Daily Archives: September 13, 2009

Notes on “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision’


“Well, the dialectic of belief and vision is the path I have to go down now.”  ––Late Notebooks, 1:73

 Joe Adamson’s reference earlier today to “The Dialectic of Vision and Belief” reminded me of some notes I made for my students several years back.  Page references are to the essay as reprinted in Myth and Metaphor, 93–107.  The students were undergraduates, so here and there I provided a bit of background on Hegel, Derrida, McLuhan, et al.

 1.  Frye calls his title “somewhat forbidding.”  We might consider first what dialectic means.  The word comes from the Greek dialektos, meaning dialogue or debate.  In Plato, dialectic is the science or discipline of drawing rigorous distinctions.  In the Middle Ages dialectic was treated in partnership with logic as being one of the trivium in the medieval education system, the other two being grammar and rhetoric.  The word dialogue also comes from the Greek root, and this seems to be the sense in which Frye is using the word.  Plato wrote his earlier works in dialogue form, using what we now call the Socratic method, which is a way of doing philosophy through discussion between two or more parties.  Hegel was the preeminent modern philosopher for Frye (he makes an appearance in this essay on p. 98), and there might be a touch of the Hegelian sense of dialectic in Frye’s title.  For Hegel, dialectic refers to the process of overcoming the contradiction between thesis and antithesis by means of a synthesis.  So in this essay Frye perhaps means to suggest that something might emerge from the opposition between “belief” and “vision.”

The dialectical method involves the notion that movement, or process, or progress is the result of the conflict of opposites. Traditionally, this dimension of Hegel’s thought has been analyzed in terms of the categories of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.  Although Hegel tended to avoid these terms, they are helpful in understanding his concept of the dialectic.  The thesis, then, might be an idea or a historical movement.  Such an idea or movement contains within itself incompleteness that gives rise to opposition, or an antithesis, a conflicting idea or movement. As a result of the conflict a third point of view arises, a synthesis, which overcomes the conflict by reconciling at a higher level the truth contained in both the thesis and antithesis.  This synthesis becomes a new thesis that generates another antithesis, giving rise to a new synthesis, and in such a fashion the process of intellectual or historical development is continually generated.  Hegel thought that Absolute Spirit itself (which is to say, the sum total of reality) develops in this dialectical fashion toward an ultimate end or goal.  For Hegel, therefore, reality is understood as the Absolute unfolding dialectically in a process of self-development.  As the Absolute undergoes this development, it manifests itself both in nature and in human history. Nature is Absolute Thought or Being objectifying itself in material form.  Finite minds and human history are the process of the Absolute manifesting itself in that which is most kin to itself, namely, spirit or consciousness. In The Phenomenology of Mind Hegel traced the stages of this manifestation from the simplest level of consciousness, through self-consciousness, to the advent of reason.

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Making Us Think: Paradox and the Teacher


As Bob’s most recent posting suggests, Frye’s use of paradox is often Socratic in spirit, dialectical. I am reminded of one of my favorite passages in Frye concerning his teaching method, which appears in the introduction to The Great Code:

The teacher, as has been recognized at least since Plato’s Meno [80d-86c], is not primarily someone who knows instructing someone who does not know. He is rather someone who attempts to re-create the subject in the student’s mind, and his strategy in doing this is first of all to get the student to recognize what he already potentially knows, which includes breaking up the powers of repression in his mind that keep him from knowing what he knows. That is why it is the teacher, rather than the student, who asks most of the questions. The teaching element in my own books has caused some resentment among my readers, a resentment often motivated by loyalty to different teachers. This is connected with a feeling of deliberate elusiveness on my part, prompted mainly by the fact that I am not dispensing with the quality of irony that all teachers from Socrates on have found essential. Not all elusiveness, however, is merely that. Even the parables of Jesus were ainoi, fables with a riddling quality. In other areas, such as Zen Buddhism, the teacher is often a man who shows his qualifications to teach by refusing to answer questions, or by brushing them off with a paradox. To answer a question . . . is to consolidate the mental level on which the question is raised. Unless something is kept in reserve, suggesting the possibility of better and further questions, the student’s mental advance is blocked. (Great Code, CW, 9)

I notice, incidentally, that one of the Notebook entries Bob has included makes reference to the dialectic of the two revelations, the human and the biblical, “the essence of the book” Frye is writing, that is, Words with Power: “the dialectic of Word and Spirit: the particular revelation in the Bible expanded and supplemented by the universal revelation of literature.”

