Frye on Religion in the Late Notebooks: A Little Anthology


Notebook 27.

[87]  Re the previous (but one) note: expanded consciousness is not religion, of course, but it may be the precondition for any ecumenical or everlasting-gospel religion.  Note that the gospel-church begins with ecstatic phenomena (speaking in tongues), and that our own time is rich in frenzies and hysterias along with more genuine phenomena.  LSD (when it’s a good trip) appears to increase the intensity of the feeling of oneness with the object.

[104]  The Word-Spirit dialogue is slowly assuming a spiral or ladder shape: it conceivably might work out to a counterpart of Hegel’s Ph [Phenomenology of Spirit], only in images instead of concepts, with a religion of parable forming its crisis.  And, of course, there’s the other great hope that it would follow the four levels of meaning.

[106]  The dialectic movement from creation to exodus is clearing.  The forming of a specific mythology is the only possible response to a hidden creation.  As Blake says, religion is a specific social development of the Poetic Genius [All Religions Are One].  In a sense a mythology negates or denies the creation, on Hegelian principles.

[128]  In metaphor, as I said, across [par. 122], we have Joseph “here” and bough “there”: by identifying them in an assertion which “everybody” knows is not “real” identity we eliminate space and have only verbal space.  Similarly with myth and time.  The god, I said, stabilizes the metaphor: all religions lean in a subjective (Dionysian) direction, where you identify with the god through a group, or an objective one where the god remains transcendental and adored.

[136]  I’ve mentioned how in the 19th c. religion gets identified with the find-the-true-church puzzle [par. 43].  Newman is the pattern here.  I suppose S.K.’s [Kierkegaard’s] attack on “Christendom,” perhaps even Nietzsche’s anti-Xn [anti-Christian] polemics, are a kind of neo-Protestantism.

[151]  Thus, without losing its specific historical orientation through Judaism and Christianity, the Bible is an archetypal model of a perennial philosophy or everlasting gospel.  At least, that’s what I’d call it if I were writing a book on religion.  We really do move from creation to recreation.

[197]  I have very few religious books, & those I have stress the mystics.  I have great difficulty, nonetheless, in reading, say, Boehme, because mystics (less true of Boehme than of others) seem so masochistic: isn’t this stuff just wonderful that we have to say we believe anyway?  But now Boehme is making more sense as I move closer to light and signature symbolism.  Once more, it’s not that I “believe” him but that this is the kind of link between the Bible and the creative imagination that I’m looking for.

[206]  I need more on primary & secondary concern.  I want the Innis stuff about Reformers & Marxists settling into an adversary situation.  Marxism in theory transcends ideology, & some bourgeois masochists (Barthes) go along with this.  But when we look at what Lenin says about religion it’s clear that a counter-ideology is being set up: there’s no transcendence of ideology.  So my faith-ideology-secondary concern and charity-transcendence-primary concern still stands.

[207]  Anyway, the religious-secular dichotomy doesn’t work, except as an illusion of ideological adversaries.  A “pro-religious” attitude merely keeps an “anti-religious” one in business, and vice versa.  That’s the real implication of my aligning revolutionary psychologies in Biblical religions and Marxism, not some bromide like “Marxism is really a religion after all” (though I’ve said it is in interviews).  Everybody knows that all religious social phenomena are inextricably bound up with “secular” elements in politics and economics.  So in reverse.

[208]  To call religion an illusion or communal neurosis, as Freud does, says nothing either: we create all our reality out of what begins as illusion, and living under social discipline is itself a neurosis.  What Freud said of religion was, in effect, precisely what Karl Krauss [Kraus] said of Freudian therapy; that it is the disease of which it professes to be the cure.

[209]  This dissolving of the religious/secular dichotomy would take me quite a long way.  What does have to be abandoned in religion are the things that violate primary concern, like human sacrifice or persecution of “heretics.”  But such things are, again, inseparable from “secular” forms of tyranny, cruelty or exploitation.  A superstition is something we do without knowing why we do it; if we are faced with the question of why we do it, we must rush in to plaster it over with rationalizations.

