Category Archives: Metaphor

Howard Carter and Tutankhamen


From the BBC, the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb

Today is the birthday of Howard Carter (1874-1939), an English archaeologist and Egyptologist who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen.

From “The Metaphor of Kingship” section of the lecture series, “Symbolism in the Bible”:

The society that went furthest in identifying the entire society with and as the king was ancient Egypt. If you look at, say, the Tutankhamen collection, you would say to yourself that it would be absolutely incredible that all that labour and expense went into the constructing of the tomb for a pharaoh. We’d never believe it without direct evidence. And yet, when we understand how pervasive royal metaphors are in Egypt — that Pharaoh is not only a king, he is an incarnate god, identical with the god Horus before his death and with the god Osiris after it, and that he was called “the shepherd of his people” — it becomes more conceivable. And unlike the Hebrew practice, he was high priest as well as king. So it is possible that the ordinary Egyptian found an identity for himself within the mystical body of Pharaoh which was of a kind that our mental processes simply cannot recapture. (CW 13, 490)


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)


Palin, Frye and Blood Libel

Palin blames “pundints” [sic] for “manufacturing a blood libel” against her

Roy Peter Clark cites Frye on metaphor to make some sense of Palin’s claim to be the victim of “blood libel” after the Tuscon shootings.

A sample:

Frye provides a cautionary lesson about metaphorical language: that the differences between the compared elements are as important as the similarities. If I present myself as a “light to the world,” I am asking my audience to see my divine qualities and will not blame them for observing the dissimilarities.

To describe oneself as a victim of blood libel carries with it a certain responsibility for proportionality, that the seriousness of the metaphor must equate in some measure with the experience being described. While the football game between the Steelers and the Ravens has already been compared to a war – and the players to gladiators – we recognize that as traditional and hyperbolic. But I would not call a failed athletic performance an “abortion” or a blowout of one team by another as a “holocaust” or “a virtual Hiroshima.”

Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle died on this date in 1881 (born 1795).

Frye in “New Directions from Old” cites Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus in order to make the point that literature does not present “ideas” by way of logic, but a mimesis of ideas by way of metaphor:

Literary criticism finds a good deal of difficulty in dealing with such works as Sartor Resartus takes the structure of German Romantic philosophy and extracts from it a central metaphor in which the phenomenal is to the noumenal world as clothing is to the naked body: something which conceals it, and yet, by enabling it to appear in public, paradoxically reveals it as well.

The “ideas” the poets use, therefore, are not actual propositions, but thought-forms or conceptual myths, usually dealing with images rather than abstractions, and hence normally unified by metaphor, or image phrasing, rather than by logic.  (CW 21, 121-13)

Isaac Asimov

Asimov’s “Science and Beauty,” first published in the Washington Post in 1979

Today is Isaac Asimov‘s birthday (1920-1992).

Frye in “Introduction to Design for Learning“:

Mathematics is often said to be the language of science, but it is a secondary language: all elementary understanding is verbal, and most of the understanding of it at any level continues to be so.  The verbal understanding of science, at least on the elementary level, is quite as much imaginative, quite as dependent on metaphor and analogy, as it is descriptive.  Here is a passage from The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, by Isaac Asimov, which illustrates how metaphorical a writer must become when he has to explain science to scientific illiterates: “Cosmic rays bombarding atoms in the earth’s upper atmosphere knock out neutrons when they shatter the atoms; some of these neutrons bounce out of the atmosphere into space; they then decay into protons, and the charged protons are trapped by magnetic lines of force of the earth.”  This functional use of metaphor is one of the many reasons why no programme of study in English, however utilitarian its aims, can ever lose contact with English as literature.  (CW 7, 134)

Theodore Dreiser

Dreiser’s article “The Factory” (1910)

On this date in 1945 Theodore Dreiser died (born 1871).

Frye in “Design as a Creative Principle in the Arts”:

The tendency of of contemporary poets, and many novelists and dramatists as well, to be attracted toward myth and metaphor, rather than toward a realistic emphasis on content, is thus a cultural tendency parallel to the emphasis on abstract design in the visual arts.  It exhibits also the same paradox, or seeming paradox: it is usually a highly sophisticated, even erudite and academic, approach to the art, yet the features of the art which are most interesting to it are primitive and popular features.  Dylan Thomas seems more complex and and baffling than Theodore Dreiser, yet it is easier for me to imagine Dylan Thomas genuinely popular than to imagine Dreiser, for all his obvious and considerable merits, genuinely popular.  This is not to suggest a preference between two utterly incomparable things, but to suggest that writers who concentrate on literary design rather than content, despite their superficial difficulties, are the writers most likely to reach the widest public most quickly.  The principles of literary design are also the readiest means by which literature can be effectively taught, at any level from kindergarten to graduate school.  And as myth and metaphor are habits of mind and not merely artificial devices, such teaching should lead us, not simply to admire works of literature more, but to transfer something something of their imaginative energy to our own lives.  It is that transfer of imaginative energy which is the aim of all education in the arts, and to the possibility of which the arts themselves bear witness.  (CW 27, 236-7)

Nicholas Graham: Myth and Metaphor


Responding to Bob Denham’s post

I would like to suggest that myth and metaphor are a higher form of question and answer.

