Northrop Frye: Understanding the Differences Between Canada and the United States

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Crossing the border from the United States into Canada is a pretty easy affair, says Northrop Frye, one of the world’s foremost literary critics; there are no walls, no barbed-wire fences, no lookout towers. But if our borders are open to each other, our minds can sometimes be less so. There’s a lot we North Americans don’t know about each other, and a lot we have to learn. In this episode of World of Ideas, Frye speaks about our common and uncommon mythologies. He discusses our cultural differences and Canada’s struggle to establish a separate identity beyond being America’s neighbor.


BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening, I’m Bill Moyers. If you left Detroit heading due South, where would you be? How about a different country? Crossing the border from the United States into Canada is a pretty easy affair; there are no walls, no barbed-wire fences, no lookout towers. It’s the longest unfortified frontier in the world, and maybe the most inconspicuous. But if our borders are open to each other, our minds can sometimes be less so. There’s a lot we North Americans don’t know about each other, and a lot we have to learn. In this program I’ll talk with one of Canada’s leading intellectuals about our common and uncommon mythologies. Join me with a conversation with Northrop Frye.

[voice-over] Northrop Frye is not a building, although here at the University of Toronto, where a building is named for him, he is considered and institution; one of Canada’s great institutions. There’s a reason for it. While Frye has been studying and teaching English here for fifty years, he has gained a reputation as one of the world’s most important literary critics. “The critical study of literature,” he once wrote, “can produce, out of society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.”

Fearful Symmetry, his first book, explored the poetry of William Blake and the literary vision of paradise lost and redeemed. His Anatomy of Criticism, written over three decades ago, is still a seminal work for students and critics. In 1982 Frye published The Great Code, a monumental study of the language and metaphors of the bible. In The Educated Imagination, Frye contends that the bible should be taught “so early and so thoroughly that it sinks to the bottom of the mind, where everything that comes along later can settle on it.” Frye, at 76, is now writing a second volume of The Great Code. He continues to think and write about culture, education and society. and he keeps a sharp eye on relations between the U.S. and Canada.

[interviewing] Does it bother Canadians that the United States pays them so little attention, or do you just consider yourself lucky?

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, there is a good deal of resentment about the ignorance of things Canadian, on the American side. Considering that the first thing the American learns about his own country is that it’s bounded on the north by Canada.


NORTHROP FRYE: At the same time, the American policy of taking Canada more or less for granted rather suits the Canadian temperament.

BILL MOYERS: We talk about the American dream, but I don’t hear anyone talking about the Canadian dream. Does mythology play a part in the Canadian’s sense of himself?

NORTHROP FRYE: Mythology does play a part, but it’s a different kind of mythology. America started with a revolution, and a revolution tends to impose a deductive pattern on a society, so you get phrases like “100 percent American.” And, of course, nobody can ever find out what 100 percent Canadian is; you’ve got the Anglo-French division to start with, and every Canadian feels himself part of the federal unity, but he also feels himself very intensely a part of a more regional unity. And very often in Canadian elections he’ll vote one way federally and the opposite way provincially. All of that means that the Canadian dream is very much more complex, I think.

BILL MOYERS: Is there a sense that Canada is a kind of colony of the United States, especially a cultural colony?

NORTHROP FRYE: Canada may very well be the only genuine colony left in the world, and the degree of economic and, to some extent, political penetration by the United States is, of course, very great, and the reasons for it are quite obvious.

BILL MOYERS: One of your intellectuals, the novelist Mordecai Richler, says that, intellectually, most new ideas and energy come from the States, and that, therefore, when all is said and done, “we Canadians and we Americans are all North Americans,” that there is a common culture that most people do not understand is as pervasive as it is. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

NORTHROP FRYE: It is true that Canadians are sometimes apt to talk rather glibly about the Americanizing of Canadian culture, forgetting that the features they disapprove of are also at work in America itself, and that the United States has to struggle between its best culture and its worst culture.

BILL MOYERS: What do you see as the best of American culture, United States culture?

NORTHROP FRYE: It’s the same as the best in any culture, I suppose: the arts themselves, the general lifestyle, the respect for freedom and individuality and all that sort of thing that makes the American ideal something real. There is a man, a Canadian novelist, Frederick Philip Kroll, who wrote a novel called In Search of America, in which he discovered that there were two Americas; one was connected with Thoreau and Whitman and Lincoln, and the other was selling encyclopedias from door-to-door, which is the job he had. He says at the end of the book in a footnote that he thinks that the former way of life has been better preserved in Canada.

BILL MOYERS: Is there much romance toward the United States here?

