Desert Paradise: A Polemical Re-Introduction to Northrop Frye

by Michael Dolzani, Baldwin-Wallace College

The year 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of Northrop Frye’s death; the very next year, 2012, is the centenary of his birth. Thus, death is followed by birth—perhaps, we may hope, by rebirth. The stocktaking moment of a centenary is a logical time to meditate on first principles, both the first principles of Frye himself, from which all his work unfolds, and the first principles of criticism in the forthcoming century. Frye has become what Blake once was: a private discovery and treasure for a few people, a marginal and largely ignored figure for mainstream scholarship. Yet we are also close to marking the half century point since the rise of the post-structuralist paradigm which has relegated Frye to the sidelines, and it is increasingly clear that that paradigm, for better or worse, has run its course. Frye’s earlier work was never properly understood by many of his critics, his two later books on the Bible have not yet been assimilated, and the eight volumes of his notebooks have as yet mostly been explored only by the two maniacs, myself being one of them, who spent fifteen years editing them for publication. It is an open question whether a return to Frye’s first principles may help inspire new possibilities for a field that desperately needs them.

What are Frye’s first principles? At what point does he begin—for that crucial point determines the focus and selectivity of all that follows. An entire mythology is often implicit in its Creation myth. The first thing one notices about Frye is his preoccupation with patterns—with correspondences, codes, systems, structures, encyclopedic organizations, vast and all-inclusive webworks. The titles of the two great works of the first half of his career betoken this. Fearful Symmetry is an apt title for a book about a poet who said, “I must create a System, or be enslaved by another man’s.” Frye was for a long time trying to write two books at once, one about Blake’s mythical and metaphorical patterns and one about how Blake’s patterns were a microcosm of the patterns of the whole order of words. Eventually, this second book spun off and became, first, Structural Poetics, and, finally, Anatomy of Criticism—the titular accent again being on the element of pattern, as it is with The Great Code in the second half of Frye’s career. That book and its successor, Words with Power, evolved directly from Frye’s notebooks. Whatever their ultimate value, the notebooks are a fascinating read; at times they seem to have been written by the reincarnation of Pythagoras, as Frye launches into flights of patternmaking dauntingly beyond anything in his published books. We learn that his whole life’s work was invisibly informed by an eightfold pattern, the ogdoad, sometimes imagined as a series of eight books with cryptic titles like Paradox and Ignoramus, and special symbols to denote each title. As Robert Denham has shown, we learn of repeated schemes to organize his material numerologically, according to schemes of 7, 12, 14, 28, 78, 100, and so on. We learn that the Third Book was to be an exposition of a diagram called the Great Doodle, a mandala with symbolic names for its points and quadrants. And we find repeated attempts to match the Great Doodle with patterns far beyond the field of literature, such as the two traditional circular arrangements of the trigrams of the I Ching. At some point, almost any reader is going to scratch his head and ask, “What is going on here?”—all the more because of Frye’s qualified but respectful treatment of what he calls “kook books,” which we may define as books of unbridled speculation about various symbolic patterns, for example Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which Frye had read appreciatively long before Dan Brown used it as a source for The DaVinci Code. We also learn from the notebooks about certain revelations or epiphanies that Frye experienced over the course of his life. In each case, he describes these as epiphanies of pattern, of a sense of coherence, and says that all of his writing was contained in microcosm in those few moments of expanded consciousness. One came as a result of a late night’s reading of Spengler, an earlier influence than Blake. In Spengler, any element of any human culture can be explained through its belonging to a larger symbolic pattern. The insight that Blake’s patterns were the same patterns as those of the Bible, of all mythology, and of all literature came to him as a late-night epiphany while trying to write a graduate paper. In later years, there were other moments, glancingly referred to by names like “the Seattle revelation.” Nothing would seem further from the perspective of post-structuralism, which had to develop a whole new vocabulary of swear words adequate to curse any attempt at “totalizing,” “mystification,” or “hegemony.” Nonetheless, here we are, on the verge of celebrating a centenary for no more logical reason than what Frye himself once called a superstitious reverence for the decimal system of counting. On the grounds that this makes us complicit, perhaps we should inquire into the reasons for Frye’s own superstitious reverence for patterns.

