Monthly Archives: December 2012

Frye and Bakhtin: Satire, Saturnalia, and the Carnivalesque

[Mikhail Bakhtin, 1920]

The following is an excerpt, slightly revised, from an essay I wrote some years ago on some of the connections between Frye and contemporary literary theory.  A theme that runs through Frye’s pieces on Christmas is the idea of saturnalia or an upside-down world, a season of festivity and carnival common to many cultures. Such a holiday from the “real world’ is the closest we get to a world that makes human sense, when the social hierarchy is reversed and the spirit of  fellowship, neighbourliness, and joy, released from an oppresive social structure, becomes, for a brief period of license, the social norm. Elsewhere Frye makes the link between saturnalia and comedy and satire, a link that is central to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the novel and the novelistic.

Frye and Bakhtin: Satire, Saturnalia, and the Carnivalesque

Besides practising the art of anatomy himself, Frye did much to resurrect a sense of the importance of the genre in Western literature, and he regarded it as a crucial, if not, like Mikhail Bakhtin, the most important, element flowing into what we now recognize as the novel. The generic radicals of the novel that he isolates–anatomy, romance, confession, and the novel of personality–are, indeed, more or less analogous to the genetic lines that Bakhtin comes up with in “The Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel.”

Bakhtin and Frye are also in agreement in refusing to analyze satire outside of a larger mythological framework. Bakhtin is just as conscious as Frye is of the development of literary structures from myth. The comic novel in the hands of Rabelais, Cervantes, or Dostoevsky, manifests, in Bakhtin’s view, the myth of a collective social body conceived of in the metaphoric form of a giant human body which is born, grows, dies, and renews itself in the course of time. This powerful image of a self-renewing collective human form is strongest in Rabelais, but extends throughout Bakhtin’s work. It is, for example, clearly implied in the insistent anatomical imagery that pervades his writings on the novel, as in the opening paragraph of “Epic and Novel”: “The generic skeleton of the novel is still far from having hardened, and we cannot foresee all its plastic possibilities” (1981: 3); he speaks of the “hardened and no longer flexible skeleton” of genres and of “the establishment and growth of a generic skeleton of literature” (5). This recurrent image of a “generic skeleton” applied to the archaic form of the novel is linked metaphorically to the genre of anatomy as “a comical operation of dismemberment,” “the artistic logic of analysis, dismemberment, turning things into dead objects” (24). There is, then, a dramatic unifying tendency in Bakhtin’s conception of the novel which, in its assumption of an animating mythological framework, is analogous to Frye’s even more ambitious unification of the entire corpus of literature.

Frye sees the circle of mythoi, of which satire or sparagmos is one episode, as being contained in the arche-story of the dragon-killing theme, condensed so tidily in the following summary: “A land ruled by a helpless old king is laid waste by a sea-monster, to whom one young person after another is offered to be devoured, until the lot falls on the king’s daughter: at that point the hero arrives, kills the dragon, marries the daughter, and succeeds to the kingdom” (1957: 189). This central quest-myth, composed of four distinguishable episodes in the life of the hero or divine being, has a comic shape: agon, or adventures; pathos, or death; sparagmos, or disappearance; and anagnorosis, or recognition. These episodes correspond to the four narrative radicals or mythoi that Frye details in the third essay of Anatomy of Criticism: romance, tragedy, irony (and satire), and comedy. It is here that we can recognize the great debt Frye owes to the compendious pioneering work of Frazer on the “dying god,” or to the theme of the white goddess as outlined by Robert Graves. Also important to Frye is the work of the group of British classicists of the early decades of this century, Gilbert Murray, Francis Cornford, and Jane Harrison, who uncovered in Greek rituals based on the myth of the dying god the origins of Classical tragedy and comedy. The scheme of Frye’s sequence of mythoi is largely drawn from Murray; his theory of comedy owes much to Cornford’s study, The Origins of Attic Comedy.

A reflection of the profound continuity of Frye’s work is the way he reasserts the development of literature from myth in Words with Power, which appeared only months before his death; he refers at one point to Thorkild Jacobsen’s Treasures of Darkness, which is a more up-to-date examination of the dying gods of fertility in pre-Biblical Mesopotamian culture. This study, and others like it, such as Theodor Gaster’s Thespis, which examines the derivation of early forms of drama from ritual and myth in the cultures of the ancient Near East, provides a fascinating glimpse into the genesis and the logic of the conventions found in literature. In Words, Frye shows how the poetic imagery and narrative structures that derive from myth are an expression of the primary human concerns of “making a living, making love, and struggling to stay free and alive” (43); that is, of food and drink, sex, freedom of movement, and property. Ultimately, the latter concern with property or with human extensions of power concerns the instruments of mental production and the expansive energy and consciousness belonging to an imaginative vision of reality. In Frye’s view, it is this power alone, the power of the arts and sciences to “show us the human world that man is trying to build out of nature” (1988: 44), that has any hope of delivering humanity from the ghastly cycle of history and the ordinary limitations of physical and social reality.

