Northrop Frye and Søren Kierkegaard

by Robert D. Denham

The roots of Frye’s expansive vision of culture have often been remarked.  Blake and the Bible are obviously central to the development of his ideas, and much has been written about Frye’s debts to both.  Much has been written as well about other significant influences on Frye: Nella Cotrupi’s book on Frye and Vico, Glen Gill’s study of Frye and twentieth‑century mythographers (Eliade, Jung, and others), Ford Russell’s account of the influence of Spengler, Frazer, and Cassirer on Frye, and Sára Tóth on Frye and Buber.  No one, however, has considered the ways that Kierkegaard influenced Frye’s thought.  As the impact of Kierkegaard on Frye is relatively substantial, the purpose of this essay is to examine Frye’s use of Kierkegaard.[1] Direct influence is sometimes difficult to demonstrate, but parallels between and similar ideas held by the two can be instructive.  Kierkegaard helps to define, illustrate, and develop Frye’s thought.  Along the way, we will also glance at Frye’s critique of certain Kierkegaardian ideas.

Frye was attracted to Kierkegaard for the same reason he was attracted to Spengler and a host of other visionaries who wrote what he called “kook books.”  “I was well aware,” he writes,

all the time I was studying [Spengler and Frazer] that they were rather stupid men and often slovenly scholars.  But I found them, or rather their central visions, unforgettable, while there are hundreds of books by more intelligent and scrupulous people which I have forgotten having read. Some of them are people who have utterly refuted the claims of Spengler and Frazer to be taken seriously. But the thinker who was annihilated on Tuesday has to be annihilated all over again on Wednesday. . . . This is not merely my own perversity: we all find that it is not only, perhaps not even primarily, the balanced and judicious people that we turn to for insight.  It is also such people as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Hölderlin, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, all of them liars in Wilde’s sense of the word, as Wilde was himself.  They were people whose lives got smashed up in various ways, but rescued fragments from the smash of an intensity that the steady-state people seldom get to hear about.  Their vision is penetrating because it is partial and distorted: it is truthful because it is falsified.  To the Old Testament’s question, “Where shall wisdom be found?” there is often only the New Testament’s answer: “Well, not among the wise, at any rate.” (CW 4, 39–40) [2]

Frye had more than a passing acquaintance with the writings of Kierkegaard.  His library contained fourteen books by Kierkegaard, twelve of which he annotated: The Concept of Dread, The Concept of Irony, The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (vol. 1), Fear and Trembling, The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, Of the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle, The Point of View for My Work as an Author, The Present Age, Repetition, The Sickness unto Death, and Stages of Life’s Way.  Frye also owned Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses: A Selection and volume 2 of Either/Or; in his essay “Blake’s Bible” he refers to Attack upon Christendom (CW 16, 423); and in The Great Code he mentions a translation of The Present Age different from the one he owned.  As Frye quotes a phrase from Concluding Scientific Postscript, he may have read that work as well.[3] On the evidence we have, then, Frye was familiar with a substantial number of the books by Kierkegaard that were available in translation during his lifetime.

In his 1949 diary Frye reports that he has begun reading Kierkegaard’s Concept of Dread again. (CW 8, 189).  This would have been Walter Lowrie’s translation of the book, which appeared in 1944 (the translations into English of Kierkegaard by Lowrie, Alexander Dru, and David and Lillian Swenson began to appear in the early 1940s).  So Frye’s reading of Kierkegaard had begun at least by the late 1940s and perhaps earlier.  There is a steady stream of references to Kierkegaard––more than 250 altogether––in Frye’s writings, beginning in 1949 and continuing in his published and unpublished work through the posthumous The Double Vision (1991).  He began to reread Kierkegaard in the late 1980s, and he gives a fairly extensive account of this rereading in Notebook 50.

Frye’s attention to existentialism in general followed closely on the post‑World War II manifestations of the movement.   He reports using the word “existentialist” in a January 1949 discussion with his Victoria College colleagues, and by 1950 he is lecturing on the “existential movement” (CW 8, 100, 282).  Several dozen instances of his use of the word can be found in his diaries from the late 1940s and early 1950s.[4] Frye wrote nothing extensive about existentialism, but two thumb‑nail accounts of the movement can be found in “Speculation and Concern” (CW 7, 254-6) and “The University and Personal Life” (CW 7, 367).

The central Kierkegaardian topoi that make their way into Frye’s writing relate to his understanding of the myths of freedom and concern; the either/or dialectic; the principle of repetition; Kierkegaard as a prophetic, kerygmatic, metaliterary writer; and his role in the revolutionary explosion in nineteenth‑century thought, which Frye characterizes by the metaphor of the drunken boat.  I propose to examine what Frye says about these subjects in turn.  It is often best to let Frye speak for himself, so the generous supply of quotations from his published and unpublished work results in a kind of Kierkegaardian anthology.

1. The Myth of Concern

The OED gives twenty‑one meanings for “concern” as a noun.  In common parlance the word refers to an active interest or an important relation to some matter.  In the mid‑1960s Frye began to use the word in a special way.  Rather than recurring to the common distinction between fact and value, Frye says in a 1965 essay entitled “Speculation and Concern” that the existential terms “concern” and “engagement” are touchstones for what the humanities create. Three years later in reflecting on the history of his interest in the Bible, Frye writes,

I was beginning to see that the language of religion and the language of literature were closely connected, but the reason for the connection did not really become clear to me until the existentialist people came along after the war and I began reading Kierkegaard and his followers. The reason for the connection is that myth is the language of concern. Man is in two worlds: there is a world around him, an objective world, which it is the business of science to study. But there is also the world that man is trying to build out of his environment, and this is the world which depends on man’s view of himself and his destiny, or his concern about where he came from and where he is going to, and all his hopes and his ideals, his anxieties and his panics, come into his view of the society that he wants to build. (CW 27, 274)

In The Critical Path (1971) Frye expands the meaning of the word “concern,” setting up an elaborate dialectic between the myths of freedom and concern.   In The Great Code “existential concern” enters into Frye’s account of kerygma, and eight years later “concern” is given another twist in chapter 2 of Words with Power, entitled “Concern and Myth.”

Frye never points to a source in Kierkegaard for his appropriation of the word “concern,” but “concern” in the senses just specified (Bekymring––concern, care, interest, worry) appears throughout the Danish theologian’s works.  He writes, for example, “Not until the moment when there awakens in his soul a concern about what meaning the world has for him and he for the world, about what meaning everything within him by which he himself belongs to the world has for him and he therein for the world––only then does the inner being announce its presence in this concern.”  What this awakened concern yearns for is “a knowledge that does not remain knowledge for a single moment but is transformed into action the moment it is possessed” (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses 86).  Or again: “There is a truth whose greatness, whose sublimity we are accustomed to extol by saying that it is an objective truth, that it is equally valid whether one accepts it or not. . . . There is another kind of truth, or if this is more unassuming, another kind of truths, which we might call the concerned truths” (Edifying Discourses 87).[5]

Although Frye read Kierkegaard before he read Paul Tillich, the appeal of the word “concern” might also be traced to the first volume of Tillich’s Systematic Theology, which appeared in 1951.  Tillich had been significantly influenced by Kierkegaard during his student years at the University of Halle.  “The word ‘concern,’” Tillich writes, “points to the ‘existential’ character of religious experience.  We cannot speak adequately of the ‘object of religion’ without simultaneously removing its character as an object.  That which is ultimate gives itself only to the attitude of ultimate concern.  It is the correlate of an unconditional concern but not a ‘highest thing’ called ‘the absolute’ or ‘the unconditioned,’ about which we could argue in detached objectivity.  It is the object of total surrender, demanding also the surrender of our subjectivity while we look at it.  It is a matter of infinite passion and interest (Kierkegaard), making us its object whenever we try to make it our object” (Systematic 12).  Frye had heard Tillich lecture at the University of Toronto in February 1950,[6] and he owned and annotated four of Tillich’s books.[7]

Speculation and Concern.  In Frye’s essay of this title, which aims to differentiate between the sciences and the humanities, “speculation” is his shorthand for the detached mode of inquiry of the sciences.  “Concern,” on the other hand, is what we find in the containing forms of myths; “it is in these myths that the nature of man’s concern for his world is most clearly expressed” (CW 7, 256).  One version of “concern” is found in existentialism, particularly in Kierkegaard’s notion of “ethical freedom”: Existentialism, Frye writes, “insists that if we think of the external world as a human world, certain elements become primary that are carefully kept out of science: the imminence of death, the feeling of alienation, the pervading sense of accident and of emptiness, and the direct confrontation with something arbitrary and absurd.”  Kierkegaard’s “ethical freedom” refers to the person, in Frye’s words, “who has passed beyond speculation.  It would be better to use the existential terms engagement or concern to express the contrast between a reality which is there to begin with and the greater reality which, like religious faith or artistic creation, does not exist at all to begin with, but is brought into being through a certain kind of human act” (CW 7, 254, 256).  The parallel between speculation and concern, on the one hand, and Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic” and “ethical” stages, on the other, will be considered shortly.  The point here is that “concern” in the sense of committed or engaged derives from Kierkegaard and his twentieth‑century followers.

