Category Archives: Society

Frye on Blake and Money: “The cohesive principle of fallen society”

Blake’s “To Annihilate the Self-hood of Deceit,” 1804-1808

I’ve posted this before, but it is worth looking at again. Frye in Fearful Symmetry takes on the money economy from a prophetic perspective:

Money to Blake is the cement or cohesive principle of fallen society, and as society consists of tyrants exploiting victims, money can only exist in the two forms of riches and poverty; too much for a few and not enough for the rest. La proprieté, c’est le vol, may be a good epigram, but it is no better than Blake’s definition of money as “the life’s blood of Poor Families,” or his remark that “God made man happy & Rich, but the Subtil made the innocent, Poor.” A money economy is a continuous partial murder of the victim, as poverty keeps many imaginative needs out of reach. Money for those who have it, on the other hand, can belong only to the Selfhood, as it assumes the possibility of happiness through possession, which we have seen is impossible, and hence of being passively or externally stimulated into imagination. An equal distribution, even if practicable, would therefore not affect its status as the root of a evil. Corresponding to the consensus of mediocrities assumed by law and Lockean philosophy, money assumes a dead level of “necessities” (notice the word) as its basis. Art on this theory is high up among the nonessentials; pleasure, in society, tends to collapse very quickly into luxury and affection. (CW 14, 82)

Occupy London and the Church of England

A report on the conflict between the Occupy movement and the business interests of the Church of England.

Frye in “The Church: Its Relation to Society”:

The society of power is always a close and searching parody of the society of love. So close and searching, in fact, that without revelation it is hardly possible for man to separate the latent heaven from the latent hell in his own society or in his social thinking. In the kingdom of God there is no place for Caesar as Caesar, for there is no respect of persons there; in the kingdom of Caesar there is nothing but the respect of persons, and hence no place for God as God. In such a society Caesar has to become God. (CW 4, 255-6)

Frye in “The Analogy of Democracy”:

People attached to churches often speak of political issues as though the church were withdrawn from the world, waiting for the world to offer it various theories of government and then inspecting them in order to decide whether they are comparable with Christianity or not. No such remoteness exists. Members of the church are in the world from the start: their secular passions and prejudices inform and shape their conceptions of religion at every point: to be persistently wrong about the contemporary world is a theological error. We have reached the stage in democratic development at which we can roundly say that if any twentieth-century Christian sincerely repudiates what democracy stands for, there is something radically the matter with his Christianity. . .

The church can mediate between the Gospel and the law only when they have been clearly separated. Failure to separate them is Pharisaism, the legalized bastard gospel. When we look at the way the church uses its social energy and influence . . . we can hardly be reassured about the courage, wisdom, or effectiveness of the church’s approach to society. (CW 4, 274-5)

“We Are All Anarchists”: Frye on Anarchism


OWS Declaration of Occupation: “There is no hierarchy.” The declaration was crafted at a general assembly of all those who wished to participate. It is being recited here by means of the “human microphone,” passed through repetition from the front of the crowd to the back.


[W]e are all anarchists, wanting the society that interferes least with individual freedom. (“Herbert Read’s The Innocent Eye,” CW 11, 115)


Democracy is anarchistic in the sense that it is an attempt to destroy the state by replacing it with an expanding federation of communities, a federation which reaches its limit only in a worldwide federation. (“The Analogy of Democracy,” CW 4, 271)


[T]he residual anarchism at the heart of the Romantic movement is still with us, and will be until society stops trying to suppress it. (“Yorick: The Romantic Macabre,” CW 17, 125)


[C]ultural developments are quite different from political or economic ones, which not only centralize but become more uniform as they grow. . . If we try to unite a political or economic with a cultural one, certain pathological developments, such as fascism or terroristic anarchism, are likely to result. (“Myth as the Matrix of Literature,” CW 18, 306)


[T]he art that emerges under the cultural anarchy of democracy may be subtle, obscure, highbrow, and experimental, and if a good deal of art at any time is not so, the cultural achievement of the country is on the Woolworth level. But art under dictatorship seldom dares to be anything but mediocre and obvious. (“War on the Cultural Front,” CW 11, 186)


Through all the confusion and violence of the late 1960s, the thing that anarchism most wants, the decentralizing of power, has been steadily growing. It will continue to grow through the 1970s, I think, in many areas. For example, the possibilities of cable for breaking into the monologue of communications and giving the local community some articulateness and sense of coherence are enormous. And as real decentralization grows and we get nearer to what is called participatory democracy, the false forms of it, separatism, neo-fascism, the jockeying of pressure groups, and all the other things that fragment the social vision instead of diversifying it, will, I hope, begin to break off from it. (“The Quality of Life in the ’70s,” CW 11, 294)


