Daily Archives: November 23, 2009

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 10


Lecture 10.  December 9, 1947

The key ideas are ritual and myth. The active side of religion is ritual, the ceremony, the religious act.  The myth side is the explanation of a ritual, the religious Word.

Ritual     Act         Ceremony     King

Myth      Word       Doctrine      Prophet

The basis of ritual is sacrifice, and this goes back to the idea of the substitute for the human sacrifice.  The prophets come along with teaching so that the doctrine aspect is connected with the prophet.  The pre-prophetic is ritual dependent upon the king. Now, the symbol becomes interpreted in mythic terms through the prophet.


The Psalms are the doctrine of the king in prophetic language.  The prophets are concerned with the meaning of the ritual, an attempt to explain the true nature of the king.  The king is the visible symbol of the larger human body, “society.”  He is the social body united in one man.  At certain points, the prophets have a special authority to appoint kings or heirs apparent.

The original motive for sacrifice is that the king’s energy is that of the tribe.  In pre-exilic prophets you get the feeling that the old king is not good enough.  Isaiah is one prophet who has got beyond that mental tailspin.  For him the source of inspiration is consciousness; he is the trusted adviser of the king.  Mixed up with what he says is a criticism of what is going on in history.

Isaiah Chap. 6, v. 8:  “I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for me?  Then said I, Here I am; send me.”  But no one wants to be a prophet.  Isaiah asks, How long will it be? It’s no fun.  In the same way, says Frye, the artist is wholly possessed by what he wants to say.  Genius has nothing to do with sanctity or with whether or not the artist is good or bad.  When he has genius, it possesses the whole of him and gives him the power to shape words as he wills.  Yet the work of art itself is taking form; the artist releases what is being created.  The sculptor sees the statue in the block of marble; it is not an act of will.  There are always times when the artist, the prophet, is saying more than he knows.

Isaiah 7: 10–12: Ahaz represents conventional piety. “I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.”  This is the right answer, up to a point.  But Isaiah takes up the idea of the “great sign of the Lord thy God.”

Isaiah speaks of the arrival of some new form of life, Immanuel, God with us.  He speaks as if this is going to happen at once.  In Chapter 8, Isaiah begets a child, and in the next chapter the arrival of this new life inspires him to say what is over Ahaz’s head, and over the whole situation, too.  He talks of a new king on the throne of David.  He is talking about the real king here.  In Chap. 2 he talks of the “last days” and the spiritual king who will restore the age of paradise.  Still, there is not any doctrine here yet, which you could not match outside the Christian religion.

Micah makes the famous statement of the prophetic position against the sacrificial cult. Chap. 6, 6–8: the utter uselessness of ceremony in itself.  Even human sacrifice will not attract God’s attention.  There is the conception of the blood of a child as a redeeming scapegoat.

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousand rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  What does the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.

In Chap. 6, Hosea speaks a message of forgiveness, of the restoration of Israel through the love of God. “Come, let us return to the Lord.”

The pre-exilic prophets have the inspiration of the prophet and speak with consciousness.  They condemn the moral evils of their community, the superstition, the mental attitude towards magic.  But Amos is concerned with the paradox of the relation of God to his people.  God has chosen one nation, and yet he is no respecter of persons.  Amos denounces the neighbouring nations, and the audience loves it.  He denounces Judah, the Southern Kingdom, and they still love it.  Then, he turns and denounces the Israelites with the same voice.  He acknowledges the uniformity of men, and yet retains the peculiar relation of God and Israel.  To begin with, Israel means the larger human body, the concrete symbol of which is the King of Israel.

The prophets are led from the contemporary situation and the feeling that their own country is exceptional to the conception of the King of Israel as the source of authority in Israel and of its health and improvement.  The prophets, therefore, become frank advisers of the king and will not flatter.  The feeling merges that only the king is authority and God works through him.  The pre-exilic prophets idealized the King of Israel as the Prince of Peace.

The paradox of a monotheistic state is seen in Amos where the hangover remains that God is concerned with the nation of Israel.  This creates a difficulty that is not cleared up until the later prophets.

“Offprints or Offspring”: Frye and the History of Literary Studies (3)


This is the last in a brief series of reflections on the profession of literary studies prompted by passages that struck me in Bob Denham’s recent edition of Frye’s Selected Letters, 1934-1991.

In a letter to Roger Shattuck, Frye comments on various aspects of the state of the humanities in 1971.  He says, “I suppose some of the bewilderment in modern humanities comes from the false analogies to business which are made at one end of the university, and the false analogies to democracy at the other.”  The assumption of the former analogy is

that the university, instead of being a process which is, in Newman’s phrase, its own end, must be a process with a product, like all other assembly lines.  The product is assumed to be either the works of “productive scholarship,” or students in the form of “trained minds.”  The conception of a university which is not essentially committed either to offprints or offspring is a difficult one to take in.

The business analogy is of course still with us, and still a major bone of contention.  It is even more pervasive because students have largely abandoned what Frye calls the false analogy of democracy.  He was writing to Shattuck in the midst of the student protest movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s (the Kent State Massacre had taken place in the previous year).  My sense is that the business analogy has now been adopted by many students as well as administrators (with the encouragement from universities that promote a rhetoric of customer satisfaction which students, used to completing product surveys in the hope of winning an iPod, are quite willing to respond to).

In terms of the scholarly product, the pressure to publish has only increased since the 1970s.  As for the “student product,” there have recently been efforts to quantify the “value-added” in a university education.  This is often characterized as a conservative initiative that attempts to impose an ideological straitjacket on higher education, though in his most controversial column as MLA President (see the Spring 2008 MLA Newsletter), Gerald Graff defended the general principle of outcomes assessment, arguing that too many colleges and universities are victims of what he calls the “Best-Student Fetish”: “it is as if the ultimate dream of college admissions is to recruit a student body that is already so well educated that it hardly needs any instruction!”

Once again, Frye’s reflections on the state of the academic profession identify trends that would become more and more apparent with the passage of time.  What would a university look like today if it were not committed “either to offprints or offspring”?  Can we even imagine such an institution?  Perhaps all those involved in university education need to have at least the idea of such a university in mind, as a utopian vision and a reference point while working within the less than ideal institution where they are a teacher or student.  In “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision,” Frye argued that everyone who works at a task in society has an imagined ideal towards which his or her actions are directed: “The model so constructed is a myth or fiction, and in normal minds it is known to be a fiction.  That does not make it unreal: what happens is rather an interchange of reality and illusion in the mind.”  A good example of what he is talking about is John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University, which originated in a series of lectures in Dublin, discourses to an impoverished religious community in a colonial society who were hoping to set up some sort of college to educate their youth.  Newman responded with the most idealistic of visions of what a university could and should be.  But he then showed considerable business and political shrewdness and realism as he went about trying to create a university for Catholics in Ireland.  That combination of idealism and pragmatism is still a good model for those of us who work in higher education.