Category Archives: Double Vision

Frye on Fundamentalism: “God has been replaced by the devil”


Frye’s final posthumously-published work, The Double Vision, is remarkably perceptive on the rise of religious fundamentalism and its potential dangers. A decade ago the overwhelming concern on the American scene was Islamic fundamentalism, or “Islamism,” as it came to be known. In remarkably short order (thanks to the presence of George W. Bush in the White House, setting a standard for incompetence, intellectual dullness, and a Christian agenda in purely secular matters of governance), we have seen the rise of a toxic Christianism in American politics represented by at least two current Republican candidates for the presidency, Rick Perry of Texas, who as governor oversaw the execution of a man who was probably innocent to make some kind of point, and Michelle Bachmann, who, like Sarah Palin, is a serial liar and demagogic provocateur. Perry and Bachmann appear to be not just Christianists but “Dominionists” who believe that American government should function exclusively according to “Biblical” principles — a manifestation of what Frye in The Double Vision and elsewhere calls “pseudo-literalism.” Here he is calling our current events in the air:

I am, of course, isolating only one element in Christianity, but cruelty, terror, intolerance, and hatred within any religion always mean that God has been replaced by the devil, and such things are always accompanied by a false kind of literalism. At present some other religions, notably Islam, are even less assuring than our own. As Marxist and American imperialisms decline, the Muslim world is emerging as the chief threat to world peace, and the spark-plug of its intransigence, so to speak, is its fundamentalism or false literalism of belief. The same principle of demonic perversion applies here: when Khomeini gave the order to have Salman Rushdie murdered, he was turning the whole of the Koran into Satanic verses. In our own culture, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a future New England in which a reactionary religious movement has brought back the hysteria, bigotry, and sexual sadism of seventeenth-century Puritanism. Such a development may seem unlikely just now, but the potential is still there. (CW 4, 177-8)

That potential twenty years after Frye characterized it is now much closer to being an actuality. In the Republican Party, it is already a prevailing element in its political ideology — if it can even still be called that. This kind of noxious belief is dangerous because it becomes more difficult to curb the more it spreads. When we see how far it has advanced in just a few years, it is cause for concern. Even Canada’s prime minister has links to American-style fundamentalism that divides the world not into voters with different political views but into sheep and goats. This is why religion has no place in politics. It breeds not just intolerance but contempt for whole segments of the population by public servants who are supposed to serve the whole of society and not just the portions of it they have decided in advance are “saved.”

UPDATE: More on false literalism here; on Rick Perry here; on Michelle Bachmann’s insistence on repeating lies even when they’ve been exposed as lies here.

Primary Concern as a “caring and responsible attitude to nature”

Harperworld’s heartland: Fort McMurray, Alberta

Picking up on our thread involving Stephen Harper’s intention to turn Canada into an “energy superpower” by churning out increasing amounts of the world’s dirtiest oil, here’s something from The Double Vision:

In the twentieth century, with a pollution that threatens the supply of air to breath and water to drink, it is obvious we cannot afford the supremacy of ideological concerns anymore. The need to eat, love, own property, and move about freely must come first, and such needs require peace, good will, and a caring and responsible attitude to nature. A continuing ideological conflict, a reckless exploiting of the environment, a persistence in believing, with Mao Tse-Tung, that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, would mean, quite simply, that the human race is not long for this world. (CW 4, 170)


What we accept as beautiful or attractive or in accord with the way we want things to be has some connection, however indirect, with the satisfying of these concerns, and what we call ugly or dehumanized — air choked with pollution, land turned into waste land by speculators, infernos created by technologies from Chernobyl to Exxon Valdez — with the frustration of them. For a long time the established powers that be have looked at their civilization and said, “Probably much of it is very ugly, but that doesn’t matter as long as we make profits out of it, and certainly nothing is going to be done about it.” When it becomes clear that the ugly is beginning to mean dangerous as well, however, the point of view may slowly change. (191)

(Image: Peter Essick, National Geographic)

Frye on “the separation of church and state”

From The Double Vision, which aptly anticipates the increasingly intrusive religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism into politics:

In the course of time the movement begun by the Reformation did achieve one major victory: the gradual spread throughout the Western world of the principle of separation of church and state. Something of the genuine secular benefits of democracy have rubbed off on the religious groups, to the immense benefit of humanity, and depriving religion of all secular or temporal power is one of the most genuinely emancipating movements of our time. It seems to be a general rule that the more “orthodox” or “fundamentalist” a religious attitude is, the more strongly it resents this separation and the more consistently it lobbies for legislation giving its formulas secular authority. (CW 4, 174-5)

I’ve expanded an earlier post to provide some sense of how and why that is already happening here.

Frye and the “Mature Society”


Stephen Harper yesterday announced he will only take four questions from the national news media per day — a national media he sequestered behind a fence forty feet away. He’s also backed off on his challenge to debate Michael Ignatieff one on one.

