Category Archives: Words with Power

Remembrance Day: Frye on In Flanders Field and Mythological Peace

On Remembrance Day, remembering how Frye viewed war and peace and poetry, how he says in what is probably my favourite book of his, Words with Power, that working in words and other media, may be our only way to salvation on earth, that is, the only way to show instead of argue with  the warmongers among  the  ideologues and/or the  “psychotic apes”.

On In Flanders Fields:

It is perhaps not an accident that the best known of all Canadian poems, “In Flanders’ Fields,” should express, in a tight, compressed, grim little rondeau, the same spirit of an inexorable ferocity which even death cannot relax, like the Old Norse warrior whose head continues to gnash and bite the dust long after it had been severed from his body.

The Bush Garden:  150

On Ideologues:

I keep having a vision of a guide or preacher or some professional haranguer standing in front of  a war cemetery in Flanders with a million crosses behind him and explaining how human aggressiveness has such essential survival value.

Late Notebooks 1982-1990: 678

On Human and Divine Commands:

In the Decalogue God says, “Thou shalt not kill,” or, in Hebrew, “Kill not.” Period, as we say now: there is nothing about judicial execution, war, or self-defence. True, these are taken care of elsewhere in the Mosaic code, because the commandment is addressed to human beings, that is, to psychotic apes who want to kill so much that they could not even understand an unconditional prohibition against killing, much less obey it.

The Great Code: 232

Cayley: Does the word also become a command?

Frye: It often takes the form of a command, yes. I think that the word of command in ordinary society is the word of authority, which relates to that whole area of ideology and rhetoric.  That kind of word of command has to be absolutely minimal. It can’t have any comment attached to it. Soldiers won’t hang themselves on barbed wire in response to a subordinate clause. If there’s any commentary necessary, it’s the sergeant’s major’s job to explain what it is, not the officer’s. Now that is a metaphor, it’s an analogy, of the kind of command that comes from the other side of the imagination, what has been called the kerygmatic, the proclamation from God. That is not so much a command as a statement of what your own potentiality is and of the direction in which you have to go to attain it.  But it’s a command that leaves your will free, whether you follow it or not.

Northrop Frye in Conversation: 182

On Human Peace vs Mythological Peace

In between these visions of creation comes the Incarnation, which presents God and man as indissolubly locked together in a common enterprise. This is Christian, but the answering and supporting “Thou” of Buber, which grows out of the Jewish tradition, is not imaginatively very different. Faith, then, is not developed by clogging the air with questions of the “Does a God really exist?” type and answering them with equal nonsense, but in working, in words and other media, towards a peace that passes understanding, not by contradicting understanding, but by disclosing, behind the human peace that is merely a temporary cessation of a war, the proclaimed or mythological model of a peace infinite in both its source and its goal.

Words with Power:  124-125


The Decline of Literary and Critical Theory

In response to yesterday’s quote of the day on the decline of literary studies, Jonathan Allan commented:

I think this is a debate that is needed, but at the same time, I appreciate and enjoy literary theory. Whenever I hear the “death of the discipline,” I always, for one reason or another, feel a need to rebel. I don’t think it is “theory” that killed literary studies or devalued literary studies, and yet, I am not certain what is the cause of this devaluation.

The problem with the term “literary theory,” is that it has come to mean anything but literary theory: what passes as literary theory is sociology, or linguistic theory, or psychoanalytic theory, or history, or queer theory, feminist theory, even evolutionary theory now, as Scott Herring alludes to in his article. None of this is, properly speaking, literary theory, which would be a theory of literature as an imaginative form of communication that is distinct from other uses of language. This is all laid out in the opening chapters of Words with Power, where Frye distinguishes the logical, descriptive, and rhetorical uses of language from “mythological” or “imaginative” uses of words. The same goes for the term “critical theory,” which is not in its current use a theory of (literary) criticism at all. The latter can only be, according to Frye, a theory concerning the principles of literary criticism, the contexts of which he attempts to outline in Anatomy of Criticism: historical criticism (theory of modes), ethical criticism (theory of symbols), archetypal criticism (theory of myths), rhetorical criticism (theory of genres).