“Concern” can mean a troubled state of mind, uneasiness, or anxiety (Kierkegaard’s Angest), and this is the meaning it occasionally has for Frye.  In his radio talk, given as a prelude to a performance of Auden’s For the Time Being, Frye writes, “Kierkegaard says that all human activity, without exception, is the product of concern or anxiety about human life, so from one point of view all human activity is hysterical, compulsive and neurotic.”  Frye then advises his audience to “[l]isten for the word ‘anxiety’ in Auden’s play: it’s a very important word.  The neurotic can’t get at his neurosis or become conscious of it without the help of a psychoanalyst.  But for anxiety, which defeats all of us equally, there aren’t any psychoanalysts.  To try to become conscious of this takes us into the mystery of what theologians call original sin and whatever it is that makes all human life grow out of a tense and frightened dissatisfaction.  We can no more see inside this than we can see our own backbones” (CW 25, 298–9).[8]

The Myths of Freedom and Concern.  In The Critical Path Frye claims  that the process of interpreting the social myths of culture is “very similar to criticism in literature” and that “the different forms of critical interpretation cannot be sharply separated, whether they are applied to the plays of Shakespeare, the manuscripts of the Bible, the American Constitution, or the oral traditions of an aboriginal tribe.  In the area of general concern they converge, however widely the technical contexts in law, theology, literature or anthropology may differ” (CW 27, 84).  This is the main assumption on which the book is based: while literary critics are not qualified to handle all the “technical contexts” of culture, they are especially prepared, particularly if they are archetypal critics, to interpret the cultural phenomena that form the social environment of literature.  “The modern critic,” Frye says, “is . . . a student of mythology, and his total subject embraces not merely literature, but the areas of concern which the mythical language of construction and belief enters and informs. These areas constitute the mythological subjects, and they include large parts of religion, philosophy, political theory, and the social sciences” (CW 27, 67).

The Critical Path treats a wide-ranging body of such subjects, including the difference between oral and writing cultures, Renaissance humanism, the critical theories of Sidney and Shelley, Marxism and democracy, the idea of progress, advertising and propaganda, social contract theories and conceptions of Utopia, contemporary youth culture, McLuhanism, and theories of education.  What holds these diverse subjects together is the dialectical framework of that Frye establishes: whatever issue he confronts, it always is set against the background of what he sees as the two opposing myths of Western culture, the myth of concern and the myth of freedom.

The myth of concern comprises everything that a society is most concerned to know.  It is the disposition which leads one to uphold communal rather than individual values. It exists, Frye says, “to hold society together. . . . For it, truth and reality are not directly connected with reasoning or evidence, but are socially established.  What is true, for concern, is what society does and believes in response to authority, and a belief, so far as a belief is verbalized, is a statement of willingness to participate in a myth of concern.  The typical language of concern therefore tends to become the language of belief” (CW 27, 23).  “Concern” is basically a social category: a society’s body of concerns are all those religious, political, cultural, and economic presuppositions that the members of society generally assent to and that therefore make communication possible.  Concerns spring from humanity’s desire to know where it came from, what its nature is, and where it is going.

A myth of concern has its roots in religion and only later branches out into politics, law, and literature.  It is inherently traditional and conservative, placing a strong emphasis on values of coherence and continuity.  It originates in oral or preliterate culture and is associated with continuous verse conventions and discontinuous prose forms.  And it is “deeply attached to ritual, to coronations, weddings, funerals, parades, demonstrations, where something is publicly done that expresses an inner social identity” (CW 27, 29).  Concerns, can of course, compete with one another, and the monopoly of Christian concern in Western culture started to give way in the eighteenth century so that a plurality of myths of concern, including secular ones, began to arise (CW 27, 33).

The myth of freedom, on the other hand, is committed to a truth of correspondence.  It appeals to such self-validating criteria as “logicality of argument or (usually a later stage) impersonal evidence and verification.”  It is inherently “liberal,” helping to develop and honoring such values as objectivity, detachment, suspension of judgment, tolerance, and respect for the individual.  It “stresses the importance of the non-mythical elements in culture, of the truths and realities that are studied rather than created, provided by nature rather than by a social vision” (CW 27, 29).  It originates in the mental habits which a writing culture, with its continuous prose and discontinuous verse forms, brings into society.

The way Frye uses this broad dialectic of freedom and concern can be illustrated by his treatment of two classic defenses of poetry, Sidney’s and Shelley’s.  Placing Sidney’s view of poetry against the background of Renaissance humanism, Frye concludes that Sidney accommodates the role of the poet to the values of a reading and writing culture, to the norms of meaning established by writers of discursive prose.  “The conception of poetry in Sidney,” he says, “is an application of the general humanistic view of disciplined speech as the manifestation or audible presence of social authority” (CW 27, 44).  For Sidney, “what is most distinctive about poetry is the poet’s power of illustration, a power which is partly an ability to popularize and make more accessible the truths of revelation and reason” (CW 27, 45).  In other words, poetry is not qualitatively distinct from the other verbal disciplines.  What actually occurs in Sidney’s view of poetry, according to Frye, is that the original characteristics of the myths of freedom and concern are interchanged: “The myth of concern takes on a reasoning aspect, claiming the support of logic and historical evidence; the myth of freedom becomes literary and imaginative, as the poet, excluded from primary authority in the myth of concern, finds his social function in a complementary activity, which liberalizes concern but also . . . reinforces it” (CW 27, 51).

In Shelley’s defense, on the other hand, we return to a conception of poetry as mythical and psychologically primitive.

Shelley begins by neatly inverting the hierarchy of values assumed in Sidney. . . . Shelley puts all the discursive disciplines into an inferior group of “analytic” operations of reason. They are aggressive; they think of ideas as weapons; they seek the irrefutable argument, which keeps eluding them because all arguments are theses, and theses are half-truths implying their own opposites. . . . The works of imagination, by contrast, cannot be refuted: poetry is the dialectic of love, which treats everything it encounters as another form of itself, and never attacks, only includes. . . . This argument assumes, not only that the language of poetry is mythical, but that poetry, in its totality, is in fact society’s real myth of concern, and that the poet is still the teacher of that myth. . . . [I]n Sidney’s day, it was accepted that the models of creation were established by God: for Shelley, man makes his own civilization, and at the centre of man’s creation are the poets, whose work provides the models of human society. The myths of poetry embody and express man’s creation of his own culture, rather than his reception of it from a divine source. (CW, 27, 64, 65)

There is no denying the fact the Frye’s sympathies lie on the side of Shelley, for both of them believe that the language of literature represents the imaginative possibilities of concern.  And both of them are opposed to the constrictive view of Sidney which makes the critic an evaluator and which makes poetry subservient to whatever established framework of concern an elite society happens to be championing at the moment.  To say that literature contains the imaginative possibilities of concern means, for Frye, that it displays “the total range of verbal fictions and models and images and metaphors out of which all myths of concern are constructed” (CW 27, 67).  Frye’s conclusion is that while Shelley’s (and his own) view of poetry take us back to the areas of concern expressed in primitive and oracular mythology, the critic’s approach to the values expressed by a myth of concern must derive from the myth of freedom. “The critic qua critic,” Frye says, “is not himself concerned but detached” (CW 27, 67).

The merging of freedom and concern, however, is what produces the social context of literature. If there is a central thesis to The Critical Path it is the dialectical tension Frye seeks to establish between the myths of freedom and concern. This tension comprises his own central myth, as it were, and the cultural phenomena he examines throughout the book are interpreted from the perspective of this tension. A corollary to the tension is the necessity for a pluralism of myths of concern, which can only occur in societies with open mythologies.

The basis of all tolerance in society, the condition in which a plurality of concerns can co-exist, is the recognition of the tension between concern and freedom. . . . Concern and freedom both occupy the whole of the same universe: they interpenetrate, and it is no good trying to set up boundary stones. Some, of course, meet the collision of concern and freedom from the opposite side, with a naive rationalism which expects that before long all myths of concern will be outgrown and only the appeal to reason and evidence and experiment will be taken seriously. . . . I consider such a view entirely impossible. The growth of non-mythical knowledge tends to eliminate the incredible from belief, and helps to shape the myth of concern according to the outlines of what experience finds possible and vision desirable. But the growth of knowledge cannot in itself provide us with the social vision which will suggest what we should do with our knowledge. (CW 27, 73–5)

This is where Frye’s view of the social function of criticism enters the argument; the literary critic, or at least Frye’s ideal critic, is prepared to see that myths of concern in society are like those in literature in that they represent the range of imaginative possibilities of belief.  There are parallels between Frye’s myths of freedom and concern and the two stages that Kierkegaard in Either/Or calls the “aesthetic” and the “ethical.  Either/Or is the chief source of the existentialist tradition and, for Frye, the “classical statement of the relation of concern and freedom” (CW 27, 88).[9] We will examine the either/or dialectic in section 2.

As for the social function of art, Frye thinks that Kierkegaard position on that issue is essentially wrongheaded:

The whole argument (over the social function of art) today is confused by the “existential” views of S.K. [Søren Kierkegaard] (through Auden), which oppose a theatrical or “aesthetic” view of reality to an ethical or active one, & then go through that to repetition.  But S.K.’s repetition is really Aristotle’s anagnorisis, and the fallacy of both aesthetic & ethical attitudes is in the common objectification of reality.  I’m not talking about idolizing works of art, & S.K. shouldn’t be talking about an external substantial reality as well as existence, or rather, as characteristic of the existential situation.  Real existential thinking is hypothetical: that’s the first use of art that goes beyond quid agas.  At a certain point all ethical situations become unreal: that’s why casuistry is a dismal & illiberal science.  Art trains us in the vision of the unmodified, unimprovised existential situation. (CW 23, 234)[10]

Concern and Myth.  This is the title of chapter 2 of Words with Power, and in that book, as well as in The Double Vision and a number of essays from the 1980s, Frye distinguished between primary and secondary concerns.  Frye first used the phrase “primary concern” in The Critical Path (1971): “For Kierkegaard the detached, liberal, and impersonal attitude fostered by the study of an objective environment, and which flowers into comprehensive intellectual systems like that of Hegel, is an ‘aesthetic’ attitude.  It is fundamentally immature because with this attitude man tries to fit himself into a larger container, the general outlines of which he can see with his reason, but forgetting that his reason built the container.  The crisis of life comes when we pass over into the commitment represented by ‘or,’ take up our primary concern,” escape from our psychological defences (what Kierkegaard calls “shut‑upness” in The Concept of Dread), “and thus enter the sphere of genuine personality and ethical freedom” (CW 27, 88).  A decade later Frye began to define “primary concerns” and to set them in opposition to “secondary concerns.”  His attention to the distinction becomes a frequently sounded refrain in his late work: almost 200 instances of his use of the two phrases occur in Late Notebooks alone, and some fifty instances appear in his essays from the 1980s.