When the Korean war began, I wrote in my diary that just as the first half of the 2oth c. saw the end of fascism, so 2000 would see the end of Communism. I was whistling in the dark then, because the Communists had just taken over China. But now I really begin to feel that I’m living in a post-Marxist age. I think we’re moving into something like an age of anarachism: the kind of violence and unrest going on now in China, in the city riots (which are not really race riots: race hatred is an effect of them but not a cause of them) in America, in Nigeria, in Canadian separatism — none of this can be satisfactorily explained in Marxist terms. Something else is happening. . .

There were always two sides to anarchism: one a pastoral quietism, communal (Anabaptist, Brook Farm) or individual (Chaplinism). Its perfect expression, in an individual form, is Walden, in a communal form, News from Nowhere. The beats & hippies with their be-ins and love-ins, the “Dharma bums,” are the faint beginnings of a new pastoralism. The hysterical panic about organization, full employment, keeping the machines running, & the like, is now waning as it becomes possible to do other things that work. The hippies only seem to be parasitic, but the fact of voluntary unemployment, of a cult of bums, is new. In the depression the statement “these people just don’t want to work” was the incantation of the frivolous, trying not to think seriously. But now there are such people, and the values they challenge are equally bourgeois and Marxist values.

The other side was violence & terror, without aim & without direction, like the rioting sweeping the world from Canton to Detroit, Lagos to Amsterdam. These riots are local & separatist: they have no intelligible point or aim; they simply show the big units of society breaking down. They aren’t poor against rich, young against old, or black against white; they’re just the anxiety of destruction against the anxiety of conservation. (“Notebook 19,” CW 9, 98-9)


Frye: There are other things in the Canadian tradition that are worth thinking about.  Thirty years ago [in the 1930s] the great radical movement was international Communism, which took no hold in Canada at all.  There were no Marxist poets, there were no Marxist painters… The radical movement of our time is anarchist and that means that it’s local and separate and breaks down into small units. That’s our tradition and that’s our genius. Think of Toronto and Montreal (I know Toronto better than Montreal, but I think the same is true of both cities): after the Second World War, we took in displaced persons from Europe to something like one-quarter to one-fifth of the population. In Toronto in 1949, one out of every five people had been there less than a year. We have not had race riots, we have not had ethnic riots, we have not had the tremendous pressures and collisions that they’ve had in American cities. Because Canada is naturally anarchist, these people settle down into their own communities; they work with other communities and the whole pattern of life fits it. I do think we have to keep a very wide open and sympathetic eye towards radical movements in Canada, because they will be of the anarchist kind and they will be of a kind of energy that we could help liberate.

Chiasson: How do you explain materially the fact that there is not a serious breakdown in the country if the base is anarchist?

Frye: Well, I think that the ideal of anarchism is not the shellfish, the carapace, the enclosed, isolated group. It’s rather the self-contained group and feels itself a community and because it’s a community it can enter into relationships with others. At the moment we are getting some mollusk or shellfish type of radical movement — I think certain forms of separatism are of that kind — but I think we’ll get more mature about this as we do on, a more vertebrate structure. (“CRTC Guru,” CW 24, 92-3)


Thirty years ago, during the Depression, the last thing that anyone would have predicted was the rise of anarchism as a revolutionary force. It seemed to have been destroyed by Stalinist Communism once and for all. But we seem to be in an anarchist age, and need to retrace our steps to take another look at our historical situation. One reason why the radical mood of today is so strongly anarchist, in America, is that the American radical tradition just referred to, especially in Jefferson and Thoreau, shows many affinities with the decentralizing and separatist tendencies of anarchism, in striking contrast to orthodox Marxism, which had very little in the American tradition to attach itself to. There are some curious parallels between the present and the nineteenth century American scene, between contemporary turn-on sessions and nineteenth-century ecstatic revivalism, between beatnik and hippie communes and some of the nineteenth-century Utopian projects; and the populist movements of the turn of the century showed some of the revolutionary ambivalence, tending equally to the left or to the right, that one sees today. Again, today’s radical has inherited the heroic gloom of existentialism, with the doctrine that all genuine commitment begins in the revolt of the individual personality against an impersonal or otherwise absurd environment. The conception of the personal as inherently a revolutionary force, which, as we saw, began in a Christian context in Kierkegaard, was developed in a secular one by French writers associated with the resistance against the Nazis, this resistance being the direct ancestor of the more localized revolutionary movements of our day. (An Essay on the Context of Literary Criticism, CW 17, 95-6)