What Lynne Cheney and the radical left (as it has manifested itself in literary studies) have in common is an ideological bias that cares little for literature as an autonomous activity of imaginative recreation, as Frye understands it. By “autonomous,” Frye does not mean that literature is “pure” of historical or ideological content, but that what most matters in literature is the imaginative shaping of that content. This aspect is also the genuinely “critical” aspect of literature that gives it its authority and has the power to remind us of how far, how grotesquely the world we have created departs from a world that makes human sense.

In that light, I do think we can speak of a deterioration, if not the death, of a discipline, when so many of its practitioners are seduced and distracted by principles belonging to other academic or scholarly disciplines than its own, and especially when the approach subordinates the study of literature and culture to socially and politically activist agendas, right or left. It is in fact in pursuing his theory of literature and criticism as an autonomous activity and discipline that Frye came to produce at the same time cultural and social criticism of a very high order–not because he turned for his insights to the worlds of sociology and history.

Frye Quote of the Day: Putting “the watchdog of consciousness to sleep”

Saman Mohammdi cites Frye to characterize the rhetorical abuse of language in current political discourse. The entire article is here.

Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye said that words convey cultural and societal myths and make particular ideological beliefs hold sway over people’s minds. In his book Words with Power Frye noted the power of language to establish certain myths in a society and enable those myths to be passed on to future generations, writing:

Myth loses its ideological function except for what is taken over and adapted by logos . Myths that are no longer believed, no longer connected with cult or ritual, become purely literary; myths that retain a special status in society are translated into logos language, and are taught and learned in that form. (2).

The neoconservatives and other cliques who work for Washington’s hidden establishment have exploited the power of myth and the dark power of words to pursue criminal goals both inside America and in the Middle East. But all this is well known by political spin doctors and directors of political campaigns. Barack Obama would never have been elected President if he did not cunningly exploit the power of rhetoric and repeat universal words like “hope” and “change” to hypnotize voters and get them to think positively about him. He is slick, but not wise. A wise man would never have chosen to be the spokesperson for America’s plutocratic elite and carry out their criminal agenda.

Frye wrote about the politician’s misuse of rhetoric to captivate the crowd and put it in a state of submissiveness. He said:

When the rhetorical occasion narrows down from the historical to the immediate, as at rallies and pep talks, we begin to see features in rhetoric that account for the suspicion, even contempt, with which it was regarded so often by Plato and Aristotle. Let us take a rhetorical situation at its worst. In intensive rhetoric with a short-term aim, there is a deliberate attempt to put the watchdog of consciousness to sleep, and the steady battering of consciousness becomes hypnotic, as the metaphor of “swaying” an audience suggests. A repetition of cliché phrases is designed to bring about a form of dissociation. The dead end of all this is the semi-autonomous monster called the mob, of which the speaker is now the shrieking head. For a mob the kind of independent judgement appealed by dialectic is an act of open defiance, and is normally treated as such. (3).

Obama’s mob, like Bush’s mob, and Palin-McCain’s mob, have no idea who or what they are supporting because they want to cheer on their leaders instead of ask serious questions about their background, philosophy, and political programs. They are totally identified with them. When someone points out to them that they have been betrayed by the entire political establishment, republican and democrat alike, they half-agree, calling the other side evil, and continue to worship their chosen leader. They view anybody who questions the word or morality of their leader as a threat to their existence. Rather than engage in a debate with people who have a different opinion they resort to all sorts of childish tactics like calling them a “conspiracy theorist,” an “extremist,” and even a “traitor” without any evidence to support their statements. They don’t have any idea what these words were designed for but they repeat them anyway to silence critics and shut down debate.

Femmes Fatales


Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946

“It was a blonde.  A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

Kevin Nance has an article on the apparent disappearance of the femme fatale from the movies.  An excerpt:

She’s in trouble, she says, and needs his help. He hesitates a second while his brain tries to work. Whatever her problem is — something about her husband working her over, the sick bastard — she can take care of herself, from the looks of her. But hello, the looks of her: those long legs, those tremulous lips, those wounded eyes. This dame isn’t in trouble, she is trouble, his brain shouts — but those eyes, those eyes. He’s way past listening to his brain. The only sound he can hear is her voice, whispering that she needs him, wants him, can’t live without him. And if his brain turns out to be right, if she ends up dragging him down into depravity, madness and murder, well, tough. If there was ever a thing worth going straight to hell for, she’s it.