Primary concerns are the universal, individual, and physical needs and desires of human beings.  In his Late Notebooks Frye engages in uninhibited speculation about the primary concerns, letting his mind play freely with the basic things essential for our survival and noting a number of analogues and links with other categories in his thinking about his second book on the Bible.  The following chart can be taken as a summary of the chief features in this expansive free-play:

The Primary Concerns

Frye eventually settles on food, sex, property, and freedom of movement as the four primary concerns but not before wondering if they do not form a quincunx, with breathing in the middle,[11] and he vacillates on whether Tillich’s “ultimate concern” might not be primary.[12] There are other qualifications––“Actually food, like breathing, while it’s a primary concern, isn’t one on quite the level of the others.  Sex can expand into unity with nature, property into creativity, and freedom of movement into freedom of thought, but eating and drinking, along with breathing, have to remain on a more or less allegorical level” (CW 6, 641)––and permutations: “I don’t include health in my four concerns, but it could come under property (Job’s boils are an attack on his property in the Aristotelian sense) or freedom of movement (note how often those cured by Jesus are sick of the palsy)” (CW 6, 660).   These qualifications, which come from Frye’s notebooks, disappear in his accounts of the primary concerns in Words with Power and The Double Vision, where the variations are resolved into the four concerns just mentioned. “The axioms of primary concern,” Frye says in a repeatedly sounded refrain, “are the simplest and baldest platitudes it is possible to formulate: that life is better than death, happiness better than misery, health better than sickness, freedom better than bondage, for all people without significant exception” (CW 26, 51–2).[13]

Secondary concerns are ideologies arising from the social contract.  They have to do with religious beliefs, patriotic attachments, class systems, gender status, communal structures of authority, and various other forms of identity politics.  Historically, secondary concerns have almost always trumped primary ones:

We want to live and love, but we go to war; we want freedom, but depend on the exploiting of other peoples, of the natural environment, even of ourselves.  In the twentieth century, with a pollution that threatens the supply of air to breathe and water to drink, it is obvious that we cannot afford the supremacy of ideological concerns any more.  The need to eat, love, own property, and move about freely must come first, and such needs require peace, good will, and a caring and responsible attitude to nature.  A continuing of ideological conflict, a reckless exploiting of the environment, a persistence in believing, with Mao Tse-Tung, that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, would mean, quite simply, that the human race cannot be long for this world. (CW 4, 170).

This is why Frye says that primary concerns had better become primary again, or else.[14] In Frye’s theory of language in chapter 1 of Words with Power, he calls the third mode of language “ideological” or “rhetorical,” the function of which is to rationalize authority, and “ideological language supports the anxieties of social authority” (CW 26, 47).  Of course the myths that spring from primary concerns are most often less about the satisfaction of these concerns than about the anxieties associated with their not getting satisfied.  Sexual frustration, for example, is a universal theme of romance.

Anxiety.  Anxiety as a psychological and existential state is a regular part of Frye’s critical vocabulary.  The word itself, along with its synonyms “dread” and “Angst,” appears well over 900 times in Frye writings.  As already noted, in the 1940s Frye read and then reread Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Dread (or Anxiety or Angst, depending on the translation).  Frye was also doubtless influenced by Paul Tillich’s The Courage To Be (1952), a copy of which he owned.  Tillich distinguishes three kinds of existential anxiety: ontic (brought on by a sense of fate and death), moral (resulting from guilt or condemnation), and spiritual (caused by feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness).  And Frye was naturally familiar with Freud’s various theories of anxiety as both caused by and causing repression.  But Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Dread appears to be a more seminal influence.

Frye’s most extensive consideration of anxiety is in the first chapter of The Modern Century, where he examines the dilemma of alienation and anxiety in contemporary society, associated in large measure with the idea of technological progress.

[F]or most thoughtful people progress has lost most of its original sense of a favourable value judgment and has become simply progression, towards a goal more likely to be a disaster than an improvement.  Taking thought for the morrow, we are told on good authority, is a dangerous practice.  In proportion as the confidence in progress has declined, its relation to individual experience has become clearer.  That is, progress is a social projection of the individual’s sense of the passing of time.  But the individual, as such, is not progressing to anything except his own death.  Hence the collapse of belief in progress reinforces the sense of anxiety which is rooted in the consciousness of death.  Alienation and anxiety become the same thing, caused by a new intensity in the awareness of the movement of time, as it ticks our lives away day after day.  This intensifying of the sense of time also, as we have just seen, dislocates it: the centre of attention becomes the future, and the emotional relation to the future becomes one of dread and uncertainty.  The future is the point at which “it is later than you think” becomes “too late.” (CW 11, 18)

Then, changing his image from the clock to the mirror, which also focuses the issue on the response of consciousness to time, Frye says,

Looking into the mirror is the active mind which struggles for consistency and continuity of outlook, which preserves its memory of its past and clarifies its view of the present.  Staring back at it is the frozen reflection of that mind, which has lost its sense of continuity by projecting it on some mechanical social process, and has found that it has also lost its dignity, its freedom, its creative power, and its sense of the present, with nothing left except a fearful apprehension of the future. (CW 11, 26).

Flash forward twenty‑three years to the seventy‑eight‑year‑old Frye giving his final series of lectures at Emmanuel College, six months before his own death, when the consciousness of death was very much on his own mind:

Reverting to our remark about the God of promises, all our conditioning is rooted in our temporal existence and in the anxiety that appears in the present as the passing of time and in the future as death. If death is the last enemy to be destroyed, as Paul tells us [1 Corinthians 15:26], the last metaphor to be transcended is that of the future tense, or God in the form of Beckett’s Godot, who never comes but will maybe come tomorrow. The omnipresence of time gives some strange distortions to our double vision. (CW 4, 235)

These reflections on time and anxiety have their parallels in Kierkegaard’s often intractable speculations about time in chapter 3 of The Concept of Dread.[15] After defining time as “infinite succession” (76) Kierkegaard says that our tendency to divide time into the past, present, and future, which he calls spatialized time, is fraught with difficulties.  “If in the infinite succession of time one could in fact find a foothold which would serve as a dividing point, then this division would be quite correct.  But precisely because every moment, like the sum of moments, is a process (a going‑by) no moment is a present, and in the same sense there is neither past, present, nor future.  If one thinks it possible to maintain this division, it is because we spatialize a moment, but thereby the infinite succession is brought to a standstill” (76–7).  Here is Frye’s similar version of the idea:

In our ordinary experience of time we have to grapple with three dimensions, all of them unreal: a past that is no longer, a future that is not yet, and a present that is never quite. We are dragged backwards along a continuum of experience, facing the past with the future behind us. The centre of time is “now,” just as the centre of space is “here,” but “now,” like “here,” is never a point. The first thing that the present moment does is vanish and reappear in the immediate past, where it connects with our expectation of its outcome in the future. Every present experience is therefore split between our knowledge of having had it and our future-directed fears or hopes about it. The word “now” refers to the spread of time in between. (CW 4, 198–9)[16]

When we experience time horizontally in this manner, Frye says, the primary emotion is anxiety (CW 29, 235).  For Kierkegaard, however, dread enters the discussion only after he has posited the category of the eternal––the fullness of time in Christianity that makes all things new.  “The possible corresponds precisely to the future.  For freedom the possible is the future; and for time the future is the possible.  Corresponding to both of these in the individual life is dread” (82).  Frye’s account of going beyond the temporal is less riddling, but the concluding lines of The Double Vision have a similar accent:

The omnipresence of time gives some strange distortions to our double vision.  We are born on a certain date, live a continuous identity until death on another date; then we move into an “after”-life or “next” world where something like an ego survives indefinitely in something like a time and place.  But we are not continuous identities; we have had many identities, as babies, as boys and girls, and so on through life, and when we pass through or “outgrow” these identities they return to their source.  Assuming, that is, some law of conservation in the spiritual as well as the physical world exists.  There is nothing so unique about death as such, where we may be too distracted by illness or sunk in senility to have much identity at all.  In the double vision of a spiritual and a physical world simultaneously present, every moment we have lived through we have also died out of into another order.  Our life in the resurrection, then, is already here, and waiting to be recognized. (CW 4, 235)

Frye’s notion of the physical and the spiritual being simultaneously present is similar to Kierkegaard’s saying “the eternal is the present . . . the eternal is annulled (aufgehoben) succession” (77).  Aufgehoben is the Hegelian triple pun, meaning cancelation (or annulment), preservation, and lifted to another level.  To lift to another level is one version of making all things new, which is Frye’s interpretation of what Kierkegaard means by repetition––which we will come to in section 3.  What Kierkegaard does not see is “that angst is the state of Blake’s Spectre of Urthona: the egocentric or proud desire to possess time, the revolt against the consciousness of death” (CW 8, 222).

2. Either/Or

We have already mentioned the “aesthetic” and the “ethical” stages in the either/or choice.  The “aesthetic” attitude for Kierkegaard is “the detached, liberal, and impersonal attitude fostered by the study of an objective environment . . . which flowers into comprehensive intellectual systems like that of Hegel” (CW 27, 88). It conceives of art as “a permanently detached object of contemplation” (CW 27, 152).  It takes its name from the fact that Kierkegaard saw a similarity between this attitude and the place of art in society, and its archetypal character is the medieval  Don Juan, “the universal lover surrounded by a mass of attractive objects” (CW 27, 54).  The pursuit of intellectual and physical pleasures creates dread and eventually leads to despair.  Either we remain trapped in the “aesthetic” mode, seeking ways to relieve our boredom, or else we pass over into the realm of the “ethical.”  This is the realm of genuine subjective personality, characterized by commitment, freedom, and the acceptance of faith.

