Frye and Apocalyptic Feminism

On this date in 1913, militant suffragette Emily Davison was struck by King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.  She died four days later.  She ran out onto the track (as you can see from the footage above) with a suffragette flag, which she evidently intended to attach to the king’s horse.

One of Frye’s entries in notebook 44 consists of this single sentence: “I don’t think it’s coincidence or accident that feminism and ecology should become central issues at the same time” (CW 5, 206).

A modified version of the phrase appears again in chapter six of Words with Power, “Second Variation: The Garden”:

Here we are concerned with the oasis-paradise of gardens and fountains that derives from the Biblical Eden and the Song of Songs.  It may be an impossibly idealized vision of a very tame aspect of nature, especially when in Isaiah it extends to a world in which the lion lies down with the lamb (11:6 ff.).  But it is the beginning of a sense that exploiting nature nature is quite as evil as exploiting other human beings.  Admittedly, the Bible itself has done a good deal to promote the conception of nature as something to be dominated by human arrogance, for historical reasons we have glanced at.  Contact with some allegedly primitive societies in more modern times, with their intense care for the earth that sustains them, has helped to give us some notion of how skewed many aspects of our traditional ideology are on this point.  But even in the Bible the bride-garden metaphor works in the opposite direction by associating nature and love, and I doubt if it is an accident that feminism and ecology have moved into the foreground of social issues at roughly the same time.  (WP 225)

As a matter of myth manifesting primary concern, the equalization of the sexes is implicit in biblical typology.  As a social and historical development, of course, it is all too often an ugly business typical of issues pertaining to power.  But the equalization of the sexes also has an apocalyptic dimension, as Frye’s rendering it in chapter six of Words with Power suggests.

In opening his discussion on the variation of the Garden, Frye observes that before the creation of Eve, Adam—or more properly, “the adam,” derived from the feminine root “adamah,” meaning “earth”—“can have been at best only symbolically male.”  Therefore, what was symbolically female before the appearance of Eve must have been the garden itself.  The garden, then, is the adam’s symbolic mate, although it is not anything he can mate with.  With the creation of Eve—“who, it should be noted, is the supreme and culminating creation”—we have the “seed” of the human community, which interposes “between the individual consciousness and its environment” (WP 191).  This in turn suggests that the derived-from-the-female human community is the archetypal context of all human creativity, a counter-environment to the natural one in which we produce the social conditions of our existence as well as our art.

After the fall male supremacy becomes the primary social fact, although it is also very emphatically a fallen one. Frye notes that if humankind falls as woman, then, typologically, “woman would have to be the central figure in the restoration of the original sexual and social state.”  The centrality of the archetypally and typologically female also accounts for the sexual imagery of the Book of Revelation, “in which Christ alone is male, and the body or society of the redeemed in Jerusalem, the community which is all souls, whether male or female physical bodies, are symbolically female” (WP 192).  It follows from such imagery that even the biological and “socially-gendered” male is also metaphorically female, the implications of which hard-line ideologues of all stripes conspicuously overlook.  The Bible’s single erotic type for this relation between the symbolically male and female is the Song of Songs where the bride’s body is identified with the gardens and running waters of paradise.  Therefore, the Bible’s (and literature’s) promise of an apocalyptically restored sexual identity derives from the fact that when Adam and Eve fall after eating the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, what they end up with is “a repressive morality founded on a sexual neurosis”; that is, the first thing they do after eating the fruit is to see that they are naked and are ashamed.  This supposed “moral knowledge” is disastrous when it is attached to “a sense of shame and concealment about sex, and was forbidden because in that situation it ceases to be genuine knowledge of anything, even of good and evil” (WP 194).  According to the typological perspective of the mythology, this is what we have been living with and attempting to overcome via the creative arts ever since.

The primary concern of the variation of the Garden is sex, and the point of it is that the apocalyptic union of a redeemed human community with its natural environment “is not simple sublimation but an expansion of sexual emotions” (WP 200).  The three elements of the myth to keep in mind are first, its genuine and undisplaced form, which is “the imagery of ascent to and descent from a higher world through love”; second, its ideological adaptation, which is the hierarchical “structure of authority” derived from this top-to-bottom imagery; and, third, its demonic parody as the ideologically-driven fear and loathing of our sexual being, which is still evident in everything from traditionally patriarchal “values conservativism” to the misandry of some branches of feminism.