Or was. In the restless middle of the 20th century, the femme fatale, the dark queen of film noir, jolted the silver screen with an electric sexuality and lethal cunning it had never seen before. She smoldered, she coveted, she hated, she schemed and, above all, she manipulated the men in her life — alternately offering and withholding the promise of love and a mind-blowing screw, playing the poor saps like puppets as the moment required. Along the way, she provided a group of gifted, intrepid Hollywood actresses a chance to shine in a way few of their rivals ever did or could, which is to say darkly: Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946) andThe Lady from Shanghai (1947), Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947) — unforgettable performances all, in every case a career zenith.

Frye in Words with Power:

Romantic and later poets are also preoccupied with femme fatale figures: Medusa in Shelley and Salome in Oscar Wilde and elsewhere, the latter holding the severed heard of John the Baptist, dramatize their castrating proclivities.  Keats’s La Belle Dame sans Merci, which takes its title, though not its theme, from a fairly harmless medieval poem, presents us with an inferno of damned lovers in the setting of a bleak landscape of exhausted fertility.  The dark and gigantic females in Baudelaire assimilate the figure to the vast unconsciousness of the natural environment.

Gerard de Nerval’s poem Horus takes us back to Graves’s mythological context: the goddess Isis, finding herself in bed with an old king, flings away from him and goes to look for a younger partner. As we should expect, the femme fatale is sometimes associated with Eve after the fall: such an association turns up in Valery’s long poem Ebauche d’un serpent (it is also one of the strands in the complex weave of La jeune Parque). Once again, it will not do to write these off as individual psychological quirks of misogyny. (CW 26, 192)

And, because it’s Lou Reed‘s birthday today, his “Femme Fatale” (with The Velvet Underground and Nico) after the jump.

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Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic on this date in 1600 (born 1548).

From Words with Power:

We have glanced at the way in which ideological language supports the anxieties of social authority, and of how other types of verbal authority nonetheless establish themselves, for example in science.  In the collisions of Galileo and Bruno with the religious functionaries of their time, we recognize that a scientist has a commitment to his science as well as to his society, and that in certain crises he has an obligation to remain loyal to his science, even if silenced or martyred.  This may be a simple moral issue of holding on to facts and evidence in the face of reactionary illusion, but it may be something subtler than that.  In Galileo’s day the evidence for a heliocentric solar system was not yet conclusive: the geocentric theory seemed still reasonable, and Galileo was really making what is called a leap of faith.  This term is used in religious writing, but not every leap of faith is a religious one.  As for Bruno, his leaps are so vast and various that even specialists on him find him hard to keep up with.  But then Isaac Newton presents an almost equally disconcerting picture when the whole of his output and range of interests is considered.

The authority of science, in other words, expands into a wider and compelling authority of social and intellectual freedom.  This will always be relevant as long as the scientist remains a human being whose work has a personal context as well as a scientific one, involved with the ideology even when he challenges certain accepted forms of it.  In our day, highly technological society may conscript some scientists into working for its interests, whereupon others will realize that the basis of their commitment to science is a conviction that science exists for the benefit of humanity, not for the promotion of tyranny and terror. (CW 26, 47-8)

Robert Louis Stevenson

Today is Robert Louis Stevenson‘s birthday (1850-1894).  Even Google is celebrating, as you can see from its Treasure Island-themed link icon (above).

Frye in “Third Variation: The Cave” in Words with Power:

In most descent mythis there is some formidable enemy — Minotaur or dragon or demon like Asmodeus — to be fought and overcome, and frequently this enemy is blocking the goal of the descent.  The goal is often, in popular romance especially, a treasure of gold or jewels, as in Treasure Island or Tom Sawyer or Poe’s Gold Bug. . . The type of society that searches for such treasure is an instensely selective one.  In popular literature the searchers may be boys or antisocial groups (pirates and the like) that boys find it easy to identify with.  The standards of admission often reverse those of more conventional societies. . . Often the dragon-guarded hoard is a metaphor for some form of wisdom or fertility that is the real object of descent.  (CW 26, 203)

Video of the Day: Andy Warhol Eats a Hamburger


But is it art?


