics of popular songs can easily be seen to be some expression, however occasionally naïve or fleeting, of discontent driven by something more like what Frye calls primary concerns: “making a living, making love, and struggling to stay free and alive,” as he puts it in Words with Power. This dialectic of identity those primary concerns represent is not much different from other “higher” forms of imaginative expression; the concerns are universal and their expression is recognizable in recurring archetypes.

Finally, there is what Frye refers to as the local and decentralizing aspect of culture. The universal is best perceived through the particular, which is why, as he once put it, William Faulkner could set his novels in a fictional county in Mississippi and still win a Nobel Prize for literature. The principle is in no way restricted to white American males; it is in the nature of the imaginative dimension of literature and all of the other arts. This fact ought to be more readily appreciable today when there is increasing evidence of the potential for a globalized popular culture, in which just about any aspect of any culture can be transferred and enjoyed anywhere else. It is typically picked up by another small, localized community and eventually transposed into the wider culture. Not surprisingly, the trend is most conspicuously present in music, which always has a massive international appeal, and therefore lends itself to innovation and synthesis. Thirty years ago a designation for “world music” came into wide use, and the increasingly hybridized nature of the music that falls under this heading has only become more obvious. It is almost a certainty these days that just about wherever there are discontented youth challenging local authority, there will be rap and hip hop: this is as true of large parts of the Muslim world, for instance, as it is of Israel.

Local culture therefore has a decentralizing effect on the more widely shared culture, and there is observable movement between the two. This makes it easier to understand why there is a cultish aspect to any counter-culture, especially among young people: these cultish communities are decentralized in the sense that they make a deliberate point of being as far away from accepted standards as they can manage, and they are local in the sense of exhibiting a sensibility and outlook assumed not to be widely shared, even if the community is international and held together by the ability to communicate through electronic media. But today’s cult always has the potential to be part of tomorrow’s culture.

Riot grrrl, for example, to end with the subject of tomorrow’s post, began in about 1990 in Olympia, Washington, which, again, was also the home of Nirvana, and quite remote from any source of the North American musical mainstream. The members of the Olympia music scene made their own music for their own enjoyment, and in a remarkably short period of time Nirvana’s local brand of grunge (an amalgam primarily of heavy metal and punk rock) became an international phenomenon. Meanwhile, the riot grrrl movement introduced a renewed expression of feminist attitudes into the alternative music scene, and that in turn allowed it to catch on just about anywhere it went. Like punk, with its anti-corporate orientation, the music is stripped down, the outlook is crankily dismissive of the status quo, and the lyrics are often profane; but the expectation tends to be hopeful, in the sense that there is anticipation, as there is throughout all of the arts, that things really could change for the better by confronting the world as it is with some sense of the way it ought to be. The fact that the perspective also tends to be ironic is, of course, not a problem because our universally shared concerns are, as Frye points out, what makes irony ironic.

Relative simplicity does not exclude a work of popular art from being imaginatively relevant or from having transferable value. It can render the dialectic of identity as reliably as any “serious” work of art, although, admittedly, with less range and nuance. But what the consumer of art does with any particular work of art is a matter of choice and discretion, and there the potential remains limitless. One of the most pleasantly surprising things about the punk movement when it first began to appear in the mid-1970s is that its indignation is typically motivated by passionately advocated concern. Because that concern is ironically expressed, it can yield a lot of wit and even unexpected tenderness. A much loved but long defunct riot grrrl band from Olympia, Bikini Kill, has a song called “I Like Fucking.” The title and the content are provocative, and, like most punk, there is a conventional épater la bourgeoisie involved. But the more localized context is, once again, what would soon become known as the Third Wave, including an energetic push back against male privilege, as well as a declaration of freedom and gender identity that is more fluid, self-confident, and defiantly sex-positive. However offensive some might find the presentation, the expectation is always reassuring if reassurance is what we are expecting to find. Approached on its own terms, this kind of music has its own authority, an authority that, like the best in all art, invites and does not compel.

