Canadian Culture And Its Colonial Leaders: Northrop Frye And Anti-Nationalism

Posted on Wednesday, January 26 at 08:00 by Robin Mathews
They do so because they believe the same things as the very powerful do. Or because they prize a position as “the great explainers” between Power and the people. Northrop Frye had a foot in both camps, using a genuine critical genius in the service of his own self-aggrandizement and in the service of what the Left would no doubt call “Ruling Class Power”. In Canada, there is always a problem, however: ruling class power is very largely outside the country, and – inside it – ruling class ideas are usually anti-Canadian. There are keys and clues to Frye’s overall political position which are conveniently ignored by his admirers. Much exists in his work to admire; and to contaminate admiration – his admirers have learned – with an examination of his flaws neither wins friends nor influences Power. Frye was a great continentalist liberal in a long tradition marked by the preachment that to be Canadian is to be inferior. He was also an anti-nationalist in the peculiar Canadian character of anti-nationalists. Finally, he drew conclusions from his literary critical system - and argued for them – urging Canadians away from political participation to acceptance of things as they are. His contemporary, parallel public voice, George Grant, a conventional Christian believer and self-declared political philosopher (unlike Frye), took to the public platform to preach a more ornate liberal message: Canada is over, political activity is admirable but useless, we are all really U.S. Americans anyway and technology will flatten us all. The two men were thought to be in disagreement. Frye didn’t decry Canadian nationalists as similar to standard nationalists in the world: white supremacists, immigrant haters, religious sectarian exclusivists, anti-Semites or anti-Islamists or racist extremists, because none of those groups has any significant organized life in Canada. They don’t – thank God – really matter, even with the emergence of the Stockwell Day/Stephen Harper/Peter MacKay Cretan Conservatism of recent years. Frye decried, instead, the nationalism of Canadian survival. That is a very different thing than the concern of “standard nationalists” listed in the preceding paragraph. In decrying the nationalism of Canadian survival he pleased the power classes in Canada who take their identity from an ability to do untroubled business with the power classes of the U.S.A. and to fill an untroubled position of subservience to them. The extreme opposite of the standard nationalisms I have listed is found in the nationalism of Canadian survival. It urges that the whole pluralistic story of Canada be told and celebrated: First Nations, French, Anglophone, Multicultural. It urges that the literature, culture, philosophy, and religions of all Canadian elements be known and respected. It urges that Canadians must own and control Canadian resources and industrial might in their own country. It urges a nationalism of internationalism in which responsibility to a larger world ruled by justice and equity is a part of national identity. It urges that Canadians celebrate the grand experiment of this country, knowing and appreciating the unique identity we have formed. Frye opened a whole, huge field of theory and argument which he used to say, explicitly and inexplicitly, that Canadian experience is meaningless as unique experience. In fact, he would not grant the possibility of genuine, creative, primary, and myth-making experience in Canada. His refusal is based on the structure of his literary critical system. As he writes in a late work, Words With Power, “every human society possesses a mythology which is inherited, transmitted, and diversified by literature”. (p. xiii) Though he suggests the possibility of diversity, he believed that Canadian “human society” was merely a part of European human society – unbroken by any experiences in Canada’s new world. He rejected the possibility of a grand and unique experiment undertaken by Canadians. He refused to see in the bilingual, multicultural experiment and in the rejection of U.S. Republican, capitalist liberalism anything that might create fresh myths, or a fresh seeing of human life. The work of John Watson, philosopher, and of Charles G.D. Roberts, poet and story-teller – just for instance – to assert the unbroken family relation from first cell to transcendent being provides basis for a continuing myth in Canada that won’t go away. U.S. capitalist imperialism works to erase it. Frye never acknowledged it because he had only contempt for the idea that Canadians (other than himself) could engage in original thought. When he constructed something like a Canadian myth, it was a theory of “garrison mentality,” a crude misreading of Canadian experience, and an attempt to deny non-native Canadians the possibility of belonging in the country. From the structure of his literary critical system Frye worked related ideas into the society, took on a strongly political position, supported U.S. capitalist imperialism, and sought to erase Canadian uniqueness – because recognition of Canadian uniqueness would be followed by demands for all kinds of cultural, social, political, and economic measures to respond to that uniqueness. In short, to recognize Canadian uniqueness would demand confrontation with U.S. domination; and Northrop Frye gave himself up uncritically to living under and supporting U.S. domination. Interestingly, he did allow a possibility of genuine, creative, primary, and myth-making experience in the U.S. Denying any possibility of greatness or even excellence in Canadian literature until 