What is a pattern? Simply speaking, it is a unity. A pattern binds together into a whole what we previously saw as disparate and unrelated, according to the twin principles of identity and difference. We are already in the realm of the irrational here, because we are saying that the unity of any pattern includes difference. If two things are completely identical, they are the same thing, whereas a pattern unites two or more things. But, to the extent that things are different, there is no unity. Nor does the dilemma remain abstract for long. It will be encountered by any critic, for example, who attempts to speak of tragedy as a pattern. Any definition of “tragedy,” no matter how flexible and comprehensive, will be attacked by other critics for oversimplification, for trying to fit The Persians, Tamburlaine, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and Andromache into a unity by ignoring the vast differences between them. Frye himself satirizes the tendency to ignore differences by speaking of the categorizer who lumps together a spider, an octopus, and a string quartet on the grounds that they all have eight legs.

Why cling to unity, then, except to hide out in a harmonious fantasy from a world of chaotic and clashing differences? In the first chapter of The Educated Imagination, a book devoted to an exposition of first principles, Frye approaches this question through the analogy of a castaway on a desert island. The human situation begins with man in a state of nature, a subject directly confronting an objective world; he is a castaway because he is not adapted to this environment as the animals are. This has its importance, because the subject-object view of reality is the view of common sense. There is an objective world out there, and anybody can verify it as Samuel Johnson did, by kicking a stone and saying “ow.” Moreover, it is the worldview out of which science developed, and within which it is largely still contained on its more practical and non-theoretical levels. The common view cannot understand why anyone should object to the subject-object perspective as normative, and suspects anyone who rejects it, as Blake did by calling it the “cloven fiction,” of neurotic maladjustment to the “reality principle.” That is because the common view is a privileged and protected one, held by people who do not live in the state of nature but in a second womb of culture and civilization, where there is nothing worse to be suffered than a stubbed toe. The practical scientist is also divorced from the human condition, viewing reality in a detached and contemplative mode.

As experienced, however, rather than as merely thought, the world of the cloven fiction is a world of alienation; the subject is a ghostly point of consciousness, what Blake called a Spectre, staring out at a universe indifferent to what Frye would later call its primary concerns. This gives rise to two sorts of problem, one epistemological and one existential. Epistemologically, the subject is a Cartesian ego saying “I think; therefore I am,” but unsure of the reality of everything outside itself. The senses are untrustworthy, and so is the brain, which constructs sense data into our picture of reality. How much of what we perceive is really “out there” and how much a mere product of the a priori categories of the human mind has been a problem since Kant. Actually, the ego-subject is not even all that sure of its own ghostly existence. Science cannot locate “consciousness” any more than it can locate “life,” and seems content to reduce it to an illusion generated by brain activity. Alter the brain, and we alter both someone’s sense of self and his sense of reality, so much so that he is as likely as not to mistake his wife for a hat. Existentially, the cloven fiction means that the human condition is one of paranoia, as Thomas Pynchon shows in a novel Frye greatly admired, Gravity’s Rainbow. Everything outside me—and everything is outside me—is Other, unknown and potentially a threat.

This is Frye’s point of origin, his Creation myth—or, rather, anti-Creation myth, since the creation of the world of the cloven fiction is really a Creation-Fall. The opening chapter of Fearful Symmetry deals with the epistemology of Locke rather than Descartes, because it was Locke who was the object of Blake’s critique, but Locke’s psychology of the mind as a blank slate written upon by the senses is an English empirical version of the Cartesian cloven-hooved dilemma. But, despite appearances and common sense, humanity has never lived in the state of nature, a subject confronting a purely objective environment. We live in a human construct that we call culture and civilization. When King Lear on the heath asks what is left of a human being if you take away all of his cultural trappings, he is left staring at Poor Tom, a naked, forked animal. But Tom no more lives in the state of nature than Lear does: he is wrapped up in visionary fantasies and beset by demons, by constructs of his own mind. The real answer to what is left if we strip away all “property,” that is, all the human constructs that are “proper” to human identity, the answer is the play’s most repeated word: “nothing.” The human power to create the world we live in, the imagination, is in fact the key to human evolution. In Science and the Modern World, Alfred North Whitehead contends that successful organisms are not those which adapt to their environment: “Successful organisms modify their environment. Those organisms are successful which modify their environments so as to assist each other” (205). This is not merely true for human beings: “The trees in a Brazilian forest depend upon the association of various species of organisms, each of which is mutually dependent on the other species. A single tree by itself is dependent upon all the adverse chances of shifting circumstances….A forest is the triumph of the organization of mutually dependent species….Every organism requires an environment of friends, partly to shield it from violent changes, and partly to supply it with its wants” (206).

