An Outline of Frye’s “The Double Vision”

By Robert D. Denham

Preface.  Frye remarks on the incompleteness of the total argument after three chapters and his decision to add a fourth.  Why only “after considerable hesitation”?

I.  The Double Vision of Language

[Autobiographical element: Methodist emphasis on experience and exposure to Biblical narrative: conditioning factors in a literary criticism that focuses on story and vision (3)]

A.  The Whirligig of Time, 1925-90:

1.  Myths = the functional units of human society.  Before the Depression years, capitalism was St. George who had triumphed over Marxism; mid-thirties, socialism (or communism) was St. George and fascism was the dragon; today, capitalism democracies are St. George and communism is the dragon.

2.  Similar whirligig in Hegelian and Marxist notions of conflict: Hegel = conflict of ideas leading to ultimate goal of freedom; Marx = class conflict and struggle over means of production.  Today, Hegelian thrust for freedom being revived.

3.  Cyclical rhythm of history produces different myths of freedom, but these are secondary myths or ideologies that don’t result in genuine freedom, which comes from primary, not secondary concern.

B.  Primitive & Mature Societies:

1.  Primary concerns = food, sex, property, freedom; secondary concerns = political & religious ideologies.  Western democracies have been better at fulfilling the needs that spring from primary concerns, but McCarthyism, American imperialism, etc. show that something is still needed, something beyond the material: the spiritual.

2.  The difference between the spiritual aspect of primary concerns and ideology or secondary concerns can be seen in the difference between primitive & mature societies:

a.  Primitive societies: hierarchical; individual subordinated to the group

b.  Mature societies: group functions to create genuine individuality (an “individualized society”); mature societies contain spiritual people: soma pneumatikon (spiritual body), rather than soma psychikon (natural body)

C.  The Crisis in Language: the difference between ideological & spiritual concern is a difference in language

1.  Descriptive or demonic literalism: descriptive accuracy, logical argument, ideological, creedal dogma

2.  Imaginative literalism: counter-historical, counter-logical language of myth, metaphor, paradox, interpenetrative, open, kerygmatic vision.  Imaginative literalism is a key point in Frye.  For whatever else it is, the New Testament is written in literary language.  “The literary language of the New Testament is not intended, like literature itself, simply to suspend judgment, but to convey a vision of spiritual life that continues to transform and expand our own.  That is, its myths become, as purely literary myths cannot, myths to live by; its metaphors become, as purely literary metaphors cannot, metaphors to live in” (17-18).  Kerygma or proclamation.

Key concept: interpenetration: here (p. 18) defined as “the free flowing of spiritual life into and out of one another that communicates but never violates.”   See also the beginning of chapter 3, where Frye, drawing on Whitehead, sees interpenetration as “spiritual vision.”

The language of spirit is the language of love.

II.  The Double Vision of Nature

A.  Natural & Human Societies: double vision is, first, the distinction between the natural & human environments; our end is to transform the natural environment into a human one (garden & city)

B.  Criticism & Civilization: making a human world of nature requires work & play; the latter provides freedom for producing the creative arts; what’s needed in addition to work-energy are leisure, contemplation, & critical evaluation; these produce a humanized view of nature, & the only reason for wanting to live in such a world is love.

C.  The Redemption of Nature: to redeem nature is to restore the lost paradise = the vision of the ideal.  Hegel’s role in this: substance as spirit.  The birth of consciousness to self-awareness to absolute knowledge, where we break out of the mirror prison of Narcissus (subject contemplating object).  “Truth is beauty only if the spiritual is substantial [real].”  The truth of imaginative structures:  this is where criticism (education) enters.  [Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is a key text for Frye’s later writings.  Frye sees in Hegel, as he sees in Blake, someone who is striving to do away with the subject-object split.]

III.  The Double Vision of Time

A.  Space & Time: The natural context.  Life: a revolt of finite vs. the indefinite.  One aspect of this is ritual, crucial points in the cyclical pattern.  From ritual, drama, where the structural principle is the parabola, where time is metaphorically some form of the horizontal line.  In religion, there’s a vertical dimension as well.  Christianity = total vision takes the shape of a cross.

B.  Time & History: The social context.  Contract views of Burke and Hobbes: continuum with the past that sets up vertical authority.  Marxism & Nietzsche: vertical dimension disappears.  Biblical view: past & future are part of present.  Primitive view: archetypal myths reenacted:  fixation on past = Quixote; fixation on future = Marx

C.  Time & Education: Repetition in human experience that progresses produces enlargement of freedom (piano-playing example).  The vertical dimension is inspiration or enlightenment.  The current desire for a genuine revolution that renews the cycle of time.  Christianity of the age of the Spirit (Joachim of Floris).

IV.  The Double Vision of God

A.  Gods and God: A short history of gods.  Two foci in non-biblical religion.  (1)  Nature as impersonal structure of law & order.  (2) Ruler vested with supreme authority (symbolically divine).  In literature, gods modulate into human heroes (the displacement principle).

B.  Hebraic and Hellenic Traditions.  Christianity:  two directions.  Back to the Old Testament (integrity of the Bible) and forward to Hellenic reason.  The latter has produced benefits, but the emphasis has been wrong, leading to Thomist systems (Catholic), the quest for the historical Jesus (Protestant), etc.  Paul didn’t write an epistle to the Athenians.

C.  Metaphoric Literalism: Gospels can be read on the literal-descriptive level as a work of literature and on the level of spiritual vision; one can look at them as aesthetic productions, or as spiritual batteries for charging one’s spiritual energies.  That’s the double vision.

D.  The Humanized God.   Old Testament God is essentially not a perfect being at all bit an intensely humanized figure like Lear: a god of capers (trickster god).

Levels of reading the Bible:

1.  metaphorical-literal: miraculous events:  Vindication of Elijah on Mt. Carmel before the priests of Baal.  Story shows intimacy between God and man.  It’s an incredible story, but its haunting power is connected with occasions when wrong kind of help has let us down and authentic kind breaks through.  Still, at this level, stories are stories.  But beyond this, stories to live by.

2.  allegorical level: story means something expressed in discursive language.  Paul reads the story of Abraham’s two wives as an allegory in Galatians.  Paul’s reading is curious, especially from a Jewish perspective.  An advance is needed, such as “Freedom is in the orbit of God’s will and bondage outside it.”

3.  moral or tropological:  As in the parables.  Here we begin to move from single to spiritual vision.

All stories in Bible exhibit three levels of demonic parody, redemptive power, and apocalyptic vision.  Purgatorial virtues: faith and hope.  Paradisal vision of love.

The reality of God comes closer to human life when purified of the reflection of human evil.

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