Category Archives: Kerygma

Remembrance Day: Frye on In Flanders Field and Mythological Peace

On Remembrance Day, remembering how Frye viewed war and peace and poetry, how he says in what is probably my favourite book of his, Words with Power, that working in words and other media, may be our only way to salvation on earth, that is, the only way to show instead of argue with  the warmongers among  the  ideologues and/or the  “psychotic apes”.

On In Flanders Fields:

It is perhaps not an accident that the best known of all Canadian poems, “In Flanders’ Fields,” should express, in a tight, compressed, grim little rondeau, the same spirit of an inexorable ferocity which even death cannot relax, like the Old Norse warrior whose head continues to gnash and bite the dust long after it had been severed from his body.

The Bush Garden:  150

On Ideologues:

I keep having a vision of a guide or preacher or some professional haranguer standing in front of  a war cemetery in Flanders with a million crosses behind him and explaining how human aggressiveness has such essential survival value.

Late Notebooks 1982-1990: 678

On Human and Divine Commands:

In the Decalogue God says, “Thou shalt not kill,” or, in Hebrew, “Kill not.” Period, as we say now: there is nothing about judicial execution, war, or self-defence. True, these are taken care of elsewhere in the Mosaic code, because the commandment is addressed to human beings, that is, to psychotic apes who want to kill so much that they could not even understand an unconditional prohibition against killing, much less obey it.

The Great Code: 232

Cayley: Does the word also become a command?

Frye: It often takes the form of a command, yes. I think that the word of command in ordinary society is the word of authority, which relates to that whole area of ideology and rhetoric.  That kind of word of command has to be absolutely minimal. It can’t have any comment attached to it. Soldiers won’t hang themselves on barbed wire in response to a subordinate clause. If there’s any commentary necessary, it’s the sergeant’s major’s job to explain what it is, not the officer’s. Now that is a metaphor, it’s an analogy, of the kind of command that comes from the other side of the imagination, what has been called the kerygmatic, the proclamation from God. That is not so much a command as a statement of what your own potentiality is and of the direction in which you have to go to attain it.  But it’s a command that leaves your will free, whether you follow it or not.

Northrop Frye in Conversation: 182

On Human Peace vs Mythological Peace

In between these visions of creation comes the Incarnation, which presents God and man as indissolubly locked together in a common enterprise. This is Christian, but the answering and supporting “Thou” of Buber, which grows out of the Jewish tradition, is not imaginatively very different. Faith, then, is not developed by clogging the air with questions of the “Does a God really exist?” type and answering them with equal nonsense, but in working, in words and other media, towards a peace that passes understanding, not by contradicting understanding, but by disclosing, behind the human peace that is merely a temporary cessation of a war, the proclaimed or mythological model of a peace infinite in both its source and its goal.

Words with Power:  124-125


Frye and Apocalyptic Feminism

On this date in 1913, militant suffragette Emily Davison was struck by King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.  She died four days later.  She ran out onto the track (as you can see from the footage above) with a suffragette flag, which she evidently intended to attach to the king’s horse.

One of Frye’s entries in notebook 44 consists of this single sentence: “I don’t think it’s coincidence or accident that feminism and ecology should become central issues at the same time” (CW 5, 206).

A modified version of the phrase appears again in chapter six of Words with Power, “Second Variation: The Garden”:

Here we are concerned with the oasis-paradise of gardens and fountains that derives from the Biblical Eden and the Song of Songs.  It may be an impossibly idealized vision of a very tame aspect of nature, especially when in Isaiah it extends to a world in which the lion lies down with the lamb (11:6 ff.).  But it is the beginning of a sense that exploiting nature nature is quite as evil as exploiting other human beings.  Admittedly, the Bible itself has done a good deal to promote the conception of nature as something to be dominated by human arrogance, for historical reasons we have glanced at.  Contact with some allegedly primitive societies in more modern times, with their intense care for the earth that sustains them, has helped to give us some notion of how skewed many aspects of our traditional ideology are on this point.  But even in the Bible the bride-garden metaphor works in the opposite direction by associating nature and love, and I doubt if it is an accident that feminism and ecology have moved into the foreground of social issues at roughly the same time.  (WP 225)

As a matter of myth manifesting primary concern, the equalization of the sexes is implicit in biblical typology.  As a social and historical development, of course, it is all too often an ugly business typical of issues pertaining to power.  But the equalization of the sexes also has an apocalyptic dimension, as Frye’s rendering it in chapter six of Words with Power suggests.