Now we are in a different kind of revolutionary situation, one that in many respects is more like anarchism than the movements of a generation ago. The latter, whether bourgeois or Marxist, were equally attached to a producer’s work ethic and to the conviction that literature was a secondary social project. The unrest of our time is partly directed against the work ethic itself, and against the anxieties and prejudices of an affluent society. In other words, it is a situation in which one kind of of social imagination is pitted against another kind, and hence it is a situation in which those who work with their imaginations, such as poets or artists, ought to have, and doubtless increasingly will have, a central and crucial role. This last situation is also contemporary with the rise of communications media other than writing, which have brought back into society many characteristics of oral cultures, like those out of which the Bible and Greek philosophy developed. As in all revolutionary situations, society is under great pressure to abdicate its moral responsibility and throw away its freedom. Such pressures exist in every aspect of the situation: there is no side devoted to freedom or to suppressing it. The critic, whose role in the last two decades has expanded from studying literature to studying the mythologies of society, has to join with all other men of good will, and keep to the difficult and narrow way between indifference and hysteria. (“Literature and Society,” CW 27, 278-9)


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Frye on “Pastoral Anarchism”

News report on Marine sergeant and Iraq war veteran Shamar Thomas facing down NYPD officers for assaulting and arresting peaceful demonstrators.

Frye in Notebook 19, c. 1967:

There were always two sides to anarchism: one a pastoral quietism, communal (Anabaptist, Brook Farm) or individual (Chaplinism). Its perfect expression, in an individual form, is Walden, in a communal form, News from Nowhere. The beats & hippies with their be-ins and love-ins, the “Dharma bums,” are the faint beginnings of a new pastoralism. The hysterical panic about organization, full employment, keeping the machines running, & the like, is now waning as it becomes possible to do other things than work. (CW 9, 99)

Frye on “the tension between concern and freedom”

Former Florida congressman Alan Grayson pushes back against self-described “Republican reptile” P.J. O’Rourke on last week’s Real Time with Bill Maher.

Here is a quote from Frye cited in Bob Denham’s essay, “Frye and Soren Kierkegaard,” in his new collection Essays on Northrop Frye, posted in our library this week. The quote is particularly relevant to the rise in the last few weeks of what is now an international “Occupy” movement.

The basis of all tolerance in society, the condition in which a plurality of concerns can coexist, is the recognition of the tension between concern and freedom. . . . Concern and  freedom both occupy the whole of the same universe: they interpenetrate, and it is no good  trying to set up boundary stones. Some, of course, meet the collision of concern and freedom from the opposite side, with a naive rationalism which expects that before long all myths of concern will be outgrown and only the appeal to reason and evidence and experiment will be  taken seriously. . . . I consider such a view entirely impossible. The growth of non-mythical  knowledge tends to eliminate the incredible from belief, and helps to shape the myth of concern according to the outlines of what experience finds possible and vision desirable. But the growth of knowledge cannot in itself provide us with the social vision which will suggest what we should do with our knowledge. (233)

Frye Quote of the Day: “Those excluded from the benefits of the social contract feel no obligation to it”

Here’s Frye in The Modern Century:

In political thought there is a useful fiction known as the social contract, the sense that man enters into a certain social context by the act of getting born.  In earlier contract theories, like that of Hobbes, the contract was thought of as universal, binding everyone without exception.  From Rousseau on there is more of a tendency to divide people into those accept and defend the existing social contract because they benefit from it, and the people who are excluded from most of the benefits, and so feel no obligation, or much less, of it.  (CW 11, 41)

Occupy Toronto Canada begins today as part of what is now an international Day of Action.

Above are more statistics to remind us what this is all about. Note that these data are four years old and before the crash of 2008. It’s worse now. In what other context can 90% be characterized at the “bottom”?

As a further reminder, here is a link to Citigroup’s “Plutonomy” memo, which was issued to its preferred customers six years ago tomorrow. An excerpt:

➤ The World is dividing into two blocs – the Plutonomy and the rest. The U.S., UK, and Canada are the key Plutonomies – economies powered by the wealthy. Continental Europe (ex-Italy) and Japan are in the egalitarian bloc.
➤ Equity risk premium embedded in “global imbalances” are unwarranted. In plutonomies the rich absorb a disproportionate chunk of the economy and have a massive impact on reported aggregate numbers like savings rates, current account deficits, consumption levels, etc. This imbalance in inequality expresses itself in the standard scary “ global imbalances.” We worry less.

