Frye’s Seattle Illumination


The finale of Verdi’s Falstaff.

Joe Adamson’s post about the stages of ascent and descent reminded me of Frye’s Seattle epiphany, which he conceived of as part of a dialectic that occurs along the axis mundi.  Here’s an adaptation of something I wrote several years back about this epiphany––what Frye called his Seattle illumination, referred to in an earlier posting, “Frye’s Epiphanies.”

The references to the Seattle epiphany are somewhat cryptic: they center on what Frye calls the passage from oracle to wit.  The oracle was one of Frye’s four or five “kernels,” his word for the seeds or distilled essences of more expansive forms.  He often refers to the seeds as kernels of Scripture or of concerned prose.  The other microcosmic kernels are commandment, parable, and aphorism, and (occasionally) epiphany.  Frye sometimes conceives of the kernels as what he calls comminuted forms, fragments that develop into law (from commandment), prophecy (from oracle), wisdom (from aphorism), history or story (from parable), and theophany (from epiphany).  There are variations in Frye’s account of the kernels (aphorism is sometimes called proverb, for example, and occasionally pericope and dialogue are called kernels), but those differences are not important for understanding the oracle-wit illumination.

Oracle is almost always for Frye a lower-world kernel.  It is linked with thanatos, secrecy, solitude, intoxication, mysterious ciphers, caves, the dialectic of choice and chance, and the descent to the underworld.  The locus of the oracle is the point of demonic epiphany, the lower, watery world of chaos and the ironic vision.  The central oracular literary moments for Frye include Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym’s diving for the cipher at the South Pole, the descent to the bottom of the sea in Keats’s Endymion, Odysseus in the cave of Polyphemus, the Igitur episode in Mallarmé’s Coup de Dés, the visit to the cave of Trophonius, and, most importantly, the oracle of the bottle in Rabelais, who was one of Frye’s most admired literary heroes.  As for wit, in the context of the Seattle illumination, it is related to laughter, the transformation of recollection into repetition, the breakthrough from irony to myth, the telos of interpenetration that Frye found in the Avatamsaka Sutra, new birth, knowledge of both the future and the self, the recognition of the hero, the fulfillment of prophecy, revelation, and detachment from obsession.  The oracular and the witty came together for Frye in the Finale of Verdi’s Falstaff.

Frye calls the Seattle illumination a “breakthrough,” and the experience, whatever it was, appears to have been decisive for him.  He was thirty-nine at the time, literally midway through his journey of life.  One can say with some confidence that the Seattle epiphany was a revelation to Frye that he need not surrender to what he spoke of as the century’s three A’s: alienation, anxiety, absurdity; that he realized there was a way out of the abyss; that he embraced the view of life as purgatorial; that, in short, he accepted the invitation of the Spirit and the Bride in Revelation 22:17.  “The door of death,” Frye writes, “has oracle on one side & wit on the other: when one goes through it one recovers the power of laughter” (“Third Book” Notebooks, 162).  And laughter, for Frye, is the “sudden release from the unpleasant” (Notebooks on Romance, 73).  Oracles are, of course, ordinarily somber, and wit, in one of its senses, is lighthearted.  Pausanius tells us that the ritual of consulting the oracle in the cave of Trophonius was so solemn that the suppliants who emerged were unable to laugh for some time: but they did recover their power to laugh.  There is a “porous osmotic wall between the oracular and the funny,” Frye writes in Notebook 27 (Late Notebooks, 1:15). Similarly in Gargantua and Pantagruel, when Panurge and Friar John consult the oracle of the Holy Bottle, there is, if not literal laughter, an intoxicating delight that comes from the oracle’s invitation to drink; and we are told that the questers then “passed through a country full of all delights.”  This is why “Rabelais is essential to Dante” (Late Notebooks, 1:15).  But laughter here is more than a physical act.  It is a metaphor for the sudden spiritual transformation that is captured in the paravritti of Mahayana BuddhismParavritti literally means “turning up” or “change,” and according to D.T. Suzuki it corresponds to conversion in religious experience.  In the Lankavatara Sutra we are told that in his transcendental state of consciousness the Buddha laughed “the loudest laugh,” and in his marginal annotation of this passage Frye notes that “the laugh expresses a sudden release of Paravritti.”

