Category Archives: Frye on God

Stéphane Mallarmé

Ravel, “Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé”

More treasure from Bob Denham’s Essays on Northrop Frye, Frye and Stéphane Mallarmé”:

[A]lthough Mallarmé speaks of God as an old scarecrow whom he has at last overcome,[i] he also speaks in his letters of a symbolic death and resurrection that he has attained through his search for a pure poetry, and speaks also of the poet who creates in the teeth of the creation, so to speak, as though he were the vehicle of a holy spirit.  “Man’s duty,” he says, “is to observe with the eyes of the divinity; for if his connection with that divinity is to be made clear, it can be expressed only by the pages of the open book in front of him.”[ii]  He also describes himself, in a letter to Cazalis, as “one of the ways the Spiritual Universe has found to see Itself, unfold Itself through what used to be me.”[iii] (457)


[i] Frye is referring to the oft‑quoted passage in Mallarmé’s letter to Henri Cazalis, 14 May 1867: “I struggled with that creature of ancient and evil plumage [vieux et méchant plumage]––God––whom I fortunately defeated and threw to earth” (Selected Poetry and Prose, 87)

[ii] The passage is from Mallarmé’s “The Book: A Spiritual Instrument” (Selected Poetry and Prose, 80).

[iii] Letter to Henri Cazalis, 14 May 1867 (Selected Poetry and Prose, 87).  In one of his early plans for Words with Power Frye proposed organizing the first three chapters on a Trinitarian scheme––the Book of the Father, the Book of the Son, and the Book of the Spirit––based on Joachim of Floris’ theory of the three epochs.  Only in the Age of the Spirit, according to Joachim, would humankind be able fully to understand spiritual truth.  Mallarmé was to be a part of the Book of the Spirit (Late, 171).    

Christian Love

Stephen Harper — who walked away from Canada’s commitments under the Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — appears in a billboard campaign in Copenhagen, 2009

Our last few posts make this a good time to return to our ongoing “Frye on God” thread. Conservative politicians are the most likely to declare themselves Christians, but they are also the most likely to be missing any sense of Christian charity, especially with regard to the poor and the sick. Stephen Harper’s repetitions of “God bless Canada” do not otherwise appear to display much concern for the welfare of fellow Canadians in need, or for the vast expanses of nature that make up the Canadian landscape. Evangelical Christians, in fact, seem to possess a reckless disregard for the environment. Like other North American conservatives, they deny global warming in large numbers despite a virtually unanimous scientific consensus on the issue. Because big oil interests spend tens of millions of dollars every year to fund global warming denialism, it evidently is possible to serve both God and Mammon if you have a mind to do so. It’s as though a peculiar strain of Christian conservatism believes that, with the End Times coming, it doesn’t matter how much damage is inflicted along the way. As Tina Fey in her most recent rendering of Sarah Palin nicely put it, “I believe that global warming is just Jesus holding us closer.”

Those who cite the Bible as a strict source of authority often seem to have no idea what they’re talking about. The limit of their understanding is usually love. Here’s Frye in “On the Bible”:

[T]he response which the Bible itself insists on, the response of the spirit, is bound up with the conception of love, a word which perhaps means too many things in modern languages and may have rather a sentimental sound. But in the New Testament love is regarded not as one virtue among others but as the only virtue there is, and one which is possible only to God and to the spirit of man, a virtue which, in Paul’s language, believes and hopes everything [1 Corinthians 13:7], and thereby includes all the other virtues because, outside the order of love, faith and hope are not necessarily virtues at all. (CW 4, 164)

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.

Frye on God: “Hell is in front of us because we have put it there; paradise is missing because we have failed to put it there”

Part of the evolution of the universe sequence in The Tree of Life

Over the last little while we’ve been running a Frye on God thread, which has already become part of a skein that weaves together a number of themes, not all of them obviously related.

In a post yesterday we had a look at Job, who seems to get us closer to a notion of God that consolidates these apparent incongruities. So let’s see how much further Job’s God can take us. From Words with Power:

The mysteries of birth and death. . .can never be understood because they can never be objectified. But there is a creation that mystifies and a creation that reveals, and the latter is identical with the former. Except that the mysterious creation, the one infinitely far back in the past, is the one that Job has heard about but cannot directly see (42:5). When the infinitely remote creation is re-presented to him, he becomes a participant in it: that is, he become creative in himself, as heaven and earth are made new to him. He is given no new discovery, but gains a deeper apprehension of what is already there. This deeper apprehension is not simply more wisdom, but an access of power.

Myths of a paradise lost in the past or a hell threatening us after death are myths corrupted by the anxieties of time. Hell is in front of us because we have put it there; paradise is missing because we have failed to put it there. The Biblical perspective of divine initiative and human response passes into its opposite, where the initiative is human, and where a divine response, symbolized by the answer to Job, is guaranteed. The union of these perceptions would be the next step, except that where it takes place there are no next steps (CW, 264-65).

