Category Archives: Spirtual Vision

Word and Spirit


Several years back I puzzled over the conjunction of Word and Spirit in Frye’s later writing, concluding that they did in effect serve as a great code to his words of power.  Here’s an adaptation of what emerged:

Word and Spirit in their capitalized forms appear, as one would expect, throughout his work, and in numerous contexts.  In The “Third Book” Notebooks, “Word” is often associated with what Frye calls the Logos vision and “Spirit” with the traditional Holy Spirit.  But “Word” and “Spirit” do not appear in Frye’s writing as a dialectical pair until the late 1970s, and before the writing of Words with Power only three times.  In one of the notebooks for The Great Code he refers in passing to “pericopes of Word & Spirit” (CW 13, 268), and when he is trying to work the relation between the cycle, which he eventually abandoned, and the axis mundi, which became his primary spatial metaphor, he speculates, in an intriguing entry, that “the up and down mythological universes form a wheel, and the wheel is the cycle of recurrence.  In the cyclical vision everything becomes historical, and there is no Other except the social mass.  The impulse to plunge into that is strong but premature.  Something here eludes me.  The answers are in interpenetration and Thou art That, but the real individual is not the illusory series of phantasmal egos in time: it’s the total body of charitable articulation.  The assumptions underlying this articulation are Word & Spirit.  Probably the crux of the whole book” (CW 13, 327).  Here Frye appears to have the answer but does not know what the question is.  What are the two things that interpenetrate in this passage, a difficult one to gloss?  Thou (the individual) and That (the social mass)?  The self and the Other?  “Charitable articulation” could be seen as Frye’s final cause.  The material cause would then be “Word” in its several senses, the formal cause “Spirit,” and the efficient cause criticism in all of its Frygian permutations: its aphorisms, commentary, schema, imaginative free play, investigations of myth and metaphor, analogical linkages, sober speculations, creative flights of fancy.  The word “articulation” reminds us that Frye’s universe is a linguistic one.  “I’m glad I’m not concerned with belief,” he says, “but only with trying to understand a language” (CW 13, 303), which is reminiscent of his later statement about not believing in affirmations but only in the verbal formulas he constructs (CW 5, 145).  These formulas, he goes on to say, “seem to make sense on their own, & seem to me something more objective than merely getting something said the way I want it said.  I hope (but again it’s not faith) that this is the way the Holy Spirit works in me as a writer” (ibid.).  Frye consistently focused on finding language to articulate the substance of his vision (spirit), which in turn leads to the end of that vision (charity).

The third instance of “Word and Spirit” occurs in The Great Code itself, where Frye writes that creative doubt of the Nietzschean variety can carry us “beyond the limits of dialectic itself, into the infinite identity of word and spirit that, we are told, rises from the body of death” (227).  Words with Power is likewise relatively silent about the pairing of Word and Spirit.  In that book Frye does write that “the unity of Word and Spirit in which all consciousness begins and ends” is what constitutes the spiritual self, and he speaks of the “intercommunication” of Word and Spirit (Words with Power, 251).  In the Late Notebooks, however, the phrase “Word and Spirit” occurs some fifty-two times, often as “Word and Spirit dialogue” or “Word-Spirit dialogue.”  Frye uses “dialogue” here in the sense of dialectic.  And the dialectic is between the two major modes in Frye’s thought––the literary mode of the word writ large, or logos as Word, and the religious mode of spiritual vision, or pneuma as Spirit.  But dialogue is also a metaphor for the relation between Word and Spirit, or an “intercommunication,” as in the passage just cited.  The Word, Frye says in Notebook 27, gives substance to the Spirit.  Each sets free the other, and they are united in one substance with the “Other.”  That is, Word and Substance interpenetrate (CW 5, 9).  “Infiltrate” is another word Frye uses to define the relation (CW 5, 272).

