How Does Frye Think?


With regard to Joe’s question about Frye’s method and the “way he thinks,” it seems to me that a critical method is a function of at least four variables: the language a critic uses (the material cause: out of what?); the subject matter he or she explores (the formal cause: what?), the manner used to make a point or construct an argument (the efficient cause: how?), and the purpose(s) of his or her discourse (the final cause: why?).  With regard to Frye, all of these variables are worth sustained investigation.

Consider the efficient cause.  How does Frye proceed in setting out his position on whatever his subject matter is?  We might approach this by asking, How does Frye’s mind work?  How does he think?

1.  Dialectically, by the juxtaposition of opposing categories.  There are scores of these: knowledge and experience, space and time, stasis and movement, the individual and society, tradition and innovation, Platonic synthesis and Aristotelian analysis, engagement and detachment, freedom and concern, mythos and dianoia, the world and the grain of sand, immanence and transcendence, ascent and descent, and so on.  Consider the chapter titles of part 1 of Words with Power: sequence and mode, concern and myth, identity and metaphor, spirit and symbol.

2.  Epiphanically.  Intuitive moments of sudden illumination.  Frye records seven or eight of these, some of them named: the Seattle illumination, the St. Clair epiphany.  These might not properly be called thinking, but these moments were important in forming the vision that he writes about.

3.  Schematically.  Frye can’t think without a diagram in his head.  Spatial representation of thought (diagrams, charts, categories arranged in space––cycles, circles, tables, and other visual taxonomies) are always prior.  His diagram of diagrams he called “The Great Doodle.”  Lesser doodles (his phrase) include the omnipresent HEAP scheme and the ogdoad.  The hundreds of schema he uses are stored (for instant recall) in his vast memory theater.  Thinking schematically means that he is fundamentally a deductive thinker (in spite of the fact that I can think of no critic who had a greater inductive store of literary data).

4.  Analogically.  Frye is obsessed with similarities rather than differences.  He does, of course, have a strong Aristotelian streak, what with all his anatomizing and categorizing.  But while he agrees with Coleridge that we can distinguish where we cannot divide, the bottom line is that Frye is an analogical thinker, like Plato.

5.  Upwardly.  Frye is always moving toward a telos, an end.  There is always another step to be taken to get beyond the present mental or imaginative state.  “Beyond” is the most revealing preposition in Frye’s religious quest––a preposition that takes on special significance only late in his career.  During the last decade of his life he uses the word repeatedly as both a spatial and a temporal metaphor.  Having arrived at a particular point in his speculative journey, over and over he reaches for something that lies beyond.  Notebook 27 (1985) begins with a series of speculations about getting to a plane of both myth and metaphor beyond the poetic, and Frye even confesses that there is no reason at all to write Words with Power unless he can get to that plane (LN, 1:67).  The Bible implies that there is a structure beyond the hypothetical (LN, 1:8, 14).  Many things are said to be beyond words: icons, certain experiences, the identity of participation mystique (LN, 1:15, 16).  Here’s a sampler:

[L]iterature is the obvious guide to whatever passes beyond language, just as Dante’s obvious guide to states of being beyond life in 13th c. Italy was Virgil. (LN, 2:717)

The kerygmatic, whether the Vico-Joyce thunderclap or the Blakean “Awake, ye dead, and come to Judgment!,” is presented as verbal, but it’s really announcing a world beyond speech.  (LN, 2:715)

Where religion & science can still get together is on [David Bohm’s] conception of the objective world as an “unfolding” of an “enfolded” or unborn order, which is beyond time and space as we experience them. (LN, 1:105)

The perspective of prophecy as seeing the direct challenge of what lies beyond (one’s own) death. (LN, 2:474)

Theseus’ lunatic & lover are behind the poet, suggesting an existential identity beyond the literary kind.  (LN, 1:107)

The quest as question is of course future-directed, & its ultimate answer, which goes beyond any origin or first-cause answer (as in Job), is resurrection in the present. (TBN, 223)

There’s a good beyond good-and-evil, a life beyond life-and-death, and a heaven or presence beyond heaven-and-hell. (RT, 213)

The risen Christ as one with the Spirit in man, leading us into a world beyond the natural world of time and place. (LN, 2:667)

The third chapter [on Words with Power] goes beyond space into the conception of interpenetration, the fourth one beyond time into the conception of “mystical dance,” or time as interiorly possessed contrapuntal movement.  (LN, 2:558).

Altogether, there are some seventy-six notebook entries, all but fourteen of them in the Late Notebooks, that contain the word “beyond” as a signal of what in The Critical Path Frye calls the “third order of experience,” an order beyond the dialectic of freedom and concern (170).  Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, who wants “To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought,” Frye keeps struggling to reach beyond the limits of imaginative desire.

