By Robert D. Denham
A talk given to the Students in the Vic One Stream at Victoria College
I thought it might be interesting to talk about the person who gives his name to one of the Vic One Streams, so I’ll talk for a bit about the young Norrie Frye, and then deliver a little sermon at the end.
Frye entered Victoria in the middle of the Depression, the fall of 1929. He came from what was in those days a very remote outpost, Moncton, NB. His family moved to Moncton on three different occasions, their itinerant existence resulting from his father’s difficulties in the hardware business. Young Norrie Frye had a rather difficult childhood. His older brother had been blown up in France during WWII and his sister was twelve years his elder. His father was busy escaping the creditors, and his mother, though she did value education and provided the classics from her library for Northrop to read, seemed to be more interested in Methodist piety, which her son revolted against early. He was in high school when, as he reports it, the albatross of Methodist fundamentalism fell from his neck, though he didn’t call it an albatross. He called it a “shitty garment.”
Frye’s early schooling was minimal at best. He had only eight years of formal education before entering Vic, not having begun school until grade four, and high school in New Brunswick ended at grade eleven. Following that he headed off to Success Business College, where he learned shorthand and typing and other secretarial skills, his typing having been sufficiently advanced for him to stop halfway through his course to compete in the Canadian Typing Championships at Massey Hall in Toronto. The rest of this story has been repeated often: the sixteen-year-old returned to Moncton with a second-place award and was then invited to Toronto to compete as a Provincial Champion in the world’s championship. But back to his early schooling, if it can be called that. Frye called what happened in the Moncton schools a form of “penal servitude” presided over by teachers he described as “a rabble of screaming and strapping spinsters.”
Frye told an interviewer that “high school in Moncton was so primitive in the twenties.” It was a kind of demonic parody of what he found once he arrived in Toronto, where the students “all had a very much better education.” He remarks how curiously out-of-date his history and geography books were, saying that he learned more geography from his stamp collection. The books for health class were “nothing but propaganda against alcohol and tobacco.” “Why,” he asks, “did they insist on school attendance when they care so little about what [the students] were taught.” The system assumed, he adds, that students naturally didn’t want to go to school, so the goal then became simply “to keep the little buggers off the streets.” He’s talking about elementary school here.
What he learned, then, throughout his early years, he learned outside of school, reading Hurlburt’s Story of the Bible, and the novels of Scott and Dickens and Thackeray. When he was a student at Vic he reported to his girlfriend Helen Kemp that by fifteen he had read all of Shaw, no small undertaking, as Shaw’s plays and essays make up a substantial shelf-full. He did discover in the Moncton public library Louis Untermeyer’s American Poetry since 1900, a book that was to introduce him to Wallace Stevens, who turned out to be one of his great literary heroes. This book was perhaps as important as Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Song and Lyrics, which was in the grade eleven curriculum at Aberdeen High and which introduced Frye to English poetry. He told his biographer that encountering Milton in this anthology was an important cause in his becoming an English teacher, so high school wasn’t a complete waste.
One can understand that with such minimal schooling, Frye would be given only a provisional entrance to Victoria, meaning that those making the admissions decision had grave doubts about his ability to succeed. He was admitted to the three-year pass course, less prestigious and demanding than the four-year honour course. What Victoria didn’t realize was that it had a genius on its hands, and I use the word “genius” advisedly. After earning first in his work at the end of his first year, he transferred to the honor course. ( Incidentally, during his fourth year he wrote a very bright and biting editorial for Acta Victoriana in which he advocated abolishing the pass course). There were moments in Frye’s Moncton childhood that would have been evidence enough to predict his prophetic genius. In one of his notebooks he records this fantasy: “In my childhood [he was about ten at the time] I dreamed of becoming a great astronomer & discovering a new planet beyond Neptune that I was going to call Pluto.” He himself calls this a “curious form of e.s.p. that he possesses,” and with good reason, as Pluto wasn’t actually discovered and so named until a decade later.
In an extraordinary notebook entry, Frye writes, “[The] line of descent [of the Second Essay of Anatomy of Criticism] begins when at the age of ten, on 340 High St. I started trying to imitate the style of that idiot Cramb’s book on Germany and England.” What exactly was at 340 High St. in 1922 is something of a mystery. It wasn’t the Moncton Public Library. As near as I’ve been able to determine, it was a vacant lot. In any event, here we have little Norrie Frye, age 10, sitting at whatever was at 340 High Street, his shock of yellow hair blowing in the wind, trying to imitate the dithyrambic and passionate style of J.A. Cramb’s study of German imperialism and the rivalry with Britain before the outbreak of World War I. It is rather astonishing, don’t you think, that a ten-year old would be reading a sophisticated volume of political history? But even more extraordinary, Frye can trace the development of his rhetorical skill and apparently even some of the ideas in his theory of symbols back to that single experience on High Street.
Frye was notoriously shy. He worried a great deal about his introversion, and of course introversion can be debilitating. He writes in a similar vein that as a young person he kept silent because that was the only power a young person had, and that one of the constructive features of silence is that it creates a space around the self. If you talk, Frye says, you open the gate to the enemy. He also reports that from his early years he was “ferociously ambitious, with a Napoleonic complex in me that went through all the regular childish phases. I was a future great military commander simultaneously with knowing that I was the least military of males, & always would be.”