The genuine form of the Garden myth involves the equalization of the male and female, as well as the identification of human creative effort with the generative power of nature, the two in combination representing the apocalyptic reunion of the human community with its natural environment.  And, obviously, the symbolically and biologically female is indispensable to this process.  In the Song of Songs the bride is described as “a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed,” and is also “traditionally identified in Christian typology with the Virgin Mary, who is metaphorically a replica, in the form of an individual human body, of the original unfallen garden” (WP 202).  But if the Song of Songs is the type whose antitype is the union of Christ the Bridegroom with the Church his Bride, then where does the virgin mother end and the bride begin?  Frye observes that, in the New Testament

there are two aspects of male-female imagery: one is concerned with the virgin mother and Jesus as a son, the other with the imagery of bridegroom and bride.  One aspect is linked to the first coming and the Incarnation, the other to the second coming and the Apocalypse… In the condensed form of pure metaphor, this would mean the rejuvenation of a mother-figure into a bride-figure, the mother of the Word and the bride of the Spirit.  (WP 202-3)

This typological identification of mother, virgin and bride in turn suggests that “psychologically, the rejuvenation of the mother is an internalizing and assimilating of a mother-figure; socially, it is an equalizing of a figure of authority.”  These three aspects of female symbolism in the Bible therefore present, first, “woman as one of the two human sexes,” second, “woman as the representative of human community,” and third, “woman as symbol of the fact that humanity cannot be redeemed in isolation from nature” (WP 203-4).  The apocalyptically redeemed human community, in other words, does not exclude let alone subordinate the socially “inferior” female; it resurrects her and makes her the very threshold of redemption, nothwithstanding the ideologically driven resentments of both patriarchal social dominance and some feminist critical theory.

In the strictly ideological adaptation of the myth denoting the structure of social authority, “it is inevitable that the foreground female figures should suggest maternal authority.”  It is for this reason that the “Father-God and virgin mother of Christianity were reproduced in a priesthood of fathers and a mother church, with celibate orders of brothers and sisters completing a structure of incest taboos” (WP 205).  This is reflected in the poetic tradition by the so-called Courtly Love convention, which also suggests a hierarchy of authority where “the lover attaches himself to a mistress who commands his utter and unquestioning devotion, but without any sexual contact and with no relation to the lover’s marriage” (WP 207).  Thus the ladder of love suggests both Plato’s ascent—which leads to a vision where, as Frye puts it, “identity is love and difference is beauty” (WP 85)—as well as a fall or descent into a lower world of ideologically defined morality and sexual self-consciousness.  One of the features of this lower world, it bears repeating, is the establishment of a fallen patriarchal society.  Another is the descent from a paradisal form of life to an agricultural one, suggesting humanity’s alienation from the natural environment—the continued alienated exploitation of which may result in an “end times” that could prove to be the ecological equivalent of Armageddon if humanity is not soon able to make its primary concerns regarding the environment primary rather than secondary.

There is at least one other significant ideological ramification of the sexual imagery of the Bible, one in which “the center is symbolically male and the circumference is symbolically female” (WP 208).  This imagery of center and circumference is presented “in the final vision of the Apocalypse, where the Bride is the city of the New Jerusalem with the Bridegroom as the temple in the middle of it, except that now there is no place called the temple, but only the body of Christ.  Similarly with the restored garden and the tree of life in the midst of it” (WP 209).  But because centers and circumferences are metaphorically interchangeable and kerygmatically interpenetrating, the female as circumference also implies a socially revolutionary vision represented by the Book of Ruth, in which the female as center is the type for the exiled state of all humanity.  Ruth, with its “themes connected with the position of women in Biblical history, such as levirate marriage and miraculously late births,” suggests “a dimension in which woman expands into a kind of proletariat, enduring, continuous, exploited humanity, awaiting emancipation in a hostile world: in short, an Israel eventually to be delivered from Egypt” (WP 215).

