More Frye and Alter

Velazquez, Joseph's Coat

Velazquez, Joseph's Coat

One of the fundamental differences between Frye and Alter is that they have such different views of metaphor. For Alter, metaphor is an ornamental frill. He calls it a “rhetorical embellishment” and an “elaboration,” somewhat like an embroidery stitched onto the surface of the literal text. Anything that is not attentive to “the factual report of historical events” becomes, for Alter, “a linguistic gesture.” Similarly, for Alter, typology produces only “lovely designs,” which are not text based “but artefacts of interpretation.”

Frye’s view of metaphor is completely different. Among the numerous theories of this trope––from Aristotle’s transference view through the theories about metaphor as substitution, comparison, transaction (I.A. Richards), and interaction (Max Black)––Frye’s theory seems to me to be unique, based as it is on the principle of identity. His views on metaphor form a part of his expansive theory of language, where identity is both a grammatical and a religious principle, as well as a principle for defining the sense of self (personal identity). Metaphor tells us, as Frye never tires of repeating, that X is Y. Alter, who, as Russell points out, is interested in difference rather than identity, says that “there is no such thing as a truly synonymous narrative event of literary articulation.” This completely rules out Frye, for whom myths and metaphors are synonymous. The principle of identity entails the extraordinarily radical position that X is literally Y. Such different assumptions about how poetic language works means that there is very little common ground on which Alter and Frye can stand. Similarly, if your Bible is the Hebrew Bible, then the question of typology doesn’t even arise.

Alter does grant the obvious, that in the poetic forms in the Bible, one often encounters figurative language, but, he argues, “In the predominant prose narratives of the Hebrew Bible, only the most sparing use is made of either metaphor or simile.” He then illustrates the point by citing a verse from Genesis about Esau’s selling his birthright and one from 2 Samuel about David’s encounter with Bathsheba. What Alter means by “sparing use” is uncertain. Outside of the poems in chapters 1 and 22-23, which contain more than forty metaphors and similes, the rest of 2 Samuel is not without a fairly generous supply of figures: there are more than fifty. While the author of 2 Samuel focuses on the more or less literal account of David’s rise to power and his wayward ways, the author can hardly be said to have been sparing in his use of various tropes. As for Genesis 25, half of which is given over to genealogy, the author’s account of Jacob and Esau is not without a generous measure of linguistic play: “red” (’adom)—Edom; “hairy” (se`ar)—Seir, land of the Edomites; “Jacob” (`aqeb)—heel. Even the Lord, who speaks to Rebekah in quatrains, is given to troping: “Two nations are in your womb.” The tension between Esau the hunter and Jacob the shepherd point backward to the Cain and Abel story. This is not necessarily metaphorical, but it is an archetypal example of the story of the two brothers, one good and one bad, that we encounter everywhere in our stories.

As for Frye’s identifying Joseph’s coat of many colors with fertility, which Alter says is “altogether arbitrary,” this goes back a long way. In an Emmanuel College paper he wrote on “St. Paul and Orphism” (he was 22 at the time), Frye says in a discussion of fertility rites that “Joseph’s coat of many colours is an evident vegetation symbol.” That’s because he read somewhere, as he says later in the paper, that “Dionysos, the fertility god, wears a coat of many colours.” I don’t know Frye’s source here (perhaps Sir James Frazer, Jane Ellen Harrison, Gilbert Murray, or W.K.C. Guthrie, one of Frye’s principal sources for his paper—he lists twenty-four books), but I doubt that he made it up.

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8 thoughts on “More Frye and Alter

  1. Russell Perkin

    Bob, Thanks for that fascinating information about the coat of many colours in Frye’s student paper. The “coat of many colours” is there in the Septuagint (chitona poikilon) – does that indicate a Dionysian influence on the Septuagint?! In Thomas Mann’s novel _Joseph and His Brothers_ the robe was originally Rachel’s bridal veil, and is decorated with various mythological images, so perhaps there some hint of fertility there. It would be interesting to look at Mann’s sources.

  2. Robert D. Denham

    Russell, Frye actually refers to the coat–of–many–colors fertility–rite business three times in his Student Essays. Here are the passages in context.

