Monthly Archives: December 2009

Religious Knowledge, Lecture 11


The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem

[Ed’s Note: Sorry that we’ve lagged behind in continuing to post the Religious Knowledge lectures.  Having my computer crash a couple of weeks ago without being sure what I’d lost and what I hadn’t double footed me for a bit.  We are now back on track.  M.H.]

Lecture 11. December 16, 1947

After the Babylonian Captivity, prophecy is modulated to the themes of the invisible king, since the Jews could no longer have a visible symbol for a spiritual reality.  The ideal king may be eternal or an ideal to be re-established in the future. Two directions appear here.  The distinction is already present in the exilic prophets and is finally expressed in the conflict of Judaism, which stopped at the exilic age, and Christianity.

With the destruction of Jerusalem, Judaism had to become a permanent exile, completing the idea of the coming Messiah as established in the Captivity.  They rebuilt Jerusalem and staggered on, accepting the future Messiah bound up in time.  The second exile under the Romans completed the pattern of the coming Messiah.

The breakaway started as early as Jeremiah, the first of the exilic prophets, and is carried on in the prophets.  There is ambiguity in Isaiah II and in Ezekiel: they are read by both Christian and Jew.  The prophets speak of a deliverer who is to vanish and return, which could be interpreted as an eternally present fact or one in time.  The Jew and Christian both see it in the future, but it is the difference between resurrection and revival.  The Jews speak of a rebuilt Jerusalem, which the prophets did speak about, and perhaps that is all they thought they were talking about.  However, the conception of hope and confidence is connected with something that is symbolized in the future.

The pattern of exilic prophecy emphasizes that the city and the king have disappeared and must come again, symbolized by the future.  It is important to remember that the Hebrew language has no future tense.  It can differentiate between a complete and a progressive action, but not between the past, present and future. It is an admirable language for expressing a God in an eternally present existence; everything is complete in God’s mind at once,

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The Northrop Frye Journal & The Robert D. Denham Library

The Robert D. Denham Library, under construction

The Robert D. Denham Library, under construction

Just in time for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, we are pleased to announce, at long last, the launch of our journal dedicated to Northrop Frye.

We are even more pleased to announce that the journal will not be a separate entity, as we initially planned, but will be incorporated into the blog site.

If you look to the top of our Widgets menu to the right, you’ll see the Journal.  Gaining access to it as simple as hitting the links.  We are retaining our original plan, which is to publish both “Articles of Interest” and “Peer Reviewed Scholarship.”  We’ve posted a sample article just so that you can see how it’ll work.  But the journal is now officially open for business, so send your submissions to

We are also very pleased to announce the opening of the The Robert D. Denham Library, the first fully public virtual Northrop Frye library collection in the world.  I think you’ll all agree that it is only fitting that Bob’s name be attached to it.  It too has its own Widget link in the upper right of our site menu.  It will soon be filled with goodies, and, as of today it is the permanent home for Bob’s Northrop Frye Newsletter, the first issue of which is now posted, so please feel free to go in and browse. We’ll update regularly about new acquisitions and additions to our collection, which will expand quickly in the new year.

Joseph as a Fertility God


Item. “The assignment of fertility god imagery to the coat of many colors seems altogether arbitrary. Is there really a documented correspondence between fertility gods and parti-coloured coats?” ––Robert Alter.

Item. “I expect my main problem with Frye is the way he free-associates (or should I say frye-associates) in ways that I simply cannot follow (e.g., Joseph’s “coat of many colors” suggests to Frye that Joseph is a fertility god). Maybe I’m dim but I don’t see the connection, and whether it would disappear if we were to translate ketonet pasim correctly.” ––David Richter