Although the parallels are not exact, Frye’s myth of freedom with its disinterested detachment has its counterpart in Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic” attitude, and his myth of concern is aligned with Kierkegaard’s “ethical” attitude, with its emphasis on radical engagement and individual freedom.  There is a parallel, too, in the model of the tragic Neigung-Pflicht conflict, the conflict between inclination and duty, as in Kant’s Foundation for the Metaphysic of Morals (CW 5, 19).

But as we know from Anatomy of Criticism, Frye rejects all either/or choices.  He will not be cornered into accepting the Kierkegaardian “either-or” position. He wants the best of both possible worlds: the detached, liberal, impersonal values of the “aesthetic” attitude which Kierkegaard rejects and the values of commitment which come from the primacy of concern. He, of course, does not think Kierkegaard’s own solution is satisfactory: ‘‘If we stop with the voluntary self-blinkering of commitment, we are no better off than the ‘aesthetic’: on the other side of ‘or’ is another step to be taken, a step from the committed to the creative, from iconoclastic concern to what the literary critic above all ought to be able to see, that in literature man is a spectator of his own life, or at least of the larger vision in which his life is contained” (CW 27, 88–9).

This is Frye’s answer as to how one can be detached yet joined to the community of concern at the same time. It is an answer in which the visionary imagination becomes the ultimate criterion, for only in the world of imagination can the tension between freedom and concern be properly maintained. It is out of this tension, Frye concludes,

that glimpses of a third order of experience emerge, of a world that may not exist but completes existence, the world of the definitive experience that poetry urges us to have but which we never quite get. If such a world existed, no individual could live in it. . . . If we could live in it, of course, criticism would cease and the distinction between literature and life would disappear, because life itself would then be the continuous incarnation of the creative word. (CW 27, 117)

Frye comes to a very similar conclusion in Anatomy of Criticism, where the “aesthetic” perspective of art as an autonomous must be complemented by “ethical” criticism.  But because art can never be subservient to the external goals of truth and beauty, ethical criticism must be complemented in turn by archetypal criticism, which relates literature to civilization,  or “a vision of the goals of human work” (CW 22, 105).[17] Finally, archetypal criticism must be complemented by anagogic criticism––which focuses on a completely visionary verbal universe.[18] The parallel in Kierkegaard is his movement from the aesthetic to the ethical in Either/Or followed by the discovery that he must get beyond the ethical to the religious stage, which he proceeds to do in Fear and Trembling and Stages on Life’s Way.  The real either/or turns out to be a choice between the aesthetic and the ethical, on the one hand, and the religious, on the other.  Kierkegaard says we move to the religious sphere, the ultimate subjective action, by a leap of faith and by, in his famous phrase, “the teleological suspension of the ethical” (Fear and Trembling 59).  Kierkegaard wants to transcend the speculative and disinterested in favor of the commitment of ethical freedom, but the either/or dilemma can itself be transcended.  In The Critical Path Frye puts the Kierkegaardian position in these terms:

What applies to a Christian commitment in Kierkegaard applies also to commitments to other myths of concern, where Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic” would be replaced by “escapist” or “idealistic” or what not. Kierkegaard is saying, in our terms, that concern is primary and freedom a derivation from it, as the present discussion has also maintained. The individual who does not understand the primacy of concern, the fact that we belong to something before we are anything, is, it is quite true, in a falsely individualized position, and his “aesthetic” attitude may well be parasitic. But Kierkegaard, like so many deeply concerned people, is also saying that passing over to concern gives us the genuine form of freedom, that concern and freedom are ultimately the same thing. This is the bait attached to all “either or” arguments, but it does not make the hook any more digestible.

It is worth pausing a moment on this point, because Kierkegaard is not really satisfied with his own argument.  He clearly understood the fact that freedom can only be realized in the individual, and sought for a Christianity that would escape from what he calls “Christendom,” the merely social conformity or religio of Christianity. He speaks of the personal as in itself a subversive and revolutionary force, and sees the threat of what we should now call the totalitarian mob in the “impersonal.”  For him the highest form of truth is personally possessed truth, and he is not afraid to face the implications of what I think of as the “paranoia principle.”  This is the principle, lurking in all conceptions of a personal truth transcending the truth of concern, that it is only what is true only for me that is really true. This principle brings us back to the conception of a definitive experience . . . as an unattained reality of which literature appears to be an analogy. (CW 27, 89)[19]

In The Great Code Frye suggests that the disinterested and committed dialectic can be transcended by an Aufhebung; and similarly, by a process of canceling, preserving, and lifting to another level Kierkegaard’s either/or dilemma can be transcended as well (CW 19, 244–5).  As I have argued elsewhere, Frye makes a similar move to the religious sphere, especially in his late work.  The teleological becomes the ultimate recognition scene for the reader, described by Frye as apocalypse, epiphany, revelation, spiritual self‑discovery, a reversal into the vision of the Logos, and similar religious‑laden phrases.  Both writers are engaged in efforts to get beyond.  For Kierkegaard, the move is beyond the aesthetic and the ethical––“the leap into the existential” (CW 23, 164).  For Frye, it is beyond the poetic, the hypothetical, myth, time and space, language, and death.  The leap into the existential takes one into the realm of faith:

The relating of one’s “literal” understanding of the Bible as a book to the rest of one’s knowledge, more particularly of the Bible’s “background” in history and culture, thus creates a synthesis that soon begins to move from the level of knowledge and understanding to an existential level, from Dante’s “allegorical” to his “tropological” meaning, from Kierkegaard’s “either” to his “or.” Such an intensification, whether it has anything to do with the Bible or not, takes us from knowledge to principles of action, from the aesthetic pleasure of studying a world of interesting objects and facts to what Kierkegaard calls ethical freedom. This shift of perspective brings us to the word “faith.” (CW 19, 250)

As regards Hegel, Kierkegaard levels an attack on the systematic philosophy of Hegel and replaces it with one more closely attuned to human needs.  Kierkegaard has been called a radical Christian theologian, a religious thinker in the Augustinian tradition, the father of existentialism, an ethicist, a social and psychological critic, a metaliterary writer, an early postmodernist, but he was also a staunchly anti‑Hegelian philosopher.[20] Frye had a very different view of Hegel.  In his late work Frye embraced the dialectical transition described by Hegel as an Aufhebung, a term used to embody the idea, as indicated above, that oppositions can be transcended without being abolished.  Again, the verb aufheben has a triple meaning: “to lift or raise,” “to abolish or cancel,” and “to keep or preserve.”

Both Frye and Hegel are climbing a spiraling ladder to a higher level of being, except that Frye is moving upward by way of the language of myth and metaphor. “If Hegel had written his Phenomenology in mythos-language instead of in logos-language,” Frye remarks in one notebook, “a lot of my work would be done for me” (CW 5, 192).  In Frye’s notebooks Hegel often becomes a preoccupation.  Hegel’s use of Begriff or concept in his journey up the ladder of being and his view of dialectic as Aufhebung get mentioned in passing in The Great Code and Words with Power, but Hegel and Hegelianism are referred to in the notebooks more than 220 times, and Frye declares in Notebook 53, “The rush of ideas I get from Hegel’s Phenomenology is so tremendous I can hardly keep up with it” (CW 6, 631).  Elsewhere Frye gives an eloquent testimony to Hegel as “the great philosopher of anabasis” (CW 9, 89) and to Phenomenology of Spirit as the “tremendous philosophical masterpiece” that through its upward thrust finally abolishes the gap between subject and object (CW 4, 194).[21]

Thus, while Kierkegaard offered a critique of the Hegelian system because it was removed from the lived existential experience of everyday life, Frye mined Hegel’s system for insights he could appropriate for his own use.  Still, as Merold Westphal argues, Kierkegaard was never simply an anti‑Hegelian.  While he critiques Hegel, at the same time he “incorporate[s] Hegelian insights so that the critique [is] an Aufhebung, a cancellation that preserves and a preservation that cancels” (103).

3. Repetition

The earliest reference to Kierkegaard’s Repetition is in Frye’s diary entry of 26 January 1952, where he says that he is reading the book for the second time, adding wryly that “one wouldn’t expect a book with a name like that to yield much on the first reading” (CW 8, 488).  He is mostly interested in identifying the book’s genre, which he decides is a combination of the nineteenth‑century existential anatomy and the confession, after the manner of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.[22] Frye is not immune to the difficulties that everyone faces in reading Kierkegaard, especially the “aesthetic” works with their layers of pseudonymous speakers: “The trouble is that he disguises the confession & approaches the anatomy quizzically, so it’s hard to figure out just what the hell he does mean.  Like his Victorian contemporaries in England, he has a stentorian censor at his elbow ready to roar down any irony it doesn’t feel it can control.  By that I mean that one has to distinguish irony within a convention from irony that threatens the convention.  Or humor, perhaps, even more than irony” (CW 8, 488–9).  But Frye concludes by remarking that Repetition “deals with my epic circle idea, that the essential quest is cyclic, but returns, not to the same point, but to the same point renewed and transformed.  As opposed to recollection, it’s the Protestant justification by faith as opposed to the Catholic sacramental repetition of substantial presence.  At least I think it is: whether he [Kierkegaard] knows it or not is another matter” (CW 8, 489).[23] Less than a week later Frye reports that in his graduate seminar he “tried to bring in Kierkegaard, equating looking down the spirals of the tower with his ‘recollection’ and looking up with his repetition or anagogical vision of all things new” (CW 8, 495).