“The Tree of Life” and “The Book of Job”

I saw The Tree of Life last night, and it is a remarkable film. I loved all 14 billion years of it. (Yes, it does stretch back to the creation of the universe, but with emphasis on the last 60 years.)

There are two explicit references to the Book of Job, beginning with the opening title card, which refers to God’s confrontation with Job where God asks in the midst of Job’s terrible suffering what he knows about the origins of creation: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth. . .when the morning stars sang together?” (38:4,7).  The entire movie is keyed to this reference, which even then may not fully penetrate the mood of mystery whose motifs seem to be never-ending rounds of love and loss.

Frye, of course, wrote extensively about the Book of Job — about this climactic confrontation between God and Job especially — and, not surprisingly, offers clarification. From The Great Code:

The fact that God’s speech is thrown into a series of rhetorical questions to which “no” is the only answer seems to give it a bullying and hectoring quality, and certainly there is no “answer” to Job’s problem. But did we ever seriously think that so great a poem would turn out to be a problem with an answer? To answer a question. . .is to accept the assumptions in it, and thereby to neutralize the question by consolidating the mental level on which the question was asked. Real questions are stages in formulating better questions; answers cheat us out of the chance to do this. So even if we are dissatisfied with God’s performance, a God who was glibly ready to explain it all would be more contemptible than the most reactionary of divine bullies.

We remember that Job himself was groping toward a realization that no causal explanation of his alienated plight was possible. In a sense God is speaking out of Job’s own consciousness here: any causal explanation takes us back to a First Cause, that is the creation. The rhetorical questions really mean, then, in this context: don’t look along the line of causes to the creation: there is no answer there, and no help there. How Job got into his position is less important than how he is to get out of it; and it is only because he was not a participant in creation that he can be liberated from the chaos and darkness within it. (CW, 217-18)

“The word ‘creation’ is inescapably part of the way we see things”

Continuing with our “Frye on God” thread: we have so far been considering the “death of God.” We can now move on to consider the God that survives. From Creation and Recreation:

I want to begin with what is called “creativity” as a feature of human life, and move from there to some of the traditional religious ideas about a divine creation. It seems to me that the whole complex of ideas and images surrounding the word “creation” is inescapably a part of the way that we see things. We may emphasize either the divine or the human aspect of creation to the point of denying the reality of the other. For Karl Barth, God is a creator, and the first moral to be drawn from this is that man is not one: man is for Barth a creature, and his primary duty is to understand what it is to be a creature of God. For others, the notion of a creating is a projection from the fact that man makes things, and for them a divine creator has only the reality of a shadow thrown by ourselves. But what we believe, or believe that we believe, in such matters is of very little importance compared to the fact that we go on using the conception anyway, whatever name we give it. We are free, up to a point, to shape our beliefs; what we are clearly not free to do is alter what is really a part of our cultural genetic code. We can throw out varieties of the idea of creation at random, and these, in Darwinian fashion, will doubtless descend through whatever has the greatest survival value; but abolish the conception of itself we cannot. (CW 4, 36)

William Faulkner

Clip from an interview in which Faulkner explains why The Sound and the Fury is his personal “best beloved” novel

William Faulkner died on this date is 1962.

Frye in The Modern Century. The reference is brief, but the context — the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity considered in a religious context — is telling. We can just sneak this one into our continuing consideration of Frye on God.

Matthew Arnold warned the dominant bourgeoisie of Victorian England that a society could pursue liberty to the point of forgetting about equality. Today, with capitalism in a counter-reformation period and with totalitarianism  thought of a something foreign, we prefer to be reminded that society — that is, other societies — can purse equality to the point of forgetting about liberty. But neither political democracy nor trade unions have developed much sense of the third revolutionary ideal of fraternity — the world “comrade” has for most of us a rather sinister and frigid sound. Fraternity is perhaps the ideal that the leisure structure has to contribute to society. A society of students, scholars, and artists is a society of neighbors, in the genuinely religious sense of that word. That is, our neighbor is not, or not necessarily, the person in the same national or ethnical or class group with ourselves, but may be a “good Samaritan” or person to whom we are linked by deeper bonds than nationality or racism or class solidarity can provide. There are bonds of intellect and imagination as well of love and good will. The neighbor of a scientist is another scientist working on similar lines, perhaps in a different continent; the neighbor of a novelist writing about Mississippi is (as Faulkner indicated in his Nobel Prize speech) anybody anywhere who respond to his work. (CW , 57-8)

Isaac Newton’s “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica”: “God is not a mathematical diagram”

The BBC’s documentary, “Isaac Newton: The Dark Heretic,” on Newton’s secret study of alchemy and his speculations on God and the Bible

Sir Isaac Newton published his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica on this date in 1687. The occasion contributes nicely to our ongoing thread, Frye on God.