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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 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.

The Void Between the Stars


Blake’s Song of Los

Response to Sára Tóth,  Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham

These responses appear suddenly and unexpectedly, like fairy rings on the front lawn:  you wake up in the morning, and there they are.  Most gratifying, particularly when one’s respondents are as stimulating as Sára Tóth, Joe Adamson, and Bob Denham.  I begin to see the uses of this blog thing:  it has a rhythm of its own, quite different from academic criticism.

Joe, I thank you for reminding us of that passage from Creation and Recreation, as it is probably Frye’s most extended treatment of the concept of spiritual otherness.  Both Joe and Sára point to the dialectical nature of Frye’s later thought, and that puts its finger on something central. The Late Notebooks show that Words with Power was going to be organized according to a “dialectic of Word and Spirit.”  I keep wondering why that dropped largely out of the final book—especially as it is still there implicitly.  Is Sára right that there are signs of occasional vacillation on Frye’s part?

She is definitely correct about Frye’s vacillation on the subject of kerygma.  Another thing I like about the blog is that I feel free to introduce occasional anecdotes that are, I hope, instructive, yet which would be out of place in a more formal setting.  In the later Eighties, some time after the appearance of The Great Code, I managed to work up my nerve to question Frye about what seemed an either-or distinction in that book between literature and kerygmatic rhetoric.  I asked him whether literature couldn’t at times take on a kerygmatic quality.  Frye was tactful, but wouldn’t back down.  He used as example the refrain from the Bard’s Song in Blake’s Milton:  “Mark my words! They are of your eternal salvation!”  Notwithstanding, Frye told me, since that assertion appears in a work of literature, we take it hypothetically.  This is why The Great Code insists that the Bible is not a work of art.  I was somewhat troubled by this, for personal as well as intellectual reasons.  Certain works of literature, even certain passages, have changed me, have changed my life.  For that matter, certain passages of Frye have changed my life:  I have had the “This is for me” response Frye speaks of as characteristic of kerygma; the passages have become “myths to live by.”  So I read Chapter Four of Words with Power with delighted surprise.  Frye just about never admitted that he changed his mind—but he did.  I am much more satisfied with the treatment in the later book, in which literature can sometimes take on kerygmatic qualities and, presumably, kerygmatic works such as the Bible can exhibit literary qualities.  The latter would take Frye full circle to Fearful Symmetry, which says in no uncertain terms that the Bible is a work of art, not just a code of art.  To be sure, Frye is speaking there from Blake’s perspective, but there is no indication that he does not share it.

As for the question of criticism as science, I am betting that that is fuel for at least three dozen blog entries–starting with this one.  I concede that Frye did talk sometimes as if he felt that criticism could be organized on an empirical basis, like science.  He was clearly irritated when he said in “Expanding Eyes” that “The order of words is there, all right, and there is no use writing it off as a private hallucination of my own.”  Harold Bloom had just got done comparing him to Proclus and Iamblichus—private hallucinators, in Frye’s book.  But he did seem to retain as late as 1975 a faith that we could achieve some consensus by showing repeated patterns “in the text.”  However, criticism for at least a decade before that had been insisting on exactly the opposite:  what seems to be “in the text” is a product of ideology or interpretive communities operating upon authors, readers, and critics alike.  This is why talk of a “scientific” criticism seems so dated now.

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Sára Tóth Re: “Necessary Angels”


Responding to Michael Dolzani:

Michael, am I right to think that in this wonderfully moving post you have actually brought a very personal example from Frye’s life to illustrate a distinction typical of his later works, the distinction between “purely” literary metaphor and what is beyond it: kerygma or existential or ecstatic metaphor? I take it you are saying that the so-called “liberal” phase is the phase of literature proper, when let’s say “heaven” is a symbol of something hypothetical, a vision of a spiritual interpenetrating world or “panoramic apocalypse”, something we contemplate as a hypothesis independently of its reality status. To say that Helen’s presence or heaven is surely more real for Frye than just her survival in people’s memories is to take us further than this, to the world of existential metaphor.

