The Broken Estate

[Wesley Memorial United Church, Moncton, NB]

In his book Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, Bob Denham lists the half-dozen spiritual illuminations that Frye experienced during his lifetime, and quotes Frye from the late notebooks: “I have spent the greater part of seventy-eight years in writing out the implications of insights that occupied at most only a few seconds of all that time.”

“Moments of intensity,” Frye called them. Epiphanies. Insights. Illuminations. Intuitions. The first occurred in Moncton, one day when he was walking from his home on Pine Street to Aberdeen High School, a distance of about 10 blocks. In an interview with Robert Sandler (recorded Sept. 20, 1979, and quoted in John Ayre’s biography), Frye

remembered walking along St. George St. to high school and just suddenly that whole shitty and smelly garment (of fundamentalist teaching I had all my life) just dropped off into the sewers and stayed there. It was like the Bunyan feeling, about the burden of sin falling off his back only with me it was a burden of anxiety. Anything might have touched it off, but I don’t know what specifically did, or if anything did. I just remember that suddenly that that was no longer a part of me and would never be again.

In April, 2011, when Michael Happy was in Moncton to give a talk at the Frye Festival, he and I spent an afternoon exploring the various Frye sites that mark the city, sites that go back to his time here in the 1920s and new sites created by the festival in the last 13 years. From his house at 24 Pine Street and the Wesley Memorial Church on Cameron we drove and walked along St. George Street, trying to imagine where it was exactly that the albatross was lifted. A likely spot seemed to be at the corner of St. George and Lutz, where the Roman Catholic Cathedral towers above all else and is suitably massive, dark, and forbidding. (Though I know from experience it houses one of the great organs in Canada, and is central to Acadian culture and history.) We snapped pictures of the near-by gutter, thinking we’d surely found the spot. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Cathedral, a fact I should have known, was only built in 1939. So we still do not know where it happened. The important thing, for Frye and for us, is that it did happen.

Yet looking back on the Moncton illumination, Frye realized, as he said to David Cayley in December, 1989 (having said something similar in the Sandler interview):

I wasn’t really brought up with that garment on me at all. Mother told me a lot of nonsense because her father had told it to her, and she thought it must be true and that it was her duty to pass it on. But something else came through, and you know how quick children are at picking up the overtones in what’s said to them rather than what is actually said. I realize that Mother didn’t really believe any of this stuff herself… She thought she did believe it. She thought she ought to believe it. But I can see now that as a child I picked up the tone of common sense behind it. Mother had a lot of common sense in spite of all that stuff.

It’s easy to hear in these words a great affection for his mother, who is the one after all who got him going at the age of 3 or so, with reading and music and much else. It’s one of the reasons no doubt, this affection, that brought him to Moncton in Nov., 1990, two months before his death, to lecture at l’université de Moncton, give a talk at Moncton High School, and in general receive a hero’s welcome. This may have been his only visit to Moncton since the 1940s, when his mother died. One of his primary wishes was to visit her gravesite in Elmwood Cemetery.What was Frye left with when he shed this shitty garment of fundamentalism, or when he had the experience of shedding it, even if it wasn’t really on him in full force? In The Double Vision he writes:

In Methodism, even of the episcopal variety to which my family belonged, there was an emphasis on religious experience as distinct from doctrine and on very early exposure to the story element in the Bible. Such conditioning may have helped to propel me in the direction of a literary criticism that has kept revolving around the Bible, not as a source of doctrine but as a source of story and vision.

In the Cayley conversation he again says, “In Methodism you listen to the stories of the Bible” with less concern for the structure of doctrine. But what’s important is not just the story but how you listen to the story. “I think Methodism is an approach to Christianity that puts a very heavy emphasis on the quality of experience.” So there is story and how you experience the story. Story and vision.

In 1999 the critic James Wood published a remarkable collection of 22 essays, each on an individual author, each insightful and thrilling to read. The book was called The Broken Estate because it’s about ways writers cope in an age when religion has lost its grip and feels if not dead then irrelevant. In his Introduction Wood writes:

I would define the old estate as the supposition that religion was a set of divine truth-claims, and that the Gospel narratives were supernatural reports; fiction might be supernatural too, but fiction was always fictional, it was not in the same order of truth as the Gospel narratives. During the nineteenth century, these two positions began to soften and merge. At the high point of the novel’s triumph, the Gospels began to be read, by both writers and theologians, as a set of fictional tales – as a kind of novel. Simultaneously, fiction became an almost religious activity (though not, of course, with religion’s former truth-value, for this was no longer believed in). … Coleridge strove to be one of those readers who might “take up the Bible as they do other books, and apply to it the same rules of interpretation.” Just as fiction supplies, and constitutes, the only evidence for our belief, so Coleridge felt that “the Bible and Christianity are their own sufficient evidence.” If we are to believe the Scriptures, Coleridge seems to argue, it will be because of the novel-like effect those writings have on our hearts, and not because the church has simply asserted that they are supernatural and infallible.