NORTHROP FRYE: I shouldn’t have thought there was, no. The Americans are the Whigs that won the Revolution; the Canadians are the Tories who lost it.

BILL MOYERS: And burned the White House in the process of the war that followed the Revolution.

NORTHROP FRYE: But you know why they burned the White House?


NORTHROP FRYE: It was because the Americans burned Toronto the year before.

BILL MOYERS: I didn’t know that.

NORTHROP FRYE: Burned York it was then, in the middle of the winter. And half of York caught pneumonia. and it was a reprisal for that that the British shelled Washington the next year.

BILL MOYERS: It is fascinating to me that the United States won its independence from Britain, and then fought with Canada, and yet, among no nations of the world do more amicable sentiments manifest themselves than between these three societies.

NORTHROP FRYE: That’s true, I think. Canada had, of course, its civil war rust with the British and the French. And then, the War of 1812, however stupid a war it was, was something of a war of independence for Canada. It meant that Canada was going to go its own way. And, at the same time, it never seems to have left any legacy of bitterness behind it that the American Civil War did in the South.

BILL MOYERS: Those early wars in the United States had such a powerful impact on the American imagination. In fact, all of American history has taken on mythological proportions in our society greater than those that I see in other societies. Is it larger than it should be, that mythological sense?

NORTHROP FRYE: I wouldn’t say larger than it should be. I rather regret that the same mythological patterns are present in Canada and yet are paid so little attention to. We also have our “city on the hill,” namely Quebec, a fort where the river narrows; a fort that was taken or retaken about five or six times. And we also have our Maccabean victories in the War of 1812, and the raids later and so on. We have all that mythology potentially, but, starting as the Americans did with the Revolution and a Constitution, I think it brought the myth right into the foreground of their lives in a way that it has never done with Canada.

BILL MOYERS: When we talk about myth this way, what do we mean?

NORTHROP FRYE: I think we mean a story extrapolated from history which takes the form of an ideology. That is, because of the American Revolution and the American Constitution, there is such a thing as an American way of life. The American myth becomes the American ideology.

BILL MOYERS: How do you see our myth?

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, I see it as the myth of a social unification which is geared to the idea of a progress through time. There are passages in Walt Whitman, for example, where he compares American democracy to something very like an express train. He doesn’t use that image, but that’s what he means, the country just going ahead I think, since Vietnam, the American imagination has become much more like the Canadian imagination.

BILL MOYERS: In what way?

NORTHROP FRYE: In the way that it realizes that no imperial power, however great or however wealthy, is immortal. I think it was the beginning of a sense of mortality about a certain part of American history.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I agree with you. Now there are even books being written about “the decline of the United States,” and Americans are talking, except for Ronald Reagan, are talking with a fatalism that is new in my experience in my country.


BILL MOYERS: Does this strike you as ominous, or just mature?

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, to the extent that it’s fatalism, it’s ominous; but, to the extent that it’s an acceptance of certain historical processes, it’s very healthy and realistic.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, I mean simply that every empire has to get to the point where it loses its swelled head and begins to get a sense of proportion about its role in the world. I think that the British Empire began to do that after the Boer War, and I think the Soviet Union has been doing it in the last twenty or twenty-five years. It’s a matter of getting on with the rest of the world instead of forcing the rest of the world to do as you like.

BILL MOYERS: What role does the imagination play in the shaping of a nation’s sense of itself?

NORTHROP FRYE: It builds up those feelings that I’ve just been talking about; the sense of the empire going on and expanding without limit; the inscriptions from Assyria saying, “King of Kings”, King of the World, and so forth. And that is one type of imagination, it’s an imagination that gets out of touch with reality. Then eventually you begin to see how the historical process works; that there are all these other societies in the world, and the imagination takes on other constructs, such as the rise and fall construct.

BILL MOYERS: I’ve often that that one of the secrets of Ronald Reagan’s appeal is that he’s been able to make Americans feel as if we were still the mighty giant of the world, still an empire, even as we were having to pull in our horns, even as, around the world, we were having to confront reality and retreat from the old presumptions that governed us for the last fifty years. Do you see any of that in the Reagan appeal?

NORTHROP FRYE: Oh, yes, very much so. It’s the only thing, to me, that explains the Reagan charisma at all. In fact, I think that what has been most important about the mid-20th century since the War in American life is the fact that they have been saying a lot of foolish things, and foolish attitudes -the “evil empire,” that kind of thing -but doing all the right ones. I think that nobody but Nixon could have organized a deal with China, for example.

BILL MOYERS: Well, now, what does that say about a society, about its functioning as a nation; that it says one thing even as it must do another, or does one thing while it’s saying another?

