Category Archives: Epiphany

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. Continue reading

Frye, Pierce, Eco, and “Abduction”


Umberto Eco

Thanks, Nicholas, for your post: this helps to clarify the connection you are making between Lonergan and Frye. I like the detective novel analogy very much: it is perhaps a useful analogy for Frye’s own process of judgment and insight.

Criticism is the act of making ourselves conscious of what is going on unconsciously when we read, and uncovering the imaginative unconscious of literature requires, to recur to another recent thread, what Frye meant by science: a combination of empirical study and deduction–and, I believe even more importantly, what the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce called abduction, a species of logic close to inspired hunch or guessing. I take the liberty of quoting from the wikipedia’s definition of the word:

Abduction is a method of logical inference introduced by Charles Sanders Peirce which comes prior to induction and deduction for which the colloquial name is to have a ‘hunch.’ Abductive reasoning starts when an inquirer considers of a set of seemingly unrelated facts, armed with an intuition that they are somehow connected. The term abduction is commonly presumed to mean the same thing as hypothesis; however, an abduction is actually the process of inference that produces a hypothesis as its end result. It is used in both philosophy and computing.

(Perhaps Clayton Chrusch will have something to say about abduction and computing.)

Abduction is also used by the great detectives of literature, like Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, and in another sense Frye was the greatest detective of literature, putting together the pieces of the great literary whodunit by a series of lesser, greater, and ultimately crowning acts of abduction. His great epiphanies, about which much as been said already on the blog (see in particular Bob Denham’s post), are in fact moments of startling abductive inference, in which a myriad of previous insights suddenly cohere into a radiant whole.

I have often wondered why semioticians, and for that matter the cognitivists (with the important exception of our erstwhile blogger Michael Sinding), have ignored Frye’s work. To repeat some observations I published years ago in an article on Frye and semiotics, Frye actually produced what semioticians like Umberto Eco merely postulated as possible: a coherent and detailed description of the encyclopedia of literary conventions and genres. Frye’s conclusions are in no way different from those laid out by Eco when he speaks of Barthes‘ sense of the code in S/Z as

the whole of the encyclopedic competence as the storage of that which is already known and already organized by a culture. It is the encyclopedia, and at the same time allows, gives the possibility of inventing beyond itself, by finding new paths, new combinations within the network.

Frye would also be in complete agreement with Eco’s statement that “A code is not only a rule which closes but also a rule which opens. It not only says ‘you must’ but says also ‘you may’ or ‘it would also be possible to do that.'” Indeed, invention in literature would not be possible without the existence of conventions and rules, which should be seen as enabling, not constricting innovation and originality.

Continue reading

More Frye and the Bible


Blake’s Plato

Reponding to Nicholas Graham’s post

I certainly agree that Frye’s reading of the Bible is guided by typology and that there is a certain prophetic power in his biblical criticism. I was by no means trying to give a full account of Frye’s reading of the Bible. My remarks were in the context of the earlier posts about the meaning of the phrase “literary criticism of the Bible.” All I was trying to suggest was that Frye’s approach relies on two fundamental literary principles, myth and metaphor or narrative and image––the mythos and dianoia that Frye devoted so much space to in Anatomy of Criticism. Typology and prophecy, as I understand those terms, are terms from biblical, rather than literary, criticism. I agree also that “vision” is also absolutely central to Frye’s enterprise, and I wrote a fairly long chapter in my book on Frye and religion (89–125) trying to make a case for its centrality and relating it to terms such as “insight,” “enlightenment,” “epiphany,” “recognition” and (the central visionary faculty) “the imagination.” But again “vision” is a term that does not spring from the vocabulary of literary criticism, though it is perhaps obliquely connected to Aristotle’s opsis. No one would want to reduce Frye’s reading of the Bible to myth and metaphor. But they are literary principles, and so no one would want to ignore them either. As I understand Frye, “vision” and “prophecy” belong to what I called the Bible’s centrifugal, kerygmatic thrust.

Frye’s Seattle Illumination

The finale of Verdi’s Falstaff.

Joe Adamson’s post about the stages of ascent and descent reminded me of Frye’s Seattle epiphany, which he conceived of as part of a dialectic that occurs along the axis mundi.  Here’s an adaptation of something I wrote several years back about this epiphany––what Frye called his Seattle illumination, referred to in an earlier posting, “Frye’s Epiphanies.”

The references to the Seattle epiphany are somewhat cryptic: they center on what Frye calls the passage from oracle to wit.  The oracle was one of Frye’s four or five “kernels,” his word for the seeds or distilled essences of more expansive forms.  He often refers to the seeds as kernels of Scripture or of concerned prose.  The other microcosmic kernels are commandment, parable, and aphorism, and (occasionally) epiphany.  Frye sometimes conceives of the kernels as what he calls comminuted forms, fragments that develop into law (from commandment), prophecy (from oracle), wisdom (from aphorism), history or story (from parable), and theophany (from epiphany).  There are variations in Frye’s account of the kernels (aphorism is sometimes called proverb, for example, and occasionally pericope and dialogue are called kernels), but those differences are not important for understanding the oracle-wit illumination.

