Category Archives: Cosmology

Shelley’s Atheism

A page from Shelley’s pamphlet

Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford for atheism two hundred years ago today after publishing his pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism.

Frye discusses with David Cayley Shelley’s “atheistic” cosmology compared to Blake’s Biblically-based one:

Cayley: How does Blake relate to the Romantic movement?

Frye: I think Blake wraps up the whole Romantic movement inside himself, although nobody else knew it. You can find a good deal of the upside-down universe in all of the other Romantics, most completely, I think, in Shelley, where a poem like Prometheus Unbound everything that’s “up there,” namely Jupiter, is tyrannical, and everything that’s down in caves is liberating.

Cayley: But Shelley takes this in a more atheistical direction than Blake does.

Frye: Shelley doesn’t derive primarily from the Biblical tradition in the way that Blake does. Blake is always thinking in terms of the Biblical revolutions, the Exodus in the Old Testament and the Resurrection in the New Testament.

Cayley: In other words, Blake has a given structure of imagery from the Bible that he works with, and that distinguishes him from the other Romantics.

Frye: It certainly distinguishes his emphasis from Shelley. (CW 24, 959)

Stephen Hawking


Stephen Hawking on the grand design of the universe

Today is Stephen Hawking’s 69th birthday.

The stars lined up nicely this week to provide opportunities to consider the relation of myth to science.  Hawking’s birthday is a good way to cap it off.

Here are three quotes from Frye on cosmology collected in Bob Denham’s Northrop Frye Unbuttoned.

Cosmology is the process of assimilating science into a mythology.  It’s always temporary because it’s always wrong–that is, it’s full of fictions.  The use of mythical analogies to scientific principles (evolution, relativity, entropy, indeterminacy) is cosmological.

Note that contemporary poets can still deal with phases of the moon, the four elements, even the word “universe”–in short, with out-of-date cosmologies–because cosmology, like mythology, comes eventually to speak the language of imagination.

The objective cosmos usually tends to think in terms of a development from chaos to creation and order, from the simple to the complex, from fortuitous collections of atoms of like attracting like.  The imaginative cosmos, on the other hand, thinks in terms of a past Golden Age or a lost Paradise, because it naturally starts with an ideal or model in the mind, of which the present situation is a degenerate form.

Actually, this does not quite round out the theme for the week.  Today is also the birthday of David Bowie, whose apocalyptic imagery is often space-based: from “Space Oddity” to “Is There Life on Mars?” to “Ziggy Stardust” to “Moonage Daydream” to “Starman” to “Ashes to Ashes” to “Loving the Alien.”  A selection of Bowie videos later today.



Galileo’s discovery of the heliocentric solar system

On this date in 1610 Galileo observed for the first time three of the largest moons of Jupiter.

Frye in “The Times of the Signs”:

[T]he only person outside of the Bible who is repeatedly and pointedly alluded to in Paradise Lost is Galileo, whose telescope is brought in several times, in rather curious contexts.  Milton is well aware of the view of the universe that Galileo held (he had met Galileo in Italy), and sometimes, in discussing the movements of the heavenly bodies, he puts the Ptolemaic and the Copernican explanations beside each other without committing himself.  But it is clear that the older model has more of his sympathy, and from what we have said we can see why: the Ptolemaic universe, however rationalized, is a mythological and therefore essentially a poetic construction, hence it makes poetic sense.  Galileo’s world is much more difficult for a poet to visualize.  (CW 27, 340-1)


On this date in 1519 Ferdinand Magellan set sail from Sanlúcar de Barrameda with about 270 men on his expedition to circumnavigate the globe.

Frye in “The Times of the Signs” in Spiritus Mundi:

[W]ith the voyages of Columbus, de Gama and Magellan, humanity as a whole began to realize that the earth was round, and to order their lives on that assumption.  Up till then, the centre of the world had been, as the word itself makes obvious, the Mediterranean, and the people who sat like frogs around a pool, in Plato’s phrase, on the shores of the sea in the middle of the earth.  But after 1492 the nations of the Atlantic sea-board began to realize that it was they who were now in the middle of the world. (66-7)

Michael Dolzani: Frye and Spiritual Otherness


We are delighted to post this response by Michael Dolzani on the question of Frye’s anti-supernaturalism. Michael, editor of several of the Collected Works, will be joining us as a byline correspondent.

