A footnote to Clayton Chrusch’s “The Hermeneutics of Charity,” drawn from some paragraphs on love I wrote about elsewhere.

The genuine Christianity that has survived its appalling historical record was founded on charity, and charity is invariably linked to an imaginative conception of language, whether consciously or unconsciously. Paul makes it clear that the language of charity is spiritual language, and that spiritual language is metaphorical, founded on the metaphorical paradox that we live in Christ and that Christ lives in us (The Double Vision, 17).

The various principles that are the foundation of Frye’s concept of identity (metaphor, kerygma, possession, the fourth awareness, higher consciousness) should lead us, he says, to “myths to live by.”  But what are these existential myths that come from “the other side” of the imaginative?  What are the “coherent lifestyles” that Frye’s hopes “will emerge from the infinite possibilities of myth”? (Words with Power, 143). Although he often appears hesitant to give a direct answer to these questions, preferring to assume the role of Moses on Mount Pisgah, the answer does surface in the conclusions of his last three books where the gospel of love becomes the focus of his discussion.

Frye’s speculations on love begin early.  In Notebook 3 (1946–48) he probes the meaning of love in different contexts: his own erotic and fantasy life, his attitude toward the Church, his reflections on yoga and on time.  Here are two representative reflections:

Joachim of Floris has a hint of an order of things in which the monastery takes over the church & the world.  That is the expanded secular monastery I want: I want the grace of Castiglione as well as the grace of Luther, a graceful as well as a gracious God, and I want all men & women to enter the Abbey of Theleme where instead of poverty, chastity and obedience they will find richness, love and fay ce que vouldras; for what the Bodhisattva wills to do is good. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, 17)

Each dimension of time breeds fear: the past, despair & hopelessness & the sense of an irrevocable too late: the present, panic & sense of a clock steadily ticking; the future, an unknown mystery gradually assuming the lineaments of the consequences of our own acts.  Hope is the virtue of the past, the eternal sense that maybe next time we’ll do better.  The projection of this into the future is faith, the substance of things hoped for.  Love belongs to the present, & is the only force able to cast out fear.  If a thing loves it is infinite, Blake said, & the act of love is itself a vision of a timeless world. (ibid., 59)

Frye’s speculations on love reappear some thirty-five years later in the conclusion of The Great Code, where he probes the meaning of the Word of God in the context of Biblical language.  This language, Frye says, is enduring, inclusive, welcoming, and beyond argument, and it can move us toward freedom and beyond the anxiety structures created by the human and divine antithesis (231–2).  The Great Code, however, provides little concrete guidance about the function of love in the myths we are to live by, though the notebooks for The Great Code contain numerous entries on “the rule of charity.”   But during the eight years following The Great Code Frye devoted a good deal of energy to working out the implication of the language of love.  In Notebook 46 (mid- to late 1980s) he writes, “Love is the only virtue there is, but like everything else connected with creativity and imagination, there is something decentralized about it.  We love those closest to us, Jesus’ ‘neighbors,’ people we’re specifically connected with in charity.  For those at a distance we feel rather tolerance or good will, the feeling announced at the Incarnation” (Late Notebooks, 2:696).  This “only virtue” idea gets developed in Words with Power where love, Paul’s agape or caritas is said to be “the only genuine form of human society, the spiritual kingdom of Jesus” (89).

This idea gets repeated in “On the Bible”:  “In the New Testament love is regarded not as one virtue among others but as the only virtue there is, and one which is possible only to God and to the spirit of man, a virtue which, in Paul’s language, believes and hopes everything [1 Corinthians 13:7], and thereby includes all the other virtues because, outside the order of love, faith and hope are not necessarily virtues at all” (Northrop Frye on Religion, 164).  An in his interview with Bill Moyers he says, “Charity is not only the greatest of virtues, but the only virtue there is” (A World of Ideas, 504).

At the conclusion of Frye’s seminal essay “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision” love as the “only virtue” makes its appearance at the stage of imaginative identity, where human initiative ceases and the divine initiative begins.  Frye says he is not qualified to write about the divine initiative, but in his last two books and in their notebooks, he writes a great deal about love.  He even considered using a line from the Pervigilium Veneris as a motto for Words with Power: “and those who have loved now love the more” (Late Notebooks, 1:145).

