Daily Archives: October 20, 2009

Summary of Chapter Three of Fearful Symmetry: Beyond Good and Evil


Here is Clayton Chrusch’s excellent summary of Chapter Three of Fearful Symmetry. Beyond Good and Evil:

But as only the worst of men would torture other men in hell endlessly, given the power, those who believe God does this worship the devil, or the worst elements in man.

1. Evil is turning away from the imagination and restraining action.

I’ll let Frye introduce this chapter:

We now come to Blake’s ethical and political ideas, which, like his religion, are founded on his theory of knowledge. It is impossible for a human being to live completely in the world of sense. Somehow or other the floating linear series of impressions must be ordered and united by the mind. One must adopt either the way of imagination or the way of memory; no compromise or neutrality is possible. He who is not for the imagination is against it.

This whole introductory section is worth reading in the original. In short, evil is turning away from perception rather than passing through it to vision. Evil is an attempt to restrain the imagination, to restrain life, and so it is ultimately a death impulse. Restraint is what characterizes all evil–restraining oneself or restraining another. Evil is not active except where the purpose is to frustrate further activity. And so all vices are negative things–negations of action, negations of one’s senses, negations of imagination. It follows, as Blake writes, “all Act is Virtue.”

The negation of the imagination can also be thought of as a perversion of it. A perverted imagination descends quickly into either fear or cruelty. Cruelty is mischievous curiosity, and fear “is not so much the horror of the unknown as a fascinated attraction to it.” In society, the cruel become tyrants and the fearful become victims. Imaginative people are rare enough that history in retrospect looks very much like an unchanging parasitic relationship between tyrant and victim, a relationship supported as much by the cowardice of the victim as the cruelty of the tyrant.

The imagination is self-development, which “leads us into a higher state of integration with a larger imaginative unit which is ultimately God.” What is egocentric in us is incapable of the expansion outward that characterizes self-development. And so Blake accepts a view of original sin in which there are two parts to us, a part capable of only good, and a part capable of evil as well as good. So Frye writes, “Man has within him the principle of life and the principle of death: one is the imagination, the other the natural man.”

The cure for original sin is vision, a recognition that the world we live in is fallen but not final–that a better world and a better humanity are possible. Good, honest people who lack this vision are on the right side, but still have not achieved all they can. A person with vision is a prophet. Prophecy is not a mysterious ability of telling the future, it is simply the imaginative activity of “an honest man with a sharper perception and a clearer perspective than other honest men possess.” This perception reveals an “infinite and eternal reality.”

2. State religion is that of the self-righteous prig who is the Prince of this world.

The source of all tyranny is not in the temporal world, but in the sense of “a mysterious power lurking behind” powerful people. Generating this sense of mystery is the work of state religion and the caste of priests who administer it. So as pernicious as tyrants are, we cannot end tyranny by overthrowing tyrants. Tyranny is founded on false religion and the only cure for it is true religion.

You can tell false religion because it posits a God “who is unknown and mysterious because he is not inside us but somewhere else: where, only God knows. Second, it preaches submission, acceptance and unquestioning obedience.” False religion is state religion and exists to rationalize power, but it is constantly under attack by the imagination. The imagination causes false religion to constantly alter and solidify its form and eventually can succeed in forcing false religion into a consolidation of error, which is a perfect negation of truth. This consolidation of error makes false religion much more vulnerable than would the vagueness and fog which are its preferred anti-imaginative weapons.

False religion achieves its highest form in the God of official Christianity who was invented to counter the genuine teachings of Jesus. Frye writes,

This God is good and we are evil; yet, though he created us, he is somehow or other not responsible for our being evil, though he would consider it blasphemous either to assert that he is or to deny his omnipotence. All calamities and miseries are his will, and to that will we must be absolutely resigned even in thought and desire. The powers that be are ordained of him, and all might is divine right. The visions of artists and prophets are of little importance to him: he did not ordain those, but an invariable ritual and a set of immovable dogmas, which are more in keeping with the ideas of order. Both of these are deep mysteries, to be entrusted to a specially initiated class of servants. He keeps a grim watch over everything men do, and will finally put most of them in hell to scream eternally in torment, eternally meaning, of course, endlessly in time. A few, however, who have done as they have been told, that is, have done nothing creative, will be granted an immortality of the “pie in the sky when you die” variety.

