“A Minister and a Rabbi . . .”: The Parallel Careers at the University of Toronto of Northrop Frye and Emil Fackenheim

I was fortunate to know Northrop Frye: he was the external examiner of my PhD thesis, and, throughout the 1980s, when my wife—mezzo-soprano Judith Forst—was singing at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, I would take him to and from the opera house, enjoying our many conversations. Much later, I was asked to review many of the volumes of his Collected Works for Canadian Literature, a refresher course that led me to consider the issues I reflect on below.

Frye’s critical theories certainly influenced me over my forty-five years teaching in post-secondary institutions in New York and Vancouver, but it was also during these forty-five years that I began working in the area of Holocaust history through the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. And it was this work that, more than any developments in critical theory in the late twentieth century, drew me increasingly away from Frye as a thinker, a role I could not separate in his case, from that of a literary critic.

Over these latter years, I became progressively interested in another eminent Canadian: the philosopher Emil Fackenheim, who was for thirty-plus years a colleague of Frye’s at the University of Toronto. Fackenheim, was and remains, the central Canadian figure in Holocaust studies; in fact, one recent historian has called him “the preeminent theologian of the Holocaust” (Rosenbaum 279).

Thus, when the index to Frye’s collected works appeared in May of 2013, out of curiosity I checked for Fackenheim’s name. It appeared once. The reference is in a short diary entry for 16 January 1950: “Fackenheim,” as Frye referred to him, was “needling” a colleague of Frye’s (the philosopher Robert McRae) who was delivering a paper at a colloquium. And “Fackenheim” was getting the upper hand in the exchange because McRae, Frye says, “was less adroit at dodging questions” than was he (Diaries 231).

That Frye should have known who Emil Fackenheim was is not surprising: as well as their shared tenure at the University of Toronto, they were both ordained clergymen, and were both deeply involved in important Canadian publishing projects (Frye was Managing Editor and Editorial Board Member of the Canadian Forum for many years, and Fackenheim was one of the founding editors of the journalDionysius). Similarly, Fackenheim could hardly have failed to know who Frye was. Although he has never mentioned by Fackenheim in any of his many books and articles, Frye’s reputation was at its peak during Fackenheim’s tenure at the University of Toronto—and his beloved young wife, Rose, had been a student of Frye’s there.

The fact that Frye and Fackenheim—two of the most important people in the world in their respective fields during the latter part of the twentieth century—virtually never referred to each other in their voluminous writings could simply be seen as typical disciplinary disjunction in the modern multiversity, but there is something else here. I always had the sense as I studied Frye, and referred to his theories in class, that there was something missing; that in a way his theories had no effective window on the outside world; that his passionate defence of humanism might have squared with what he knew of Blake and Milton, but not with the post-Holocaust world. Michael Ignatieff has called the Holocaust “the ghost at our feast” (28)—but the ghost has no seat at Frye’s table. (In fact, the only time the word “Holocaust” appears in the seven million words of the Collected Works is in reference to Noah’s “holocaust of the animals” after the flood.)

Fackenheim, on the other hand, was Holocaust-obsessed. In fact, the eminent theologian Gregory Baum (another professor whose career at the University of Toronto overlapped with Frye’s), admitted he came to think of Fackenheim as having been driven “crazy, honorably and admirably, but still a little insane” (n. pag.) by the German Judeocide—a claim for which his writings offer no evidence.

The complete absence in Frye of any sense of the historical significance of the Holocaust is puzzling. Frye has been almost universally regarded as one of the great “synoptic” men of letters of the twentieth century, and the publication of his Collected Works has been cited as “one of the most important humanistic efforts taking place at this point in history” (Lee xiii). During his lifetime he was variously labelled on the cover of Maclean’s Magazine as one of the “towering figures in Canadian letters” (“Northrop”) and “the foremost living student of Western Literature” (Harold Bloom qtd. in Salusinszky58). At the peak of his reputation, Frye was cited as “the Einstein of criticism” (Scott 2) and “one of the most widely cited thinkers in human history” (Heer n. pag.) and even “the architect of the spiritual world” (see Denham).

In this regard, the “monumental” Collected Works project puts Frye under the magnifying glass in a way that allows comparison between him and few other great critics of our time. And what we see in this magnification clearly justifies his reputation in every area. Except, I believe, in one: the unwillingness to recognize the radical, existential character of human evil and to acknowledge the cultural fissure between human reality, and his vision of classical humanism opened by the Holocaust. This is not to complain that Frye was not Fackenheim, or that his social and philosophical views should have squared with those of a certainly bitter and fixated concentration camp survivor. It is rather to assess the justice of those who, like his editor Jean O’Grady and many others, thought of Frye as a major contributor to twentieth-century humanism; that had he lived, he would have offered the world “a survey of the whole of human knowledge” (O’Grady n. pag.).