Myth and metaphor operate on the level of Vico’s priority of poetry, the first level of language, and also the second level of language which is oratory.

Question and answer operate on the third level of language which is philosophical and on the lowest or forth level of language which is scientific or descriptive.

Myth and metaphor are what make poetry and oratory centripetal. Question and answer are what make philosophy and science centrifugal.

These two worlds of a) Myth and Metaphor & b) Question and Answer are perhaps what Blake had in mind when he wrote The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

If we consider what makes Frye different from Derrida it is the fact that Derrida is a philosopher, using a different and constricted form of language; and the problem in the 70s was that the people who took over the English Departments were operating on the level of philosophy or the third level of language. What makes Frye shine, and stand apart, is the fact that he continued to opeate in terms of myth and metaphor: “to guard the vision in the time of trouble.” Blake’s Jerusalem. (See Michael Happy’s incisive article, “The Reality of the Created: From Deconstruction to Recreation”, Frye and the Word.)

Constructive philosophers like Leo Strauss and Bernard Lonergan, Gadamer, Heidegger, etc., provide accounts of the roots of our degraded culture and all agree with Heidegger that the only solution to our problems is to learn that on this earth we must learn to dwell poetically. But that is as far as they go. They do not rise to the higher level and operate, as Frye can, within the language of myth of metaphor.

Philosophical accounts of our culture are very helpful, if limited verbally, in attempting to recreate our culture. Lonergan provides us with an analysis of the levels of consciousness in terms four imperatives at four levels: Be Attentive, Intelligent, Reasonable, Responsible in his book, Method In Theology. This is hard to contradict unless we want to propose and promote their opposite. And he even devotes an entire book to examining the act of insight in his book, Insight, where we find a section on “The Longer Cycle of Decline”. This along with what Leo Strauss calls “The Waves of Modernity”, are what Frye terms, at a higher level, accounts of the roots of “single vision.”

The act of insight is what connects a question with an answers; questions evoke insights and without insights our answers are mere empty concepts.

An analysis of our culture in terms of myth and metaphor is what Frye offers us, but the question that remains to be examined is what connects myths and metaphors? It is the act of vision. So we must turn our attention to both the act of insight and the act of vision to find the double vision that our society so badly needs. Rollo May entitles his book The Cry for Myth, and James Joyce in the Circe chapter (15) of Ulysses calls our attention to the “intellectual imagination”.

Ironically, it was Rudolph Bultmann (student of Heidegger) who wrote so much about “demythologizing” who also made popular the word, kerygma, which is so central to Frye, who lifts it from the language level of philosophy and theology, and places it squarely in the context of and at the language level of anagogy, poetry and rhetoric.

As our individual acts of insights build up into intelligible emanations or philosophical theories over a lifetime, so our acts of vision, (which we express in poems, paintings, and love songs) create and recreate the visionary emanation that we identify with at the moment of death.

Similarly, a society lives or dies according to its vision. Such a vision is expressed, through the process of creation and recreation, in the Hebrew and Greek Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and through what Blake calls his infernal or Bible of Hell.

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).



I continue to read Bob Denham’s book, Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and am very much in the mood to blog on it as I go.

Bob early on makes a case for Frye’s later use of the Buddhist term “interpenetration“, while citing the modern scientific adaptation of it by Alfred Whitehead, David Bohm, Karl Pribram, and Geoffrey Chew, among others:

The idea that two things are the same thing (as in metaphor) is for Frye better captured by the word “interpenetration” than by the word “identity”; for interpenetration, whether unity or variety, wholes or parts, totality and particularity, self and other, human and divine, suggests more strongly than does identity that each half of the dialectic retains its own distinctiveness while each is also present in the other.  This idea of preservation is contained within the process of the Hegelian Aufhebung. Unity, as Frye is fond of insisting, does not mean uniformity.  Moreover, interpenetration is a more dynamic concept than identity, the former implying a free flow back and forth between, in Coleridge’s phrase, the “two forces of one power.” Each of the philosophical speculations on interpenetration suggests that once we get beyond the assumptions of Cartesian coordinates and Aristotelian causality, the idea that “everything is everywhere at once” is not so inexplicable a paradox as it initially might seem. (45)

Bob seems to be alluding to the often repeated complaint that Frye’s criticism is static, a catalogue of normative “universal forms.”  It hardly seems to matter to those who regard it this way that Frye always insisted that his analogy of structure from architecture is only one half of the metaphor: that form in literature implies movement, and movement process, and that the archetypal critic of his Anatomy period must keep both of these considerations in mind.