In an analogous way, behind Bakhtin’s “comic” vision of the novel lies a faith in “unlimited human potential” (1981: 241), in the creative power of human beings to transform the natural and social order, a faith that is embodied in his revolutionary theory of the novel as the artistic form of modern history corresponding to an unprecedented expansion of human knowledge and creativity. He finds the novel’s revolutionary potential best exemplified in Rabelais’s work where “All historical limits are, as it were, destroyed and swept away by laughter. The field remains open to human nature, to a free unfolding of all the possibilities inherent in man” (1981: 240). Paradoxically, the authentic image of this modern liberation of human potential is derived from what Bakhtin calls the folkloric chronotope. Very close to Frye’s insight that poetic imagery is an outgrowth of primary concerns is Bakhtin’s insistence on the poetic significance of the matrix of objects and phenomena–food, drink, copulation, birth and death–that forms the rhythm of folkloric time-space.

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On Christmas (December 1973)

[The Adoration of the Magi, Brueghel, Pieter (the Younger)]

The following talk is from a service that took place at Victoria College in December 1973:

On Christmas

Northrop Frye

There is no indication in the New Testament of the time of year when Jesus was born, and the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are relatively late. The earlier Gospels, Mark and John, begin with the Baptism, which became the main festival, outside Easter, in the eastern churches. The western churches seem to have introduced Christmas because of a feeling that the natural birth of Christ should be emphasized, to counteract a feeling that Jesus was not a man who was born and died, but a kind of ghost who manifested himself for a time and then disappeared. We don’t know why the Church decided on December 25, but it looks as though Christianity, for once, was adopting something outside the Biblical tradition. Almost every people in the ancient world had some kind of festival at the winter solstice, the time of year when the nights are longest, when some kind of primitive fear emerges that the sun might go out altogether if not encouraged by a ritual of lights and fires. In the great rival religion of Mithraism, which stretched from Persia to Scotland, the chief festival was the birthday of the “unconquered sun” on December 22, and Northern Europe had its “Yule,” when a great log was ceremonially set burning.

In the Church calendar Christmas is preceded by four weeks of Advent, a sombre, brooding season of the gathering powers of darkness. The infancy stories grow, in part, out of the Exodus story of the Passover, when the Angel of Death was let loose in Egypt and the Israelites held their first Passover standing up and in haste, ready for a quick and silent departure. This feeling recurs in the infancy stories with the account of the slaughter of the innocents, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, and the stealthy departure of the wise men. The book in the Apocrypha called the Book of Wisdom describes the time of the first Passover thus:

[For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course,
Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal thone, as a fierce man of war into the midst of a land of destruction,
And brought thine unfeigned commandment as a sharp sword, and standing up filled all things with death; and it touched the heaven, but it stood upon the earth.

(Wisdom of Solomon 18:14–16)]

This is the starting point of the tradition that Christ was born at midnight, just as he was crucified at noon. Besides the two infancy stories, there is a third account of the birth of the Messiah in the New Testament, in Revelation 12, a much more obviously mythical account, and this too preserves the sense of blood and terror and menace in the Christmas story:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

And she brought forth a manchild, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a placed prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

(Revelation 12:1–6)

W.H. Auden’s radio drama, For the Time Being, also called a Christmas Oratorio, begins with a section called Advent, where the growing power of darkness is linked to the exhaustion of the Roman Empire and the fact that even at the height of its power the barbarians who will eventually destroy it are gathering on the frontiers. The parallels between the time of Christ’s birth and our own time emerge very clearly:

Darkness and snow descend;
The clock on the mantlepiece
Has nothing to recommend,
Nor does the face in the glass
Appear nobler than our own
As darkness and snow descend
On all personality.
Huge crowds mumble—‘Alas,
Our angers do not increase,
Love is not what she used to be’;
Portly Caesar yawns—‘I know’;
He falls asleep on his throne,
They shuffle off through the snow:
Darkness and snow descend. (pt. 1, ll. 1–14)

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Frye on Christmas (December 1949)

[Adoration of the Shepherds, Bronzino]

From the Canadian Forum, December 1949:


The original Christmas was born of primitive fear. The fear of the growing darkness and the shortening days produced the rite of kindled fires, and the fear of winter the cult of the evergreen tree. Since then, Christmas has been wrapped up in one layer after another of an advancing civilization. Christianity came with its lovely serene story of a divine child and a virgin mother: the Middle Ages brought the carols, and then came the presents, the roast fowls, the mince pies, and the plum puddings. Our present form of Christmas, with its Santa Claus, its Christmas tree, and its exchange of cards, is a nineteenth-century invention, largely of German origin, the product of the age of Dickens and Albert the Good, of the British Empire and voluntary charities.

