Daily Archives: January 16, 2010

More on Frye and Otherness


I wanted to respond just briefly to Michael Dolzani’s excellent “Necessary Angels” post. I have quoted the passage below in a previous post, and even though it appears in the closing paragraph of the second chapter of The Secular Scripture, a book devoted not to the Bible but to the romantic tradition, it still seems one of the most pertinent passages touching on the relationship between literature and otherness. Interestingly, Frye uses the image of the human struggle with an angelic dimension to describe this relationship, in which the mythological universe created by the human imagination is also an uncreated reality or revelation coming from elsewhere. Thanks to Sarah Tóth for the beautiful formulation of metaphor from Ricoeur, but surely the dialectic Frye points to here (and elsewhere) is just as balanced in its paradoxical formulation. Frye is contrasting the secular and the sacred scripture, the story of the creature and the story of the creator, and he casts back to his earlier evocation, in the same chapter, of none other than Wallace Stevens discussion of “imagination and reality” in The Necessary Angel:

Reality, we remember, is otherness, the sense of something not ourselves. We naturally think of the other as nature, or man’s actual environment, and in the divided world of work and ego-control it is nature. But for the imagination it is rather some kind of force of power or will that is not ourselves, an otherness of spirit. Not all of us will be satisfied with calling the central part of our mythological inheritance a revelation from God, and, though each chapter in this book closes on much the same cadence, I cannot claim to have found a more acceptable formulation. It is quite true that if there is no sense that the mythological universe is a human creation, man can never get free of servile anxieties and superstitions, never surpass himself, in Nietzsche’s phrase. But if there is no sense that it is also something uncreated, something coming from elsewhere, man remains a Narcissus staring at his own reflection, equally unable to suprass himself. Somehow or other, the created scripture and the revealed scripture, or whatever we call the latter, have to keep fighting each other like Jacob and the angel, and it is through the maintaining of this struggle, the suspension of belief between the spiritually real and the humanly imaginative, that our own mental evolution grows. Meanwhile we have on principle to go on with. The improbably, desiring, erotic, and violent world or romance reminds us that we are not awake when we have abolished the dream world: we are awake only when we have absorbed it again.

I love this baleful image of man as Narcissus, “staring at his own reflection” and unable “to surpass himself ” as long as he deprives himself of this sense of an otherness, of a revelation that transcends him even though it is also a human creation. The Narcissus image speaks volumes to the ultimate dilemma of so much of the criticism and theory of the last decades in its obsession with ideology and the incapacity of human beings ever to imagine anything that is not simply a shadow or projection of their own self-interested social constructions. God and the imagination are one, which is why we are really asleep when we have “abolished the dream world” of literature, and why we “are awake only when we have absorbed it again.”

Sára Tóth Re: “Necessary Angels”


Responding to Michael Dolzani:

Michael, am I right to think that in this wonderfully moving post you have actually brought a very personal example from Frye’s life to illustrate a distinction typical of his later works, the distinction between “purely” literary metaphor and what is beyond it: kerygma or existential or ecstatic metaphor? I take it you are saying that the so-called “liberal” phase is the phase of literature proper, when let’s say “heaven” is a symbol of something hypothetical, a vision of a spiritual interpenetrating world or “panoramic apocalypse”, something we contemplate as a hypothesis independently of its reality status. To say that Helen’s presence or heaven is surely more real for Frye than just her survival in people’s memories is to take us further than this, to the world of existential metaphor.

This takes me to what is the most significant sentence of your post: “I think the order of words is present, not as an empirical fact, but as Helen was present.” This has raised several questions for me. First, the later Frye identifies his own “order of words” as a hypothetical literary vision, an “ironic separation from all statement of facts”, adding that this is as far as he got in Anatomy (Myth and Metaphor 114). Or see this: “So the panoramic apocalypse, the thematic stasis, the myth as dianoia or picture, represents the end of experience as knowledge. It’s normally as far as literature can go, and the dianoia it reaches is a design of hypothetical metaphor.” (Late Notebooks I:91) What you suggest – that Helen’s presence expressed by the metaphor of heaven is more than hypothetical, and it is of the same nature with the order of words – is seemingly in contradiction with the above. Perhaps, to try to answer my own question, the solution lies in the nature of Frye’s dialectical thinking and the key word here is “normally”. What I mean is that kerygma is, on the one hand, definitely beyond literature (literature plus), on the other hand all literature is potentially kerygma. I find both poles of the dialectic in Frye.

My other question is related somewhat. If  “the order of words” is not an empirical fact but a creative vision as you say, what then do we make of Frye’s science analogy in the Anatomy? I do not want to stray to the territory of the philosophy of science (where I am not at home), and I know that Frye later dropped the science analogy, what puzzles me though is that even in Spiritus Mundi he writes in a similar vein that the vision has an objective pole, that “the order of words is there, and it is no good trying to write it off as a hallucination of my own” (118). Now if what you suggest is that in fact Helen’s presence in heaven is neither simply literary metaphor for Frye, nor something “factual”, then it must be, well, yes, I have to say it, something like “religious truth”, in the best possible sense of the term. But I wonder how Frye would have reacted if someone had insisted, say that “the resurrection of Christ has an objective pole, the resurrection is there, and it is no good trying to write it off as a hallucination of the disciples.” I hope the parallel is clear.