Re: “The Importance of Calvin for Philosophy”


Very interesting essay, Bob, and a good corrective to my dismissal of Clayton’s invoking of Calvin. I am struck by the second last sentence, and the core idea in the essay of a creative tension of opposites, very much along the lines of the closing passage in chapter 2 of The Secular Scripture:

The combination of the doctrine of the sovereign God with the doctrine of election gives us a working basis to establish the permanence and transcendence of form, on the one hand, and the reality of organic experience, on the other.

In other words: a transcendent revelation in an evolving or dialectical relationship with the reality of human creativity, the sacred scripture and the secular scripture — the two revelations, and the dialectic of two aspects of the same thing. It also reminds me, in the emphasis Frye places on the inescapable fact of cultural history, of a quotation he uses from someone (I forget who) to the effect that: “English literature will always have been Protestant.”

However, what is missing in Calvin is a visionary element, whether sacred or secular. Here is what Frye has to say about Calvin in 1985 (an idea he recurs to elsewhere) when he was well past his majority, to say the least:

The unwillingness of so many religious temperaments to try to grasp the reality of a revelation in any but doctrinal terms recurs in a number of religious communities. . . . The Reformation was founded on the doctrine of justification through faith, but conceiving faith as something to be expressed in the language of creed or thesis minimized the visionary element in it. We notice that Calvin could make very little of the Book of Revelation in his Biblical commentaries; in spite of its dense texture of allusions to the Old Testament, the quality of the language eluded him.(Northrop Frye on Religion, 352)



“In the myth-metaphor world,” Frye writes, “all truth is paradox: a Hegelian thesis where thesis contains and implies antithesis, but lives with it and doesn’t transcend it. A is/isn’t B. This did/didn’t happen. Maritain derives the person or individual from the Incarnation, which releases the Self from the idolatry of things; but the individual doesn’t come from there: he comes from society. In insisting on this Marxism had the real principle. But it’s only in the individual that paradox can exist, as only Self can enter the interpenetrating world. I was always shocked by the Marxist use of ‘the masses’” [Late Notebooks 1:245].

“Whatever one thinks of the Tertullian paradox,” Frye also writes in The Late Notebooks (1:313), “the opposite of it is that trying to reduce belief to the credible is a waste of time and desolation of spirit.” The Tertullian paradox is a version of “I believe because it is impossible.” In De Carne Christi Tertullian set down the principle, “Credibile est, quia ineptum est; certum est, quia impossible” [“It is believable because it is absurd; it is certain because it is impossible”]. See Myth and Metaphor, 97–8. Frye probably encountered the epigram in Sir Thomas Browne, who quotes the last half of it in Religio Medici. See Sir Thomas Browne: The Major Works, ed. C.A. Patrides (London: Penguin, 1977), 70 (pt. 1, sec. 9). “One doesn’t bother,” Frye continues, “to believe the credible: the credible is believed already, by definition. There’s no adventure of the mind there. (Didn’t Coleridge say that Donne was a Christian because it would have been so much easier to be an atheist?) Belief is the Wright brothers getting a heavier-than-air-machine off the ground after the most distinguished scientists had ‘proved’ that it was impossible. In short, belief is the creation that turns the illusory into the real. Being kerygmatic, it emerges on the further side of the imaginative.” For this notebook entry, see Words with Power, 129. The Coleridge reference: “Themes that rule, while they create, the moral will––this is Donne! He was an orthrodox Christian, only because he could have been an Infidel more easily, & therefore willed to be a Christian: & he was a Protestant, because it enabled him to lash about to the Right & the Left–and without a motive to say better things for the Papists than they could say for themselves” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Marginalia, ed. George Whalley, 3 vols. [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984], 2:220)

