Category Archives: Great Code

“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)

Todd Lawson, “Frye and the Koran: Typology, Apocalypse & Epic”

Todd Lawson is professor of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto

In several, scattered places in his later writings, Frye treats the Koran as a text that deserves to be read very carefully as both literature and “more than literature”.  For example, in The Great Code he points out that those who see in the Koran’s version of the story of Mary and the birth of Jesus a confusion of Biblical material have simply got it wrong and are deaf to the music of typological figuration.

The third Sura of the Koran appears to be identifying Miriam and Mary; Christian commentators on the Koran naturally say this is ridiculous, but from the purely typological point of view from which the Koran is speaking, the identification makes good sense. (GC 172, italics added)

Several similar instances demonstrate Frye’s characteristic perspicacity and even unto a text as foreign in cultural presuppositions, form and content as the Koran. I am studying Frye’s relationship with the Koran through both printed and unpublished works where he either explicitly refers to the text or where his remarks on other texts are equally apposite in the case of the Koran. I am also exploring, with the able and valuable assistance of Rebekah Zwanzig (who actually also discovered this blog), the Frye archive to study his marginalia and notes on related texts, such as English translations of the Koran and of Rumi’s poetry.  Results so far suggest that Frye’s faith in the “sacrament of reading” allowed him to develop a remarkably open, if critical, attitude towards the Koran, something in which he was certainly then – and may still well be – ahead of his time.

My interest in Frye’s Koran began in the early ‘80’s when I was working on a PhD thesis at McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies. My subject was a particularly challenging unpublished manuscript of an Arabic Koran commentary. In taking a break, reading the newly published Great Code, I saw that Frye had solved one of the problems that had been eluding me. His discussion of the above-mentioned typological figuration and its persuasive power and efficacy was in fact a revelation and provided a key I had not found elsewhere. When I started teaching at U of T in 1988 I secretly held the hope that I would one day be able to meet the great man and express to him my gratitude for his unbeknownst help. Of course, I also hoped of thus being able to search further the Frygian experience of the Koran. Alas, this meeting never happened. In fact, and in the context of the present research, a rather ironic signal brought the possibility to a clear, cold end . . . it was the evening of January 23, 1991. In those days I was in the habit of listening to the radio about the Gulf War while I worked in the evening in my office at Robarts Library. The bombing of Baghdad — home and scene of the great efflorescence of Arabo-Islamic learning and culture from the 8th to the 13th centuries — had begun five or six days earlier and was commencing apace.  The reports of this massive (and in retrospect perhaps phobic) attack were interrupted on the CBC to announce the passing of Northrop Frye. He had just been there, virtually across the street. Now he was gone. But, it seems, not forever.

Fifteen years later, I decided to have our conversation anyway. Having returned to the University of Toronto from McGill, and encouraged in my general research by a SSHRC award to study the Koran as an example of literary apocalypse, I decided to weave Frye’s very illuminating work into my methodology. In order to be as rigorous as possible about this, I organized two successive, year-long graduate seminars, entitled the Koranic Apocalyptic Imagination, around the above-mentioned later works of Frye, which included the Double Vision. It was as if the students recognized a long lost friend. It is amazing the way these young Islamicists became excited and encouraged by Frye’s remarks about the structure and content of the Bible because they could apply many of them to their own reading of the Koran, a text which for many of the students was certainly more than literature. And they also discovered how it was literature as well.

The current project, bringing into some kind of order the various aspects, apparent contradictions and other problems of a Frygian Koran, is meant to be background for a chapter in the eventual monograph on the Koran as apocalypse, a topic that has thus far attracted an astonishing lack of attention. Why this lack of attention? It is an interesting question, but one which I will forbear from addressing here. I look forward to hearing from scholars who may be interested in or actually working on Northrop Frye’s reading of the Koran and his understanding of Islam. I am grateful to Bob Denham for the extremely helpful postings here on Frye and the Koran and for general encouragement. And I am grateful to Michael Happy for passing along my initial note to the blog to Bob and, of course, for all of his hard work and creativity that has gone into this invaluable website.

