Category Archives: Myth

Kook Books

Bob Denham’s post yesterday on Marshall McLuhan’s belief that Frye was part of a Masonic conspiracy against him, in part because of his esoteric reading list, raises the issue of Frye’s interest in what he called “kook books.” Here are a couple of examples from the notebooks.

For years I have been collecting and reading pop-science & semi-occult books, merely because I find them interesting. I now wonder if I couldn’t collect enough ideas from them for an essay on neo-natural theology. Some are very serious books I haven’t the mathematics (or the science) to follow: some are kook-books with their hair-raising insights or suggestions (CW 6, 713)

There’s a lot of semi-occult fascination with Atlantis in the last two centuries: one very fine book (despite its obvious weaknesses and lapses) is Merezhkovsky’s Atlantis/Europe, which tries to go all out for the historicity of Atlantis and doesn’t mention Thera, but is really based on an ascending ladder diagram in which we go up to the future, unless we get caught in the same cycle again, while Atlantis is our buried or forgotten past. He links the Timaeus and the Book of Enoch in some curious ways, coming close to a lot of the von Daniken mythology, but he’s better than that: an example of how yesterday’s kook book becomes tomorrow’s standard text. (CW 6, 495)

Bob Denham provides some context in his introduction to the Late Notebooks volumes:

Some of Frye’s reading is, if not altogether odd, at least surprising—books such as Merezhkovsky’s  Atlantis/Europe and Maureen Duffy’s Erotic World of Faerie. Frye admits that Merezhkovsky comes “close to a lot of von Daniken mythology,” but then adds, “yesterday’s kook book becomes tomorrow’s standard text.” There are in the notebooks, as one might expect, a number of Frye’s old chestnuts—books such as Graves’s The White Goddess, Frances Yates’s studies in hermeticism, the mythical speculations of Gertrude Rachel Levy, Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, Carroll’s Alice books, the novels of Bulwer-Lytton and Rider Haggard. But some readers will no doubt think it strange that Frye would even be curious about such books as Michael Baignet’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Robert Anton Wilson’s The Cosmic Trigger, Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy, Itzhak Bentov’s Stalking the Wild Pendulum, and A.E. Wait’s Quest of the Golden Stairs, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, and The Holy Grail—“kook books” all. It would be difficult to imagine Frye citing such esoterica in Words with Power, but he does justify his interest in such writers as Waite, who is only “superficially off-putting”:

I’ve been reading Loomis and A.E. Waite on the Grail. Loomis often seem to me an erudite ass: he keeps applying standards of coherence and consistency to twelfth-century poets that might apply to Anthony Trolloppe. Waite seems equally erudite and not an ass. But I imagine Grail scholars would find Loomis useful and Waite expendable, because Waite isn’t looking for anything that would interest them. It’s quite possible that what Waite is looking for doesn’t exist—secret traditions, words of power, an esoteric authority higher than that of the Catholic Church—and yet the kind of thing he’s looking for is so infinitely more important than Loomis’ trivial games of descent from Irish sources where things get buggered up because the poets couldn’t distinguish cors meaning body from cors meaning horn. Things like this show me that I have a real function as a critic, pointing out that what Loomis does has been done and is dead, whereas what Waite does, even when mistaken, has hardly begun and is very much alive. (CW 5, xxxv-xxvi)

Michael Dolzani picks up the thread in the introduction to the “Third Book” Notebooks:

The notebooks are also more uninhibited than Frye’s published work, both intellectually and rhetorically. Frye’s speculations are much more open, more daring, sometimes breathtakingly so, and he is more willing to risk venturing upon works which professional prudence restrained him from making extended public comments upon, even if they had greatly influenced him. These include, on the one hand, works whose language or culture was not native to him; on the other, books of ill-repute with whom respectable scholars feel they cannot afford to be caught in public, what he called the “kook books” of unreserved mythopoeic speculation, from Jacob Boehme to Hamlet’s Mill, whose vision has affinities with his own project and which thus form part of its secret imaginative background even when their methods are flawed and their authors half-psychotic. (CW 9, xxii-xxiii)

See our Kook Books category, which includes more from Denham and Dolzani.