Frye’s associating Joseph with fertility gods, as I indicated in an earlier post, goes back a long way. He makes the connection three times in essays he wrote while a student at Emmanuel College in the 1930s. It would have been helpful if Frye had provided a source for this link in his papers and in The Great Code. He didn’t, so we can only speculate. We know, first of all, that the dream interpreting priests of Bablyon were identified by their multicolored garments, and that might well be connected to Joseph’s coat of many colors. What seems more likely is that Frye picked up the association from the biblical scholarship of the time. Beatrice A. Brooks, for example, speculates that the Septuagint’s rendering of kĕthoneth pac, which changed the meaning to “coat of many colors,” might well have been a conscious editorial decision because such coats “suggested a fertility cult functionary” (“Fertility Cult Functionaries in the Old Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 60, no. 3 [September 1941], 250–1). W.E. Staples maintains that Joseph’s garment is “suspiciously like the veil worm by the virgin goddess Ishtar” (“Cultic Motifs in Hebrew Thought,” American Journal of Semitic Languages 55 [1938]: 47). Earlier William Foxwell Albright, the esteemed biblical archaeologist, had concluded that it was relatively certain that Joseph was worshipped at Shechem as a fertility god (“Historical and Mythical Elements in the Story of Joseph,” Journal of Biblical Literature 37, nos. 3–4 [1918], 115).

Such studies indicate that Frye was not making an arbitrary connection and that it’s easy enough to see how he might have derived the idea from the biblical scholars of time.



David Richter thinks that Alter has “skewered” Frye because Frye says that hebel or “vanity” in the KJV sometimes means “dense fog.” In the passage Alter has in mind Frye says, “We see by means of light and air: if we could see air we could see nothing else, and would be living in the dense fog that is one of the roots of the word ‘vanity’” (The Great Code 124). But there is nothing here that attributes the sense of “dense fog” to the author of Ecclesiastes. The point Frye is making has to do with mist or vapor, not density. He asks to us imagine a world in which we could see the air. The image for such a world would be fog or mist or vapor.

Shortly before this Frye has said, “This word (hebel) has a metaphorical kernel of fog, mist, or vapor, a metaphor that recurs in the New Testament (James 4:14). It thus acquires a derived sense of ‘emptiness,’ the root meaning of the Vulgate’s vanitas. To put Koheleth’s central intuition into the form of its essential paradox: all things are full of emptiness” (123). What is it here, in a passage that Alter conveniently ignores and that says nothing about density, that calls for skewering? It is well established that the literal meaning of hebel is “breath, breeze, vapor.” Tremper Longman III indicates that the word is usually used in a metaphorical way, signifying primarily either “meaningless” or “transitory” (The Book of Ecclesiastes [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1998], 62). Frye’s “emptiness” (vanitas in the Vulgate) appears to me to embrace both primary meanings. A great deal of ink has been spilt over what the author of Ecclesiastes meant by hebel, including the claim that the word refers primarily to “nothingness” (J.E. McKenna, “The Concept of Hebel in the Book of Ecclesiastes,” Scottish Journal of Theology 45 [1992]: 19–28).

Some biblical critics agree with Alter that one of the primary meanings of hebel is “insubstantiality.” See, for example, Douglas B. Miller, Symbol and Rhetoric in Ecclesiastes: The Place of Hebel in Qohelet’s Work (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002) and André Barucq, Ecclésiaste (Paris: Beauchesne, 1968), 55–6. But not all agree. According to Michael V. Fox and Bruno Pennacchini, hebel means “absurd” (Fox, “The Meaning of Hebel for Qohelet.” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 [September 1986]: 409–27; Pennacchini, “Qohelet ovvero il libra degli assurdi.” Euntes docete 30 [1977]: 491–501). According to Edwin M. Good it means “incongruous” or “ironic” (Irony in the Old Testament [London: SPCK, 1965], 176–83). The point is that the literature on the meaning of hebel is extensive, and it illustrates that Alter’s confident assertion about wispiness is open to debate––which is why it has been translated in so many different ways: vain, vanity, emptiness, nothing, futile, futility, meaningless, incomprehensible, incongruous, ironic, nothingness, and transitory, among others.

I think Michael Happy is right in saying that to focus on minutiae is to miss the point, but even the minutiae need to be fairly assessed.

