Category Archives: Notebooks

Texts for a Fire Sermon


A bobbin, vortex, whirling gyre,

The tongues ascend, a silent choir,

A phoenix trope for pure desire.

The painter sees as flames aspire

The anagram of Frye is Fyre.

As for the theft of fire, many of the stories put the source of fire in the under world, where the sun is at night, so that when the thief of fire returns he is also the rising sun.  [Notebook 7.22]

There’s the Paravritti, the Beulah-Eden vortex through the ray of fire which opens out into the mystic rose. [Notebook 7.33]

Engineering metaphors or thought models start of course with fire and the wheel.  One gives metaphors of spark, scintilla, energy & the like: most of our organism metaphors take off from it.  [Notebook 18.10]

In the Great Doodle (apocalyptic) the spiritual world is (a) the fire-world of heavenly bodies (b) the lower heaven or sky.  Hence it is normally (a) red with the seraphim (b) blue with the cherubim.  Blue & white mean virginity, red & white love; red white & green is the point of epiphany. [Notebook 18.98]

Whenever Eros got into the Xn trdn. [Christian tradition] (Inge has it in his book on mysticism) Eros (not Cupid) is certainly a Gentile type of Christ, and Prometheus of the Spirit.  Fire seems right; it’s what the gyre kindles.  Try to think about Abraham’s furnace; fire descending to the altar (less Elijah than Chronicles), the three “children” (magi?) in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace [Daniel 3].  Blake certainly thought Los’s furnaces had something.  Smart on Abraham’s.  Speaking of magi, they should have been women, as they’re antitypes of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon. [Notebook 27.147]

Man is asleep and fantasizing in the ladder, garden and seed worlds.  His central activity there is quest, the projection of Word into Deed that enables him to go on sleeping.  In the fire world he’s compelled to wake up, hence the first thing he does is withdraw the quest.  [Notebook 27.188]

What the released flame of Prometheus illuminates is, among other things, the true ladder as the four phases of meaning.  The flame, by the way, has to include the occult link between the living fire & the warm-blooded organism I mentioned in GC [The Great Code, 161-2]. [Notebook 27.190]

The fire-chapter should include, first of all, Little Gidding and the two Byzantium poems.  SB [Sailing to Byzantium] is a panoramic apocalypse: every state of the chain of being appears on fire as nature is destroyed & the artifice of eternity replaces it.  Byzantium burns from the inside.  Note how intensely Heraclitean both Eliot & Yeats get when they enter the fire. [Notebook 27.250]

What’s the Biblical setup?  I think it’s polarized between the first coming of Christ in water and his second coming in fire. [Notebook 27.259]

To go from the ladder-garden world to the ark-flame one, think of going from Ash-Wednesday to the Quartets, from The Tower to A Vision (if only Yeats had got the vision!).  Note that I was first attracted to archetypal criticism by Colin Still’s book on The Tempest, with its central conception of the ladder of elements, a conception going back to the pre-Socratics.  Heraclitus says there’s an exchange of “fire” and of “all things,” as there is of “gold” for “wares.”  That’s something to chew on.  [Notebook 27.263]

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Frye’s 100 Chapter Book


Several weeks back Michael Happy asked me if it would be possible to reconstruct a three‑dimensional diagram of Frye’s Great Doodle, the intricate and grand schematic of the alphabet of forms that figured so importantly in his design for his aborted “third book.”  I replied that I didn’t think so because it would be too complex.  What is the Great Doodle?

Frye writes at one point that he’s not revealing what the Great Doodle is because he does not really know (CW 23, 76–77), but his frequent references to it reveal that it is primarily his symbolic shorthand for the monomyth.  Originally he conceived of the Great Doodle as “the cyclical quest of the hero” (CW 9, 214) or “the underlying form of all epics” (CW 9, 241).  But as he began to move away from strictly literary terms toward both religious language and the language of Greek myth and philosophy, another pattern developed, one with an east-west axis of Nous-Nomos and a north-south axis of Logos-Thanatos.  At this point the Great Doodle took on an added significance, becoming a symbolic shorthand for what he called the narrative form of the Logos vision: “the circular journey of the Logos from Father to Spirit” (CW 9, 260) or “the total cyclical journey of the incarnate Logos” (CW 9, 201).  But the Great Doodle is never merely a cycle.  Its shape requires also the vertical axis mundi and the horizontal axis separating the world of innocence and experience.  These axes, with their numerous variations, produce the four quadrants that are omnipresent in Frye’s diagrammatic way of thinking.  In Notebook 7 he refers to the quadrants as part of the Lesser Doodle (CW 23, 76), meaning only that the quadrants themselves are insufficient to establish the larger geometric design of the Great Doodle.

