Daily Archives: November 9, 2009

Frye and Homosexuality


In response to “Thoreau, Frye, and Same-Sex Desire“:

There’s this from Frye’s 1949 diary:

University lecturing is not teaching but a form of intellectualized preaching. You can go into all the world and preach the gospel, but if you try to teach any more than about twelve disciples you’ve had it. Teaching relates two individuals through Socratic love, which has to be homosexual. I can’t really teach a woman, because, being a woman, the things organic to her learning process are female, and shut me out. All I could do would be to identify myself with her animus, which puts me, as I’ve discovered and elsewhere remarked, in a hell of a spot. To teach a boy is to form his character, which means partly to unite him to the males of the tribe. It also involves the sort of love which sees with complete clarity what the boy’s character is: you can’t, that is, teach a frivolous person in the way you would teach a preternaturally solemn one. I’m not a teacher according to this line of thought; and I wonder if it’s possible without some physical interest in men, or sublimation of it. Even Jesus had a beloved disciple, as Marlowe pointed out. I can trace no such interest in myself.

The Marlowe reference: “That St John the Evangelist was bed-fellow to Christ and leaned always in his bosom; and that he used him as the sinners of Sodoma” (Richard Baines, “A Note Concerning the Opinion of One Christopher Marlowe, Concerning His Damnable Judgment of Religion and the Scorn of God’s Word,” Christopher Marlowe, Complete Poems and Plays [London: Dent, 1976], 513). The so-called “Baines’s Note” is a series of opinions on religion, said to have been Marlowe’s but apparently penned by Baines in an effort to bring Marlowe before the Court of the Star Chamber.

And these two passages from the Late Notebooks:

Tillich on the miserable reality of the concrete churches: when I went to church in Montreal with Lorna that jackass disrupted the whole feeling of the service by braying about homosexuals. Before the service, I met a woman I’d never seen before who pecked out of me in two minutes the fact that I had no earned doctorate. Malice, like other pacts with the devil, certainly gives one preternatural perceptions, up to a point.

Eros Regained starts with the homosexual refined Jesus lying on the bosom of a male beloved disciple, trying to get away from his mother but still so hung up sexually that he insisted his father was not his father and that his mother was a virgin, rescuing a bride symbolically but saying “don’t touch me” as his last words to a woman. [The notion of the homosexual or androgynous Jesus is repeated here and there in Frye’s writings––scores of times.]

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 6


Carravaggio, Abraham and Isaac

Lecture 6.  November 14, 1947

There are three periods to the Hebrew religion:  Pre-prophetic, prophetic, post-prophetic or priestly.

The pre-prophetic is a mixed cult.  The pre-exilic prophets—Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah—represent a spiritual awakening in history.  It might be part of the general movement of Zoroaster whose teaching affected the life of the Hebrews.  The prophetic follows the worship of Jehovah.  The post-prophetic (priestly) is the legalizing of Jehovah.  This period is Judaism, the founding of the second temple, the synagogue, the Pharisees, and an organized cult.

Amos is one of the earliest prophets.  Genesis and Kings II have four or five main documents showing the people affected by prophetic teaching.  There is no “pure” pre-prophetic phase.  First there was YHVH (Yahveh) which became Jehovah, the tribal, ancestral God of the Hebrews.  This is what the prophets preached.  The pre-prophetic religion which the prophets attacked as not “pure”: that is, it had a mixture of other gods.  The mixing of cults was wrong, and the wrongness hinged on the ritual and the ceremony.


The prophets emphasized doctrine and teaching.  Judaism, or the priestly period, was the synthesis of religious doctrine with the prophetic teaching.  The prophets were actuated by a feeling of moral evil on the part of any mixed cult.

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Frye on Lincoln


Thank you for the comments, Ed. Characteristically, Thoreau had as little time for Lincoln as he had for anyone who compromised on the issue of slavery: on the day of Lincoln’s inauguration, in the company of his old friend Bronson Alcott, according to Walter Harding’s great biography, he “announced himself as ‘impatient with politicians, the state of the country, the State itself, and with statesmen generally.’ He roundly accused the Republican Party of duplicity and called Alcott to account for his favorable opinion of the new administration” (Harding 444).

Thoreau was a difficult friend, highly demanding in intellectual, moral, and spiritual terms, though he won from many, like Alcott, an intense loyalty. Not surprisingly, his “Plea for Captain for John Brown” is even more uncompromising than Emerson in the way he defends and exalts Brown.

Some of Lincoln’s writings, like the Gettysburg address, do indeed, as you put it so well, Ed, “attain the level of kerygmatic intensity, spiritual proclamation.” I always try to include some of Lincoln’s writings in my American literature course as a great example of the oratorical power reached by great leaders, like Churchill, at particular historical moments.