Panoramic and Participating Apocalypse

Further to the impending Judgment Day, here’s Frye in The Great Code distinguishing between panoramic and participating apocalypse:

There are, then, two aspects of the apocalyptic vision: One is what we may call panoramic apocalypse, the vision of the staggering marvels placed in a near future and just before the end of time. As a panorama, we look at it passively, which means it is objective to us. This in turn means that it is essentially a projection of the subjective “knowledge of good and evil” acquired at the fall. That knowledge, we now see, was wholly within the framework of law: it is contained by the final “judgment” where the world disappears into its unending constituents, a heaven and a hell, into one of which man automatically goes, depending on the relative strength of the cases for the prosecution and the defence. Even in heaven, the legal vision tells us, he remains eternally a creature, praising his Creator unendingly.

Anyone coming “cold” to the Book of Revelation, without context of any kind, would probably regard it as simply an insane rhapsody. It has been described as a book that either finds a man mad or else leaves him so. And yet, if we were to explore below the repressions in our own minds that keep us “normal,” we might find very similar nightmares of anxiety and triumph. As a parallel example, we may cite the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, where the soul is assumed immediately after death to be going through a series of visions, first of peaceful and then of wrathful deities. A priest reads the book into the ear of the corpse, who is assumed to hear the reader’s voice telling him that all these visions are simply his own repressed mental forms now released by death and coming to the surface. If he could realize that, he would immediately be delivered from their power, because it is own power.

If we take a similar approach to the Book of Revelation, we find, I think, that there is a second or participating apocalypse following the panoramic one. The panoramic apocalypse ends with the restoration of the tree and water of life, the two elements of the original creation. But perhaps, like other restorations, this one is a type of something else, a resurrection or upward metamorphosis to a new beginning that is now present. We notice that while the Book of Revelation seems to be emphatically the end of the Bible, it is a remarkably open end. It contains such statements as “Behold, I make all things new” (21:5); it describes God as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of all possibilities of verbal expression; it follows the vision of the restoring of the water of life with an earnest invitation to drink of it. The panoramic apocalypse gives way, at the end, to a second apocalypse that, ideally, begins in the reader’s mind as soon as he has finished reading, a vision that passes through the legalized vision of ordeals and trials and judgments and comes out into a second life. In this second life the creator-creature, divine-human antithetical tension has ceased to exist, and the sense of the transcendent person and the split of subject and object no longer limit our vision. After the “last judgment,” the law loses its last hold on us, which is the hold of the legal vision that ends there.

We suggested earlier that the Bible deliberately blocks off the sense of the referential from itself: it is not a book pointing to a historical presence outside it, but a book that identifies itself with that presence. At the end the reader, also, is invited to identify himself with the book. Milton suggests that the ultimate authority in the Christian religion is what he calls the Word of God in the heart, which is superior even to the Bible itself, because for Milton this “heart” belongs not to the subjective reader but to the Holy Spirit. That is, the reader completes the visionary operation of the Bible by throwing out the subjective fallacy along with the objective one. The apocalypse is the way the world looks after the ego has disappeared. (CW 19, 156-8)

St. Patrick’s Day


The Pogues, “Streams of Whiskey”

On the soberer side of St. Patrick’s Day (that is, any time before about 4 pm), Frye in The Great Code cites St. Patrick’s illustration of the Trinity to make a point about metaphor and doctrine:

The sense in Christianity as a faith beyond reason, which must continue to affirm even after reason gives up, is closely connected with the linguistic fact that many of the central doctrines of Christianity can be grammatically expressed only in the form metaphor.  Thus, Christ is God and man; in the Trinity three persons are one; in the Real Presence the body and blood are bread and wine. When these doctrines are rationalized as conceptions of a spiritual substance and the like, the metaphor is translated in metonymic language and “explained.” But there is a strong smell of intellectual mortality about such explanations, and sooner or later they fade away and the original metaphor reappears, as intransigent as ever. At that point we are back to the world where St. Patrick illustrates the doctrine of the Trinity with a shamrock, a use of concrete paradox that enlightens the mind by paralyzing the discursive reason, like the koan of Zen Buddhism. The doctrines may be “more” than metaphors; the point is that they can be stated only in a metaphorical this-is-that form. (CW 19, 73)


Simone Weil

Today is Simone Weil‘s birthday (1909-1943).

