Category Archives: Kerygma

Expanded Consciousness


This engaging discussion has led Joe––in his third answer to what for Frye is the function of literature in society––to what I see as the punch line in Frye, the notion of expanded consciousness that comes from vision.  Frye has a compelling account of this and other matters in his essay, “Literary and Linguistic Scholarship in a Postliterate World,” where he says, after giving his familiar example of metaphorical identification in the Palaeolithic cave drawings, “Later we find the metaphorical imagination expanding into the worlds of dream, belief, vision, fantasy, ideas, as well as human society and nature, and annexing them all to the enlarging consciousness” (“The Secular Scripture” and Other Writings on Critical Theory, CW 18, 294).  [This comes from the volume Joe and Jean Wilson edited, which is, I think, the richest collection of Frye’s essays on critical theory.]

In the 1970s Frye often wrote about what he called the four levels of awareness, but “awareness” as a category tends to disappear from the writings in the last decade of his life, having been replaced by “consciousness.”   This word is often modified by “enlarged,” “expanded,” and “intensified.”  The cave drawings at Lascaux, Altamira, and elsewhere are an example of what Lévy-Bruhl called participation mystique, the imaginative identification with things, including other people, outside the self, or an absorption of one’s consciousness with the natural world into an undifferentiated state of archaic identity.   In such a process of metaphorical identification the subject and object merge into one, but the sense of identity is existential rather than verbal (See Words with Power, 250, and Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 2:503).

But what does the “intensity or expansion of consciousness” entail for Frye?  This is a somewhat slippery phrase to get hold of because Frye reflects on the implications of the phrase only obliquely.  But several years ago I nevertheless tried to set down some of the chief features of “expanded consciousness.”  It came out like this:

1.  It is a function of kerygma.  Ordinary rhetoric “seldom comes near the primary concern of ‘How do I live a more abundant life?’  This latter on the other hand is the central theme of all genuine kerygmatic, whether we find it in the Sermon on the Mount, the Deer Park Sermon of Buddha, the Koran, or in a secular book that revolutionizes our consciousness.  In poetry anything can be juxtaposed, or implicitly identified with, anything else.  Kerygma takes this a step further and says: ‘you are what you identify with.’  We are close to the kerygmatic whenever we meet the statement, as we do surprisingly often in contemporary writing, that it seems to be language that uses man rather than man that uses language” (Words with Power, 116).

2.  It does not necessarily signify religion or a religious experience, but it can be “the precondition for any ecumenical or everlasting-gospel religion” (Late Notebooks, 1:17).

3.  Whatever the techniques used to expand consciousness (for example, yoga, Zen, psychosynthesis, meditation, drugs), or whatever forms it takes (for example, dreams, fantasies, the “peak experiences” described by Maslow, ecstatic music), the language of such consciousness always turns out to be metaphorical.  Thus literature is the guide to higher consciousness, just as Virgil was Dante’s guide to the expanded vision represented by Beatrice (Late Notebooks, 2:717; Words with Power, 28–9).  Still, Frye believes that language is the primary means of “intensifying consciousness, lifting us into a new dimension of being altogether” (LN, 2:717).

4. “Vision” is the word that best fits the heightened awareness that comes with the imagination’s opening of the doors of perception.  What the subject sees may be “only an elusive and vanishing glimpse.  Glimpse of what?  To try to answer this question is to remove it to a different category of experience.  If we knew what it was, it would be an object perceived in time and space.  And it is not an object, but something uniting the objective with ourselves” (Words with Power, 83).

5.  The principle behind the epiphanic experience that permits things to be seen with a special luminousness is that “things are not fully seen until they become hallucinatory.  Not actual hallucinations, because those would merely substitute subjective for objective visions, but objective things transfigured by identification with the perceiver.  An object impregnated, so to speak, by a perceiver is transformed into a presence” (Words with Power, 88).