And if you have any doubt about that, go to YouTube and have a look at the outraged comments of some of the viewers.  If they’re this angry over something so innocuous and mundane — and a number of them are very angry — then something meaningfully disturbing is happening here.  A sample: “I mean WTF?!?” and “This is the ugliest thing I have ever seen” (which is not, of course, beside the point).

Frye makes just a couple of references to Andy Warhol, and they are made, interestingly enough, to illustrate a larger and more important point he is trying to get across to his readers.

Here he is in Words with Power, for example, with reference to ecstatic metaphor:

This is an intensification of the imagery that imitates the descriptive mode, an emphasis on the “thingness” of the objective world, which we find in, for example, Beckett’s Watt and Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes, and in William Carlos Williams’s insistence on “not ideas about things but the thing itself,” also the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens.  In various forms of painting, such as the pop art of Andy Warhol and in the popularity of Zen Buddhism, with its technique of training one to see, not another world but the same world with a new intensity, there are parallel developments.

And with that in mind, here’s one more comment from a viewer at YouTube:

Honestly, sometimes I think these artistic so-called geniuses just do whatever the fuck passes through their heads and then try to pass it off as hip and edgy. But at the end of the day, kids, it’s just a guy eating a hamburger.

Well, the “end of the day” could also just be the darkness before the dawn, if we insist upon resorting to those kinds of cliches.  For example, after the jump you’ll find six minutes of Warhol’s eight hour film Empire.  (And, by a remarkable coincidence, tonight is the 46th anniversary of its filming.)

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Emily Dickinson and the Furnace Archetype


Frye liked to say that he intended his work to be treated as a source of isolated insights that might help others, even if one felt reluctant to swallow the rest whole. He was thinking of something as simple as assisting a reader or scholar in the business of practical criticism.

I just had the experience of that usefulness as I was working today on a reading of a poem by Emily Dickinson for today’s class. The poem is the famous “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?”

Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?
Then crouch within the door—
Red—is the Fire’s common tint—
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame’s conditions,
It quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the light
Of unanointed Blaze.
Least Village has its Blacksmith
Whose Anvil’s even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs—within—
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the Designated Light
Repudiate the Forge—

And here is the illuminating passage from Frye’s Words with Power:

The smith often represents a destructive force, as apparently in Zechariah 1:20. In this verse the AV reads “carpenters”: in Biblical Hebrew it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the worker in wood from the worker in metal except by the context. But just as there can be benevolent carpenters, like the New Testament Joseph and traditionally Jesus himself, so there can be creative smiths, like the forger of the new Jerusalem in Isaiah 54:16. This smith, who creates a new city glowing with gems and gold, represents perhaps the closest Biblical parallel to the symbolism of alchemy, and is the Biblical basis for Blake’s conception of his culture-hero, the blacksmith Los working with his furnaces.

The image of the furnace may be used for either the negative or positive aspects of the lower world. The negative or demonic world is the traditional hell which is a furnace of heat without light. The positive one is purgatorial, a crucible from which the redeemed emerge purified like metal in a smelting operation. Thus the Egypt from which Israel has been delivered is spoken of several times as a “furnace of iron,” and the purity of the spiritual body is sometimes symbolized by metal (Revelation 1:15). Images of refinement and purification in a furnace recur in connection with language (Psalm 12:6) as well as in the afflictions of life (Proverbs 17:3; Isaiah 48:10). The best known of these purgatorial furnaces is the one constructed by Nebuchadnezzar for his attempted martyrdom of the three faithful Jews in the Book of Daniel. Their song in the Apocrypha is a highly concentrated praise to God for the beauty and glory of the original creation, which their purification in the furnace has evidently enabled them to see. Obviously, in this extension of furnace symbolism, we have modulated from the technological to the purgatorial, and the furnace has become the human body.