6.  At least in his late work, in a Hegelian fashion.  In this journey to move beyond, Frye often relies on a process that Hegel called Aufhebung.  The word contains a triple pun––a process of canceling, preserving, and lifting up to a higher level.  This dialectic, which refers to both a retention and a transformation of the two opposites of the dialectic and which is related to Frye’s sense of an ending, manifests itself at those points where Frye is confronted with an either‑or opposition.  In The Great Code Frye writes, “What Hegel means by dialectic is not anything reducible to a patented formula, like the ‘thesis–antithesis–synthesis’ one so often attached to him, nor can it be anything predictive.  It is a much more complex operation of a form of understanding combining with its own otherness or opposite, in a way that negates itself and yet passes through that negation into a new stage, preserving its essence in a broader context, and abandoning the one just completed like the chrysalis of a butterfly or a crustacean’s outgrown shell.” (GC, 222).

Aufhebung (or one of its related forms) does not make an appearance in Frye’s writing until the two Bible books–-three instances in the notebooks for The Great Code and six in the notebooks for Words with Power (LN, 1:195, 258, 259, 363, 2:683, 686; RT, 296, 298, 313).   In the published work Aufhebung appears only in The Great Code, once in the passage just quoted and shortly after that where Frye suggests that the disinterested and engaged approaches to reading the Bible might just be transcended and preserved by an Aufhebung (GC, 223).   But the dialectical transition represented by the word, even if the word itself is absent, is omnipresent in Frye’s thought.

The Aufhebung at work in Words with Power, where the title of each of the first four chapters is a dialectical pair: sequence and mode, concern and myth, identity and metaphor, and spirit and symbol.  At the end of each of these chapters Frye advocates going beyond the dialectic that he has established.

Chapter 1.  Frye speaks of the need for “wider verbal contexts,” of finding “an open gate to something else” beyond the limitation of language (27, 29).  This something else turns out to be the “intensifying of consciousness,” the Aufhebung that takes the theory of language with its four modes and the sequence of their excluded initiatives to another level.

Chapter 2.  What emerges from the dialectic of concern and myth is the entry of the “personal” into myth and into “history’s dream of revelation,” and the Aufhebung carries Frye to the “principle of going beyond myth” (62).

Chapter 3 concludes with a gloss on Tom o’ Bedlam’s song, where Frye urges “a further stage of response”: after the mythos-dianoia dialectic “something like a journeying movement is resumed, a movement [Aufhebung] that may take us far beyond the world’s end, and yet is still no journey” (96).

Chapter 4 resolves the antithesis between the human subject and divine object, between the creation of Genesis and the new creation of Revelation by the Aufhebung of the Incarnation, “which presents God and man indissolubly locked in a common enterprise” (135).  In each of these cases we are lifted to a level beyond the terms of the dialectic, the terms themselves being preserved while their opposition is canceled.  And in each of these cases the end, in the sense of both the termination and the goal, is an expanded vision.

Chapter 5 (the mountain archetype).  Here the context of the conclusion is the primary concern of free movement, which is expressed in the images of dance, music, and play.  But the ultimate source of exuberant, unfettered movement is spiritual freedom, located at the top of the ladder of wisdom (in the axis mundi complex of images) and in the collapsing distinction between center and circumference (in the circle complex of images).  The paradox is captured for Frye in Paul’s “all in all” phrase (1 Corinthians 15:28), which takes us beyond the predication of metaphor.  Frye calls this Aufhebung both interpenetration and the higher unity of spiritual vision, the point at which “the dance of liberated movement begins.”  The unity that emerges from the Aufhebung cancels while preserving the bottom and top of the ladder, the center and the circumference, the two halves of metaphor joined by the copula.

Chapter 6.  At the end of this chapter (the garden archetype) the oppositions art and nature, Bridegroom (love) and Bride (beauty) are resolved into Kant’s “purposiveness without purpose,” in which “the union symbolized by the one flesh of the married state (Genesis 2:24) has expanded into the interpenetration of spirit” (WP, 224).

Chapter 7 (the cave archetype) concludes with the theme of the double, for which Frye, in a breathless catalogue, provides more than thirty examples.  The last of these is the mirror reflection in the Narcissus myth, the reflection of the “I” which is really a reflecting image of an imprisoning natural and social world that Martin Buber calls the “It.”  The Aufhebung that releases us “into the world of sunlight and freedom” is Buber’s “Thou,” who is “both another person and the identity of ourselves” (WP, 271).

Chapter 8 (the furnace archetype).  Here Frye comes around again to the epitome of the Bible for him, the Book of Job.  In the Job story, the “Biblical perspective of divine initiative and human response passes into its opposite, where the initiative is human, and where a divine response, symbolized by the answer to Job, is guaranteed” (WP, 312–13).  The Aufhebung then lifts this initiative‑and‑response dialectic to a decentered and interpenetrating union, at which point “the terrifying and welcome voice may begin, annihilating everything we thought we knew, and restoring everything we have never lost” (WP, 313).

The Aufhebung of interpenetration is also at work in the conclusions of the four chapters of Frye’s final and posthumously published book, The Double Vision.  Frye uses the phrase “double vision” in several senses.  In the Blake quatrain quoted in chapter 4, the double vision refers to the natural versus the spiritual ways of viewing the world.  But Blake’s vision was really a four‑fold one (material, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual) and the aufgehoben thrust at the end of each chapter of The Double Vision moves to a fourth level of vision.

