The Authority of Learning
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 19 Jan 1984, p. 194-206
Frye, Professor Northrop, Speaker
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"1984" by Orwell and its central thesis. The importance of language. Real learning. What the humanities bring to society. The teaching of language and the structure of language may encourage social change. Authority of science. The authority of literature and the arts. Creativity. Intelligence. Canada's significance in the world. The role of its literature, its scholarship, its universities. What budget cuts mean to that role.
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19 Jan 1984
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Full Text
JANUARY 19, 1984
The Authority of Learning
CHAIRMAN The President, Douglas L. Derry, F.C.A.


Reverend Father, distinguished guests, members, and friends of The Empire Club of Canada: It is an interesting problem for the Chairman of a meeting such as this when confronted with the prospect of introducing a speaker as highly respected and acclaimed as Dr.Frye. How does one appropriately outline for the audience the multitude of his accomplishments and honours without giving a speech longer than that expected of the speaker?

With that threat hanging over your heads, I am quick to relieve your obvious concerns and assure you that I will constrain myself. However, I hope that my introductory remarks, while not as lengthy as deserved, will do justice to the very considerable accomplishments of Dr. Frye.

Northrop Frye has spent some fifty years at the University of Toronto - or more specifically, at one of its federated universities, Victoria University. This was first as an undergraduate student at Victoria College and then as a divinity student at Victoria University's other college, Emmanuel. After being ordained in the United Church of Canada in 1936, Dr. Frye realized that his future lay in university teaching and he went to Oxford to do graduate work for three years. In 1939, he returned to Canada and joined the Department of English at Victoria College. Dr. Frye's reputation as a literary critic was quickly established through a large number of public lectures and publications starting in 1947 with Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. In the London Spectator, the poet Edith Sitwell wrote, "Mr. Northrop Frye's book is of such importance that it is impossible even to begin to do it justice in the space at my disposal. To say it is a magnificent, extraordinary book is to praise it as it should be praised, but in doing so, one gives little idea of the huge scope of the book and of its fiery understanding." And this review was written near the beginning of Dr. Frye's illustrious career.

Fearful Symmetry was followed ten years later by Anatomy of Criticism, in which he related literature to society and civilization as a whole. Since then, Professor Frye has written eighteen books, including recently The Great Code, his highly acclaimed study of the Bible's imagery and mythological structure. This is in addition to editing twelve books, contributing essays and chapters to over forty other books, and contributing over one hundred articles and reviews in learned journals. On top of this, he has lectured at over one hundred universities throughout the world.

It is therefore not surprising, though one might wonder how he possibly had the time, that Dr. Frye rapidly took on increasingly senior responsibilities within the University. He became a full professor in 1947, Chairman of Victoria College's Department of English in 1952, and Principal of Victoria College from 1959 to 1967. In 1967 he had the honour of becoming the University of Toronto's first University Professor, which means that he is not attached to any department and may teach whatever subject he likes in whatever department is ready to accept him, though I doubt that acceptance has been a problem for Dr. Frye! Since 1978, Dr. Frye has been Chancellor of Victoria University.

In recognition of his contributions, Dr. Frye was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1951, and since that time he has received numerous honours and awards, including in 1972 Canada's highest honour, being made a Companion of the Order of Canada. Since 1957, Professor Frye has received honorary degrees from more than thirty universities and colleges in Canada and the United States.

Dr. Frye's topic today is "The Authority of Learning," and indeed, I cannot think of a more appropriate topic from a man who is himself such an authority on learning. It is our great honour now to welcome Dr. Northrop Frye.


Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen: This year, 1984, seems to be the only year that has had a book written about it before it appeared, and discussions of Orwell's 1984 have become one of the most hackneyed themes in current journalism even before we are out of the January of that year. Nevertheless, I insist on beginning with one more reference to it, and for two reasons. In the first place, most of the discussions of the book I have read have failed to grasp its central thesis. Second, that thesis coincides with my own conviction as a student and teacher of English, which I have been trying to pound into the student and public consciousness for nearly half a century.

