Category Archives: Words with Power

Fact, Imagination, Language


Responding to Michael Dolzani, Matthew Griffin and Clayton Chrusch

I think the issue of whether or not imagination and fact are incompatible in Frye has to be seen in terms of his theory of language. We get two elaborate accounts of this theory in the first chapters of both The Great Code and Words with Power. A briefer version is to be found in chapter 1 of The Double Vision, where Frye says, “The reason for basing kerygma on mythical and metaphorical language is that such a language is the only one with the power to detach us from the world of facts and demonstrations and reasonings, which are excellent things as tools, but are merely idols as objects of trust and reverence” (18) A bit earlier he has remarked, “if we encounter metaphors in poetry, we need not worry about their factual absurdity.” That’s because poetic metaphor, like myth and all other products of the imagination, belong to a phase of language different from the language of fact, reason, demonstration, historical truth, and the like.

The opposition between fact and imagination is related, I believe to Hegel’s distinction between the “for-itself” and the “in-itself,” which Frye glances at in “The Dialectic of Belief and Vision.” The distinction is to be found in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, p. 294 ff. Hegel’s very abstract and difficult prose provides a formidable obstacle to my small brain. But if I understand what he’s getting at in describing these two opposing forces, the “for-itself has to do with thought, with the self-consciousness that comes from our being post-Enlightenment people. It’s limited. It’s related to actuality, human law, the external world of culture and civilization, faith expressed in conceptual or Enlightenment terms, truth as objective factual description. On the other hand, in-itself is a matter of getting beyond Enlightenment rationality to something above and beyond historical self-consciousness. It’s related to possibility, faith, harmony, consciousness of the Notion (Begriff), the spiritual world. It’s a matter of vision. “For-itself” belongs to the world as it is––the world of fact. “In-itself” belongs to the world as it might or should be––the world of the imagination.

Frye’s account of this distinction immediately precedes his commentary on Hebrews 11:1, the passage mentioned by Matthew Griffin that Frye continued to puzzle over, most fully in his sermon “Substance and Evidence.” For those who might be interested in following up on the passage that Griffin says is the key to his reading of Frye, I reproduce immediately following four of the chief places Frye seeks to untangle the meaning of “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” the commentaries having been written over a seventeen-year span.

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Typology, Kerygma, and Literature


Blake's Elohim Creating Adam

Russell’s latest post on Alter and Frye has got me thinking about my longstanding assumptions about Frye, particularly with regard to the Bible and literature.  The Bible and literature occupy the centre of Frye’s critical universe, and understanding what he says about both is to appreciate the full potential of his critical vision.

The Judeo-Christian Bible as the supreme artifact of Christian culture down to about the 18th century is of course easy enough to assume.  As Frye points out, the Bible is a primary source of imagery and stories well into the 20th century — and, in these apparently apocalyptically-minded times, into the 21st century as well.

But the Bible is not just a source of mythos and dianoia, to use the Aristotelian terms Frye adapts in Anatomy.  It is the source also of a “unique” arrangement of myth and metaphor represented by typology, the progressive succession of type-antitype-type (e.g. Creation-Incarnation-Revelation).  Although Frye rather conspicuously only says it once, he nevertheless observes on page 80 of The Great Code:

The typological organization of the Bible does present the difficulty, to a secular literary critic, of being unique: no other book in the world, to my knowledge, has a structure even remotely like that of the Christian Bible.