Frye’s comments on liberalism are very much in the social democratic vein of John Stuart Mill. I am reminded of another phrase Stephen Harper is throwing about: “real Canadians,” though I guess both words should be lit up with capitals as “Real Canadians,” he is so clearly hypostatizing the term in an insidious and McCarthyistic way. The next thing you know he’ll be using the phrase “anti-Canadian” (if he hasn’t already). As Frye makes clear in this excerpt, there are no real Canadians or Canadian identity in that sense: there are only individuals, and society, in its most genuine form, is an expression of the individuals in it, who in turn are what the society is for. In The Double Vision, Frye asks: “What is the difference between the spiritual aspect of primary concerns and the secondary or ideological concerns just mentioned?” He answers this way:

I think the difference is expressed in two types of society, one primitive and the other mature. A primitive or embryonic society is one in which the individual is thought of as primarily a function of the social group. In all such societies a hierarchical structure of authority has to be set up to ensure that the individual does not get too far out of line. A mature society, in contrast, understands that its primary aim is to develop a genuine individuality in its members. In a fully mature society the structure of authority becomes a function of the individuals within it, all of them, without distinctions of sex, class, or race, living, loving, thinking, and producing with a sense of space around them. Throughout history practically all societies have been primitive ones in our present sense: a greater maturity and a genuine concern for the individual peeps out occasionally, but is normally smothered as society collapses back again into its primitive form.

I think there is little doubt about what kind of society Stephen Harper has in store for us.


Cairo, today

Probably anybody who’s interested at all is fully up to date on developments in Egypt — Mubarak may be out tonight, and there’s talk of a quiet, behind the scenes military coup sympathetic to the will of the people.  It’s very gratifying that this popular uprising was not extinguished like the one in Iran.  But, of course, it does raise the issue of what comes next, and here perhaps is where our real fretting begins.  We hope for the best for the Egyptian people, whose courage this last week especially has seemed almost superhuman.  And this kind of thing is certainly consistent with Frye’s vision of revolution informed by primary concern.  We can, occasionally, do what needs to be done in the name of the things that are otherwise least likely to be named.  But, as Frye wryly notes in The Double Vision, “Hope springs eternal, unfortunately it usually springs prematurely.”  Vigilance matters now.  From this point on, merely hoping won’t make it so.

(Photo from The Hindu)

How Many Groundhog Days?

One Groundhog Day after another

Frye in The Double Vision:

There are two kinds of repetition: one is inorganic, a matter of merely doing the same thing over and over; the other is habit or practice repetition that leads to the acquiring of a skill, like practicing a sport or musical instrument.  Inorganic repetition is precisely what the word “superstition” means: binding oneself to a continuing process that is mere compulsiveness, often accompanied by a vague fear that something will happen if we stop. (CW 4, 208)

For those of you who need to know how many groundhog days Phil Connors must endure before developing a liberating “habit or practice repetition,” here is the breakdown.  The number, whatever you think it might be, is pretty staggering — and it is very ingeniously calculated.

“We must love one another or die”

German newsreel footage of the invasion of Poland (with English subtitles).

On this date in 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland, beginning the Second World War in Europe.

This is one of those rare occasions where a terrible historical event inspires a major literary work that is contemporaneous with it.  In this instance, a poem with the date of the event as its title and published just 48 days later.  That makes it is a good opportunity to consider the prophetic power of literature to confront history.

Here’s W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” (after the jump a recitation of the poem with the stanzas displayed):

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

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Quote of the Day


“A glance at the human situation around us reveals war, famine, arbitrary acts of injustice and exploitation, violence, crime, collapse of moral standards, and so on almost indefinitely.  Even in prosperous countries a spiritual barrenness produces innumerable acts of ferocity and despair . How does human life of this kind differ from life in hell?  Hell is often supposed to be an after-death state created by God in which people are eternally tortured for finite offences.  But this doctrine is merely one more example of the depravity of the human mind that thought it up.  Man alone is responsible for hell, and much as he would like to pursue his cruelties beyond the grave, he is blocked from doing so.  God’s interest in this hell is confined to “harrowing” or redeeming those who are in it.  At the same time there are honesty, love, neighbourliness, generosity, and the creative powers in the arts and sciences.  Human life appears to be a mingling of two ultimate realities, which we call heaven and hell.  Hell is the world created by man, and heaven, or at least the way to it, is the world created through man by God.”