NORTHROP FRYE: Well it means, I think, that the mythological imagination functions on two levels and there is the level of the stereotype; that’s the superficial one. There’s another and very much more realistic one where you actually do the things that promote self-preservation and survival.

BILL MOYERS: Isn’t the Story, the myth, a binding power integrating for us?

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, I think that’s its function, is to make a binding force in society. But if that other level of mythology is not there, the more realistic one, then the stereotype runs away with the realism and you’re heading for disaster then. That’s the Nazi direction.

BILL MOYERS: You know, eighty-five percent of all Canadians live within 100 miles of the United States border — that’s close enough to hear Ed Koch even when the television is not on — and I wonder how does American politics strike you?

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, it seems to me a process which has become assimilated to a sporting event, and that’s really what keeps it going, and what keeps the public interested in it.

BILL MOYERS: A sporting event?

NORTHROP FRYE: Yes. I listen to the discussions that take place on your own station, and notice how they ascribe mental processes to things that don’t strike me as mental processes at all, but nevertheless, that kind of discussion; building up the speeches of George Bush and others as though they were all pan of a great intellectual debate. All that seems to me to be extremely healthy. It’s a way of getting people to participate in their own democracy.

BILL MOYERS: But do you see much evidence of a genuine debate going on of ideas and policies?

NORTHROP FRYE: I don’t see much evidence of it, but I see evidence, not in the politicians themselves, but in the people who talk about the politicians.

BILL MOYERS: So the politicians are playing almost the mythological role. They’re playing the Story-telling role. They’re continuing the Story while down here the real making of the life of the country goes on, including the intellectual life of the country.

NORTHROP FRYE: If you watch a Japanese puppet play long enough, you get to thinking that the puppets are saying the lines themselves.

BILL MOYERS: You sense some of that in watching our conventions?


BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that the next leader of the free world may be someone named Dukakis-Bentson or Bush-Quayle.

NORTHROP FRYE: It doesn’t matter all that much who’s president of the United States.


NORTHROP FRYE: Look at some of the people that have been.

BILL MOYERS: Yes. We can hardly recall their names.

NORTHROP FRYE: Well. What did it matter to 20th century history that George Ford was a President of The United States?

BILL MOYERS: Gerald Ford.

NORTHROP FRYE: Gerald Ford. Sorry.

BILL MOYERS: So, what are you saying? That the president is merely the front man for a system that continues to operate irrespective of its leadership?

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, there is a whole machinery that is bound to continue functioning, so that 95 percent of what any president can do is already prescribed for him, unless he’s a complete lunatic. And, for that reason, it doesn’t seem to be so profoundly significant who is in the position of leadership. It means that the leader has to be a teammate; that is, the charismatic leader — to the extent that he is that — is a rather dangerous person if he starts taking himself seriously. And I’m a little leery about the adulation bestowed on Gorbachev for the same reason. I think that he has a very complex piece of machinery to operate, or try to help operate, and that the historical process works itself out in ways which really don’t allow for the emergence of a specific leader. It’s only in the army that you have the specific leader.

BILL MOYERS: Why in the army?

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, that’s the way the military hierarchy is set up.

BILL MOYERS: When you talk about historical processes, though, historical processes are the accumulated actions of autonomous individuals exercising their will, appetites, desires, passions and hatreds in the world out there.

NORTHROP FRYE: I think that people are much more pushed around than that.


NORTHROP FRYE: By the cultural conditioning in which they’re brought up, and the social conditions under which they have to operate. And the person who emerges as a leader is really the person who is really the ultimate product of that social conditioning.

BILL MOYERS: There was an Italian Marxist in the 1920s, whose name slips me at the moment, who said that in the future all leaders will be corporate. They will not be single leaders. Of course, that was before Mussolini and before Hitler.

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, he was right to the extent that the charismatic single leader turned out to be a disaster.

BILL MOYERS: So maybe the corporate leader is not only a historical necessity, but a desirable phenomenon as well.

NORTHROP FRYE: He’s desirable because I think he’s essential for anything in the direction of peace. When I said that it was only the military that gives you the person on top with supreme command you notice that the dictators, the supreme leaders, have always been leaders of an army, and have always imposed what is, essentially, martial law in their communities.

BILL MOYERS: Mao, Mussolini, Hitler

NORTHROP FRYE: Yes. And you can add some of the African states, too.

BILL MOYERS: But as you talk, I think of something you said in a sermon you delivered on the 150th anniversary of the founding of Victoria College here. You said, “I seldom hear people talking about systems with any confidence, now. The world today is in so deeply revolutionary a state that all systems, whatever they are called, are equally on the defensive trying to prevent further change.” Do you still hold to that?