Oracle is almost always for Frye a lower-world kernel.  It is linked with thanatos, secrecy, solitude, intoxication, mysterious ciphers, caves, the dialectic of choice and chance, and the descent to the underworld.  The locus of the oracle is the point of demonic epiphany, the lower, watery world of chaos and the ironic vision.  The central oracular literary moments for Frye include Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym’s diving for the cipher at the South Pole, the descent to the bottom of the sea in Keats’s Endymion, Odysseus in the cave of Polyphemus, the Igitur episode in Mallarmé’s Coup de Dés, the visit to the cave of Trophonius, and, most importantly, the oracle of the bottle in Rabelais, who was one of Frye’s most admired literary heroes.  As for wit, in the context of the Seattle illumination, it is related to laughter, the transformation of recollection into repetition, the breakthrough from irony to myth, the telos of interpenetration that Frye found in the Avatamsaka Sutra, new birth, knowledge of both the future and the self, the recognition of the hero, the fulfillment of prophecy, revelation, and detachment from obsession.  The oracular and the witty came together for Frye in the Finale of Verdi’s Falstaff.

Frye calls the Seattle illumination a “breakthrough,” and the experience, whatever it was, appears to have been decisive for him.  He was thirty-nine at the time, literally midway through his journey of life.  One can say with some confidence that the Seattle epiphany was a revelation to Frye that he need not surrender to what he spoke of as the century’s three A’s: alienation, anxiety, absurdity; that he realized there was a way out of the abyss; that he embraced the view of life as purgatorial; that, in short, he accepted the invitation of the Spirit and the Bride in Revelation 22:17.  “The door of death,” Frye writes, “has oracle on one side & wit on the other: when one goes through it one recovers the power of laughter” (“Third Book” Notebooks, 162).  And laughter, for Frye, is the “sudden release from the unpleasant” (Notebooks on Romance, 73).  Oracles are, of course, ordinarily somber, and wit, in one of its senses, is lighthearted.  Pausanius tells us that the ritual of consulting the oracle in the cave of Trophonius was so solemn that the suppliants who emerged were unable to laugh for some time: but they did recover their power to laugh.  There is a “porous osmotic wall between the oracular and the funny,” Frye writes in Notebook 27 (Late Notebooks, 1:15). Similarly in Gargantua and Pantagruel, when Panurge and Friar John consult the oracle of the Holy Bottle, there is, if not literal laughter, an intoxicating delight that comes from the oracle’s invitation to drink; and we are told that the questers then “passed through a country full of all delights.”  This is why “Rabelais is essential to Dante” (Late Notebooks, 1:15).  But laughter here is more than a physical act.  It is a metaphor for the sudden spiritual transformation that is captured in the paravritti of Mahayana BuddhismParavritti literally means “turning up” or “change,” and according to D.T. Suzuki it corresponds to conversion in religious experience.  In the Lankavatara Sutra we are told that in his transcendental state of consciousness the Buddha laughed “the loudest laugh,” and in his marginal annotation of this passage Frye notes that “the laugh expresses a sudden release of Paravritti.”

Continue reading

Ghosts and Angels



Several of my plans have come smack up against a theory of Bardo, & I can’t help wondering if I don’t need at least a literary theory of ghosts, if not of the whole supernatural. I must start with the vampire theme in Wuthering Heights & see if I can attach it to my floating notions about the echo & the preservation of identity in DM [Daisy Miller], & of the returning ghost in Senecan revenge plays as neurotic, blocked & bound to a pattern of recurrence. The ghost theme in Eliot’s Waste Land (water-nymphs recalling the bodiless souls of Purgatory) winds up with a quotation from the Spanish Tragedy [ll. 266 ff., 432]. Also the Kurtz business, Kurtz being, like Heathcliffe, a “lost violent” soul [The Hollow Men, l. 15–16]. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism,” CW 23, 222)


If I had been out on the hills of Bethlehem on the night of the birth of Christ, with the angels singing to the shepherds, I think that I should not have heard any angels singing. The reason why I think so is that I do not hear them now, and there is no reason to suppose that they have stopped. (The Critical Path, 114)

History tells the reader what he would have seen if he’d been present, say, at the assassination of Caesar. But what the Gospels tell us is rather something like this: if you had been present on the hills of Bethlehem in the year nothing, you might not have heard a chorus of angels. But what you would have seen and heard would have missed the whole point of what was actually going on. Thus, the antitypes of history and of prophecy as we have them in the gospel and the apocalypse give you not what you would have seen and heard, or what I would have seen and heard, but what was actually going on which we don’t have the spiritual vision to reach to. (“Kerygma,” in Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, CW 13, 588)

Perkin and Denham on the Epiphanies


I thought this exchange between Russell Perkin and Bob Denham in the Comments section of Bob’s post on the epiphanies was worth bringing forward for more attention.


