Word and Spirit


Several years back I puzzled over the conjunction of Word and Spirit in Frye’s later writing, concluding that they did in effect serve as a great code to his words of power.  Here’s an adaptation of what emerged:

Word and Spirit in their capitalized forms appear, as one would expect, throughout his work, and in numerous contexts.  In The “Third Book” Notebooks, “Word” is often associated with what Frye calls the Logos vision and “Spirit” with the traditional Holy Spirit.  But “Word” and “Spirit” do not appear in Frye’s writing as a dialectical pair until the late 1970s, and before the writing of Words with Power only three times.  In one of the notebooks for The Great Code he refers in passing to “pericopes of Word & Spirit” (CW 13, 268), and when he is trying to work the relation between the cycle, which he eventually abandoned, and the axis mundi, which became his primary spatial metaphor, he speculates, in an intriguing entry, that “the up and down mythological universes form a wheel, and the wheel is the cycle of recurrence.  In the cyclical vision everything becomes historical, and there is no Other except the social mass.  The impulse to plunge into that is strong but premature.  Something here eludes me.  The answers are in interpenetration and Thou art That, but the real individual is not the illusory series of phantasmal egos in time: it’s the total body of charitable articulation.  The assumptions underlying this articulation are Word & Spirit.  Probably the crux of the whole book” (CW 13, 327).  Here Frye appears to have the answer but does not know what the question is.  What are the two things that interpenetrate in this passage, a difficult one to gloss?  Thou (the individual) and That (the social mass)?  The self and the Other?  “Charitable articulation” could be seen as Frye’s final cause.  The material cause would then be “Word” in its several senses, the formal cause “Spirit,” and the efficient cause criticism in all of its Frygian permutations: its aphorisms, commentary, schema, imaginative free play, investigations of myth and metaphor, analogical linkages, sober speculations, creative flights of fancy.  The word “articulation” reminds us that Frye’s universe is a linguistic one.  “I’m glad I’m not concerned with belief,” he says, “but only with trying to understand a language” (CW 13, 303), which is reminiscent of his later statement about not believing in affirmations but only in the verbal formulas he constructs (CW 5, 145).  These formulas, he goes on to say, “seem to make sense on their own, & seem to me something more objective than merely getting something said the way I want it said.  I hope (but again it’s not faith) that this is the way the Holy Spirit works in me as a writer” (ibid.).  Frye consistently focused on finding language to articulate the substance of his vision (spirit), which in turn leads to the end of that vision (charity).

The third instance of “Word and Spirit” occurs in The Great Code itself, where Frye writes that creative doubt of the Nietzschean variety can carry us “beyond the limits of dialectic itself, into the infinite identity of word and spirit that, we are told, rises from the body of death” (227).  Words with Power is likewise relatively silent about the pairing of Word and Spirit.  In that book Frye does write that “the unity of Word and Spirit in which all consciousness begins and ends” is what constitutes the spiritual self, and he speaks of the “intercommunication” of Word and Spirit (Words with Power, 251).  In the Late Notebooks, however, the phrase “Word and Spirit” occurs some fifty-two times, often as “Word and Spirit dialogue” or “Word-Spirit dialogue.”  Frye uses “dialogue” here in the sense of dialectic.  And the dialectic is between the two major modes in Frye’s thought––the literary mode of the word writ large, or logos as Word, and the religious mode of spiritual vision, or pneuma as Spirit.  But dialogue is also a metaphor for the relation between Word and Spirit, or an “intercommunication,” as in the passage just cited.  The Word, Frye says in Notebook 27, gives substance to the Spirit.  Each sets free the other, and they are united in one substance with the “Other.”  That is, Word and Substance interpenetrate (CW 5, 9).  “Infiltrate” is another word Frye uses to define the relation (CW 5, 272).

Frye originally intended to entitle the last half of Words with Power “Dialogues of Word and Spirit”––what he eventually called “Variations on a Theme,” the four themes being the four archetypes in chapters 5–8: the mountain, the garden, the cave, and the furnace.  “Word” in this context means the Bible, and “Spirit” refers to the extra‑biblical response to the Bible (CW 5, 275, 278–9).  In another early formulation, developed in Notes 52, Frye relates the Word and Spirit dialogue, described as a series of four responses to four epiphanies (CW 6, 427) and to the seven phases of revelation developed in chapter 5 of The Great Code (ibid., 462, 471).  Four does not divide neatly into seven, but Frye, forever ingenious, simply divides the apocalyptic phase into its panoramic and participating forms to create a proper divisor.  This is an outline of the way Frye sets out the relation in Notes 52:

Creation                                          First epiphany of the Word

Exodus                                            First response of the Spirit

Law                                                  Second epiphany of the Word

Wisdom                                          Second response of the Spirit

Prophecy                                      Third epiphany of the Word

Gospel                                            Third response of the Spirit

Panoramic Apocalypse           Final epiphany of the Word

Participating Apocalypse      Final response of the Spirit (CW 6, 471)

In another notebook Frye sees this dialectic as the particular revelation of the Bible (Word) and the universal revelation of literature (Spirit), saying that this dialectic is the “essence of the book” (CW 5, 100).  This organizing pattern was eventually discarded in favor of “Variations on a Theme” (the four archetypes), but not before Frye had sought to connect the four archetypes to what he called the HEAP scheme, which is connected to the Word and Spirit dialogue.

Frye is devoted almost to the point of obsession to exploring the metaphorical and thematic implications of the four gods he called collectively HEAP: Hermes, Eros, Adonis, and Prometheus.  They are, he says following Blake, “the spectres of the dead” because they have no concentering vision, and Frye sets out like a questing knight to discover such a vision for them, the four quadrants of which will be, when the code is finally deciphered, Hermes Unsealed (the liberation of wisdom), Eros Regained (the liberation of love), Adonis Revived (the liberation of life from death), and Prometheus Unbound (the liberation of power).  Each of the four gods represents a cluster of numerous thematic associations: the number of entries dedicated to the HEAP cycle in all of the notebooks exceeds eight hundred, and in the late notebooks Frye devotes almost three hundred separate paragraphs to one or more of these “spectres of the dead.”  The four gods are also called “emblems” and “informing presences,” and they eventually become, as just mentioned, the “variations on a theme” in the last half of Words with Power.

The four gods had been a part of Frye’s consciousness from an early age.  His interest in the Adonis archetype can be traced all the way back to his undergraduate reading of Frazer, Prometheus to his reading of Shelley, Eros and Hermes to his reading of Plato.  Adonis, Prometheus, and Eros figure importantly in his account of the Orc cycle in Fearful Symmetry, and these three also make their way into Anatomy of Criticism.  Hermes is the odd god out, so to speak, during the years Frye was writing the Anatomy.  He does speak of Hermes’ role as the angel-messenger or Covering Cherub in a notebook entry from the late 1940s, but this role is not connected with the archetypes of the other three gods.  In the same notebook we first encounter a spatial representation of the gods as a cycle of archetypes, with Orpheus now joining Eros, Adonis, and Prometheus as the fourth god, Frye locating them as cardinal points on a circular diagram with horizontal and vertical axes.  This diagram was one of the many components of what Frye called the “Great Doodle.”  In his diagrammatic way of representing the HEAP cycle, the gods eventually took their places within the quadrants, rather than at the cardinal points (Eros at the northeast, Prometheus at the southeast, Adonis at the southwest, and Hermes at the northwest), the vertical axis being an ascending and descending stair or ladder and the horizontal axis a temporal movement from the past (wisdom) to the future (prophecy).

The HEAP scheme remained in a state of flux for a number of years: it “keeps reforming & dissolving,” as Frye says in Notebook 44 (CW 5, 126).  He experiments with six additional sequences, before finally settling on the order Hermes, Eros, Adonis, and Prometheus.  These archetypes––what the four gods represent apocalyptically as well as demonically––gradually define themselves over the years by their different cosmological principles, Blakean and biblical analogues, primary elements, associated images, typical themes, feminine aspects, narrative directions, and the like.  But the four gods vanish from Words with Power, or at least appear to do so.  The reason for their apparent absence is that Frye, as Michael Dolzani has shown in his introduction to The “Third Book” Notebooks, decided in one of his late revisions of the book to abandon the cycle as his fundamental organizing image and to replace it with the axis mundi.  Ascent and descent along a vertical axis then became the primary structural metaphor of Frye’s “variations on a theme.”  Still, the four gods remain hidden in the wings in Frye’s published work, coming on stage only for a cameo appearance in the final chapter of Words with Power.  In one brief passage (277) Frye explains that each of the four gods, whose symbolism he had so persistently explored for forty years, has been a “presiding deity” over the four metaphors (mountain, garden, cave, and furnace) and the respective ascent/descent themes, their presence serving to configure the last half of the book as follows:

Archetype God Ascent/Descent Theme Dialogical Focus

Mountain         Hermes            Higher Wisdom          Clarifying Word

Garden               Eros                 Higher Love                 Unifying Spirit

Cave                   Adonis             Lower Love                  Unifying Spirit