From The Great Code:

In our day Simone Weil has found the traditional doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ a major obstacle — not impossibly the major obstacle — to her entering it.  She points out that it does not differ enough from other metaphors of integration, such as the class solidarity metaphor of Marxism, and says:

“Our true dignity is not to be parts of a body. . . . It consists in this, that in the state of perfection which is the vocation of each one of us, we no longer live in ourselves, but Christ lives in us; so that through our perfection . . . becomes in a sense each one of us, as he is completely in each host.  The hosts are not a part of his body.”

I quote this because, whether she is right or wrong, and whatever the theological implications, the issue she raises is a central one in metaphorical vision, or the application of metaphors to human experience.  We are born, we said, within the pre-existing social contract out of which we develop what individuality we have, and the interests of that society take priority over the interests of the individual.  Many religions, on the other hand, in their origin, attempt to be recreated societies built on the influence of a single individual: Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Mohammed, or at most a small group.  Such teachers signify, by their appearance, that there are individuals to whom a society should be related, rather than the other way around.  Within a generation or two, however, this new society has become one more social contract, and the individuals of the new generations are once again subordinated to it.

Paul’s conception of Jesus as the genuine individuality of the individual, which is what I think Simone Weil is following here, indicates a reformulating of the central Christian metaphor in a way that unites without subordinating, that achieves identity with and identity as on equal terms.  The Eucharistic image, which she also refers to, suggests that the crucial event of Good Friday — the death of Christ on the cross — is one with the death of everything else in the past.  The swallowed Christ, eaten, divided, and drunk, in the phrase of Eliot’s Gerontion, is one with the potential individual buried in the tomb of the ego during the Sabbath of time and history, where it is the only thing that rests.  When this individual awakens and we pass to resurrection and Easter, the community with which he is identical is no longer a whole of which he is a part, but another aspect of himself, or, in the traditional metonymic language, another person of his substance. (CW 19, 119-20)

Joan of Arc

The first part of a restored version of a previously lost 1927 film, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc

On this date in 1429 Joan of Arc unsuccessfully besieged La Charité.

Frye on prophesy in The Great Code:

In the post-Biblical period both Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism seem to have accepted the principle that the age of prophecy had ceased, and to have accepted it with a good deal of relief.  Medieval Europe had a High King and a High Priest, an Emperor and a Pope, but the distinctively prophetic third force was not recognized.  The exceptions prove the rule.  The career of Savonarola is again one of martyrdom, and the same is true of Joan of Arc, who illustrates the inability of a hierarchical society to distinguish a Deborah from a Witch of Endor.  (CW 19, 148)


Today is Dutch humanist and theologian Erasmus‘ birthday (1466-1536).

Frye in The Great Code on Erasmus and the always troublesome interpretation of the Gospel of John’s “In the beginning was the Word”:

Erasmus, in the Latin translation appended to his edition of the Greek New Testament, renders “In the beginning was the Word” as “In principio erat sermo.”  This is purely a metonymic translation: in the beginning, Erasmus assumes, was the infinite mind, with its interlocking thoughts and ideas out of which the creative words emerged.  Erasmus is clearly more influenced than [St.] Jerome by the later Greek history of the word [i.e. logos].  It would be cheap parody to say that Erasmus really means “In the beginning was continuous prose,” but the link between his “sermo” and the development of continuous prose is there nonetheless. (18)



“The Massacre of Jews at Strasbourg” in 1349 by Edward Beyer

Today is the anniversary of two vicious acts of anti-semitism in a long and horrific history of such acts.

In 1349 six thousand Jews in Mainz were massacred after being blamed for the Black Death.

In  1391 Jews were massacred in Palma de Mallorca.

