Daily Archives: September 15, 2009

Sára Tóth: Why Did Frye Dislike the Joseph of Genesis?


Joseph, in Genesis, has always totally baffled me: he bulks so large and so crucially in the Bible’s greatest book, but what to make of that I don’t see.  I’ve encountered several times the assertion that he’s a type of Christ; but what’s really Christlike about him?  (Late Notebooks, 337)

 What Stevens calls the “metaphor that murders metaphor” [Someone Puts a Pineapple Together, l. 27] is a metaphor not realized to be a metaphor, & so “taken literally.”  Note that such an unrealized metaphor becomes metonymic, i.e., the “best available” metaphor, & so starts us on the downward path of authority & hierarchy.  The Biblical archetype of this is the dream of Joseph of ascendancy over his brethren, which pushes them all into Egypt. (Late Notebooks, 359−60)

 We have recently learned about Frye’s superlatives, but would it not be equally fascinating to have a look at some of his dislikes? Learning that Genesis is the greatest book of the Bible for Frye was not the greatest of surprises, even though I would have voted for Job. However, it has brought to my mind something I have long been intrigued about: why did Frye dislike the story (or rather perhaps the character) of Joseph, “the fruitful bough”? Why did he feel uncomfortable with a story in the greatest book of the Bible, which has been celebrated as one of the best stories ever told?

For all I know, Joseph has been recognized by the precritical hermeneutic tradition as one of the fullest types of Christ in the Old Testament. Several church fathers (Ambrose the most eminent among them), whose imaginative readings of the Bible have certainly inspired Frye, note parallels in the story of Joseph and Jesus. Both are despised and rejected by their brethren. Both are sold by pieces of silver and descend into the pit which symbolizes darkness and death. Joseph, as well as Jesus, is tempted and goes through trials before his ascension, as it were, to glory. Prefiguring the Eucharist, Joseph ultimately becomes the saviour of the people by nourishing them from the Egyptian granaries, etc. A perfectly U-shaped narrative, mirrored in countless literary tales, apparently a brilliant example for the order of words. Then why the dislike?

Of course we can find hints in Frye’s work pointing towards a possible explanation. Apparently, despite its literary perfection and archetypal depth, he couldn’t help seeing Joseph’s story mostly as a myth of authority, manifested in immature adolescent dreaming for ascendancy over siblings, ultimately an unconscious craving for power and glory. For a thinker with such a high evaluation of dreams and desires, calling certain dreams “agressive and self-promoting” (Words with Power 235) is very strong language. What turns dreams into an ideology of power, Frye interestingly suggest, is interpreting them literally, just like Joseph did in the first phase of the story. (Later, however, Joseph does become a very creative interpreter of dreams, which, although mentioned in Words with Power, is not really considered a character development.) Frye, who attributed great importance to Jesus’ rejection of wordly power beginning with the temptation scene (see RW 210) and ending with the cross, certainly did not consider Joseph “Christ-like” in his craving for and exercise of power.

This takes me to perhaps the profoundest reason for Frye’s dislike. To interpret Joseph as a type of Christ is not the only possible symbolical reading of this narrative. In the Egyptian scenes, Joseph quite relentlessly manipulates his brothers with a noble purpose in view: to make them confront their past crime and elicit a change of heart in them. In short: here is the trickster God of the Old Testament toying with human beings, a father figure who disciplines those subjected to him from a position of authority, a vision of God Frye felt uncomfortable with. If we argued that Joseph’s rule here prefigures the exaltation of Christ, his resurrection and ascension, Frye would probably answer that the proper type of Christ’s resurrection in the Old Testament is the Exodus, a deliverance from Egypt and not an arrival into it.

Actually, it was Luther, himself suffering at the hands of an incomprehensible and hidden God, who provided the classic interpretation of Joseph’s doings as an allegory of how God works in the world. Luther conceives of this world as a delusive play of appearances, where God, as it were, has to hide himself and perform tricks or inflict sufferings in order to achieve his good and merciful purposes. Repulsive as this vision may seem to a follower of Blake, a note by the late Frye I have already quoted elsewhere resonates surprisingly with Luther’s ideas: “God’s power works only with wisdom & love, not with folly & hatred.  As 99.9% of human life is folly & hatred, we don’t see much of God’s power.  He must work deviously, a creative trickster, what Buddhists call the working of skilful means.” (Late Notebooks 212) If Frye had approached the story in Genesis with a focus on the “folly and hatred” of Joseph’s brothers, he might have seen less a power display in Joseph’s attitude and perhaps more a tact and wisdom which not only inflicted pain on others but also on himself. It is not a negligable detail that Joseph wept three times with increasing intensity behind his mask.