Yet even in this cosy urban middle-class Christmas something of the old panic recurs. There is unmistakable panic in the advertisers’ desperate appeals of “only so many shopping days left,” with its lurking threat that only if enough people spend enough money will this dollar civilization be able to stagger once more around the calendar. There is, if not panic, at any rate compulsion, in the popular response to this appeal, in the set faces of the women checking items off a list and in the apathy of their husbands trudging behind them, envying the bears.

What is the thoughtful observer to make of all this? Apart from the children, is it not the frivolous who enjoy Christmas, or pretend to enjoy it? Who else would find any real release in an orgy of synthetic gaiety as this dreadful century lurches to its halfway mark? Surely one is not a sour-faced Puritan if one feels, after listening to the radio reports of the cheering crowds in Times Square: “There is nothing here that reminds me of the birth of Christ; there is much that reminds me of Belshazzar of Babylon, who feasted while his city was in flames, and who could not read the writing on the wall” [Daniel 5].

One may find it instructive to compare the two Christmas stories in Matthew and in Luke. The Christmas story that we know and love is almost entirely from Luke. Matthew tells a terrible and gloomy tale of a jealous tyrant who filled the land with dead children and wailing mothers, while the wise men escaped from the country in one direction and the Holy Family in another. It is a tale in which all the characters except the tyrant and his minions are either murdered or refugees. Today we know as never before that this, too, is part of the Christmas story. But the story of Luke, with the shepherds and the manger and the angels singing hymns of peace and goodwill to men, does not cease to be true because the story of Matthew is also true. The story of Christmas, from its primitive beginnings to the present, is in part a story of how men, by cowering together in a common fear of menace, discovered a new fellowship, in fellowship a new hope, and in hope a new vision of society.

As Dickens shows us, the ghost of Christmas past brings us only regret for the past, and the ghost of Christmas future brings us only the terror of the future. But he also shows us that one of the surest ways of making the possible nightmare in the future come true is to fail to know and appreciate better the spirit of Christmas present. And so, without hypocrisy and as far as possible without frivolousness, we wish our readers once more a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Frye on Christmas (December 1948)

[Les Saturnales, Antoine-François Callet]

From the  Canadian Forum, December 1948:


 The world clings to Christmas with a kind of desperation: it is the only traditional festival, apart from a flurry of new hats at Easter, that retains any real hold on ordinary life. The reason for its persistent vitality is not easy to see. It is not primarily the influence of Christianity, for in the Christian Church Christmas is only one event in a long calendar. The unique popular Christmas outside the Church is hardly a Christian festival at all. Its presiding deity, so far as it has any, is the carnival figure of Santa Claus. The cynical answer is that commercial advertising keeps Christmas going, but that is nonsense. The public is quite capable of resisting pressure of this sort if it has no answering response to its appeal. No: people want Christmas, though they hardly know why they go through all that bother every year.

Perhaps the answer is that people go through the bother of Christmas because Christmas helps them to understand why they go through the bother of living out their lives the rest of the year. For one brief instant, we see human society as it should and could be, a world in which business has become the exchanging of presents and in which nothing is important except the happiness and well-being of the ultimate consumer. It is only a symbol, and humanity can hardly stand more than about twelve hours of really civilized behaviour, but still it is there, and our Christmas shopping may be inspired by an obscure feeling that man is done for if he loses entirely the vision of life that Christmas represents.

