Monthly Archives: November 2009

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)

Leviathan and Dostoevsky’s Crocodile


As a way perhaps of tying together two of the recent threads on the blog, I thought I might offer up this little piece as an intriguing example of Leviathan symbolism. It is a summary of Dostoevsky’s unfinished grotesque allegorical satire, “The Crocodile,” from Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, vol. 4 of Joseph Frank’s monumental critical biography.

The Jonah/Leviathan archetype is all the more resonant in the tale because it is a playful but deadly serious satirical attack on the murderous logic of ideologies–in this case the opposing faiths of capitalism and socialism–and the way in which the primary demands of human welfare are so “rationally” sacrificed to the secondary concerns of ideology:

The Crocodile concerns the fantastic adventure of a conceited bureaucrat of ‘advanced’ opinions, who is accidentally swallowed by a crocodile on exhibition in St. Petersburg and quite contentedly swallowed by a crocodile on exhibition in St. Petersburg and quite contentedly takes up residence in his belly. From this secure vantage point, whose isolation allows him the leisure to concentrate his mind, he decides to proclaim a whole new set of ideas about the future improvement of mankind. As he explains his enthusiasm, “you have only to creep . . . into a crocodile . . . shut your eyes, and you immediately devise a perfect millennium for mankind.” This mockery of a visionary Utopianism, however, is not Dostoevsky’s main target; rather, he focuses on the futile attempt made by a naive friend of the crocodile-dweller, concerned about his health and welfare, to initiate a rescue effort before he dissolves entirely in the reptile’s gastric juices. This well-meant humanitarian aim is opposed by a highly placed bureaucrat, who has recently been convinced by an important capitalist that Russia is greatly in need of new foreign investments. The crocodile is the property of a visiting German entrepreneur, and any injury to it would only discourage the flow of capital into the country and hinder Russian economic expansion.

The crocodile-dweller himself, though “progressive” to the tips of his toes, nonetheless agrees with the capitalist’s reasoning: before all else, “the principles of economics” must be respected. All consideration of simple “humanity” are thus swept aside, and the logic of utility, the logic of economics, triumphs over the plight of a human being. The advocate of capitalist enterprise and the inventor of a new millennium are in complete accord; both right and left in Russia, as Dostoevsky saw it, had now accepted exactly the same chilling and inhumane prescriptions for human conduct.

More on Robert Alter and Frye


Responding to Bob’s post on the Leviathan symbolism in the Bible:

Yes, and Alter, in the same essay, says that Leviathan is confined to the “cage” of Job, Isaiah, and the Psalms, as if these were minor books of the Bible and the imagery was in some kind of quarantine from the rest of the biblical story.

For Frye’s take on Blake’s use of the Leviathan symbolism, It is worth reading Clayton Chrusch’s summary of chapter five of Fearful Symmetry. Here is an excerpt concerning the cluster of imagery attached to Satan and the serpent:

Alter is an excellent example of a militantly centrifugal critic, a normative realist or descriptivist. He puts all his intellectual energy into directing the verbal traffic of the Bible and literature outside, a critical cop breaking up any gathering of images. OK, move along now, disperse. The ideological underpinnings are worth noting: there is nothing but an objective dimension to reality, this is the way things are: obey and work.

” The serpent, actually, takes a number of symbolic forms: a Satanic form that tempts Adam, an Adamic form representing fallen humanity, and a Messianic or revolutionary form, where it is nailed to the tree of mystery as Orc, representing death and rebirth. The serpent also has a Chaotic form which is more sinister than its Satanic form. In this form, it manifests as a dragon ridden by Rahab or the Great Whore (Mystery), a Covering Cherub blocking the way to Eden, or as Leviathan. This symbolism means that the basis of all tyranny is chaos.”