[278]  I’ve said elsewhere in this notebook that I’m not interested in the cliché “Marxism is really a religion after all” [par. 207], but in the fact that the religious-secular, theist-atheist antithesis doesn’t make sense anymore.  It restates the old business about the resemblance between Biblical & Classical myths.  The paranoids said the heathen fables were all devil’s parodies; the reasonable people said they were the natural man’s counterpoint to revealed truth.  Today there are thoughtful people in Latin America and elsewhere who realize that Christianity and Marxism sooner or later have to kiss & make up: there are paranoids in Marxism yelping about “ideological contamination” and now I see the Vatican bureaucracy has come out with a no-you-mustn’t admonition to politically radical priests.

[379]  There’s no sense in writing this book at all unless I can work out a third stage of myth beyond the poetic.

[401]  The church & the world both educate, but the world does a far better job, & in modern society the relevance & value of a religion is gauged by the quality of its worldliness (i.e. its urbanity).  Matthew Arnold’s argument, put on a historical basis, would be something like this: originally all cultural activities were in a sense religious.  To the extent that a religion separated itself from the rest of culture, it started heading for sectarianism.  To the extent that it rejoins the total body of culture, it improves itself as well as the culture.

[402]  At the same time I don’t want my dialectic of belief & vision to get caught in Arnold’s Hebraic-Hellenic one, which is mostly horseshit.  But if mythology is prior to ideology, then the arts and not philosophy are the primary analogies of religion.  Even the sacraments, the traditional primary analogies, are closer to the arts than to argument.

[408]  I’m no evangelist or revivalist preacher, but I’d like to help out in a trend to make religion interesting and attractive to many people of good will who will have nothing to do with it now.  The literalist view of meaning makes those who take it seriously hysterical.  Before long they’re saying that serious writers are wallowing in filth, that children should be spanked as often as possible, that not going to church/mass on Sunday is a mortal sin, that it offends God to call one’s bum an arse, & the rest of the dreary rigmarole.  I suppose the root of the hysteria is the threat of hell: I note that these people are always hailing with delight something like herpes or AIDS or, of course, any uncertainty connected with evolution or the pill.  Under the law, the more religiosity, the less charity.

[445]  The religious perspective is essential to the study of literature: some people resent this because they cannot think of religion as anything but an ideology to be either believed or disbelieved.  Then there are all the students who tell me that they can’t take the “dogma” but feel that there’s something about religion that’s real.  When I define this something as mythology, a created fiction (tautology, really), just as the world described in Genesis 1 is a created fiction to God, they get confused.

[500]  The worst governments are those with double ideologies, where a political doctrine is backed by a religious one, as in Iran.  Israel is better, but I’d hate to live even there.  But South Africa’s apartheid is buttressed by a remarkably dismal Dutch Reformed creed, and fifty years ago the word “Christian” in the name of a political party meant “Roman Catholic Fascist.”

Notebook 44.

[8]  Religion may be an “ultimate” concern, as Tillich says: it can’t be a primary one.  We can’t live a day without being concerned about food, but we can live all our lives without being concerned about God, impoverished as such a life would be.

[48]  Wisdom in the Bible is an outgrowth of Torah, instruction, the completion of the knowledge of good and evil in its genuine form.  Biblical wisdom is not just wisdom, not the wisdom of Egypt or Sumeria, any more than its Yahweh is Ptah or Enki.  It has affinities, of course, but not to the point of blurring its identity.  That’s why Hebrew wisdom develops dialectically into prophecy, which again is Biblical prophecy, not Zoroaster or Tiresias prophecy.  All religions are one, not alike: a metaphorical unity of different things, not a bundle of similarities.  In that sense there is no “perennial philosophy”: that’s a collection, at best, of denatured techniques of concentration.  As doctrine, it’s platitude: moral maxims that have no application.  What there is, luckily, is a perennial struggle.