Re: Logic and Literature


Frye, I think, would never attempt to dismiss logic –– a word (with its congeners) that appears seventy nine times in the Anatomy –– as a keystone of intellectual inquiry. And logic, along with grammar and rhetoric, is one of the three pillars in Frye’s analysis of discourse in the Fourth Essay of the Anatomy –– an analysis in which he greatly expands the meaning of the terms of the medieval trivium. The best analysis of this is Paul Hernadi’s “Ratio Contained by Oratio: Northrop Frye on the Rhetoric of Non Literary Prose,” in Northrop Frye: Visionary Poetics: Essays on Northrop Frye’s Criticism New York: Lang, 1991), 137–53. And, of course, Frye was fond of drawing analogies between literature and mathematics, as in this passage:

Mathematics, like literature, proceeds hypothetically and by internal consistency, not descriptively and by outward fidelity to nature. When it is applied to external facts, it is not its truth but its applicability that is being verified. As I seem to have fastened on the cat for my semantic emblem in this essay, I note that this point comes out sharply in the discussion between Yeats and Sturge Moore over the problem of Ruskin’s cat, the animal that was picked up and flung out of a window by Ruskin although it was not there. Anyone measuring his mind against an external reality has to fall back on an axiom of faith. The distinction between an empirical fact and an illusion is not a rational distinction, and cannot be logically proved. It is “proved” only by the practical and emotional necessity of assuming the distinction. For the poet, qua poet, this necessity does not exist, and there is no poetic reason why he should either assert or deny the existence of any cat, real or Ruskinian. (Anatomy, 93).

The question is not, I think, whether Frye denigrated logic and mathematics. The question, rather, is whether ratio or oratio is prior. If Frye had thought logic and mathematics were prior, he would not have ended up being a literary critic.

In 1979 Frye wrote to Ruth El Safar, “As I said, I had not had your letter before I returned home so it was all the more pleasant to have it when I got home. It was extremely helpful to me, because Denham’s book on me is just out [Northrop Frye and Critical Method], and it reminds me that almost everybody seems to be preoccupied with my charts and diagrams and with the question of whether they are logically airtight or not, instead of reading me as you do for what incidental help I may give to them in their own work.” This stung a bit, but it helped me to see that a kind of hard headed application of neo Aristotelian logic applied to Frye’s distinctions rather misses the point.

Logic and Literature


Clayton Chrusch makes some very acute observations, reminding me of the closing pages of the Anatomy where Frye draws the analogy between the language of mathematics and the language of literature: “The mathematical and the verbal universes are doubtless different ways of conceiving of the same universe”  (Anatomy, 354, Princeton edition). Here are Clayton’s comments:

Skimming through the essay [“The Dialectic of Belief and Vision”], I came across this sentence which seems like a justification or at least a motivation of the totality of Frye’s work:

“It is only mythology, I feel, that can really express the vision of hope, the hope that is focused on a more abundant life for us all, not the hope of finally refuting the arguments of Moslems or Marxists.”

I think this is likely the sentiment Joe had in mind when he expressed frustration with my interest in logic and truth claims.

I think we can all agree that we need to express visions of hope, and we also have to refute bad arguments. (If you disagree with me, I have some arguments you will have a hard time refuting.)

One more note on logic, from the perspective of a former computer science student. Logic is not just about making and refuting arguments, but it is a branch of mathematics that is beautiful and awe-inspiring and full of untapped possibilities. The logicians I have encountered in my computer science education are brilliant and exuberantly imaginative people. Knowing these people, I know that logic can do more for us than it is doing now because it has not nearly been exhausted.

The fact that people openly despise myth and happily worship reason doesn’t mean that people are any more rational than they are imaginative. The war goes on on both fronts.