Frye then qualifies this by saying, “It is easy to call this popular misunderstanding, but perhaps harder to deny that orthodox religion is founded on a compromise with it.” Worshipping a God who, among other things, tortures men forever, means worshipping the devil. This devil does not exist except as bogeyman projected by priests and rulers, and yet somehow this does not prevent him from being the “Prince of this world.”

As the Prince of this world, the devil demands obediance, uniformity, and mediocrity, all of which are called good in official morality. Thus, “all that is independent, free and energetic comes to be associated with evil.” Satan, who is the accuser of sin, is “not himself a sinner but a self-righteous prig.”

For Blake, engaging in good vs. evil battles, whatever one’s conception of good and evil, is an expression of a death impulse. Life requires a battle, but it is a battle between truth and error.

Satanism, in Blake’s time, was most perfectly expressed as Deism, characterized by a belief in the physical world as the only real one and an almost enthusiastic resignation to the conditions and restrictions the physical world imposes on human life. Though contentment seems like a reasonable approach to life, it fails spectacularly in practice, leading to hysteria and warfare. Furthermore, the imagination can never accept the fallen world that it finds itself in.

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Northrop Frye and “The Return of Religion”


In his recent response to Michael Sinding, Michael Happy quotes a passage from one of the Late Notebooks where Frye “wonders with uncharacteristic despair, ‘Why am I so revered but so ignored?’”  In Michael’s words, “Frye was not merely superseded during the post-structuralist realignment, he was pushed aside with what can only be taken as shows of bad faith through misreading and misrepresentation.”  Why was there such hostility, apart from the usual need to misread or discredit precursor figures?  In thinking about this, it struck me that Frye had the bad fortune to publish his major late works on the Bible at precisely the time when literary criticism, under the sway of theory, had largely turned away from any notion of the religious, the transcendent, the spiritual, or the divine.  From the late 1970s to the late 1990s the climate in literary and cultural studies was resolutely secular.  Interestingly, one of the dominant theorists was the ex-Catholic Althusser (who might be thought of as the Auguste Comte of the twentieth century).  Even in the study of religion, the emphasis was on the cultural and the material: I remember a friend who is a church historian telling me of the dominance of Marxist methodology in his own field.  Edward Said, recently discussed by Michael Sinding and Joe Adamson, referred to his own critical project as “secular criticism,” in the sense of criticism occupied with the world and its social and political relationships; in several published comments Said objected to the religious concerns of various other critics.  Such a sceptical, this-worldly critical climate probably accounts for some of the hostile treatment of Frye that Michael mentions.

From the late 1990s, there has been a return of religion in literary studies and theoretical discourse, but – and here I think is part of the source of Michael’s frustration – Frye does not seem to have benefited very much from this development.  I suggest that there are several reasons for this, and in attempting to articulate them I am also arguing that for many people Frye’s work seems remote to the present horizon of discourse about religion.  If it is going to play a larger role in that discourse, beyond the confines of what Michael Happy describes as “the comparatively small Frye community,” I think there will have to be a fairly extensive effort of critical engagement, involving a willingness to think beyond the terms used by Frye himself.  (Here I am agreeing with Michael Sinding’s comments of 19 October.)  I am writing as someone who might be described as standing with one foot in the Frye community, and one foot in the world of postmodern theology, and my aim is not to belittle Frye’s work, but rather to suggest ways in which it needs to be critiqued and “translated” in order for it to play a greater role in both the study and the practice of religion in the twenty-first century.  The problems that I think must be faced are

  1. For Frye, in spite of his radical spiritual vision and distance from established forms of Christianity, the Bible was largely identical with the Bible of the Protestant evangelical tradition, that is, it was a book made up of various parts arranged in a specific order that told a specific story of creation, fall, redemption, and apocalypse.
  2. Frye’s religious thought, however independent, is in some of its dominant themes and concerns strongly analogous to liberal Protestant theology of the mid-twentieth century, notably in its accommodation to secularization, its realized eschatology and its consequent emphasis on the social dimension of religion.