But the Great Doodle has still further elaborations.  In the extensive notes he made for his Norton Lectures at Harvard (The Secular Scripture) Frye remarks self-referentially that in book 14 of Longfellow’s Hiawatha the heroine “invents picture-writing, including the Great Doodle of Frye’s celebrated masterpieces.”  The reference is to Hiawatha’s painting on birch bark a series of symbolic and mystic images: the egg of the Great Spirit, the serpent of the Spirit of Evil, the circle of life and death, the straight line of the earth, and other ancestral totems in the great chain of being. Frye elaborates his Great Doodle in a similar way, the Hiawathan “shapes and figures” becoming for him points of epiphany at the circumference of the circle––what he twice refers to as beads on a string (CW 9, 241, 245).  The beads are various topoi and loci along the circumferential string. They can be seen as stations where the questing hero stops in his journey or as the cardinal points of a circle.  Frye even overlays one form of the Logos diagram with the eight trigrams of the I Ching, saying that they “can be connected with my Great Doodle” (CW 9, 209), and one version of the Great Doodle recapitulates what he refers to throughout his notebooks as “the Revelation diagram,” the intricately designed chart that he passed out in his course “Symbolism in the Bible.”

The Great Doodle, then, is a representation, though a hypothetical one, that contains the large schematic patterns in Frye’s memory theater: the cyclical quest with its quadrants, cardinal points, and epiphanic sites; and the vertical ascent and descent movements along the chain of being or the axis mundi.  It contains as well all the lesser doodles that Frye creates to represent the diagrammatic structure of myth and metaphor and that he frames in the geometric language of gyre and vortex, center and circumference.  (See Michael Dolzani’s exposition of the Great Doodle in his introduction to The “Third Book” Notebooks.)

Frye drew scores of diagrams in his notebooks but never one for the Great Doodle.  And, as I say, it seems practically impossible to in include all the features of Great Doodle in a single diagram, even a two‑dimensional one.  But Michael Happy’s question got me to thinking about Notebook 11f, which dates from 1969–70, where Frye toys with the idea of constructing a book of one hundred sections, which are clearly a part of the Great Doodle.  Here are his initial musings about this scheme:

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More Frye on “Literature as Therapy”


In his Late Notebooks Frye provided two glosses for his talk to the doctors at Mt. Sinai Hospital, “Literature as Therapy,” which Frye delivered from notes rather than from a manuscript:

When I talked to the doctors at Mt. Sinai I found myself improvising a thesis I didn’t understand at the time. I said the sympathies and antipathies in nature that underlay Galenic medicine don’t exist as that, but similar forces may exist in the mind. I thought of mother after a post-parturitional disease following Vera’s birth: she had what sounded (ironic for a woman who never touched a drop of alcohol in her life) just like delirium tremens. She said that reading Scott’s novels, dropped on her by my grandfather, brought her round. Scott in those days was the acme of serious secular reading. What I felt was that the plots of formulaic fiction conventions could act as a sort of counter-delirium. Similarly the Old Testament God may be a counter delirium to a nation trampled on by foreigners. I know how vague this sounds, but there’s something that may emerge. (Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1982–1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World, CW 6:673–4).

I told the doctors about mother & Scott’s novels, suggesting that romance creates a counter-delirium. We don’t buy Galen’s sympathies and antipathies any more: they don’t exist in nature (amethysts for drunks, saffron for jaundice, etc.). But they may exist in the reality-realism metaphorical-objective context. The confrontation technique in the casting out of a humor. Jonson, Shakespeare’s TS [The Taming of the Shrew], the Fool-Edgar in Lear. My point in the Lear lecture about words fighting evil (my 1940 experience with Churchill) at the centre of the words-and-power conflict (Late Notebooks, CW 5:243–4)

Oswald Spengler

Bild 183-R06610

On this date Oswald Spengler died (1880 – 1936).

Frye’s “Spengler Revisted” can be found here.

Frye in one of the late notebooks:

Spengler: I never did buy his “decline” thesis, which I realized from the beginning was Teutonic horseshit, closely related to the Nazi hatred for all forms of human culture.  (Well, not just Nazi; Stalin had just as much of it.)  No, as I’ve said, what struck me was, first, the sense of the interpenetration of historical phenomena, a conception of history in which every phenomenon symbolizes every other phenomenon.