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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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More on Frye and Otherness


I wanted to respond just briefly to Michael Dolzani’s excellent “Necessary Angels” post. I have quoted the passage below in a previous post, and even though it appears in the closing paragraph of the second chapter of The Secular Scripture, a book devoted not to the Bible but to the romantic tradition, it still seems one of the most pertinent passages touching on the relationship between literature and otherness. Interestingly, Frye uses the image of the human struggle with an angelic dimension to describe this relationship, in which the mythological universe created by the human imagination is also an uncreated reality or revelation coming from elsewhere. Thanks to Sarah Tóth for the beautiful formulation of metaphor from Ricoeur, but surely the dialectic Frye points to here (and elsewhere) is just as balanced in its paradoxical formulation. Frye is contrasting the secular and the sacred scripture, the story of the creature and the story of the creator, and he casts back to his earlier evocation, in the same chapter, of none other than Wallace Stevens discussion of “imagination and reality” in The Necessary Angel:

Reality, we remember, is otherness, the sense of something not ourselves. We naturally think of the other as nature, or man’s actual environment, and in the divided world of work and ego-control it is nature. But for the imagination it is rather some kind of force of power or will that is not ourselves, an otherness of spirit. Not all of us will be satisfied with calling the central part of our mythological inheritance a revelation from God, and, though each chapter in this book closes on much the same cadence, I cannot claim to have found a more acceptable formulation. It is quite true that if there is no sense that the mythological universe is a human creation, man can never get free of servile anxieties and superstitions, never surpass himself, in Nietzsche’s phrase. But if there is no sense that it is also something uncreated, something coming from elsewhere, man remains a Narcissus staring at his own reflection, equally unable to suprass himself. Somehow or other, the created scripture and the revealed scripture, or whatever we call the latter, have to keep fighting each other like Jacob and the angel, and it is through the maintaining of this struggle, the suspension of belief between the spiritually real and the humanly imaginative, that our own mental evolution grows. Meanwhile we have on principle to go on with. The improbably, desiring, erotic, and violent world or romance reminds us that we are not awake when we have abolished the dream world: we are awake only when we have absorbed it again.

I love this baleful image of man as Narcissus, “staring at his own reflection” and unable “to surpass himself ” as long as he deprives himself of this sense of an otherness, of a revelation that transcends him even though it is also a human creation. The Narcissus image speaks volumes to the ultimate dilemma of so much of the criticism and theory of the last decades in its obsession with ideology and the incapacity of human beings ever to imagine anything that is not simply a shadow or projection of their own self-interested social constructions. God and the imagination are one, which is why we are really asleep when we have “abolished the dream world” of literature, and why we “are awake only when we have absorbed it again.”

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).

Michael Dolzani: Necessary Angels


I remember Imre Saluszinsky writing to me years ago, when the Late Notebooks were first published, saying how astonished he was when he read passages from Notebook 44 such as the following, in which Frye is reacting to Helen’s death:  “When Helen died, the real Helen became an angel in heaven….Helen was a pile of ashes, an absence to me, and an angel: perhaps she’s a genius to me (or anyone else who loved her and is still living or not living and still confused)” (CW5: 254).  Could Frye really mean that he thought Helen could be an angel?  Frye is a liberal intellectual, and for liberal intellectuals such metaphors as “eternal life” are merely figures of speech, not realities.  Surely eternal life really means to survive in the memories of friends, or to be “one with nature” by becoming part of the nitrogen cycle.  But if Frye was opposed to demythologizing the Bible, he would also have been opposed to demetaphorizing it. (I promise to use that hideous word only once).  This makes us uncomfortable:  it seems to move Frye closer to the kind of fundamentalist literalizers that he himself so often satirized.  So we are perhaps most comfortable thinking of the quoted passage “merely” as an irrational outburst of unbearable grief.  After all, the idea is not even Christian:  dead human beings do not become angels in Christian heaven.

However, this entry is the final one in Notebook 44; it occurs 117 pages after the announcement that Helen has died.  A mere 11 pages after that announcement, Frye is in a state of mind that most of us could understand more readily; moreover, in this earlier passage, he links Helen’s death to the passage from Hebrews that people have been discussing lately:  “I’ve said that I have hope about another life, but I don’t have faith, in the Hebrews sense of a hypostasis of hope.  The furthest I can get is a negative faith:  I do not believe that those ten squalid and humiliating days in the Cairns hospital is the total end of a lovely and lovable human being.  (Total for all practical purposes:  Butler & others would talk about surviving in the memory of others, but miserable comforters are they all.  She’s in heaven, Catherine said:  but I don’t know where (or what) heaven is, or whether the word ‘where’ applies to it” (CW5: 148).