Richter, Alter, Frye


The opening panel of R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis, translated by Robert Alter

Thanks to David Richter for the engaging discussion of the last couple of days. I hope I am not belaboring matters by “piling on,” but I wanted to address some points that I believe are worth clarifying.

Concerning Alter’s catching Frye in his mistranslation of the word that is translated as “vanity” in the King James Bible: Frye does not say the word means fog; he says that the word “has a metaphorical kernel of fog, mist, or vapour” (143) –Alter translates it as mist, vapour, breath – and that “[i]t thus acquires a derived sense of ‘emptiness,’ the root meaning of the Vulgate’s vanitas.” Frye also notes that the word is echoed in James in the New Testament. The passage in James is: “Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” The difference between fog and mist is the density of the vapor, a fairly hazy matter. Frye does go on in his discussion of Ecclesiastes to speak of “dense fog,” but this is a page later and in a different context: “We see by means of light and air: if we could see air we could see nothing else, and would be living in the dense fog that is one of the root words of the word ‘vanity’” (144). So actually, it hardly qualifies as a mistranslation and it does seem like quibbling on Alter’s part. Alter hardly skewers him, except perhaps in his own mind; he is skewering a phantom, since he doesn’t bother providing a fair representation of what Frye says in the first place.

As for “overarching unity,” Alter makes the very same point as Frye about the Bible’s unity and coherence in his discussion of allusion in The World of Biblical Literature: he writes that for all the Bible’s “diversity, there is also a kind of elastic consensus that expresses itself in certain shared values and concepts, accompanied by a shared set of images, idioms, model figures, and exemplary stories. . . . certain notions of God, man, nature, and history that came to define national consciousness were locked into these habits of allusion. God’s sovereign power seen as a transformation of primal chaos into order and the liberation from Egyptian bondage seen as the great sign of Israel’s historical election were so central that writers of the most disparate aims and backgrounds repeatedly rang the changes on these ideas as they had been classically formulated in Genesis and Exodus, respectively. Allusion, then, becomes an index of the degree to which ancient Hebrew literature was on its way from corpus to canon, even if certain later institutional notions of canonization would have been alien to it. For the prominent play of allusion requires that the sundry texts be put together, taken together, seen, eve in in their sharp variety, as an overarching unity.”

Alter of course downplays this unity (he admits it but resists the dynamic imaginative logic of the allusiveness he is discussing), and that is fair enough, since it is not what Alter is particularly interested in as a realist or mimetic critic (and he is a very good one, there is no doubt). But he does see the Bible as having, even in its “sharp variety,” “an overarching unity.”

Also, why such a denigration of typology? The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, as Frye points out, “is much more genuinely typological without the New Testament than with it. There are, in the first place, events in the Old Testament that are types of later events recorded also within the Old Testament. . . . For Judaism the chief antitypes of Old Testament prophecy are, as in Christianity, the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of Israel, though of course the contexts differ” (102). Where else did the Jews who wrote the Gospels get the idea in the first place? They got it from their own Bible. Biblical typology and narrative are the basis of the West’s dialectical and revolutionary sense of history, and it didn’t come from Christian myth alone, but originally from Judaic myth. The Christian Bible and the way it presents itself to be read is not illegitimate simply because it includes as part of its canon the Hebrew scriptures and reads them in a different way and according to a different typology from that of the Hebrew Bible.

Nor is Frye a biblical scholar who can be readily accused of reading the Bible through Christian doctrine. As he points out, quite to the contrary his own Methodist roots gave him a strong sense of the Bible as story, as narrative, not as doctrine. His primary reading of the Bible is a reading of the King James Bible, precisely because he is interested in the Bible in its own right as an imaginative and “kerygmatic” structure, but also as a mythological and prophetic language of imagery and story that has deeply informed Western literature. Why should such an approach be scorned or dismissed out of hand, when it can give us deeper understanding of that culture and its literature?