Is it too far-fetched to say that whereas the claim for objectivity sits awkwardly within the thinking of a Blake disciple, perhaps the late Frye’s move towards “otherness” could logically lead towards an increased emphasis on objectivity, towards the hunch that reality might be more than our imaginative creation, that in fact reality – the text, if you like, in a very wide, postmodern sense − answers back? All in all, I would humbly suggest that in this respect Paul Ricoeur’s thinking is perhaps more balanced in some ways than Frye’s, the Ricoeur who in his book on metaphor has worked on a nuanced interpretation of mimesis, saying that “the enigma of metaphorical discourse is that it ’invents’ in both senses of the word: what it creates, it discovers; and what it finds, it invents” (Rule of Metaphor, 239).

Angels, Again


This is a meditation and mini‑sourcebook, triggered by Michael Dolzani’s uncommonly perceptive post (not uncommon, of course for Michael, my editorial sidekick, who, as I’ve said several times in print, is a reader of Frye without equal).  Here’s hoping that he’ll continue to share with us what’s on his mind.


Angels for Frye belonged to a complex of entities he called the world of “fairies and elementals.”  In his notebooks he keeps promising himself to write an article of “fairies and elementals” (On the topic, see Late Notebooks [CW 5], 189–90, 195, and Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible [CW 13], 54; Notebooks on Romance [CW 15] 143, 144; Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism” [CW 23], Notebook 25, par. 7 [unpublished but posted in the Library as sect. 7 of “Unpublished Notes”]).  He never got around to writing the article, but there are hints here and there about what the article would contain.  At one point in his Great Code notebooks Frye appears to conceive of three strands in the “elemental” esoteric traditions:

1.  The fairy world itself

2.  The bardo world

3.  The “total magnet or anima mundi which accounts for mesmerism, telepathy, clairvoyance, second sight & magical healing cures” (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, 54).  Frye sometimes calls this third strand the soul-world or Akasa (Sanskrit for “space” or “ether”), a term that he adapted from Madame Blavatsky.  Angels belong to what he refers to as “non-human forms of more or less conscious existence” (ibid.)  In Anatomy of Criticism, these “forms” belong to the existential projection of romance (64), meaning that the writers of romance accept the world of fantasy as “true” and so populated their stories with angels, fairies, ghosts, demons, and the like.  Angels, of course, occupy their place in Frye’s accounts of the ladder of being on the rung between the human and the divine.  They belong as well, in Blake’s four‑storied cosmos, to Beulah, and they are a part of what Frye called in his first essay on Yeats “the hyperphysical world” (Fables of Identity, 227).  Twenty years later he describes this world as

the world of unseen beings, angels, spirits, devils, demons, djinns, daemons, ghosts, elemental spirits, etc.  It’s the world of the “inspiration” of poet or prophet, of premonitions of death, telepathy, extra-sensory perception, miracle, telekinesis, & of a good deal of “luck.”  In the Bible it’s connected with Lilith & other demons of the desert, with the casting out of devils in the gospels, with visions of angels, with thaumaturgic feats like those of Elijah & Elisha, & so on.  Fundamentally, it’s the world of buzzing though not booming confusion that the transistor radio is a symbol of.  (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, 90)


I wonder if in Frye’s anguished katabatic experience of Helen’s death in Cairns we might not have a conjunction of the oracle and wit insight that was the essence of his Seattle epiphany.  This occured to me by looking again at the ultimate and penultimate remarks of Helen before she died––after which Jane Widdicombe becomes a guardian angel.

The oracle: “Besides, when Jane told her she was in hospital and had to get better before she could go home, she said ‘I can take that from you.’  When I tried to say the same thing, she said ‘Don’t be so portentous.’  It was the last thing she said to me, and it sounds like an oracle.  Meanwhile there is Jane, a daughter sent by God instead of nature.  Guardian angels take unexpected but familiar forms, as in Homer” (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 137–8).

The wit: “She died at 3.10 p.m. on August 4 (the medical attendants said 3.30, but I happen to know when she actually left me).  She was a gentle and very pure spirit, however amused or embarrassed she might be to hear herself so described.  The day before her death the intravenous machine ran out of fluid and started ticking:  Helen opened an eye and said “Is that your pet cricket?”  I am grateful that in practically the last thing I heard her say there was still a flash of the Helen I had known and loved for over fifty years” (“Memoir,” Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings, CW, 42).

Michael Dolzani shows how Frye, in all those passages about Helen in Notebook 44, moves from a negative to a positive faith, having been transported from the abyss where he has confronted her death to some form of apocalyptic revelation, where Helen has now become for him a Beatrice or Laura.  He needs no longer now accuse himself of having murdered her by taking her to Australia.

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