[103]  I’m wrong about religion as an ultimate but not a primary concern.  Where did I come from and where am I going are primary concerns, even if we don’t believe there are any answers.  But if only the social institution answers, the answer is ideological only.  Maybe that is something we learn about only from literature, but God, the digging & burrowing to get at it!

[143]  The more doctrinaire forms of Marxism (Stalin & the gang-of-four Maoists) attempt to replace mythology wholly with ideology, and, consistently with that, deny that anything transcends the human individual except the human social.  I’ve often felt that an over-emphasis on the social perspective, whether Marxist or not, ignores the whole “laboratory” aspect of fiction: the isolating of an individual from his social context to study those things that only the individual can experience.  (Which is practically every experience in itself, as distinct from its similarities in others.)  The question is that the mythological perspective of tradition may lead to some kind of religious transcendental, as it so often does in practice.

[165]  Note how the variety of body metaphors dries up under the Cartesian pressure of regarding the body as a mechanism.  The liver as the seat of passion has gone; the metaphorical “heart” remains, but anyone who, like Sibbes, wanted to publish a rather attractive set of sermons on the Song of Songs would hardly call it Bowels Opened.  Only the brain remains the subject of a dispute as to whether it’s the source or the transmitter of consciousness.  I think the latter: I think there is only Spirit as subject and Otherness (the source of our life, origin and destiny) united by the Word, the articulate spirit, and the intelligible guide to the Otherness, for which “Father” is a better metaphor than the “Mother” that identifies it with Nature.

[166]  This sounds like the Hindu trinity in reverse: it’s the “Father” who is destroyer and preserver, and Shiva appears to be the Spirit.  Not that it matters so damn much when they’re all the same god.  But the Bible insists that the real Otherness is not nature.  In the study of nature all metaphors are pernicious: as soon as the metaphor becomes inevitable we’re in the religious area.

[167]  Then again, as I’ve always known, all the grim and hateful aspects of the Father-God in traditional religion are derived from Nature, especially in her white-goddess or terrible-mother aspect.

[168]  Why does the Word have to become flesh?  Presumably so that mythically it can accomplish a quest, and metaphorically identify all the categories of being.  In Xy [Christianity] the judgment of society & the conquest of death & hell have now taken place: the identity of all being has still to come.  Surely I’m doing something more than just playing around here.  The Spirit is a community at first, hence a sheltering womb: individual growth is portrayed in Jesus’ “father’s business” episode [Luke 2:49].

[193]  In a more sensible Christian world people would move in and out of Catholic and Protestant lifestyles, instead of all this ideological crap about once-for-all baptism or conversion, always having to be either in or out of the church.  Maybe that will happen when we get rid of the religious-secular antithesis, stop thinking that “Why does a God permit so much evil and suffering?” is a serious question, and start asking the question in its genuine form: “Why do we permit so much evil and suffering?”

[206]  I want, of course, to write one more major book, concerned with the relation of religion to literature.  [cf. 267 below]  So far the articulating of this book eludes me, though the fragments that have come clear seem to have the requisite originality.  The opening is all right: there are two parts to it, myth & metaphor.  The first part speaks of myth as having an ideological function, in contrast to folktale & legend, but being superseded as language by dialectical prose.  The poet to this day owes his authority to the preserving of mythological language.  This makes him more primitive, but prevents him (and society) from pure ideological obsession.  The units of poetry are metaphors, which in literature are hypothetical only, but are attached to what I call existential metaphor, the “lunatic and lover” of Theseus’ speech [A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.7].