And toward the end of the first volume of his Late Notebooks, Frye writes, “Man lives in two real worlds, one spiritual, the other natural, physical, or psychic. In the spiritual world God exists in us and we in him: a paradox that only metaphorical language can begin to express. In this world nature exists in us and we in it, but here the centralizing principle, or ego, is constantly trying to isolate itself. The spirit interpenetrates with its world but never violates: our interpenetration makes war, as Heraclitus said, the centre of all activity, [ ‘It should be understood that war is the common condition, that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife’ (Heraclitus, fragment 26).] because it’s always withdrawing to objectify.”

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Frye and Logic


Blake's Angel of Revelation

Over the last couple of days the Comments section for a number of posts have lit up, especially for Adamson and Chrusch: “Both/And”.  Michael Sinding’s comment below brings some interesting elements into play.

The question of logic in language, in literature, and in Frye’s ideas has at times bothered me also. First, we should remember that even though standards of logic and reference don’t apply directly to literature, they certainly do apply to Frye’s criticism, and I think that’s one thing Clayton is getting at. But how do you apply such standards to the use of metaphor and analogy in argument?

I don’t think we should rush to toss logic overboard just by appealing to centripetal attention and human concern, as opposed to centrifugal attention and reference. With metaphor and literature, do we leave behind the world of either/ or for the world of both/ and, where anything goes? But then what principles of structure and order are left? How can we explain why some metaphors are sensible and powerful, and others aren’t? Do they have their own kind of logic?

Let me suggest another way of approaching these things—one that I’ve been working with, and find persuasive. It’s closer to these topics than is formal logic.

Frye argues that language, concepts, logic, even mathematics, have metaphorical and mythical (narrative) structure. In fact, there’s been a big movement in linguistics in the past few decades, to treat metaphor in this way, as pervasive in language and conceptual structure. In “cognitive linguistics,” a key idea is that a metaphor is a mapping of structure from one concept to another. Metaphors carry language, imagery, and inferential structure from concept A (usually well-understood, often concrete) to concept B (usually less well-understood: abstract or subjective). That transfer of inference, or logical entailments, is essential: it means metaphor is genuinely cognitive—not simply ornamental or aesthetic. So people can and do study the metaphorical structure of linguistic concepts, logical concepts, and mathematical concepts.

For example, we can talk about our lives using expressions like “I’ve come a long way,” “I’m at a dead end,” “I’m moving on,” “I burned my bridges,” etc. This indicates an underlying mapping of Life as a Journey. Thinking with this metaphor highlights some aspects of life, and hides others. For an example from logic, categories are seen metaphorically as containers. Thing X can be “in” category A, or “out” of it. If B is a subcategory of A, then it is a smaller container inside container A. If thing X is in B, then it is necessarily also in A. So the logic of categories borrows the logic of containers.

There’s lot of information about CL out there, and it’s been used in literary studies a fair bit. A few references:

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. 1980 (2nd ed., 2003). The book that started it all.
—. Philosophy in the Flesh. 1999. Applies their theory of metaphor to basic philosophical concepts, like time, mind, causation, being, etc., then to some major philosophical systems.
George Lakoff and Mark Turner. More Than Cool Reason. 1989. Develops the theory for poetic metaphor.

These are all crystal clear, highly readable, and intellectually sophisticated. I find them reminiscent of some of Frye’s ideas, though I don’t find any evidence of him being an influence on them (to go back to that influence stuff). They go into more detail than Frye does about the structure of concepts, and how they get mapped in metaphor, and how metaphors can combine, etc.