This takes me to what is the most significant sentence of your post: “I think the order of words is present, not as an empirical fact, but as Helen was present.” This has raised several questions for me. First, the later Frye identifies his own “order of words” as a hypothetical literary vision, an “ironic separation from all statement of facts”, adding that this is as far as he got in Anatomy (Myth and Metaphor 114). Or see this: “So the panoramic apocalypse, the thematic stasis, the myth as dianoia or picture, represents the end of experience as knowledge. It’s normally as far as literature can go, and the dianoia it reaches is a design of hypothetical metaphor.” (Late Notebooks I:91) What you suggest – that Helen’s presence expressed by the metaphor of heaven is more than hypothetical, and it is of the same nature with the order of words – is seemingly in contradiction with the above. Perhaps, to try to answer my own question, the solution lies in the nature of Frye’s dialectical thinking and the key word here is “normally”. What I mean is that kerygma is, on the one hand, definitely beyond literature (literature plus), on the other hand all literature is potentially kerygma. I find both poles of the dialectic in Frye.

My other question is related somewhat. If  “the order of words” is not an empirical fact but a creative vision as you say, what then do we make of Frye’s science analogy in the Anatomy? I do not want to stray to the territory of the philosophy of science (where I am not at home), and I know that Frye later dropped the science analogy, what puzzles me though is that even in Spiritus Mundi he writes in a similar vein that the vision has an objective pole, that “the order of words is there, and it is no good trying to write it off as a hallucination of my own” (118). Now if what you suggest is that in fact Helen’s presence in heaven is neither simply literary metaphor for Frye, nor something “factual”, then it must be, well, yes, I have to say it, something like “religious truth”, in the best possible sense of the term. But I wonder how Frye would have reacted if someone had insisted, say that “the resurrection of Christ has an objective pole, the resurrection is there, and it is no good trying to write it off as a hallucination of the disciples.” I hope the parallel is clear.

Is it too far-fetched to say that whereas the claim for objectivity sits awkwardly within the thinking of a Blake disciple, perhaps the late Frye’s move towards “otherness” could logically lead towards an increased emphasis on objectivity, towards the hunch that reality might be more than our imaginative creation, that in fact reality – the text, if you like, in a very wide, postmodern sense − answers back? All in all, I would humbly suggest that in this respect Paul Ricoeur’s thinking is perhaps more balanced in some ways than Frye’s, the Ricoeur who in his book on metaphor has worked on a nuanced interpretation of mimesis, saying that “the enigma of metaphorical discourse is that it ’invents’ in both senses of the word: what it creates, it discovers; and what it finds, it invents” (Rule of Metaphor, 239).

The Chorus of Bethlehem Angels


Correggio's Nativity

Frye writes:

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)

Typology, Kerygma, and Literature


Blake's Elohim Creating Adam

Russell’s latest post on Alter and Frye has got me thinking about my longstanding assumptions about Frye, particularly with regard to the Bible and literature.  The Bible and literature occupy the centre of Frye’s critical universe, and understanding what he says about both is to appreciate the full potential of his critical vision.

The Judeo-Christian Bible as the supreme artifact of Christian culture down to about the 18th century is of course easy enough to assume.  As Frye points out, the Bible is a primary source of imagery and stories well into the 20th century — and, in these apparently apocalyptically-minded times, into the 21st century as well.

But the Bible is not just a source of mythos and dianoia, to use the Aristotelian terms Frye adapts in Anatomy.  It is the source also of a “unique” arrangement of myth and metaphor represented by typology, the progressive succession of type-antitype-type (e.g. Creation-Incarnation-Revelation).  Although Frye rather conspicuously only says it once, he nevertheless observes on page 80 of The Great Code:

The typological organization of the Bible does present the difficulty, to a secular literary critic, of being unique: no other book in the world, to my knowledge, has a structure even remotely like that of the Christian Bible.

That structure is the “double mirror” of the Old Testament and the New Testament — the latter concealed in the former and the former revealed by the latter — which provides the Christian Bible’s kerygmatic vision of the human condition that Blake characterizes as the revelation of  the “human form divine.”  The typological structure of the Christian Bible that furnishes its distinctive double mirror character, however, does not originate with Christianity: the Hebrew Bible is the source of these typological principles, and the first “Christians” were themselves Jews who compiled what would become their “new” testament using the same typological structure of their traditional holy scriptures.  As Frye observes:

Typology in the Bible is by no means confined to the Christian version of the Bible: from the point of view of Judaism at least, the Old Testament is much more genuinely typological without the New Testament than with it. There are, in the first place, events in the Old Testament that are types of later events recorded also within the Old Testament.  (GC, 83)

When Frye suggests, therefore, as he does in The Great Code (and there alone, it might be pointed out) that the culturally ascendant phases of language we have observed so far — the hieroglyphic, the hieratic, and the demotic — may be, for the first time in human history, about to be succeeded by a kerygmatic phase, he is making about as revolutionary a statement as he ever made.  I’m not sure it is possible to approach his work as a whole without thinking about its implications.