[256]  A developed civilization has a plurality of connected but autonomous pursuits, of which literature is one.  A primitive society has all its cultural activities closely linked to religion.  Hence the ecstatic nature of dances & myths where the “let’s pretend” hypothesis is swallowed up in participation.  But a modern performance of Hamlet is not just let’s pretend either, except that the audience at least is expected to distinguish fiction from fact, with enough detachment to know it’s a play, and enough sensitivity not to say that it’s just a play.

[267]  I don’t think the doleful mood recorded on p. 80 [par. 254] is the final answer.  It’s common knowledge that religious movements are ideological, and closely parallel political & economic ones.  The seminal but immensely overstated parallel of Weber between Protestantism & the work ethic is an example.  The other side of this is that theological structures provide diagrammatic models for political & economic programs (cf. the ideologies of the 17th c. English revolutions).  I am not interested in the relation of religion and literature, where there may be any number of “either-or” contrasts and dilemmas—aporias, we knowledgeable people call them—but in the relation of the Bible & Western literature.

[274]  The vulnerable parts of the Bible for this approach are the creation myths in Genesis, Ruth & the Song of Songs, Job, John, and of course the Apocalypse.  Oh, God, I hope this is the great religio-literary revolution I’ve dreamed of bringing off, and isn’t just one more illusion of the same old illusion.

[372]  What attracts me about Valéry is (a) his secularizing of all the religious metaphors of Mallarmé (b) his continuing of the Boehme tradition.  Mallarmé really does talk sometimes as though he thought literature was a “substitute” for religion, though of course no “substitute” can have more than an ersatz reality.  I suppose he would say, if he were using my terms, that literature is the antitype of what religious symbolism hazily points to.  This is a defensible view in itself, but criticism has further to go than that.

[397]  I seem to be moving toward some kind of final statement, but it doesn’t have to be a single unified statement.  The book these notes are preoccupied with is the main job, but there’s a number of other things I want to do that this book can’t cannibalize.  The education hamper-spanker is on its way, but there are still over twenty unpublished, or rather unreprinted, essays.  Most of them will probably get absorbed in Words with Power, but some won’t: the Wagner, the Morris, the Vico perhaps, the Vico-Bruno-Joyce, the Castiglione, the More’s Utopia paper I’m doing now, the Wiegand lecture, the Royal Society symbols paper, the Smith paper perhaps—that’s nine, even if the others (Ontario 1784-1984, the short lyric introduction) get squeezed out, and the various religion papers (Montreal, Chicago, Vision-Belief, Way, Ladder, etc.) get absorbed in here.  I think the Ruth paper will still make a tenth.  [These last papers are (1) “The Mythical Approach to Creation,” presented at the meeting of the Learned Societies, Montreal, 4 June 1985; pub. in Myth and Metaphor, 238–54. (2) “The Expanding World of Metaphor,” presented at the meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Chicago, 8 December 1984; pub. in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 53 (December 1985): 585-98; rpt. in ibid., 108-123. (3) “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision,” presented at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto, 3 December 1985; pub. in Shenandoah, 39, no. 3 (1989): 47–64; rpt. in ibid., 93–107. (4) “The Journey as Metaphor,” presented at the Applewood Centre, Toronto, 8 October 1985; pub. in ibid.,, 212–26. (5) “Repetitions of Jacob’s Dream,” presented at the National Gallery, Ottawa, 13 October 1983; pub. in The Eternal Act of Creation, 37–49.  Of these 1 and 5 are in Northrop Frye on Religion.]

[444]  Protestantism is a wonderful religion: I wish I knew what Tillich meant by his “principle.”  It has no real cultural substance.  One thinks of Hopkins as a Catholic poet: one doesn’t think of Byron & Shelley & Keats as Protestant poets, even though two of them were buried in the “Protestant cemetery” in Rome.  The hidden genius of the faith of the released Word transmuted them into something rich and strange.

[707]  The 30s of this century were frightened by the power of the masses led by a mass-man, and religious people turned to the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, as the source of verbal as opposed to brutal power.  But the Incarnation is only the Apollonian or order side of the Word; the Resurrection, the Dionysian expression of the power, completes it.  Well, who denies that?  I’m trying to get at the tension of opposites.