I never met Emil Fackenheim. In my years as a Holocaust educator, I only knew about him through his famous “614th mitzvah,” or “commandment,” by which he is known worldwide: “Thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories: To despair of the God of Israel is to continue Hitler’s work for him” (Fackenheim 23-24). I knew also that he was a very popular professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, that he loved to wear Hawaiian shirts to class, that (decidedly unlike Frye) he proudly marched with the students against the Vietnam War, and lastly, that he had written voluminously on the Holocaust and on G. W. F. Hegel. And I also knew that he felt that the Holocaust had permanently “ruptured” history, leading to a serious need to reconsider the history of human culture.

For Frye, humanist values are recorded in, and perpetuated through the institution of the university and through the reading of literature encouraged there: “the more exposed we are to [literature],” said Frye in his 1963 Massey Lectures, published by the CBC as The Educated Imagination, “the less likely we are to find an unthinking pleasure in cruel or evil things” (472).

As Fackenheim often noted, however, the German humanists and universities not only failed to safeguard culture, they produced many of the major instigators of the Holocaust. For example, seven of the fifteen attendees of the Wannsee Conference in 1942—which planned the extermination of European Jewry—had PhDs, as did Goebbels, and as did three of the four leaders of the infamous killing squads that bloodied the trail left by the Wehrmacht as it marched eastwards from 1941 to 1943.

Moreover, there is a strong sense in Fackenheim, which sharply separates his thought from Frye’s deeply held and self-defined “humanist” point-of-view, of the existential radicality of evil. (Frye, in fact, at one point in his notebooks, finds himself wondering whether evil might not, in fact, be “redemptive,” clearly reflecting his Christian background, and perhaps explaining his refusal ever to give up his ordination [“Third” 11].) Contrariwise, for Fackenheim, the Holocaust is the very definition, and de facto evidence of existential evil, and denotes the complete destruction of any possible bridge between man and God. I will return to this point.

Northrop Frye and Emil Fackenheim were born four years apart—Frye in 1912 and Fackenheim in 1916—to middle-class religious families, and they were ordained within three years of each other: Frye in 1936 (as a Methodist minister) and Fackenheim (as a Reform rabbi) in 1939, but there the similarities end. As Frye prepared in 1939 to become a member of the permanent staff at Victoria College, Fackenheim was being arrested and sent to the notorious Sachsenhausen concentration camp in northeastern Germany.

Fackenheim was released from Sachsenhausen after three months and managed to get to Britain where he studied briefly at Aberdeen University until he was deported to Canada in 1940. Once there, he endured sixteen months of internment as an “Enemy Alien”; and on release, he practiced for three years as a rabbi. He then applied for and won a position in the philosophy department at the University of Toronto. The year was 1947—the year that Frye published Fearful Symmetry.

Fackenheim earned his full professorship in 1959, the year Frye became principal of the University of Toronto’s Victoria College. He stayed at the University of Toronto until 1984, when he moved to Jerusalem to teach at the Hebrew University. He died in Israel in 2003.

To return to the main difference between Fackenheim and Frye: their respective views on the existentiality of evil. For Fackenheim, the “radicality” of evil was of course symbolized by the Holocaust. Auschwitz is, in other words, “the symbol of a radical evil that . . . could only occur in a world in which either God was absent or else was powerless to prevent” (Rubinoff 253). Thus, the world after Auschwitz “can never be the same”; the Holocaust has caused an “eclipse” in human history, insofar as history is understood as “the march of faith-inspired reason toward human redemption and fulfillment of the covenant between man and God.” And further, any attempt to subsume the Holocaust under the Hegelian rubric of “rational cunning” is not only “obscene” but also “blasphemous” (Rubinoff 272).

Fackenheim was a world authority on Hegel, yet one can immediately see from his attitude towards history and its mid-twentieth-century “eclipse,” that he ultimately gave over Hegelianism and its premises of human progress. As Fackenheim put it, “were he [Hegel] alive today, so realistic a philosopher as Hegel would not be Hegelian” (Religious60). Frye on the other hand continued to see Hegel as “the great philosopher of anabasis [ascent]”: in his late notebooks, he refers to Hegel 222 times; in another place, he cited Hegel as “having done a lot of my work for me,” that is, by mapping the grand dialectical path “upward, through morality, art [and] revealed religion” (“Third” 89).

Fackenheim, on the contrary, saw it as impossible to be a dialectician after the Holocaust; he saw in the Holocaust a unique historical event, a “novum,” an event that caused a “fissure” or “abyss” or “fracture” in history, one that precluded any notion of anabasis. Contrast this position to Frye’s: “nothing in that happens in history is unique,” he said in a late interview with David Cayley, reflecting his continuing vision of history as progressing dialectically (“Conversation” 917).

