Northrop Frye

History and the New Age

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In Between Two Ages, the first long series I did for Ideas in early 1981, I began to explore the unique character of our historical moment, and to advance the idea that only a radical change of mind could respond to its demands.  Three years later, I got a chance to follow up that initial effort with the present series.  Its organizing image or paradigm is the idea of a new age – the way in which I then spoke about my dawning recognition that received social and political forms are quite unable to grasp humanity’s new situation.  The intervening thirty-four years have made me more tentative, but, if you take away a certain brash, post-1960's confidence that a reconciliation between men and women, modernity and tradition, humanity and nature was on the horizon, there is much in that way of looking at things that I would still affirm today.  Certainly the sparkling cast I managed to assemble makes this series worth revisiting.  Among its luminaries are Northrop Frye, Raimundo Panikkar, Robert J. Lifton, Father Thomas Berry and many others, whose names I have listed below.

One of the characteristic features of the documentary form, as I’ve observed when re-introducing other old series as well, is that many different points of view are made to align and march, more or less, in the same direction.  A few years later, I would have treated the many thinkers represented here separately, and tried to understand what was distinctive in each one’s approach.  I don’t mean I have papered over their differences here, or that there was anything promiscuous about the way I assembled these particular people.  Each one was, in some way, a teacher to me, and each one’s work bore on  the themes that I wanted to develop.  I mean only that, once one has interviewed so many people, the challenge of integrating them all into a more or less coherent structure, leaves little room for the contextualization of each speaker, or for consideration of all the ways in which they differ from one another, and from the consenus, however rough, that  I was imposing on them by smushing them all together in one program. 

That said, I still find that these shows make interesting listening.  The dramatis personae is as follows:  

Part One: Dhyane Ywahoo, Northrop Frye, Joseph Brown, Raimundo Panikkar, Derrick de Kerckhove, Thomas Berry, Ewart Cousins

Part Two: Dhyani Ywahoo, Joseph Brown, Richard Lee, Ashley Montagu, Stanley Diamond, Joseph Campbell

Part Three: Walter Odajnyk, Robert J. Lifton, Ira Progroff, Jean Houston, Richard Moss

Part Four: David Spangler, Northrop Frye, Raimundo Panikkar, Ewart Cousins,  Thomas Berry, Matthew Fox


Northrop Frye

The following is adapted from the preface to my book, Northrop Frye in Conversation:

I first met Northrop Frye in 1984 when I interviewed him for a programme called "History and the New Age" which I was then preparing for Ideas.   My CBC colleague Peter Gzowski once described Frye as an interviewer's nightmare: a man who actually answered the questions he was asked rather than the ones he would have liked to have been asked.  His answers were usually pithy, sometimes cryptic, occasionally gruff, and they often ended in conversation-stopping aphorisms.  On this first occasion I chattered nervously while I set up my tape recorder.  Frye's seraphic smile and patient, unyielding demeanour did little to put me at ease.  I then stammered my way through an hour-long interview in which Frye gave brief pointed answers to my long and sometimes pointless questions. 

I returned twice in the succeeding years — Frye was always gracious about receiving interviewers, despite his evident lack of relish for the procedure — once to talk about Canadian culture and once to take about the English poet William Blake.  In both cases the rhythm of the conversation remained fairly jerky.  This made me reluctant to undertake the worthy, and even overdue project my Ideas colleagues kept urging on me: a series devoted to the ideas of Frye himself.  However, in 1989, through the good offices of Frye's secretary Jane Widdicombe and Sara Wolch, my Ideas colleague and a friend of Frye's, it was all finally arranged.  For a week in December, Frye and I spent each morning in recorded conversation.  Sara and I and our recording engineer, Brian Hill, turned up at Frye's Massey College office every morning at nine and, by midweek, had begun to feel quite at home there.  Sara's presence helped to create a relaxed atmosphere, and the fact that I had spend the previous months steeping myself in Frye's work helped me to dig beneath the surface of the epigrammatic answers Frye sometimes gave to questions he had been asked once too often.  Whatever the reason the interview possessed a fullness and flow that I had not previously experienced with Frye, and we ended our conversation on Friday in peaceful silence, gazing out through gently falling snow into the quiet courtyard of the college.  Just over a year later Northrop Frye died.

I supplemented my interviews with Frye with conversations with friends, colleagues, and interpreters, and the resulting three-part Ideas series was broadcast early in 1990.  Two years later a transcript of our entire conversation, made by Frye scholar Robert Denham, was published as Northrop Frye in Conversation.

I don't think my interviews with Frye really added anything to what he had already written, as my interviews with more reticent and less fully articulate thinkers like George Grant and Ivan Illich sometimes did.  Frye wrote from a clear, stable and consistent vision, and in more than twenty books he spelled out this vision with great thoroughness, as well as never-failing wit.  All I can claim, I think, is to have brought the remarkable range of his criticism together in one place and offered an introduction to it.  I have the impression that Frye, like many thinkers neither current, nor classic, is no longer read as much as he deserves to be.  I hope someone may discover him anew here...

William Blake: Prophet of a New Age

Like many another poetry-loving boy I grew up knowing and reciting the lyrics of William Blake.  But it was only much later, during the 1980's, that I ventured into Blake's longer and more involved prophetic poems.  One of my guides was the Canadian critic Northrop Frye,  whose Fearful Symmetry (1947) was one of the first books to appreciate the scale and the reach of Blake's poetic achievement.   Another was the English poet Kathleen Raine in books like Blake and the New Age,  from which I would draw my title, and the two volumes of Blake and Tradition.  By 1987 I felt ready to share my discoveries, and, happily, both Frye and Raine, along  with a number of other Blake scholars were willing to take part.   Barry Macgregor read from Blake's work, and Lister Sinclair, who introduces the proceedings, also helped to choose the incidental music.  Here are the three programmes that resulted...