Here Frye picks up on the central distinction with which Kierkegaard’s book opens––the difference between recollection in Plato’s sense of anamnesis and repetition.  In his first paragraph Kierkegaard writes,

repetition is a crucial expression for what “recollection” was to the Greeks.  Just as they taught that all knowing is a recollecting, modern philosophy will teach that all life is a repetition.  The only modern philosopher who has had an intimation of this in Leibnitz.  Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward. (Fear and Trembling / Repetition 131)[24]

This distinction makes its way into Anatomy of Criticism:

Kierkegaard has written a fascinating little book called Repetition, in which he proposes to use this term to replace the more traditional Platonic term anamnesis or recollection.  By it he apparently means, not the simple repeating of an experience, but the recreating of it which redeems or awakens it to life, the end of the process, he says, being the apocalyptic promise, “Behold, I make all things new” [Revelation 21:5].  The preoccupation of the humanities with the past is sometimes made a reproach against them by those who forget that we face the past: it may be shadowy, but it is all that is there.  Plato draws a gloomy picture of man staring at the flickering shapes made on the wall of the objective world by a fire behind us like the sun.  But the analogy breaks down when the shadows are those of the past, for the only light we can see them by is the Promethean fire within us.  The substance of these shadows can only be in ourselves, and the goal of historical criticism, as our metaphors about it often indicate, is a kind of self-resurrection, the vision of a valley of dry bones that takes on the flesh and blood of our own vision.  The culture of the past is not only the memory of mankind, but our own buried life, and study of it leads to a recognition scene, a discovery in which we see, not our past lives, but the total cultural form of our present life.  It is not only the poet but his reader who is subject to the obligation to “make it new.” (CW 22, 321)[25]

The Platonic view, then, is that knowledge is recollected from the past.  Kierkegaard’s Christian position is that repetition, which is both a contrast and a complement to Plato’s view, finds its final apocalyptic formulation in the verse from Revelation.  Kierkegaard does not actually quote or otherwise point to the biblical passage.[26] The warrant for Frye’s using “Behold, I make all things new” is apparently this passage from Repetition:

The dialectic of repetition is easy, for that which is repeated has been––otherwise it could not be repeated––but the very fact that it has been makes the repetition into something new.  When the Greeks said that all knowing is recollecting, they said that all existence, which is, has been, when one says that life is a repetition one says: actuality, which has been now comes into existence. (149)

Frye thinks that Kierkegaard may have derived the idea of repetition from biblical typology, but even if he did not, the two are related, as what is prophesied in the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New.  Frye makes this observation in Creation and Recreation, where he is arguing against the notion of eternal recurrence in the natural religion of pagan mythology and in Nietzsche (CW 4, 73), and he repeats it in The Great Code:

Kierkegaard’s very brief but extraordinarily suggestive book Repetition is the only study I know of the psychological contrast between a past directed causality and a future directed typology.  The mere attempt to repeat a past experience will lead only to disillusionment, but there is another kind of repetition which is the Christian antithesis (or complement) of Platonic recollection, and which finds its focus in the Biblical promise, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).  Kierkegaard’s “repetition” is certainly derived from, and to my mind is identifiable with, the forward moving typological thinking of the Bible.  Perhaps his book is so brief because he lived too early to grasp the full significance of his own argument, as typological rhetoric was then only beginning to take on many of its new and remarkable modern developments. (CW 19, 101)

Kierkegaard’s repetition, then, buttresses the quarrel Frye always had with the implications of the cycle.  The treadmill of endless repetition, the dull sameness in the myth of the eternal return, the Druidic recurrences of natural religion, the doctrine of reincarnation––all these backward‑looking cyclic myths were antithetical to Frye’s belief in the Resurrection, one of his firmest religious convictions.  The cycle never permitted what he called the revolutionary culbute or overturn in individual and social life––the possibility for a genuine reversal and a new beginning.   “In literature there’s the cyclical quest where we either come home again (Sam in Tolkien) or attain Kierkegaard’s repetition, recreating the original form” (CW 5, 261).  Another powerful verse from Revelation for Frye was 22:17: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come.  And let him that heareth say, Come.  And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.”  These words at the very end of the Bible signal for Frye a new beginning, a new creation, and this new beginning is in the mind of the reader.  All of this relates directly to the goal of Frye’s quest in his late work––his effort to discover the Everlasting Gospel, Milton’s Word of God in the heart, and the interpenetration of Word and Spirit.

In one of his notebooks Frye also draws a connection between, on the one hand, Platonic recollection and what Blake calls the inhibiting memory that has nothing to do with imagination, and on the other, Kierkegaard’s repetition and the kind of “habit or practice memory that makes imagination expressible” (CW 13, 109–10).  Frye’s notion of practice memory (habitus) was derived from another of his nineteenth‑century heroes, Samuel Butler.  Practice memory is unconscious memory developed from habit that gives us the freedom to create.  In that sense it is always future‑directed, like repetition.  Frye does not mention Kierkegaard in his essay on Butler’s Life and Habit, though he does make the Kierkegaard–Butler connection in two other notebook entries:

Repetition develops, in a Hegelian way, spirally & through aufhebung, in three stages.  In the first stage freedom, existing in pure experience, dreads repetition as the thing that would spoil it; in the second it comes to terms with it, and as it were harnesses its energy (this is the habitus-repetition I got from Butler, though S.K. [Søren Kierkegaard] doubtless wouldn’t think so); in the third freedom & repetition are identified, where repetition is eternity and a new creation.  It’s heaven, in short, just as Nietzsche’s recurrence is hell, the place Antichrist goes to prepare for his disciples. (CW 5, 363)

Kierkegaard’s “repetition” image . . . is founded on . . . the habit-memory of practice rather than the straight anamnesis memory. (CW 9, 236)

Another analogue for Kierkegaard’s repetition that Frye sees is in Irenaeus’ recapitulatio.  Irenaeus held recapitulation to be the “summing up” of human history in Christ as the epitome of redemption (Irenaeus, bk. 5, chap. 20), and this, Frye says, is “the ‘repetition’ of Kierkegaard, the new heaven and earth, the restated myth” (CW 5, 169).

In sum, Kierkegaard’s Repetition, which Frye returned to repeatedly over the course of forty years provided a foundation for and helped to define recreation.

4. The Metaliterary Mode

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” (CW 19, 48).

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 (CW 19, 252).  In Words with Power the word “kerygma” disappears completely 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 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” (CW 26, 105–6).   The Aufhebung process now begins its lifting operation, as Frye expands 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 or the Longinian ecstatic response to any text, sacred or secular, that “revolutionizes our consciousness.”   Kerygma takes metaphorical identification “a step further and says: ‘you are what you identify with’” (CW 26, 110).  We enter the kerygmatic realm when the separation of “active speech and reception of speech” merges into a unity (CW 26, 111).

In one of his notebooks from the late 1980s Frye reports that he is trying to reread Kierkegaard but that he does not “find him an attractive personality, because he seems to play the same cat-and-mouse game with his reader that he did with poor Regina––and that God played with Abraham and Job.  He’s a trickster writer, in short, and interests me because a literary critic sees him as doing the opposite of what he thought he was doing, obliterating the barriers between the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.  That is, he’s clearly a “metaliterary” writer, like Dostoievsky, Kafka and perhaps Nietzsche (well, Mallarmé too)” (CW 5, 361).[27] Frye finds the most valuable insights in works where Kierkegaard assumes the mask of one of his many pseudonymous authors and gets beyond the aesthetic–ethical–religious stages or spheres of existence.  These insights Frye calls “metaliterary,” and his most extended discussion of this feature of Kierkegaard’s prose is found in Notebook 50 (CW 5, 361–6):

Oh, God, if Kierkegaard had only carried through his “repetition” scheme, instead of sneaking it out . . . in the course of abusing a harmless reviewer for not reading what he hadn’t written!  I’m not clear why his three stages are related only by transcendence, or why Hegel’s logic of immanent mediation has to be rejected.  But I’m sure he did, at that point, though he lost his grip on it soon afterward. . . . It doesn’t matter that the context is one more ow-oo about Regina: that’s the right context, a myth with enough “existential” urgency to push it in a metaliterary direction, a Vita Nuova in reverse. (CW 5, 365)

Even though Frye finds the really valuable works by Kierkegaard are his “aesthetic” books––those signed with pseudonyms––the metaliterary mode has its drawbacks: “The ability to write very well very easily may lead to Kierkegaard’s disease: the esthetic barrier against the kerygmatic” (CW 5, 342).  So not all of the pseudonymous works are kerygmatic.  In his Late Notebooks Frye writes:

Sickness unto Death is a work of casuistry, an existential rhetorical form which is not kerygmatic, except in so far as it uses the Lazarus myth.  It’s another example of pre-mythical rhetoric usurping the post-mythical kerygmatic.  Fear & Trembling is also casuistry, though in a less concentrated form.  Casuistry means that the ethical area is not one of freedom: it’s a labyrinth.  S.K. realized this, or came to realize it, in theory; but he never found a genuinely kerygmatic style: his “aesthetic” style is much the closest to it, but one in which a Socratic irony enters. (CW 5, 364)

Kierkegaard struggled to go beyond the “aesthetic,” Frye writes, “but could produce only dialectical & rhetorical forms (he says this in his diary, but I can’t find the reference)” (CW 5, 365–6).[28] This notebook entry gets expanded in Words with Power as follows:

The existential movement of the 1940s, also, revolved around a number of figures—Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Kafka, Sartre—who were primarily literary figures, the word “existential” referring to tendencies in them that were metaliterary, trying to get past the limitations of literature into a different kind of identity with their readers.  Kierkegaard divided his works into the “aesthetic” or literary, which he published under pseudonyms, and the “edifying,” where he spoke in his own name as an “ethical” writer and teacher.  He realized that there was a prophetic dimension on the other side of the aesthetic, but evidently did not realize that it was only in his aesthetic writings that he came anywhere near expressing it.  The edifying writings revert to standard dialectical and rhetorical forms, one book on the boundary line between the two, The Sickness unto Death, being essentially a work in the seventeenth-century rhetorical genre of casuistry.  The implications for the conception of the kerygmatic are, first, that kerygmatic writing normally demands a literary, that is, a mythical and metaphorical, basis; second, that the kerygmatic does not, like ordinary rhetoric, emerge from direct personal address, or what a writer “says.” (CW 26, 109–10)

In the kerygmatic world one is released from the burden of speech and writing: “The gospels are written mythical narratives, and for casual readers they remain that.  But if anything in them strikes a reader with full kerygmatic force, there is, using the word advisedly, a resurrection of the original speaking presence in the reader.  The reader is the logocentric focus, and what he reads is emancipated both from writing and from speech.  The duality of speaker and listener has vanished into a single area of verbal recognition” (CW 26, 108).  We do not speak in the kerygmatic world, but God does, which is why the voice of revelation is “rhetoric in reverse” (CW 6, 660). When Frye uses kerygma in the sense of the prophetic or metaliterary utterance, human speech or writing does enter the picture, and while there is no metaliterary style, there is a metaliterary idiom which takes the kerygmatic as its model (CW 5, 369).  It is because of this idiom that Kierkegaard is a one of “the forerunners of the new spiritual emancipation of man” (CW 13, 296).  Frye even projects his own kerygmatic anthology.  He says, without commentary, that it would include Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Buber’s I and Thou, and selections from Dostoevsky, Kafka, Rimbaud, and Hölderlin (CW 5, 366).  As we have seen, it would include Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic” works as well, and we could add to the list some of Northrop Frye’s more visionary and oracular pronouncements––those that issue from what he refers to as heightened or expanded consciousness.