Business Insider has produced an extraordinarily comprehensive narrative using charts to illustrate how we got here. I’d strongly recommend you have a look.

Salon, meanwhile, asks “What Do the 1% Actually Do?”

I’d also like to note that the mindlessly repeated meme generated by the corporate media (Fox News in particular) that OWS is vague about its complaints and remedies is unfair. It is true that the movement is still evolving, but from the very beginning at least three identifiable problems and solutions have been repeated.

1. The banks are responsible for the collapse of the market three years ago and were subsequently bailed out with public money. They must therefore be taxed at higher rates, in order to refund the debt they owe (including hundreds of billions in quantitative easing), to make restitution for the tens of trillions of wealth they destroyed, and to decrease the worst income disparity in eighty years.

2. Because banks are responsible for the crash through demonstrably criminal activity, the perpetrators must be charged and tried.

3. Because the underlying cause of the crash is irresponsible government deregulation of the banking system, which was itself the result of relentless and remunerative corporate lobbying, the bond between government and corporate interests must be broken through legislation.

The fact that these kinds of specifics aren’t good enough is yet another symptom of the narrative-driven, fact-deficient pack mentality that has dominated mainstream American “journalism” for decades.

What has this to do with Canada, which has much stricter banking regulations and therefore, unlike Europe, did not find itself crippled as a result of the American banking crisis?

First of all, it is in everybody’s interest that these issues be addressed. The corruption of the American banking system triggered a worldwide economic crisis that is far from being resolved — the euro, in fact, is still threatening to collapse, and with it would go the global economy. Secondly, the underlying issue of widening income inequality is universal, and, at the moment, is advancing in Canada at a rate faster than even the U.S. Canada has a corporate tax rate that is among the lowest of OECD countries, and that lower rate of corporate taxation drives steadily increasing income disparity. Canada is identified in the infamous Citigroup memo cited above as one of three fully developed plutonomies. We are not on the periphery here. We are at the very heart of the problem.

Frye on “the community of love”

Demonstrators at Occupy Wall Street, Saturday October 8, 2011. These are the kids Fox News and the Republicans are calling a “mob.”  

From Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye Unbuttoned:

“If we pursue either liberty or equality we lose both. The tertium quid of one thing needful is fraternity, or interpersonal relation, the kingdom of ends, the community of love, relaxing into tolerance and good will at a distance.” [Notes 58-8.71] (45)

Daily photos of the demonstrations here.

Must-see site: We are the 99%.

More photos after the jump.

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Photo of the Day: Jesus on Wall Street

A sign at the Occupy Wall Street protest today (h/t Dish).

Here’s Frye on Jesus, love, and the community in “Substance and Evidence”:

It’s very important to realize that when we profess or articulate a faith of any kind, what we’re really doing is attaching ourselves to a specific community. Christian beliefs attach us to a Christian community; democratic beliefs make us want to believe in a democracy, and so on. What faith should do is to help create a community in which every individual loves those who are closest to him, or what Jesus calls his neighbours. From there his love radiates into good will and tolerance, which might be called love at a distance, love for those we don’t know, or for those in other communities. (CW 4, 324)

And, right on schedule, the right mobilizes for an attack organized, promoted, and led by Fox News.

Update: More signs from Wall Street today here. What’s really striking is how very young most of these protesters are. Really young. It’s horrifying to think how much they’ve already been abused by police: threatened, kettled and kicked around, arrested, pepper-sprayed.

One of the signs is a quote from Kurt Cobain (who was dead before a lot of these kids were out of diapers), “It is the duty of youth to challenge corruption.” Duty.

(Photo: Daniel Shankbone)

Frye Quote of the Day: “Free speech is the one thing a mob can’t stand”

The Harper government does not like the press (Sun Media excepted), does not like its political opposition, does not like critics, does not even, it appears, like free speech that extends to any of these. As we’ve seen, the Conservatives are willing to go to great trouble to suppress videos of Stephen Harper in order to keep them away from a wider audience that might not be as sympathetic to the contents.

Frye in The Educated Imagination:

I don’t see how the study of language and literature can be separated from the question of free speech, which we all know is fundamental to our society. The area of ordinary speech, as I see it, is a battleground between two forms of social speech: the speech of a mob and the speech of a free society. One stands for cliche, ready-made ideas, and automatic babble, and it leads us inevitably from illusion into hysteria. There can be no free speech in a mob: free speech is one thing a mob can’t stand. You notice that the people who allow their fear of Communism to become hysterical eventually get to screaming that every sane man is a Communist. (CW 21, 490-1)

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)