Monthly Archives: October 2009

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 1


Classnotes of Margaret Gayfer, incorporating some notes by Richard Stingle.

Lecture 1.  30 September 1947

The Bible is the grammar of Western civilization; it brings down an entire culture and civilization to us.  Christianity and Judaism represent the only religions which have a sacred scripture; both have tried to achieve a single, definitive scripture.

The Bible is unique in its symmetry.  It represents a vision of the whole of human life.  Its aesthetic beauties are accidental.  It contains transcendental genius and ridiculous genealogies side by side.  It is crude, shocking, funny.  The Bible has a beginning, middle, and an end.  In telling a single narrative from Creation to the Last Judgment, it takes an epic survey of time.  The Bible sees the whole of time as a category of time and as a thing separate from itself.  Time is seen in the perspective of eternity.  Jesus is the centre of the Bible.  Jesus and the Bible are identical.

The traditional approach to the Bible is synthetic, to see it as one work.  The modern approach is analytical and scholarly.  For Frye, the synthetic approach is the real approach to the Bible, to see it as a unity.  Several theological systems are based on the Bible and all claim to be equally correct.  All religions are on a level as far as moral doctrines are concerned; the moral loftiness of the Bible is accidental, like its aesthetic beauty.

The synthetic approach sees certain recurrent symbols in the Bible that form a single pattern of symbols.  The structure of the Bible is complicated and must be studied.  The original authorship is a very minor point.  The literary person can see lyrics, parables, letters, memoirs, and so on—literary forms that have been smothered by repeated editings.  The Bible is as much an edited book and its editorial processes must be regarded as inspired, too.  The whole Bible is the history of man’s loss of freedom and organization and how he got it back.

There are two kinds of symmetry.  One is chronological, seeing the Bible story of creation, etc., as a legendary and mythical story of the fortunes of the Jewish people from 2000 B.C. to 100 A.D. and the spread of the Christian Church.  (Some books are out of order.  John should be the opening book of the New Testament since it is the Christian statement of the opening of the Old Testament.)

The second is a kind of symmetry that does not correspond to the chronological pattern exactly.  The difference between time and false history doesn’t arise in the Bible.  The whole conception of true and false as we think of it is not dealt with in the Bible.  The fall of man and the apocalypse have nothing to do with history.  The Bible is not a straight line of chronology; its time is a circle.  The beginning and end are the same point.  You can’t “jimmy” Adam and Eve into ancient history.  The whole question of causation, order, purpose, etc., is not dealt with by the Bible.

Christianity clings to revelation, and the only practical way to do this is in a book.  All we know about God is in the Bible; there is no God in nature or “up there” in the sky.  The association of God and Man is the basis of Christianity.

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Before the Revolution: Frye and the History of Literary Studies (II)


When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s there was a pioneering women’s studies course on campus.  It was interdisciplinary, and I believe it was team taught.  The course was discussed among students – with the exception of those who were self-proclaimed feminists, a tiny minority – in much the same way that a Communist cell might have been discussed during the early years of the cold war.  A rumour circulated that “there is a guy taking the course.”  When I started a tenure-track job in the late 1980s, female faculty comprised about one-quarter of my department, and gender issues came up frequently, and sometimes contentiously, in discussion about the curriculum, hirings, and occasionally about the conduct of meetings.  With the sudden rise to prominence of feminist criticism and the institutional and societal concern with equity in the workplace, it was clear that a revolution was in progress.  Things have changed so much since those days that it is hard to realize that they were only twenty years ago.  In the last five years, my department (of nineteen full-time members) has hired ten new tenure-track faculty.  That is in itself a remarkable fact, but it is also noteworthy that the gender ratio of those appointments is 3 men to 7 women.  This was not the result of any conscious policy, but rather is a reflection of the feminization of English studies.  As another example of this, I noticed that at several sessions at this year’s Congress that the graduate students and junior faculty in the room were almost entirely female.