Notebook 46.

[49]  The individual grows out of the community: an infallible communion, whether Christian or Moslem or the Holy Communist Church of China, keeps human beings in an embryonic state.  The metaphors of flock and sheepfold are very dangerous.  What is the continuous function of the church?  What chance has one to develop an individual religious consciousness if the communal body isn’t there?

Notebook 47.

[21]  All critics stop here {at the ideological stage} who are not primarily concerned with literature but with the relation of literature to a more central interest, whether historical, radical, feminist, or the like.  To deal with literature itself in terms of its own mythical & metaphorical language we have to take one more step.  (Of course the same principle applies if the central interest is religion.  Kerygma poses special problems, but religion as a social institution is still soma psychikon).  Kerygma is a form of language, or rather a function of language.

Notebook 48.

[5]  In the GC [The Great Code] the apocalyptic symbols are of two kinds: the provided ones and the achieved ones.  The achieved are the images of human work in transforming animal, vegetable & mineral worlds.  The provided ones are symbolized by the paradisal: angelic & divine orders are projected, though symbolically they’re provided too—provisional, let’s say.  Man is in the middle, with the two forms meeting in him.  This is the whole riddle of religion: eliminating the provided is arrogant humanism: it makes a divinity out of the psychotic creeps who pollute the earth.  Eliminating the achieved is irresponsible fatalism.¯

Notebook 50.

[603]  Everyone knows with half his brain that the language of religion is myth and metaphor; with the other half we continue to use rhetorical adaptations of conceptual and dialectical language.  Intro. [NF underscores the point several times in the Introduction.  See WP, xv–xxi.]

[680]  Four: the sacraments of religion may be “more” than symbolic, but the understanding of them must approach them symbolically before they can mean anything “more” than that.  To try to decide at what point some sacramental kerygmatic essence enters that takes it “beyond” symbolism would be a dreary & futile exercise.  It’s an intensification of the symbolic, not a transcending of it.

Notebook 52.

[209]  The Feuerbach principle, that man creates God in his own image, is the one that all religions apply to all other religions except themselves.  But it can of course be applied to them by others.  I haven’t the least objection to having it said that my religion is essentially my own creation.  I feel that it must be that way because my understanding of anything is finite; but I think the position I do hold is one that enables me to crawl a little farther and discover a bit more.  Faced with a Jew, a Moslem, a Catholic, an atheistic humanist, I should not deny for a second that they also have positions from which to advance.  All this is very elementary: one assumption I’ve so far left aside.  I am what I am because of certain historical events: the Protestant Reformation, the Anglican settlement, the Methodist movement, the transfer of religious energies to the New World.  Hence if I express a tolerance that grants to any position the capacity of moving nearer whatever truth is, I am also annihilating history, assuming that all religious theory and practice today begins in a kind of apocalypse in which past history has exhausted its significance as such.  The nineteenth-century obsession with conversion, mainly from Protestant to Catholic positions, was a desperate effort to keep history continuous: I think it no longer works, if it ever did.

[302]  3.  The tentative, as above [par. 300].  The metaphor can be easily abandoned, because it isn’t taken very seriously in the first place.  Even metaphors like “Christ is God and Man,” which are the basis of Christianity because the real nitty-gritty of any religion can only be expressed in metaphors, are like a rope bridge across a gorge.  You may commit your life to a belief that it will get you across, but there will be moments when you wish you hadn’t.