Frye in The Great Code:

Anti-Semitism is a long-standing corruption of Christianity, and one of the more rationalized pretexts for it is the notion that the legalism condemned in the New Testament is to be identified with Judaism.  But this is a very dubious interpretation of even the most polemical parts of the New Testament, and is not found at all in the teaching of Jesus.  Jesus always attacks a quite specific elite or pseudo-elite of priests, scribes, lawyers, Pharisess, Sadduces, and other “blind guides” (Matthew 23:24), but not the precepts of the religion he was brought up in himself.  What Jesus condemned in Pharisaism is as common in Christianity as in any other religion.  The attack on legalism is in quite a different context: it means accepting the standards of society, and society will always sooner or later line up with Pilate against the prophet. (133)

Alvin Lee: “What The Great Code Is and Does”


Cross-posted in the journal’s Frye archive here.

The Great Code is a powerfully structured and intricately detailed prose poem about the possibility of human love and freedom through a new kind of understanding of the Bible. By a process of imaginative literalism, the author invites the reader to confront the major challenges of the Bible–its sheer length, its complexity, most of its 80 books, its having been composed during more than a millenium, its being read in translation by most readers, its unifying but also its fragmenting characteristics, its traditional claim as the Word of God told through human agents, all this and more–in the hope that the old writings will breathe new life and so enable genuine individuals to be born, imaginatively and spiritually. The intention is to free the hoary ancestral text from centuries of doctrinal accretions and of having been misread as history when it is not, except in vestigial ways, so that it can work again for thinking men and women (not necessarily religious ones) as the great visionary document of Western culture.

Throughout his life Frye became increasingly aware of the enormous shaping influence of the Bible, not only on individual poets and writers but also, more generally, as what he called the mythological framework of the culture. He came to see as well that the Bible was in danger of becoming extinct for most educated people, as growing numbers moved away from religious traditions, and as other cultures clamoured for attention. He became convinced that the assumption of “a contrast or opposition between the religious and the secular, the sacred and the profane, does not work any more, if it ever did. Everything in religion,” he says, “has its secular aspect, and everything in secular life has religious implications, however ignored or undefined they may be.”[1] After long pondering, then, he set about defining some of these implications and accepted the pressures, external and internal, actually to write what was already being talked of as his “big book on the Bible.” He recognized as he did so that he was not in any conventional sense a Biblical scholar. The Great Code is presented as his “own personal encounter with the Bible” (Introduction, 1). It is also the response to the Biblical text, I add, of one of the twentieth century’s most erudite and creative minds and imaginations. Long ago, Carlos Baker, reviewing the manuscript of Fearful Symmetry for Princeton University Press, had written: “he knows the Bible as few scholars do” (Ayre, 192). Baker’s comment points to at least two things: Frye’s thorough reading knowledge of the Bible and his extraordinary way of knowing it. In his Blake book Frye had said, “Even the Bible must be shaken upside-down before it will yield all its secrets” (FS, 120).

Frye’s immersion in the Bible began early in his life and his insights into it expanded steadily, both before The Great Code appeared (1982) and in the following eight years, culminating in his last big book, Words with Power, Being a Second Study of the Bible and Literature (1990). In the next half hour, I try to provide you with a synoptic account of how Frye saw the Bible and how he hoped readers would approach it. I shall concentrate on the shape and meaning of only the first half of The Great Code. If you have questions or comments about the rest or about the later book, Words with Power, we can talk about those in a few minutes.

Continue reading

Frye and the Bible


Responding to comments by Russell Perkin and Michael Happy

It seems to me that Frye is looking at the Bible from the point of view of a literary critic. He begins with the assumption that, unlike other sacred books, the Bible is a unity. He is interested in the pursuing this unity as it manifests itself in the Bible’s myths and metaphors. The former he examines in terms of the movement from Creation to Apocalypse, with all of the lesser up and down U–shapes in between. The latter he examines largely in terms of recurring images. He of course brackets out any number of other features that a literary critic might legitimately want to investigate, especially those having to do with literary texture. His concern is with structure. That’s the centripetal thrust of The Great Code, Words with Power, and his Bible lectures. According to the class notes from his Religious Knowledge course, he called this the synthetic approach. The centrifugal thrust, largely absent from his Bible lectures, has to do with the kerygmatic myths to live by. That is, as a sacred book, the Bible is more than literary. Frye worries a great deal about what to call this, finally settling on “kerygma.”