There are other contrasts between the minister and the rabbi, and not just on their relative focus on the first and second Biblical covenants. For example, although both were deeply influenced by Kant, Fackenheim was particularly (and characteristically) interested in Kant’s view of radical evil, as laid down in the latter’s 1793 essay “On the Radical Evil in Human Nature.” Here, Kant takes the position that evil is a deep and essential element of the human condition—an evil which Fackenheim saw as taking over Europe with the rise of Nazism and potentially, given a slight tweaking of the situation in Stalingrad in 1943, the whole world. (Kant’s essay on evil is not listed on the University of Toronto website which itemizes Frye’s vast library—a library which contains almost all of Kant’s other writings.)

One would think they never met, and it’s hard to believe they would have anything to say to each other if they did. But one thing they did have in common: a strong sense that the future can be better than the past. Frye saw this possibility as invested in the arts: that “immense imaginative and transforming force” which is “still ready to recreate both our society and ourselves” (Religion 46, 82).

Fackenheim could not take this optimistic view of the arts, as he agreed with Eli Wiesel that “[t]here is no such thing as a literature of the Holocaust, nor can there be. The very expression is a contradiction in terms. Auschwitz negates any form of literature, as it defies all systems, all doctrines. . . . A novel about Auschwitz is not a novel, or else it is not about Auschwitz. The very attempt to write such a novel is blasphemy. . . .” (Wiesel 314). Rather, for Fackenheim, hope was symbolized, first, by the heroic activities of a few Nazi dissenters in Germany during the war (especially Kurt Huber and the White Rose), and second, by the coming into existence of the state of Israel, which he came to see as an authentic Jewish response to the Holocaust, and a promise that humanity can continue to hope. By contrast, Frye (who visited Israel in 1982) never mentions modern Israel, except to decry it (falsely: it is a liberal democratic state) as a theocratic state (“[as is] much of the Moslem and Hindu world,” as he put it [Religion 175]).

The Frye-Fackenheim divide provides an astonishing contrast and when it is thought about, it must be done so in the context of a supreme, and very Canadian, irony. When Fackenheim was deported from Scotland to Canada in 1940, he was immediately imprisoned in a Canadian war prisoners’ internment camp. The camp was in Sherbrooke, Quebec. The city that imprisoned the man who was to become the greatest Holocaust philosopher in the world, is the same city that produced one of the world’s greatest of humanistic literary critics: Northrop Frye.

Works Cited

  • Baum, Geoffrey. “Ten Questions on Frye and Fackenheim.” Message to the author. 24 Sept. 2013. E-mail.
  • Denham, Robert D. Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2004. Print.
  • Fackenheim, Emil. The Jewish Return into History. New York: Schocken, 1978. Print.
  • —. The Religious Dimension in Hegel’s Thought. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1968. Print.
  • Frye, Northrop. The Collected Works of Northrop Frye. 30 vols.Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2012. Print.
  • —. The Diaries of Northrop Frye 1942–1955. 2001. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Frye, Collected Works vol. 8.
  • —. “The Educated Imagination” and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1933-1962. 2006. Ed. Germaine Warkentin. Frye,Collected Works vol. 21.
  • —. “Northrop Frye in Conversation.” 2008. Interview by David Cayley. Interviews with Northrop Frye. Ed. Jean O’Grady. Frye,Collected Works vol. 24.
  • —. Northrop Frye on Religion. 2000. Ed. Alvin A. Lee and Jean O’Grady. Frye, Collected Works vol. 4.
  • —. The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 1964-1972.2002. Ed. Michael Dolzani. Frye, Collected Works vol. 9.
  • Heer, Jeet. “Northrop Frye Revisited.” National Post. By Jeet Heer, 5 July 2003. Web. 11 June 2014.
  • Ignatieff, Michael. “The Ascent of Man.” Prospect 45 (1999): 28-31. Print.
  • Lee, Alvin. “Preface.” Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Works. Ed. David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999. xiii-xvii. Print.
  • “Northrop Frye: A Towering Figure in Canadian Letters.”Maclean’s 1 July 1998: n. pag. Print.
  • O’Grady, Jean. Interview with Graham N. Forst. U of Toronto, 13 May 2012. TS.
  • Rosenbaum, Ron. Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of his Evil. New York: Random House, 1998. Print.
  • Rubinoff, Lionel. “In Search of a Meaningful Response to the Holocaust: Reflections on Fackenheim’s 614th Commandment.”Emil Fackenheim: Philosopher, Theologian, Jew. Ed. Sharon Portnoff, James Arthur Diamond, and Martin D. Yaffe. Leiden: Brill, 2008. 251-94. Print.
  • Salusinszky, Imre, ed. Interviews with Jacques Derrida, Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom. London: Methuen, 1987. Print.
  • Scott, Alec. “Frye’s Anatomy.” U of T Magazine Mar. 2002: 1-9. Print.
  • Wiesel, Elie. “For Some Measure of Humility.” Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas 5.100 (1975): 314-16. Print.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.