[395]  Let us now put this into some kind of historical context.  In the earliest traces of human creativity we can discover, such as the cave-drawings in Altamira or Lascaux, we see pictures of animals, drawn with joy and exuberance under the most fantastically difficult conditions of positioning and lighting.  We can isolate various aspects of the impulse to produce these paintings, the most obvious being the magical impulse, to ensure a plentiful supply of game.  But no single aspect, magical, religious or aesthetic, brings us to the centre of the titanic will to identification with the objects represented.  That seems to be what has been called a participation mystique, a sense of identity with the object which is not verbal but existential.  We notice that some of the figures are those of sorcerers or shamans dressed in animal skins, another aspect of identification.  Similarly, the earliest use of music seems to have been primarily ecstatic (as on p. 4).  Also rituals.¯

[396]  In this context, the verbal metaphor represents a cultural stage where there is a strong sense of a cleavage between subject and object.  Positively, the metaphor creates what Martin Buber would call a world of “Thou” between the worlds of the ego and the “it.”  So even in religions that no longer accept deified nature-spirits, the language about God still has to remain largely metaphorical, as it does in the Bible.  The central Christian doctrines, for example, are still metaphorical in grammatical formulation, as in “Christ is God and man.”  But to the extent that the sense of a subject-object partition of experience grows, metaphor becomes increasingly hypothetical, and hence confined to the literary orbit of experience, where we make no assertions or denials but only imaginative postulates.  play (Bacon).¯

[397]  {The bridge of ropes comment.}¯  Much of the conviction expressed by so many contemporary writers about the death of God and the disappearance of the religious dimension of experience is derived from the negative and ironic aspect of metaphor, the feeling that these are “only metaphors after all.”  One writer who shared this view of religious experience was Ovid, whose main theme is metamorphosis, in the sense of the collapse of a personality into a purely natural object, in other words the breakdown of metaphor, the expression of a god’s maintaining of the balance.  Existential identification, in ritual or elsewhere, is now something to be distrusted: it is Don Quixote at the puppet show, the inability to distinguish reality from fiction; it is hysteria and mob frenzy.  The kind of self-identification with fictional figures that we all probably make in childhood is also thought of as immature.

[515]  Well, I must see what Stevens says: I think he’s the brightest hope, though Mallarme and some of the science fiction patterns (Solaris)¯ have to be examined too.  The paradox of nothing.  One can only get out of the prison of Narcissus by raising the level of consciousness: maybe religion today has to pass through the Oriental meditation techniques.  But then I’ve always insisted that works of art are also objects of meditation no less than mandalas.

[625]  Not much interest in reviving gods or nature-spirits today: rather a feeling of a common consciousness engaged with total nature.  Notion of common consciousness in all the serious religions and the scientists too—Schrodinger.¯  Antithesis between religious and secular doesn’t work any more, if it ever did.  All religious phenomena have a secular aspect, and vice versa.

[904]  Totality of community: Christian conception of Christ as total man, also as total intelligible world or word; key to metaphor and the identity of things.  Goes beyond Christianity: the old antithesis between the religious and the secular doesn’t work any more, if it ever did.  Religion linked to ecstatic metaphor: a man’s religion is what he wants to identify himself with.

Notebook 53.

[104]  Powerful pull toward the primitive submission to doctrine: I’ve always been attracted by those who took religion seriously enough to use it as a basis, but then struggled with it like Jacob with the angel.  Blake, Emily Dickinson, Yeats, perhaps Rimbaud, certainly Baudelaire.  Nobody gets converted to Protestantism: it doesn’t provide the right primitive basis.  It provides only a medium for struggle and, in itself, only a hard Ersatz primitivism.

[111]  First lecture: the only religious minds of any real interest today are those who struggle with their faith like Jacob with the angel, like Emily Dickinson, Blake, Baudelaire, etc.  The notion of fighting with one’s faith was denounced in Catholic circles until very recently, and of course still is in nearly all official circles.  But it’s gaining ground even there.

Notebook 55.1

[11]  Whether I have any more books to write or not, I still want to consider the points of silence in religion: the silence of before being, expressed by the word creation; the silence of after being, expressed by the word apocalypse; the incarnating of those silences in human birth and death.

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