I’ll hedge my bets a little by acknowledging that a lack of “range and nuance” in popular culture may be an issue worth considering in much more depth than I have here, and for some people it may be a deal breaker. I also do not address Frye’s critical but prescient observations about the youth culture of the 1960s because I think the culture has much deeper roots now. Because I teach, I am fortunate enough to be continually surprised by the sophistication of students, despite the needless compromises that have been introduced into their formal education through cutbacks and chronic under-funding. Their worldview is remarkably liberal, and it has certainly not been encouraged by the diminished opportunities we have provided them compared to their baby boomer parents. They seem to pick it up where they can, and the most obvious place to look is the culture a significant number of them seem to feel is not simply there for them to consume, but to engage to the extent their own concerns will carry them. In a society currently under seige by a plutocratic class which appears to be set upon stripping away wealth from whatever source it can find, our popular culture is a means to keep alive the determination to prevent the powers that be from being the powers that will prevail.

Previous posts on Frye and rock ‘n’ roll here, here, and here.

Casting our net a little wider on the issue of popular culture, posts on Charlie Chaplin here, here, and here; on silent movies here; a list of every movie Frye alludes to seeing here; on the New Yorker here and here; on television here; on popular art forms herehere, herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; on popular music here; on John Lennon here; on the Beatles here; on Bob Dylan here and here; on the ’60 youth movement here; on Andy Warhol here and here; Frye’s comments on a number of movies here.

This is by no means a comprehensive collection. This is just the stuff we’ve pulled together so far.

“Harperland: The Politics of Control”

From the conclusion to Lawrence Martin’s new book:

It was no small wonder that Canadians feared what Harper might do with a majority government. With that kind of power he could establish a hegemony the likes of which Canadians could not imagine.

It’s no secret what’s coming: the construction of new prisons despite our steadily declining crime rate, a prospect that distresses even Conrad Black, as well as the introduction of a surveillance state with a “crime bill” that will allow the police to access our email and internet traffic without warrants.


Harper seems to have no sense of our history, our political traditions, or our expectations as a society. During his rise to power, he dismissed Canada as “a second-rate socialist country.”

Who?  What?

Sixty-one percent of Canadian voters cast their ballots to the left of the Harper Conservatives last May. That’s 61%. George Bush was at least required to have the appearance of more or less 50% of the vote in order to run amok on American ideals, laws, and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

Harper doesn’t have anywhere near that kind of support, will never have anywhere near that kind of support, and, worse yet, knows he will never need it. Knowing that in fact appears to be his m.o.

He apparently intends to make over this country to fit his own cramped, angry and unforgiving worldview on the basis of just the 39% who voted Conservative in the last election. With our first-past-the-post electoral system, the needs and expectations of the remaining very large majority don’t much matter, as Harper has made clear enough. His unrelentingly vicious disdain for his political opponents (see Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff) appears to extend to the people who vote for them. The most effective solution, unfortunately, is also the most elusive, which is to consolidate the massive majority on the left, as Harper did on the right when he helped to engineer the destruction of the Progressive Conservative party, and then lashed the wreckage to Alberta’s particular brand of resentment politics that evolved by way of the Reform Party, then the Canadian Alliance, and eventually Harper’s own custom-tailored Conservative Party.

Until there is an effective political realignment on the majority left, however, there is still consolation, not least in the work that needs to be done to revitalize our politics and priorities. Whenever the Harper government burdens us with policies and laws that have nothing to do with us and everything to do with him and his remarkably small core-constituency, we should remind ourselves of our strength of numbers and resolve to use it by all the means democracy allows, beginning with free speech and the right to call to account the public servants who serve only at our will.

It’s telling that Harper’s policy of “law and order” — law, as Frye points out, not being the same thing as justice — involves imprisonment and the denial of privacy where there is no need for either. These are the key elements, as Frye again points out, of dystopia. While Harper may behave as though the social contract subordinates us to him, Frye regularly reminds us that it actually puts all of us, including the political class, in the service of a vision of society that is a source of our salvation:

It seems to me that there are two very powerful myths in political life: the myth of origin, which is a version of the social contract, and the myth of ending, or telos, which is going to be some form of Utopia. It doesn’t matter whether you say you believe in a social contract or Utopia–belief has nothing to do with it–the thing is that these are maintained in your mind as the frames by which you do your thinking about society. (CW 24, 514)

Harper likes to end his speeches with “God bless Canada,” which is just one of a number of his unpleasant American imports into our much more civil political process. It may also represent a rare glimpse into his own harsh Day-of-Judgement Christian belief as a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. But Canada is not just a secular nation, it is the only multicultural nation in the world as a matter of statutory and constitutional law. So if a deity must be invoked, why must it be Stephen Harper’s? Why not “Allah bless Canada,” or “Yaweh bless Canada,” or “Jehovah bless Canada,” or “Krishna bless Canada,” or “All the gods of all the world’s polytheistic religions bless Canada”? And what about the large number of those who do not believe in gods of any sort, as it is their constitutional right to do? Does the prime minister not represent these people too? This is why God has no place in our shared public sphere, of which the prime minister is a most conspicuous representative.