Furnace           Prometheus    Lower Wisdom           Clarifying Word

Here, epiphany and response of the outline in Notes 52, just reproduced, have been replaced by clarity and unity.  “Clarification” is a word for Frye that connotes intelligibility, discrimination, and division, associations it has in 2 Timothy 2:15, where God’s workman is enjoined to “rightly divide the word of truth.”  Such charts as this, however, suggest a much more systematic effort to relate Word and Spirit to the four archetypes than Frye consciously undertakes in Words with Power.  In the Late Notebooks, he appears to be aiming for a more or less definitive organizing pattern to replace the discarded epiphany-response dialectic described above.  Of the numerous Word-Spirit formulas that emerge, here is a baker’s dozen:

1.  The images of the Word-Spirit dialogue are a metaphorical counterpart to what Hegel creates conceptually in The Phenomenology of Spirit. (CW 5, 19).

2.  Word and Spirit are more or less synonyms for metaphor image (juxtaposed images) and symbol (spiritual meaning).  (CW 5, 185–6)

3.  The interpenetration of word and spirit is higher kerygma, not the proclamation of God associated with lower kerygma. (CW 5, 209)

4.  The “ultimate fusion” of Word and Spirit is, like the fourth awareness, beyond the poetic.  This fusion might have been evident in Stevens’s great poem of earth and Mallarmé’s alchemical Great Work, had they been able to write them (LN, 1:214).  In like manner, “Spirit is the initiative excluded from literature”; for vision to be total, the Spirit must animate the Word. (CW 5, 271–2)

5.  Word and Spirit have nothing to do with doctrine and everything to do with experience. (CW 6, 704)

6.  The total identity of Word and Spirit results when the hierarchy of Plato’s three‑storied universe is left behind by an Aufhebung that does not cancel myth and metaphor but lifts them to a spiritual level where all ideology is dissolved (CW 5, 391).  An oracular version of the same point: “the mountain [that is, the image of authority and hierarchy], after passing the metamorphosis of the Word (Transfiguration) moves into the stars and the great cosmic dance begins” (CW 5, 279).

7.  If we think of the story of Jesus not as history but as a myth occurring in the eternal present, then the doctrine of the Resurrection can be humanized and along with it the often uncharitable idea of salvation (no one is “saved” outside of or before Jesus).  “The Word and Spirit in man then coincide into something that has its being in God” (CW 6, 671).

8.  In the Word and Spirit dialogue, proclaimer and listener, signifier and signified are identified: words become spiritual realities.  (CW 5, 286)

9.  In the apocalypse of the Word and Spirit dialogue, the Creation is transformed and renewed and “the U-shaped comic ending reverses the cycles of history, where resurrection abolishes rebirth and revolution-culbute abolishes revolution-turning wheel” (CW 5, 329).

10.  Without an interaction of Word and Spirit, the Word dies, as the first generation of Israelites did in the wilderness. (CW 5, 32).

11.  The Word and Spirit dialogue is a dialectic of revelation.  (CW 5, 116)

12.  Word and Spirit are a part of the katabatic movement.  In the Romantic cosmos, they meet at the bottom of the descent into nothingness; they are different aspect of the same substance. (CW 5, 294–5)

13.  Because the dialogue of Word and Spirit is about human awareness, it moves “in the direction of obliterating all the nonsense of either-or and God plus man.”  It therefore does not involve any suggestion of the supernatural, though “it doesn’t eliminate such suggestions either.” (CW 5, 368).

If there is a common thread running through these discontinuous speculations, it is the effort to specify the goal of the dialogue, and the language used to formulate that goal is familiar: the unity that comes from the Hegelian Aufhebung (as in no. 1), the interpretation in higher kerygma and resurrection (as in nos. 3 and 9), the fusion achieved in the fourth awareness (as in no. 4), total identity (as in nos. 6 and 8), the dialectic of revelation (as in no. 11), and the erasing of either‑or distinctions (as in no. 13).  The monologue is always surrounded by the anxieties of the self-alienating ego, but the dialogue is a social form of dialectic.  As a communal form, the dialogue of Word and Spirit should issue in, to quote again a passage from Words with Power, “the only genuine form of human society, the spiritual kingdom of Jesus, founded on the caritas or love which for Paul is not one virtue among others but the only virtue there is” (89).  This is the conclusion that Frye draws from what the clarifying Word and the unifying Spirit can, in his words, create together, love being the product of the unifying vision.

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1 thought on “Word and Spirit

  1. Robert D. Denham

    The second chart in above post should be formatted like this:

    Archetype God Ascent/Descent Theme Dialogical Focus

    Mountain Hermes Higher Wisdom Clarifying Word
    Garden Eros Higher Love Unifying Spirit
    Cave Adonis Lower Love Unifying Spirit
    Furnace Prometheus Lower Wisdom Clarifying Word


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