I think I understand why Clayton Chrusch refers to Frye’s “anti-supernaturalism,” and his entry puts its finger on one of those issues in Frye studies whose intractability proves how truly central they are.  As Bob Denham says, Frye seemed open to belief in all sorts of paranormal phenomena, both the spontaneous ones that occur in séances and the significant coincidences that Jung explained by “synchronicity” and also the deliberately evoked and controlled phenomena of magic and occultism.  However, Bob notes that Frye did not think of such phenomena as supernatural.  A Renaissance magician like Prospero—or, in real life, Marsilio Ficino—believed that he was drawing upon the hidden powers of nature.  Such “natural magic” could be white or black, good or evil, depending upon the will that summons and controls it.  Witches may claim to serve the devil, but the devil’s attributes—the cloven hooves, horns, tail—clearly indicate that this kind of devil is merely a nature spirit.  The hidden powers of nature can sometimes be imagined as a whole hidden realm, an Otherworld like the Celtic Faerie, and perhaps the Tibetan Bardo.  But this realm is not supernatural; in the early 1947 essay “Yeats and the Language of Symbolism,” as well as in the early notebooks it is closely related to, Frye calls it “hyperphysical,” meaning that it is not super-natural, above nature, but an extension of nature.  To mistake it as supernatural is an example of what the early notebooks repeatedly call “the deification of the void.”

But if the deification of the void is false supernaturalism, it is certainly a valid question whether Frye believed in a real supernaturalism.  I am not surprised that this controversy has erupted in relation to Fearful Symmetry, where Frye is closest to Blake.  Blake tended to equate “nature” with “fallen world” in a way that sometimes—misleadingly, I think—suggests that he is the kind of Gnostic who rejected the physical world altogether.  That cannot really be true:  a bird cannot be a world of delight closed to our senses five if it is merely fallen or illusory.  But Blake is pushed in that direction by his repudiation of “natural religion,” all the more so because most of the conventional Christianity of his time and ours is really natural religion in disguise.  Natural religion is what happens when the “natural man” [1 Corinthians 2:14], Paul’s term for the fallen aspect of ourselves, tries to imagine the supernatural.  The result, as Browning showed, is Caliban upon Setebos, the reason being that the natural man cannot think or imagine beyond the natural.  What is the natural?  In this context, it is the cloven fiction, the split between the subject and a world of objects alienated from the subject.  If the natural man is the subject, God must be the ultimately objectified Object, either projected into the heavens as an inscrutable sky-god (Urizen, Nobodaddy, Shelley’s Prometheus) or into the depths as the Immanent Will of Hardy and his chief influence, Schopenhauer.  This is really another kind of deification of the void.  Such a God is a Holy Terror, tormenting his followers as he tormented Job, afflicting them outwardly with boils and tragedy, inwardly with the theological nightmares of predestination, the terrors of eternal hellfire, and the intractable guilt of people like Luther.

I find that intelligent Christians of good will are puzzled and put off by the anger of people like Blake and Frye.  Such Christians are thinking in terms of a God who is, as Clayton Chrusch says,  the beautiful hope of those who are suffering.  But Frye grew up in the realm of Protestant fundamentalism, and I grew up within pre-Vatican II Catholicism, with the same rebellious result.  Frye, especially the younger Frye, refuses to suppress all the troubling questions; like Job, he stands up and cries out for answers.  And unlike Job, but like Blake, he refuses to be shouted down because God has a bigger loudspeaker.

So the natural man cannot be truly spiritual; he can only be superstitious, worshipping and trying to placate a spook conjured by his own anxieties.  But Paul’s “spiritual man” is identified by Blake with the imagination.  The imagination does not “believe in” God:  belief is concerned with the evidence for or against objects, and God is not an object.  God is not a “fact,” at least not in this sense.  The natural man thinks that, if God is not a fact, he must be a mere fiction or illusion, but it is one of the primary missions of Words with Power to get beyond that impasse.

That is why I think Sara Toth’s essay “Recovery of the Spiritual Other” (in Northrop Frye:  New Directions from Old)  is an important contribution to Frye studies.  Sara observes that, beginning as early as the 1970s, Frye increasingly speaks of a “spiritual otherness.”  To the imagination or spiritual man (or woman), God is “other” and yet not objective.  In the Preface to Spiritus Mundi, Frye writes, “For Blake and Yeats, on the other hand, there is nothing creative except what the human imagination produces.  Stevens polarizes the imagination against a ‘reality’ which is otherness, what the imagination is not and has to struggle with.  Such reality cannot ultimately be the reality of physical nature or of constituted human society, which produce only the ‘realism’ that for Stevens is something quite different.  It is rather a spiritual reality, an otherness of a creative power not ourselves; and sooner or later all theories of creative imagination have to take account of it.”  Autobiographical aside:  my first contact with Frye was in 1976.  At the age of twenty-five, I wrote him a fan letter thanking him graciously acceding to my visiting father-in-law’s request to autograph a copy of Spiritus Mundi for me.  In my letter, I specifically mentioned the “spiritual otherness” passage as seeming like a fascinating new direction for him.  He wrote back saying that he was working on a book on the Bible, and that this was one of the issues it was important to get right.