Potentially, therefore, there is a tremendous revolutionary power in the idea of Christmas. When Christ was born there was already a Christmas in Rome, a late December festival called the Saturnalia held in memory of a Golden Age when men were free and equal. The distinctive feature of that festival was the licence given to slaves, who were allowed to answer their masters back, sit down at table with them, and even be waited on by them. It was a dumb, helpless ritual which said symbolically that the structure of Roman society was all wrong. It did not save the Roman Empire, any more than a futile pretence of making things easier for the underprivileged at Christmas will save us. A helpless Christmas is an intolerable hypocrisy, especially when associated with Christianity. It is unlikely that the evangelists who told the Nativity stories would have thought that a cosy, cuddly, sentimental good time was an appropriate way of celebrating Christ’s birth. Christianity speaks of making the earth resemble the kingdom of heaven, and teaches that the kingdom of heaven is within man. This is something very like the conquest of the whole year by the spirit of Christmas, and is the kind of thing we mean when we wish a merry Christmas to all our readers.

(CW 4)

Frye on Christmas (December 1947)

[First edition of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” December 1843]

Frye on Christmas, from the  Canadian Forum, 1947. Notice the question mark.


A passage in the Christmas Carol describes how Scrooge saw the air filled with fettered spirits, whose punishment it was to see the misery of others and to be unable to help. One hardly needs to be a ghost to be in their position, and as we light the fires for our Christmas they throw into the cold and darkness outside the wavering shadows of ourselves, unable to break the deadlock of the U.N., unable to stop the slaughter in China or India or the terror in Palestine, unable to release the victims of tyrannies still undestroyed, unable to deflect the hysterical panic urging us to war again, unable to do anything for the vast numbers who will starve and freeze this winter, and above all unable to break the spell of malignant fear that holds the world in its grip. Yet Dickens’ ghosts were punished for having denied Christmas, and we can offset our helplessness by affirming Christmas, by returning once more to the symbol of what human life should be, a society raised by kindliness into a community of continuous joy.

Because the winter solstice festival is not confined to Christianity, it represents something that Christians and non-Christians can affirm in common. Christmas reminds us, whether we put the symbol into religious terms or secular ones, that there is now in the world a power of life which is both the perfect form of human effort and all we know of God, and which it is our privilege to work with as it spreads from race to race, from nation to nation, from class to class, until there is no one shut out from the great invisible communion of the Christmas feast. Then the wish of a Merry Christmas, which we now extend to all our readers, will become, like the wish of a fairy tale, a worker of miracles.

(CW 4)

Frye on Christmas

Frye wrote four pieces on Christmas for the Canadian Forum, each year, from 1946-49, and another later piece for a Christmas service in 1973. Here is the first, from December 1946:


Christmas is far, far older than Christianity, as even the pre-Christian Yule and Saturnalia were late developments of it, and it was never completely assimilated to the Christian faith. Our very complaints about the hypocritical commercializing of the Christmas spirit prove that, for they show how vigorously Christmas can flourish without the smallest admixture of anything that could reasonably be called Christian. Christmas is the tribute man pays to the winter solstice, and perhaps to something in himself of which the winter solstice reminds him. We turn on all our lights, and stuff ourselves, and exchange presents, because our ancestors in the forest, watching the sun grow fainter until it was a cold weak light unable to bring any more life from the earth, chose the shortest day of the year to defy an almost triumphant darkness and declare their loyalty to an almost beaten sun. We have learned that we do not need to worry about the sun, and that there is no monster big enough to swallow it. We have yet to learn that no atomic bomb will ever destroy the human race, that no Dark Age will (as it never has done) totally overspread the earth, that no matter how often man is knocked down, he will always pick himself up, punch drunk and sick and morbidly aware of his open guard, spit out some more teeth, and start slugging again. At that point there is a division between those for whom Christmas is a religious festival, and for whom the new light coming into the world must be divine as well as human if the struggle is ever to be won, and those for whom the festival is human and natural and points to an ultimate human triumph. With this difference in outlook the Canadian Forum has nothing to do, but to all of its readers who recognize the primary meaning of Christmas, and who realize that generosity and hospitality and the sharing of goods make a better world than misery and persecution and the cutting of throats, it wishes a Merry Christmas.

(CW 4)

Frye and Poe

The following paper was delivered at “Educating the Imagination: A Conference in Honour of Northrop Frye on the Centenary of His Birth,” October 4th – 6th 2012, Victoria University in the University of Toronto.