Blake and Newton in “The Drunken Boat”:

Blake’s view, in short, is that the universe of modern astronomy, as revealed in Newton, exhibits only a blind, mechanical, sub-human order, not the personal presence of a deity. Newton himself tended to think of God still as “up there”; but what was up there, according to Blake, is only a set of interlocking geometrical diagrams, and God, Blake says, is not a mathematical diagram. Newtonism leads to what for Blake are intellectual errors, such as a sense of the superiority of abstractions to actual things and the notion that the real world is a measurable but invisible world of primary qualities. But Blake’s main point is that admiring the mechanisms of the sky leads to establishing human life in mechanical patterns too. In other words, Blake’s myth of Urizen is a fuller and more sophisticated version of the myth of Frankenstein. (CW 17, 79)

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Gay Pride and a Sabbath Reflection

Today is the Gay Pride Parade in Toronto.

Frye in his 1952 diary:

I have never myself felt any physical basis to my affectionate feelings for other men, but there must be one, and it seems to me to be as pointless to speak of all male love as buggery as it would be to speak of all marriage as legalized whoring. When Marlowe said that the beloved disciple was Christ’s Alexis, he wasn’t just being a bad boy: the sense of his remark is that Christ’s love, being human, must have had a substantial quality in it. (CW 8, 465)

The joke writes itself. A pasty, slightly flabby, middle-aged guy dressed up as a cowboy at an event where they “bust broncos.”

The joke continues with the observation that some “Christian conservatives,” identifiable as libertarians in the private sector and authoritarians in other people’s private lives, are also regularly discovered to be deeply in the closet, sometimes in the company of a rent boy and a ready supply of crystal meth. This includes pastors of “family values” churches and a striking number of Stephen Harper’s Republican brethren.

So nobody is suggesting that our God-fearing, End Times-friendly prime minister is anything but what he appears to be. However, according to the demands of the joke, he does exhibit eyebrow raising behavior. Most notably, a conspicuous streak of homophobia likely related to some unresolved conflict that dare not speak its name, but is expressed by an obsessive concern with restricting the sexual behavior and personal freedoms of people who do not conform to his version of “real Canadian values.” Think of the secretly cross-dressing J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoid fantasies about “the enemy within” — in the end it was clear who the “enemy” and where the “within” was.

Finally, there’s the punchline involving Harper’s billion dollar G20 Sweet Sixteen last June: all those sweaty, heavily muscled, body armored, nightstick swinging riot police “kettling” legally assembled protesters, pushing up hard against them from behind, thrusting deeper and deeper into the crowd . . . Very butch. Totally top.

However, joking aside, does any of this sound anything like what Jesus would do? Or is it a projection of what Harper’s Jesus would do if he actually existed, passing judgment and casting aside those who do not qualify as somehow fulfilling God’s love?

It’d be hard to go wrong with the assumption that any God of love worthy of the name loves gay people and would have some stern (but still forgiving) words for the odd over-compensation of our jet-buying, jail-building prime minister. There’s not a lot of peace or love in Harper’s Christianity, which means it could use a little more Jesus and a lot less idolatry, such as worshiping the golden calf of corporate power and Mammon in general.

All of which raises the very serious question: what exactly is Stephen Harper afraid of?

Gay Pride exhibits both pride and courage. Harper seems to possess neither. Except maybe the hollow courage of those who have acquired worldly power for personal gain, which is in turn closely related to the pride that goeth before the fall.

“God-is-Dead Syndrome”

Jacques Derrida responding to questions on God and Logos

Continuing with the “God is dead” thread in our Frye on God series, here he is in “The Double Mirror” associating the idea with developments in literary criticism:

What I want initially to talk about is my present preoccupation with the Bible, which I am trying to study in relation to secular literature and criticism. This involves relating it to issues in critical theory, so far as I understand them. I get a strong impression that many contemporary critics are talking about the Bible even when they avoid mentioning it. Many critical issues originated in the hermeneutic study of the Bible; many critical theories are obscurely motivated by a God-is-dead syndrome that also arose from Biblical criticism; many of the principles advanced by such theorists often seem to me more defensible when applied to the Bible than they are applied elsewhere. (CW 4, 83)

This God is dead stuff I think clears the way for what is to come. Once we have some idea why God can be said to be dead, we’re getting a better sense of what God is “not.”

You’ll notice that there’s a live “Frye on God” link in the Categories directly beneath this post. You can hit that link at any time to see the entries so far.