Yet Frye gradually develops that negative faith in the direction of a positive faith in Helen’s continued presence, in passages such as the following:  “But grief emphasizes the pastness of the past, and so works against the mythical imagination. Helen was—that’s the beginning of tears and mourning.  Helen is.  What she is, perhaps, is a central element in the unseen which will clarify my understanding, if such clarification is granted to me” (CW5: 139).  Here, the hope for eternal life has been provided with substance and evidence: Helen is not absent, but present, here and now.  However, I think faith has two aspects, present and future.  It provides an experience of infinity and eternity here and now, the world in the grain of sand, eternity in an hour.  But the alternative translation of hypostasis as “assurance” for the future may be an aspect of faith as well.  This is the theme of Milton’s Nativity Ode:  that on the morning of Christ’s nativity, our redemption is accomplished now—but not yet. In Frye’s case, Helen is present now, but that presence provides hope for a future in which they will be reunited in eternity.  Only a saint could maintain such faith continuously, but the memory of such moments helps to sustain us in the dark times, when “we find ourselves staring blankly into an unresponding emptiness, utterly frustrated  by its indifference,” as Frye puts it in “To Come to Light,” a sermon of 1988.

Frye’s sense of Helen’s presence as a guardian spirit and Beatrice figure apparently remained on the level of intuition and not of direct vision.  He was, after all, an intellectual.  But in others, extremity has at times produced actual visions, such as Blake had after his brother Robert died.  An unexpected publishing phenomenon of the last couple of months has been that of Jung’s Red Book, in which he recorded and illustrated a series of visions he had over a period of several years, midway in the journey of his life, when he had been cast out of the Freudian movement and found himself in a dark wood.  Intellectuals, liberal and otherwise, have always been convinced that Jung was a nut case, and one awaits the inevitable reviews of the Red Book proclaiming that their hunches have been confirmed.  But the funny thing is, all sorts of people have become fascinated enough with the volume to pay $195 dollars for it.  Perhaps I should not be so impatient with such intellectuals, but they seem totally unaware of how they—like most people, to be sure—have carefully arranged their lives so that nothing visionary or uncanny could ever enter into them.  This provides circular proof for them that the visionary and uncanny do not exist, except as pathological delusions.

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Michael Dolzani: Spiritual Otherness (2)


Von Carolsfeld, Samson Destroys the Temple, 1880

Responding to Matthew Griffin and Clayton Chrusch, regarding my earlier post.

Matthew, I am moved by the warmth and generosity of your response.  I’m very glad what I wrote was useful to you, all the more because there is a reciprocity:  your response was what chiefly inspired a follow-up posting of mine that I’ll be sending along as soon as I’m sure it’s entirely coherent.  The Hebrews passage is indeed a key, and I thank you for reminding me of it.  Epiphany is a perfect time to be discussing these things–I hadn’t even thought about that!

Second, to Clayton Chrusch:  Wow.  I admire the marriage of articulate intellect and emotional intensity in this response.  Literary criticism could use more of this directness.  You raise issues so immense that I know I haven’t thought through them completely yet, but you deserve at least something of an immediate response.  Concerning God, yes, as Jesus he is an object, a historical personage–and therefore bound up with all the ambiguities of our relationship to objects, starting with the fact that there is no historical evidence that he even existed.  The quest for the historical Jesus leaves us more distanced from God than ever.  God could also be considered as a subject, but not as what we usually mean by a subject, namely, the ego of the natural man.  Jung’s Self/ego distinction is helpful here, and the Jungian Self is in fact a God-image.  If God is a person, it is not the same sense in which I am a person.  For example, he is not limited by time and space, those conditions which define ego-consciousness.  When Paul says, “I, yet not I, but Christ in me,” he is speaking of the person of Christ as dwelling within him, an interpenetration that the ego or natural man is not capable of.  I’m sure you know all this; I’m just struggling to clarify my vocabulary.

I absolutely agree with you that “real” and “true” are words that may be applied to the imagination; otherwise, the imagination’s products are just beautiful illusions, and that gets us nowhere.  I was just trying to make the distinction that “real” and “true” here must mean something other than “objectively factual.”  A scientist or historian means something else by these terms.  That’s why the reality and truth of the spiritual world cannot be proved by scientific or historical methods.