That the basis of all tyranny is chaos may explain the title of Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan: the idea that the only thing that can defend against the perceived chaos of life in a state of nature, which is also the perceived chaos of human nature, is a Leviathan-like political tyranny. Moby-Dick, as Frye has pointed out, is perhaps greatest example of Leviathan imagery in literature: Ahab projects a paranoid vision of chaotic nature and evil onto Moby Dick and creates at the same time, in his bloody hunt for the whale, an authoritarian system of tyranny aboard the Pequod.

It is true that one has to learn how to think archetypally as a critic, and one can simply refuse to learn, but that is to simply ignore the imaginative element in the act of reading any story or poem, and this critical position can easily take advantage of the fact that the imaginative element in reading literature takes place mostly on an unconscious level, precisely because it is a compressed skill we learn from childhood on.

Alter also dismisses out of hand Frye’s reading of the earth=mother/bride imagery in the second creation story: again, as Bob puts it, Frye has got biblical (and other) scholarship on his side, at least in the way in which creation myths are always versions, displacements, adaptations of competing mythologies, such as the agricultural myth of a symbolically female reproductive Nature. In this case, however, because we are dealing with a sexual myth of creation, female symbolism, and what Frye calls the patriarchal set-up and a “sexual neurosis,” the repression is greater and the displacement is all the more marked. Frye emancipates this imagery in his reading of the second creation myth in chapter six of Words with Power, in a way that is consistent with a feminist approach to scripture.

Battle of the Bibles: More on Robert Alter and Frye


Further to Joe’s point about Robert Alter:

Another cheap shot by Alter is his critique of Frye’s interpretation of Leviathan in Jonah and Job. Alter picks up a phrase here and there from Frye’s Great Code discussion, but he’s not in the least fair to Frye’s extended account of the way this image functions across the biblical narrative. One of the advantages of looking at the Bible as a unity is that it permits Frye to link the images of the Leviathan as they appear in Psalms 74 and 104, Isaiah 27 and elsewhere (the word occurs six times in the Old Testament). Alter says that the “Leviathan is in no way a force contending with God.” But it is clearly such a chaotic force in Psalm 74, where God is said to have crushed the heads of this marine creature, and in Isaiah 27, we’re told that the lord will punish the fleeing, twisting serpent and will kill the sea dragon. The image was a familiar one in Hebrew culture, as it was in Ugaritic poems. Alter, who has no sense of what a mythical symbol is, wants to make Leviathan into a literal crocodile rather than a symbolic primeval monster, a creature quite like the Behemoth of Job 40, also a symbol of chaos and evil. Alter says that the author of the Book of Job “never so much alludes to the belly of the beast.” True, the Hebrew poet doesn’t allude to the belly; he refers to it directly: “Look at Behemoth . . . its power in the muscles of its belly” (Job 40:15, 16). One would think that the literal minded Alter would at least pay attention to the letter. What we can say for Frye’s reading of the sea monsters––and their link with Rahab––is that he’s got biblical scholarship, which sees the sea monsters as symbolizing chaos and evil, on his side.

More on Thoreau


Further to Clayton’s and my own last post, there is another great passage from Thoreau, another powerful attack on moral and political compromise, from “Slavery in Massachusetts.”

This one, with its turning to the beauty of Nature in contrast with the ugliness of human-all-too-human-compromise, brings to mind one of the paragraphs Bob quoted in his post on Frye and The Funny: “A sense of humor, like a sense of beauty, is a part of reality, and belongs to the cosmetic cosmos: its context is neither subjective nor objective, because it’s communicable” (Late Notebooks, 1:227).

At the end of the Garden chapter in Words with Power, Frye writes: “The progress of criticism has a good deal to do with recognizing beauty in a greater and greater variety of phenomena and situations and works of art. The ugly, in proportion, tends to become whatever violates primary concern” (226-27).

Hence Thoreau’s recourse in the passage below to the aesthetics and beauty of nature, in contrast with which the violation of primary concern that is the morally disgusting reality of slavery appears all the more ugly and loathsome. Thoreau is always polarizing and separating. His images and rhetoric, to use Clayton’s words, ” cut through all the cowardly, sissified, hand-wringing bullshit” and drive home what Frye calls the “black-and-white situation.”