Quote of the Day: “Financial intermediation run amok”

Nouriel Roubini, the economist who correctly predicted years in advance the collapse of the financial market and was roundly mocked for it by Wall Street shills, considers Marx’s prediction that capitalism will collapse on itself:

Karl Marx, it seems, was partly right in arguing that globalization, financial intermediation run amok, and redistribution of income and wealth from labor to capital could lead capitalism to self-destruct (though his view that socialism would be better has proved wrong). Firms are cutting jobs because there is not enough final demand. But cutting jobs reduces labor income, increases inequality, and reduces final demand.

I have just read Francis Wheen’s Das Kapital: A Biography (excerpt here), which details the decades long development of Marx’s life’s work (most especially its nuanced literary dimension which is ignored by hardline ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum), as well as its demonic afterlife as the Bible of Marxist-Leninism. It’s difficult to ignore while reading the book that Marx’s critique of capitalism can still be regarded as prophetic. His account of how capital must ultimately be hoarded by a plutocratic elite remains relevant.

Frye consistently cited Marx as one of those nineteenth century thinkers who upended the traditional mythological conception of social authority. A typical example:

[I]f we look at the thinkers who have permanently changed the shape of human thought, such as Darwin, Marx, Freud, or Einstein, we find, naturally, that their books are complex and difficult and require years of study. Yet the central themes of their work are massive simplicity. Evolution, class struggle, the subconscious mind, are all things that have been staring mankind in the face for centuries. It’s the ability to see what’s straight in front of his nose that marks the thinker of first-rate importance. (CW 11, 271-2)

Sigmund Freud


From an interview with the BBC in December 1938

Hard upon the birthdays yesterday of Kierkegaard and Marx, today is Sigmund Freud‘s birthday (1856-1939): another passenger in “the drunken boat”:

From “The Drunken Boat”:

The major constructs which our own culture has inherited from its Romantic ancestry are also of the “drunken boat” shape, but represent a later and a different form of it from the “vehicular form” described above. Here the boat is usually in the position of Noah’s ark, a fragile container of sensitive and imaginative values threatened by a chaotic and unconscious power below it. In Schopenhauer, the world as idea rides precariously atop a “world as will” which engulfs practically the whole of existence in its moral indifference. In Darwin, who readily combines with Schopenhauer, as the later work of Hardy illustrates, consciousness and mortality are accidental sports from a ruthlessly competitive evolutionary force. In Freud, who has noted the resemblance of his mythical structure to Schopenhauer’s, the conscious ego struggles to keep afloat on a sea of libidinous impulse. In Kierkegaard, all the “higher” impulses of fallen man pitch and roll on the surface of a huge and shapeless “dread.” In some versions of this construct the antithesis of the symbol of consciousness and the destructive element in which it is immersed can be overcome or transcended: there is an Atlantis under the sea which becomes an Ararat for the beleaguered boat to rest on. (CW 17, 89)

Kierkegaard, Marx, and the “Drunken Boat”


An excerpt from the BBC documentary, Sea of Faith, which contrasts Marx and Kierkegaard

Two birthdays today: Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and Karl Marx (1818-1883).  (Bob Denham’s recent article on Frye and Kierkegaard can be found in the journal here.)