A Utopian society is inclusive. A dsytopian one is exclusive. It runs on fear and resentment. It builds prisons where none are needed, and it subjects its citizens to unwarranted surveillance as an ongoing exercise in intimidation. Freedom is not a boon to be granted by those who possess power. Our freedoms are expressed by the guaranteed rights of all citizens, whatever their status, whether they are homeless people living on the street, or a couple of Conservative senators and other party functionaries charged with the jailable offence of breaking federal election law: they are all equal before the law, and are not advantaged or disadvantaged depending upon who they know or who they don’t.

We clearly do not need a suddenly-urgent policy of “law and order” included in our list of our national priorities. We already have law and order in this country to which Stephen Harper has done nothing to contribute. The most that is expected of him is that he not vandalize what he has been entrusted with. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

Frye: “Laissez-faire is Anti-Christian”

Today we end the tease and roll out Frye himself on the issue for which we’ve been laying the ground work the last little while: the witch’s brew of Christianity, Amercian Exceptionalism, and laissez-faire.

Here is Frye painstakingly analyzing American ideology as part of a United Church commission to study modern culture and its points of conflict with Christianity. The aim is to determine “the role of the church in the redemption of culture” (CW 11, 237). The report appeared as The Church and the Secular World (Toronto: Board of Evangelism and Social Service, 1950). It was a collective project, but Frye wrote the Tenets of Modern Culture section, from which this excerpt is taken.

1. The oldest civilization in the modern world is the American one, which was established in its present form in 1776. Modern France dates from the French Revolution; Great Britain began to assume its modern form with the Reform Bill of 1832; Germany and Italy entered the modern world in 1870; China in 1912; Russia in 1917, and so on. The party now in power in America [Democratic] is the oldest political party in the world, and the Stars and Stripes is one of the world’s oldest flags.

2. The axioms of this culture are essentially those of eighteenth-century Deism. There is no real world except the physical world and the order of nature, and our senses alone afford direct contact with it. Religion can provide no revelation of another; nature is red in tooth and claw; we must look to God only in man, and in nature to the extent that it is subdued by man. The essence of religion is morality, dogma and ritual being parasites that settle on it in decay. The chief end of man is to improve his own lot in the natural world, and the essential meaning of human life is the progressive removal of the obstacles presented by nature, including atavistic impulses in man himself. This is done chiefly through the advance of science, by which is meant the increase in the comfort of the body, of which the mind is a function.

3. The problems of American civilization are connected with the facts: (a) that these absurd notions, however inadquate to the modern world, form part of an unofficial established church in American society, are taught in schools, and are impressed on American children at their most impressionable age; (b) that the real churches have been too deeply contanimated with such ideas themselves to make much effective resistance against them; (c) that they form part of the ideology, not of democracy, but of laissez-faire, and yet have kidnapped and secularized the democratic spirit in American life, so that many Americans regard democracy as inseparable from laissez-faire.

4. The axioms and postulates of laissez-faire as the above indicates, are anti-Christian, and lead in the direction, not of democracy, but of managerial dictatorship. Such a dictatorship may be established in either of two ways: (a) through the consolidation of the power of the oligarchy (Fascism); (b) through the seizure of power by a revolutionary leadership established within the trade unions (Communism). The preservation of democracy thus depends on a balance of power held by the state and its elected representatives against the threat of a coup d’etat coming from either end of the economic machine. But Fascism and Communism claim to be the logical forms of true democracy, and both claim to be fighting, not democracy, but one another, for each maintains that democracy merely the propaganda facade of its rival. (CW 11, 237-8)

(Graphic from the article “Is Jesus a Socialist?” in, which is worth reading)

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.