Frye is distancing himself in that Preface from Blake’s identification of the human imagination as God.  Although Blake is right in a sense, there is different aspect of God which remains other.  What is an otherness that is not objective?  It is a “spiritual” otherness.  And what does that mean?  Well, I wish I knew.  I edited Words with Power, including the chapter “Spirit and Symbol” that is Frye’s deepest exploration of this, and still feel I do not entirely understand it—though I feel that it does mean something, and though I have been trying to grasp it since I was twenty-five.  I think Frye himself was looking for clues in other writers:  Sara notes his interest in Buber’s I-Thou relationship.  I myself have been struck by how, of the two great Protestant theologians of his time, Frye seems more fascinated by the neo-orthodox Barth than the liberal Tillich.  What I think he found in Barth was the vision of a spiritual otherness smashing through the limitations of human desires, human understanding, human words:  a transcendence whose revelation or kerygma shatters the mind-forg’d manacles of the fallen world.  When David Cayley asks Frye, “Why do you take it as given that God is transcendent?” Frye responds, “I don’t know what else is transcendent.  Otherwise, you’re left with human nature and physical nature….Human nature is corrupt at the source, because it has grown out of physical nature.  It has various ideals and hopes and wishes and concerns, but its attempts to realize these things are often abominable, cruel, and psychotic.  I feel there must be something that transcends all this, or else.”  When Cayley asks, “Or else what?” Frye responds, “Or else despair.”

Frye and the Supernatural


I’ve been mulling over Clayton’s comment about Frye’s antisupernatruralism. There are close to a hundred places in Frye’s writings where he uses the word “supernatural,” but I don’t get the sense from these references that he’s antisupernatural. Most often Frye’s use of “supernatural” does not point to some transcendent religious realm or being. For him, the supernatural is what is fantastic (ghosts, vampires, omens, portents, oracles, magic, witchcraft, and the like) or above nature––as in the heroes of myth in the Anatomy: superior to other people (superhuman) and to their environment (supernatural). The supernatural would include the “children of nature” (“the helpful fairy, the grateful dead man, the wonderful servant who has just the abilities the hero needs in a crisis,” Anatomy 196–7) that we find in folk tales and romances. For Frye the supernatural is not a term that is opposed to unbelief. It’s simply the antithesis of the natural. In his essay on Emily Dickinson he writes, “the supernatural is only the natural disclosed: the charms of the heaven in the bush are superseded by the heaven in the hand.” Sometimes Frye speaks of the supernatural as phenomena that are difficult to explain. He reports on this episode with his mother:

She has always regarded her mind as something passive, worked on by external supernatural forces, and is very unwilling to think that anything might be a creation of her own mind—besides, it flatters her spiritual pride to think of herself as a kind of Armageddon. She told me that once she was working in her kitchen when a voice said to her “Don’t touch the stove!” So she jumped back from it, and something caught her and flung her against the table. Half an hour later the voice came again, “Don’t touch the stove!” She jumped back again and this time was thrown violently on the floor. When Dad came home for dinner he found her with a black eye and a bruised shin. I have read a story by Thomas Mann in which he tells of seeing a similar thing in a spiritualistic séance [the episode involving Ellen Brand toward the end of Mann’s Magic Mountain—the section entitled “Highly Questionable” in chapter 7]: that story was the basis of the priest’s remark to the ghost in my Acta Victoriana sketch: “If you are very lucky, you may get a chance to beat up a medium or two” [“The Ghost”]. Mother has also heard noises like tapping and so on, and was tickled to get hold of a copy of a Reader’s Digest in which a writer describes having gone through exactly similar experiences [Louis E. Bisch, “Am I Losing My Mind?” Reader’s Digest, 27 (November 1935), 10–14.] The best way to deal with mother is, I think, to get her books telling of similar things that have happened to other people: she’s not crazy, but might be excused for thinking she was if she didn’t realize that such things are more common than she imagines. She was delighted with my Acta story, and I’ll try to get her that Mann thing and C.E.M. Joad’s Guide to Modern Thought, which has a chapter on those phenomena. (Frye-Kemp Correspondence, 13 August 1936).

In Fearful Symmetry Frye speaks of the supernatural as the human creative power: “All works of civilization, all the improvements and modifications of the state of nature that man has made, prove that man’s creative power is literally supernatural. It is precisely because man is superior to nature that he is so miserable in a state of nature” (41). Frye’s reaction to natural religion, with its premise of the analogia entis [anology of being], is almost always negative. Both Word and Spirit, he declares in his Late Notebooks, can be used without any sense of the supernatural attached to them.