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Kerygma, Cont’d


Following up on Michael Happy’s question about kerygma, here’s an adaptation of a little study of the word I did for Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World:

In The Great Code Frye adopts the word “kerygma” to indicate that while the Bible has obvious poetic features, it is more than literary because it contains a rhetoric of proclamation.  “Kerygma,” the form of proclamation made familiar by Bultmann, thus designates the existentially concerned aspect of the Bible, as opposed to its purely metaphoric features.  Bultmann sought to “demythologize” the New Testament narrative as an initial stage in interpretation: the assumptions of the old mythologies, such as demonic possession and the three-storied universe, had to be purged before the genuine kerygma could be “saved,” to use his word.  Frye, of course, has exactly the opposite view of myth: “myth is the linguistic vehicle of kerygma” (Great Code, 30).

But having made his point about kerygma Frye drops the word altogether from the rest of The Great Code, except for a passing reference toward the very end of the book (231).  In Words with Power the word “kerygma” is completely absent from Frye’s analysis in the “sequence and mode” (or “language”) chapter; we have to wait until chapter 4, where we learn that the excluded initiative––what lies hidden in the background of the poetic––is what leads to kerygma, even though Frye does not initially put it in these terms.  He begins by saying, “Our survey of verbal modes put rhetoric between the conceptual and the poetic, a placing that should help us to understand why from the beginning there have been two aspects of rhetoric, a moral and a tropological [figurative] aspect, one persuasive and the other ornamental.  Similarly, we have put the poetic between the rhetorical and the kerygmatic, implying that it partakes of the characteristics of both” (Words with Power 111).  Frye then begins to expand the meaning of kerygma far beyond what it had meant in The Great Code.  It now becomes synonymous with the prophetic utterance, the metaliterary perception that extends one’s vision, the Longinian ecstatic response to any text, sacred or secular, that “revolutionizes our consciousness” (Words with Power 111–14).  Kerygma takes metaphorical identification “a step further and says: ‘you are what you identify with’” (ibid., 116).  We enter the kerygmatic realm when the separation of “active speech and reception of speech” merges into a unity (ibid., 118).

This leads to an absorbing account of the “spiritual” as it is embedded in the descriptive, conceptual, and rhetorical “factors of the poetic,” and the “spiritual” as extending the body into another dimension so that it reaches “the highest intensity of consciousness” (ibid., 119–21, 128).  Then, some twenty pages after Frye began his exploration of kerygma, he arrives finally at the excluded initiative of the poetic.  He does not say what we might expect, that the excluded initiative is kerygma.  What he says, in a statement that appears to be something of an anticlimax after all the elevated probing of Spirit, is that the excluded initiative of the poetic “is the principle of the reality of what is created in the production and response to literature” (ibid., 128).  This teasing understatement has been anticipated by the declaration about the unity of “active speech and reception of speech” just quoted.  Or as Frye puts it in Notebook 53 in less pedestrian terms, kerygma is “the answering voice from God to the human construct” (Late Notebooks, 2:615).

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Anagogy and Kerygma


Michael Happy asks if anagogy and kerygma are the same thing, a question that’s difficult to answer in a word because both words are used in numerous contexts. They are certainly related terms. “Interpenetration” is another of those key words, especially in Frye’s late work. It appears in different contexts: historical (in relation to Spengler), philosophical (in relation to Whitehead) scientific (in relation to David Bohm), social (in relation to Frye’s liberal politics and his utopian vision of a classless society). But its primary context is religious. In this context Frye associates interpenetration with anagogy, kerygma, apocalypse, spiritual intercourse, the vision of plenitude, the everlasting gospel, the union of Word and Spirit, the new Jerusalem, atonement and the Incarnation––which are also religious terms. So just as a number of religious concepts tend to cluster around “interpenetration,” so they do around “anagogy” and “kerygma.”

Other of Frye’s key terms are not primarily religious, though are often used in a religious context––“identity,” “imaginative literalism,” “revelation,” “vision,” “recognition,” “consciousness,” “dialectic,” “Aufhebung,” “imagination,” “vortex,” “love.” All of these terms are multivalent, and they constitute part of the effort, which Frye speaks of repeatedly, to find the right verbal formula.