1960 (in which he usually avoided francophone literature), he explicitly foresaw those possibilities in a 1965 article when he began to see emerging in Canadian literature the individualist hero pitted against society. That meant he denied all the heroes and verbal structures of Canadian life, society, and literature – and Canadian myth – until some Canadian writers began to accept the alienated, anarchist individualist hero modeled on U.S. social myth. He denied genuine Canadian originality, and accepted the legitimacy of U.S. originality as “borderless,” thereby describing himself perfectly as a Canadian continentalist liberal. That troublesome position – which never troubled the public Northrop Frye – is somewhat disguised in his career because he grew into his anti-nationalist position as he grew in (international) fame and acceptance by the people who control the system – what we think of as liberal, capitalist, democratic Canada. In earlier years in his career he taught Canadian literature and he was asked – among a small group – to take notice, annually, of production in Canadian writing. Canadians were beginning to pay a little attention to themselves, and the editors of The University of Toronto Quarterly decided to do an annual round-up of and commentary about Canadian publication. Frye was asked to cover poetry, which he did from 1950 to 1969. As late as 1957 he gave a public lecture at Carleton University encouraging the study of Canadian materials. Such enthusiasm, however, was not long lived, though it is used by his admirers to mask his fundamental anti-Canadianism. The phrase "anti-Canadianism" isn’t incorrect, because it describes the attitude of those who attack what I have called the nationalism of Canadian survival. In Canada [the characteristic is recognized in most colonial societies] Canadians are urged not to know about, and not to celebrate, the people who have been key in establishing the character of their society. Canadians are urged not to know their literary, historical, and philosophical traditions. They are urged, moreover, not to care who owns and controls their resource wealth and their industrial power. They are referred constantly to “better,” foreign thinkers whenever ideas are discussed. Northrop Frye expressed all those anti-Canadian views. When he gave the Massey Lectures (entitled "The Educated Imagination") on CBC in 1963, he did so as if works of the imagination had never been created in Canada, using none of them, though referring to works from many other countries. He was giving a major Canadian lecture series to Canadians on the Canadian national radio network – and it never occurred to him to cite Canadian works in a discussion of “the educated imagination”. The reason is obvious. In his conclusion to the 1965 Literary History of [English] Canada, he remarked that if the scholars who put the history together had looked for excellence - “had evaluation been their guiding principle” - they would have been left with “a poor naked alouette plucked of every feather of decency and dignity.” (p. 821) That statement is key. It is the expression of the complete colonial – the person who cannot see good in his own culture even when it is staring him in the face. By 1965, when Frye wrote the quoted statement, Canadians – French, English, and other - had been writing words on paper with serious intent for at least two hundred years. To declare that nothing of excellence had been produced in that time is to declare Canadians unlike any other people. It is to declare them genetically unable to do something other literate communities do over any two hundred-year period. It is, in brief, a racist position. The complete colonial (whatever his or her colour) is usually racist towards his or her own people. After 1968 he repeatedly told student groups that there was no need to study Canadian literature, that a few Canadian works could be tucked in with others being studied. That repeated statement was based on a fundamental belief that there was nothing distinct about Canada, nothing produced in Canada that would show itself in a concentrated study of works of the imagination. One needs to remember that it was about this time that Frye began to insist publicly that Canada has never been a nation and will never be one. When the director of the Canada Council proposed to dedicate a one-time, special large fund – extra to regular expenditures – to assist “catch up” in neglected studies of Canadian materials, Northrop Frye signed a petition originating in the University of Toronto intended to prevent the establishment of the fund. In one of his essays he remarks that he doesn’t care if Canadian students name the U.S. president when asked to name the prime minister of Canada. What he cares about, he goes on, is that U.S. students are reading Margaret Atwood. His statements are based on the claim that Canada doesn’t exist as a community possessing any distinctive qualities, and so it will produce creative artists – but without any distinguishing characteristics. A liberal society must produce a share of human things, Frye would argue, and so some Margaret Atwoods must be produced. And all is well in the liberal world as long as the Margaret Atwoods are acknowledged in the imperial country as talented and worth examination. If that way of thinking seems warped and attached to a wholly nonsensical view of the realities of communities and societies, that is because it is a warped and totally nonsensical view. In the 1980s, when Canadian literature began to be seriously studied in many European countries, Frye confessed to Robert Fulford in a published interview that he was amazed. He couldn’t see what Europeans could find to