Frye and the Supernatural


I’ve been mulling over Clayton’s comment about Frye’s antisupernatruralism. There are close to a hundred places in Frye’s writings where he uses the word “supernatural,” but I don’t get the sense from these references that he’s antisupernatural. Most often Frye’s use of “supernatural” does not point to some transcendent religious realm or being. For him, the supernatural is what is fantastic (ghosts, vampires, omens, portents, oracles, magic, witchcraft, and the like) or above nature––as in the heroes of myth in the Anatomy: superior to other people (superhuman) and to their environment (supernatural). The supernatural would include the “children of nature” (“the helpful fairy, the grateful dead man, the wonderful servant who has just the abilities the hero needs in a crisis,” Anatomy 196–7) that we find in folk tales and romances. For Frye the supernatural is not a term that is opposed to unbelief. It’s simply the antithesis of the natural. In his essay on Emily Dickinson he writes, “the supernatural is only the natural disclosed: the charms of the heaven in the bush are superseded by the heaven in the hand.” Sometimes Frye speaks of the supernatural as phenomena that are difficult to explain. He reports on this episode with his mother:

She has always regarded her mind as something passive, worked on by external supernatural forces, and is very unwilling to think that anything might be a creation of her own mind—besides, it flatters her spiritual pride to think of herself as a kind of Armageddon. She told me that once she was working in her kitchen when a voice said to her “Don’t touch the stove!” So she jumped back from it, and something caught her and flung her against the table. Half an hour later the voice came again, “Don’t touch the stove!” She jumped back again and this time was thrown violently on the floor. When Dad came home for dinner he found her with a black eye and a bruised shin. I have read a story by Thomas Mann in which he tells of seeing a similar thing in a spiritualistic séance [the episode involving Ellen Brand toward the end of Mann’s Magic Mountain—the section entitled “Highly Questionable” in chapter 7]: that story was the basis of the priest’s remark to the ghost in my Acta Victoriana sketch: “If you are very lucky, you may get a chance to beat up a medium or two” [“The Ghost”]. Mother has also heard noises like tapping and so on, and was tickled to get hold of a copy of a Reader’s Digest in which a writer describes having gone through exactly similar experiences [Louis E. Bisch, “Am I Losing My Mind?” Reader’s Digest, 27 (November 1935), 10–14.] The best way to deal with mother is, I think, to get her books telling of similar things that have happened to other people: she’s not crazy, but might be excused for thinking she was if she didn’t realize that such things are more common than she imagines. She was delighted with my Acta story, and I’ll try to get her that Mann thing and C.E.M. Joad’s Guide to Modern Thought, which has a chapter on those phenomena. (Frye-Kemp Correspondence, 13 August 1936).

In Fearful Symmetry Frye speaks of the supernatural as the human creative power: “All works of civilization, all the improvements and modifications of the state of nature that man has made, prove that man’s creative power is literally supernatural. It is precisely because man is superior to nature that he is so miserable in a state of nature” (41). Frye’s reaction to natural religion, with its premise of the analogia entis [anology of being], is almost always negative. Both Word and Spirit, he declares in his Late Notebooks, can be used without any sense of the supernatural attached to them.

Another context for the supernatural for Frye is that it constitutes one of the levels in his view of the great chain of being. In “Nature and Homer” he remarks that

The lower level has in its basement the world of sin and moral corruption, which is strictly speaking unnatural, though it often appears to be an intensification of ordinary nature, as it does in Comus. The ordinary physical world above it, the nature of animals and plants, is morally neutral, and hence not a resting place for man. Man is in this nature but not of it; he must either go downward into sin or upward into his proper human world. The upper level has above it a supernatural order, which operates in this one as the economy of grace, providence, and salvation. The supernatural world is often associated, as in the Nativity Ode, with the world above the moon, the starry spheres that suffer no change or decay. Of course even this is still nature, and its relation to the world of God’s actual presence symbolic only, but the symbolizing of the higher by the lower “heaven” has been traditional throughout the Christian period. The last stanza of Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantoes is a familiar English example.

In Frye’s own short stories or fables five of them have supernatural features, though he treats the visitation of various spirits with such matter of factness that the distinction between the supernatural and the natural seems to collapse. The supernatural also belongs to Frye’s conception of the bardo world. When in the 1940s he proposed to write a bardo novel, using the point of view of a dead narrator looking at the world, the result, if he could pull it off, would be a supernatural novel, but only in the sense that it would be based, not on some religious or theological underpinning, but on intellectual paradox.

Throughout his notebooks Frye cautions against “deifying the void.” As Michael Dolzani has said of this phrase, it “means mistaking the hidden Beulah-realm for something spiritual when it is merely what Fearful Symmetry called a kind of mezzanine-level of the objective. . . . It is not supernatural, but what Frye calls hyperphysical, not above nature but an extension of it. Those who see something spiritual, even divine, in it are thus guilty of idolatry, which in the Biblical tradition means the worship of something in nature.”

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