Daily Archives: November 2, 2009

Frye Was Different (3)


The latest from Mervyn Nicholson, on how Frye was different:

When was the last time you laughed out loud reading De la Grammatologie? or, well, guffawed or chuckled, if not actually laughed? Derrida tickle your funny bone lately? How about Blindness and Insight? Paul de Man was quite a clown, wasn’t he? Or how about Stephen Greenblatt? or Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick? or Judith Butler? lots of LOL there.

You know where this is heading. Frye had a sense of humour! His sense of humour was vivid, witty, lively, incisive, satiric, but also playful. The range of humour is significant, too, because he can be light in tone as well as biting. He is good at coining witty phrases, as everyone knows. The impulse to quote him for those who know his work well is irresistible, especially his numerous satiric and witty remarks. I always laugh when I read Frye. All of his books have humour in them, and clearly the humour was important to him—he made sure to use it.

Not only does Frye use humour in his writing, but he was funny in his lectures. Most of his lectures included what might be called jokes—“self-contained verbal structures,” to use his own idiom, that made people laugh out loud. Of course his deadpan manner, his dry and wry style, was not that of a clown: it was definitely that of a great intellectual. He could say funny things without giving any facial cue that saying something funny was what he was doing. But that made the humour funnier, because it came from what had become a legendary professor persona: the figure of the ultimate intellectual. There was always an element of surprise, as if discovering that he was a human being, not just an icon on a pedestal, or someone of such grand pretention that humour must be kept distant from him. Curiously, Frye’s humour never had the effect of undermining or taking away any of the seriousness of what he was talking about. Frye was serious about his humour.

His status as preeminent academic made him a target for hostile comments of the type that Irving Layton specialized in, treating Frye as a dried-up brain without a body—an image totally at odds with the livewire brilliance that Frye displayed. Forget his tweed jacket and nerdy physique—he could be funny. His voice was a perfect instrument—deep and beautifully modulated, with the kind of rhythm that only a musician can achieve—a voice perfect for reading out loud—or for giving lectures. And he was a superb reader. Just as he made a point of saying things that were funny, he made a point of reading out loud in class—including in his graduate classes, something unthinkable in the usual academic milieu inhabited by graduate students and professors suffering from grandiosity issues. But it was important to Frye that people hear the great poets, not just see their work as print marks on a page. Clearly, Frye, the intellectual, believed that learning involved more than arguing over abstractions.

Frye’s humour punctured any pretention that “higher” English studies might demand. The humour shifted attention from the pretention implied by the scene (famous professor lectures naïve novitiates) over to the real point of teaching, namely the content of the class. Frye insisted on this point: the teacher must be “a transparent medium” for the subject, and must never stand between the subject and the students, setting him or herself up to be a kind of idol, someone who receives the attention of the student rather than the subject itself. His humour was important in demoting the professor and enhancing the content. The humorless solemnity of High Theory and the relentless didacticism of the New Historicism are prima facie limited by their lack of this intellectual vitamin.

This point opens up something important about Frye’s humour. It had a function. And this function was not merely to break the ice or release tension. The humour—I am referring now to his writing—is not merely a decoration or a distraction. It always conveys meaning. It is another way of expressing the thought that Frye is working with. Frye was profound in many ways, but one of the most important is his insistence that meaning is communicated in other modes than abstract reasoning or abstract verbal constructs. Meaning is conveyed in non-abstract ways, by means of image and emotion and body. And humour.

By image, of course, I do not mean “symbol”; I mean the sheer act of forming and transforming mental images: the act of visualization. The form/trans/forming of images is a medium of consciousness, of intellection. It is a means of communicating and formulating thought. I explored these issues myself in my own book 13 Ways of Looking at Images [Red Heifer Press, 2003], which is intended to develop and explore Frye’s approach. Thought is not confined to ideas in the sense of abstractions: it is expressed in sensory forms, such as painting and music, but also in forms of mental imagery. Indeed, the key to Blake, he says in Fearful Symmetry, is that “form” and “image” mean the same thing, and if this works for Blake, we can be sure it works for Frye, too—that the image of a thing is the form of that thing.