As for suffering, I don’t think you misspoke–in fact, that was probably the part of your response that I admired the most.  I see why you qualify the response, though:  yes, there are things more important than avoiding pain.  Though I’m sure you’d agree that we have to be careful to state this precisely, because what we’re really talking about here is martyrdom.  For the Tibetan monks, or the early Christian martyrs, this meant accepting their own suffering for the sake of something more important.  But when I teach Milton’s Samson Agonistes, I ask students the troubling question:  what makes Samson different from a suicide bomber?  Samson too experiences “a renovation of the will so complete and so secure that it doesn’t matter any longer what place” he is in (marvelous passage, by the way).  But he also finds acceptable the suffering of the Philistines who will die along with him when he pulls down the Temple, just as the suicide bombers felt when they brought down our Temple, the World Trade Center.  Anyway, thank you for a searching and stimulating response.

Griffin and Chrusch: Responding to Michael Dolzani


Bosch’s Epiphany, 1495

Michael Dolzani’s first post has drawn a couple of thoughtful responses:

Matthew Griffin:

Thanks so much for this piece. It’s proven quite helpful to me, as I try to come up with some coherent thoughts for a pair of Epiphany sermons.

Epiphany is one of the principal feasts of the Church year, and celebrates the greater spread of God’s saving work beyond just the Israelites. It’s the time of year when we read the account in the gospel of Matthew of the magi coming to see the child, led by a star–and I think that one could argue that such is the quintessential example of natural religion (and then absorbed into Christianity). After all, the magi follow a star and bring tribute, ill-understanding (in the gospel writer’s eyes, at any rate) the full import of who they were meeting.

Where I would want to offer nuance to your argument is around the assertion that “the imgaination does not ‘believe in God’: belief is concerned with the evidence for or against objects, and God is not an object.” I think my quibble stems from a passage of scripture close to Frye’s heart–”Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11.1). In fact, it was a passage that kept cropping up in papers given at the Frye & the Word conference a few years back, and it’s key to my own reading of Frye: he’s sure that faith isn’t, as he quotes “believing what you know ain’t so”–but is something other than factual, other than straight subject/object dichotomy. It’s how Frye does this that makes Words with Power such an important book in my life, and I thank you for reminding me of that as I try to think about what it means to help others re-read a myth that reveals something of how God is.

Clayton Chrusch:

The passage that Matthew identifies is the same one that I think could use some clarification. God (the Father) may not be an object, but he is, according to the view I am defending anyway, a subject, and subjects (like the human mind, for example) are still facts, and their existence can be treated (more or less) in the same way the existence of objects can be treated. According to the Christian view, God, in the person of Jesus, is actually an object, in the sense of a physical entity. But perhaps you are not contrasting objects with subjects but objects with persons. Persons, though, are also facts, and we can believe in them both in the sense of acknowledging their existence and also in the sense of trusting them.

I certainly understand Blake’s rebelliousness and share his disgust with the church which contents itself with being at best a little less bad than institutions of a similar size, wealth, and power. But I see a distinction between the church and the teachings it espouses, the teachings, in fact, that it usually betrays. And I also see a distinction between the teachings of the church, in all their inadequacy and perversion, and the truth of which they are a distortion.

So I don’t see imagination and fact as incompatible. An imaginative scientist is very good at coming up with theories that articulate and explain facts. An imaginative Christian is very good at envisioning what it means to be a God whose only motive is love and also what it means to be a child of such a God. But a vision may be a vision of what is real. The imagination shows us not only what is not true, but also what is true.

I think I misspoke in my original comment by suggesting that the hope of Christians is the end of suffering. The end of suffering is only a secondary Christian hope, but the primary one is equally factual. Suffering is bearable, but what I cannot bear, what makes me want to pluck out my own eyes or throw myself off a cliff is being bad–hurting other people or behaving dishonestly. If I hate torture, it is not because it is painful but because it reaches down into a person’s will and takes possession of it for evil purposes. If I really knew that I could be good and remain good, I would not be afraid of any amount of pain. This is not something I am making up as an ideal, but something that is a part of real life to Tibetan monks, for example, being tortured in Chinese prisons.

And so I don’t see salvation as admittance into a very pleasant place, but as a renovation of the will so complete and so secure that it doesn’t matter any longer what place we are in.