One can approach a written text, sacred or otherwise, from any number of perspectives––biographical, historical, formal, sociological, cultural, religious, and so on. When I was in school in the 1960s biblical scholars such as Gerhard von Rad and Martin Noth were engaged in a type of interpretation called redaction criticism, which began to pay attention to large units of the Bible, such as the first six books, as creative, literary forms in their own right. Since that time there has been an explosion of literary approaches to the Bible, and there is a large industry today devoted to the poetics of biblical narrative and imagery. The degree of interest among Biblical scholars in such approaches is revealed by a glance at the annual programs of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature. The dialogue works both ways: we have literary critics interested in the narrative and metaphorical features of the Bible, and we have biblical critics interested in the Bible’s literary features. Not long ago I was glancing at study of that most intractable book, the Book of Revelation, by Leonard Thompson, a well known biblical scholar. Thompson realizes that he can’t crack the code of Revelation without speaking about its genre, its narrative structure, and its metaphoric unity, all of which are literary matters. Which is pretty close to Frye’s approach.

One of my favorite examples of Frye’s mythical–metaphorical approach is his commentary on the Priestly and Jahwist creation accounts in chapters 5 and 6 of Words with Power. Whether the correct label for this “a literary criticism of the Bible,” I dunno. I guess I’d say it’s a reading of the Bible from the perspective of a literary critic who is interested in texts as wholes and in the structure of their narratives and imagery. Or is all of this too obvious to need remarking?

I suppose one doesn’t have to be a literary critic to pay attention to features of a text that are literary, but if you’re trained to consider the centrality of such things as metaphor in any text, you’re more likely to see things that those untrained do not. Spend ten minutes, for example, leafing through any collection of hymns. You’ll discover that God is a mighty fortress, Christ is a master workman, Christ is a star of the East, Christ is a dying lamb, the earth is a story teller, the Holy Spirit is a dove or a divine fire or a wind, Christ is a solid rock and similar figures from the mineral world (such as Rock of Ages), God’s mercy is a bright beam, Christians are soldiers (and also from that hymn, we are the body of Christ), the hour of prayer is sweet, the heart is a dwelling place, Christ is the light of light, Jesus is a shepherd; and of course all the royal metaphors imported from the Old Testament of the “Christ is king” or “Christ is ruler” variety and the associated metaphors of crowns, diadems, and thrones. Some hymns give us rather difficult instructions, such as “fold to thy heart thy brother” or “lift up your hearts,” the folding of a brother and the lifting of a heart seeming to be rather difficult things to do literally. Sometimes we get dual metaphors, as in the hymn “O Holy City,” where we’re told that “Christ the Lamb doth reign,” a figure that combines a pastoral and sacrificial image with a royal or regal one: Christ is a lamb: the lamb is a king. In “O Master of the Waking World,” we’re told that Christ has all the nations in his heart, an extraordinary metaphor that rather strains our powers of comprehension. In another hymn we’re called on to deliver our land from “error’s chain.” Why “chain”? Well, the hymnist needs a word to rhyme with “plain” and “slain,” but we nevertheless sense the direction in which the figure takes us: the heathen nations (the hymnist mentions India and Africa, along with, of all places, Greenland) are imprisoned (that is, chained) by error. Even in “My Country, ’tis of Thee” freedom is said to be a holy light, and as one of the imperatives is for it to ring from the mountain side, freedom also seems to be a bell. In “It Singeth Low in Every Heart” we’re told that the dead “throng the silence of our breasts,” indicating that in our breasts, where everything is silent, we have a host of dead souls or maybe just dead people hanging out, an image that is something of a problem for the literal minded. In “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” we were told in the first stanza that “God is health” and in the second stanza that God is a bird. As we’re sheltered under the wings of God, this appears to be a mother bird, a hen perhaps. The hymnist doesn’t say that God is like a mother hen, but that he is one. In one of the choral responses we implore the Lord to makes us a sanctuary, which means a sacred place or a place of refuge.

My guess is that form critics and redaction critics and canonical critics and reader–response critics are less likely to be attuned to such metaphors than a critic interested in figurative language.