For Frye one of the central archetypal scenes of the intensity of consciousness that arises from the desire to identify is found in the Paleolithic cave drawings, references to which appear on more than thirty occasions in his work.  The cave drawings at Lascaux, Altamira, and elsewhere represent “the titanic will to identify” (CW 18, 346). They 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 (CW 6, 503).

But what does the intensity or expansion of consciousness entail for Frye? This is a difficult question to answer with certainty, for Frye reflects on the implications of the phrase only obliquely. But we do know, first, that it is a function of kerygma; second, while it does not necessarily signify religion or a religious experience, it can be “the precondition for any ecumenical or everlasting-gospel religion” (CW 5, 17); third, the language of such consciousness always turns out to be metaphorical; fourth, “vision” is the word that best fits the heightened awareness that comes with the imagination’s opening of the doors of perception; fifth, 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” (CW 26, 87); sixth, intensified consciousness is represented by images of both ascent and descent; seventh, expanded consciousness is both individual and social, it amounts to revelation (CW 5, 61).

Kierkegaard helped Frye to define the kerygmatic utterance, and though Kierkegaard may have failed to get beyond the dialectical and rhetorical thrust of his prose in the late works, in some of his early ones he does write in a metaliterary mode.

5. The Drunken Boat

Kierkegaard plays a seminal role in the “drunken boat” metaphor, which Frye uses to characterize the great nineteenth‑century revolutionary figures.  The others are: Schopenhauer, Darwin, Freud, and Marx.  The image derives from Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre, which depicts the poet’s boat tossed perilously upon the waves like a cork. The battering sea threatens the little boat, which represents the enduring values and structures of civilized society.  Whether boat can survive the forces that lie below depends on the optimism of the mythographer.  The dialectic might be summarized like this, the undulating line representing the sea, separating what is present above from what lies below:


What lies below the surface of the sea corresponds to the demonic level of the pre‑Romantic great chain of being.  Frye sometimes refers to the boat as an ark: “the boat is usually in the position of Noah’s ark, a fragile container of sensitive and imaginative values threatened by a chaotic and unconscious power below it” (CW 17, 89).  What is “above” are the human values of intelligence and morality, of social and cultural tradition.  Below the bateau ivre, writes Frye is “[o]ften an innocent world, the sleeping beauty of nature & reason in Rousseau, Blake’s Orc & buried Beulah, Shelley’s Mother Earth & Asia.  From Schopenhauer on it becomes increasingly inscrutable: menacing to conservatives & redeeming to revolutionaries; the world as will, Darwin’s evolution, Kierkegaard’s dread, Freud’s libido-id, Marx’s proletariat” (CW 23, 290).  What lies below can be both a support (Marx, Darwin) and a threat (Kierkegaard, Freud, Schopenhauer).  It can also lead to a creative descent.

The earliest account we have of this revolutionary topocosm is in Frye’s description of a 1950 lecture he gave in his course on Nineteenth‑Century Thought: “I started Huxley, but got off on the general anti-Cartesian or existential movement which, I said, produced in Darwinism a reversal of the Cartesian derivation of existence from consciousness.  I went on to show the connection of this with Schopenhauer’s will & idea, Nietzsche’s will to power & the “all too human,” Marx’s ruling-class & dispossessed, Freud’s ego & libido & the whole psychological conception of that which is mental & yet not conscious (I linked the anti-Freudian French existentialist doctrine of conscious freedom with the Cartesian tradition) & Kierkegaard’s ‘spiritless’ natural reason & dread (which, as I saw for the first time, links both with the Nietzsche-Marx revolutionary pattern & with Bergson’s identification of the subconscious will with duration: the existential is always the Spectre of Urthona)” (CW 8, 282).[29] This gets elaborated in Frye’s 1952 essay, “Trends in Modern Culture,” where he writes that in the Romantic movement

nearly all branches of culture, the conscious mind is seen as deriving its strength from a subconscious reality greater than itself.  Hence the importance of suggestion and evocation in Romantic art, of the surrender of conscious intelligence to spontaneous mythopoeia.  After Schopenhauer, this subconscious world becomes evil, sinister, and yet immensely powerful, and visions of nightmarish terror begin increasingly to creep into the arts.  No matter where we turn in the culture of the immediate past, the same picture meets us, a picture reminding us less of the harassed boat than of the young lady of the limerick who smiled as she rode on a tiger.  In Schopenhauer the world of conscious idea thus rides on a cruel (except that it is unconscious) and inexorable world of will with the whole power of nature behind it.  In Freud, the conscious mind attempts, with very partial success, to hold in check a mighty libidinous desire.  In Darwin, the conscious mind is the sport of an unconscious evolutionary force.  In Marx, civilization is the attempt of a dwindling minority to keep a vastly stronger majority away from its privileges.  In liberal thought, freedom is the possession of integrity by a small group constantly threatened by a mob.  In Kierkegaard, the consciousness of existence rests on a vast shapeless “dread” as big and real as life and death together.  There is hardly a corner of modern thought where we do not find some image of a beleaguered custodian of conscious values trying to fend off something unconscious which is too strong to be defeated.  It seems the appropriate cultural pattern for a period in which the tiny peninsula of Western Europe was encircling the world. (CW 11, 260–1)[30]

Frye’s thesis is later expanded in “The Drunken Boat:  The Revolutionary Element in Romanticism” (1963), which is further developed into the first chapter of A Study of English Romanticism (1968).   Here Frye argues that in Romanticism we have a profound change in the spatial projection of reality.  This means that the old hierarchy of existence (the great chain of being) with its divine, human, and natural levels was turned upside down.  The metaphorical structure of the Romantic writers tended to move inside and downward instead of, as in the older model, outside and upward.  Romanticism, then, was primarily a revolution in poetic imagery.

Kierkegaard also plays a role in Frye’s expansive vision of the four levels of meaning.  In one twist on Dante’s four levels (literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogic), Frye relates the levels to both their Blakean analogues and their corresponding revolutionary thinkers.[31]

Levels of Meaning         Blakean Analogue           Revolutionary Sources

Psychological             Urthona                    Jung

Historical                Luvah                      Spengler

Mythological              Tharmas                    Frazer

Theological               Urizen                     Kierkegaard (CW 23, 64)

In our own time the structures of Romantic imagery are carried over into Auden’s For the Time Being, Auden having been very much influenced by Kierkegaard.  Auden’s play, in which the word “anxiety” is sprinkled liberally throughout,

develops a religious construct out of Kierkegaard on the analogy of those of Marx and Freud.  The liberal or rational elements represented by Herod feel threatened by the revival of superstition in the Incarnation, and try to repress it.  Their failure means that the effort to come to terms with a nature outside the mind, the primary effort of reason, has to be abandoned, and this enables the Paradise or divine presence which is locked up inside the human mind to manifest itself after the reason has searched the whole of objective nature in vain to find it.  The attitude is that of a relatively orthodox Christianity; the imagery and the structure of symbolism is that of Prometheus Unbound and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  (CW 17, 89)[32]

Frye sometimes speaks of the drunken boat complex as a “vortical explosion” (CW 23, 37–8, 39, 81; CW 18, 168; CW 20, 168–9).  “Vortex” is a word that Kierkegaard uses in The Concept of Dread (18), Repetition (222), Either/Or (Penguin ed., 1992, 168), and elsewhere.  Frye may have recalled the image of the sailor in Edifying Discourses “who is out to sea, when everything is changing about him, when the waves are constantly born and die” (16), but his chief source for “vortex” is Blake, who uses the word in both The Four Zoas and Milton.  The central passage for Frye comes from the latter: “The nature of infinity is this: That everything has its / Own vortex; and when once a traveler thro Eternity. / Has passed that Vortex, he perceives it roll backward behind / His path, into a globe itself infolding; like a sun / Or like a moon, or like a universe of starry majesty” (bk. 1, pl. 15, ll. 21–5).   Here is Frye’s gloss on the passage:

Blake says that everything in eternity has what he calls a “vortex” (perhaps rather a vortex‑ring), a spiral or cone of existence.  When we focus both eyes on one object, say a book, we create an angle of vision opening into our minds with the apex pointing away from us.  The book therefore has a vortex of existence opening into its mental reality within our minds.  When Milton descends from eternity to time, he finds that he has to pass through the apex of his cone of eternal vision, which is like trying to see a book from the book’s point of view; the Lockian conception of the real book as outside the mind on which the vision of the fallen world is based. This turns him inside out, and from his new perspective the cone rolls back and away from him in the form of a globe.  That is why we are surrounded with a universe of remote globes, and are unable to see that the earth is “one infinite plane.”  But in eternity the perceiving mind or body is omnipresent, and hence these globes in eternity are inside that body. (CW 14, 341)[33]