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“The Golden Age of Frye”


Russell Perkin, in a comment to Michael Sinding’s most recent post, affirms that “there was never a golden age of Frye.”

“The Golden Age of Frye”!  How I wish it had been so.  Even a froth-flecked advocate like me doesn’t believe there was ever such a time: it is a myth (which, of course, is a good thing in the long run).  However, it is also true that Frye was for at least one solid and formative decade (say from the publication of Anatomy to the publication of “Structure, Sign and Play“)  the most influential literary critic in the world, and he revolutionized — despite ongoing resistance — the study of literature.  There was (okay, this is just me talkin’) no downside.  There was, however, lots of ill will, misunderstanding and misrepresentation on the part of his critics, which only accelerated as the post-structuralist juggernaut loomed onto the scene.  My attitude therefore is not “Frye or nobody,” but it is “Better Frye than just anybody.”  The issue isn’t that there are no other good critics out there making genuinely valuable non-Frygian contributions to criticism, the issue is that Frye was dishonestly excluded from a discourse to which he still brings so much.  Having him effectively excised from the critical canon as a scholar of enduring importance, as he very arguably was, has cost literary studies much more than it could afford to lose at the best of times.  (Imagine philosophy without Aristotle.  Or better yet, imagine the English disowning Shakespeare.)

So here’s the ad hominem thing coming in handy once again: the reason this happened doesn’t have to be sought very far.  Is it really a secret that, as a class (and most especially when they move in packs), academics tend to be vain, self-serving, petty and duplicitous?  (Present company excluded, of course!!)  There’s a reason the term “trahison des clercs” has staying power.  There’s a reason that David Lodge’s campus novels remain as funny as they are.  Lucky Jim, anyone?  I’ve always liked the fact that of all the social estates, none gets the stick more soundly in Shakespeare than “pedants,” who are uniquely loathsome creatures with, apparently, no redeeming qualities at all, and who for the most part are shuffled off the stage as quickly as possible, leaving only a somewhat discomfited sense of gleeful scorn behind.

So I don’t pine for a lost Golden Age: but I am looking forward to the eventuality, for which I am willing to work very hard with absolutely no promise of reward.  That’s what all good myths inspire us to do.

Clayton Chrusch Re: Big Picture, Cont’d

ad hominem

Responding to Michael Sinding:

I really liked this post, but I’d like to focus on the paragraph I disagree with about the use of ad hominem.

Ad hominem fallacies make an inference from a person’s character or motivations to the falsehood of their ideas. Making statements about a person’s character or motivations in itself is not fallacious, nor is the belief that a person’s character can affect the quality of their ideas.

Statements about motivations are not unduly speculative. They constitute practical knowledge that we cannot live without. Similarly they are not unanswerable, since human relationships often depend on clarifications of motivation.

“Obnoxious motivations” are not always inventions, they are often clearly perceived realities.

Your point about ad hominem statements missing the point is very debatable as well since the truth of an idea is not something that adheres to the idea alone, but it is something that depends on a person’s motivations for holding the idea and a person’s way of putting that idea into practice.

I agree that speaking to the best representatives of an idea should be a basic principle for furthering knowledge, but in the real world we often don’t have the luxury of ignoring everyone we would prefer to ignore.

These are principles that go way beyond literary studies, and so its important that we don’t insist here that reality be nicer or more PC than it actually is.