Frye mentions Lincoln in Anatomy as an example of “the rhetoric of non-literary prose”:

The most concentrated examples of this are to be found in the pamphlet or speech that catches the rhythm of history, that seizes on a crucial event or phase of action, interprets it, articulates the emotions concerned with it, or in some means employs a verbal structure to insulate and conduct the current of history. Areopagitica, Johnson’s letter to Chesterfield, some sermons in the period between Latimer and the Commonwealth, some of Burke‘s speeches, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Vanzetti’s death speech, Churchill’s 1940 speeches, are a few examples that come readily to mind.

The measured cadences of these historical oracles represent a kind of strategic withdrawal from action: they marshal and review the ranks of familiar but deeply-held ideas. (327)

I also found this brief passage by Frye in The Critical Path, which seems relevant to your comments:

Certainly there is a tremendous radical force in American culture, in Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, in Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience, in Jefferson’s view of local self-determination, in Lincoln’s conception of the Civil War as a revolution against the inner spirit of slavery, which could give a very different social slant to the American myth of concern [as opposed, Frye mean, to other myths of concern in the “Old World”]. Ezra Pound, for all his crankiness, was trying to portray something of this innate radicalism in his John Adams Cantos. There is also of course a right wing that would like to make the American way of life a closed myth, but its prospects at the moment do not seem bright. (95)

God knows that Frye had no illusions about what he called the whirligig of history, but this last sentence–written forty years ago–has a sad and ironic ring to it today, at a time when even someone like Obama and the best initiatives of American democrats are so thoroughly hedged in by an loud and ignorant populism, phony Boston tea parties, and the apparently unthinking majority belief in a neo-conservative ideology that identifies freedom with the license to exploit and oppress, and to enrich oneself at the expense of everyone else, most particularly the poor and most vulnerable.

Ed Lemond Responds to “More on Thoreau”


Ed Lemond lives and writes in Moncton, New Brunswick. He owns and operates the Attic Owl Bookshop in Moncton. He is also one of the planners for the Northrup Frye Literary Festival.

Ed writes, in response to “More on Thoreau.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals gives a good accounting of Lincoln’s temporizing strategy. Here’s one example of many. When John Brown was executed on Dec. 2, 1959, Lincoln (in Goodwin’s words) “wisely sought the middle ground between the statements of radical Republicans, like Emerson, who believed that Brown’s execution would ‘make the gallows as glorious as the cross,’ and conservative Republicans, who denounced Brown for his demented, traitorous scheme. He acknowledged that Brown had displayed ‘great courage’ and ‘rare unselfishness.’ Nonetheless, he concluded, ‘that cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.’”

Lincoln, ironically, himself walked down the road of violence and bloodshed, thinking himself in the right – as we too think of him. (Adam Gopnik’s discussion of ‘the problem of liberal violence’ in his book Angels and Ages is very interesting in this regard.) Lincoln said or wrote, I believe, something to the effect that if he could end the war and save the union with slavery still in place, he’d take the deal. The difference between Lincoln and Rowan Williams is that Lincoln knew, even while temporizing and compromising, that slavery was an evil doomed to extinction. And, even with all his temporizing, he had moments, we know, when his words attained the level of kerygmatic intensity, spiritual proclamation. And he had his great moment, when he stopped temporizing and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Now we have a new, young President in Obama, with the same sort of instinct to look for the middle ground. Is it too much to hope that he will follow a similar path, when it comes to action to ensure full equality for gays and lesbians? Or is he in danger, as it sometimes looks, of being all talk and no (or little) action? Depending on what happens with health care, we might know part of the answer.

Thoreau, Frye, and Same-Sex Desire


Thoreau’s sexual longings, from all evidence, appear to have been homosexual, though, sadly, perhaps for various reasons, they may have never been requited.

Thoreau’s case is perhaps yet another indication of the prevalence of same-sex desire among writers (this is certainly true in American literature). Such a fundamental and immediate sense of one’s difference from one of the most anxiously protected concerns of one’s society may encourage the more general development of an imagination and a counter-cultural vision that challenges the gross inadequacies, oppressiveness, and lies of that society.

I am thankful for that one passage, at least, in Frye’s discussion of sexual love in chapter 6 of Words with Power, where he closes the first section with the following paragraph:

I have been dealing with the common tradition in which the poet is a male who begins with the expression of his love for a female, and expands from there into a vision of a symbolically female nature. The sexual bias, however frequent, is certainly reversible, even if the history of literary imagery is not. I have said that there is no ladder of love in the Bible, but there is one inf Plato’s Symposium, and there the object of love, on the primary level, is not female. A crucial, though not surprisingly often neglected phase of the argument is the question about how far Socrates will go in bed with Alcibiades. The sublimating process starts from the beginning, but it goes in the same general direction, up to a vision of and ultimate union with the form of beauty. (201-02)