This idea, I think, also helps us be cautious about how far our language and concepts actually fit the world. Metaphors and analogies are very useful, but we should always ask just how they fit what they refer to, and how they may clash with it. Things in the world certainly don’t fit the above category logic in any simple way. So seeming contradictions may be only contradictions in terms (semantic, as Joe says), linguistic oppositions mistaken for logical ones. Frye is good at noticing and resolving these. For what it’s worth, I think interpenetration is in large part a way of perceiving or experiencing things. To what extent it’s reflected in the physical world I don’t know. But if Blake’s line ‘to see a world in a grain of sand’ expresses the idea, then the stress is on the seeing: interpenetration arises from attention. By the way, Bob Denham has a great essay in Rereading Frye about Frye’s ideas of interpenetration and where they came from.

Perhaps it should be emphasized that Frye does not in any way forsake logic.  However, he does subordinate it.  The big reveal in “The Tentative Conclusion” of Anatomy is that the “literary universe” he explores across four essays turns out to be the entire “verbal universe.”  It’s not either/or when it comes to  centripetal and centrifugal meaning, of course; it’s both/and.  However, centripetal meaning is prior, and the increasingly centifugal dialectic of language in “Theory of Symbols” returns metaliterarily to its centripetal singularity as anagogic metaphor.  That is not to say that all of the other applications of language have been abandoned or supplanted.  They have been fulfilled.  What ought to be the epiphanic recognition of primary concern (which Frye calls “intensified consciousness” in Words with Power) has passed through logic and is informed by it, although it can’t be limited or wholly defined by it.  It’s this kind of thing that makes Frye a visionary: his ability to articulate the way in which literature is extra-rational; not to mention that “literary” language is the foundation of all language — something even literary scholars are often not very clear on.

Calvin and Frye


On the face of it, one wouldn’t think that Frye would take a very sympathetic view of Calvin, but here’s a piece he wrote on Calvin at an age when most of us were trying to stagger through an undergraduate curriculum. He was two years past his majority. Perhaps his conclusion about the interpenetration of the historical and transhistorical is relevant to the discussion of both/and.

“The Importance of Calvin for Philosophy”
by Northrop Frye

To make one’s mark in the contemporary world of scholarship one must be both erudite and eclectic: the present age has a vast number of intellectual interests, and the attainments of those who specialize in any one of them are looked upon with respect increasing in proportion as the field becomes more narrow and intense. The high priests of modern learning are expected to be able to talk unintelligibly about their particular subjects and to require a hair splitting nicety of statement from their acolytes. As a result, laymen feel a certain hesitancy in handling the really important questions of those cultural disciplines with which they are unfamiliar and prefer to have the assurance of expert opinion before canonizing any prejudice which involves them.
Why theology should be so grotesque an exception to this rule it is by no means easy to say. Perhaps the safest working assumption is that people are anxious not to concede the validity of theology’s claim to be a cultural discipline because, once theology is recognized, religion must be recognized too, and if religion be recognized, what would become of contemporary society? So the well educated, enlightened man of today grows up with a superstitious awe of science, and a certain amount of respect for philosophy and the arts, but is quite prepared to group theology with alchemy or kabbalism and to talk of religious developments in terms which, by the standards set for any other intellectual pursuit, would disgrace a six year old. Probably most of us will spend a good deal of time explaining gently to otherwise well informed people that mysticism is not the same thing as mistiness, that predestination is not fatalism, or that the ordinary priggish rule of thumb bourgeois morality of the nineteenth century, according to which, if one observed the fifth and seventh commandments, one could break the other eight with impunity, is not Puritanism. After doing that, we should not be too much shocked if we find that John Calvin, who has done more to influence our conception of God than any other man, should be for many people an incarnation of the devil. For the stock caricature of Calvin as a merciless and humourless sadist who really believed only in hell would make a very fair Satan for some aspiring Milton. There may be a few even in so initiated a group as this whom it might be expedient to remind that Calvin was not a Scotchman, that he was only indirectly responsible for Calvinism, and that he was not responsible at all for degradations and perversions of his teachings made by superstitious bigots.
We are not concerned tonight with the rehabilitation of Calvin’s character, but with the investigation of a problem closely bound up with the contemporary abhorrence of him, which may prove, on analysis, to be less inexplicable than it is ignorant and ill considered. The problem may be briefly stated thus. There is no clear line between theology and philosophy: the questions they respectively deal with cannot be disentangled. Both are rationalized accounts of the interrelation of soul, external world, and God. Both rest on axioms supplied by faith. The difference between them is a difference of emphasis. At some periods the theologian and the philosopher become merged into one thinker: thus, Aquinas was the greatest philosopher of his time because he was its greatest theologian, and vice versa. Schleiermacher in modern times provides a parallel synthesis. In Calvin we have a theologian with a first class brain; posterity may prove him wrong, but it cannot prove him a fool: why, then, does he not at least touch on the problems of philosophy? A general history of philosophy is bound to mention Aquinas; it finds no occasion to mention Calvin. The questions which are implied in this include two of some importance: First, does Calvin’s theology have any integral connection with the philosophical thought of Calvin’s time, as is the case with Aquinas? Second, has Protestantism such a thing as a philosophical foundation at all? The former is the subject of our immediate enquiry.