Frye on “the separation of church and state”

From The Double Vision, which aptly anticipates the increasingly intrusive religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism into politics:

In the course of time the movement begun by the Reformation did achieve one major victory: the gradual spread throughout the Western world of the principle of separation of church and state. Something of the genuine secular benefits of democracy have rubbed off on the religious groups, to the immense benefit of humanity, and depriving religion of all secular or temporal power is one of the most genuinely emancipating movements of our time. It seems to be a general rule that the more “orthodox” or “fundamentalist” a religious attitude is, the more strongly it resents this separation and the more consistently it lobbies for legislation giving its formulas secular authority. (CW 4, 174-5)

I’ve expanded an earlier post to provide some sense of how and why that is already happening here.

Nazi Book Burning

Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels oversees a book burning rally in front of the Berlin Opera House. A translation of Goebbles’ speech to the students assembled there after the jump.

On this date in 1933, the Nazis engaged in nationwide public book burnings. The Hitler regime had drawn up lists of scholars and writers unacceptable to the New Order as decadent, materialistic, and representative of “moral decline” and “cultural Bolshevism.”  These included: Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Döblin, Erich Maria Remarque, Carl von Ossietzky, Kurt Tucholsky, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Erich Kästner, and Carl Zuckmayer.

Frye in Anatomy:

The only way to forestall the work of criticism is through censorship, which has the same relation to criticism that lynching has to justice. (CW 22, 6)

In “The Only Genuine Revolution”:

Historical imagination is a difficult thing to develop, and I’m not surprised that people shrink from trying to do it. But I’m always terrified when I hear the word “relevance” applied to education, because I can never forget that it was one of the jargon terms of the Nazis, and particularly the Nazi youth, around 1933 to 1934. That is, the professors around the universities that were being shouted down and hounded out of the place because they didn’t like Hitler were the people who didn’t understand the relevance of everything that was being studied to the Nazi movement. (CW 24, 167)

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Northrop Frye and John Lennon: “War is Over — If You Want It”

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death (1940-1980).

It is a pleasure to commemorate him with local talent — Kori Pop performing “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” filmed just over a week ago by Mitch Fillion of Southern Souls.  This is a sneaks-up-beside-you rendition of the song in a simply conceived but beautiful video.

In “The Quality of Life in the ’70s,” Frye picks up on Lennon’s theme, “War is over — if you want it,” a phrase that appeared on billboards during the Christmas season forty years ago in cities all over the world, including Toronto:

One of the more genuinely attractive aspects of the protest movements of the late 1960s has been the insistence with which they have raised the question of “Why not?”  Some time ago one of the Beatles put up advertisements over Toronto saying “War is over–if you want it.”  It was not perhaps a very successful enterprise, but what it said was true enough.  War is over if we want it, and so is the whole nightmare of human folly and tyranny.  It will probably not be over in the 1970s, but there is nothing in the will of God, the malice of the devil, or the unconsciousness of nature to prevent it from going.  What prevents it are the bogies and demons inside us.  We have been calling these demons up pretty frequently during the past few years of confused and infantile illusions, and they have never failed to respond to our call.  But they have no power except what they get from us, and certainly no power to stop us, if we want it, from making the 1970s an era of grace, dignity, and peace.  (CW 11, 296)

The footnote to this paragraph in the Collected Works reads:

NF is referring to John Lennon’s Christmas 1970 release Happy Christmas (War is Over).  Lennon himself paid for a billboard on Yonge St. that proclaimed this message to the citizens of Toronto.  (CW 11, 376)

Video for “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” after the jump.  Also, the remix by George Martin of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” interpolating “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Helter Skelter.”  Really needs to be heard to be appreciated.  Finally, a photo of Lennon with the 19th century circus poster that inspired the song.  Lennon claimed the entire thing came from that poster.  In any event, if you look hard enough Pablo Fanques and the Hendersons will all be there.  (While, of course, Henry the Horse dances the waltz.)

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Teaching with “The Secular Scripture”

Many readers of Frye have admitted they have a “preferred” book, or one that influenced them more than any other.  If I recall correctly, Michael Dolzani was most influenced by Fearful Symmetry; Bob Denham by Anatomy of Criticism; Michael Happy by The Educated Imagination; Joe Adamson by The Secular Scripture; and Eva Kushner by The Critical Path.  Indeed, we all appear to have that one moment in reading Frye when suddenly it all made sense.  In my own case, I had always thought it was Anatomy of Criticism, but recently I have been thinking more and more about The Secular Scripture.