Vortex for Frye is an active or moving geometric shape, an image that helps him to visualize different events, particularly transformative ones, in the structure of literary and religious narrative and meaning.  In his published writing the word appears only occasionally: in The Secular Scripture he uses it to describe the passage of the action through a recognition scene in Terence’s Andria, and in Words with Power to characterize the pattern of creative descent in Melville.  But in his notebooks he repeatedly calls upon the vortex to assist him in visualizing, particularly, passages from one state to another, as in Blake’s account of Milton’s descent.  Vortexes can move in two directions: they can whirl upward or spin downward.  They can attach themselves to each other at the point of the cone or they can expand outward into an apocalyptic or demonic universe.  In the drunken boat complex the vortex is an image of revolutionary change, a change in consciousness that enters the modern world with Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Darwin.  Revolutionary changes can be individual moments of transformation, recognition, or enlightenment, or they can be social.  Along with the “vortical explosion” of Kierkegaard we have the central examples for Frye of Dante’s two vortices, the swirling descent into the inferno and the circular climb up the purgatorial mountain.   Similarly, with Yeats’s double gyres in A Vision. But Frye writes about the vortex mostly in relation to a sudden awareness that moves one from a lower state of being to a higher one.  Opsis is the underlying category.  One bursts through to a new awareness where things can now be seen differently.  “When the action passes from one level to the other through the recognition scene, we have a feeling of going through some sort of gyre or vortex” (CW 18, 62), and recognition scenes are often accompanied by reversals, as in the case of Oedipus the King, where the central metaphors are light and darkness, blindness and sight.[34] But nothing is ever purely visual in Frye: there is always a dialectic of space and time, and the vortex can apply to both categories, as we see in this notebook entry, which is an abstract parallel to what Milton experienced in Blake’s poem:

The cycle of the Word is a series of epiphanies–creation, law, prophecy and apocalypse–and the cycle of the Spirit is a series of responses–exodus, wisdom, gospel and participating apocalypse.  The true response is the historical one turned inside out.  Not just upside-down: that’s the other half of the Word cycle.  But the Bible uses the up-down metaphors in the crucial first two chapters of Acts [the descent of the Spirit, the ascent of the Word].  What gets turned inside-out, as I said in GC [The Great Code] and have been stumbling over all my life, are the categories of time and space.  At present we tend to think of eternity and infinity as time and space indefinitely extended, which they are anyway, and they have to go into a real reverse, another vortex. (CW 6, 462).

Frye’s vortices do not interpenetrate like Yeats’s, but they can come together at their apexes to form an hour-glass figure.  This point of contact takes place in the human mind, and after the vortical explosion has occurred, we can look back from where we have come, as if in a mirror.  Blake’s Jerusalem, Frye says, “attempts to show that the vision of reality is the other one inside out.  The poem shows us two worlds, one infinite, the other indefinite, one our own home and the other the same home receding from us in a mirror” (CW 12, 372–3).  Frye writes about the vortex in more than forty notebook entries, some of which are as cryptic as Kierkegaard’s difficult speculations.[35] But the effect of the whole is another of Frye’s verbal formulas, this one a dynamic image, for trying to grasp what happens when one bursts through to a moment of “illumination.”   Frye’s theory of the vortical explosion among nineteenth‑century revolutionary figures, in which Kierkegaard plays a defining role, is one of the keys to his visionary poetics.


[1] Here and there I have borrowed some sentences from my Northrop Frye and Critical Method and Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary.  All references to Frye’s writing are to the Collected Works of Northrop Frye (CW) (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1996–2011).

[2] “Kierkegaard was half a nut, after all” (CW 5, 210).  “[T]he great prophetic figures of modern literature, Rousseau or Swift or Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky, may often not have been much more than wrongheaded neurotics in their historical and biographical context” CW 18, 168).

[3] In his Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism,” Frye says about a lecture he gave in Vancouver: the “talk started with my usual stuff on nursery rhyme, then established that ordinary speech is associative & not prose, then said that associative babble was the voice of the ego, which is always sub-literary, that this ego-voice is projected in the dead-language, ation-ation, rhythmless impersonal jargon of the lonely crowd.  That the impersonal babble is the voice of the collective or aggregate ego, & according to Kierkegaard ‘essentially demoralizing.’  It consists in prodding reflexes of [the] inattentive, & is seen in advertising, then propaganda, then exhortatory jargon of the collective tantrum kind” (CW 23, 285).  The Kierkegaardian phrase he quotes is from this passage in Concluding Unscientific Postscript: “In this age, and indeed for many ages past, people have quite lost sight of the fact that authorship is and ought to be a serious calling implying an appropriate mode of personal existence.  They do not realize that the press in general, as an expression of the abstract and impersonal communication of ideas, and the daily press in particular, because of its formal indifference to the question whether what it reports is true or false, contributes enormously to the general demoralization, for the reason that it is impersonal, which for the most part is irresponsible and incapable of repentance, is essentially demoralizing (28).

[4] In a 1952 diary entry, Frye writes: “At tea we got into a discussion of existentialism, prompted by the fact that Jessie [Macpherson] had just seen the Sartre play that Don Harron is in—they call it Crime Passionel here, although I think its original title was Mains Sales.  I seemed to be the only one present who had much notion of existentialism, & of course I know very little, but we kept quite an animated discussion going” (CW 8, 583).  For the other references to “existential” and “existentialism,” see, in addition to those in the index of CW 8, pp. 167, 243, 257, 376, 488, 591 and 592.

[5] On Kierkegaard’s use of Bekymring as a term of philosophical import, see Stokes.

[6] “I cleared out & went to Tillich’s lecture—a huge crowd in Wycliffe.  He talked on the ‘theology of despair’: the attempt to start with despair as a ‘limit-situation.’  It disappointed me a little, as I’d read enough Kierkegaard to figure it out myself.  Even the feeling it gave me of being on top of Tillich was hollow: I didn’t want to feel on top of Tillich: I wanted to feel a contact with something fresh” (CW 8, 247–8).

[7] Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (1964), Christianity and the Encounter of World Religions (1964), Systematic Theology (3 vols., 1951–63), and Theology of Culture (1964).

[8] On the Kierkegaard–Auden connection see CW 6, 487; CW 8, 306; CW 10, 127; CW 12, 108; CW 13, 229–30; CW 16, 328; CW 17, 89; and CW 23, 234–5.

[9] The fact that Frye separates freedom from concern and that freedom is a characteristic of Kierkegaard’s concerned or ethical state should not be a stumbling block: they are using the word “freedom” in two different senses.  Frye does say that the person of “ethical freedom” is the one “who has passed beyond speculation” (CW 7, 256).  For him there is a double opposition in Kierkegaard’s notion of ethical freedom.  It is opposed, on the one hand, to the aesthetic point of view, and on the other to the synthetic rationalism of Hegel (CW 19, 44).

[10] Quid agas is the moral level of medieval allegorical interpretation, having to do with right action.  In Fools of Time Frye speaks of the “aesthetic in the perverted Kierkegaardian sense of externalizing man’s ethical freedom” (CW 28, 323).

[11] “Primary concerns a quincunx: breathing in the middle surrounded by (a) food & drink (b) sex (c) property (money, possessions, shelter, clothing) (d) freedom of movement” (CW 6, 701–2).  “The most primary concern of all, breathing, is transformed into spirit, & the spiritual meaning of food & drink, of love, of security & shelter & the sense of home, all follow it (CW 5, 166).  “Air, the primest of primary concerns” (CW 5, 125).  “Spirit gets its name from the most primary of all primary concerns: breathing.  And air is the medium for seeing and hearing” (CW 5, 175). “Spirit means breath, the most primary of all primary concerns, the great sign of the appearance of birth, the thing we can’t live twenty minutes without.  Spirit is the antitype then of air, the invisibility that makes the real world visible” (CW 5, 183).

[12] “Is ultimate concern a primary concern?  I think not.  No one can live a day without being concerned with food: anybody can live all his life without being concerned about God (CW 5, 78).  “I’m wrong about religion as an ultimate but not a primary concern.  Where did I come from and where am I going are primary concerns, even if we don’t believe there are any answers” (CW 5, 121).   “That’s my Eros-Adonis axis, of course, and it unites the primary concerns of life, food and sex, with its primary anxiety and ultimate concern, death, and the passage through death.  I should start thinking in terms of primary anxieties: they help to show how Tillich’s ‘ultimate concern’ is also a primary one” (CW 5, 165).  In The Critical Path Frye writes, “In origin, a myth of concern is largely undifferentiated: it has its roots in religion, but religion has also at that stage the function of religio, the binding together of the community in common acts and assumptions.  Later, a myth of concern develops different social, political, legal, and literary branches, and at this stage religion becomes more exclusively the myth of what Tillich calls ultimate concern, the myth of man’s relation to other worlds, other beings, other lives, other dimensions of time and space” (CW 27, 23). And in Framework and Assumption” Frye says, “Paul Tillich distinguishes the religious concern as ‘ultimate’: it may be that, but it can hardly be primary.  One cannot live a day without being concerned about food, but one may live all one’s life without being concerned about God.  At the same time one hesitates to rule out the conscious and creative concerns from the primary ones” (CW 18, 432).  See also CW 27, 247.

[13] Cf. the almost identical formulations in CW 6, 434; CW 18, 266, 353; CW 26, 51–2

[14] CW 4, 354; CW 6, 545; CW 18, 354, 434; CW 26, 52

[15] On Kierkegaard’s ideas about time see the articles by Taylor and Bedell.