    1. The fertility cult was widespread among the Canaanites, and came into sharp conflict with the nomadic monolatry of the Hebrews. It undoubtedly permeated the Jahwist cult: its influence is symbolized by a curious piece of irony: the name Jehovah, which is a synthesis of the consonants of Jahweh and the vowels of Adonis. The redaction of the Old Testament records has no doubt erased much evidence to this effect. What remains is slight but significant. Jephthah’s daughter, whose women “bewailed her virginity” Judg. 11:40, was obviously sacrificed in the role of a local Iphigenia or Kore. Joseph’s coat of many colours is an evident vegetation symbol Gen. 37:3. After the Exile the monotheist conscience of the Jews began to sharpen. Ezekiel complains of the women weeping for Tammuz in the very gates of Jerusalem Ezek. 8:14, and Trito Isaiah attacks the fertility cults violently See, for example, Isa. 57:3–13. But that did not prevent Antiochus Epiphanes from introducing the cult of Dionysos into Judea See 1 Macc. 1:11–15 and 2 Macc. 5:11–26, and by the time of Christ the Jews, educated and uneducated, were thoroughly well acquainted with the dying and rising god. There was a sect of Jews which worshipped Dionysos under his name of Sabazios (which, like most of that god’s surnames, relates to some kind of intoxicating liquor), confounding it with the Lord God of Sabaoth. (“St. Paul and Orphism,” Northrop Frye’s Student Essays, 17–1)

    2. Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy is built around a thesis developed from Plutarch, and may well go back from there to the very heart of Orphic theology itself. In Greek culture, says Nietzsche, there are two opposed outlooks, the Apollonian and the Dionysiac. The former is the conservative, orthodox element. It is civilized and intellectual and corresponds to the Greek love of unity in all things, moderation in conduct, proportion in art, strict bounds and reasonable limits to everything. The latter is incorrigibly primitive and subconscious; it delights in breaking out of restrictions, it exults in life and energy for their own sakes, it is anarchic and disruptive of all forms of stability. Where the Apollonian tendency is toward unity, toward the typical, the catalogued and classified, the Dionysiac accepts the variety of the actual world and explodes the idea of unity. Dionysos, the fertility god, wears a coat of many colours; he is life in a million forms: he is the driving, plunging rhythm of activity. The assimilation of these religions to one another had, therefore, brought about a tension which it was the business of more reflective and philosophical minds to solve. The religious consciousness moves from polytheism to monotheism, because it is trying to get away from the transient and shifting to the stable and permanent. Consequently, it has to deal with the paradox of the one and the many: why so much complexity in experience, if God is one? (“St. Paul and Orphism,” Northrop Frye’s Student Essays, 175)

    3. To explain this we should, of course, have to bring out the moral ideas implicit in the tragedy, and we can see these more clearly by turning to Hebrew culture. The Hebrews were originally desert nomads, and developed no fertility cult and no drama. But what they lost in cultural development as a result they made up in moral penetration, and the Old Testament brings out very clearly the moral implications of sacrifice from the beginning. The interpenetration with the Canaanites brought some elements of the fertility cult into Palestine, of course: in spite of the careful revision of the redactor, we can see a local Iphigenia in Jephthah’s daughter, and a vegetation myth in Joseph’s coat of many colours Judg. 11:34–40; Gen. 37:3. Later, in the Hellenistic period, these symbols of recurrence are repeated in more sophisticated forms. The sun goes down into darkness and recurs the next day: the soul symbolizing that pattern of experience would go through a similar death and resurrection. This is what happens at the sacrifice: the worshipper dies in the sacrificial victim and is reborn in communion with the god incarnated in that victim. (“The Relation of Religion to the Art Forms of Music and Drama,” Northrop Frye’s Student Essays, 332–3)

    The penultimate sentence in my post was misleading. I didn’t mean that Frye said he read about Dionysus and the coat of many colors somewhere. My inference was that he had, and my point was that I didn’t believe Frye concocted the reference arbitrarily or on the basis of some whim. I did a little snooping around, but couldn’t find his source, but it’s doubtless in one of the books he lists in the bibliography to the Orphism paper. It’s not in Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and not, I think, in Harrison’s Themis. It might be in Guthrie’s book on Orpheus and Greek Religion, a source Frye relies pretty heavily on. I don’t have access to a library these days to check it out. Here’s Frye’s bibliography:

    Angus, Samuel. The Mystery Religions and Christianity: A Study in the Religious Background of Early Christianity. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925.

    Angus, Samuel. The Religious Quests of the Graeco Roman World: A Study in the Historical Background of Early Christianity. New York: Scribner’s, 1929.

    Deissmann, A. Gustave Adolf. Saint Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1912.