I remember well the impact that Orwell's book made when it appeared in 1949. The Communists turned on their scream machine, and in those days a lot of people in the democracies listened to it. For there was still a very large group of leftist sympathizers who, in regard to the Stalin regime in Russia, were in exactly the situation that the book itself calls "doublethink." The deliberately engineered famines in the Ukraine, the purges and massacres, the concentration camps in Siberia (a) didn't exist, (b) maybe did exist, but nobody but a mean old Fascist would mention them. So the book was decried a good deal as reactionary propaganda. I reviewed it over the CsC in 1949, and I remember the comment of my producer, who himself was clearly in the state of doublethink I mentioned: "Why didn't you just talk about the prose style?"

What I then said about the book was what I would say now: it is a twentieth-century Inferno, a vision of hell where there is no hope and no end. The liberal bromide that tyrannies will disappear when certain ends, however selfish, have been achieved, is carefully taken away from the reader. "I understand the how but not the why," the hero says, and is told that there isn't any why. The tortures and spying are not means to an end; they are the ends; the object of power is power; the reason for torture is torture.

In the ensuing years, Orwell's prophecy began to look very accurate indeed. True, Stalin died, as the Big Brother of 1984 cannot die; but much of his structure of tyranny survived him. China set up a very similar structure during the so-called gang-of-four regime, and the fact that it has a more reasonable, or at any rate more pragmatic, regime now is the luck of a power struggle, not any uprising from the people: this is another mirage that Orwell's book sets aside. In the United States, the spying and frame-up trials of the McCarthy era went on and on and on. Everything Orwell said would happen has happened, but in bits and pieces, not, so far, in the consolidated global form that makes the book a real Inferno. Why not?

The central thesis of the book is that there is only one way to create a hell on earth that we and our children can never escape from, and that is to smash language. As long as we have the words to formulate ideas with, those ideas will still be potential, and potentially dangerous. What Orwell's state brings in is a pseudo-logical simplification of language called Newspeak, in which, for example, instead of saying that something is very bad you say that it is "double plus ungood." This kind of talk is rationalized as making language more logical; what it actually does is to make it mechanical, like a squirrel's chatter. Orwell devotes an appendix to his book in which he impresses on his reader the fact that the debasing of language is the only means to a permanent tyranny. We can no longer change a world like 1984 when the words that express the possibility of change have been removed from speech.

The appendix ends by quoting the opening paragraph of the preamble to the American Constitution, and then seeing how it could be translated into Newspeak. A Newspeak translator, Orwell tells us, could only stare at the paragraph and write down the word "crimethink." Even that indicates that his society is still in a state of transition. "Ultimately it was hoped," Orwell says, "to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centres at all." If we know we are in hell we are no longer wholly there: it is our consciousness that tells us where we are, and consciousness is a function of language, not the other way round.

Orwell's central case, then, is that the inner citadel of human freedom is language, and that language is not simply content or subject-matter, such as we have in mind when we say that a speaker "has something to say." The way in which something is said is the reality of that something, and anyone who says "just give the ideas; never mind the words" is taking a step in the direction of the subconscious quacking and barking of Newspeak. We know that this is Orwell's view from his other writings, notably a wonderfully incisive and pungent essay on "Politics and the English Language." So while 1984 is a satire, the position from which it satirizes is the traditional humanist position. Again, 1984 belongs to a specific literary genre, the mock or parody-Utopia. The genre includes, among many others, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, which in its last book describes a society in which the horses have taken over because they can talk, while the counterparts of human beings, whom Swift calls Yahoos, cannot talk, and have consequently turned into the most noxious and vicious of animals.