“An environment of friends”: extraordinary phrase, all the more so because Whitehead has been speaking of trees. Though they do so unconsciously, the organisms of an ecosystem do not so much adapt or compete as spontaneously create an environment that fulfills their primary concerns, and the effort is simultaneously communal and individual. We are close here to the ideas of another of Frye’s influences, Samuel Butler’s Life and Habit, which also redefines evolution in terms of unconscious creativity. The moment the human race became human was the moment this unconscious constructive power became conscious, and by doing so began to become abstract, using the term to denote not conceptual abstraction but any transcendence of given or objective reality into a realm that is purely imagined: that is, constructed. (Wallace Stevens said that one of the requirements for a “supreme fiction” was “It Must Be Abstract”). One of the earliest areas in which this happened was mathematics. Mathematics may have begun with a subject counting and measuring material objects, but it became truly mathematical in the moment in which “five birds” or “five trees” was transcended by the concept of “five.” The moment is transcendent because “five” does not exist in the objective world, but in a purely mathematical one. It is not a reality in the empirical sense but an imaginative construct. The implications of all this took a long time to sink in, because mathematics seemed to do such as good job of explaining the material world. But as J. Edward Chamberlin shows in “Mathematics and Modernism,” mathematics began to explore conceptions that either had no reality outside the mathematical universe, such as irrational and transcendent numbers, or, if applied to ordinary reality, quickly dissolved into a series of paradoxes, such as the concept of infinity. In addition to Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, which in the notebooks he calls “a book that’s influenced me so profoundly I often reproduce its conceptions when I think I’m thinking” (LN, 615), Frye derived his notions of the symbolic universe of mathematics from James Jeans’ The Mysterious Universe, especially its final chapter, “Into the Deep Waters.” Chamberlin shows how fascinated many Modernist thinkers, writers, and artists were by the notion of a symbolic universe, and links Frye’s first principles to those of Modernism insofar as he shared that preoccupation—at least to the side of Modernism that is post-Romantic, and continues Romantic tendencies; another side of Modernism, the side which eventually gave birth to post-Modernism and post-structuralism, was anti-Romantic. We will return to this Cain-and-Abel ambivalent ancestry later. For now, we will add Frye’s other example of a symbolic universe independent of the “real world”: music. The circle of fifths, the basis of Western music, does not reflect anything in the objective world; like “five” or “the square root of -2,” it is pure construct. Theories that find the basis of literature in mimesis, in the imitation of an outside reality, tend to draw their examples from representational genres like drama and the novel. But literature does not begin with representation, at least not in this sense: it begins with the pure constructs of myth and metaphor, which point towards a symbolic rather than an objective reality. If mimesis is to be applied to mythical and metaphorical works, it has to be redefined, as Frye does in Anatomy of Criticism, to include the imitation or representation of something in the symbolic universe, not the empirical one. The end result of this line of thinking was Frye’s concept of an “order of words” comparable to the foundational concept in science of an “order of nature.” The most important source for this notion was, again, Whitehead, who spends the entire first chapter of Science and the Modern World attacking what he calls scientific materialism. In order to proceed, he says, science necessarily presupposes an order of nature, whose laws each natural phenomenon exemplifies. But the order of nature is not only a construct but an act of imaginative faith, as in fact Hume demonstrated long ago: we choose to believe that the meaningful order and pattern we see in nature is really “there,” and not just an appearance or presupposition, but we cannot prove it. All of our evidence may be illusion; all of our logic may be delusion.