Thoreau, being a true prophet, wasn’t in the habit of mincing his words, and he was seriously pissed when he wrote these ones, in response to the controversial arrest and “rendition” by the state of Massachusetts of a fugitive, Anthony Burns, to his oppressor in the South, which brought the army to Boston to shut down the abolitionists who had stormed the federal courthouse to free him.

His moral disgust in this case is primarily expressed through the nose: the odor of one’s actions, not the profession of belief, are what matters. It is the odor of one’s deeds that advertises one’s moral quality, and so let your deeds smell consistently sweet so as not to clash with the fragrance of the water-lily, which, like Nature, has made no compromise, Missouri or any other kind.

The reference to a “Nymphoea Douglasii” is an allusion to Stephen Douglas, the architect of the Fugitive Slave Act, who was later defeated by Lincoln in the presidential election. (If there is an analogy here to the Anglican Church’s attitude to homosexuality, Rowan Williams is perhaps more of a Lincoln than a Douglas, in his temporizing strategy, if that is what his strategy is.)

Here is the passage from Thoreau, the closing passage of the speech:

I walk toward one of our ponds; but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.

But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity. It bursts up so pure and fair to the eye, and so sweet to the scent, as if to show us what purity and sweetness reside in, and can be extracted from, the slime and muck of earth. I think I have plucked the first one that has opened for a mile. What confirmation of our hopes is in the fragrance of this flower! I shall not so soon despair of the world for it, notwithstanding slavery, and the cowardice and want of principle of Northern men. It suggests what kind of laws have prevailed longest and widest, and still prevail, and that the time may come when man’s deeds will smell as sweet. Such is the odor which the plant emits. If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily. It is not a Nymphoea Douglasii. In it, the sweet, and pure, and innocent are wholly sundered from the obscene and baleful. I do not scent in this the time-serving irresolution of a Massachusetts Governor, nor of a Boston Mayor. So behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere, that when we behold or scent a flower, we may not be reminded how inconsistent your deeds are with it; for all odor is but one form of advertisement of a moral quality, and if fair actions had not been performed, the lily would not smell sweet. The foul slime stands for the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity; the fragrant flower that springs from it, for the purity and courage which are immortal.

And here are the great closing words, where what is finally polarized and separated are life and death, the sweet scent of life and the rot of decay and death:

Slavery and servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the senses of men, for they have no real life: they are merely a decaying and a death, offensive to all healthy nostrils. We do not complain that they live, but that they do not get buried. Let the living bury them: even they are good for manure.

Thoreau is an excellent example of a writer whose writings go well beyond literature and the purely imaginative and are very much in the meta-literary dimension of the kerygrmatic, of spiritual proclamation.

Thoreau and Frye’s “Black-and-White Situation”


In response to Clayton Chrusch:

Yes, Clayton, that is a great quotation from Frye, and you articulate the issue so eloquently. I think, again, of the situation in antebellum America during the height of the abolitionist movement, and of the relentless compromising that led to the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, a grotesque law that made it illegal, with severe consequences, to protect or harbor fugitive slaves in the North. All this to preserve the Union, a Union by this point completely corrupted by the pacts with the devil made to preserve it.

Even before that law was passed, another great visionary, Henry David Thoreau, wrote this, from “Civil Disobedience” or “Resistance to Civil Government,” which I thought of when I read the words you quote from Frye. It accords so beautifully with what you say about the expediency of crucifying Christ, in which society as a whole is complicit:

How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and enjoy it? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he is aggrieved? If you are cheated out of a single dollar by your neighbor, you do not rest satisfied with knowing that you are cheated, or with saying that you are cheated, or even with petitioning him to pay you your due; but you take effectual steps at once to obtain the full amount, and see that you are never cheated again. Action from principle — the perception and the performance of right — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

And here is another passage from the same essay:

Paley, a common authority with many on moral questions, in his chapter on the ‘Duty of Submission to Civil Government,’ resolves all civil obligation into expediency; and he proceeds to say that ‘so long as the interest of the whole society requires it, that is, so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed without public inconveniency, it is the will of God that the established government be obeyed, and no longer’ — ‘This principle being admitted, the justice of every particular case of resistance is reduced to a computation of the quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and of the probability and expense of redressing it on the other.’ Of this, he says, every man shall judge for himself. But Paley appears never to have contemplated those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may. If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.