So everything that comes after food and shelter and makes life worth living, Orwell says, is bound up with language. The rest of us simply take the humanities for granted, assuming that they are pleasant but secondary ornaments of civilization. In some ways it is better that this should be thought: it could be an advantage to have the real importance of language overlooked. Yet it is clear that the twentieth century is an age in which we cannot afford to take anything for granted. We have been accustomed to take air and water for granted, but we have managed to pollute both. Another thing we take for granted is compulsory education, which seems to be a benevolent and well-meaning thing for a society to provide. So it is, up to a point. But society supports compulsory education because it must have docile and obedient citizens. We learn to read primarily to read what society says we must read: traffic signs, advertising, labels on merchandise. We learn to count to make change and figure out our income tax. The thought of a citizenry unable to do these things fills us with such panic that we periodically hear complaints that the schools are not enabling children to grow up in a real world, and thus we get such slogans as a "back to basics" movement. The "basics," however, are not bodies of knowledge: they are skills, and the cultivating of a skill takes lifelong practise and repetition. The simple ability to read, write, and count is essentially a passive acquirement, a means of social adjustment. All genuine teaching starts with this passive literacy and then tries to transform it into an activity, reading with discrimination and writing with articulateness. Without this background, one may be able to read and write and still be functionally illiterate. It is discouraging for a student to find that he has reached university and is still totally unable to say what he thinks.

But by this time an odd kind of schizophrenia has begun to afflict public opinion. However "basic" it may be to read and write, as we go on doing it public opinion begins to push these abilities toward the periphery of society. The humanists find themselves fighting a rearguard action, faced with supercilious questions that take the general tone: assuming that your area of interest is expendable, what are the serious things in society you can attach to it to defend its continued support?

One would assume that the simplest answer would be: people need political and social leaders who can define policies, articulate problems, and express the aims and ideals of their society for those who cannot express them for themselves, though they may feel them very deeply. But the evidence is overwhelming that voters in a democracy want, and expect, bumble and burble from their leaders, and seem to be disturbed, if not upset, by the impact of articulate speech. Without exhaustive examination, I should guess that if we read Hansard we might have to go all the way back to Arthur Meighen to find a political leader who habitually used the language with skill and precision, and the correlation of his ability to speak with his success at the polls seems to me significant, like the similar correlation for Adlai Stevenson in the United States later. There is a story, which I understand to be true, of a late colleague of mine, a professor of English who was private secretary to Prime Minister Mackenzie King during the war. In working on King's speeches, he inserted various quotations from Canadian poets, English and French, touched up cliches with a few metaphors, rounded out stock formulas with more concrete and lively language. These were regularly and routinely struck out. Eventually, the Prime Minister said: "Professor, the public memory for a picturesque phrase is very retentive."

All this is a kind of negative indication of the real significance of what the humanities bring to society. The basis of my approach as a teacher has always been that we participate in society by means of our imagination or the quality of our social vision. Our visions of what our society is, what it could be, and what it should be, are all structures of metaphor, because the metaphor is the unit of all imagination. Logical thinking in this field seldom does more than rationalize these metaphorical visions. Occasionally, we realize that a metaphor is no longer useful, and doesn't fit any more. One such metaphor is that of political and economic structures, including that of government, as machines. We speak of people "running" a business or a department so habitually that we forget we are using a metaphor showing that we think of such things as mechanisms. So anything that symbolizes to us the efficient running of a machine in public life creates a feeling of reassurance in us. When we hear a political candidate talking in a continuous series of uniform burps suggesting a breakfast coffee percolator, our conscious minds may be bored, but our metaphorical imagination feels that, so far, all's well with the world. There would be no harm in this except that I think we are beginning to feel an uneasy sense that social structures are not really machines at all.

It is obvious that social change would be reflected in changes of language but what interests me much more is the reverse possibility: that the teaching of language, and the structures of literature in which language is contained, may foster and encourage certain social changes. Not long ago I was asked to speak to a group of alumni in a neighbouring city, and a reporter on a paper in that city phoned my secretary and asked if this was to be a "hot" item. My secretary explained that Professor Frye was what his late colleague Marshall McLuhan would have called a cool medium of low definition, and that he could well skip the occasion, which he did with obvious relief. The incident was trivial, but it started me thinking about the curiously topsy-turvy world of "news" as reported today.