This is a big conception, too big for a short note, but it is basic Fryethought. Humour is like images: it is a mode of communication, of fashioning and making ideas precise—it is not just a pleasant talent that Frye enjoyed entertaining readers with, though there is nothing wrong with entertaining readers, something that Frye excelled in. You know that well enough when you put down your Derrida or just about anybody else and pick up Frye.

Frye was different, all right.

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 2


Lecture 2.  October 7, 1947

The writers of the Gospels were writing about Jesus, but they are not writing a biography.  The events are there because they fit the pattern of what the writer was trying to present.  The life of Jesus is the drama of spiritual Israel.  When we study the Bible we see that the Book of Isaiah are fragments pasted together and that a lot of editing has been done.  We cannot accept the Bible as the work of one man, but we can look at it as a complete book, a unity.  It has editorial unity, and this is true of the whole Bible.

The first part of the Bible is arranged by people influenced by the Prophets.  The opening books are later, written by men impressed by the earliest Prophets, such as Amos, in the 8th century.  The Exile took place around 586 B.C.  Before that, there were attempts to reform the early religion, such as taking old traditional laws and reforming religion according to the teaching of the Prophets.  Then you’d have the Law and the Prophets.

The Book of Laws is an attempt to reform religion according to the spirit of the Prophets that there is no God but our God.  The Prophets taught a historical dialectic and Genesis to Kings is written in this light.  The sanctity of the Law and the truth of the prophetic interpretation is their dialectic of history.  The Torah is the Law, the first five books.  The former prophets were historians, the latter were like Isaiah.

The Torah is the Jewish kernel of their Bible, and the Christian Gospels are the commentary on the Law.  The Law in the first five books has an elaborate ritual and ceremonial code, as well as the moral duties of the law and punishments, as in the Ten Commandments.

In a primitive society there is little distinction between moral and ceremonial law.  The framework of the narrative tells the story of the Hebrew people from the Creation to the entry into Canaan.  The kernel is the descent into Egypt and the deliverance into the Promised Land.  The narrative focuses on a different level: Abraham is the Hebrew tribe; Jacob is Israel.  Here we are dealing on a plane in which the nation is conceived as a single person.  The story of Jacob’s descent into Egypt is the story of the people.  It is based on historical reminiscence, but we don’t know what.  However, we needn’t worry about it as history, but look at it as a single pattern.

The Israelites go down into bondage, a kingdom of darkness, another fall, of Israel.  The plague of darkness is the most deeply symbolic.  The dream of the Promised Land is the Garden from which man fell.  The leader, Moses (Son), leads them through the wilderness to the boundary of the Promised Land. But Moses does not conquer it; that is reserved for Joshua, whose name means Jesus.  Israel was guided through the wilderness of the dead world by the power of the Law and a man names Jesus began the assault on the Promised Land.

The Exodus is the central story of Israel.  Here you get Joseph, one of the twelve brothers who goes to Egypt. There is a cruel king, a massacre of the firstborn.  Then comes deliverance by Moses (son), the Exodus, the crossing of the water, the Red Sea, the forty years in the wilderness.  The New Testament parallel is Jesus, Egypt, a cruel king, leaves Egypt, twelve followers, baptism in Jordan, forty days in the wilderness.  Moses is the law, so he can’t enter the Promised Land, but Joshua (Jesus) does.  The Annunciation in the New Testament is the annunciation that the assault on the Promised Land has begun.  Egypt is the fallen world, the Promised Land is the Kingdom of God.

The symbol and allegory of the Old Testament become reality in the New Testament.

Old Testament                   New Testament

Manna                              Bread of life

Water out of the rock         Water of life

Serpent of brass                Crucifixion

Promised Land                  Resurrection

(Joshua)                             (Jesus)

The Gospels are indifferent to proof, historical proof.  The people who saw Jesus’ life are a mixed bunch.  They are not concerned with how He came but with how He comes. This is what always happens.