The Demands of Primary Human Welfare


Another word from Clayton Chrusch:

A further note about Rowan Williams and the gay issue.

“The one adversarial situation that does not impoverish both sides is the conflict between the demands of primary human welfare on the one hand and a paranoid clinging to arbitrary power on the other. Naturally, this black-and-white situation is often very hard to find in the complexities of revolutions and power struggles, but it is there, and nothing in any revolutionary situation is of any importance except preserving it.”

There is a class of people who discuss theological issues including homosexuality at a very high level. These are people of liberal and conservative and moderate persuasions, but they have enough in common that they can speak to each other at conferences, in academic institutions, and on the internet ad infinitem. Rowan Williams is their high priest. These are generally people who hate the brutishness of popular homophobia, but nor do they accept the popular progressive call to immediate change. They are plagued by a tentativeness that sends them back into discussion, back to scripture, back into theological studies of all kinds. The prose they produce is elegant, reasoned, intelligent, clear. Their expressions of concern for gay people and for the various sides of the debate are clearly sincerely felt. To them, the gay issue is an issue affecting real flesh and blood people, and they make a point of never forgetting that, and yet they also know that sincerity is in bed with self-deception, and so there are no easy answers and the discussion must continue, and no one should do anything disrespectful of anyone else, most certainly should not cast the issue in black and white terms or generally be loud, brash, or make a nuisance of themselves. They are the height of the intellectual world. They have every spiritual and cultural attainment except truth and obedience.

What I love so much about Frye is that he also operates at the very highest intellectual level (and spiritual level), and yet he has a conscience and guts and is not afraid to cut through all the cowardly, sissified, hand-wringing bullshit that happens there:

More on Homophobia and The Anglican Communion


Matthew Griffin writes:

It worries me, Joe, but I think that’s one of the better analogies of the position of the Anglican Communion that I’ve encountered–and worse, I find it accurately captures my own anxiety for the Communion’s future.

While this blog focuses its gaze upon Frye and his work, the Anglican Communion and the issues Clayton mentions offer a parallel to some of the conversations we’ve had, particularly around the line of criticism Joe condemns in his post. One of the reasons for the lack of condemnation of the current attack on homosexuals in Uganda seems to me to stem from a facile use of post-colonial thought: because of past bad acts, many areas and leaders of the Church fail to speak out against what is and should be condemned.

Thanks for sharing those bits of Rowan’s new book, Joe; my copy is sitting on a shelf, waiting for me to scratch out some time for it. I should bump it up on my to-read list.

Clayton Chrusch writes:

Matthew, as you know, it’s not just post-colonial thought but also thought about homosexuality itself that ties the hands of the Anglican hierarchy. Homosexual relationships are incompatible with scripture according to the official doctrine of the Anglican Communion. Rowan Williams himself reiterates this on occasion, not so much to agree with it, but to make the point that it is the progressives and not the conservatives who are moving away from the church. (I for one think that what Rowan Williams believes in his heart of hearts is of no interest–either to me, to gays in general, or to God. His actions are what matter. I remember about 8 years ago when some gays were insisting that George W. Bush was not personally a homophobe.)

Joe Adamson writes:

Yes, that is exactly how Frye sees it: belief has nothing to do with what you say you believe, but what your actions reveal you believe.

In response to a question about belief an interview with Don Harron, Frye responds:

“I would be less interested in what people say they believe than in how people behave. I think a genuine belief is an axiom of behavior. If you want to know what a man believes you watch him, you see what he does. What he really believes will be what his actions show that he believes.” (Interviews, 393)