This personal reminiscing is by way of a historical preamble to a passage from Northrop Frye’s Selected Letters which provides an excellent illustration of the way things were before the feminist revolution.  Frye is writing to Robert Heilman, chair of English at the University of Washington in 1951:

Dear Robert,

Thanks very much for your letter.  If there weren’t a catch, I could recommend the best teacher of Middle English that you or any other English department is ever likely to get.  She’s a wonderful girl named Margaret Stobie, now at Winnipeg, Manitoba, Ph.D., author of a Middle English grammar and of several articles ranging from scholarly notes in PMLA to studies in the metre of Hopkins.  Excellent teacher.  It’s no doubt irrelevant to add that she’s a great pleasure to look at.  The catch is her husband Bill, a most agreeable and likeable chap, will get along in any society, probably do a good teaching job with elementary composition classes, but no scholarship and little promise of any.  The conventions of modern society don’t permit the woman to do the job and the man to wash the dishes, which is what’s appropriate here: Bill would make an excellent faculty wife.  They’ve had a lot of jobs because people hire Bill to get Peg, and then a new administration comes in that fires all married women, which is why she’s unemployed now.

Margaret Roseborough Stobie, who was a friend of Frye from graduate school days, died in 1990.  Those who want to see more details about her academic career can find information here on the University of Manitoba Archives website; it is interesting to note that she was “the first woman appointed to the academic panel of the Canada Council.”  In Frye’s comments to Heilman he clearly recognizes that the “conventions of modern society” are at odds with what is obviously appropriate and desirable, which is that Margaret Stobie should be hired for her own merit.  Superficially, by today’s standards, his letter might be considered a bit condescendingly sexist, but in the context of the time and the situation, I think it reveals his essential liberalism.

Two additional comments: 1. An anecdote in John Ayre’s biography of Frye indicates that Stobie was skeptical of Frye’s archetypal method of criticism.  2. William Stobie died in 2007, leaving the couple’s fortune of $7 million to the University of Manitoba, where they finished their teaching careers.  The money, the largest bequest ever received by the university, is specifically designated for the purchase of books in the literary humanities.  An article in the National Post observes that “The Stobies donated the money without asking that their name be placed on any building on campus – a rare move for anyone giving a multimillion-dollar gift.”

Coming Soon: Frye’s Religious Knowledge Lectures


Bob Denham has made a remarkable discovery: a full set of notes of Frye’s undergraduate course on Religious Knowledge.  Bob describes them as follows:

Course notes for twenty‑four lectures (September 1947 to March 1948)  compiled by Margaret Gayfer from her class notes, incorporating some notes by Richard Stingle.  They also include some of Frye’s answers to questions, and his review of the previous week’s lecture.

Margaret Gayfer and Richard Stingle were members of what Frye said was the “most brilliant” class he ever taught (1947–48).  Gayfer became an editor for the International Council for Adult Education.  She is the author of The Multi-grade Classroom––Myth and Reality: A Canadian Study (1991), An Overview of Canadian Education (1991), and numerous other publications on adult education.  Richard Stingle, who did his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, taught English at the University of Western Ontario.

We don’t have to belabor how exciting a find this is.  We will start posting them over the weekend, one lecture per day over the next three weeks.

Kerygma, Cont’d


Following up on Michael Happy’s question about kerygma, here’s an adaptation of a little study of the word I did for Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World:

In The Great Code Frye adopts the word “kerygma” to indicate that while the Bible has obvious poetic features, it is more than literary because it contains a rhetoric of proclamation.  “Kerygma,” the form of proclamation made familiar by Bultmann, thus designates the existentially concerned aspect of the Bible, as opposed to its purely metaphoric features.  Bultmann sought to “demythologize” the New Testament narrative as an initial stage in interpretation: the assumptions of the old mythologies, such as demonic possession and the three-storied universe, had to be purged before the genuine kerygma could be “saved,” to use his word.  Frye, of course, has exactly the opposite view of myth: “myth is the linguistic vehicle of kerygma” (Great Code, 30).

