Posted by Peter "StirFrye" Yan on November 9th, 2012
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
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.
Over the long hiatus I gave some thought as to how the blog portion of the site might be improved. The encounter with current events from a Frygian perspective is rewarding enough, but perhaps occasionally too fleeting. My strategy has increasingly been to bring current events to Frye rather than the other way round. That’s why I’m attempting to run a lot of threads simultaneously to provide some sturdy terms of reference. I hope to get better at that, and perhaps keep the focus a little tighter than I have sometimes managed.
The American election cycle, for example, has become a grotesquerie more fit for a dystopian satire, thanks to the Republican primaries which have featured a parade of cranks and nincompoops, and appear to be approaching the pitch of mass hysteria with Rick Santorum, of all people, as the current front-runner. Mitt Romney, a sociopathic liar and reptilian opportunist from whatever angle you approach him, remains everybody’s fifth choice, and it may be enough to get him the nomination once the kamikaze portion of the process has finally consumed itself.
The Republicans appear to be the vanguard of the collapse of “conservative” ideology, which has more or less devolved into a kind of casino capitalism where the house always wins and the public are rubes to be stripped of their assets by whatever tricks are available to convince them the game isn’t rigged. As Frye observes, when an ideology becomes decadent enough, it ceases to have any reliable external reference, or even to possess internal consistency. At that point, it may become murderously dangerous. Incidents of political violence in the U.S. have come from the far right for the last couple of decades at least, and has more recently been preceded by escalating rhetorical violence by supposedly authoritative and respectable public figures. If you call political opponents “traitors” long enough, someone’s going to figure out that traitors should only get what they deserve, and that will eventually be served up by some maladjusted simpleton who’s been convinced by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News that the Kenyan-born-Muslim-Nazi-socialist Barack Obama is coming to take away his guns.
The madness isn’t new. It’s just developed a more insidious pathology. Here’s a an excerpt from ”Fear and Loathing in New Hampshire,” one of many dispatches from the 1972 presidential campaign trail by Hunter S. Thompson, then chief political correspondent (that is, only political correspondent) for Rolling Stone, published forty years ago, almost to the day:
Meanwhile, I am hunkered down in Washington — waiting for the next plane to anywhere and wondering what in the name of sweet Jesus ever brought me here in the first place. This is not what us journalists call a “happy beat.”
At first I thought it was me, that I was missing all the action because I wasn’t plugged in. But then I began reading the press wizards who are plugged in, and it didn’t take long to figure out that most of them were just filling space because the contracts said they had to write a certain amount of words every week.
At that point I tried talking to some of the people that even the wizards said were “right on top of things.” But they all seemed very depressed; not only about the ’72 election, but about the whole, long-range of politics and democracy in America.
The absurd consequence of this demoralizing trend is this convocation of idiots, most of whom at some attention-deficited moment or other have enjoyed front-runner status: Michelle Bachmann, Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, in a rarefied example of Republican cognitive dissonance, remains the presumptive nominee, even though he is intensely disliked for good reason by just about everybody, including most Republicans. These people represent an ideology of greed and predation that was always dubiously articulated at the best of times, and is now so hollowed out that it cannot even pretend anymore to have any relation at all to the public good. It is merely rationalized thievery crafted by bandits.
It is a misconception to say that Frye is anti-ideological, a misconception Jonathan Hart dispels in Northrop Frye: The Theoretical Imagination. But Frye does certainly recognize that ideology is subordinate to the primary concerns whose primary expression is the mythological basis of literature, and therefore the foundation of a genuine social vision liberated from the fatal cycles of panic and complaisance most of human history seems to amount to. As he warns in Words with Power, “primary concerns must become primary, or else.” When our political class is made up of rapacious dolts who promote unregulated markets and deny global warming in the face of all evidence to the contrary in both instances, we have a particularly urgent priority to set it straight, to ensure that political power is an expression of the best interests of society at large and not the caprices of those who don’t know up from down but can blindly nose their way up to the feeding trough replenished by corporate malfeasance. History tends to be cruel at moments like these, and nature is always unforgiving. The institutionalized corruption that almost exclusively characterizes both our politics and principles of governance must be addressed, or else. There are no excuses not to, because, with so much at stake and our situation already precarious, we are all Romanovs now.
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)
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)
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)
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 Insiderhas 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.