Dickinson was often focused on that moment called the transitus–the transition from this world to immortality or eternity–which she treated with awe. She  came to conceive of her life of passionate longing and loss as a crucible, which is also how she thought of her poetry: as a purgatorial process, a refining of the “impatient ores” of her intense emotional life into artistic form. Hence her persistent emphasis on the moment of transit when “the Designated Light/Repudiate the Forge.” She often thought of this process in Blakean terms: of preparing her ultimate“face” or “form” in the mirror of the human form divine.

Frye’s essay on Dickinson and his seminal essay “Charms and Riddles” are replete with startlingly useful insight about the literary conventions used by Dickinson, but this particular instance illustrates the way in which Frye’s “ear” for archetypes–in this case the biblical furnace archetype that is the focus of last chapter of Words with Power–is enormously helpful in unpacking the richest implications of the  imagery of a poem, implications that might otherwise elude us. Dickinson’s poem takes a simple New England blacksmith’s forge, which even the “least village” has, and makes it the most apposite analogy for the purgatory–as the poet conceived it–of human life and the perfecting of the human soul through poetry and art, awakening, if we have the ear for it, all the echoes and reverberations–in the Bible, in Dante, in Blake and Yeats’s Byzantium–that the conventions of a particular archetype, as Frye puts it in The Secular Scripture, “set up within our literary experience, like a shell that contains the sound of the sea.”

Frye and the Bible


Responding to comments by Russell Perkin and Michael Happy

It seems to me that Frye is looking at the Bible from the point of view of a literary critic. He begins with the assumption that, unlike other sacred books, the Bible is a unity. He is interested in the pursuing this unity as it manifests itself in the Bible’s myths and metaphors. The former he examines in terms of the movement from Creation to Apocalypse, with all of the lesser up and down U–shapes in between. The latter he examines largely in terms of recurring images. He of course brackets out any number of other features that a literary critic might legitimately want to investigate, especially those having to do with literary texture. His concern is with structure. That’s the centripetal thrust of The Great Code, Words with Power, and his Bible lectures. According to the class notes from his Religious Knowledge course, he called this the synthetic approach. The centrifugal thrust, largely absent from his Bible lectures, has to do with the kerygmatic myths to live by. That is, as a sacred book, the Bible is more than literary. Frye worries a great deal about what to call this, finally settling on “kerygma.”

One can approach a written text, sacred or otherwise, from any number of perspectives––biographical, historical, formal, sociological, cultural, religious, and so on. When I was in school in the 1960s biblical scholars such as Gerhard von Rad and Martin Noth were engaged in a type of interpretation called redaction criticism, which began to pay attention to large units of the Bible, such as the first six books, as creative, literary forms in their own right. Since that time there has been an explosion of literary approaches to the Bible, and there is a large industry today devoted to the poetics of biblical narrative and imagery. The degree of interest among Biblical scholars in such approaches is revealed by a glance at the annual programs of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature. The dialogue works both ways: we have literary critics interested in the narrative and metaphorical features of the Bible, and we have biblical critics interested in the Bible’s literary features. Not long ago I was glancing at study of that most intractable book, the Book of Revelation, by Leonard Thompson, a well known biblical scholar. Thompson realizes that he can’t crack the code of Revelation without speaking about its genre, its narrative structure, and its metaphoric unity, all of which are literary matters. Which is pretty close to Frye’s approach.

One of my favorite examples of Frye’s mythical–metaphorical approach is his commentary on the Priestly and Jahwist creation accounts in chapters 5 and 6 of Words with Power. Whether the correct label for this “a literary criticism of the Bible,” I dunno. I guess I’d say it’s a reading of the Bible from the perspective of a literary critic who is interested in texts as wholes and in the structure of their narratives and imagery. Or is all of this too obvious to need remarking?