Despite their fundamental ideological differences, Kierkegaard and Marx share a common mythological root, which Frye describes in A Study of English Romanticism:

[F]or a more conservatively pessimistic Romantic, such as Schopenhauer, it is easier to think of the structure of civilization, or the state of experience, as on top of a subhuman and submoral “world as will,” an ark or bateau ivre carrying the cargo of human values and tossing on a stormy and threatening sea. This figure becomes the prevailing one later in the nineteenth century, both for the revolutionary optimists, with Marx at their head, who see the traditional privileges of a ruling class threatened with destruction from below, and for more sombre thinkers — Schopenhauer himself, Freud, Kiekegaard — all of whom think of the values of intelligence and imagination as above, but very precariously above, a dark, menacing and subhuman power — Schopenhauer’s world as will, Freud’s id, Kierkegaard’s dread. For al of these, the boat and sea image is an appropriate one, and this structure in particular shows us how the Romantic mythological schema, unlike its predecessor, enables poets and philosophers to express a man-centred revolutionary, or counter-revolutionary, attitude to society. (CW 17, 113-14)

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Arnold J. Toynbee


Arnold Toynbee turns up, in all places, as a character in an episode of Young Indiana Jones, to provide an ominous historical perspective on events in Europe

Today is Arnold Toynbee‘s birthday (1889-1975).

Frye on history, metahistory, myth, and best-sellers in “New Directions from Old”:

We notice that when a historian’s scheme gets to a certain point of comprehensiveness it becomes mythical in shape, and so approaches the poetic in its structure. There are romantic historical myths based on a quest or pilgrimage to a City of God or a classless society; there are comic historical myths of progress through evolution or revolution; there are tragic myths of decline and fall, like the works of Gibbon and Spengler; there are ironic myths of recurrence or casual catastrophe. It is not necessary, of course, for such a myth to be a universal theory of history, but merely for it to be exemplified in whatever history is using it. A Canadian historian, F.H. Underhill, writing on Toynbee, has employed the term “metahistory” for such works. We notice that metahistory, though it usually tends to very long and erudite books, is far more popular than regular history: in fact metahistory is really the form in which most history reaches the general public. It is only the metahistorian, whether Spengler or Toynbee or H.G. Wells or a religious writer using history as his source of exempla, who has much chance of becoming a bestseller. (CW 21, 309)



From the BBC, Act V of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring the artfully butchered rendition of Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe.”  (The conclusion after the jump.)

Today is Ovid‘s birthday (43 BC – 17 AD).

Frye in The Double Vision picks up on the divergence of Classical mythology and Christian mythology at the dawn of the Christian age:

Later centuries were fascinated by the contrast between the temporal ruler of the world, Augustus Caesar, and its spiritual ruler, Jesus, who was born during Augustus’ reign. Contemporary with Jesus we have the whole mythological side of Classical culture summed up by two great masterworks, Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid provides a kind of encyclopedia of mythology in which the central theme is metamorphosis, the incessant dissolving and reshaping of forms of life. Toward the end of his long poem, he brings in the philosopher Pythagoras  to expound a gloomy philosophy based on the same theme. The Metamorphoses starts with creation and deluge myths, and Pythagoras sees at the end of time a running down of the world into a kind of entropy, or chaos come again. But there are also eulogies of the Caesars, particularly Julius, as the only symbols of what can transcend metamorphosis. In Virgil, similarly, the myth of Rome was founded by Trojan refugees expands into a vision of history in which the Roman Empire represents a kind of goal or telos of the historical process. (CW 4, 216-17)

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Frye on Opera

The Papageno Papagena duet from Mozart’s The Magic Flute

Frye’s “Current Opera: A Housecleaning” (CW 11, 73-75), written when he was 23:

This is not a criticism of the performances of the opera company that visited Toronto recently, as the present critic succeeded in seeing only Madame Butterfly. If this was typical, they were adequate enough, if somewhat perfunctory. Of course Madame Butterfly is unfortunate in having a modern and quasi realistic setting, which throws an onus of stage “business” on the singers. The result in this case was a good deal of spasmodic cigarette-lighting and nose-blowing and uneasy and rather aimless puttering about the stage in an effort to make some gesture in the direction of drama. But the response to a melodrama of stock pathos is one thing, and the response to Puccini’s extraordinarily competent and fluent journalistic style of composition is quite another, and a general impression remained of an hermaphroditic and ill-conceived mingling of outlines.