I can certainly understand why one might want to call a critic like Bloom to task (and Alter does a very good job of it in The World of Biblical Literature), given the erratic and idiosyncratic nature of his criticism. But why make Frye, a critic and thinker of genuine genius and consistent and systematic interpretive principles and practice, the subject of the same ill treatment? Why is his form of criticism – which is in fact the farthest thing from free association – not as legitimate as the other biblical critics and theorists mentioned in your course outline, all of whose approaches are bound to be limited in one way or another? Some of the other critics you mention – but certainly not all – may have better Hebrew but, compared to Frye, their grasp of narrative structures and metaphorical imagery is rudimentary at best.

David Richter: More on Frye and Bloom

Bible cartoon for blog

Both Frye and Bloom have written some interesting and even wise things about specific Biblical texts, and I hope my course does them justice, but both of them have a “system” for reading literature into which Biblical texts are fitted, sometimes in Procrustes’ manner, by main force, and both of them have the habit, common with us professors, of pushing their commentary beyond their specific knowledge base of history and language.

The Book of J is an embarrassment even to those who find Bloom’s other books admirable because he grounds his commentary on a grotesque translation by David Rosenberg rather than on a more reliable English version (the RSV would have been far better) or on the Hebrew original, which he evidently cannot read since he makes such elementary mistakes. His theory of the authorship of the J narratives says more about Bloom himself and his quarrel with the feminists than about the narratives. But I find his analysis of Yahweh as an uncanny character in some of the J stories genuinely interesting.

Whenever Frye alludes to the Hebrew original he is accurate more often than not (his batting average is way ahead of Harold Bloom’s); his mistranslation of hevel as “fog,” for which Robert Alter skewered him is not a typical mistake.

And there is nothing wrong with his cyclical vision of Biblical history except that any narrative that includes a number of periods of independence and prosperity alternating with periods of oppression and want can be made into a set of cycles. (Frye wasn’t the only one to employ “circular” reasoning like this: a different version of Frye’s cycles on p. 171 of The Great Code appears in “The Sacred Center,” an early article by the great Biblical scholar Michael Fishbane. And sports writers do it all the time, of course, with their cycles of “winning streaks” and “losing streaks.”)

And I guess I can’t quarrel with the way everything in the Bible seems to be squeezed into the categories of Anatomy of Criticism, since many of those categories sprang in the first place from Frye’s readings of the Bible.

I expect my main problem with Frye is the way he free-associates (or should I say frye-associates) in ways that I simply cannot follow (e.g., Joseph’s “coat of many colors” suggests to Frye that Joseph is a fertility god). Maybe I’m dim but I don’t see the connection, and whether it would disappear if we were to translate ketonet pasim correctly.

In Myth II of The Great Code, Frye gives us a moving analysis of the book of Job, much of the time, but we get sentences like “The reintegration of the human community is followed by the transfiguration of nature, in its humanized pastoral form. One of Job’s beautiful new daughters has a name meaning a box of eye shadow.”

This is not just distracting. The narratives, which are often intricately shaped at the level of incident and the level of language, simply disappear into this network of frye-associations. And Biblical characters, some of whom, like Jacob and David, we can follow from youth through maturity to old age and death, disappear into their other avatars.

Similarly, Frye knows that “ha-satan” in OT narratives like Numbers 22 and Job 1-2 is a servant of the LORD and not His demonic adversary as in Mark 1:13 and elsewhere in the NT, but Frye can’t help conflating them, even though he knows better, and even though it totally distorts the Hebrew narratives.

Anyway, I do want to back-pedal a little from my “whipping boys” quip in the syllabus. Whenever I teach theory, and not just in my Biblical Narratology course, everyone is a hero and everyone is a whipping boy, as we try to see both the powers and the limitations of the method of each critic my students and I read together. It isn’t just Bloom and Frye, we also see Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg and Mieke Bal and Jan Fokkelman in the same critical light, as having questions they can answer and questions they can’t even ask. And I wouldn’t include Bloom and Frye in my syllabus if I didn’t think they had interesting methods and interesting things to say using them.