Joseph Adamson

It might surprise readers not entirely conversant with Frye’s writings that he should make such an important place in his writings for the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Surprising because critical responses to Poe’s work have been, as Frye puts it, “curiously schizophrenic” from the beginning. “There have been no lack of people,” as he puts it, “to say that Poe is fit only for immature minds; yet Poe was the major influence on one of the subtlest schools of poetry that literature has ever seen” (CW 18:37).  Jean O’Grady’s invaluable index to the Collected Works shows clearly Frye’s extensive interest in the great American writer–and that is precisely how Frye regarded him. In his essay on Thomas Beddoes in A Study of English Romanticism, he compares the English master of the grotesque to that of  “his great American contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe” (CW 17:133; emphasis added). In the Late Notebooks he goes so far as to call Poe “[t]he greatest literary genius this side of Blake,” which, he explains, is “why he’s regarded as fit only for adolescents, or French poets who don’t really know English.” (CW 5:165)

Frye’s interest in Poe dates from his earliest writings. It is most notable in Anatomy of Criticism, where Poe is first invoked in the very good company of Bunyan, Richardson, and Dickens, not to mention Shakespeare and the Bible, as an example of the particular association of the myths  prevalent in “fairy tales and folk tales” with“primitive and popular literature,” literature, as Frye defines it, “which affords an unobstructed view of archetypes” (CW 22:108). Later, in a similar context, Poe is favorably compared to Hawthorne and the latter’s “self-imposed” imaginative inhibitions (CW 22:128). The context is the latter’s use of a death-and-revival pattern in The Marble Faun, where Hawthorne felt the need to add a plausible explanation in his epilogue to the novel. In contrast, Frye points to Poe’s “Ligeia,” where “the straight mythical death and revival pattern” is  “given without apology.” Poe, Frye observes, “is clearly a more radical abstractionist than Hawthorne, which is one reason why his influence on our century is more immediate.”

Frye then goes on to include Poe, along with Hawthorne, Conrad, Hardy, and Virginia Woolf, with the mythopoeic pattern-making that characterizes anti–realist writers. (CW 22:129) Poe’s vexed reputation as a writer Frye explains in The Secular Scripture by the “ascendency of realism” and the fact that Poe “specializes in setting down the traditional formulas of storytelling without bothering with much narrative logic.” (CW 18:37) In the mouth of most other critics this might sound disparaging, but Frye means it is an unqualified recommendation—of Poe’s gift for utlitizing the sensational “and then” sequence of romance narrative, as opposed to the “hence” logic of descriptive causality aimed at by realism. Frye emphasizes, however, that this type of story-telling is not simply linear and episodic, but assumes a universe of lower and higher levels, “neither of them corresponding very closely to the ordinary world of experience. . . . The realist, with his sense of logical and horizontal continuity, leads us to the end of his story; the romancer, scrambling over a series of disconnected episodes, seems to be trying to get us to the top of it.” (CW 18: 35)

This vertical perspective is the key to Poe’s symbolism. Poe’s grandly speculative essay Eureka is for Frye a central touchstone. He recurs to it throughout his writings to illustrate the attraction of certain modern writers to poetic cosmologies, a cosmology being essentially a  “framework of symbolism, with all the identities, associations, and correspondences that symbolism demands.” (CW 22: 149–50). In Words with Power, Frye cites Valery’s observation about Poe’s essay that cosmology is essentially a poetic art, cosmology being a skeletal framework made up of metaphoric identities with all its clothes off. Poe is, par excellence, a metaphorical and mythic literalist, and anticipates in many ways the movement away from realism to the mythopoeic tendency arising from the ironic mode ascendent in the twentieth century. For this reason among others, Poe is one of the main-stays in Frye’s lifelong exploration romance, a literary mode in which the imagination is at its most hypothetical and mythical, most removed from the given world, concerned with the possible, not the plausible, the conceivable, not the existent.

In the third essay of Anatomy Poe is cited twice, and both allusions bring into play this vertical movement along a cosmological axis. The tale “Eleanora” serves as one of the examples in second-phase romance of an Edenic Golden Age, “a kind of prison-paradise or unborn world from which the central characters long to escape to a lower world.”(CW 22:186).  At the end of his discussion of romance, Frye turns to cosmology again and cites Poe’s “The Gold Bug” as an example of “movement from one world to the other,” which “may be symbolized by the golden fire that descends from the sun, as in the mythical basis of the Danaë story, and by its human response, the fire kindled on the sacrificial altar” (189-90). Frye points out that “the Egyptian scarab was a solar emblem,” and that Poe’s gold bug “is dropped from above on the end of a string through the eye hole of a skull on a tree and falls on top of a buried treasure: the archetype here is closely related to the complex of images we are dealing with, especially to some alchemical versions of it. (CW 22:189–90). Frye refers again to the same tale in Words with Power to illustrate the grisly lower reaches of creative descent narratives, where the journey down the axis mundi is often in quest of buried treasure, this being “a metaphor for some form of wisdom or fertility that is the real object of the descent” (CW 26:203).