I suppose one doesn’t have to be a literary critic to pay attention to features of a text that are literary, but if you’re trained to consider the centrality of such things as metaphor in any text, you’re more likely to see things that those untrained do not. Spend ten minutes, for example, leafing through any collection of hymns. You’ll discover that God is a mighty fortress, Christ is a master workman, Christ is a star of the East, Christ is a dying lamb, the earth is a story teller, the Holy Spirit is a dove or a divine fire or a wind, Christ is a solid rock and similar figures from the mineral world (such as Rock of Ages), God’s mercy is a bright beam, Christians are soldiers (and also from that hymn, we are the body of Christ), the hour of prayer is sweet, the heart is a dwelling place, Christ is the light of light, Jesus is a shepherd; and of course all the royal metaphors imported from the Old Testament of the “Christ is king” or “Christ is ruler” variety and the associated metaphors of crowns, diadems, and thrones. Some hymns give us rather difficult instructions, such as “fold to thy heart thy brother” or “lift up your hearts,” the folding of a brother and the lifting of a heart seeming to be rather difficult things to do literally. Sometimes we get dual metaphors, as in the hymn “O Holy City,” where we’re told that “Christ the Lamb doth reign,” a figure that combines a pastoral and sacrificial image with a royal or regal one: Christ is a lamb: the lamb is a king. In “O Master of the Waking World,” we’re told that Christ has all the nations in his heart, an extraordinary metaphor that rather strains our powers of comprehension. In another hymn we’re called on to deliver our land from “error’s chain.” Why “chain”? Well, the hymnist needs a word to rhyme with “plain” and “slain,” but we nevertheless sense the direction in which the figure takes us: the heathen nations (the hymnist mentions India and Africa, along with, of all places, Greenland) are imprisoned (that is, chained) by error. Even in “My Country, ’tis of Thee” freedom is said to be a holy light, and as one of the imperatives is for it to ring from the mountain side, freedom also seems to be a bell. In “It Singeth Low in Every Heart” we’re told that the dead “throng the silence of our breasts,” indicating that in our breasts, where everything is silent, we have a host of dead souls or maybe just dead people hanging out, an image that is something of a problem for the literal minded. In “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” we were told in the first stanza that “God is health” and in the second stanza that God is a bird. As we’re sheltered under the wings of God, this appears to be a mother bird, a hen perhaps. The hymnist doesn’t say that God is like a mother hen, but that he is one. In one of the choral responses we implore the Lord to makes us a sanctuary, which means a sacred place or a place of refuge.

My guess is that form critics and redaction critics and canonical critics and reader–response critics are less likely to be attuned to such metaphors than a critic interested in figurative language.

The Demonic and Desire


Responding to Michael Happy’s post

I am glad you posted on demonic modulation, Michael, because I think demonic parody is integral to Frye’s conception of Romance, which itself seems integral to his view of literature in relation to primary concerns.

It may be useful to consider demonic modulation in terms the Anatomy’s description of demonic imagery and parody. The apocalyptic world, Frye writes, “present, in the first place, the categories of reality in the forms of human desire, as indicated by the forms they assume under the work of human civilization.” Demonic imagery embodies what desire rejects, and “one of the central themes of demonic imagery is parody, the mocking of the exuberant play of art by suggesting its imitation in terms of ‘real life.’”. In The Secular Scripture he points out that, as the conventions of myth and Romance become gradually displaced into “realist” modes, there is also a parallel gradation of parody serving to assimilate those conventions.

This might provide for an alliance between demonic modulation, which relates to the inversion of customary associations, and the Promethean Furnace in Words with Power. “The world of titans,” Frye writes, “has usually been regarded as simply evil, and the word ‘demonic’ is normally used… to mean a death-centered parody of human life.” (pg. 276). However, “Prometheus is the patron of the attitude, which has sporadically appeared in literature ever since Lucretius, of ignoring the gods on the ground that even if they exist they can only be alien beings unconcerned with human life.” (pg. 277). In this modulation, what would customarily be associated with the demonic is in fact an affirmation of life through desire, over a world that more closely resembles our own.

That is to say that there comes a point when what is displaced in the text, because it is repressed by the ascendant moral values it flaunts, becomes in fact a life affirming principle. Prometheus becomes Christ-like, the demonic becomes apocalyptic. This may inform the simple and more humane Robin Hood motifs that run through Literature, and our experience, from Huckleberry Finn protecting Jim from the slave “masters”, to what makes it obscene for certain ideologies to speak against aid for suffering countries. And it is why, for example, the homophobic (and perhaps homicidal) work of Christian evangelicals in Uganda has been so repellent a parody of the Christian exhortation to good works.