What would the historians of the future, say of the year 2284, assuming the human race lasts that long, make of the history of Canada in the 1980s? In that remote future, such historians would be puzzled by the exclusion of most news about universities in them. For they would also know that nothing of any historical importance whatever was taking place in Canada during the 1980s except what was happening in the universities, and in certain specific fields outside that were directly reflected in and by the universities. These fields would vary widely: there would be environmental control, related to the biological area of the university spectrum; computer technology, related to engineering and physics; literature and the performing arts, related to the humanities; and so on. If Canadian universities are underfunded so badly that they can no longer function effectively, Canada would disappear overnight from modern history and become again what it was at first, a blank area of natural resources to be exploited by more advanced countries. This is not empty rhetoric: it is a verifiable fact, though I should not care to become known as the person who verified it. What is connected with the universities is what is really happening: the political and economic charades also going on are what are called pseudo-events, created for and blown up by the news media to give us the illusion of living in history. The human lives behind these charades, of people losing their jobs or finding that they can no longer live on their pensions, certainly do not consist of pseudo-events. But they are not hot news items either.

I am leading up to, or circling around, the question: what kind of social authority does language, and the study of literature which is at the centre of language, really have in the social order? Every society, if it is to hold together at all, has to develop a body of concerns, assumptions in various areas, political, economic, religious, cultural, that are generally agreed on, or sufficiently agreed on for members of that society to communicate with one another. As society gets more complicated, various bodies of knowledge appear within it: these bodies of knowledge develop their own authority, and that authority may conflict with the concerns of society. We can see this most easily in the sciences. Galileo upheld the idea of a heliocentric solar system when the anxious of a panicstricken church were screaming to keep the geocentric one. That meant a conflict of loyalties in Galileo's mind, one to his science and the other to society as a whole.

It is not hard to see this authority within science. It is much harder to see that literature and the arts also have their own authority, that a writer may have to persist in his loyalty to the demands of what he writes even when threatened with censorship or personal persecution. Marxism, for example, when it comes to power in society, simply denies, as a point of dogma, that literature has any authority of its own at all. Literature in a socialist country, it says, should reflect and follow the demands of socialist concern, otherwise it will turn into the neurotic, introverted, decadent, etc., kind of literature produced in bourgeois countries. Christianity said much the same kind of thing in the past, and the Islamic religion repeats it in the present. The United States has no actual dogmas on the subject, but there have been startling outbreaks of hysteria, from Anthony Comstock in the 1890s to his descendants in our day.

There are no easy answers to this problem. For one thing, social concern certainly does have its own case. Nuclear bombs, the energy crisis, the pollution of the environment, and the choking off of the supply of air, all indicate that scientists have a social responsibility for what they do. In literature, too, I think there is such a thing as a moral majority to be respected, even though I don't believe that the people who call themselves that represent it. Once when I was very young I found myself on a train with nothing to read, and in desperation bought a thriller from a news agent. It told me, in effect, that practically all the Chinese in North American cities were engaged in drug-running and in kidnapping young white women. It would be against the law to distribute such stuff in Ontario today, and I thoroughly approve of the law.

None the less, censorship is practically always wrong, because it invariably fastens on the most serious writers as its chief object of attack, whereas the serious writer is the ally of social concern, not its enemy. I can remember a time when even university professors (not at my college, I should add) would tell their students that D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce were degenerates wallowing in muck. This is not concern for society, but only anxiety directed at token or phony symbols of concern, four-letter words and the like, and its basis is a resentment of the authority that comes from the fresh and expanded vision of the serious writer. The failure to grasp this results in some very grotesque situations: people in Canada snatching Canadian books out of high-school libraries that are read and studied with the greatest enthusiasm in a dozen countries elsewhere.