Chapter 1.  In “The Double Vision of Language” the Aufhebung moves beyond the dialectic of the plausible and credible, belief and agnosticism, history and logic, and the language of faith and hope, reaching toward the agape vision with its language of love.

Chapter 2.  The dialectical pairs at the end of “The Double Vision of Nature” are making and creating, the fine and the useful arts, beauty and truth.  These oppositions are the lifted to the next level by a sabbatical vision that becomes “the model for an expanding human consciousness” (DV, 39).

Chapter 3.  The Aufhebung of “The Double Vision of Time” leads to the Spirit, the power that emerges from the dialectic of the Father (or the source of being) and the Son (the Word who has overcome the world).  This represents the last act in Frye’s version of the three ages of Joachim of Floris, who prophesied that the age of Spirit would follow the age of the Old Testament Father and the age of the New Testament Logos.  It is the “Spirit who speaks with all the tongues of men and angels and still speaks with charity.”  Frye adds that the “Spirit of creation who brought life out of chaos brought death out of it too, for death is all that makes sense of life in time.  The Spirit that broods on the chaos of our psyches brings to birth a body that is in time and history but not enclosed by them, and is in death only because it is in the midst of life as well” (DV, 58).  This purely spiritual vision of Christianity was for Frye the Everlasting Gospel (LN, 1:202).

Chapter 4. “The Double Vision of God” preserves the purgatorial virtues of faith and hope and lifts them to “the paradisal vision of love” (DV, 81).  This is the world of “interpenetrating energies,” where the spirit of man and the spirit of God inhabit the same world” (DV, 84).


DV = The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion.  Toronto: United Church Publishing House, 1991.

GC = The Great Code.  New York: Harcount Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

LN = Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1982–1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World.  Ed. Robert D. Denham.  2 vols.  Collected Works of Northrop Frye, vols. 5 and 6.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

TBN = The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 1964–1972: The Critical Comedy.  Collected Works of Northrop Frye, vol. 9.  Ed. Michael Dolzani.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

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1 thought on “How Does Frye Think?

  1. Joseph Adamson

    This is terrific, Bob. Well beyond what I could have hoped for. Here are some improvised thoughts in response:

    I was thinking in terms of practical criticism, in response to Michael Sinding’s question: how does an archetype in a given work, like an Ariadne’s thread, lead us into and all the way through a detailed critical reading of a text? At the time I was working on Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: that is to say, I was teaching The Scarlet Letter–we’re now onto Melville, another overtly archetypal writer–and I was trying to use Hawthorne’s novel in my American literature class as an example of how archetypes guide our reading, indeed are of primary and central importance to the signifying power of the work.

    In that novel (romance Frye would say), the opening chapter, which is simply a description of the prison door, hands the reader the keys to the two main blocks of apocalyptic and demonic archetypal imagery analogically organizing the meaning of the story. The central archetype of the novel, and of Hawthorne’s work in general, is the Eros archetype: it opens with the prison (and in the next chapter we get the associated image of the scaffold) and the rose-bush which is identified metaphorically with Nature (of the natura naturans variety) and sexuality, and is identified with Anne Hutchinson, and by association with Hester and with Pearl, Hester’s daughter, the latter grouping set in opposition to a patriarchal and morally repressive society that punishes sexual freedom and freedom of thought. Thus a deeply social and feminist reading of the novel is fully enabled by the archetypal reading, which inevitably leads to it, in fact, as a level of meaning sublated in the archetype. All of this and more, which I have only encapsulated here, is what the story unfolds when it is unpacked in detail just at the level of a structure of imagery, at the centre of which is the image of the rose-bush.

    The critical process of such an unfolding through the archetype is dialectical, as you have shown above: but backwards or in reverse, since it begins with an unfolding of the archetype in which the other levels of meaning in the story are already sublated or aufhebened, if I may use such a term. That is what I meant by “follow the archetype.” Spotting it, of course, is the first step, but I am not talking about just “archetype spotting,” of which Frygians were, and I guess still are, accused of (and of which we had a rather hysterical outburst ourselves a while back on the blog).

    I meant: follow the archetype, follow the damn thing: it will give you everything you need. Everything in the tale, even the most realistic details, are inflected with the particular contour imprinted on the story by the archetypal level of meaning. And the anagogic, which is where Frye’s dialectic ultimately takes us, and which you have unfolded above, is also implied in Hawthorne’s novel as what transcends or “lies beyond” the archetype in the story, the meta-archetypal, meta-literary level.

    Archetypes are, semiotically speaking, recurring or inter-textual images “hyper-linked,” as it were, to a complex set of clustered associations. They are, I guess, what Michael Sinding would call particular types of imaginative or mythological frames that organize the way the reader makes connections and constructs the meaning of the text. The Great Doodle, then, would be the frame of frames.

    I understand Clayton’s unease with the term archetype, and some of the reasons for it, but I prefer to embrace the term and reclaim its meaning: its usefulness, it seems to me, lies in the way it covers both metaphor and myth in one term, both story shapes and structures of imagery, as outlined in essay three of the Anatomy.


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