Saturday, January 23, 2021

Buggering around aimlessly

‘This being the New Year’s Day of practice, as distinct from theory, I paid tribute to it by buggering around aimlessly all morning, and then went down to the office in the afternoon. It was a foggy day - one of the heaviest fogs I’ve ever seen here, and I should think that those who obediently get gloomy in gloomy weather would go into reverse & feel exhilarated with the mystery & glamour that a fog spreads over things.’ This is from the diaries of Northrop Frye, a celebrated Canadian literary academic who died 30 years ago today. On publication of Frye’s diaries, the publisher claimed they provided ‘an unprecedented view of the life and times of this now-legendary scholar’.

Frye was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in 1912 but was raised in Moncton, New Brunswick. His much older brother, Howard, died in World War I. He studied philosophy at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where he edited the college literary journal. He then studied theology at Emmanuel College. After a brief period as a student minister in Saskatchewan, he was ordained to the ministry of the United Church of Canada. He studied further at Merton College, Oxford, where he was a member and Secretary of the Bodley Club, before returning to Victoria College. In 1937, he married Helen Kemp, an art student. In 1947, Frye’s first book, Fearful Symmetry, a study of William Blake, brought him international attention. 

Frye was made chairman of the English department at Victoria College from 1952, he then served as principal (1959-67) and chancellor (1978-91). As well as teaching at the Toronto college, he travelled widely to give lectures in the US and overseas (he was also, in 1974-1975, the Norton professor at Harvard University). According to his bio in Encyclopaedia Britannica: ‘In Anatomy of Criticism [1957] he challenged the hegemony of the New Criticism by emphasizing the modes and genres of literary texts. Rather than analyze the language of individual works of literature, as the New Critics did, Frye stressed the larger or deeper imaginative patterns from which all literary works are constructed and the recurring importance of literature’s underlying archetypes.’ Many further works of literary criticism followed, consolidating his position as one of Canada’s most important literary critics. After the death of his wife in 1986, he married the widow Elizabeth Brown in 1988; but he, himself, died on 23 January 1991. Further information can  be found online at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Online Encyclopaedia of Canada Christian Leaders, and Wikipedia.

From the mid-1990s until 2012, The University of Toronto Press published the Collected Works of Northrop Frye in 30 volumes. Transcriptions of all his diaries were published in Volume 8 - The Diaries of Northrop Frye, 1942–1955 - as edited by Robert D. Denham (who also edited half a dozen or more other volumes in the series). The publisher says, for Frye, diary writing was a tool for recording ‘everything of importance and this ruled out very little’. His entries contain a large measure of self-analysis and self-revelation, and in this respect are ‘confessional’. They cover his classes, planning his career, recording his dreams, registering frank reactions to the hundreds of people who cross his path, eyeing attractive women, reflecting on books, music and movies, pondering religious and political issues, as well as considering his various physical and psychological ailments. The volume (which can be previewed at Googlebooks) is fully annotated, contains a directory that identifies more than 1,200 people mentioned in the text, and has a detailed, lengthy and informative introduction. Here are several extracts.

10 August 1942
‘Bitched the day, celebrating because Ned [Pratt] liked the Blake. Show at night. Thurber’s “Male Animal.” Not bad: but Henry James was a bad dramatist and a master of Thurber’s. The main theme, a hot-headed undergraduate editor turning a piece of ordinary teaching routine into a crusade, is sound. The episodic clowning with his wife was a bit weak. But the Chairman of Trustees was too crude: one never gets them like that. They always turn up quoting Holy Scripture and John Stuart Mill on Liberty. A novel about a similar situation with the weakling’s endlessly rationalizing would be all right. The other show was a bad English thriller based on fake ‘psychology’: Flora Robson writing poison-pen letters because she was a spinster & her maternal impulse was frustrated. [. . .]

Mary [Winspear] said the last person to have real intellectual guts was Bernard Shaw. I said writers were becoming a stereotype, a Brahmin caste, and I trotted out my anatomy theory. If I ever get around to writing a novel called Liberal, the motto for which will be Isaiah 32:8, I want a sentimental weather-cocky Craggish hero with an anatomic  Jack counterpoint and a fantastic  Regillus one. When my ideas are major, why is my execution so miserably stupid: is it just lack of practice? My opening scene with Kennedy is all right if he reinforces the liberalism. But it’s so bloody Quixotic to think in terms of Dostoievsky and produce something on the level of Cosmopolitan or Maclean’s. I‘m getting fed up with it and all my wool-gathering dreary accidia.’

19 August 1942
‘Today the news was all about the Dieppe raid, & the Russian front also got a front-page splash. The fact that the Chinese stormed & captured Wenchow, a city of 100,000 on the coast, was recorded in a tiny box in the second section. I simply cannot understand this assumption that the Chinese front is of no importance or interest. It’s all the sillier when one realizes that the current of world history is now going through Asia & that Europe has ceased to be of any organic historical significance. China will probably have the next century pretty well to itself as far as culture, & perhaps even civilization, are concerned.’

24 September 1942
‘Morley [Callaghan] & Eleanor [Godfrey] dislike the English but don’t fully understand why: it’s because they’re Catholics, of course. The confusions of interests today are curious. Heywood Broun turned R.C. after he’d become convinced, wrongly of course, that it wasn’t inherently Fascist. He judged the church by a political standard assumed superior to it. Yet if he had realized this he‘d have sold out to the reactionaries. Funny deadlock.