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Still More Oedipal Archetypes


From Peter Yan:

Forgive me Russell for one more Oedipal reference to Greek Mythology itself. The Father killing Son and vice-versa begins in the Creation Myths where Cronus kills Uranus, Zeus threatens Cronus, and Prometheus is tortured by Zeus for giving fire to his creation, Man. Moreover, Frye tells us that the myth of the crucifixion means anyone who says they are God will be killed, as no society can bear a perfect being.

From Bob Denham:

Then there’s Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, which Frye refers to thrice in his writing, though not with an eye toward the Oedipus parallels.

Frye and Oedipus Rex


Responding a little more to Russell Perkin’s last post:

Your “superstitious” response to teaching Oedipus Rex is understandable. I recall a workshop, where a teacher (after 30 years experience) didn’t feel ready to tackle Oedipus Rex, which struck me as odd, seeing that the plot seems pretty reader friendly, as opposed to “writerly,” to use Roland Barthes’s term. But now I know how deep the play is after applying Frye to it.

Frye’s archetypal criticism effectively places the work at the centre of the literary and social universe, where the Bible, Literature, Film, Popular Culture, Literary Criticism, Psychology, and Sociology orbit around it.


Reuben sleeps with Israel’s concubine (Genesis 35:22).

Adam rejects the Sky Father to be with the Earth Mother.

Jesus is the opposite of Oedipus: Oedipus kills Father and possesses mother sexually. Jesus obeys Father (Father kills son) and marries mother spiritually, as He is everyone’s (The Church’s) bridegroom.

The curse and plagues and unknown suffering echoes Moses and the Pharoahs and Job.


Countless stories of Father killing son, son killing father, incest, search for origins, prophecy: see “My Oedipus Complex” by Frank O’Connor.


Too many to count, but most popular include Killing of the Father (James Bond: The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day; Gladiator, Star Wars).

Popular Culture:

The Rap song by Immortal Technique Dance with the Devil where gang initiation results in son raping and killing mother.

Literary Criticism:

The Oedipus myth is used as a critical term/conceptual myth by Harold Bloom, in ways the writer writes (anxiety of influence) and readers read (misreading), both trying to kill off earlier influence.


Obviously, The Oedipus Complex. Even the 5 Stages of Grief (Oedipus goes through Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Acceptance) appear here first. And Jung’s idea of synchronicity, or meaningful coincidence, is the basis of every literary action/plot.


The search for the adopted parents, usually the father, is a major issue given the popularity and technology of sperm donors.

Video of Immortal Technique’s Dance with the Devil after the break.

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Comment: Frye and Hawken


Clayton Chrusch’s comment on Ian Sloan’s post about Frye and Hawken deserves to be brought forward:

I really appreciate this post because it questions how Frye can be personally and socially relevant, which is what I am concerned about.

Here is my take, based on my limited understanding of Frye.

I think one of Frye’s contributions is as an historian of the imaginaton (that’s not quite the right term, since Frye does not try to make a rigourous historical case for anything). He gives a historical-imaginative context for the kind of changes he and Paul Hawken are describing. In particular, he sees people’s imaginations as being shaped by imaginative cosmologies. By cosmology, he meant simple mental pictures, almost diagrams, that structure almost everything about how we imagine the world. There have been two cosmologies historically (Blake was the prophet of the second one but he also saw beyond it) and Frye suggested that third was on the way. All three can be traced to the Bible.

My understanding is that the first two are vertical cosmologies. The first is the authoritarian cosmology with god/father/king figure and all legitimate authority at the top and the devil/child/slave, and everything legitimately subject to authority at the bottom.

The second is the revolutionary cosmology and it is formally a parody of the first, where the figure at the top is seen as as a tyrant or a fool and the bottom is reservoir of creative (and destructive) energy. The second cosmology informed Freud’s view of the subconscious, and Marx’s view of the proletariat. Frye also mentions Nietzche here. So all the dominant worldviews of the 20th century come out of ideas developed in the 19th-early 20th century, having their origin in this major cosmological shift heralded by Blake at the end of the 18th.

Frye saw the third cosmology as interpenetrative, an Indra’s net where connectedness, identity, and equality within the context of incredible diversity replace the dominance, alienation, inequality, and uniformity of the first two cosmologies. It is a non-ideological cosmology because it is not hierarchical. Because it is non-ideological, it can make primary concerns truly primary.

If I had to make a judgement on the interpenetrative cosmology, I would say that we haven’t discovered its full potential yet, but it is hard for me to believe it is a new mold in which all of our imaginative structures from now on can be formed. I think we still need the first two cosmologies as well as the third. But because the third is new, it will be the source of real and good imaginative innovations that we have not yet seen.

I haven’t read the book by Paul Hawken, but perhaps he is one of these innovators.