6.  Intense consciousness does not sever one from the body or the physical roots of experience.  “The word spiritual in English may have a rather hollow and booming sound to some: it is often detached from the spiritual body and made to mean an empty shadow of the material, as with churches who offer us spiritual food that we cannot eat and spiritual riches that we cannot spend.  Here spirit is being confused with soul, which traditionally fights with and contradicts the body, instead of extending bodily experience into another dimension.  The Song of Songs . . . is a spiritual song of love: it expresses erotic feeling on all levels of consciousness, but does not run away from its physical basis or cut off its physical roots.  We have to think of such phrases as ‘a spirited performance’ to realize that spirit can refer to ordinary consciousness at its most intense: the gaya scienza, or mental life as play. . . . Similar overtones are in the words esprit and Geist” (Words with Power, 128).  Or again, St. John of the Cross makes “a modulation from existential sex metaphor (M2) to existential expanding of consciousness metaphor (M1)” (Late Notebooks, 120).  As in Aufhebung, things lifted to another level do not cancel their connection to the previous level: “M2” is still present at the higher level.  Chapter 6 (“The Garden”) of Words with Power “is concerned partly, if not mainly, with getting over the either-or antithesis between the spiritual and the physical, Agape love and Eros love” (Late Notebooks, 2:451).  Again, “spiritual love expands from the erotic and does not run away from it” (Words with Power, 224).

7.  Intensified consciousness is represented by images of both ascent and descent: “images of ascent are connected with the intensifying of consciousness, and images of descent with the reinforcing of it by other forms of awareness, such as fantasy or dream.  The most common images of ascent are ladders, mountains, towers, and trees; of descent, caves or dives into water” (Words with Power, 151).  These images, which arrange themselves along the axis mundi, are revealed with exceptional insight in some of Frye’s most powerfully perceptive writing, the last four chapters of Words with Power.  In these concentrated chapters Frye illustrates how four central archetypes connect the ordinary world to the world of higher consciousness: the mountain and the cave emphasizing wisdom and the word, and the garden and the furnace emphasizing love and the spirit.

8.  Expanded consciousness is both individual and social.

9.  The raising of consciousness is revelation (Late Notebooks, 1:61).

The Social Function of Literature


Thank you so much for your comment, Clayton, in response to my previous post. You ask some big questions: “What does a life look like that has listened to what literature has to say? How does having an educated imagination affect one’s commitments? Or does concern replace commitment?” Any answer I offer here will simply be a stab in the dark, but here goes.

Frye, as you well know, does not assume that an active reader of literature automatically becomes a “good person.” I am reading the Third Book Notebooks right now, and I am struck with the emphasis he puts on education or the “educational contract” over the social contract as informing society and therefore social and political action: in other words, for him, the university is the ideal or Utopian form of society. In one of his previous posts Michael Happy cites Frye’s statement that universities are, or should be the engine room of society. Criticism and literature are, for Frye, a central, indeed perhaps the central part of that engine room, which is the world of the arts and sciences. This world, along with–in a much more complicated way–religion, seem to be the only thing that proves we are something more than “psychotic apes” on a berserk rampage bent on destroying both human society and the earth. I love Michael’s image of the crowbarring and “hacking away that has been done by self-declared iconoclasts and comfortably tenured revolutionists” that in the end have only weakened public support for liberal education, and thus undermined any strong intellectual defence against the very clear and present danger: the increasing privatization of the universities and the very sinister encroachments of corporate capitalism.

In terms of concern and commitment, as you also well know, Frye places ideology (political or religious belief) and  kerygma (spiritual proclamation) on the opposite sides, as it were, of literature, and the lines here tend to blur in certain forms of literature. Obviously, there are more rhetorical forms which aim at persuasion. On the kerygmatic side, in my own field of study, I think of Thoreau, whose Civil Disobedience and Walden are obviously much more prophetic and geared towards informing our actions than something like Poe’s poetry and tales which, if you could ever treat them as prescriptions, would lead you straight to suicide, murder, or a mental institution. A serial killer might read Poe that way, and indeed Poe pops up famously in thrillers and crime fiction precisely in that guise: as a guru for psychopaths. There is a killer in one of Michael Connolly’s novels, for example, who reads Poe “kerygmatically,” if one can use the term in such a context. Fictional though it may be, this is an extreme example of the countless possible illustrations of Milton’s famous statement: “a wise man will make better use of an idle pamphlet than a fool will do of sacred Scripture.”