Over this past term I have had the great pleasure of teaching with Frye’s The Secular Scripture, and my students have, for the most part I think, enjoyed engaging with it.  However, we have also taken Frye out of his comfort zone.  The course I teach considers “Race and Ethnicity in Latin American Narrative” (this is the official course title).  But I tailored the course to address one of my own preferred area of study, romance novels.  Frye, not surprisingly, seems most comfortable when dealing with romance in its European context, but Latin American romance novels appear to be beyond his purview.

When I began to speak about romance, I went for the obvious question: How many of you have read Twilight or Harlequin romances? — which, of course, many of them had.  I then got them to read theoretical writings on the romance, particularly The Secular Scripture, which became our guide to romance.  They also read articles or chapters by other theorists writing on romance, including writing on Latin America: Pamela Regis, Lois Parkinson Zamora, Doris Sommer, Jean Franco, and others (all of whom, interestingly enough, engage with Frye).

Doris Sommer, for instance, remarked in her book Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America, that:

The Latin American elite wanted to modernize and to prosper, yes; but it wanted at the same time to retain the practically feudal privilege it had inherited from colonial times. Logically, a functioning aristocracy by any name might prefer to represent itself in the incorruptibly ideal terms that Northrop Frye finds characteristic of romance, ‘the structural core of all fiction.’ In Latin America’s newly won bourgeois excess, Frye’s heroic heroes, villainous villains, and beautiful heroines of romance are dislodged, unfixed. They cross class, gender, and racial stereotypes in ways unspeakable for European romance. Yet Frye’s observations about masculine and feminine ideals here are to the point; they point backward to medieval quest-romances where victory meant restored fertility, the union of male and female heroes. (48-49)

I will admit here that I spent many pages of a now-discarded dissertation arguing against Doris Sommer’s understanding of Frye.  It is my belief that we can still work with Frye’s theories of romance, and this is precisely what I have endeavoured to show in the course I am teaching.  Frye did not read Latin American romances, but his theory if applicable to the study of world literature should translate to any given context.

My students and I will have worked through four novels in our course when we conclude at the end of the month.  We have found that Frye’s archetypes do fit well into the study of romance in its canonical and popular senses.  Could Frye have predicted some of the specifics of Latin American romance?  No, he couldn’t, not any more than he could address the latest manifestations of the genre in the twenty-first century.  But, his model still holds true for the bulk of these romances.

Frye’s The Secular Scripture is, as with most of his books, very teachable and very user-friendly to the student of genre.  My students are now preparing to write term papers, which must attend to The Secular Scripture, and I eagarly wait to read their ideas and their approaches to the Latin American Romance with the assistance of Frye.

Frye and Heidegger: A Response to Nicholas Graham

Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger

In response to Nicholas Graham’s posts here and here

Aligning Frye’ conception of culture with such anti-humanistic, anti-liberal, and anti-democratic thinkers as Strauss, Voeglin, Lonergan, and Heidegger, is highly questionable and requires further elaboration to be credible. Frye’s conception of the function of literature and criticism in society is antithetical to the conservative and reactionary views of any of these thinkers, all of whom argued for a transcendental norm against which any merely human creative or imaginative power is to be invidiously measured. They are all anxious defenders of an authoritarian and anti-democratic myth of concern against the myth of freedom–proponents of the great butter-slide theory of Western culture, in which it all runs downhill after Plato or Aquinas.

Frye believed strongly that the function of literature lay in its social vision, the idea of a free society, even if that idea “can never be formulated, much less established as a society.” Frye adopted and gave added strength throughout his writings to Arnold’s

axiom that ‘culture seeks to do away with classes.’ The ethical purpose of a liberal educaton is to liberate, which con only mean to make one capable of conceiving of society as free, classless, and urbane . . . No discussion of beauty can confine itself to the formal relations of the isolated work of art; it must consider, too, the pariticpation of the work of art in the vision of the goal of social effort, the idea of complete and classless civilization (348).