I am one of those who continue to use the default Anatomy-era term “identity” when discussing Frye’s notion of metaphor.  As Bob makes clear, however, the term may have been adequate when it first emerged in Frye’s published writing, but, once misread by those most inclined to misread it, Frye later substituted the more dynamic metaphor to express what he wants to say about the dialectical nature of metaphor as an ongoing process of identity.  As Bob also makes clear, “interpenetration” turns up early in Frye’s notebooks decades before it appears in his writing.  That perhaps is the most remarkable thing about the notebooks: they are a repository of prophetic knowledge where Frye works out notions that he may not bring into play in his published work until they are required, sometimes many years later.

More Frye and Alter

Velazquez, Joseph's Coat

Velazquez, Joseph's Coat

One of the fundamental differences between Frye and Alter is that they have such different views of metaphor. For Alter, metaphor is an ornamental frill. He calls it a “rhetorical embellishment” and an “elaboration,” somewhat like an embroidery stitched onto the surface of the literal text. Anything that is not attentive to “the factual report of historical events” becomes, for Alter, “a linguistic gesture.” Similarly, for Alter, typology produces only “lovely designs,” which are not text based “but artefacts of interpretation.”

Frye’s view of metaphor is completely different. Among the numerous theories of this trope––from Aristotle’s transference view through the theories about metaphor as substitution, comparison, transaction (I.A. Richards), and interaction (Max Black)––Frye’s theory seems to me to be unique, based as it is on the principle of identity. His views on metaphor form a part of his expansive theory of language, where identity is both a grammatical and a religious principle, as well as a principle for defining the sense of self (personal identity). Metaphor tells us, as Frye never tires of repeating, that X is Y. Alter, who, as Russell points out, is interested in difference rather than identity, says that “there is no such thing as a truly synonymous narrative event of literary articulation.” This completely rules out Frye, for whom myths and metaphors are synonymous. The principle of identity entails the extraordinarily radical position that X is literally Y. Such different assumptions about how poetic language works means that there is very little common ground on which Alter and Frye can stand. Similarly, if your Bible is the Hebrew Bible, then the question of typology doesn’t even arise.

Alter does grant the obvious, that in the poetic forms in the Bible, one often encounters figurative language, but, he argues, “In the predominant prose narratives of the Hebrew Bible, only the most sparing use is made of either metaphor or simile.” He then illustrates the point by citing a verse from Genesis about Esau’s selling his birthright and one from 2 Samuel about David’s encounter with Bathsheba. What Alter means by “sparing use” is uncertain. Outside of the poems in chapters 1 and 22-23, which contain more than forty metaphors and similes, the rest of 2 Samuel is not without a fairly generous supply of figures: there are more than fifty. While the author of 2 Samuel focuses on the more or less literal account of David’s rise to power and his wayward ways, the author can hardly be said to have been sparing in his use of various tropes. As for Genesis 25, half of which is given over to genealogy, the author’s account of Jacob and Esau is not without a generous measure of linguistic play: “red” (’adom)—Edom; “hairy” (se`ar)—Seir, land of the Edomites; “Jacob” (`aqeb)—heel. Even the Lord, who speaks to Rebekah in quatrains, is given to troping: “Two nations are in your womb.” The tension between Esau the hunter and Jacob the shepherd point backward to the Cain and Abel story. This is not necessarily metaphorical, but it is an archetypal example of the story of the two brothers, one good and one bad, that we encounter everywhere in our stories.

As for Frye’s identifying Joseph’s coat of many colors with fertility, which Alter says is “altogether arbitrary,” this goes back a long way. In an Emmanuel College paper he wrote on “St. Paul and Orphism” (he was 22 at the time), Frye says in a discussion of fertility rites that “Joseph’s coat of many colours is an evident vegetation symbol.” That’s because he read somewhere, as he says later in the paper, that “Dionysos, the fertility god, wears a coat of many colours.” I don’t know Frye’s source here (perhaps Sir James Frazer, Jane Ellen Harrison, Gilbert Murray, or W.K.C. Guthrie, one of Frye’s principal sources for his paper—he lists twenty-four books), but I doubt that he made it up.