That structure is the “double mirror” of the Old Testament and the New Testament — the latter concealed in the former and the former revealed by the latter — which provides the Christian Bible’s kerygmatic vision of the human condition that Blake characterizes as the revelation of  the “human form divine.”  The typological structure of the Christian Bible that furnishes its distinctive double mirror character, however, does not originate with Christianity: the Hebrew Bible is the source of these typological principles, and the first “Christians” were themselves Jews who compiled what would become their “new” testament using the same typological structure of their traditional holy scriptures.  As Frye observes:

Typology in the Bible is by no means confined to the Christian version of the Bible: from the point of view of Judaism at least, the Old Testament is much more genuinely typological without the New Testament than with it. There are, in the first place, events in the Old Testament that are types of later events recorded also within the Old Testament.  (GC, 83)

When Frye suggests, therefore, as he does in The Great Code (and there alone, it might be pointed out) that the culturally ascendant phases of language we have observed so far — the hieroglyphic, the hieratic, and the demotic — may be, for the first time in human history, about to be succeeded by a kerygmatic phase, he is making about as revolutionary a statement as he ever made.  I’m not sure it is possible to approach his work as a whole without thinking about its implications.

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Kerygma, Cont’d


Following up on Michael Happy’s question about kerygma, here’s an adaptation of a little study of the word I did for Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World:

In The Great Code Frye adopts the word “kerygma” to indicate that while the Bible has obvious poetic features, it is more than literary because it contains a rhetoric of proclamation.  “Kerygma,” the form of proclamation made familiar by Bultmann, thus designates the existentially concerned aspect of the Bible, as opposed to its purely metaphoric features.  Bultmann sought to “demythologize” the New Testament narrative as an initial stage in interpretation: the assumptions of the old mythologies, such as demonic possession and the three-storied universe, had to be purged before the genuine kerygma could be “saved,” to use his word.  Frye, of course, has exactly the opposite view of myth: “myth is the linguistic vehicle of kerygma” (Great Code, 30).

But having made his point about kerygma Frye drops the word altogether from the rest of The Great Code, except for a passing reference toward the very end of the book (231).  In Words with Power the word “kerygma” is completely absent from Frye’s analysis in the “sequence and mode” (or “language”) chapter; we have to wait until chapter 4, where we learn that the excluded initiative––what lies hidden in the background of the poetic––is what leads to kerygma, even though Frye does not initially put it in these terms.  He begins by saying, “Our survey of verbal modes put rhetoric between the conceptual and the poetic, a placing that should help us to understand why from the beginning there have been two aspects of rhetoric, a moral and a tropological [figurative] aspect, one persuasive and the other ornamental.  Similarly, we have put the poetic between the rhetorical and the kerygmatic, implying that it partakes of the characteristics of both” (Words with Power 111).  Frye then begins to expand the meaning of kerygma far beyond what it had meant in The Great Code.  It now becomes synonymous with the prophetic utterance, the metaliterary perception that extends one’s vision, the Longinian ecstatic response to any text, sacred or secular, that “revolutionizes our consciousness” (Words with Power 111–14).  Kerygma takes metaphorical identification “a step further and says: ‘you are what you identify with’” (ibid., 116).  We enter the kerygmatic realm when the separation of “active speech and reception of speech” merges into a unity (ibid., 118).

This leads to an absorbing account of the “spiritual” as it is embedded in the descriptive, conceptual, and rhetorical “factors of the poetic,” and the “spiritual” as extending the body into another dimension so that it reaches “the highest intensity of consciousness” (ibid., 119–21, 128).  Then, some twenty pages after Frye began his exploration of kerygma, he arrives finally at the excluded initiative of the poetic.  He does not say what we might expect, that the excluded initiative is kerygma.  What he says, in a statement that appears to be something of an anticlimax after all the elevated probing of Spirit, is that the excluded initiative of the poetic “is the principle of the reality of what is created in the production and response to literature” (ibid., 128).  This teasing understatement has been anticipated by the declaration about the unity of “active speech and reception of speech” just quoted.  Or as Frye puts it in Notebook 53 in less pedestrian terms, kerygma is “the answering voice from God to the human construct” (Late Notebooks, 2:615).

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How Does Frye Think?


With regard to Joe’s question about Frye’s method and the “way he thinks,” it seems to me that a critical method is a function of at least four variables: the language a critic uses (the material cause: out of what?); the subject matter he or she explores (the formal cause: what?), the manner used to make a point or construct an argument (the efficient cause: how?), and the purpose(s) of his or her discourse (the final cause: why?).  With regard to Frye, all of these variables are worth sustained investigation.