Summarizing the “moral” of the garden or Eros archetype of Words with Power, Frye writes in Notebook 27, “love is interpenetration, but it has to extend beyond the sexual interpenetrating of intercourse.  Every act of hostility is penetration with a threat, with a desire to dominate or acquire for oneself.  Love means entering into and identifying with other people and things without threats or domination, in fact without retaining an ego-self.  That’s what the woman-garden expansion means.  The rejuvenating of the mother into the bride means (a) the internalizing of the maternal (b) the equalizing of a figure of authority” (Late Notebooks, 1:209–10).  Here we have an expansion of Frye’s own vision.  In his early work he too easily identified the feminine half of the species with Blake’s Female Will, and the natural world, with its repetitive cycles and Druidic analogies, was too much aligned with natural religion for Frye to work it into his structure of mythology as of primary significance.  But the feminine principle gets renovated in Words with Power, where we find Frye writing about the importance of the symbolically female Jerusalem and about how “man is redeemed by woman” (Words with Power, 192).  Moreover, he is drawn to the Jungian suggestion that the Trinity be expanded to a Quaternary “by adding a representative of humanity, specifically female humanity, as a fourth term” (Words with Power, 193), and he says that the sexual bias in the conventions of love poetry can be reversed, so that the female becomes symbolically, like Blake’s Emanation, the natural environment. (Words with Power, 200–1)

Regarding the association of nature and love, Frye thinks it is no accident that ecology and feminism have come to the forefront of consciousness at about the same time (Words with Power, 225).  In the same vein, “The only thing that gives Nietzsche away–and I haven’t got the clue to that yet––is the unvarying contempt of women in his writing.  Blake is disturbing enough on this, but at least his poetry is concerned with nameless shadowy females that are not women.  The spirit and the bride say come, and Nietzsche’s self-transcending man is a male.  Sublimating love through violence (will to power) won’t work” (LN, 1:389).

In one of a series of notebooks entries, written in 1986 when Frye is seeking to allay his grief over the death of his wife Helen, he writes, “the last ‘m’amour’ fragment of Pound reveals (though Pound may not have known it) the profundity of Blake’s ‘emanation’ conception: the objectivity one identifies with, with the woman one loves as its incarnate centre” (Late Notebooks, 1:142.)  The observation gets repeated, though without the personal reference, in Words with Power: “in Blake we have the conception of the ‘Emanation’ or ‘concentering vision,’ the feminine principle that expands into the totality of what is loved. . . . In our day Jungian psychology has developed the conception of the anima, or feminine element in a male psyche, with symbolic affinities with nature.  Before Jung had clarified his conception, however, Rilke had produced a poem called ‘Wendung’ (turning), where he says that he has internalized a large body of images in his earlier work, and that these images now form a single creature or “maiden within.”  We also referred earlier to one of  Pound’s final fragments, beginning:

M’amour, m’amour,

what do I love and

where are you?

Part of the answer, at least, is the ‘paradiso terrestre’ which, he says, the Cantos were an attempt to construct” (Words with Power, 199–200).  In his notebook Frye writes a bit later, “I have discovered something of the reality of love in losing Helen” (Late Notebooks, 1:156).

Frye worries about arriving at the seminal idea for Words with Power that will answer the question “so what?” for the unsympathetic reader (Late Notebooks, 1:210).  From all that he says about love, especially in the concluding pages of that book, it seems clear that the seminal idea turns out to be love––what he had earlier called “the supreme clue to otherness” (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, 333):

For the New Testament, the Word clarifies, the Spirit unifies, and the two together create what for it is the only genuine form of human society, the spiritual kingdom of Jesus, founded on the caritas or love. (Words with Power, 89)

The word love means perhaps too many things in English and for many has an over-sentimental sound, but it seems impossible to dissociate the conceptions of spiritual personality and love.  The capacity to merge with another person’s being without violating it seems to be at the center of love, just as the will to dominate one conscious soul-will externally by another is the center of all tyranny and hatred.  (ibid., 126)