Along with that came the conception of a culture in which works of culture show a progressively aging process.  You have pure tradition in primitive societies, where conventions just repeat over and over, and you have a culture in which tradition accruse a self-consciousness in regard to itself, so that it must be where it is: i.e. Beethoven could only have come between Mozart and Wagner.  This growth of self-awareness in tradition is recapitulated in the life of the poet or artist, which gives biography a genuine function in criticism. (CW, 6, 649)

Henry Fielding


Today is Henry Fielding‘s birthday (1707 – 1754).

Here’s Frye on Jonathan Wild in Notebook 36:

Jonathan Wild has suggested three main ideas.  First, Wild is an ironic pharmakos, treated explicitly as a counterpart to “greatness.”  What happens to him ought to happen to all “great” men: Wild is obviously criminal only because society is still too strong for him: he’s a hero, a Caesar or Alexander, in an ironic context.  Second, the book is satire & comic rather than tragic irony, because Fielding’s norms are unmistakable: passages that would represent a complete breakdown  of the ironic pretense (e.g. the description of Bagshot) if they appeared in, say, Flaubert, are in decorum here, where the tone is the militant counterpart of irony, the satiric descent of fantasy on a moral canto fermo.  Third, the Mrs. Heartfree episode, which is typical of romance when the central figure is female & instead of killing dragons she fends off fucks.  Cf. Spenser’s Florimell & Morris’s Birdalone.  One might call it a quest of the perilous cunt.  Very sharp counterpoint between the realism of JW [Jonathan Wild] & his whorish bride & this corny romanticism in which Mrs. H. gets through a dozen assaults unplumbed & returns “unsullied” to her husband.  A good deal is said about Providence: Providence & Fortune are the existential projections of comic & tragic forms respectively.  (CW, 23, 249)

Charlotte Bronte


Today is Charlotte Bronte‘s birthday (1816 – 1855).

Frye in Notebook 44 on Shirley:

[182]  [Charlotte Brontë’s] Shirley: full of characters spouting ideologies, including naturally the author’s own.  Toryism, radicalism, rationalized laissez faire, the sexist ideology Charlotte Bronte knew so much about; economic miseries of Orders in Council; the understandable but mistaken tactics of the Luddites, all dated back to 1812 from the 1840’s to provide the hindsight of the Chartist parallels.  Other books studying these topics directly might have more & better organized information, but if written in ideological language, however detached or partisan, would have to treat all individuals as case histories.  What makes Shirley & other works of fiction irreplaceable is the assimilation of all this to the primary concerns of food (i.e. jobs), sexual love, work & play.

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Thomas Middleton


Today is playwright Thomas Middleton‘s birthday (1580 – 1627).  I once joked to a prof that if there’d been no Shakespeare, we’d be reading Middleton by default.  Not meaning to diss the birthday boy but, the impressive output notwithstanding, we got the better end of the deal.

Frye in Notebook 9:

One, or two, reasons why this is not an age of great tragedy are improved methods of contraception and of police investigation.  In The Changeling two people are arrested for murder on the ground that they left town the day after the murder took place: one needs ghosts of victims & confessions by the guilty to improve the quality of detection.  (CW 20, 256-7)

Trailer for a current English production of The Changeling after the jump.

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John Ford


On this date playwright John Ford (1586 – 1640) was baptized.

In Notebook 9 Frye makes some telling comparisons between Shakespeare and the Jacobean playwrights, particularly Ford, Webster, Tourneur, and Dekker.

As compared with his contemporaries, Shakespeare’s sense of tragedy is much more firmly rooted in history, and he lacks the moralizing tendency that makes Tourneur call his characters by such names as Lussurioso & Ambitioso.  Hence he does illustrate my point about tragedy being closer to a reality-principle than comedy.  Outside him, I’m not sure that that’s true: there’s just as much fantasy & manipulation in Tourneur or Ford as there is in Shakespearean romance.  Shakespeare’s tragic vision also has something to do with his adherence to popular theatre: he has a public sense of dramatic action, not a ruminative psychologizing one…