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The St. Lawrence as Leviathan

The following is a footnote to Ed Lemond’s post, here.

In several places Frye remarks that the St. Lawrence is also a Leviathan for ships coming from Europe.  They enter into the Gulf of St. Lawrence like Jonah entering into the belly of the whale.  One of the places Frye uses the figure is in “Haunted by Lack of Ghosts”:

[T]he British painter and writer Wyndham Lewis, who spent some years in Canada during the Second World War, makes this comment about A.Y. Jackson, one of the twentieth-century Group of Seven landscape painters, perhaps with an underlying allusion to the Carman poem already cited:  “Jackson is no man to go gathering nuts in May. He has no wish to be seduced every Spring when the sap rises–neither he nor nature are often shown in these compromising moods. There is something of Ahab in him: the long white contours of the Laurentian Mountains in mid-winter are his elusive leviathan.”

The Leviathan also recurs in Wilfred Watson’s fine poem on another Canadian painter, the British Columbian Emily Carr:

Like Jonah in the green belly of the whale

Overwhelmed by Leviathan’s lights and liver

Imprisoned and appalled by the belly’s wall

Yet inscribing and scoring the uprush

Sink vault and arch of that monstrous cathedral,

Its living bone and its green pulsing flesh–

Old woman, of your three days’ anatomy

Leviathan sickened and spewed you forth

In a great vomit on coasts of eternity. [Emily Carr]

The image of being swallowed by the Leviathan is an almost inevitable one for Canada: the whole process of coming to the country by ship from Europe, through the Strait of Belle Isle and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and then up the great river, suggests it, again a marked contrast to the United States, with its relatively straight north-south coastline.  In Pratt’s narrative poem on the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Towards the Last Spike, the dragon image appears, the symbol of a nature so totally indifferent to man and his concerns that it is irrelevant to wonder whether it is dead or alive:

On the North Shore a reptile lay asleep–

A hybrid that the myths might have conceived,

But not delivered, as progenitor

Of crawling, gliding things upon the earth . . .

This folded reptile was asleep or dead:

So motionless, she seemed stone dead–just seemed:

She was too old for death, too old for life . . .

Ice-ages had passed by and over her,

But these, for all their motion, had but sheared

Her spotty carboniferous hair or made

Her ridges stand out like the spikes of molochs . . .

Was this the thing Van Horne set out

To conquer? [ll. 870-3, 882-4, 890-3, 899-900]

Van Horne was the builder of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the stretch of Precambrian shield in northern Ontario was one of his most formidable obstacles.

In the Bible, of course, the Leviathan swallows Jonah, a prototype not only of Emily Carr but of the Jesus who descended to the world of death and hell for three days. In the closely related myth of Saint George and the dragon, Saint George dies along with the dragon he kills, and has to be separately brought to life. What such myths appear to be telling us is that the Leviathan is the monster of indefinite time and space surrounding us on all sides: we are all born inside his belly, and we never escape from it; he is the body of death from which we cannot be delivered. The Christian, Baroque, Cartesian attitude that the white invaders brought from Europe helped to ensure that in Canada the sense of being imprisoned in the belly of a mindless emptiness would be at its bleakest and most uncompromising. As we have seen, the ego’s one moment of genuine dignity in such a situation is the moment either of death or of some equally final alienation. Among the poets of the generation of Roberts, Carman, and D.C. Scott, Archibald Lampman achieved the highest consistent level of poetry, partly because he was prudent enough to stick to elegiac moods.  (CW 12: 484–5)

Reading Young Frye Reading: Frye and Frazer

Sir James George Frazer

Revisiting the Rhetoric of Criticism/The Human Sciences through Northrop Frye’s Student Essays

The following is a continuation of a previous post and the discussion of Frye’s student essays and their relevance to his later criticism.

In his essay on “The Jewish Background of the Old Testament: An Essay in Historical Apocalyptic,’ the young Northrop Frye expresses his dissatisfaction with ‘the philosophy of history’ he finds in one of the foundational texts of the twentieth century, Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.  Frye recoils from ‘the Macaulay-like tone of the supercilious Victorian contemplating the wasteful and gloomy pageant of history’ (NFSE 140).  He writes as if his fury with the author has slowly been mounting in the course of long and comprehensive reading although, as Robert Denham points out, the initial source of his frustration is with the very explicit statement of his views that Frazer makes in the Preface and final chapter to the two volumes of Balder the Beautiful, first published in 1913.In the mid nineteen-thirties, when Frye wrote, Frazer’s confident and progressive tone must have seemed risible, after a major war and a beginning economic crisis that saw out the decade, only to be relieved by a second burst of international hostilities.  In this discussion, I am less concerned with Frazer’s philosophy of history –which I shall discuss very briefly—than with the rhetoric of these two chapters.  Frazer’s ‘philosophy of history’ is fairly disposable.  But his rhetoric raises a hornet’s nest that illuminates not just the young Frye’s thought, but also the strains and conflicts that would afflict the study of the humanities arguably for the rest of the twentieth-century and would be important for Frye’s own reshaping of the field.   In some of this discussion, then, I take a little detour from direct confrontation with Frye in order to look more closely at these pages of Frazer.