interest them in Canadian writing. As one has come to expect, the entry on Northrop Frye by G. N. Forst in The Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (ed.W.H. New, 2002), says nothing whatever about that major anti-Canadian aspect of Frye’s thought and writing. Indeed, the entry claims that “throughout his career, Frye … actively appraised and promoted Canadian literature….” The contrary is true, as I have demonstrated here. Using a kind of Jungian “collective unconsciousness” and uniting it with the idea of the independence of what might be called literary intelligence, Frye constructed a position in which the elements of the (literary) creative consciousness are timeless, transcending mundane concerns. The elements are metaphorical, mythic, and ever-recurring or ever-present. That is why he would not admit political discourse into “literature” and pretended, himself, to be above crude and ordinary political ideology. He had reached a position of “detachment”. In a fine, two-sentence summary of Frye’s ideas, G. N. Forst writes: “Detachment lifts both poet and critic from the ‘bondage’ of religious dogmas, politics, and history, thereby permitting an intellectual ‘openness’ which in The Anatomy of Criticism [an early, important book by Frye] liberates both the works of culture and the mind they educate. In this way, literary art creates a cultural ‘counter-environment’ to environments repressed by ideology. “ (p. 491) Forst’s statement is clear and useful, for Northrop Frye (a dweller in the Cold War and a believer in U.S. purity) believed the liberalism he lived and took his being from was not an ideology. It was, for Frye, the natural, healthful environment of existence, like the water fish swim in – there, life-giving, natural, necessary, completely unnoticed and not replaceable by anything that would not kill. As a result he was not only determinedly ideological, but blindly so. An insightful reviewer of one of his late works, The Great Code, wrote in the Baltimore Sun (quoted on the dust jacket of Words With Power) that Frye’s interpretation “celebrates the Word as the key to freedom, both spiritual and social, and identifies the author with a long tradition of visionary and dissenting Protestantism.” What Frye sets up – as the reviewer and G.N. Forst (already quoted) note - is, in fact, a religion, a complete explanation of human values housed in the Word (or words) and based on continuous and unbroken metaphors, shapes of story-telling, and of myth; ways of expressing human aspirations and being that (as with the claims of most religions) are locked in the texts, and which liberate the initiated believer from the trammels of mundane politics and repressive ideologies. Not at all surprising, Frye’s sect is very quick to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” Claiming detachment and a rising above religious dogmas, politics, and history, Frye engaged in the powerfully political acts of declaring that Canada has never been a nation, and attempting to prevent special expenditure for research on neglected Canadian materials. In addition, when Canadians expressed alarm at the “Americanization” of Canada, Frye said it was unstoppable and that, besides, the U.S. was becoming Americanized, too! Perhaps it is not remarkable that a brilliantly original literary critic, a Canadian, should have built himself into an internationally renowned, leading critical voice. But how utterly predictable that in the process of doing so he should also have become a leading Canadian tastemaker and intelligentsia member urging Canadians to have contempt for their own culture, to believe they never created the kind of community called a nation, and that they have produced little or nothing of excellence. If not remarkable, it is at least interesting that he did not use his international reputation in the service of Canadian culture – at least to ask that Canadian culture be given fair and reasonable attention. Instead, he used his international reputation as an instrument in the service of anti-Canadian, continentalist liberals, hacking at Canadian excellence and legitimacy with untiring energy. Lest Frye be left alone with that charge, he should be placed historically. A large overview of Canadian life [and of life in all societies dominated by outside powers – those which we call colonial societies] reveals that Canada does not permit major tastemakers and members of the intelligentsia to live and grow in power and influence unless they agree to work for the continuation of the country’s colonial status. If Frye had seen in his system (as he might have done) a way to place Canada solidly and demandingly as legitimate and interesting in its constitutional and cultural life, he would have been reined in. If he had gone on further to show that U.S. political, cultural, and religious imperialism actively stifles unique Canadian development (as it does), he would have been quietly marginalized, painted a crank, ostracized, and shut down as far as any effective public and national existence is concerned. How much he was aware of his role and his place is very hard to know. But late in his life he dropped into the office of an academic who had been an excellent student of his. In conversation with her, Frye told her that she, that I, that Mel Watkins, and a few others he named – representing the people involved in “the nationalism of Canadian survival” (which Frye had fought actively and openly) - must not give up; they must continue their efforts. Was that the voice of conscience speaking in an old man? Who knows? [Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on January 27, 2005]

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