Frye, The Double Vision (CW 4, 230)

Fact, Imagination, Language


Responding to Michael Dolzani, Matthew Griffin and Clayton Chrusch

I think the issue of whether or not imagination and fact are incompatible in Frye has to be seen in terms of his theory of language. We get two elaborate accounts of this theory in the first chapters of both The Great Code and Words with Power. A briefer version is to be found in chapter 1 of The Double Vision, where Frye says, “The reason for basing kerygma on mythical and metaphorical language is that such a language is the only one with the power to detach us from the world of facts and demonstrations and reasonings, which are excellent things as tools, but are merely idols as objects of trust and reverence” (18) A bit earlier he has remarked, “if we encounter metaphors in poetry, we need not worry about their factual absurdity.” That’s because poetic metaphor, like myth and all other products of the imagination, belong to a phase of language different from the language of fact, reason, demonstration, historical truth, and the like.

The opposition between fact and imagination is related, I believe to Hegel’s distinction between the “for-itself” and the “in-itself,” which Frye glances at in “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision.” The distinction is to be found in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 294 ff. Hegel’s very abstract and difficult prose provides a formidable obstacle to my small brain. But if I understand what he’s getting at in describing these two opposing forces, the “for-itself has to do with thought, with the self-consciousness that comes from our being post-Enlightenment people. It’s limited. It’s related to actuality, human law, the external world of culture and civilization, faith expressed in conceptual or Enlightenment terms, truth as objective factual description. On the other hand, in-itself is a matter of getting beyond Enlightenment rationality to something above and beyond historical self-consciousness. It’s related to possibility, faith, harmony, consciousness of the Notion (Begriff), the spiritual world. It’s a matter of vision. “For-itself” belongs to the world as it is––the world of fact. “In-itself” belongs to the world as it might or should be––the world of the imagination.

Frye’s account of this distinction immediately precedes his commentary on Hebrews 11:1, the passage mentioned by Matthew Griffin that Frye continued to puzzle over, most fully in his sermon “Substance and Evidence.” For those who might be interested in following up on the passage that Griffin says is the key to his reading of Frye, I reproduce immediately following four of the chief places Frye seeks to untangle the meaning of “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” the commentaries having been written over a seventeen-year span.

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How Does Frye Think?


With regard to Joe’s question about Frye’s method and the “way he thinks,” it seems to me that a critical method is a function of at least four variables: the language a critic uses (the material cause: out of what?); the subject matter he or she explores (the formal cause: what?), the manner used to make a point or construct an argument (the efficient cause: how?), and the purpose(s) of his or her discourse (the final cause: why?).  With regard to Frye, all of these variables are worth sustained investigation.

Consider the efficient cause.  How does Frye proceed in setting out his position on whatever his subject matter is?  We might approach this by asking, How does Frye’s mind work?  How does he think?

1.  Dialectically, by the juxtaposition of opposing categories.  There are scores of these: knowledge and experience, space and time, stasis and movement, the individual and society, tradition and innovation, Platonic synthesis and Aristotelian analysis, engagement and detachment, freedom and concern, mythos and dianoia, the world and the grain of sand, immanence and transcendence, ascent and descent, and so on.  Consider the chapter titles of part 1 of Words with Power: sequence and mode, concern and myth, identity and metaphor, spirit and symbol.

2.  Epiphanically.  Intuitive moments of sudden illumination.  Frye records seven or eight of these, some of them named: the Seattle illumination, the St. Clair epiphany.  These might not properly be called thinking, but these moments were important in forming the vision that he writes about.

3.  Schematically.  Frye can’t think without a diagram in his head.  Spatial representation of thought (diagrams, charts, categories arranged in space––cycles, circles, tables, and other visual taxonomies) are always prior.  His diagram of diagrams he called “The Great Doodle.”  Lesser doodles (his phrase) include the omnipresent HEAP scheme and the ogdoad.  The hundreds of schema he uses are stored (for instant recall) in his vast memory theater.  Thinking schematically means that he is fundamentally a deductive thinker (in spite of the fact that I can think of no critic who had a greater inductive store of literary data).

4.  Analogically.  Frye is obsessed with similarities rather than differences.  He does, of course, have a strong Aristotelian streak, what with all his anatomizing and categorizing.  But while he agrees with Coleridge that we can distinguish where we cannot divide, the bottom line is that Frye is an analogical thinker, like Plato.

5.  Upwardly.  Frye is always moving toward a telos, an end.  There is always another step to be taken to get beyond the present mental or imaginative state.  “Beyond” is the most revealing preposition in Frye’s religious quest––a preposition that takes on special significance only late in his career.  During the last decade of his life he uses the word repeatedly as both a spatial and a temporal metaphor.  Having arrived at a particular point in his speculative journey, over and over he reaches for something that lies beyond.  Notebook 27 (1985) begins with a series of speculations about getting to a plane of both myth and metaphor beyond the poetic, and Frye even confesses that there is no reason at all to write Words with Power unless he can get to that plane (LN, 1:67).  The Bible implies that there is a structure beyond the hypothetical (LN, 1:8, 14).  Many things are said to be beyond words: icons, certain experiences, the identity of participation mystique (LN, 1:15, 16).  Here’s a sampler:

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