Frye and Jazz


In response to Michael Sinding’s Comment:

I think Frye never wrote anything extensively on jazz. He gets a good bit of mileage out of the observation that Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes pulses with a kind of jazz syncopation, repeating that observation three or four times. And there are scattered references to jazz here and there. Here are some:

From Diaries: “It snowed frantically all day, and I sat around wishing the chair in my office was more comfortable, wishing I didn’t have to read that goddamned Edgar book again, wishing I didn’t have to go to the Senior Dinner, wishing I could get started at my book and the hell with all this bloody niggling, wishing the college weren’t getting into such a rah-rah Joe College state, and so on. Regarding this last, Ken Maclean [MacLean] made the very interesting suggestion that Canada was having a post-war Jazz age of its own. It missed, very largely, the 1920 one, but now that we’re getting the post-war children, a lot of prosperity, and a tendency to make the Americans do the responsible jobs, along with a certain backlog of “progressive” education, we seem to be starting where the Americans have left off. (27 March 1952)

In his “Letters in Canada” reviews for 1957 there’s a reference to a poem by a jazz saxophonist. In the same column for 1959 we get this: “John Heath’s Aphrodite is a posthumous collection of poems by a writer who was killed in Korea at the age of thirty four. There is a foreword by Henry Kreisel, who is apparently the editor of the collection. The effect of these poems is like that of a good jazz pianist, who treats his piano purely as an instrument of percussion, whose rhythm has little variety but whose harmonies are striking and ingenious. There is a group of poems in quatrains, split in two by the syntax, where most of the protective grease of articles and conjunctions is removed and subject, predicate, object, grind on each other and throw out metaphorical sparks.”

Continue reading

Freud and Frye


I’ll leave it to those who know Freud better than I do, but in response to Merv’s post below, it seems to me that Frye freely adopts Freud in Anatomy: “ritual” and “dream” and “displacement” are all Freudian concepts, aren’t they?  It may be that he is more “liberal” than Freud, but Frye, as always, is generous in adapting the best work of others.  Hell, he makes Spengler relevant in  a way that just about no one else could.

Is a cigar sometimes just a cigar?

Merv Nicholson: Desire (3)


The third and last of Merv’s series on Desire.  The first and second posts can be found here and here.

The big point, the astonishing point, is that Frye valued desire.  (His mentor, Blake, did too, of course.)  This is a far bigger point about Frye than almost anything else.

For example, a key passage from Anatomy of Criticism:

“’The desire of man being infinite,’ said Blake, ‘the possession is infinite and himself infinite.’  If Blake is thought a prejudiced witness on this point, we may cite Hooker: ‘That there is somewhat higher than either of these two (sensual and intellectual perfection), no other proof doth need than the very process of man’s desire, which being natural should be frustrate, if there were not some farther thing wherein it might rest at the length contented, which in the former it cannot do.’”

 Frye was a radical thinker—someone who went to the “roots”—but he was not a political radical (not in any simple way, that is).  He was not a Leftist.  He was, however, a committed Social Democrat and supporter of the New Democratic Party of Canada (in the U.S. that would make him an extreme leftist “liberal”).  He detested Stalinism and authoritarianism of any stripe; there is an anarchist strain in his outlook.  It’s interesting that his wife seems to have been much further to the left than Frye was.

 The most important thing that Freud and Frye had in common was that their name begins with FR and has one syllable.  Freud, in Frye’s view, was a pessimistic thinker and an authoritarian: Freud was deeply mistrustful of human desire and regarded desire as dangerous: it must be carefully clipped and pruned, whatever its value for ambitious men, like him.  In this—and this is the real point—Freud was consistent with conservative thinkers generally. 

 Most of tradition and traditional thought is hostile to human desire.  

Why this is so is an interesting question.  But the point is that it isn’t Frye.  Frye valued human desire—indeed his whole way of thinking is an affirmation of human desire.  This is an astonishing and vital fact about him.

 Frye was different.

Today in the Frye Diaries, 15 September


1942:One of Frye’s favorite extra-curricular pre-occupations of the time: movies.

[115] Called for Helen and took her to see “The Magnificent Ambersons,” highly recommended by some people including Eleanor [Godfrey], but I found it a blowsy and turgid piece of Byrony. I’ve been writing out a paper on William Bryd, which is taking too much time but seems to be inspired. If I’m going to do movie articles I should get Leo Rosten’s book on Hollywood: he’s the Leonard Q. Ross of Hyman Kaplan. Peter Fisher was in this morning with a hint he might be going overseas. Discussed German-Russian war as based on Rajas-Tamas clash of Albion & millennial ideals: both proximate and apocalyptics.

[Bob Denham’s note (107): “In Vedantic philosophy, two of the three qualities of prakriti (nature of primordial matter): rajas refers to activity, striving, or the force that can overcome indolence; tamas, to the dull, passive forces of nature manifest in darkness and ignorance.”]