Wood seems here to be inching toward what Frye called “literature plus” but he doesn’t know where to go with it, for in the end he can only conclude that “Christianity, instead of disappearing, merely surrendered its truth-claims and turned itself into a comforting poetry on the one hand or an empty moralism on the other.” In the late notebooks Frye wrote (I quote from Bob Denham’s book), “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.”

On the evidence of James Wood, with all his brilliance, there’s a wall or barrier that prevents people of good will from seeing that there is much more to religion than a set of divine truth-claims.

Frye, in his Moncton illumination, had his own experience of the broken estate, but came out of it seeing that beyond truth-claims there are the stories and the experience of stories (“the novel-like effect those writings have on our hearts”), and beyond stories, beyond poetry there is the power of stories to change lives (Frye’s “kerygma,” Joseph Campbell’s “myths to live by”), and beyond kerygma is spiritual vision. Frye spent his life working out what is beyond the old ‘divine truth-claims’ and what is beyond poetry – that is, beyond the Bible as literature. As the place to go to, to further explore all that is contained in the word “Beyond,” I highly recommend Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World.

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4 thoughts on “The Broken Estate

  1. Veronica Abbass

    It is possible to come to a very different interpretation of Frye’s words, an interpretation that restores Frye’s reputation a leading literary theorist.

    This writers on this website seem to want to recreate Frye to make him a religious visionary. In a comment on March 2, 2011,, Matthew quotes from the 1949 diary:

    “Stayed home & decided to hell with it–I mean correspondence & Forum editorials & such. I’m a Methodist; I hate taking time from the Lord’s work. The Lord’s work for me is sitting still in a comfortable chair thinking beautiful thoughts, & occasionally writing them down. This also happens to be what I like to do, which just shows you how wise the Lord is. …” (8.124)

    This appears to be a private and playful Frye, playing with words to justify not doing what he should do but what he wants to do.

    The passages you include here indicate that Frye, the literary theorist, used the Bible as a set of stories and went “beyond the Bible” in the same way someone could go beyond George Eliot’s novel _Middlemarch_ to visualize Middlemarch, the place.

    1. Joseph Adamson

      It’s not an either/or choice, Veronica. It is both/and. Frye is not a religious visionary at the expense of his literary criticism and theory, or other aspects of his thought. His work is multi-layered and complex–interpenetrating, to use his own word–and the beauty of it is that it opens up so many avenues of insight: literary, spiritual, religious, social, cultural, political, psychological, etc., in a way that very few thinkers do. You are being unfair to the writers at this website to say that we are trying to recreate Frye as a religious visionary. He was a religious visionary, and much else besides, and if you are intellectually honest and go through the last several months of posting you will see that many aspects of Frye’s work are addressed here. One of the reasons the religious got so much attention was simply because of your intervention and objections. We are interested in promoting a diversity of interests here, but it is my distinct impression that because of your own atheistic beliefs and ideology you are promoting a very specific agenda and line of thought. To deny, however, against all available evidence, the importance of the religious and spiritual dimension of Frye’s work is not a viable position. That dog won’t hunt.

  2. Robert Denham

    Two things we should avoid, I think, in thinking about Frye’s work are dogmatism and reductionism. Both inhibit understanding. Books and articles have been written about Frye as a structuralist, as embodying a poetics of process, as a phenomenologist, as a dialectical thinker, as a Blakean Romantic, and a host of other things, including Frye as a religious thinker. To deny this last is to deny practically everything Frye wrote during the last decade and a half of his life. At least one shouldn’t make pronouncements about what Frye is or isn’t without having read volumes 4, 5, 6, 13, 18, 19, 26 of the Collected Works. This considerable body of writing does not gainsay Frye’s status as a literary theorist.

  3. Jonathan Allan

    What is to be gained by setting up this binary wherein Frye is either a “literary theorist” or a “religious visionary”? Or, what is at stake in this argument that Frye is more a literary theorist and less a religious visionary? I’m not sure I understand why readers (we?) would want to see Frye without religion.


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