The Literary Salon

A free salon wherein patrons and passers-by may view or contribute ideas on literary and generally intellectual matters. The blog will strive to maintain its commitment to wit, humour and perspicuous analysis.

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Location: Toronto, now Ottawa, Ont, Canada

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Twin Towers of Toronto

The IDEAS section of the Sunday Toronto Star is pretty much the only one that interests me, and today's was no exception: Philip Marchand (whom I respect) had an interesting but incomplete article on the Titans. No, not Saturn and Cronos, but Canadian Titans Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan. I think it's safe to say that the two alone put the University of Toronto, as well as the city itself, on the map.

What's also interesting is that Marchand mentions the 4th year English course offered at York, "Frye and McLuhan." I remember the course was offered for the first time in my 4th year (2003-2004), but I never took it for some odd reason (it must have been course conflicts). I never took a class with the prof, B.W. Powe, but for some reason he would always say hi to me, and once we actually shot the breeze. I told him that I wasn't crazy about McLuhan. He didn't mind, but he was curious :) (I also find it interesting that, of all schools in the world, York offers the course).

I never took the course, but I'm not sure whether one may actually and profitably compare the two, or whether such a course would be as coherent as it sounds. Although both were Canadian English profs who taught at UofT, they had little in common. McLuhand stopped talking about literature long before he was famous, and Frye rarely talked about anything else. McLuhan had some interesting ideas, I'll admit, but sometimes he was full of it :) His notion of the "medium is the message" is interesting, but the phrase itself makes no sense. The medium is overlooked and is important, but it's hardly the message. I'm told he was fond of catchphrases.

Although Frye has been relegated to the margins (to borrow a phrase from current, cool, literary criticism), there are many people out there who appreciate him, i.e., people who know a real scholar and literary critic when they see one. Frye is, as Dr. J said, the sun-god of Canadian literary criticism. I would even go so far as to say that Frye was the most significant 20th century literary theorist (maybe not critic).

I honestly believe that, 50 years from now, when the Greenblatts and the Fouceault wannabees have died and been forgotten, Frye will still be read and appreciated. A century from now, posterity will look down on this generation of 'literary scholarship' and say "what a waste of time all that was." Thankfully people have begun to see this, including the likes of Harold Bloom, Terry Eagleton and Camille Paglia.

Oh, here's the article

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Brief thoughts on the Canon

This will (I assume) interest only those in the field of belles lettres or literature: The Canon, which has been under attack in recent years from all sides. Briefly, for those who are in other fields, I will define the Canon as that body of literature which is, and has been, considered as the very best ever produced. Thus: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, etc, etc.
I believe Roger Kuin has a similar response to those who insist that it is nothing but a conspiracy perpetrated by upper class white guys protecting dead white guys. I certainly agree that it is not something that was determined overnight at some secret board meeting. I think it can be likened to the notion of laissez-faire, that is, the Canon has natural forces acting upon it, as it were.
Of course, Canonization isn't perfect, and I believe I have an argument that should seriously weaken the claims of those naysayers. The latter claim that non-Anglo writers of colour (or of the feminine sex) have been victimized, and hence consigned to oblivion, by this conspiracy. However, there is one thing they forget: more dead white males have have "suffered" at the hands of canonization than any other group. In my own area of Restoration-18th century poetry: who now remembers William Cowley, Edmund Waller, William Cowper, Thomas Gray, James Thomson, and half the poets Samuel Johnson wrote about in his Lives?

Intellectual Curmudgeonry

As I am well on my way to being a curmudgeon (at 24), I thought I should practice a little bit. I promised a blogging friend that I would write about a distinction made in Fowler's Modern English Usage, a book I haven't picked up in some time but is a delight to read (I have both the original, edited by Gowers in the 60s, as well as the recent revision by Burchfield. Both have their merits, and Burchfield's has some necessary contemporary issues, but Fowler's wit and cantankerousness is missing from it).

The distinction is between intelligent and intellectual. I'm quite sure that I am not alone when I say that I am sick and tired of hearing bimboes (sp?) described on TV as "intelligent." It is a cliche of sit-coms and other shows that a male, evincing his admiration if not approbation of a female he fancies, describes her as "beautiful, funny and smart/intelligent," in other words, the complete package. Years before these shows, Fowler makes the distinction between intelligent and intellectual thus:

While an intelligent person is merely one who is not stupid or slow-witted, an intellectual person is one in whom the part played by the mind as distinguished from the emotions and perceptions is greater than in the average man...Intelligent is always commendatory though sometimes patronizing epithet.