Bob, that’s really interesting stuff! Do you have anything to say about the realization about The Four Zoas that John Ayre describes Frye experiencing “while sitting in the bored husband’s seat in a women’s wear shop on Yonge St. just below Bloor” (p. 177)? Does Frye record this anywhere – Ayre doesn’t give a source. It’s not so much a spiritual vision as a realization about how he had to present Fearful Symmetry. What Ayre calls the “absurdly mundane circumstances” fascinate me. Rather like Francis Thompson seeing Jacob’s ladder pitched between “heaven and Charing Cross”?


Russell: I’d forgotten about Ayre’s account of the Four Zoas recognition–Los displacing Orc, it seems to have been. It certainly sounds like one of those momentary flashes of insight and similar to the others. So far as I know, Frye doesn’t mention it elsewhere, but it pretty clearly should be added to the list. Perhaps he recorded something about it in his original Blake notebook, which is not extant.

It would be interesting to know that date of this epiphany. Early 1940s, I’d guess. Frye does have a similar account of Orc-Los business in his 1950 diary: “The tactic of the Blake article is shaping up a little. After I outline his archetypal imagery, which derives from the unfallen world, I go on to archetype of narrative. The archetypal narrative is the heroic quest, which is the Orc cycle. This is in Blake, but he’s not primarily interested in it, as he sees the cyclic shape of it too clearly. That’s the reason for the difficulty in trying to wedge Jungian archetypes, which are all narrative ones, into Blake. The shift over from the Orc cycle to the Los pattern of progressive & redemptive work is really the centre of the problem in [L] [Liberal] that converges on what I call the dialectic development of the conception of the hero. In Blake the cycle of narrative emanating from & returning to the unfallen world is seen so constantly as a simultaneous pattern of significance that the reader has to get this perspective before he can read: it isn’t unfolded to him passively in a narrative sequence.” (Diaries, 431).

Thanks for calling attention to the omission. Continue reading

Frye’s Epiphanies


In his account of the thematic modes in Anatomy of Criticism Frye says that the general theme in the ironic mode is the pure, timeless moment of vision, and the examples of such vision he gives are “Rimbaud’s illumination, Joyce’s epiphany, the Augenblick of modern German thought, and the kind of nondidactic revelation implied in such terms as symbolisme and imagism.”  Frye himself had several of these moments of vision.  The earliest, reported in John Ayre’s biography, was during his early high school years in Moncton when he suddenly realized that he could shed without consequence the moral and religious dogmas of the fundamentalist envelope in which he had been raised.  Frye did not recall what triggered the revelation: he simply realized on a walk to school one day that the albatross of fundamentalist teaching “just dropped off into the sewers and stayed there.” 

There were other epiphanies: one in Edmonton (1932), one (perhaps two) with Blake (1933), another in Seattle (1951), and still another on St. Clair Avenue in Toronto (early 1950s).  The “Third Book” Notebooks contain a hint of a fifth epiphany––in 1944 on a walk down Bathurst Street in Toronto.  A final epiphany may have occurred in Yugoslavia only four months before Frye’s death: he speaks of “that loud flash I got in Zagreb: the ideal of spontaneity, where the moment of composition and the moment of performance are the same” (The Late Notebooks of Northrop Frye 1:415).

Frye refers to these moments variously as intuitions, epiphanies, illuminations, and enlightenments.  Most of them were experiences of unity––experiences, as he says, “of things fitting together” in a momentary flash of insight (Northrop Frye in Conversation 48).  Although Frye did speak about the Blake and Edmonton epiphanies in several interviews, he never mentioned them in his books and essays.  But in his notebooks there are more than thirty references to one or another of these experiences, the most important of which seem to have been what he calls his Seattle and St. Clair illuminations.  I have found Frye’s accounts of these experiences to be as endlessly fascinating as they are enigmatic.  The references are often quite cryptic.  In Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary I took a stab at analyzing the Seattle and St. Clair epiphanies (90–6), but the different kinds of recognition that came to Frye on these occasions remain something of a riddle.  Perhaps some blogger out there would be interested in sifting through the various notebook entries with the aim of providing illumination of these illuminations.  What follows are the relevant passages.  The references at the end of each entry are to the volumes in the Collected Works of Northrop Frye.  Page breaks and other editorial insertions are within square brackets. Continue reading