Northrop Frye on Progress

Thumbing through a collection of Northrop Frye essays has reminded me of his enduring relevance. Select quotations from the collection’s first piece, a lecture given at McMaster University in 1967, can be found below.

On Progress and Alienation:

Alienation and progress are two central elements in the mythology of our day, and both words have been extensively used and misused. The conception of alienation was originally a religious one, and perhaps that is still the context in which it makes most sense. In religion, the person aware of sin feels alienated, not necessarily from society, but from the presence of God, and it is in this feeling of alienation that the religious life begins. The conception is clearest in evangelical thinkers in the Lutheran tradition like Bunyan, who see alienation of this kind as the beginning of a psychological revolution. Once one becomes aware of being in sin and under the wrath of God, one realizes that one’s master is the devil, the prince of this world, and that treason and rebellion against this master is the first requirement of the new life.

A secularized use of the idea appears in the early work of Marx, where alienation describes the feeling of the worker who is cheated out of most of the fruit of his labour by exploitation. He is unable to participate in society to the extent that, as a worker, he should, because his status in society has been artificially degraded. In this context the alienated are those who have been dispossessed by their masters, and who therefore recognize their masters as their enemies, as Christian did Apollyon.


[N]ot many in the Western democracies today believe that a specific social act, such as expropriating a propertied class, would end alienation in the modern world. The reason is that in a society like ours, a society of the accepted and adequately fed, the conception of alienation becomes psychological. In other words it becomes the devil again, for the devil normally comes to those who have everything and are bored with it, like Faust.

On Progress and Moloch-Worship:

[U]nder a theory of progress present means have constantly to be sacrificed to future ends, and we do not know the future well enough to know whether those ends will be achieved or not. All we actually know is that we are damaging the present. Thus the assumption that progress is necessarily headed in a good or benevolent direction becomes more and more clearly an unjustified assumption. As early as Malthus the conception of sinister progress had made its appearance, the vision of a world moving onward to a goal of too many people without enough to eat. When it is proposed to deface a city by, say, turning park lots into parking lots, the rationalization given is usually the cliche “you can’t stop progress.” Here it is not even pretended that progress is anything beneficent: it is simply a Juggernaut, or symbol of alienation. And in history the continued sacrificing of a visible present to an invisible future becomes with increasing clarity a kind of Moloch-worship [i Kings 11:7; Acts 7:43]. Some of the most horrible notions that have ever entered the human mind have been “progressive” notions: massacring farmers to get a more efficient agricultural system, exterminating Jews to achieve a “solution” of the “Jewish question,” letting a calculated number of people starve to regulate food prices.

On Progress and Speed:

One very obvious feature of our age is the speeding up of progress: it is an age of revolution and metamorphosis, where one lives through changes that formerly took centuries in a matter of a few years. In a world where dynasties rise and fall at much the same rate as women’s hemlines, the dynasty and the hemline look much alike in importance, and get much the same amount of featuring in the news. Thus the progression of events is two-dimensional, a child’s drawing reflecting an eye that observes without seeing depth, and even the effort to see depth has still to deal with the whole surface. Some new groupings result: for example, what used to be called the trivial or ephemeral takes on a function of symbolizing the significant. A new art of divination or augury has developed, in which the underlying trends of the contemporary world are interpreted by vogues and fashions in dress, speech, or entertainment. Thus if there appears a vogue for white lipstick among certain groups of young women, that may represent a new impersonality in sexual relationship, a parody of white supremacy, the dramatization of a death-wish, or the social projection of the clown archetype. Any number may play, but the game is a somewhat self-defeating one, without much power of sustaining its own interest. For even the effort to identify something in the passing show has the effect of dating it, as whatever is sufficiently formed to be recognized has already receded into the past.

I hear of painters, even in Canada, who have frantically changed their styles completely three or four times in a few years, as collectors demanded first abstract expressionism, then pop art, then pornography, then hard-edge, selling off their previous purchases as soon as the new vogue took hold. There is a medieval legend of the Wild Hunt, in which souls of the dead had to keep marching to nowhere all day and all night at top speed. Anyone who dropped out of line from exhaustion instantly crumbled to dust. This seems a parable of a type of consciousness frequent in the modern world, obsessed by a compulsion to keep up, reduced to despair by the steadily increasing speed of the total movement.