But having made his point about kerygma Frye drops the word altogether from the rest of The Great Code, except for a passing reference toward the very end of the book (231).  In Words with Power the word “kerygma” is completely absent from Frye’s analysis in the “sequence and mode” (or “language”) chapter; we have to wait until chapter 4, where we learn that the excluded initiative––what lies hidden in the background of the poetic––is what leads to kerygma, even though Frye does not initially put it in these terms.  He begins by saying, “Our survey of verbal modes put rhetoric between the conceptual and the poetic, a placing that should help us to understand why from the beginning there have been two aspects of rhetoric, a moral and a tropological [figurative] aspect, one persuasive and the other ornamental.  Similarly, we have put the poetic between the rhetorical and the kerygmatic, implying that it partakes of the characteristics of both” (Words with Power 111).  Frye then begins to expand the meaning of kerygma far beyond what it had meant in The Great Code.  It now becomes synonymous with the prophetic utterance, the metaliterary perception that extends one’s vision, the Longinian ecstatic response to any text, sacred or secular, that “revolutionizes our consciousness” (Words with Power 111–14).  Kerygma takes metaphorical identification “a step further and says: ‘you are what you identify with’” (ibid., 116).  We enter the kerygmatic realm when the separation of “active speech and reception of speech” merges into a unity (ibid., 118).

This leads to an absorbing account of the “spiritual” as it is embedded in the descriptive, conceptual, and rhetorical “factors of the poetic,” and the “spiritual” as extending the body into another dimension so that it reaches “the highest intensity of consciousness” (ibid., 119–21, 128).  Then, some twenty pages after Frye began his exploration of kerygma, he arrives finally at the excluded initiative of the poetic.  He does not say what we might expect, that the excluded initiative is kerygma.  What he says, in a statement that appears to be something of an anticlimax after all the elevated probing of Spirit, is that the excluded initiative of the poetic “is the principle of the reality of what is created in the production and response to literature” (ibid., 128).  This teasing understatement has been anticipated by the declaration about the unity of “active speech and reception of speech” just quoted.  Or as Frye puts it in Notebook 53 in less pedestrian terms, kerygma is “the answering voice from God to the human construct” (Late Notebooks, 2:615).

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Anagogy and Kerygma


Michael Happy asks if anagogy and kerygma are the same thing, a question that’s difficult to answer in a word because both words are used in numerous contexts. They are certainly related terms. “Interpenetration” is another of those key words, especially in Frye’s late work. It appears in different contexts: historical (in relation to Spengler), philosophical (in relation to Whitehead) scientific (in relation to David Bohm), social (in relation to Frye’s liberal politics and his utopian vision of a classless society). But its primary context is religious. In this context Frye associates interpenetration with anagogy, kerygma, apocalypse, spiritual intercourse, the vision of plenitude, the everlasting gospel, the union of Word and Spirit, the new Jerusalem, atonement and the Incarnation––which are also religious terms. So just as a number of religious concepts tend to cluster around “interpenetration,” so they do around “anagogy” and “kerygma.”

Other of Frye’s key terms are not primarily religious, though are often used in a religious context––“identity,” “imaginative literalism,” “revelation,” “vision,” “recognition,” “consciousness,” “dialectic,” “Aufhebung,” “imagination,” “vortex,” “love.” All of these terms are multivalent, and they constitute part of the effort, which Frye speaks of repeatedly, to find the right verbal formula.



Frye, of course, pilfered the word “anagogy” from Dante, where it’s the highest or spiritual level of meaning. The anagogical meaning of the verse in Psalm 144, which Dante uses to illustrate his four levels, is, he says, “the leave taking of the blessed soul from the slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory.” In his notebooks for the Anatomy Frye writes that in the anagogic habit of mind “we recognize oneness rather than a unity of varieties,” which is another version of Joe’s point about radical metaphor: identification. It’s true that in writing about anagogy Frye often sounds like a shaman or a symbolist poet. At the anagogic level, he says, for example, “Nature is now inside the mind of an infinite man who builds his cities out of the Milky Way.” Such prose might tempt us to exclaim with Pound, “Anagogical? Hell’s bells, ‘nobody’ knows what THAT is.” Some of the reviewers of the Anatomy poked fun at such explanations. Robert Martin Adams wrote, “I do not, by any means, think it wrong to believe in ‘the whole of nature as the content of an infinite and eternal body which, if not human, is closer to being human than to being inanimate’; but I think it wrong to make such a belief prerequisite to the understanding of literature. My own conviction is that the world rests on the back of a very large tortoise.”