At this point, we are ready to turn towards the other side of the picture, the side that gave rise, as I mentioned previously, to the skeptical perspectives of postmodernism and post-structuralism. We have already seen that the desert island model in Chapter 1 of The Educated Imagination is a simplification, a teaching device. Frye is aware of what is missing from its picture, though he does not confront it until the final chapter of the book. In Blake’s Songs of Innocence, the innocent world of “The Lamb” is challenged by the world of “The Tyger,” who is red in tooth and claw from eating lambs. Humanity responds by constructing culture and civilization in order to shield both us and our domesticated or pet lambs from tigers and other hostile elements of nature. But when we look at “London” in the Songs of Experience, we are faced with a horror deeper than that of harsh or predatory nature. Everywhere the speaker turns, he sees “Marks of weakness, marks of woe”—sees not only misery but death, unnatural death, inflicted by human beings upon other human beings: the deaths of children forced to become chimney sweeps, of soldiers, of prostitutes and their clients infected with venereal disease. Yet what is true in eighteenth century London is true of any culture at any moment in history. To speak of an “environment of friends” seems at best naïve. And, worst of all, it is all so unnecessary. We are not speaking of natural accidents, of illness, of death following old age: we are speaking of suffering and death produced by a system or power structure, a machine run out of control, often not even to the benefit of those on top of the social hierarchy, by what Blake calls “mind forg’d manacles.” I think the lasting legacy of the whole post-structuralist movement will be the courage with which it tried to confront this heart of darkness and stop lying about it. The truth is, we could make the desert into paradise, but we don’t, and we won’t. More often than not, we turn it into hell. Shakespeare knew this in The Tempest, a probable source of Frye’s desert island metaphor. For Shakespeare’s island is not deserted: hell is other people, and the only character who has a vision of the desert turned into paradise is Gonzalo, the noble idealist helpless in the face of people like Antonio and Sebastian, who are willing to murder people for the sake of “ruling” a worthless expanse of sand.

What post-structuralism does is to provide the shadow side of the idea of a symbolic world transcending the subject-object split. If our critique is sufficiently searching, we never find a mere split. Instead, we find paradoxical ambiguity. Looked at in one way, I am never sure how much my experience and understanding of external reality is my own fabrication, born of my preconceptions and social conditioning, of what post-structuralism sums up in the word “ideology.” But contrariwise, I am never sure how much external reality has produced me, how much I am a mere product of ideological forces, one of Bladerunner‘s replicants who thinks he is human but is really a programmed construct. Subject and object are joined, but in an ambiguous, nightmarish way, which Blake called the “Hermaphrodite.” Blake would go on to say, however, that this “fallen” world—no less fallen because it has “always already” been in place however far back we go in history—exists, at least insofar as an illusion exists, because, despite appearances, human culture has not relinquished its allegiance to the cloven fiction; we have merely imported it from the natural into the cultural realm. If “interdependence” means, not a harmony or unity, but instead a condition in which I am at the mercy of something Other, even to the point of being perhaps its puppet, the cloven fiction has been in fact intensified, not abolished.