Balder’s death, 18th century Icelandic manuscript

Although the contents of Frazer’s study cast the spell over modern literature discussed in John Vickery’s The Literary Impact of the Golden Bough (1976), its intellectual authority has always been shakier.  In 1959, in a CBC broadcast on Frazer that located him as one of ‘the architects of modern thought,” Frye’s sense of his limitations was fairly marked: “I would not say Frazer was a great thinker’ (91).*  What he did, Frye argues, was to provide a ‘a kind of grammar of the human imagination’ (89).  When professional anthropologists, fresh from a reading of La Pensee Sauvage, revisited Frazer, their verdicts were much more severe.  Edmund Leach dismissed Frazer as a recovering Calvinist, unaware of his infirmities, while Mary Douglas thought that Frazer bolstered the myth of the other, the primitive society shaped in in every way the opposite of our complacent, comfortable middle class world.  Familiar with his primitives only through the protected sanctum of the library, Frazer bestowed on an emerging field of study an opposition that threatened to cripple it as one of ‘the human sciences ‘.   For Frazer effectively divided the world into two—the primitive into the civilized, even as he purported to be writing about humanity.

This overconfidence, Douglas judged, meant that Frazer ignored the need shared by so-called primitive societies and their modern successors to find order in the patterns of their lives and the diverse, but equally legitimate, strategies both devised for conferring that order.  Who were we, she asked, to see primitive styles of thinking and behavior as retarded variants of our own?  Who were we to think that we could read the minds of people whose fortunes we knew only from mediated reports of their collective behavior made by temporary visitors?

All these reservations and many more have been sounded many times since the nineteen-sixties, when Leach and Douglas were in the process of reimagining anthropology for British readers.  They need to be kept in mind when we return to Frazer’s Preface and conclusion, although there is plenty to keep us occupied in these chapters themselves.  Frazer’s belief that the value of his book relies in the facts it collects rests on his own article of faith that ‘While theories are transitory, a record of facts has a permanent value’ (xi).  He offers his volumes as ‘a chronicle of customs and beliefs that may retain its utility when my theories are as obsolete as the customs and beliefs themselves may be” (xi).  With his appeal to utility and his readiness to sink the value of his book in the support of the facts, it is evident that Frazer projects himself for his readers as a kind of Gradgrind.  One important aspect of this self-presentation is to promote himself as a member of a progressive, modernizing culture committed to the supersession of the extravagancies of ancient prejudice through the weight of the facts it quarries from all sources.  As a young idealistic type of thinker, Frye might have found some of this attractive.  But, as we shall see, there was much to dispute in this for an early twentieth-century Canadian.

There seems to be no foundation for Douglas’s charge that Frazer saw an impassible gulf between savage and civilzed mentality, at least on the evidence of these two chapters.  Rather, Frazer held to a completely different set of doubtful generalizations about the path from savagery to civilization, as the comments below clearly disclose:

The truth seems to be that to this day the peasant remains a pagan and savage at heart; his civilization is merely a veneer which the hard knocks of life soon abrade, exposing the solid core of paganism and savagery below. The danger created by a bottomless layer of ignorance and superstition is lessened, not only by the progressive decrease of the rural as compared with the urban population in modern states; for I believe it will be found that the artisans who congregate in towns are far less retentive of primitive modes of thought than their rustic brethren.  In every age cities have been the centers and as it were the lighthouses from which ideas radiate into the surrounding darkness (and below ix).

At this point the progressive, Macaulayean Frazer shifts into a gear more appropriate to Frazer the last torch bearer of the Scottish enlightenment, proud of the rationalizing energies of city life and shuddering at the memories of rural credulousness and closed-mindedness.  In no way is the savage a relic of the past; every rural enclave, as figures as different from Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Karl Marx have seen and dramatized, serves as the cradle for irrational mysteries.