This suggests the obvious reflection that the opera would be all the better for being completely conventionalized; surely a drama that depended on automatic movements making no pretense of holding a mirror to any kind of nature would be better suited to the declamation and rhetoric which singing involves. If Madame Butterfly depended at all on chorus work the demands of the drama would of course be less obtrusive, but when it proceeds almost entirely by aria and recitative the stage effect is bound to be stiff and awkward. The opera began as a method of incorporating Greek drama in Western art forms: two or three leading characters, a chorus, a mythological setting; all this was de rigeur throughout the seventeenth century, and in fact provides the basic form for Handel and Glück. If Handel was dissatisfied with the opera, it was not because he rebelled against the operatic convention, but simply because it was not concentrated enough for him to impose his massive designs on it. His genius expanded into the oratorio, which is not less conventionalized than the opera but far more so. After his time a century long duel was fought between the traditions of German counterpoint and of Italian melody, a conflict resolved only by Mozart, which had for its chief incidents the row between Handel and Bononcini, the Glück–Puccini opera fight in Paris, the triumph of Rossini in Vienna, the establishment of the Italian comédie larmoyante in the nineteenth century, its destruction by Wagner, and the belated attempts of Puccini and his colleagues to cling to Wagner’s coat-tails. All the energy which the great Germans bent on incorporating the opera into the tradition of systematic music did not, however, succeed in affecting the Italian model to any extent, and attempts to revitalize it now can have only an eccentric interest. The Italian operatic tradition has lived long, but it is not the less dead for having died hard. The impact of the Russian ballet annihilated what was left of it at once; a single touch of the immense strength and discipline of conventionalized art was enough to sweep the facile virtuosity of the Pattis and Carusos into limbo.

We have said that it is necessary to conventionalize the opera to avoid the absurdity and incongruity which the sensitive listener is bound to feel: every work of art asks a suspension of judgment from us, but the serious opera asks too much. But of course where the appeal is comic, where the incongruous becomes artistically valuable, this objection disappears. For if we conventionalize the opera in any direction, we immediately get something that is not an opera, however excellent an oratorio or ballet it may be. Therefore when Mozart’s unerring instinct brought the opera to its highest pitch of perfection and established it as an art form in its own right, it appeared as comedy. For high tragedy in musical drama seems difficult to reconcile with the loose and florid construction of opera: it needs massed choruses undisturbed by the broken lights of the stage. Tragedy, in short, belongs to the oratorio; the opera is comic, seldom succeeding with anything more serious than pathos. Madame Butterfly is typical of a large number of entirely unconvincing melodramas. Owing to the difficulty of getting a genuinely sympathetic audience, there is no form more easily parodied than the opera: the whole English tradition, from Gay to Dame Ethyl Smyth, has run not only to light opera but to mock opera. It will probably be impossible to convince the antiquarians of future centuries that Gounod’s Faust is not a parody of Goethe: they would simply point to Ave Maria as an instance of Gounod’s skill in parody. The association of the opera with high society and its support by wealthy women pretending to culture has also helped to make it entertainment closer in spirit to the circus than to creative art.

Whether Wagner ever succeeded in nullifying these objections is a question at present beyond our scope. His framework is mythological, of course, but not conventionalized; his gods are Dionysiac rather than Olympian, and the general effect is one of assertive antinomianism and self apotheosis carried to its fullest extent. As a master of display Wagner probably has no rival in history, but that very fact makes him anarchic and disruptive as an artist; even if he did succeed, no one else can follow him in his field. Wagner stands with Nietzsche as the joint godfather of Naziism, and until we have found out whether the swaggering and posturing of pompous heroes who do not have to pay their own way is more lasting and worthwhile, in art or in life, than a unity founded on rationality and humour, we shall be unable to put Wagner in his proper perspective. But we can hardly deny that he did his work with sufficient thoroughness; so completely did he shatter the opera that it is now in a state of decadence from which it can never be rescued. It is possible, in fact it is highly probable, that the opera, in a changing social order, is undergoing a catacomb period of which Wozzeck may furnish an example. But “grand opera” is no longer synonymous with culture, even with ermine and diamond pseudo-culture; the contemporary turn to symphonies and chamber music is a healthy and hopeful sign.