“Alienation” is a distanced, intellectualized word for such a condition. In terms of how we are forced to live it out, rather than merely conceptualize it, we can say that the condition of contemporary life is one of underlying terror, subdued by repression and distraction into a pervasive unrest: as Auden said, and the existentialists said before him, we live in the Age of Anxiety. In The Minimal Self, Christopher Lasch asks why, if civilization is the safe place to which humanity has gone, fleeing the harshness of nature, we all feel so unsafe. Our fears are not groundless: we have turned society in a “jungle” as dangerous as any rainforest. This used to be ascribed to “Cold War mentality,” but the end of the Cold War has changed nothing. On any random morning, we may still wake up to find that “terrorists” have plowed airplanes into skyscrapers; that the nearby nuclear power plant has malfunctioned, causing us to be evacuated from our homes, as in Don Delillo’s White Noise; that, without any warning, the entire global economy has melted down like a power plant, leaving common people homeless and jobless in another Great Depression. Even without large-scale crises, life is always threatened. It is no longer politically correct to espouse Social Darwinism in the treatment of Third World countries, but young people are told that when they mature they must “adapt,” in Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest fashion, to an increasingly ruthless corporate environment. In the intellectual world, any theory or interpretation is screened for concealed weapons like a traveler at an airport: the first question asked about it is, whom is it seeking to harm or dominate? At this point, we begin to see that the biggest limitation of post-structuralism, despite its adversary stance, is its resignation to the cloven fiction model as inevitable. In its origins a left-wing movement committed to revolution, or at least to radical social change, its tragedy is its inability to imagine any type of social change that would be more than power changing hands, an eternal war of ideology against ideology, with no ideology proof against being deconstructed or demystified in its turn, the ground not large enough to hold the contending armies. Paradoxically, post-structuralism ends in a kind of resigned conservatism, an acceptance of ironic limits—the subject-object perspective is affirmed as inevitable even as it is deconstructed into the paradoxical, “life unlivable,” in the words of Finnegans Wake.

Merely defending Frye by attacking his opponents is as pointless as the reverse, not to mention that it ends in a tired rehashing of the old accusations and counter-accusations of the “theory wars.” To look towards the future, not the dead past, we need to ask, what is the nature, if any, of a reality beyond the subject-object split? What would such a condition be like as an experience?

This question is the profoundest one we can ask. Frye had to borrow or invent a whole new vocabulary to speak of it: interpenetration,[1] point of epiphany, vortex (borrowed from Blake), kerygma, three awarenesses, ecstatic metaphor, dialectic of Word and Spirit. It haunts his work as early as the astonishing Notebook 3 (CW13: 3-71), as late as chapter 4, “Spirit and Symbol,” of Words with Power—the most difficult, yet also perhaps the profoundest, chapter of that book. The Double Vision, as its title denotes, is an attempt at a definitive statement about the subject. First of all, negatively, no perspective can possibly be “reality” that gives the subject the impossible alternative of either being haunted by ghosts or being a ghost, depending upon whether the subject is in an idealist or realist mood. The pain in Samuel Johnson’s toe proves nothing: it is an interpretation by his brain of nerve impulses presumably, yet not necessarily, stimulated by something outside the body. If you live for seventy-eight years as Frye had, what common sense thinks of as the real world turns out to be a “dissolving phantasmagoria.” At that age, you do not need to be an intellectual to feel that the world you grew up in has vanished and left not a wrack behind.

A positive response begins with the observation that, as an ego or what Paul called a natural man, I am bounded in every possible way. In fact, all I am is the boundaries that construct me, weave me on a loom out of the warp and weft of the opposites. But in any act of creative imagination, in the quasi-enchanted state that readers and writers enter into from opposite ends, no matter if it is thought of as an act of construction or of discovery, I become unbound and unbounded. I am able, at best, to enter into myriad modes of being—or of unbeing. Another time-honored term to express this feeling of liberation into possibility is “wonder.” Nor is such liberty—the term Milton would use for it—purely mental, for the spiritual world, to give it its time-honored name, is beyond the division of mind and body. In the apex of such activities such as yoga, athletics, sex, playing music or dancing, painting and sculpture, the body too escapes into a realm of physical liberation. The question, of course, is of the reality of such experiences. If these are just feel-good consolations, they are only the opiate of the bourgeois liberal.