If we can step back and entertain the fantasy that we are Northrop Frye for a second, we can imagine that the student of Emmanuel must have had some reservations about such comments at this time.  As a student of religion in the precincts of a city whose rationale as a social form was reason, was Frye condemned to obsolescence?  Was he not also acquainted with a very different paradigm for city life available through Spengler, who saw the collective life of reason and engineering fostered in the city as harboring its own flaws and looked uneasily to its eventual extinction?   Would Frye be content to ratify the brutal division between city and country to which Frazer’s urbanity consigned modern culture?  And could anything genuinely enlightening for the direction of humanity arrive through the collection of ever denser swarms of facts?


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More on Frye and Melville: The Petitcodiac, Pinocchio, and James Wood

“Jonah Spewed Forth from the Whale,” Gustav Doré

“Tell me, who gives a good goddamn?
You’ll never get out alive!
Don’t go dreaming, don’t go scheming
A man must test his mettle
In a crooked ol’ world
Starving in the belly, starving in the belly
Starving in the belly of a whale!”
— Tom Waits, “Starving in the Belly of a Whale”

The following comments are in response to the previous posts on Frye and Melville, here and here:

Frye lived in Moncton, New Brunswick from about 1919 (there is a bit of uncertainty as to when the family settled here permanently) until 1929, when he left for Toronto and his life-long attachment to Victoria College. John Ayre, in his 1989 biography, states that “Frye once confessed that it [the Petitcodiac river that runs through Moncton] had given him the visual sense of Leviathan.” The Petitcodiac is a tidal river at the upper reaches of the Bay of Fundy. The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world, registering 40 to 45 feet difference between low and high tide. The Petitcodiac fills and empties out twice a day and when empty it becomes, in Ayre’s words, “a monstrous deep trough of glistening mud which looks like an intestine split open.” The beauty of it, as people who live here discover, is in the way it continually recreates itself and becomes new again. Perhaps Frye too, looking into the monstrous depths of it, saw, with a sort of double vision, the beneficial power and beauty of it in its double pulsing of sea flood.

My own first visual (or perhaps more accurately, aural) sense of Leviathan came with reading Pinocchio at a very early age, probably in some abridged version. Pinocchio has the knack of getting into one scrape after another, and barely escaping with his life. Toward the end of the book he’s transformed into a donkey and made to perform by a cruel circus master. When he injures himself the circus master sells him for what he’s worth, which is next to nothing. The new buyer throws him into the ocean to drown him, so that he can then at least harvest his skin. A school of fish comes along and eats away at Pinocchio until there’s nothing left but his bones, which are “hard as wood.” What’s left is the wooden puppet body of Pinocchio, his true self. So he swims off, still looking for the ‘Blue Fairy’ who will save him. But before he can reach her, the giant sea monster (called the Dogfish in my present translation) comes after him and swallows him. “Suddenly he was in darkness as black as ink.” He was “a prisoner inside the stomach of the dreadful giant Dogfish.”

But all is not lost. Inside the monster he makes friends with Tunny, who will later help him swim to safety. Most amazingly, he stumbles along until he sees a light in the distance. “An old man with a flowing white beard and long gray hair sat on a chair at one end [of a table] eating a meagre meal. Pinocchio was overwhelmed to realize the old man was his father, Geppetto,” who has been imprisoned in the monster for two years. With joy and renewed energy Pinocchio plots their escape. In the depths of despair hope is reborn. Pinocchio, like Pip in Moby-Dick, has been “carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro … and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps.”

James Wood’s essay (collected in The Broken Estate), called “The All and the If: God and Metaphor in Melville,” is a fascinating examination of Melville’s “growing infatuation with metaphor, an obsession which bursts into the love affair of Moby-Dick.” Toward the end of the essay Wood has this to say, which warrants scrutiny if not assent:

Moby-Dick is the great dream of mastery over language. But it also represents a terrible struggle with language. For if the terror of the whale, the terror of God, is his inscrutability, then it is language that has made him so. It is Melville’s abundance of language that is constantly filling everything with meaning, and emptying it out, too. Language breaks up God, releases us from the one meaning of the predestinating God, but merely makes that God differently inscrutable by flooding it with thousands of different meanings. I think that language and metaphor were a great torture as well as a great joy to Melville. Melville saw – and Moby-Dick is the enactment of this vision – that language helps to explain God and to conceal God in equal measure, and that these two functions annul each other. Thus language does not help us explain or describe God. Quite the contrary, it registers simply our inability to describe God; it holds our torment. Yet language is all there is, and thus Melville follows it as Ahab follows the whale, to the very end.