In Anatomy of Criticism Frye describes the oracular mind as lying beneath the conscious one whose original archetype is the cave of Trophonius (353).  This is the world of the penseroso mood–the return to the womb or the imaginative withdrawal that we get in sixth phase romance.  To escape from what Frye calls the “oracular cave” (“Third Book” Notebooks, 198) is to enter the world of the “awakened critical intelligence” or wit (Anatomy, 185–6).  It is, as described in Notebook 21, “the passage from dream to waking” (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, 227).  To leave the dream-cave is to turn one’s back on what in the Anatomy Frye refers to as the reductio ad absurdum, “which is not designed to hold one in perpetual captivity, but to bring one to the point at which one can escape” (233).  This means that the movement of oracle to wit is the movement from the world of magical nothingness to full awareness or recognition.  In Beyond the Body: The Human Double and the Astral Planes, Benjamin Walker concludes that what ultimately happens to the soul is that it loses its body on earth and loses its sense of individuality in the celestial abodes.  Reacting to this conclusion, Frye wrote in the margin of Walker’s book, “you don’t lose anything: you lose the lower sphere, or nothingness.”  What you gain, by contrast, is self–knowledge and creative energy.  In one of his more revealing commentaries on oracle, this one on the oracle at Delphi, Frye writes,

The motto of Delphi was “know thyself,” which suggests that the self intended was a conscience far below the ego with its anxieties of self-interest, far below all social and cultural conditioning, in short the spiritual self.  For that self to “know itself” would constitute the unity of Word and Spirit in which all consciousness begins and ends.  Such a spirit could produce its own oracles, and they would be not only genuinely prophetic but genuinely witty.  Finnegans Wake is the only book I know which is devoted entirely to this hidden intercommunion of Word and Spirit, with no emergence into the outside world at any point, but of course the creative energy involved has produced all literature. (Words with Power, 251)

Wit is both an efficient and a final cause of satire.  One of the differences between irony and satire is that the former represents humanity in a state of bondage, whereas the effort to escape from bondage marks the latter.  In one of his notebooks for Anatomy of Criticism Frye writes, “satire goes up the ladder of laughter, through the low norm of the experiential & the high norm of the innocent, to participating in the laughter of the gods at the fallen state of man (which is sadistic if God & man are not mutually involved).  That gives me a Lankavatara quote” (178–9), the Lankavatara quotation being the “loudest laugh” passage, mentioned above, that Frye annotated in his copy of the Lankavatara Sutra. This is apparently what Frye means when he writes that by moving in a Lankavatara direction he hopes “to bust the supremacy of the existential” (ibid., 208), with all of its ritual bondage and poker-faced Angst.  By the time he came to write The Secular Scripture, some twenty-five years after the Seattle experience, Frye put the axis mundi movement in these terms in his chapter on “Themes of Ascent”:

As the hero or heroine enters the labyrinthine lower world, the prevailing moods are those of terror or uncritical awe.  At a certain point, perhaps when the strain, as the storyteller doubtless hopes, is becoming unbearable, there may be a revolt of the mind, a recovered detachment, the typical expression of which is laughter.  The ambiguity of the oracle becomes the ambiguity of wit, something addressed to a verbal understanding that shakes the mind free.  This point is also marked by generic changes from the tragic and ironic to the comic and satiric.  Thus in Rabelais the huge giants, the search for an oracle, and other lower-world themes that in different contexts would be frightening or awe‑inspiring, are presented as farce.  Finnegans Wake in our day also submerges us in a dream world of mysterious oracles, but when we start to read the atmosphere changes, and we find ourselves surrounded by jokes and puns.  Centuries earlier, the story was told of how Demeter wandered over the world in fruitless search of her lost daughter Proserpine, and sat lonely and miserable in a shepherd’s hut until the obscene jests and raillery of the servant girl Iambe and the old nurse Baubo finally persuaded her to smile.  The Eleusinian mysteries which Demeter established were solemn and awful rites of initiation connected with the renewal of the fertility cycle; but Iambe and Baubo helped to ensure that there would also be comic parodies of them, like Aristophanes’ Frogs.  According to Plutarch, those who descended to the gloomy cave of the oracle of Trophonius might, after three days, recover the power of laughter. (129)

“The moment of illumination,” Frye writes in one of his marginalia to the Rigveda, is “humorous & not pompous.”  A further gloss on the Seattle experience is Frye’s juxtaposition, in one of his sets of typed notes for The Secular Scripture, of the recovery of laughter in the cave of Trophonius, located at the south point of his mandala, with “Blake’s boy born in joy.”  This is a reference to the boy in The Mental Traveller who “was begotten in dire woe”––another example of the gleeful release arising from the gloomy, oracular depths.  Or, as Frye says in Notebook 21, “Laughter means hostility in the ironic direction and assimilation in the paradisal one” (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, 231).