Finally, the demonic parody of the Garden myth is “the sado-masochistic cycle, in which the female may tyrannize over the male or vice versa.”  Here again the metaphorical link between the female and nature is preserved.  When the female is a mother, she is associated with Mother Nature, typically represented as “an earth-goddess” who presides over “a human society in an embryonic state, imprisoned in nature’s cycle of life, death and rebirth” (WP 218).  In a very real (that is, metaphorical) sense, it is from the female that human society must struggle to get born.  This figure also modulates into the “femme fatale” and Robert Graves’s “white goddess” in her threefold form as Cynthia, goddess of the moon, Diana, virgin huntress of the forest, and Hecate, queen of hell.  When the femme fatale is a disdainful or unattainable lover, the association is inevitably with war because “aggressiveness in war seems to go with a weakness in love that sooner or later turns destructiveness into self-destructiveness” (WP 222).  This may help explain why Western civilization’s secular founding myth is the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad, which was inspired by the jealousy of Helen’s beauty and her own voluntary and destructive transfer from one society to another, a theme dealt with in Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s sardonic version of our Eurocentric etiological myth.  The sado-masochistic cycle is also readily reversible, and the femme fatale may of course become an all too typical sacrificial victim of male aggression.  However, as Frye notes: “Male-dominated as the Western literary tradition has been, it is still strewn with heroines whose lives have been betrayed and blighted by callous lovers.  Their reactions range from the ferocity of Medea to the quiet self-obliteration of Ophelia,” neither of whom could be credibly accused of perpetuating the conditions of patriarchy.

This brings us around again to the genuine form of the myth, which is symbolized by the “hierogamy or sacred marriage,” and whose type is Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (WP 223).  The New Testament’s antitype is Christ the Bridegroom united with the Church his Bride.  And, because the explicitly erotic Song of Songs serves as another type, this suggests that “spiritual love expands from the erotic and does not run away from it,” despite the disdain for human sexuality of religious “fundamentalists” everywhere—a sexuality that not only includes Adam and Eve but also arguably includes the “Adam and Steve” so loathed by the homophobia shared by many religions.  The typological point of the erotic, after all, is not that it is simply for making babies but that it is also the spiritual dimension for making love, and it therefore includes homosexuality as surely as it encompasses heterosexuality.  In the same way, if the union symbolized by the “one flesh” of marriage in Genesis 2:24 is the type, then its antitype is “the interpenetration of the spirit” in Revelation (WP 224), or the “all in all” of both St. Paul and John Milton.  It is worth recalling that Milton’s Raphael in Paradise Lost makes it very clear to Adam how inadequate are all notions of heterosexual sex in the missionary position when it comes to love-making among the angels, who are united wherever they touch.  Apocalyptic hierogamy also extends to the bride-garden metaphor in which the Bridegroom represents humanity and the Bride nature.  A final symbolic aspect of hierogamy is related to the convention that Eros is the creator of the arts because humanity’s biologically procreative capacity has always been associated with its imaginatively creative power.  This accounts for the ancient conceit also favored by the Renaissance of the writer as midwife delivering the products of a female Muse, which all by itself demonstrates how readily the biologically and socially-gendered male will identify himself and his efforts as being metaphorically (and therefore prophetically) female.

Like the ladder of wisdom represented by the Mountain, the ladder of love represented by the Garden “leads up to a world which is neither the objective world of science nor the subjective world of psychology” (WP 226).  The world at the top of the ladder, however, does interpenetrate with both because Mountain and Garden are kerygmatic expressions of the primary concerns that inform the mythological underpinnings of the narratives of science and psychology alike. The disclosure of primary concern in the variation of the Garden therefore also has implications for literary criticism because the progress of criticism “has a good deal to do with recognizing beauty in a greater and greater variety of phenomena and situations and works of art.”  It follows that “the ugly, in proportion, tends to become whatever violates primary concern,” adding the appropriate dimension of the “moral” that derives (as Oscar Wilde knew very well) not from the ideological but from the aesthetic.  Which is to say, criticism reveals, or at least should reveal, that the experience of beauty is linked to a sense of the teleological—that is, a process realizing itself to a desired end—which “cannot be reduced to a function that can be demonstrated, although the twentieth century has been making various ill-advised attempts at such reductions.”  In any event, the kerygmatic hierogamy in which the Bridegroom is love and the Bride beauty “leads to the discovery of the reality of beauty,” which is something “we partly perceive and partly create, something belonging both to art and to nature.”  Once again, the typological vision of the Bible reveals “the great recognition that lies behind the totality of human creation” (WP 227).  Such a recognition is the humanly concerned principle of creation itself, which is continuous and ongoing, is as particular in expression as it is universal in reference, and is manifested everywhere in the eternal spring of the creative imagination “when the time of the singing of birds has come” (WP 228).

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