The theory of democracy about the will of the people being the source of government is, in that form, just will-worship like Calvin’s.’

28 September 1942
‘Three lectures and busting with shit: went home early this afternoon. Then to Havelock’s for a debating society executive meeting. Eric has taken quite a shine to me evidently & he certainly does work hard at debates. They varied between political and local-scandal subjects, suggesting “should formal parties be suspended?” I said it would be more interesting to say “should formal dresses be suspended?” They came to no conclusions but are planning a group of inter-year debates.’ 

6 January 1949
‘Lectures all morning. In Milton I dealt with the paradox of evil as a metaphysical negation & a moral fact, comparing it with the conception of cold in physics. Somebody asked me why chaos existed. I said all conceptions of the universe, not just the Einsteinian, are limited, & chaos marks the limit of that which is created by God yet is not God. There can be nothing beyond chaos, because there can be nothing beyond God; but God‘s power radiates to the limit of matter, or creation, hence there has to be chaos, or as near to pure matter as is conceivable, at that limit. I said that God’s power is a vision to angels, a mystery to men, an automatic instinct in animals, plants &, according to the 17th c., minerals, and operates as luck or chance in chaos, hence Satan’s footslip. That the 19th c, influenced by the prestige of biological & other sciences, had looked downward from the human mystery & seen the world as a mechanism, and that the 20th c., peering through that, had struck probability & the “principle of indeterminacy” at the bottom of it. A touch of glibness there, as there is in a lot of what I say. [. . .]

Marjorie King has just phoned to say that Harold [KingJ] is dead. Heart attack striking without warning last night. Harold was as lovable a person as I knew, & I shall miss him intensely: it’s one of the few deaths I have experienced that hurt. She wants me to do the funeral: I always refuse marriages, but I don’t see how I can refuse this - actually my attitude to marriages may be ungracious. I suppose when people ask me they want either a personal touch or less religion than they get from professionals. Personal touches are out of place at funerals there one wants only to see the great wheels of the Church rolling by. It is much more of an imposition than Marjorie realizes, as the death is a considerable shock to me, even if it cannot be compared with the shock to her. As for the religion, all one can do at a funeral is proclaim the fact of resurrection: any funeral that doesn’t do that is just variations on “Behold, he stinketh” [John 11:39].’

23 January 1949
‘Overtired after a strenuous week: will I never learn not to accept invitations outside Toronto? A very dull day: out to hear Sclater at Old St. Andrews talk about the gap (curtain he called it) between youth & age. He’s a frivolous person & seemed to assume that after 1913 the world lost a point of stability it had up to that time. Life goes in a parabola, thus: [. . .] & on the descending curve you’re apt to be fascinated by the point opposite you on the up curve. I think there may be even a physiological basis to this, indicated by the way young childhood crowds into the minds of the very aged. I didn‘t actually hear much of the sermon. The Wilsons came in for supper & Margaret [Newton] returned from Washington. Says the Truman inaugural wasn’t, like most American parades, exuberant & good-humored, but a grim military march-past for the benefit of the Soviet Ambassador. If I were a leading Russian Communist I’d say: we now have Russia, one-sixth of the world. We have East Europe & the West is in our pocket we could occupy it in two weeks anyway. The revolt of Asia is the great political fact in the contemporary world, & we’re in a position to exploit that: the Americans can only prop up beaten & discredited governments. The revolt of Africa hasn’t yet come, but is certainly coming. The only power able to oppose our conquest of the world is the U.S.A. There’s no use fighting her: she’s too strong: she has the atom bomb & an economic system that works best under wartime conditions. With the three continents in our grip, we can sit tight & let her blow up & burst with her economy which demands continuous centrifugal expansion & which we I think. Why should they start a war? Margaret’s on the Reserve Army list & has been told to report to H.Q. It doesn’t look like war yet, to me, but that may be just a “wistful vista.” The Americans could start a war to forestall their blowup; but the Russians could start one too to forestall the blowing up of the contradictions in the argument I’ve just outlined.’

2 January 1950
‘This being the New Year’s Day of practice, as distinct from theory, I paid tribute to it by buggering around aimlessly all morning, and then went down to the office in the afternoon. It was a foggy day - one of the heaviest fogs I’ve ever seen here, and I should think that those who obediently get gloomy in gloomy weather would go into reverse & feel exhilarated with the mystery & glamour that a fog spreads over things. My Hudson Review was in the mail, and I spent some time gloating over it: I’m getting to be a terrible intellectual narcist. Saw Ned [Pratt], who has been converted to John Sutherland by a friendly letter, & who tells me Mrs. Ford is dead. Came home and voted. I plumped for May Birchard for alderman again, but she still didn’t make it, though she was close. The Sunday sport issue went pro, greatly to my surprise. Both Protestants & the Cardinal had gone against it, two of the three papers who had been for it had ratted midway (the third, the Star, was against it anyway) and not a candidate except Lamport had dared to open his mouth in favor if it. It indicates that “public opinion” that everyone is afraid of is largely a matter of lobbying and organized minorities.’

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