Finally, the oracle‑wit distinction is parallel to a number of Frye’s other bipolar distinctions.  By collapsing the distinctions we experience in ordinary waking reality, the oracular is metaphorical.  The process is like that of condensation in Freud’s account of dream‑work, accidental slips, allegories, and the like: a single word or image comes to represent two or more ideas, memories, or feelings.  In contrast, the witty, having to do with recognition, is metonymic: one thing is put for another, as in Freudian displacement, and so is accommodated to waking experience once we have ascended from the oracular cave.  Condensation occurs in a pre‑recognition state.  Displacement belongs to daylight world where one recognizes the point of the joke–-the “oh‑I‑see” moment of release and illumination.  Similarly, to use another of Frye’s distinctions, oracle represents a centripetal movement into the identities of metaphor, as in the interrelationship of words in Finnegans Wake; and wit, a centrifugal movement out into the world of realistic awareness, as in the continuous narrative of War and Peace, where myth has been adapted to the canons of plausibility.

Precisely what happened in Seattle and why it happened will no doubt remain mysteries.  As oracle belongs to the complex of things Frye associates with metaphor, and wit with those things associated with myth, perhaps the Seattle experience had to do with the realization that these to principles would become the backbone of the Anatomy.  In any case, there is no difficulty in accepting Frye’s judgment that the intuition was a breakthrough: it certainly helps to explain his treatment of the themes of romance in the secular scripture and the last four chapters of his second book on the sacred scripture.  Nor is there difficulty in understanding what he means when he says, “I’ve spent nearly eighty years trying to articulate intuitions that occupied about five minutes of my entire life” (Late Notebooks, 2:636).  The Seattle illumination may not have involved only laughing in the face of irony––the telling moment that Frye saw in Trophonius and Rabelais and in the pure detachment of the Buddha’s laugh.  It may have been related also to the vision of dice-throwing in Mallarmé’s Igitur, which Frye summarized some years later this way: “in Mallarmé the dice represent a world where, in Yeats’s phrase, choice and chance are one.  Throwing dice is a commitment to chance that does not abolish chance, but is in itself a free act, and so begins a negating of negation that brings something, perhaps everything, into being again” (Words with Power, 292).  The dice-throwing seems also to be linked (one of Frye’s favorite words) with the metaphorical-game tradition, which explores the metaphorical foundation of discursive prose and which Frye sees as characterizing some of his own work.  “The word game,” he writes, “is linked to the fact that its centre of gravity is that mysterious area I’ve talked so much about, where the oracular and witty seem different aspects of the same thing” (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, 301).  In The Secular Scripture Frye writes that in comedy the device that breaks the spell of death or paralysis is the recognition scene, and the word “recognition,” as Aristotle and Oedipus the King remind us, has to do with figurative seeing, whether comic or tragic.  And here again the recognition scene “transforms a story into a kind of game” (Secular Scripture, 130).  The point of all this for Frye is that the abyss must be entered and the nightmare vision confronted before a triumphant reversal can occur.  It may not be for Frye, as it was for Heraclitus, that the way up and the way down are one and the same, but he sometimes comes close to suggesting that:  “The principle of the higher or unfallen world is harmony or concord; the principle of the lower world is metamorphosis, the passing out of one state of being into another.  But perhaps a sufficiently penetrating wisdom could see in metamorphosis itself a kind of harmony, a principle of change moving in correspondence with the worlds above” (Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 183).  To pass through the door of wit permits one to embark on the purgatorial journey, that journey of spirit-making that figures so importantly in the notebooks and finally gets articulated in the chapters 4–8 of Words with Power and in The Double Vision.  In any event, moving both directions on the axis mundi is part of the double movement of the spiritual vision that defines and is defined by Frye’s religious quest.