Frye and the Mythographers: Topics for Further Study

Cross-posted in the Denham Library


1.       English Mythographers from the Middle Ages to the Late Nineteenth Century

The roots of Frye’s expansive vision of culture have often been remarked.  Blake and the Bible are obviously central to the development of his ideas, and much has been written about Frye’s debts to both.  Much has been written as well about other significant influences on Frye: Nella Cotrupi’s book on Frye and Vico, Glen Gill’s study of Frye and twentieth‑century mythographers (Eliade, Jung, and others), and Ford Russell’s account of the influence of Spengler, Frazer, and Cassirer on Frye.[1] But Frye was familiar with the work of a number of other mythographers, and their influence on his thinking warrants investigation.

Blake being a mythological poet, Frye had to school himself early on in myth.  The sources of his reading here are not wholly known but we do have a fairly complete list of the mythographers that he began to assimilate at the beginning of his career.  In The Critical Path Frye observed that “[s]tudents of mythology often acquire the primitive qualities of mythopoeic poets. I have read a good many of them, from medieval writers through Bacon and Henry Reynolds and Warburton and Jacob Bryant and Ruskin to our own time, and I have noted two things in particular.  First, a high proportion of them are cranks, even nuts, and, second, they often show a superstitious reverence for the ‘wisdom of the ancients’” (CW 27, 67).   In the 1960s Frye wrote a preface to a collection of essays in myth criticism, covering the period from the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries, that aim of which was “only to relate the study of mythology to the criticism of literature” (CW 25, 327).  The book was never published, and we do not have a table of contents, but from what Frye says in the preface and from his correspondence about the volume (see Frye’s letter to Richard Schoeck in Selected Letters, 82) we have a good sense of what he considered to be the principal documents in the use of mythology to study literature in the English tradition from Gower to Ruskin:

John Gower, Confessio amantis (ca. 1386–93)

William Camden, Britannia (1586; English ed. 1610)

The opening of Samuel Purchas, Purchas, his Pilgrimage; or, Relations of the World and the Religions Observed in All Ages (1613)

Sir Walter Raleigh, History of the World (1614)

Francis Bacon, Wisdom of the Ancients (1619)

Henry Reynolds, Mythomystes (ca. 1630)

George Sandys, Ovid’s Metamorphosis (1632)

Sir Isaac Newton, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687)

Bishop William Warburton, The Divine Legation of Moses (1737–41)

Paul Henri Mallet, Northern Antiquities (1770)

Jacob Bryant, A New System, or an Analysis of Ancient Mythology (1774)

Edward Davies, Celtic Researches on the Origin, Traditions and Languages of the Ancient Britons (1804)

James Payn (1830–98)

John Ruskin, Queen of the Air: Being a Study of the Greek Myths of Cloud and Storm (1869)

Frye adds from the twentieth century:

J.F. Newton, The Builders (1914)

Jessie Weston, From Ritual to Romance (1920)

G. Wilson Knight (1897–1985)[2]

The influence on Frye of these writers, mostly from the English tradition, has not been studied.  What is it about Mythomystes that leads Frye to say that Henry Reynolds in “the greatest critic before Johnson”? (CW 5, 236).  What is it about Bryant and Davies that causes Frye to call them “the Frazers of their time”? (CW 14, 176).  Frye says that the scholarship of Mallet’s Northern Antiquities influenced the eighteenth‑Century poets (CW 17, 36).  How did it influence him?  Why was Frye so intrigued by what Purchas said about Solomon’s temple?  What was it about Sandys’s translation of Ovid that caused Frye to see it as an allegorical handbook?  And so on.

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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)