Consider the efficient cause.  How does Frye proceed in setting out his position on whatever his subject matter is?  We might approach this by asking, How does Frye’s mind work?  How does he think?

1.  Dialectically, by the juxtaposition of opposing categories.  There are scores of these: knowledge and experience, space and time, stasis and movement, the individual and society, tradition and innovation, Platonic synthesis and Aristotelian analysis, engagement and detachment, freedom and concern, mythos and dianoia, the world and the grain of sand, immanence and transcendence, ascent and descent, and so on.  Consider the chapter titles of part 1 of Words with Power: sequence and mode, concern and myth, identity and metaphor, spirit and symbol.

2.  Epiphanically.  Intuitive moments of sudden illumination.  Frye records seven or eight of these, some of them named: the Seattle illumination, the St. Clair epiphany.  These might not properly be called thinking, but these moments were important in forming the vision that he writes about.

3.  Schematically.  Frye can’t think without a diagram in his head.  Spatial representation of thought (diagrams, charts, categories arranged in space––cycles, circles, tables, and other visual taxonomies) are always prior.  His diagram of diagrams he called “The Great Doodle.”  Lesser doodles (his phrase) include the omnipresent HEAP scheme and the ogdoad.  The hundreds of schema he uses are stored (for instant recall) in his vast memory theater.  Thinking schematically means that he is fundamentally a deductive thinker (in spite of the fact that I can think of no critic who had a greater inductive store of literary data).

4.  Analogically.  Frye is obsessed with similarities rather than differences.  He does, of course, have a strong Aristotelian streak, what with all his anatomizing and categorizing.  But while he agrees with Coleridge that we can distinguish where we cannot divide, the bottom line is that Frye is an analogical thinker, like Plato.

5.  Upwardly.  Frye is always moving toward a telos, an end.  There is always another step to be taken to get beyond the present mental or imaginative state.  “Beyond” is the most revealing preposition in Frye’s religious quest––a preposition that takes on special significance only late in his career.  During the last decade of his life he uses the word repeatedly as both a spatial and a temporal metaphor.  Having arrived at a particular point in his speculative journey, over and over he reaches for something that lies beyond.  Notebook 27 (1985) begins with a series of speculations about getting to a plane of both myth and metaphor beyond the poetic, and Frye even confesses that there is no reason at all to write Words with Power unless he can get to that plane (LN, 1:67).  The Bible implies that there is a structure beyond the hypothetical (LN, 1:8, 14).  Many things are said to be beyond words: icons, certain experiences, the identity of participation mystique (LN, 1:15, 16).  Here’s a sampler:

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A footnote to Clayton Chrusch’s “The Hermeneutics of Charity,” drawn from some paragraphs on love I wrote about elsewhere.

The genuine Christianity that has survived its appalling historical record was founded on charity, and charity is invariably linked to an imaginative conception of language, whether consciously or unconsciously. Paul makes it clear that the language of charity is spiritual language, and that spiritual language is metaphorical, founded on the metaphorical paradox that we live in Christ and that Christ lives in us (The Double Vision, 17).

The various principles that are the foundation of Frye’s concept of identity (metaphor, kerygma, possession, the fourth awareness, higher consciousness) should lead us, he says, to “myths to live by.”  But what are these existential myths that come from “the other side” of the imaginative?  What are the “coherent lifestyles” that Frye’s hopes “will emerge from the infinite possibilities of myth”? (Words with Power, 143). Although he often appears hesitant to give a direct answer to these questions, preferring to assume the role of Moses on Mount Pisgah, the answer does surface in the conclusions of his last three books where the gospel of love becomes the focus of his discussion.