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Literal Metaphor, Literal Paradox


A number of posts and comments over the last few days have touched on the matter of Frye and paradox.  Yesterday I cited Wilde’s aphorism that “The way of paradoxes is the way of truth.”  Matthew Griffin responds:

Wilde is cribbing, and making more pronounced, a point Coleridge makes in the Biographia Literaria – itself a neat book for Frygians – that any meaningful truth can only be expressed in paradox.

So Coleridge — whose Biographia Literaria is one of Frye’s critical touchstones — is now in play. Is “paradox” an essential aspect of Frye’s criticism?  If so, where is it articulated?

I think paradox is for Frye a primal creative condition of language as laid out in essay two of Anatomy, “Ethical Criticism: Theory of Symbols.” 

Frye’s theory of symbols presents an expanding dialectic of metaphorical meaning: the literal (symbol as motif), the descriptive (symbol as sign), the formal (symbol as image), the mythical (symbol as archetype), and the anagogic (symbol as monad).  The only one of these I will deal with in any detail here is “literal” metaphor, effectively the singularity or big bang of verbal phenomenon from which Frye’s “verbal universe” expands. 

Frye points out in this essay what he repeats elsewhere; that language has both “centrifugal” or outwardly directed, and “centripetal” or inwardly directed reference. When reference is primarily outwardly directed we have a “sign” whose function is to point to “the thing represented or symbolized by it” (AC 73). Hence, “cat”.  However, when reference is primarily inwardly directed we have a “motif” whose function is to “connect” elements of verbal phenomenon. Hence, “c – a – t”: that is, the discrete constituents, whether written or uttered, that make up the centrifugally referenced sign “cat.”  Frye, in a famous reversal, calls the centripetal direction of meaning “literal” metaphor, not because it ensures accurate and reliable descriptive reference (as the word is most commonly used), but because it refers to artfully ambiguous “units of verbal structure” — or that which is proper to the “letter” — whose primary internal relation is a necessary condition for meaning of any kind.

As Frye goes on to observe, these “two modes of understanding take place simultaneously in all reading.” However, a distinction can still be made between verbal structures whose final direction of meaning is either inward or outward.  In “descriptive or assertive writing,” reassuringly enough, the direction of meaning is centrifugal.  In all literary verbal structures, on the other hand, the direction is centripetal:

In literature the standards of outward meaning are secondary, for literary works do not pretend to describe or assert, and hence are not true, not false, and yet not tautological either, or at least not in the sense in which such a statement is “the good is better than bad” is tautological. Literary meaning may best be described, perhaps, as hypothetical, and a hypothetical or assumed relation to the external world is part of what is usually meant by the word “imaginative.” This word is to be distinguished from “imaginary,” which usually refers to an assertive verbal structure that fails to make good on its assertions. In literature, questions of fact or truth are subordinated to the primary literary aim of producing a structure of words for its own sake, and the sign-values of symbols are subordinated to their importance as a structure of interconnected motifs. (AC 74)

The significance of this imaginative, hypothetical, and centripetally “literal” meaning to a properly literary criticism is crucial:

Now as a poem is literally a poem, it belongs, in its literal context, to the class of things called poems, which in their turn form part of the larger class known as works of art. The poem from this point of view presents a flow of sounds approximating music on one side, and an integrated pattern of imagery approximating the pictorial on the other. Literally, then, a poem’s narrative is its rhythm or movement of words… Similarly, a poem’s meaning is literally its pattern or its integrity as a verbal structure. Its words cannot be separated and attached to sign-values: all possible sign-values of a word are absorbed into a complexity of verbal relationships. (AC 78)

The dialectical direction of what Frye calls a “complexity of verbal relationships” is to a large extent what the remainder of this essay addresses as he works through literal meaning to the  anagogic, where the apocalyptic turn of the imagination perceives at last that the whole of nature may be regarded as a human artifact recreated by specifically human concerns.  But here, at the very genesis of meaning, is a centripetal verbal power to assert that which is not, but which nevertheless possesses dialectically expanding significance.  Metaphor, as Frye regularly reminds us, expresses both what is and is not.  What it expresses, however, is real, inasmuch as it articulates a human condition — including our capacity for language — that has the (anagogic) potential to become fully aware of itself as such.

The famous illustration above is M.C. Escher’s “Relativity,” which nicely captures the “what is” / “what is not” capability of the human imagination where even an “absence” is still a “presence” because it can be expressed.  The concept of “relativity” is as distinct from “relativism” as the “imaginative” is from the “imaginary.” “Relativism” seems to dominate current literary criticism which somehow finds its criteria (in ideological constructions such as gender, class, race, and so on) outside of literature as though literature were primarily centrifugal in reference. “Relativity,” on the other hand, requires a constant: in Einstein’s case, that constant accounts for bodies in motion relative to one another.  And, it seems, the same is true for Frye as well; the constant in this case being those primary human concerns which are everywhere evident in literature and provide the impetus for us to communicate at all. Concern is the gestalt of verbal expression; and literature — in its simultaneous acknowledgement of what is and is not as an integral part of its saying — confronts the inadequacies of the world we inhabit with a world we are trying to create through the imaginative expression of our universally shared but individually possessed concerns.

Today in the Frye Diaries, 13 September


1942: Frye has a dream about living in war-ravaged Stalingrad; reflects on “racial stereotype thinking” and the “Gestapo” of Moncton, New Brunswick.

[110] … Last night I dreamed I was living in Stalingrad with a Russian family: the wife a beautiful slim girl copied from some picture of a ballerina. They asked me how I got there & I said quite simple, B.C.-Pacific-Siberia, the Russian transportation system is wonderful east of Stalingrad – you’d hardly know there was a war on. An old woman came & knocked on the door: she was an evil malicious gossip, inquisitive & interfering, & well known to be a German spy. The girl said, “No, you can’t come in: go away, you old tart.” Yet we all had the feeling that sooner or later she would come in, & would order us around as she liked. The I suddenly heard cannonading, which I’d been only vaguely conscious of before, & I knew the Russians had retreated another ten miles. Gradually the old hag forced her way into the vestibule, soldiers (German) starting pouring in, & I woke up.

[111] I often wonder about intuitive racial-stereotype thinking: a lot of it is balls. For instance, there’s a big good-natured German in Moncton called Lichtenberg who had been a peaceful, thrifty, industrious contractor there for thirty years. For two wars the local Gestapo have cut their teeth on him: when the new is bad or they get tired of reading spy stories they’d go up and practice on him. Recently the Gestapo combed his whole house over, in response to some silly anonymous “tip,” & one of them found two large knobs in a dark closet. “Aha!” he said, stepped into the closet & gave one a twist, thinking of course it was a private transmitter set. It was an extra shower he’d installed. Incidentally, he’s a naturalized Canadian citizen, but married before that, so his wife, who belongs to one of the oldest Maritime families, is an enemy alien. Well, Dad’s friendship for Lichtenberg has come in for much unfavorable comment in that stinking little kraal Moncton, & the stinkers point out gleefully that “Frye” is really a German name, & that I look just like a German. It’s a beautiful theory, only it just happens to be wrong.