Thus, the use of "intelligent" in describing the character of, say, a woman on Friends is not entirely mistaken.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Hum(e)an philosophy

Thank you, dear reader, for your patience during this blogging abeyance. This post is dedicated to both Ted and Dr. J, for reasons that will become clear to them.
I have recently been re-tackling one of David Hume's lesser known works, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. For whatever reason, Hume considered it his best work, an opinion neither I nor critics share (I guess the notion of "I'm my own worst critics," i.e., judge, is accurate). The book is not his best written nor does it contain his best writing.
This is not the place for a summary of the work (besides, I'm too thick to provide one), but he has some interesting observations. Hume discusses Utility as the base of many of our morals and ideas. To put it briefly, if Justice and Government were not useful, they would never have existed. Similarly, to quote the man Humeself (boo): "Produce extreme abundance or extreme necessity: Implant in the human breast perfect moderation and humanit, or perfect rapaciousness and malice...[this would] render justice totally useless" (24). Ted?

According to Hume, chastity, especially of the female kind, receives approbation merely because it is useful: "Without such a utility, it will readily be owned, that such a virtue would never have been thought of" (35). Interesting.

On a lighter note (and Dr. J should enjoy this rare exhibition of silliness on my part), I noticed one of those passages that, wholly innocuous in Hume's time, take on an entirely different meaning in our day. For the benefit of less sensitive readers, I have italicized the terms in question:

"When a number of political societies are erected, and maintain a great intercourse together, a new set of rules are immediately discovered to be useful..."

Similarly, one sees the word "ejaculate" often used in "clean" contexts in 19th century fiction, including the Sherlock Holmes books.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

April 24

I dedicate this post to the 1.5 million innocent victims of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, which "officially" began on this day, one of the most unbelievably flagitious acts ever perpetrated on this earth. It is one of those rare things, hopefully never to be repeated again, that, in the words of Cicero, would make the stones and trees weep. I bow my head in prayer today so that the souls of the 1.5 million who perished may one day rest in peace. You can light a virtual candle at

(On a positive note, apart from Stephen Harper, California and Florida Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jeb Bush, respectively, officially recognized the events of 1915 as Genocide in press releases, which goes against U.S. Foreign policy. The current American government should really read their history books: no less than Woodrow Wilson, Ezra Pound, Teddy Roosevelt acknowledged its existence and sought to help the "starving Armenians." Something in the area of 150 articles appeared in the NY Times alone in 1915 on the subject. Let us hope that one day, human decency will triumph over man's insatiable greed for money, which is the only thing preventing Turkey's impeachment. Thankfully, upright nation's such as Canada, France and Switzerland have heeded their consciences).

Friday, April 21, 2006

Notes from the underground

Just a couple of notes to pass off today:

--They finally, finally, finally did it: they fired Pat Quinn, something I've been talking about since at least 2001. Nothing personal against him, but not only did he totally botch team Canada (how do you lose with those players), he's been questionable with the Leafs. I draw your attention to a very simple analogy: if Jacques Martin, who built the Ottawa Senators from scratch into a serious cup contender, got fired for doing what he did, then Quinn should be in jail (ed., I haven't really watched hockey since October, but I feel vindicated).

--Stephen Harper may not have been in office very long, and he already has his critics (a Canadian tradition), but I can safely say that he's done at least one thing right: publicly acknowledged the Genocide of 1915. The Canadian Parliament passed Motion 380, a motion to recognize the Genocide, which passed very easily. Then Prime Minister Martin refused to acknowledge the fact, which made me believe that this wasn't a democracy after all; then again, expecting ethics or principle from Liberals is like expecting a prostitute to smile at you genuinely: it could happen, but it's not very likely. (Sorry that's the best I can do right now)

--I'm off to Queen's Park (Ontario's Legislature) to participate in the yearly candlelight vigil commemorating the events of 1915 later today. You might see me on the news (I'm usually on the news for bad reasons :)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sundry matters

Not much to report, but here are some interesting (I use the term loosely) things I did or thought of in the past couple of days.

-Went to Deja Vu discs, a place where you can buy and sell used CDs. I had a bunch of CDs in my room and basement that have been collecting dust for at least 5 years. In the end, I sold 23 of them (he didn't take 10 or so of them, even though they were fairly well known acts, such as the Rolling Stones, UFO, and AC/DC). I received a recompense of 83 bucks CAN, which may not seem like much, but it's pretty good considering that I forgot I had most of these CDs (my rule is, if I haven't thought of a particular CD in 5 years, and have no intention of listening to it, it's time to get rid of it). I don't know if I've matured or if something else is wrong with me because most music, and I mean the great majority of it, simply bores the hell out of me.