Anagogy” comes from the Greek, meaning “mystical” or “elevation” (literally “a leading up”). As a medieval level of interpretation, it signified ultimate truth, belonging outside both space and time. In the Convivio Dante refers to it as “beyond the senses” and as concerned with “higher matters belonging to eternal glory.” Aquinas had defined the “anagogical sense” in similar terms (Summa Theologica, pt. 1, Q1, art. 10).

As the final phase of symbolism, Frye introduces us to anagogy in the Second Essay of the Anatomy, but then he more or less drops it, Essays Three and Four descending from the fourth level (mythical and archetypal). The last half of Frye’s career, however, is devoted to the dialectic of Word and Spirit, which is to say, to anagogy.

Archetype and Spengler


Jonathan Allan, in response to Clayton Chrusch’s “Five Questions about Archetype”:

It is interesting here to note that Spengler also makes use of “archetype” in Decline of the West, a book which Frye certainly read as is evidenced by his comment that Spengler’s book was “perhaps the most important book yet produced by the twentieth century” (CW III:212). Spengler writes, “Is it possible to find in life itself — for human history is the sum of mighty life-courses which already have had to be endowed with ego and personality, in customary thought and expression, by predicating entities of higher order like ‘the Classical’ or ‘the Chinese Culture,’ ‘Modern Civilization’ — a series of stages which must be traversed, and traversed moreover in an ordered and obligatory sequence? For everything organic the notions of birth, death, youth, age, lifetime, are fundamentals–may not these notions, in this sphere also, possess a rigorous meaning which no one has as yet extracted? In short, is all history founded upon general biographic archetypes?” Perhaps this is another way of considering Frye’s relation to the archetype.

Doubling in Mad Men


Further to Archetype:

Joe, just to begin the exploration, Mad Men makes frequent use of doubling, most obviously in Don Draper’s dual identity. And in the early episodes we see him in the contrasting worlds of Madison Avenue and the Bohemian Village, and with an artist lover in the city and a family in the country. Then the show really gets into the Rebecca-Rowena pairing with the blonde Grace Kelly-like stay at home wife and the dark-haired Jewish businesswoman lover.

The Five Phases of Symbolism


Clayton Chrusch, in response to Trevor Losh-Johnson:

First of all, thanks so much to Joe and Bob for extremely helpful responses.

Trevor, my master’s thesis was about the theory of symbols [Five Kinds of Freedom: Northrop Frye’s Theory of Symbols and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Old Path and White Clouds.  McMaster University. 2002 ]

I have to admit the phases are difficult to distinguish. The descriptive phase is the odd one out, but the other phases can be thought of as expanding concentric spheres. In each one, the context of the poem is wider than in the previous. So in the literal phase, the context is simply the verbal structure of the poem itself, and the assumption of its criticism is the unity of the poem. In the formal phase, the context is the imaginative world constructed by the poem, and the assumption of the criticism is the unity of imagery. In the mythical phase, the context is the imaginative structure constructed by all of literature, and its assumption is the reality of such a structure (”the order of words”) and its relevance to the poem in question. In the anagogic phase, which I don’t really understand, I think the context is the infinite potential of the imaginative universe, and the assumption of anagogic phase criticism is that the poem is the expression of infinite creative human power. I’m probably wrong about anagogy, but I’m more certain about the others.

It seems to me that not much of interest happens at the literal phase that is not also part of higher phases. I’ve written an essay about grammar in Virginia Woolf’s writing that probably counts as literal phase criticism. I think of Gertrude Stein’s work but even that can be responded to at the level of imagery. So I would say interesting work on the poem as an imaginative unit all happens in the formal phase. Frye seems to want to associate the new critics with the literal phase but based on my reading of Cleanth Brooks, at least, they belong at the formal phase (or maybe both, but not the literal phase exclusively).

So I would say that if you are interested in the unity of imagery in The Faerie Queene without explicit reference to the use of that imagery in other poems, what you may need is a new critical reading.