It is true that Frye makes use of a number of concepts or formulations of Heidegger’s (poetry as dwelling, language uses man), but the use is selective and limited and the idea in question invariably undergoes a transmutation that emancipates the idea from Heidegger’s philosophy and makes it Frye’s. He does the same with some of Derrida’s terms, and with countless other thinkers and writers with whom he otherwise shares very little. In his social and political views, the one thinker he does share a good deal with is the great John Stuart Mill. For Frye, literature and imaginative culture as a whole accomplish what Mill envisioned as necessary in the progress to a fully mature society: they liberalize, democratize, individualize. This is about as far away from Heidegger as one can get. For Heidegger, human beings are simply the historical medium of consciousness through which Being reveals or conceals itself. It was Heidgger’s contempt for modernity and for democratic and liberal views that led him to the delusion–if it were not simple opportunism–that the Nazis were Germany’s, and das Sein‘s, salvation from the horrors of liberal democracy. For a good discussion of Heidegger’s relationship to the Nazis, see the Wikipedia article “Heidegger and Nazism.”

Mervyn Nicholson: Frye Was Different (2)


Frye was different in many ways.  In this respect, he was like his mentor, William Blake, who has always presented problems, even anxieties, to literary scholars.  Somehow Blake was outside the main current, and Frye sort of is, too.

Frye was different, to begin with, in the fact that he validated human desire.  I noted before that he believed desire was good.  In this, Frye was in opposition to most traditions and unlike most intellectuals.  This difference in attitude has profound significance and profound effects on his thinking generally, but the validation of desire was not the only difference that sets Frye apart.  Another important difference is that he thought a good deal about the question what is the social function of literature.

This is not a question that attracts literary scholars.  It isn’t easy to think of any conference on the topic or anybody who got a SSHRC grant to investigate the question, what is the social function of literature? even though it seems to be a rather obvious question and one of considerable, again obvious, importance.  Frye was different — he thought about this throughout his career.  The question in true Frye fashion points to a prior question, which is: does literature has a social function?  Frye insisted that it does have a social function, and then went on to investigate what that function was.

It is interesting that literary critics have not bothered with either of these questions much.  Critics did talk about this before Frye (a bit, anyway), but after Frye — after his reputation collapsed in the 1970s — no one seems to even notice that it is a question.  Poststructuralism was hardly interested.  Poststructuralism is essentially a denial of value or function to literature — this neutralization is a basic theme of Paul de Man, for example.

The logic of the New Historicism is to deny the existence of a category called ”literature” altogether; there are just texts, and what is called “literature” is just an elitist preference for one text over another.  Since there is no such thing as literature, the whole question of whether it has a function or not is superfluous, even meaningless.  What has been called literature is primarily a display of the preoccupations, prejudices, and anxieties of the author, exactly like any other text

The social function of literature is a difficult topic because it implies the further question, why study literature? (and then, why have English departments?).  In the past, there were theorists who asked what the value of literature is — “value” in the sense of some inherent importance that is realized by the individual reader-consumer of literature, some private benefit.  “Social function” is a different concept, and refers to some purpose in societal terms, not just for the individual.  For Frye, literature has both “value” and “social function,” too.

Early theorists, say Plato, saw literature as a function of delusional desires or as an instrument of instruction or indoctrination.  Aristotle’s Poetics assigns a psychological value to literature in his conception of catharsis: drama resolves difficult emotions by purging them (I. A. Richards and Kenneth Burke are in this “psychological” line before Frye).  Literature may also furnish enjoyment for those with leisure to enjoy such things.  But the standard attitude is that literature, like works of art generally, belongs to an owning elite who control such works, enjoy them, and pay the artists who produce them.  Special people consume the work of art and benefit from it, as well as determining its content.  Literature is a kind of tribute to the owner, an elite gratification.

Out of this model comes the view of literature as an object — an object of consumption — a notion preserved in the tradition that literary criticism is a form of evaluation.  “Critic” after all means “judge.”  The connoisseur-judge consumes the work of art and decides its value, like a wine expert sampling a particular vintage and pronouncing its value, or to use Frye’s wonderful derisive metaphor, like a judge awarding ribbons at a cat show.

What makes Frye so interesting in this context is that he insisted that literature is a social power: it is a power with a social function.  He struggled to formulate or theorize this conviction, that literature participates in the construction of society, above all the construction of a better society.

Thus literature is part of a democratic and emancipatory struggle.  It is inevitably involved in the question, what would a better society be like? and so brings us back to the prior concern, in Frye, the concern of desire, of what we desire—and do not desire.

Again, Frye was different.