But there is no such thing as proof at these far limits, only a choice between faith in the cloven fiction reality and faith in a spiritual reality. Faith in the cloven fiction is far easier, because passive, yet it is a faith without hope or love. The latter word, love, means that the cloven-fiction distinction between self and Other disappears just as much as the distinction between mental and material. Or rather, it does not disappear, but is recreated into a new form. After death, the otherness that is alienation vanishes, but what Frye himself speaks of increasingly in his later career as a “spiritual Other” is revealed. All others may become spiritual Others, a fact which does not preclude a “Thou art That” kind of identity. In our best moods, we do not want to abolish difference: we find Otherness mysterious, attractive, wonderful in all senses—as Ferdinand finds Miranda, whose name means “wonder.” So would Shakespeare’s Phoenix and Turtle, if they had not ascended on wings of fire entirely into the realm of the two-in-one, where “Love hath reason, reason none.” The patterns and correspondences constructed by, or revealed to, the imagination suggest a spiritual reality in which we feel a part of a total pattern larger than ourselves, in which we live and move and have our being. Yet each individual life, considered as a total form, is a new and unique birth of that universal pattern, so that spiritual reality becomes what the Avatamsaka Sutra calls a net of inter-reflecting gems, or what Whitehead simply called an organism, a pattern which is also an event, a process of transformation or metamorphosis. “In a certain sense,” said Whitehead, in a passage that haunted Frye all his life, “everything is everywhere at all times. For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location. Thus every spatiotemporal standpoint mirrors the world” (91). A set of all sets: a pattern of all patterns, in which each pattern itself contains all patterns, in a dynamic spiral that Blake sometimes referred to as a Vortex: this is what Frye was pursuing a profounder understanding of in his later books and notebooks.

How may we pursue a profounder understanding of it? One way is the active discipline advocated by Blake as a way of resisting Lockean passive perception, a discipline provided most directly by art, science, and religion. But Shakespeare’s comedies and romances suggest a model more common in a world in which the human will is crippled by the Fall. Often we have to be dragged kicking and screaming into redemption, impelled to change as a result of a long tragicomic or purgatorial ordeal. Nonetheless, the result may be worth all the suffering of a long and largely wasted life, as Leontes affirms in The Winter’s Tale. Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych dies fulfilled although his experience of the spiritual world comes in the very last minutes of his life. Yet in addition to such active or passive striving, an experience of the realm beyond the cloven fiction may simply happen, may fall upon us for no apparent reason as what Abraham Maslow called a peak experience and Christianity simply calls “grace.” In “Vacillation,” Yeats recounts a moment in which, sitting in a café,

My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

In such moments, there is no Other in a final sense. We have been speaking of two worlds, the world of the cloven fiction and the spiritual world to which the patterns of the imagination provide the key. This is the “double vision” that gives Frye the title of his last book. Yet what is remarkable about that book is its serene acceptance of both visions. In the notes for The Double Vision, included in the Late Notebooks, Frye writes that the spiritual vision “is usually regarded as ‘superior,’ but I distrust hierarchical metaphors even when I use them….The only thing that’s superior about the spiritual vision is that it isn’t bounded by the Heideggerian categories of birth, thrownness, and above all death. Otherwise, it’s as silly to argue about superiority as to argue about whether the bones or the flesh are more important in the body” (LN, 617-18). Its title notwithstanding, The Double Vision, like Mahayana Buddhism, rejects the final dualism of spiritual and profane worlds. There is only one world, and the final sentence of Frye’s final book says that “Our life in the resurrection, then, is already here, and waiting to be recognized.” This is not a contradiction of anything in Frye’s earlier writing, but it is a new emphasis. What caused it? Quite likely, I think, the fact that it was written by a man who was in the final year of his life, and who probably more or less knew it, a man for whom there was no future, for whom the present moment was all there was. But, as Dylan Thomas tells us in poem after poem, all human beings are in that situation, at all times. Here and now we sit, surrounded by the desert that could also be paradise. The island, with all of its inhabitants, is waiting for our response.

List of Works Cited

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Newly Revised Ed. Ed. David V. Erdman. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982.

Chamberlin, J. Edward. “Mathematics and Modernism.” In The Legacy of Northrop Frye. Ed. Alvin A. Lee and Robert D. Denham. University of Toronto Press, 1994. 230-40.

Denham, Robert D. Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2004.

Lasch, Christopher. The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times. New York: Norton, 1984.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. New York: The Free Press, 1953.

Yeats, William Butler. The Poems of W. B. Yeats: The Poems: A New Edition. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

[1] The definitive discussion of interpenetration appears in Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, by Robert D. Denham. See chapter 1, “Interpenetration.” Indeed, this book is the most searching exploration we have had of the question of what transcends the subject-object split.

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