-I just realized that Dr. Phil is another abbreviation for PhD, that is, Philosophiae Doctor or Doctor Philosophiae (one of the benefits of an inflected language is syntactical freedom). I seriously doubt that this is deliberate, but Dr. Phil, whatever he may lack, is a marketing genius.

-Just finished reading Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. For some strange reason I never got into Nietzsche. Something about him just doesn't jive with me, although he has some very perspicuous nuggets here and there. The last time I read anything by him was years ago, and I don't remember much about it (not one of his better works).
Nietzsche has the dubious distinction of being one of those writers or thinkers who is appropriated by the illiterati. You know, those people at university or work who pretend to have read far more than they actually have. Having "read" Nietsche, for example, is the same as reading a few excerpts or "Introducing Nietzsche" for them. Other writers/thinkers that fall under this category are Sartre, Marx, Heidegger, Kafka, Camus, Dostoevsky/Tolstoy, as well as some others I can't recall. These thinkers, especially Sartre and Marx, are more talked about than read. IT reminds me of Twain's definition of a classic, viz, "a book that everyone talks about but few people read." It's interesting that none of the writers/thinkers in this category are non-Anglo European.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Mark your calendars - April 17

On April 17th at 8 or 10 pm EST, PBS will be showing Andrew Goldberg's new documentary, "The Armenian Genocide," which has been the subject of some controversy these past few months. I saw the documentary last night on TVO (Ontario public television), and, though I didn't learn anything I don't already know, it was well done and unbiased (obviously it acknowledges that the Genocide occurred, but it also shows the "other side," for whatever it's worth). I urge all intelligent readers out there to watch this program, which is only one hour, but a very solid one.
Unbeknownst to me, the likes of Natalie Portman, Ed Harris and Orlando Bloom share narrating duties.

It is appropriate that the program is being shown on the 17th since the 24th is the day of commemoration (April 24, 1915).

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Man and his symbols

I had a strange couple of dreams last night (that's the last time I read Jung before I go to sleep), one of which wasn't a nightmare but was nevertheless disconcerting. [Incidentally, my dreams lately have not been very symbolic: to use the nomenclature from Frye's Great Code, which I'm re-reading, my dreams belong to the descriptive or vulgar phase of language, whereas dreams typically belong to the metaphorical.]

I dreamt that I was in my 3rd year English class "Literary Non-fiction," which I took back in 2002-2003. That year was my "break out" year, and I still remember it with great fondness. Anyway, I dreamt that I was in that class (taught by Julia Creet, whom some of you will know), except that I was older (i.e., 24, not 21). What scared me was that, although it was a class I thoroughly enjoyed back then and is symbolically significant for me, I saw that I was in the class but wasn't enthusiastic at all. In fact, I hadn't done some of the work. This may sound bizarre or even downright funny to some of you, but it is significant for me, especially since I don't feel I have the same elan I had in my 3rd year. I'm sure this is normal: after all, I still love what I do but I don't have the same zeal for it that I used to. I sometimes wonder whether I was "smarter" or knew more then, but it's clear that's not it, at least I hope it's not :)

Saturday, April 08, 2006


Had a pseudo-philosophical thought today during my walk which is like a cross between Lewis (C.S., that is) and Wordsworth:

Has there ever been any nation or culture that has not prized a clear, sunny day above all others? In our culture it is certainly a desideratum: we often hear complains such as " like a day without sunshine." No doubt, certain ancestors prayed and danced for the rains, which were even more important in the days of "primitive" agriculture, but I somehow doubt that native of Papua New Guinea would say "thank goodness it's not sunny today."
C.S. Lewis often talked about an innate moral code; perhaps this is somehow connected. In other words, we are not "taught" to appreciate the sun or sunny days, but there is something within us (and by "us" I mean mankind) that makes it so.

Just a thought: there may be much evidence to confute this.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

To kill or not to kill?

[This entry may seem incoherent and out of a modernist novel, but stream of consciousness clearly had a role to play in my business today].
I was cleaning out my room today when I found some old notes from my undergraduate English courses (I was a terrible note-taker, so there wasn't much). I went through the notes I took for the Dostoevsky and Tolstoy courses I took that year, the only courses for which I can say I took serious, albeit unorganized, notes (2002-2003; boy did I read a lot that year!).

After this, I was reminded of Voltaire's entry in his Dictionnaire Philosophique under Jephtah, who, in the Old Testament, promised to sacrifice whomever came through the door of his house as a gift for his victory over the Ammonites. Of course, who else but his daughter should come through the door, and, irrevocably doomed to death, she then goes to the mountains to lament her virginity.