NORTHROP FRYE: Oh, I think so. Yes. I don’t think that doctrinaire Marxism will work anywhere in the world, not because it’s Marxism, but because it’s doctrinaire. I don’t think anything doctrinaire will work anywhere.

BILL MOYERS: And by doctrinaire you mean?

NORTHROP FRYE: I mean, a simplified, deductive pattern that carries out policies from major premises about ideology and the like.

BILL MOYERS: Instead of from experience.


BILL MOYERS: Experience in the real world.


BILL MOYERS: Yet Gorbachev is trying to change his system.

NORTHROP FRYE: Yes. In other words, he’s trying to loosen up his system. It’s because he doesn’t have the belief in the system that the followers of Lenin did in the 1920s and ’30s that his policies take the shape they do. It’s the same in China.

BILL MOYERS: As you talk I realize that you’ve lived through the Stalinist era, the revolution in Russia, the holocaust, two World Wars, genocide around the world. This has been quite a century.

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, it’s led me to the feeling that the historical process is a dissolving phantasmagoria.

BILL MOYERS: Now, explain that.

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, when I was young, George VI was the Emperor of India, and Hitler ruled an empire from Norway to Baghdad, and all that vanishes into just nothingness.

BILL MOYERS: And that says to you?

NORTHROP FRYE: That says to me that history is a process of continuous dissolution, and that the things that survive are the creative and the imaginative province.

BILL MOYERS: The mind, the life of the mind.

NORTHROP FRYE: The arts and the sciences.

BILL MOYERS: You once wrote that the hope of democracy rests entirely on the earnest student and the dedicated teacher.

NORTHROP FRYE: Yes. I think that that is the only thing that is stable and permanent in human society. I’m not bringing in religious perspectives at this point, but insofar as you’re speaking of human beings constituting a human society, that is what stabilizes and makes permanent the whole structure of society.

BILL MOYERS: The earnest student. How do you differentiate the earnest student from the student who’s not earnest?

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, the student who’s not earnest is simply a middle-class product. He’s a member of a privileged class. He takes his privileges because he thinks it’s the thing to do, but it’s a career without a discovery. And a career without a discovery is going to move within the prison of his social conditioning. It’s never going to see a crack in him anywhere.

BILL MOYERS: And what’s the dedicated teacher as opposed to the teacher who’s not dedicated?

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, the teacher who is not dedicated is a mass man, and he gets a mass product. He teaches largely because he has certain certainties that he wants to implant in the minds of his students.

BILL MOYERS: Instead of?

NORTHROP FRYE: Instead of what the dedicated teacher has, which is that the realization that the end of education is to get yourself detached from society without withdrawing from it.

BILL MOYERS: Wait a minute. To detach yourself from society?

NORTHROP FRYE: Detached, without withdrawal. It’s saying that, if a man is teaching English literature, for example, he is in contact with the entire verbal experience of his students. Now, nine-tenths of that verbal experience is picked up from prejudice and cliché and things he hears on the street comers and on the playgrounds, and from his family in his home, and so forth. And the dedicated teacher tries to detach him from all that, and to look into it as something objective. It’s not something he can withdraw from, because it’s his own society, but it’s something that he can cultivate a free and individual approach to.

BILL MOYERS: To free the mind of can’t?


BILL MOYERS: You say, in No Uncertain Sounds, “The mind best-fitted for survival in any world is the mind that has discovered how knowledge can be joyful, leading to the friendship with wisdom that is pure delight, and is ready to tackle any kind of knowledge with clarity of perception and intentness of will.” So, it’s not a trained mind, but a dedicated mind you’re talking about.

NORTHROP FRYE: Well, I was suggesting that the trained mind is acquiring techniques which, in a world like ours, will probably be out of date in ten or fifteen years. So that the training is not the important thing; it’s the readiness to take on training. That’s what I meant by the dedicated mind.

BILL MOYERS: So that as the world dissolves, as you said earlier, you learn to swim to the next ship.

NORTHROP FRYE: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: Don’t you sometimes feel like Isaac Newton’s imagined child playing with pebbles on a beach while there’s an undiscovered ocean out there? There’s so much to know and so little time?

NORTHROP FRYE: Oh, yes. Everybody feels that who has ever collided with any serious subject at all.

BILL MOYERS: Do you still feel that in your own field of literature?

NORTHROP FRYE: I still feel it very strongly, except that I don’t think that the ocean has to remain undiscovered. I think one can go on exploring it indefinitely, and that it wants to be explored.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From the University of Toronto, this has been a conversation with Northrop Frye, I’m Bill Moyers.

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