At the end of the Paradiso Dante has reached the top of the axis mundi, and is in the presence of God, where the question “what happens next?” has no answer and no meaning.  The goal of the creative ascent is the transcending of time and space as we know them, and the attaining of a present and a presence in another dimension altogether.  The present is the expanded moment of awareness that is as long as recorded human history; the presence is the love that moves the sun and the other stars.  (ibid., 303)

These themes get repeated in The Double Vision, where Frye quotes approvingly Auden’s line, “We must love one another or die” (34).  But Frye is much more explicit in The Double Vision than in Words with Power in extending the power of love from the human world, both individual and social, to the natural world: “the feeling that nature should be cherished and fostered rather than simply exploited is one of the few welcome developments of the last generation or so” (The Double Vision, 34).  Looking at nature as an object of love rather than simply as an intellectually coherent order is, Frye says, a “central theme” of The Double Vision (84).

If love emerged as the central myth to live by in Frye’s late work, it also became one of the two organizing principles for the last four chapters of Words with Power (the other is wisdom).  Throughout his Late Notebooks Frye struggles doggedly to find an organizing pattern.  One early formulation comes from the phases of revelation in chapter 5 of The Great Code.  Another is a series of dialogues between word and spirit.  Climbing of the ladder of higher love, which is central to the dialectic of word and spirit, takes us back to the principle of identity.  At one point Frye even considered the ascending movement in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit to be a climb up the ladder of love.  See Late Notebooks, 2:499.

In the chapter on “Metaphor and Identity” in Words with Power Frye distinguishes three kinds of metaphorical experience: the imaginative, the erotic, and the ecstatic.  About these he writes,

The imaginative is an experience of the arts, including literature, in which we watch the dance of metaphors in a poem, joining them or retreating from them at pleasure.  In the erotic we enter into an act of union followed by a separation, but not a separation into a simple subject-object relationship.  According to Plato, using an image that will dominate the rest of this book, the lover climbs a ladder of refining experience: at the top of the ladder there is still a contrast between identity and difference, but this time he knows what it is: on the top level of experience, identity is love and difference is beauty.  In the ecstatic state there is a sense of presence, a sense uniting ourselves with something else, even when it soon turns into a sense of absence.  Here too are gods, says Heraclitus, lighting a fire; Heidegger, 2500 years later, picks up the water jug on his lecture table and says essentially the same thing. (85)

The identification that occurs in the experience of ecstatic metaphor is, again, the moment of revelation, and this kind of revelation, as opposed to its doctrinal embodiments, is often found among mystics, medieval visionaries, and Neo-Platonists.

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6 thoughts on “Love

  1. Robert D. Denham

    Yes, Clayton, it’s cobbled together from a brief section called “Love” in Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World.

    I can’t find the phrase “hermeneutics of charity” in Frye.

  2. Robert D. Denham

    Re the post on “Love”: The sentence on Bill Moyers should begin, “And in his interview . . . .”

  3. Clayton Chrusch

    It was a dim memory, and I couldn’t find the source myself. I’m sorry to have sent you on a wild goose chase. It was clearly a combination of “rule of charity” as Peter Yan correctly understood (thanks Peter!) and “hermeneutic(s) of suspicion”.

    Google reports hits for “hermeneutics of charity” but not “hermeneutic.”

    I begin to realize the idea has been hovering in my mind and influencing me, but in a semi-conscious way for some time and has become important to how I try to approach not just religion but literature and personal relationships. It has come up more consciously recently when I found the idea in George MacDonald’s sermon “Justice” in Unspoken Sermons.

    I am also beginning to see my own religious development over the last several years has been motivated partly by the rule of charity applied not to so much to the Bible but to the religious views of my political (anti-gay) adversaries. Now if only I could convince them to respond in kind.

    1. Joseph Adamson

      I notice that, a propos, it is the title of a book on Christianity and Postmodernism:The Hermeneutics of Charity: Interpretation, Selfhood, and Postmodern Faithh. The term is a beautiful counter to the idea of a hermeneutics of suspicion: reading charitably would mean reading literature for its most imaginative and visionary, rather than, in a literalist way, for its most guilty or “sinful” patterns.

  4. Robert D. Denham

    If Frye didn’t use the “hermeneutics of charity” to describe what is devoutly to be wished, he should have, for that’s his hermeneutical stance.


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