It is often difficult to find something like a later concept in Frye–one is so often proved wrong–but it is my impression at least that he puts a greater emphasis in his later writings on the prophetic dimension of literature, especially post-romantic literature. Here the prophetic is not conceived of so much as informing a program of action as confronting history with vision. Writers like Dostoyevsky or Kafka seem to leap over their times in their capacity to give us an unsettling vision of the most nihilistic and catastrophic potential in their respective Zeitgeists, as though they had a sixth sense of the cultural fissures that were going to lead straight to the horrors of the Holocaust, concentration camps, and the Gulag.

On the ideological side, as Frye points out, literature is always more or less compromised. In the pre-eighteenth century dispensation the imagination is almost completely constrained by what the calls in The Critical Path a central “myth of concern.” In The Third Book Notebooks, he observes that “ literature, being part (the central part) of the myth of concern, is profoundly impure” (CW 9: 67). According to him, in the post-romantic age this myth of concern breaks down, but slowly, and is still with us to some extent. At the same time, with the ascendancy of science and a liberal myth of freedom the writer is increasingly freed from any central ideological constraint. (This was Melville‘s point in a letter when he said that even Shakespeare for all his truth-telling was constrained by the feudal order of his time, and that “the declaration of independence makes a difference.”) The dark side of this is that ideologies become polarized and you end up with writers like Celine–or “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot/fighting in the Captain’s tower,” as Bob Dylan’s lyric goes– writers whose personal programs of action are often repugnant, at least to those of us who are not authoritarians, anti-Semites or fascist sympathizers. Literature gets both more imaginatively pure (Poe, Mallarme, etc) and messier, if that makes any sense.

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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)

The Phases and Modes of Language


Frye may not have, as Trevor Losh‑Johnson reports someone as saying, an “etiological theory of linguistics,” if that means a theory of the origin or causes of language, but he does have a theory of language––in fact, several theories.  He begins his talk “The Expanding World of Metaphor” by saying:

Let us start with literature, and with the fact that literature is an art of words.  That means, in the first place, a difference of emphasis between the art and the words.  If we choose the emphasis on words, we soon begin to relate the verbal structures we call literary to other verbal structures.  We find that there are no clearly marked boundaries, only centres of interest.  There are many writers, ranging from Plato to Sartre, whom it is difficult, or more accurately unnecessary, to classify as literary or philosophical.  Gradually more and more boundaries dissolve, including the boundary between creators and critics, as every criticism is also a recreation.  Sooner or later, in pursuing this direction of study, literary criticism, philosophy, and most of the social sciences come to converge on the study of language itself.  The characteristics of language are clearly the essential clue to the nature of everything built out of language.(“The Secular Scripture” and Other Writings on Critical Theory 1976–1991, CW 18, 342–3)

The “characteristics of language” are naturally a part of Frye’s theory of language, the two chief forms of which in his late work are in the first chapters of The Great Code (phases of language) and Words with Power (modes of language).  The first chapter of The Great Code, in typical Frye fashion, is elaborately schematic.  It begins with Vico’s notion of the three ages of humanity, and then moves through more than a dozen different categories to classify the tripartite phases that language has, more or less historically, passed through: the poetic, the heroic, and the vulgar; the hieroglyphic, the hieratic, and the demotic; the mythical, the allegorical, and the descriptive; the metaphorical, the metonymic, and the similic, and so on.  Frye glances at the historical locus of each of these phases, the way each formulates subject‑object relations, the meaning of such words as “God” and “Logos” in each, and the typical form that prose takes in each phase.  All of this anatomizing, devoid of Frye’s examples and illustrations, can be summarized in this chart:

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