David Richter: Frye and Bloom


David Richter, who teaches the course on Biblical Narrative at Queens College in which “the chief whipping boys” are “Harold Bloom and Northrop Frye,” responds to our posting a portion of the course outline:

As I said elsewhere (a review of Frye and the Word, UToronto Pr, 2004):

The Great Code and its successor volumes on the Bible were… much less influential than Frye’s Anatomy [because] Frye was much better at explaining Everything than at explaining any individual thing. And the Bible, despite Frye’s insistence on its overarching unity, stubbornly remains an anthology of wildly disparate items, created over more than a millennium, and transmitted over two more with unpredictable vagaries of editing and translation. Frye understood William Blake’s Bible without any more Hebrew or Greek than Blake himself knew, and perhaps thought no more could be needed. He did not set himself to learn its languages and contemned its scholarly and critical tools, which may seem strange in a man whose ambition it had once been to make literary study more scientific.

Frye and Greene (2): Graham Greene’s Criticism


There’s a silly essay by Graham Greene about H[enry] J[ames]’s view of Catholicism which is only about GG’s own obsessions: if there’s one thing HJ could do, it was separate a social institution from the essential proclamation it purported to carry.  He wouldn’t head for any god-damned ‘fold’ on his deathbed, like Wallace Stevens.  (Notebooks on Romance 356-57)

Greene’s essay “Henry James: The Religious Aspect” may approach James at rather an oblique angle, but I don’t think “silly” is really a fair description.  Edwin Fussell has written a whole book on The Catholic Side of Henry James, where he says that “Henry James is far more Catholic in print than there is any evidence for his ever having been in his private life.”  Fussell goes to work in a much more thorough way and scholarly way, but he is essentially building on Greene’s insights in order to provide an insightful and unexpected perspective on the Master.  Greene’s characteristic obsessions enabled him to identify a pattern of references to Catholicism in James, which he related to what he called in another essay on James “a sense of evil religious in its intensity” (“Henry James: The Private Universe”).  Interestingly, Frye says something similar in the same notebook in which he condemns Greene’s essay.  Frye comments that a sense of evil is lacking in Jane Austen: “while she knows what evil is, she deliberately excludes it; HJ has a sense of evil comparable to Balzac’s or Dostoievsky’s, and can’t exclude it.  It leaks through the walls constantly” (NR 353).  The comparison between James and Dostoyevsky also can be found in Greene’s essay.  With reference to the recent discussion of Frye and Harold Bloom, it’s worth pointing out that Bloom calls Greene’s essay on James “egregious” and ridicules him for comparing James and Dostoyevsky!

For me, there is a stranger moment in Greene’s criticism of James, and one more revealing of Greene’s own anxieties, when he writes in a third essay that “what deeply interested him, what was indeed his ruling passion, was the idea of treachery, the ‘Judas complex’” (“The Portrait of a Lady”).  That statement would in fact serve as a good starting point for an overview of Greene’s fiction.  From his first historical novel, The Man Within (1929), to the late political novels The Honorary Consul (1973) and The Human Factor (1978), betrayal is a major motif in Greene’s novels, and memories of his own troubled schooldays at Berkhamsted School, where his father was the headmaster, crop up everywhere.  Greene is a novelist of obsessions – David Lodge once catalogued an impressive list of them, including dreams and dentistry – and therefore it is not surprising that his criticism is also obsessive in nature.  Like the criticism of many writers, it often does illuminate his own fiction more than the ostensible subject, but in the case of Henry James he does have something to say worth listening to.  In a future post I will say something about Greene on Shakespeare, in the context of Frye’s comments on ideological criticism; there is also much more to say about Frye and James, and I hope to return to that topic as well.

“The Great Charlie”

The delightful dancing dinner rolls scene from The Gold Rush (1925).

Frye published his article on Charlie Chaplin, “The Great Charlie,” in The Canadian Forum 21 (August 1941), when he was 29. It’s no surprise that the insight is not only keen but prescient. Frye, unlike most cultural critics, does not date.