In Ford’s TPSW [‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore] an amiable & harmless old woman who has connived at the heroine’s incest first of all has her eyes put out, & then, as an applauded act of justice, is led out to be burned at the stake.  That really is brutality.  And Hamlet’s excuse about Claudius’ murder until he’s sure to go to hell is nothing compared to what the viallains in Tourneur & Webster do.  We expect a very high standard of sensitivity from Shakespeare, even the senstivity of readers who on the whole don’t live in tragic worlds.  We understand, but don’t realize, Dekker’s remark: “There is a hell named in our creed, and a heaven, and the hell comes before; if we look not into the first, we shall never live in the last.”  Several tragic dramatists, especially Webster, pick up M’s [Marlowe’s] remark in Faustus…

A manipulated tragic situation is often one where providence or Heaven or some power overreaching Nature takes a hand in the action, & functions as the eiron.  Many dramatists put up “Danger: God at Work” signs: there’s a good example in Ford’s TPSW [‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore].  (CW 20, 256-7)

A trailer for a recent San Fransisco production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore after the jump.

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Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1601

From the Late Notebooks:

When Jesus says “I am the way” [John 14:6] time stops.  There is no journey through unknown country: all the disciples have to do is walk through the open door (another “I am” metaphor [John 10:9]) of the body in front of them).  That is, I think, impossible before the Resurrection.  Perhaps everything that happens in the gospels is not an event but a ticket to a post-Resurrection performance.  Except that the spiritual reality is not so much future as an expansion of the imaginative possibilities of the present.  The myth confronts: it doesn’t prophesy in the sense of foretelling.  (CW, 5, 159)

Jesus is not “a” historical figure: he’s dropped into history as an egg is into boiling water, as I said [par. 301], and essentially “the” historical Jesus is the crucified Jesus.  One can understand why the Gnostics tried to insist that the crucifixion was an illusion, but nobody can buy that now.  The pre-Easter Jesus answers the question: ‘Can a revolt against Roman power succeed?”

The answer is no, and the pre-Easter Jesus sums up the history of Israel, which is a history of “historical” failure. (CW, 5, 170)

The Resurrection, then, is the marriage of a soul & body which forms the spiritual body.  The body part of this marriage is female: the empty tomb is recognized solely by women, except perhaps for that fool who stuck Peter into John’s account [20:1-10]. (Perhaps the “and Peter” of Mark [16:7] was stuck in too.)  The fact that Jesus took on flesh in the Virgin’s womb has certainly been dinned into Christian ears often enough; but the fact that he took on flesh in the womb of the tomb at the Resurrection, and that there’s a female principle incorporated in the spiritual body, seems to have been strangled.  The real tomb of Christ was the male-guarded church.  (CW, 5, 327)

The historical Jesus is a concealed though essential element in the Gospels: if the Gospels’ writers had simply made up the Jesus story they would still be superb works of literature, but of course they wouldn’t be gospels.  The myth is what they literally are, though: they don’t present Jesus historically.  Historically, Jesus is a man until the Resurrection, when he becomes an element in everyone, implying that no one can be “saved” (meaning the indefinite persistence of something like an ego in something like a time and space) outside or before Jesus.  Presented as a myth in the eternal present, this doctrine takes on a more charitable appearance.  The Word and Spirit in man then coincide into something that has its being in God (as God has his being in it) to such an extent that the question of belief in “a” God doesn’t arise.  (CW, 6, 671)

From CBC radio “Rewind”, various Easter broadcasts dating back to the 1940s, including Frye in 1973 on Easter myths and symbols (beginning at the 24 minute mark).



Joe’s post on abduction as hunch reminds me of how often Frye uses the word “hunch.”  It doesn’t appear in Fearful Symmetry or Anatomy of Criticism, but in The Educated Imagination there are two apposite passages:

Imagination is certainly essential to science, applied or pure. Without a constructive power in the mind to make models of experience, get hunches and follow them out, play freely around with hypotheses, and so forth, no scientist could get anywhere. But all imaginative effort in practical fields has to meet the test of practicability, otherwise it’s discarded. The imagination in literature has no such test to meet. You don’t relate it directly to life or reality: you relate works of literature, as we’ve said earlier, to each other. Whatever value there is in studying literature, cultural or practical, comes from the total body of our reading, the castle of words we’ve built, and keep adding new wings to all the time.  (CW 21, 470)

You can’t distinguish the arts from the sciences by the mental processes the people in them use: they both operate on a mixture of hunch and common sense. A highly developed science and a highly developed art are very close together, psychologically and otherwise. (CW 21, 442)

In his notebooks Frye repeatedly writes about his hunches: I count 158 instances of the word strung out over the eight volumes.