Frye’s speculations on love begin early.  In Notebook 3 (1946–48) he probes the meaning of love in different contexts: his own erotic and fantasy life, his attitude toward the Church, his reflections on yoga and on time.  Here are two representative reflections:

Joachim of Floris has a hint of an order of things in which the monastery takes over the church & the world.  That is the expanded secular monastery I want: I want the grace of Castiglione as well as the grace of Luther, a graceful as well as a gracious God, and I want all men & women to enter the Abbey of Theleme where instead of poverty, chastity and obedience they will find richness, love and fay ce que vouldras; for what the Bodhisattva wills to do is good. (Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts, 17)

Each dimension of time breeds fear: the past, despair & hopelessness & the sense of an irrevocable too late: the present, panic & sense of a clock steadily ticking; the future, an unknown mystery gradually assuming the lineaments of the consequences of our own acts.  Hope is the virtue of the past, the eternal sense that maybe next time we’ll do better.  The projection of this into the future is faith, the substance of things hoped for.  Love belongs to the present, & is the only force able to cast out fear.  If a thing loves it is infinite, Blake said, & the act of love is itself a vision of a timeless world. (ibid., 59)

Frye’s speculations on love reappear some thirty-five years later in the conclusion of The Great Code, where he probes the meaning of the Word of God in the context of Biblical language.  This language, Frye says, is enduring, inclusive, welcoming, and beyond argument, and it can move us toward freedom and beyond the anxiety structures created by the human and divine antithesis (231–2).  The Great Code, however, provides little concrete guidance about the function of love in the myths we are to live by, though the notebooks for The Great Code contain numerous entries on “the rule of charity.”   But during the eight years following The Great Code Frye devoted a good deal of energy to working out the implication of the language of love.  In Notebook 46 (mid- to late 1980s) he writes, “Love is the only virtue there is, but like everything else connected with creativity and imagination, there is something decentralized about it.  We love those closest to us, Jesus’ ‘neighbors,’ people we’re specifically connected with in charity.  For those at a distance we feel rather tolerance or good will, the feeling announced at the Incarnation” (Late Notebooks, 2:696).  This “only virtue” idea gets developed in Words with Power where love, Paul’s agape or caritas is said to be “the only genuine form of human society, the spiritual kingdom of Jesus” (89).

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Expanded Consciousness


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.  Expanded consciousness is both individual and social.

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

Centripetal Meaning and Primary Concern


Russell Perkin expresses some concern that literature has limits.  As he put it in a comment yesterday:

the nagging point that [Deanne] Bogdan raises for me is that, to quote her again “the hypothetical dimension of literature notwithstanding, literature does say things.” It doesn’t entirely leave behind what Frye calls “the original reference,” though of course it cannot be reduced to that either.

It’s at this point we really need to remind ourselves that Frye consistently observes that literary structures are primarily centripetal in reference.  This is very easily demonstrated: you don’t need to believe in ghosts to appreciate Hamlet, you don’t have to be Catholic to access The Divine Comedy.  Heck, you hardly require the English language to experience Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky

That primarily centripetal direction of literary meaning carries it beyond mere metonymic reference with its undeniable “limits” to the liberating power of archetypal metaphor (pace Clayton Chrusch), whose patterns include not just the four mythoi of Anatomy but the four primary concerns of Words with Power.  That is, the ethos of literary criticism is ulitmately (anagogically, kerygmatically) meta-literary: revealing the source of literature’s autonomy and authority, which express the imaginative constants of literary narrative driven by the existential constants of primary concern.  This is not to say that the secondary concerns of ideology are irrelevant, but, in Frye’s “verbal universe” they are secondary, they are subordinated.  The inability of any critical theory to appreciate the distinction between metaphor and metonymy or primary and secondary concern suggests why so much of what now passes for literary criticism has the character of wrestling a greased pig.  It’s a losing proposition; there’s nothing to hold onto securely, except the anxiety of the fact that the struggle must continue and cannot be won.

The Phases and Modes of Language


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

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

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

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