He opens with the observation: “When the culture of the industrial age really hits its stride, the mainsprings of its creative power will be in its one culture industry,” the movies (Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, 98).  Even so, writing more than a decade after the “Age of Tinsel” which ended with the introduction of sound, Frye notes that the movies suffer from a sort of “decadence” that puts “the emphasis on the means, on beautiful actors and showy sets.” He nevertheless sees a great future for the art form because “the movie is capable of the greatest concentration of any form in human history”:

The possibilities of combining photographic, musical, and dramatic rhythms leave all preceding arts behind . . . . Music accompanying silent business can turn it into a scene de ballet: a camera travelling around a dialogue can give a weird fourth-dimensional symbolism: the crudest slapstick can use a repeating pattern of scene or gesture as essential to it as blood and sleeplessness to Macbeth or the Siegfried motif to The Ring. When a real genius controls the the production of a movie, things should happen. (99)

The first genius of commercial movie making, says Frye, is Chaplin, who, at a time when “the average commercial film had the artistic appeal of a streetcar ad,” was  “turning out grotesque little ballets, with every movement and gesture as eloquent as the lines of a sculptor’s drawing” (99).

Chaplin, in fact, is representative of a stream of “major American art” that “seems always to have been the product of an individualism which has no constructive theory of society and regards it as essentially a product of hypocrisy, tyranny, and cowardice. Its motto is Whitman’s ‘Resist much; obey little.’ Never mind why: just buck.”  Frye then includes a thumbnail characterization of American culture which, if he doesn’t already know about it, should thrill Joe Adamson:

This idea of the original sin of the state, this reckless and instinctive anarchism, is in Jefferson’s theory of decentralized democracy, in Thoreau’s program of civil disobedience, in Emerson’s idea of self-reliance as trust in God, in Whitman’s myselfishness, in Hawthorne’s and Melville’s pagan and diabolic allegories, in Mark Twain’s intellectual nihilism. (100)

I’ve already posted a complete version of City Lights, and Frye says of it that “just before the Age of Tinsel dropped dead, Chaplin planted a terrific kick in its posterior” with this remarkable little film “in which the rags-to-riches philosophy of that period, its fawning on athletes and tycoons and its callous disregard of subtler heroes, got its definitive takeoff.”  Given how much this sounds like our own turn of the century gilded age, it’s no wonder the film remains so powerful.  In fact,  “the hero of the Chaplin film, with his quixotic gallantry and courtesy, his pity for the weak, his apologetic and ridiculous isolation from society, and the amount of damage he does against his own very good will to that society,” makes the “Yankee cussedness” he represents “an ideal worthy of respect” (100).

Over the next couple of Saturday nights I’ll post the movies that Frye spends the rest of article examining, along with his observations about them: The Great Dictator (then just released) and Modern Times, the last of Chaplin’s “little Tramp” films.

Jonathan Allan: Frye and Bloom


Responding to Michael Happy’s previous post:

One wonders how Bloom and Frye would react to being positioned together as “whipping boys.” The Frye-Bloom axis, as Eleanor Cook calls it, seems to be a continuous concern for those “in theory,” insofar as there seems to be a perpetual need to rebel against them both as though they are pushing the same agenda. Of course, this is, as any reader of Frye and Bloom knows, not true. Frye rebels against Bloom and Bloom rebels against Frye — Bloom’s writing since Frye’s death seems to be one long battle with Frye: The Western Canon is Bloom’s defence of value judgments; The American Religion (1992, reprinted in 2006), Jesus and Yahweh (2005), and, to a lesser degree, Omens of the Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection (1996), read as though they are responses to Frye’s Bible books; and then, of course, there is Bloom’s forthcoming book The Living Labyrinth: Literature and Influence (2010) which originally boasted the title: Anatomy of Influence. All of these books seem to try to position Bloom outside the shadow of Frye and yet Frye always seems to lurk in the background — perhaps, one can read Bloom’s book on Hamlet as something of meditation of the theoretical self (or as an autobiography, like The Anxiety of Influence). Of course, it would seem that Frye rebelled against Bloom as well, especially in the later years when Frye turned to the biblical texts. Despite the concerted efforts by both Bloom and Frye to distance themselves from each other, the reality is that these two literary giants are almost always seen in relation to one another — at least in terms of the history of literary criticism.