The Void Between the Stars

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Blake’s Song of Los

Response to Sára Tóth,  Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham

These responses appear suddenly and unexpectedly, like fairy rings on the front lawn:  you wake up in the morning, and there they are.  Most gratifying, particularly when one’s respondents are as stimulating as Sára Tóth, Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham.  I begin to see the uses of this blog thing:  it has a rhythm of its own, quite different from academic criticism.

Joe, I thank you for reminding us of that passage from Creation and Recreation, as it is probably Frye’s most extended treatment of the concept of spiritual otherness.  Both Joe and Sára point to the dialectical nature of Frye’s later thought, and that puts its finger on something central. The Late Notebooks show that Words with Power was going to be organized according to a “dialectic of Word and Spirit.”  I keep wondering why that dropped largely out of the final book—especially as it is still there implicitly.  Is Sára right that there are signs of occasional vacillation on Frye’s part?

She is definitely correct about Frye’s vacillation on the subject of kerygma.  Another thing I like about the blog is that I feel free to introduce occasional anecdotes that are, I hope, instructive, yet which would be out of place in a more formal setting.  In the later Eighties, some time after the appearance of The Great Code, I managed to work up my nerve to question Frye about what seemed an either-or distinction in that book between literature and kerygmatic rhetoric.  I asked him whether literature couldn’t at times take on a kerygmatic quality.  Frye was tactful, but wouldn’t back down.  He used as example the refrain from the Bard’s Song in Blake’s Milton:  “Mark my words! They are of your eternal salvation!”  Notwithstanding, Frye told me, since that assertion appears in a work of literature, we take it hypothetically.  This is why The Great Code insists that the Bible is not a work of art.  I was somewhat troubled by this, for personal as well as intellectual reasons.  Certain works of literature, even certain passages, have changed me, have changed my life.  For that matter, certain passages of Frye have changed my life:  I have had the “This is for me” response Frye speaks of as characteristic of kerygma; the passages have become “myths to live by.”  So I read Chapter Four of Words with Power with delighted surprise.  Frye just about never admitted that he changed his mind—but he did.  I am much more satisfied with the treatment in the later book, in which literature can sometimes take on kerygmatic qualities and, presumably, kerygmatic works such as the Bible can exhibit literary qualities.  The latter would take Frye full circle to Fearful Symmetry, which says in no uncertain terms that the Bible is a work of art, not just a code of art.  To be sure, Frye is speaking there from Blake’s perspective, but there is no indication that he does not share it.

As for the question of criticism as science, I am betting that that is fuel for at least three dozen blog entries–starting with this one.  I concede that Frye did talk sometimes as if he felt that criticism could be organized on an empirical basis, like science.  He was clearly irritated when he said in “Expanding Eyes” that “The order of words is there, all right, and there is no use writing it off as a private hallucination of my own.”  Harold Bloom had just got done comparing him to Proclus and Iamblichus—private hallucinators, in Frye’s book.  But he did seem to retain as late as 1975 a faith that we could achieve some consensus by showing repeated patterns “in the text.”  However, criticism for at least a decade before that had been insisting on exactly the opposite:  what seems to be “in the text” is a product of ideology or interpretive communities operating upon authors, readers, and critics alike.  This is why talk of a “scientific” criticism seems so dated now.

But whether that means Frye was behind or ahead of the times is a question.  It is not only because we are on the other side of the post-structuralist divide in the humanities that makes Frye’s talk of a scientific element in criticism seem so quaint.  Since 1957, science itself has changed.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, two attitudes battled for dominance in science, mechanistic materialism and visionary speculation.  When Frye spoke of “science” in the Anatomy, he had in mind scientists like Einstein, who published essays on his own brand of spirituality; like Erwin Schroedinger; like Wolfgang Pauli, who collaborated with Jung; Frye  also had in mind philosophers of science like Sir James Jeans and Alfred North Whitehead.  These men were all visionaries, scientific versions of Frye himself:  Frye’s discussion of the order of words in fact comes directly from Whitehead’s discussion of the order of nature in Science and the Modern World.  This kind of bold, often spiritual speculation has been pushed to the margins of science.  Science now means Richard Dawkins saying that religion is a dangerous menace—there is no doubt that, on one level, contemporary scientific reductionism is a backlash against the rise of the Christian Right.  It means Dawkins’ friend, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, saying that there is no such thing as consciousness:  we are all just computer programming.  Visionary speculation has been consigned to the realm of “kook books”—which is why we see Frye reading books about the holographic paradigm and what not in his later years.  It was only there that he could find what he was looking for.  One of the places he found something akin to his idea of an otherness that was not objective, empirical, and material was in David Bohm, with his idea of an “implicate order” that is “enfolded” within the objective material order of nature.  Bohm was a genuine physicist and not a kook—but it was the “kook book” crowd that took him up, not his fellow scientists.  Most of the passages Bob catalogues about otherworldly entities, including angels, are religious or occult speculations working from the other side of the fence.  There is a great deal to be thought about in these passages, many of which I had forgotten.  Bob is our true anatomist, compiling encyclopedic catalogues of information that, simply by the act of being brought together in one place, take on an enormously suggestive quality.  Some of these answer my question in an earlier post about how Frye can think that Helen has become an angel in Christian heaven.  (No, there is no angel named “Dolzani.”  But I have wondered all my life about Frye’s question—why is Michael the only angel who is also a saint?).

I myself think that, in Frye’s terms, the order of words is “there” as the Resurrection was (is) there.  I am thinking of the passages Bob quotes in which Frye says that, if we had been eyewitnesses to the Nativity, we would not have heard the angels singing; if we had seen Job in his restoration, we would only have seen a pitiful old man with boils.  In a passage of Blake’s Jerusalem that has always been kerygmatic for me, it is said that Los reads the stars of Albion; his Spectre can only read the void between the stars.  Exactly.

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2 thoughts on “The Void Between the Stars

  1. Michael Happy

    Thanks, Michael, for the observations (and the accompanying Frye anecdote) on kergyma, which resolves a long outstanding issue for me. Because of Words with Power, I have effectively elided the kerygmatic with the inherently metaliterary condition of literature, but have always worried that I’ve missed a step or otherwise overlooked an important distinction.

    For what it’s worth, I think that the literature of Bible-based cultures potentially enjoys more kerygmatic status *because* of its roots in the Bible — otherwise literature is more likely to retain its purely hypothetical status: how else to account for the fact that all literature displays archetypes of primary concern and yet, like literature everywhere (and most especially in English departments), is subordinated to ideological formulations which are assumed to be more “real”? Until we can flip our thinking — literary language is primary, ideological language is secondary — we are never fully opening ourselves up to literature’s kergymatic power.

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  2. Trevor Losh-Johnson

    Without breaking anything, I’d like to bumble in to briefly share how nice it is for a beginning Small Fryte to have a level of access to these exchanges. Though I have a fool’s mouth, loud and premature, nothing makes me shut it faster than reading posts that both make me curse my inexperience and plunge into the subjects that would have made my BA feel much more worthwhile. Even if that means looking at Mike Score’s waterfall haircut (Jan 1, lest we forget).

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