In society there is a level of anxiety, which is instinctively exclusive, suspicious of outsiders, and distrustful of any new developments from within. By itself, this level becomes a lynching mob, where any clearly defined individual, simply by being that, becomes a marked-out victim. Above this is the level of genuine concern, most clearly represented by the arts and sciences. I say most clearly, because they still attract us after many centuries, no matter how foul the anxieties of the society out of which they emerged may have been. We return again and again with the same shuddering delight, to the opening of Macbeth: "Thunder and lightning. Enter three witches," even though we know that these witches were contemporary with the most hideous and pointless tormenting of harmless old women. Perhaps the witches were put into Macbeth to amuse King James, who was an ardent and gullible supporter of witch-hunting, but the authority of the play is unaffected by that.

I think Canada is in a unique position from which to study the role of language and the humanities in culture. Its political and economic structures may be in something of a shambles, but its culture, and I speak here more particularly of its literary culture, is flourishing and exhilarating. As we study this situation, we begin to see that two different social rhythms are involved. Political and economic movements tend to expand and centralize; cultural ones tend to decentralize, to bring to articulateness smaller and smaller communities. One has to keep the contrast steadily in mind: if we hitch a political development to a cultural one, as in separatism, we get a kind of neo-fascism; if we hitch a cultural development to a political one, we get a pompous, bureaucratic pseudo-culture.

Some time ago an American official, an appointment of the Reagan administration, remarked to me that he didn't approve of intellectuals in government. Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself agreeing with him, if somewhat tentatively. The social role of creative people, and of most of the group known vaguely as "intellectuals," is at this time probably to create possible models of human behaviour and action. Orwell created the terrible model of 1984 and remarked: "All a writer can do today is to warn." I think writers can do many things besides warn, however important warning may be. Every social change brings opportunities as well as dangers, and there are still a lot of people of goodwill around eager to respond to a more positive challenge than simply "avoid that." But models are one thing, and social machinery is another, and the nervous itch of many intellectuals to help turn the wheels of history, and show that they are of some practical use after all, has produced mainly illusions. This perversion of culture has been studied in a now-famous book, Julien Benda's Le trahison des clercs, the treason of the intellectuals. Such people are frequently very vocal in the first stage of a revolutionary situation, and its first victims in the second stage.

It has often happened in the sciences that a new discovery, even a new invention, seems to be of no immediate practical use. But fifty years later, it may turn out to be exactly what that science is then looking for. Similarly, it has been noted many times that what poets have seen in any given period becomes what the whole world is doing fifty or a hundred years later. Among those who have seriously studied our possible futures, we find, apart from those who prophesy tyranny or total destruction, a large number who see our present expanding of political and economic technologies as having reached its peak, and they tell us of a possible world which has become decentralized into smaller units, of the kind defined by a maturing literature. In short, the metaphor of society as a vast interlocking machine may succeed to a metaphor of society as a group of social organisms. At present, it seems that our culture, especially our verbal culture, is all that Canada has to contribute to the world that the world appreciates for its own sake. I have often been puzzled by the intensity of the interest shown in Canadian writing in European and Asian countries whose social conditions are very unlike ours. But perhaps before long we shall see the reason for that interest. If the world really does outgrow its vast jungle cities, its strangling international cartels, and the deadlocked hostility of its superpowers, it may break up into smaller units in which the individual can find once more an identity and a function.

In such a world Canada might gain a quite new significance. In many ways, Switzerland is the model for a peaceful and co-operating Europe, and Canada, ringed around with the world's great powers, is a kind of global Switzerland. Politically, it is constantly falling apart and being patched together by ad hoc compromises; economically, it has been trampled over by exploiters from three continents. But somewhere in its literature, its universities, its scholarship staggering and limping under budget cuts, there may be buried the model vision of a new world, where nightmare visions of tyranny and destruction have vanished as even the worst dreams do.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by John A. MacNaughton, a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Authority of Learning

"1984" by Orwell and its central thesis. The importance of language. Real learning. What the humanities bring to society. The teaching of language and the structure of language may encourage social change. Authority of science. The authority of literature and the arts. Creativity. Intelligence. Canada's significance in the world. The role of its literature, its scholarship, its universities. What budget cuts mean to that role.