One final gloss on how recreation can emerge from the descent downward, from a 1971 letter to Brian Coates:

I think one should keep in mind, when dealing with modern literature, that the mythical map of the universe is much more ambiguous than it was before the Romantic period.  For Dante, heaven was up there, hell down there, and consequently all myths of descent were likely to have a sinister or demonic implication.  In modern times, the poles of the mythical universe are not heaven and hell, nor are the poles consistently associated with certain spatial projections.  The two poles are alienation and identity.  In some writers, including Blake and Shelley, the pole of alienation is associated with the sky, and the pole of identity with a submerged world like Atlantis.  It is quite possible to have a demonic descent them, as the one in Heart of Darkness or the Waste Land.  But it is equally possible to have a journey to the deep interior in search of identity.  It is only in this latter case that the theme of rebirth is really built into the mythical structure.  The theme of rebirth may of course also be expressed by the theme of eternal recurrence, as it is in Yeats and in Finnegans Wake.  And of course recurrence may be looked at in two ways: as an ironic unending cycle or as an image of recreation and the making of all things new.  In Finnegans Wake it is unmistakably both; Yeats warbles on the point, partly because he was trying to listen to “instructors” who didn’t know what they were talking about (Northrop Frye: Selected Letters, 1934–1991, 124).

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One thought on “Frye’s Seattle Illumination

  1. Joseph Adamson

    Finally had a chance to read your post, Bob (end-of-term marking and next-term preparations keep fighting over my time). Great post: one of Frye’s many central revelations is this oracle-wit business, which is very close to the kindred charm-riddle polarity:

    “. . . the riddle is essentially a charm in reverse: it represents the revolt of the intelligence against the hypnotic power of commanding words. In the riddle a verbal trap is set, but if one can ‘guess,’ that is, point to an outside object to which the verbal construct can be related, the something outside destroys it as a charm, and we have sprung the trap without being caught in it.”

    Frye follows this statement by a distinction analogous to the one you explicate between metaphor and myth, or condensation and displacement: he speaks of a pun in Spenser that “is part of the hypnotizing and spell-binding quality of the stanza, where different things are drawn into a single focus by similar sounds. But the puns which answer riddles of the ‘Why is A like B?’ type are jokes, and so emphasize the disparity that a conscious mind perceives between two things.” (“Charms and Riddles,” Spiritus Mundi, 138).

    And then on the next page:

    “Hence just as charm is connected with sinking into a lower world with less freedom of movement in it, so riddle is connected with comic resolutions, comic recognition scenes of escape or rescue, or with such folktale themes as performing the impossible task, which occurs in the story of Psyche and Apuleius. The guessing of a name, as in Grimm’s Rumpelstiltsskin story, may be an impossible task of this kind. The riddle is also connected with the very common type of recognition scene which turns on a shift of identity, where, say, the heroine is proved to have been stolen by pirates in infancy, so that her present social status is lower than the one she ought to have. The idea behind such a device is, more or less ‘guess who she is,’ where the link with the riddle becomes clear. In the enmity-situation or contest, the audience’s sympathy is normally on the side of the successful riddle-guesser. He is the antithesis of the magician or charmer, and the magician often takes a demonic role as his opposite. The life of Jesus in the Gospels is full of skillful answers to malignant dilemma-questions which mark an affinity to the same literary type. Oedipus and Samson, on the other hand, are tragic figures because their riddle-solving or propounding powers have disappeared into an irrecoverable past.”

    Another good example of the comic recognition, as opposed to tragic variant, is the Joseph story where the hero begins by naively dreaming oracular dreams he cannot decipher, in which sheaves of wheat and stars bow down to him, and which thus seem to suggest he is simply egotistical and lording it over his brothers because of the special favor his father has bestowed on him. At the end of of a series of disastrous events triggered by his brothers’ envious reaction, he finds himself in the “lower world” of Egypt and in the depths of a prison, threatened with what seems inevitable death. It is at this point that he no longer has oracular or prophetic dreams but becomes instead an uncanny interpreter of other people’s dreams, which is a power like that of solving riddles, and he is released from prison when he is able to “solve” the Pharaoh’s dreams, reading them as a prophecy concerning the food supply, which he is subsequently put in charge of as second-in-command in Egypt. At the end of the story, in the recognition scene, analogous to the shift from oracle to wit, or charm to riddle, the real meaning of his original dreams of his brothers’ bowing down to him is explained metonymically and the metaphors are solved: the “literal” meaning of the dream becomes clear to him and his brothers, but also the reader, who recalls the previous oracular dreams and now re-cognizes or sees, or “solves” their meaning: the reader “gets” it, as we “get” a joke.

    Like the oracle-wit polarity, the charm-riddle polarity is one of those Eureka instances in Frye, so remarkably fruitful in the way it can illuminate again and again our reading of literature, one of his many gifts that keep on giving.


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