I bring this up in connection with C.S. Lewis' chapter on murder in Mere Christianity. He tells us that when Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew, tells us not to kill, he uses a slightly different word. In Greek, there exist the words for "kill" and "murder," and Jesus here uses the latter, and C.S. Lewis' takes this as proof that "killing" is sometimes allowed (his argument is far longer and includes other elements). This brings me back to the story of Jepthah and the Old Testament in general. In the book of Exodus, Moses tells us "Thou shalt not kill" (ed.: as a side note, few people know that the Ten Commandments were inscribed twice. The first time, Moses smashed the tablets to pieces because he got really pissed off, so he had to go up the mountain again and receive them). Although we are admonished not to kill fairly early on, we see killings fairly frequently in the Old Testament, and they are oftened sactioned by God. The first example is the killing of Jephtah's daughter, which he was essentially commanded to undertake (no one, including God, thought unseemly). Apart from the thousands of people killed by the Israelites after Exodus, we even see one person punished because he didn't kill, viz., Saul, who captured Agag but refused to kill him. He didn't think it necessary (or he showed mercy, I forget which), and God punished him for this. There are many other examples I could burden the reader with, but I will merely implore them to consult their Bibles.

Unlike Voltaire, my purpose is not to denounce Old Testament culture/laws: I merely wanted to make this observation and connect it with the New Testament admonition "thou shalt not kill." Either the Old Testament contradicts itself egregiously, or, as C.S. Lewis suggests in connection with Christianity, that there are different types of killing, some of which are permissble.

To conclude, the stream of consciousness scheme I experienced today goes as follows: thoughts on Dostoevsky and undergrad courses generally -- C.S. Lewis -- the Bible/killing. What occasioned the leap from Dostoevsky to C.S. Lewis was the idea of reason versus faith. Very briefly, Dostoevsky would have probably agreed with much of what C.S. Lewis says, especially concerning instincts and a moral code.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Sundry Sunday verses

Just a couple of random thoughts:

--I finished reading Racine's Andromaque (Andromache) in the original French, although I had recourse to an English translation which, despite my less than perfect understanding of French, I found (to quote Sam Johnson) not excellent in parts, and contemptible in others. I'm told Racine is impossible to translate into English. He's certainly very difficult, but I can see why one would get the impression. If I knew no French and read my English translation of the play, I would leave very unimpressed and full of ennui. I thank the skies that I know as much French as I do so that I can, with some effort and difficulty, read this noble poet in his own element. I cannot say of his other plays, but Andromaque has a plot that is incredibly simple, simple to the point where one feels that he has missed something. Without doubt his biggest grace is his language: I think it would not be inaccurate to call Racine the French Shakespeare. I may expatiate on him in another post...It is sad but true that, for whatever reason, Racine has been consigned to oblivion in in the non-French speaking world, whereas Shakespeare is well known in, say, France. Perhaps this is why most (but not all) classical authors have suffered a similar fate: there's little point in reading these authors, such as Horace, in translation.

--For the first time in about three or four years (my most formative years in University), I picked up a handsome volume of Orwell's essays. I remember paying over thirty dollars CAN for it when it first came out sometime around 2002-03. I remember reading some of these essays with alacrity years ago, and the thought brings up feelings of felicity mingled with sadness, in much the same way as looking at an old family photo from years past. Among other essays, I re-read Orwell's essay "In Defense of the Novel," written in 1936 but for the most part accurate today. Among his other witticisms, Orwell tells us

"when all novels are thrust upon you as works of genius, it is natural to assume that most of them are tripe."

As true in 1936 as it is now, if not truer now. I think later tonite I shall read his essay on Shakespeare and Tolstoy and/or an imaginary interview between Orwell and Swift. I have never read the latter, but you don't have to be Northrop Frye to see the connection between the two authors: Orwell's delectably caustic wit is reminiscent of the irate Irish Dean.

--I watch movies about as rarely as a bum bathes, but I went to see V for Vendetta with a buddy of mine last night. For whatever reason I'm not a film buff, but this was one of the best movies I've seen in years. It starts off by discussing Guy Fawkes' attempted conflagration of Parliament in 1605 on November 5. The movie then turns to an England set in the future which, though it has prevailed over America, is quite Orwellian/dystopian. Without giving anything away, I must say that the plot and dialogue were beyond reproach, and there was nothing in the movie that made it weaker, a rarity these days where even decent movies are attenuated by bad directorial/editing choices.