    Dodd, C.H. The Bible and the Greeks. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1935.

    Frazer, Sir James The Golden Bough, esp. “The Dying God” and “Adonis Attis Osiris. New York, 1928.

    Gilbert, G.H. Greek Thought in the New Testament. New York: Macmillan, 1928.

    Glover, T. R. The Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire. London: Methuen, 1909.

    Guthrie, W.K.C. Orpheus and Greek Religion. London: Methuen, 1935.

    Harrison, Jane Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922.

    Harrison, Jane. Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927.

    Kennedy, H.A.A. Saint Paul and the Mystery Religions. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1913.

    Macchioro, Vittorio. From Orpheus to Paul: A History of Orphism. New York: Holt, 1930.

    Machen, J.G. The Origin of Paul’s Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1921.

    Murray, Gilbert. Five Stages of Greek Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925.

    Nilsson, Martin P. History of Greek Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1925.

    Plato: Dialogues, esp. those referred to in the text.

    Plutarch: Of Superstition.

    Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy.

    Rohde, Erwin: Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality among the Greeks. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1925.

    Schweitzer, Albert. Paul and His Interpreters: A Critical History. London: Albert and Charles Black, 1912.

    Schweitzer, Albert. The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. London: Albert and Charles Black, 1931.

    Scott, E.F. The Gospel and Its Tributaries. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928.

    Scott, Charles A. Anderson. Christianity according to Saint Paul. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1927.

    Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics: art. “Greek Religion,” by L. R. Farnell.

    1. Joseph Adamson

      The Guthrie book has been reprinted by Princeton (1993) in the Bollingen mythos series, and you can read it, or part of it, at Google books. I did a check with their search mechanism, and nothing came up concerning Joseph or the coat of many colors.

      1. Joseph Adamson

        I checked the Golden Bough for Joseph and the coat of many colors, and got a bingo on p. 302, Dover edition: not for Joseph and his coat, but the coat of many colours worn by a figure of Carnival in an Italian provincial town, in a ritual like that of the Carrying out of Death, according to Frazer. It is in chapter 28, The Killing of the Tree Spirit, section 2, Burying the Carnival:

        “Here, in the middle of the square, the eyes of the expectant multitude are greeted by the sight of an immense car decked with many-coloured festoons and drawn by four horses. Mounted on the car is a huge chair, on which sits enthroned the majestic figure of the Carnival, a man of stucco about nine feet high with a rubicund and smiling countenance. Enormous boots, a tin helmet like those which grace the heads of officers of the Italian marine, and a coat of many colours embellished with strange devices, adorn the outward man of this stately personage.”

        And then I found the same thing at Bartleby books. Here is the link:

        1. Joseph Adamson

          The phrase itself, you would think, suggests an allusion by Frazer to the Joseph story, but there is no mention of any fertility stuff in association with Joseph, as far as I could tell, in Frazer’s volume on folklore and the Old Testament, also searchable at Google, where he simply suggests the coat is a sign of favor. So it’s odd. You’d think if it’s in Frazer it would be in the Old Testament volume.

  3. Robert D. Denham

    Russell, in his Late Notebooks Frye writes that Joseph mystifies him and that Thomas Mann didn’t do much to clear things up:

    Joseph, in Genesis, has always totally baffled me: he bulks so large and so crucially in the Bible’s greatest book, but what to make of that I don’t see. I’ve encountered several times the assertion that he’s a type of Christ; but what’s really Christlike about him? I’ve investigated Mann, [Joseph and His Brothers (1933–43).] but without result. The one thing that interests me is that he descends to Egypt and becomes, not the Pharaoh or temporal ruler, but his adviser, a Castiglione courtier. Castiglione’s book has always fascinated me, although it would be easy to call it a futile and silly book, because it grasps what for me are the central myths of education: the guardian angel teacher, the attendant spirit who doesn’t interfere with the ruler’s will but whose advice directs and shapes that will. That would make him a type of the Spirit rather than the Word. (1:337)

  4. Joseph Adamson

    OK, now I’m getting obsessive, but I wonder if it has anything to do the motley of the jester’s costume and its origins, which might have a link to carnival and fertility rituals. OK: that’s the last word I’m going to say on this.

  5. Russell Perkin

    Bob, and Joe, Again many thanks for these references. Sometime I should check into what’s been done on Mann and this motif – if I were a better Germanist I would be very tempted to go into it myself. Sara Toth had an interesting post on Frye and Joseph back in September.


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