Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Bible and Literature with Northrop Frye: Proposed DVD


We are delighted to present the following announcement from Bob Rodgers:

In 1981-82, as producers at the then U of T Media Centre, Bill Somerville and I recorded Northrop Frye’s classic lectures and seminars on The Bible And Literature, and have recently had them converted from analog video to the digital format. Now an independent producer, I am in discussions with Carol Moore, Chief Librarian at the Robarts Library, U of T, to adapt this material to DVD format for global distribution in the educational market. Each of 24 programs will include a full video-taped lecture, a related seminar, and interactive contextual and explanatory notes.The Main Menu reads as follows:

The Bible and Literature with Northrop Frye

Program One

An Approach to the Bible and Translations of the Bible (The Lecture)

Lecture Breakdown

Seminar Segment

Lecture Transcript

References for Lecture One

Study Guide

Series Synopses

The video and support materials are designed for private study, at home or in a library, just like a book, but with interactive references at a click. As Frye intended, the information is aimed at undergraduate students lacking the basic familiarity with the Bible he believed was needed to respond adequately to western literature. Secondary applications are for use in seminars or informal study groups where this or that section of the DVD may be used for stimulation or talking points by the seminar or group leader.

For a short video clip from the lecture segment of the pilot DVD, go to For technical reasons the picture quality of this clip is inferior to that of the DVD. We have also produced a test pilot of Program One and have a limited number of copies to send to “Friends of Frye” who would like to receive a copy by mail free of charge. If you would like one, please send us your postal address and we will do our best to get it out to you.

What we would like in return is your assessment of the value of the series, a testimonial or endorsement if it meets with your approval, and an indication as to whether or not your institution is likely to aquire it. While some units will be available earlier, we anticipate completion of the full 24 part series to take 18 months from the start of production.

We are receiving queries about this undertaking from across Canada, the US, and abroad. Your response would be much appreciated as we bring it to fruition.

Contact: Bob Rodgers, Producer …. 416 504 2196….<>
ARCHIVEsync…. 110 The Esplanade, Suite 611. Toronto. Ontario M5E 1X9

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).

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Germaine Warkentin: “How might ‘The Educated Imagination’ lead us forth into the 21st Century?”


From the Frye Literary Festival, Moncton: Germaine Warkintin’s opening remarks at a roundtable discussion on April 22, 2009. We will shortly be archiving material from the Frye Festival in a dedicated area.

A few months ago I was asked by a colleague to lecture at an American university of good repute, and he asked me to send him several different topics to choose from. I produced four, one of which was a paper on Northrop Frye. About a week later he got back to me. “I think we’d like you to talk about the 17thC Jesuit,” he said; “I can’t find anybody here who is interested in Frye.”

That’s an academic response, and it came from young people who are still in grad school, people who were probably about six or eight years old when Frye died in 1991. And it’s contradicted by the excellent sales figures of Frye’s books, from Fearful Symmetry (1947) to The Double Vision (1991). Forty-four years of work, still being attended to by someone out there, as this wonderful festival clearly shows. What’s going on here?

The first thing to note is that the loss or diminution of the repute of a major intellectual figure is almost inevitable in the years after his or her death; we can all think of examples. But this is clearly a diminution in only one area, the academic study of literary theory. It doesn’t seem to be the case with a wider audience. As a matter of fact, Northrop Frye is almost alone among critics in commanding a wider audience in this day of intensely specialized academic critical discourse.

Perhaps my own response to The Educated Imagination offers a clue here: I edited it, with his other early critical writings, for the “Collected Works,” and I asked for the job because I love it as a piece of writing. It operates on me in just the way Jean Wilson just described in her presentation. Frye can be a marvelous writer: coolly compassionate, sometimes slangy, immensely literate of course, and as engaging as a favourite uncle. In life he wasn’t much like an uncle — he was actually rather shy, at least when I knew him, between his early fifties and his death. But his writing created that uncle-like impression.

This is one of the best examples I know of Frye’s own theory about how literature functions: the writer’s imagination creates not a mirror of the external world, but a possible model of experience for the reader to work with — and within. In his writing Frye provided the model of an immensely wise and witty reader of the canonical works of western literature. It’s a model that invites the reader into that imagined world, composed of King Lear, The Divine Comedy, the poetry of Paul Valery and Wallace Stevens, the criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, and of course what for him were the really big books: Blake, Finnegan’s Wake, the Bible.

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Extra-Rational Exuberance

Thanks to the recent addition of our new byline correspondents and an extraordinarily good week of extraordinarily good posts, I am experiencing (to tweak Alan Greenspan’s famous formulation) a surge of extra-rational exuberance.

There’s no accounting for taste, of course, although there can at least be an accounting of it.  All of the arts provide us an opportunity to feel — to know! — that the world can be changed for the better, and we find our private anthems where we can.  Here’s one I’ve been hitting the replay button on all day; from the Cold War depths of the Reagan era and the Golden Age of Indie Rock, REM’s “Radio Free Europe”  I can’t be the only person who hears Peter Buck’s joyfully pealing arpeggios and feels the involuntary pleasure of knowing that I am both free and have some very hard work to do.

Calling all in transit / Calling all in transit . . .

The Void Between the Stars


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.

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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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