[16] Cf.  “We experience time in a way that is continu­ally elusive and frustrating and exasperating, be­cause we’re dragged through time facing the past with our backs to the future. We know nothing about the future except by the analogy of the past. That means that all our hopes, when they’re projected into the future, have this extraordinary limitation about them. If somebody starts out on a career, let’s say as a doctor or a social worker, he or she must have some kind of vision of a world of better health or of better social organization in his or her mind in order to carry on the career with any kind of consis­tent energy. It’s that sense of the vision in the present which is the real dynamic. You can die without seeing that come. In other words, you can give up the future as far as your own life is concerned and still carry on with the same vision” (CW 24, 1016). “We try to cope with time facing the past, with our backs to the future, and in relation to time human life seems to be a kind of untied Andromeda, constantly stepping back from a devouring monster whose mouth is the mouth of hell, in the sense that each moment passes from the possible into the eternally unchangeable being of the past. At death we back into a solid wall, and the monster then devours us too” (CW 27, 358). “[T]here is no such thing as a forward‑looking person.  That is a metaphor from car‑driving, and it applies to space but not to time. In time we all face the past, and are dragged backwards into the future.  Nobody knows the future: it isn’t there to be known.  The past is what we know, and it is all that we know” (CW 11, 285–6).  “Man has doubtless always experienced time in the same way, dragged backwards from a receding past into an unknown future” (CW 11, 16).

[17] Cf. “[The Kierkegaardian antithesis of ethical freedom & aesthetic idolatry is as unsatisfactory as ever” (CW 23, 253–4).

[18] “The archetypal view of literature shows us literature as a total form and literary experience as a part of the continuum of life, in which one of the poet’s functions is to visualize the goals of human work. As soon as we add this approach to the other three, literature becomes an ethical instrument, and we pass beyond Kierkegaard’s Either/Or dilemma between aesthetic idolatry and ethical freedom, without any temptation to dispose of the arts in the process.  Hence the importance, after accepting the validity of this view of literature, of rejecting the external goals of morality, beauty, and truth. The fact that they are external makes them ultimately idolatrous, and so demonic. But if no social, moral, or aesthetic standard is in the long run externally determinative of the value of art, it follows that the archetypal phase, in which art is part of civilization, cannot be the ultimate one. We need still another phase where we can pass from civilization, where poetry is still useful and functional, to culture, where it is liberal, and stands on its own feet.” (Anatomy of Criticism, CW 22. 107)

[19] On the “paranoia principle,” see also (CW 13, 93).

[20] For the Kierkegaard–Hegel connection, see Westphal, Perkins, and Stewart.

[21] For a fuller treatment of Hegel’s influence on Frye, particularly Frye’s appropriation of the Hegelian Aufhebung, see my Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World.

[22] “Confession and anatomy are united in Sartor Resartus and in some of Kierkegaard’s strikingly original experiments in prose fiction form, including Either/Or.” (CW 22, 293)

[23] Frye refers to the “sacramental repetition” elsewhere as the “sacramental analogy,” by which he means the Neo‑Thomist emphasis on belief as an imitation of Christ.  That is, one sets up a construct or model, such as a saint’s life or laws prescribed by Scripture, and then makes one’s life a sacramental analogy to that, with the result of ritual or institutional continuity.

[24] “It sounds as though ‘recollection’ is the word that translates as anamnesis, and refers to an accumulation or structuring of the past” (CW 5, 364).

[25] In one of his notebooks, Frye equates repetition and anagnorisis (recognition, discovery) (CW 23, 232).

[26] On the verse from Revelation, see also CW 13, 151.  In one of his notebooks Frye says that “Kierkegaard’s repetition doesn’t have to replace Plato’s anamnesis: they’re two halves of the same myth, the visual certainty of past & future internalized in the present” (CW 13, 215).

[27] Elsewhere, Frye says that Kierkegaard “recreates hieratic in the post-Hegel era” (CW 13, 277) and that he leans toward the poetic (CW 5, 261).

[28] The passage Frye had in mind was written by Kierkegaard in 1846: “I wanted particularly to represent the various stages or spheres of life [aesthetic, ethical, religious], if possible in one work, and that is how I consider all my pseudonymous writings.  With that in mind it was important to keep an unvarying balance so that, for instance, the Religious should not appear at a later time when I had become so much older that my style would have lost some of the lofty, imaginative expansiveness proper to the Esthetic.  The idea is not that the Religious should have this exuberance, but that the writer should be capable of producing it and making it clear that if the Religious lacked this style the reason certainly was not that the writer lacked the necessary youthfulness” (The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, 60).

[29] “The Spectre of Urthona is the isolated subjective aspect of existence in this world, the energy with which a man or any other living thing copes with nature. It is neither the Selfhood, which is Satan, nor the ‘vegetable’ existence, which is Luvah; it is that aspect of existence in time which is linear rather than organic or imaginative. If one had to pin the conception down to a single word, one might call Blake’s Spectre of Urthona the will” (CW 14, 288).

[30] The tiger limerick: “There was a young lady of Niger / Who smiled as she rode on a tiger; / They returned from the ride / With the lady inside, / And the smile on the face of the tiger.”

[31] On Kierkegaard’s role in the elaborate scheme of the “three awarenesses” or revolutions in human consciousness, see my Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary, 76–9, and charts 5–7 in the appendix.

[32] On the Auden–Kierkegaard see Auden’s “Presenting Kierkegaard” in The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, 3–22, and Mendelson, passim.  Auden was also significantly influenced by his reading of Tillich

[33] Expanding on infinity and eternity in a letter to a friend, Frye writes, “Revelation encourages us to think in terms of infinity and eternity, not in the mathematical sense, but in the religious sense.  As we experience time, the present, the only part of it we do experience, never quite exists.  As we experience space, the centre or the ‘here,’ never quite exists either–-everything we experience in space is ‘there.’  Under the impact of revelation the whole fallen world turns inside out, into an eternal now and an infinite here.  In terms of the Kantian distinction between the thing perceived and the thing in itself, we never see the thing in itself because we are the thing in itself.  Reality is the immediate data of ordinary experience universalized–-that it why it is revealed to the childlike rather than the sophisticated in us.  The beginning of the vision of eternity is the child’s realization that his own home is the circumference of the universe as far as he is concerned.  The end of it is the regenerate Christian’s realization that the universe is a city of God, the home of the soul, and the body of Jesus” (Selected Letters, 31–2).

[34] The reversal in Oedipus the King is, of course, closely connected with the ironic reversal of the central metaphors: Teiresias (the seer) is literally blind but can figuratively see; Oedipus can literally see and is renowned for his knowledge and insight but is figuratively blind to his own situation; and then at the reversal Oedipus is able figuratively to see only after he has literally blinded himself.

[35] For the notebook entries having to do with the vortex, see CW 20, 100, 120, 148, 162, 164, 169, 171; CW 13, 47, 96, 217, 227, 332, 474; CW 5, 46; CW 6, 436, 437, 462, 690; CW 15, 33, 49, 55, 73, 101, 108; CW 9, 72, 77, 107, 179, 191, 197, 260; CW 23, 6, 19, 25, 26, 27, 33, 34, 37, 38, 39, 40, 59, 62, 263.

Works Cited

Northrop Frye’s Collected Works:

CW 4 = Northrop Frye on Religion.  Ed. Alvin A. Lee and Jean O’Grady.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

CW 5 = Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1982–1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World.  Ed. Robert D. Denham.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

CW 6 = Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1982–1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World.  Ed. Robert D. Denham.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

CW 7 = Northrop Frye’s Writings on Education.  Ed. Goldwin French and Jean O’Grady.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

CW 8 = The Diaries of Northrop Frye, 1942–1955.  Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

CW 9 = The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 1964–1972: The Critical Comedy.  Ed. Michael Dolzani. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

CW 10 = Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 1936–1989.  Ed. Robert D. Denham.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

CW 11 = Northrop Frye on Modern Culture.  Ed. Jan Gorak. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

CW 12 = Northrop Frye on Canada.  Ed. Jean O’Grady and David Staines. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

CW 13 = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts.  Ed. Robert D. Denham.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

CW 14 = Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake.  Ed. Nicholas Halmi.  Intro. Ian Singer. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

CW 15 = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance.  Ed. Michael Dolzani.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004.

CW 16 = Northrop Frye on Milton and Blake.  Ed. Angela Esterhammer.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

CW 17 = Northrop Frye’s Writings on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.  Ed. Imre Salusinszky.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

CW 18 =  “The Secular Scripture” and Other Writings on Critical Theory.  Ed. Joseph Adamson and Jean Wilson.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.

CW 19 = The Great Code: The Bible and Literature.  Ed. Alvin A. Lee.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.

CW 20 = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Renaissance Literature.  Ed. Michael Dolzani.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.

CW 22 = Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays.  Ed. Robert D. Denham.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.

CW 23 = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism.” Ed. Robert D. Denham.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

CW 24 = Interviews with Northrop Frye.  Ed. Jean O’Grady.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

CW 25 = Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings. Ed. Robert D. Denham and Michael Dolzani.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

CW 26 = Words with Power: Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature.  Ed. Michael Dolzani.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

CW 27 = “The Critical Path” and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1963–1975.  Ed. Eva Kushner and Jean O’Grady.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

CW 29 = Northrop Frye’s Writings on Twentieth-Century Literature.  Ed. Glen Robert Gill.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Selected Letters = Selected Letters, 1934–1991.  Ed. Robert D. Denham.  West Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland and Co., 2009.

Other Works Cited:

Bedell, George C.  “Kierkegaard’s Conception of Time.”  Journal of the American Academy of Religion 37, no. 3 (1969): 266–9.

Cortupi, Caterina Nella.  Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Process.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000.

Denham, Robert D.  Northrop Frye and Critical Method. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1978.

______.  Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World.   Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2004.

Gill, Glen Robert.  Northrop Frye and the Phenomenology of Myth.  Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2006.

Irenaeus.  Against Heresies. Trans. Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut.  From Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1.  Ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe.  Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.

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