Jul. 14, 2011
It is summer, and we are in a house
That is not ours, sitting at a table
Enjoying minutes of a rented silence,
The upstairs people gone. The pigeons lull
To sleep the under-tens and invalids,
The tree shakes out its shadows to the grass,
The roses rove through the wilds of my neglect.
Our lives flap, and we have no hope of better
Happiness than this, not much to show for love
Than how we are, or how this evening is,
Unpeopled, silent, and where we are alive
In a domestic love, seemingly alone,
All other lives worn down to trees and sunlight,
Looking forward to a visit from the cat.
It's the birthday of literary critic Northrop Frye, (books by this author) born in Sherbrooke, Quebec (1912). He grew up in the town of Moncton in New Brunswick. His father worked for hardware stores and was too busy to spend much time with son. His mother started going deaf after his older brother was killed in World War I and didn't interact much with anyone. So Northrop was mostly left to his own devices, and what he liked to do was read and sometimes write stories based on whatever he was reading. He said: "I always thought of adolescence as something to grow away from. I think I suffered from an impatience to get on with my own job. I knew I had books in me, but in Moncton I felt I had no specific function in the community. An adolescent whose physical coordination is all right can play sports, which can fill up his life and give him a function; with me, everything was geared toward a 'not yet' feeling. I don't mean I had an unhappy childhood — it was just a waiting period."
He graduated from high school at the age of 15 and went to study at the local business school, Success Business College. When he was 16, he was sent to Toronto to participate in a national typing competition, and at 63 words per minutes, he won second place. His exposure to Toronto inspired him to enroll in Victoria College at the University of Toronto, where studied theology and was ordained as a minister in the United Church of Canada. Five months as a minister in rural Saskatchewan were enough to convince Frye that he didn't want to be a pastor after all.
He became a teacher instead, and spent his career at Victoria College. His first book of criticism, Fearful Symmetry (1947), was about the poet William Blake, who until that point was considered strange and obscure. After Frye's successful interpretation of Blake, he decided to write a guide to literary criticism, Anatomy of Criticism (1957). He thought that literary criticism should come from within literature — for example, that you should talk about a poet in terms of metaphors from the Bible or language from Milton, but not by using a Marxist or a Freudian theory. His other books include The Secular Scripture (1976) and The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (1982).
He said, "There are two halves to literary experience, then. Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with, and demands that we keep looking steadily at them both."
And, "The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in."
And, "There is no reason why a great poet should be a wise and good man, or even a tolerable human being, but there is every reason why his reader should be improved in his humanity as a result of reading him."
After his death in 1991, one of his former students, Margaret Atwood (books by this author), wrote "Norrie Banquet Ode" in his honor. It begins:
We live in interesting times; here come deplor-
able fire and flood, hurricane, plague and war.
We and our books feel trivial, amid the uproar
and general chaos. Believe me, colleagues, there are mor-
nings when I think — hell, what's this for?
Maybe this writing stuff is just verbal mor-
phine. Confess — who hasn't felt wor-
n down in the textual salt-mines, or
to use the sort of terse bad joke that Norr-
ie used to slip in, up shit creek without an oar?
Dear Norrie, if you were here with us, at the cor-
ner, more or less, of Queen's Park and Bloor,
pacing the overheated halls and creaking floor-
boards of rambling, many-turreted Victor-
ia, as for how many years before,
following your inner track, hunting the word quarr-
y through the jungles of the text, the distant roar
of incandescent tigers hinting at glor-
y; and in your labours, loading every rift with lore;
meanwhile, in your disguise of elderly professor,
peering at us benignly, looking somewhat like a tor-
toise with an overcoat and briefcase, what would your
opinion be, of us? You didn't suffer
fools gladly. Would you find us very bor-
Today is Bastille Day in France, the anniversary of the day in 1789 that an angry mob of revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in Paris. The Bastille was originally built as a fortress, then used as a prison, and it often housed political prisoners who had been sent there without a trial. The French people were on the verge of revolt against the monarchy and Louis XVI, and the Bastille seemed like a good symbolic target.
For weeks the revolutionaries schemed to bring down the famous prison and liberate the inmates. Despite the best intentions of the revolutionaries, there were actually only eight prisoners there in early July. One of them was the Marquis de Sade (books by this author), the writer whose behavior gave the world the word "sadism." He had been imprisoned numerous times, this time on the recommendation of his mother-in-law, who was furious that he had seduced his sister-in-law — before the Marquis came along she been destined for the religious life.
The Marquis was annoyed because the threat of revolution meant that he was not allowed to walk freely along the ramparts of the Bastille. So he converted his urine funnel into a megaphone and shouted provoking statements through the windows of his cell — he claimed that his fellow prisoners were being brutally massacred, and called on the people to come rescue them. He made it all up, but he riled up the crowd and made the guards nervous, so on July 4th they had him transferred to an insane asylum. Ten days later, hundreds of revolutionaries stormed the Bastille. The seven remaining prisoners were freed, and Governor de Launy, who was in charge of the prison, was murdered and his head was paraded around Paris on a pike.
The Marquis de Sade said: "Compare the centuries of anarchy with those of the strongest legalism in any country you like and you will see that it is only when the laws are silent that the greatest actions appear."
It's the birthday of playwright Arthur Laurents (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1917). He said: "I always wanted to write musicals. When I was a kid, really a kid — seven or eight — I lived in Brooklyn and there was a stock company and my cousin and I would go Saturday afternoons. I remember two productions. One was No, No, Nanette. I still remember them twirling the parasols, thinking, 'Oh, this is wonderful!' The other one was Rain by Somerset Maugham and they had real rain!"
He went on to write West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), and many more musicals and films, as well as two memoirs: Original Story By (2000) and Mainly on Directing (2009). He died last spring, and in the month before his death, he managed to finish a new play, The Last Time We Saw Paris, and a third memoir, The Rest of the Story.
He said: "I start with the characters, and I let it happen, and they begin to have a life of their own. [...] People talk about writer's block, or they say how lonely it is. I don't think it's lonely. The people I'm working with — I'll put it that way — are much more interesting than most people I know. And I'm dying to see what they're going to do next. So, it's always exciting. I'm never really happy if I'm not writing."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®