Frye writes in one of his early notebooks, “When I was about seven I had a passion to live in a cave, which lasted a surprisingly long time, & if I’d been born in Tibet or early Christian Egypt I suppose I’d have become an anchorite. At eleven I had an equally strong passion for a private study, which I still have. This may be an underground current that breaks out in the form of my recurrent [fear of public places]. A psychoanalyst would talk about wombs & foetuses & mothers & of course the everlasting Oedipus: I see it as the necessity for a . . . a place of intellectual seed.” Or again, from a 1960s notebook:
Everybody has a fixation. Mine has to do with meander-and-descent patterns. For years in my childhood I wanted to dig a cave & be the head of a society in it—this was before I read Tom Sawyer. All the things in literature that haunt me most have to do with katabasis descent, downward journey]. The movie that hit me hardest as a child was the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera. My main points of reference in literature are such things as The Tempest, P. R. [Paradise Regained], [Blake’s] Milton, the Ancient Mariner, Alice in Wonderland, the Waste Land—every damn one a meander-&-katabasis work. I should have kept the only book Vera kept, The Sleepy King.
The Sleepy King is a fairy tale in which a young girl descends to the bottom of a magic oak to awaken a miserly king who has been sleeping for two-hundred years. The point is that these kinds of introverted and descent patterns began and were cultivated by Frye in childhood. They were what he calls “intellectual seed.” The last chapters of the last book that Frye published in his lifetime, Words with Power, treat the archetypes of the cave and the furnace; so the reveries and fixations with katabasis, the descent downward, began back in Moncton at an early age.
In working through Frye’s unpublished papers during the past decade I have discovered, among countless other things, that Frye’s insights came to him quite early. From the papers Frye wrote as a student right here at Victoria and Emmanuel, it is clear that in his early twenties Frye had already worked out a number of the fundamental principles of analysis and organization that would guide him through his more than thirty books. These principles are often schematic. Frye could not think without organizing his categories into some kind of spatial diagram, and in a number of his student essays we find embryonic forms of what would appear later, more fully developed, in Anatomy of Criticism. If you want to look at a rather extraordinary piece of undergraduate writing, go dig out a book called Northrop Frye’s Student Essays, where you’ll find a paper entitled “Romanticism,” written when Frye was nineteen. It was mostly written the night before it was due, as was Frye’s practice, but it must have been a long night, as it runs to 73 pages in the published version (94 pages in Frye’s own marginless typescript). On the title page he scribbled this note to his professor, George Brett, who taught philosophy: “I hope that the inordinate length of this essay will prove to be as necessary an evil as it is an unmitigated one,” and he apologizes to Professor Brett for not having had time to deal with Romantic painting or Continental literature. What he does treat, in twenty-two separate sections, is Romantic philosophy, music, and English literature. Frye was nineteen at the time.
As a child Frye says he had fantasies of being, first, a great man, and then a great composer. Later he wanted to be a great novelist. One of the more interesting and complex of Frye’s schemes for the last two, music and fiction, was born in Moncton in 1921, when he was nine years old. He later called it his “ogdoad,” that is, an eight-part project, and it was really a road map for his life’s work. At age nine Frye reports that he dreamed of writing eight concerti. At about the same time, after reading Scott’s novels, he imagined writing a sequence of historical novels, and after he had made his way through Dickens and Thackeray, this modulated into “a sequence of eight definitive novels.” When hee was fourteen, each of these novels acquired a one-word descriptive name. Here’s the way he describes it in a yet unpublished typescript:
The first was to be called Liberal: it was to be a satire, a witty comedy of manners. The second I called Tragicomedy, and thought of it as a panoramic novel: I had always been fascinated by complicated plots & a great number of characters. The third, Anticlimax, I thought of as austere & forbidding; the fourth, Mirage, had no particular characteristics; the sixth, Paradox, was to be the most dizzily complicated of them all; the seventh, Ignoramus, the profoundest (because I was an agnostic by then and had started to read Hardy), and Twilight, subtitled a Valedictory, was to be my Tempest, the work of my old age.
These names, along with a symbolic code Frye had for each of the eight parts, remained with him over the years, appearing hundreds of times in his notebooks as a shorthand designation for his books, both those completed and those anticipated. In the 1940s the eight books were reduced to five—what Frye called his Pentateuch—but they expanded shortly after that into the eight once again. And when Frye had given up his dream of being a musician and a novelist, the ogdoad became the blueprint for eight works of criticism. As with all of his organizing patterns, the ogdoad was never a rigid outline, but it did correspond to the chief divisions in his conceptual universe over the years. What the eight names meant or whether the names themselves have any significance no one has yet figured out. But Frye did, thankfully, provide several keys to the ways that the ogdoad shaped his preoccupations over the years. In one of them he says,
Suddenly, & simultaneously with the final & complete conversion to criticism, my old adolescent dream of eight masterpieces rose up again and hit me finally and irresistibly. Blake became Liberal, the study of drama Tragicomedy, the philosophical book, now a study of prose fiction, became Anticlimax, Numbers became Rencontre, Deuteronomy Mirage, & three others took nebulous shape. For several years I dithered, doodled, dawdled, dreamed & dallied. It was silly to let an adolescent pipe-dream haunt me like that: on the other hand, it did correspond to some major divisions in my actual thinking. So I kept on with it. When I finished the Blake, it became zero instead of one, & its place was taken by a study of epic. In my notes the initial letters of the eight books were cut down to hieratic forms.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the scheme continued to change, but Frye never abandoned it. It would take several hours to try to explain Frye’s use of the ogdoad, and I certainly don’t want to bore you with that. The point is simply that in Frye’s early childhood the chief organizing scheme for his entire writing career came to him, and of course what is astonishing about it was that the first incarnation, the eight concerti, came to him not even in his late teens but when he was nine years old. Moncton had given birth to a prodigy of the first order. We can begin to understand, then, what Frye meant when he wrote to Helen that Moncton, even though he hated its provincialism and wanted to escape its narrow-minded clutches, was nevertheless a “focal point” for him.
As for his life at Victoria College one would never guess from the extensive letters between Frye and his girlfriend in the 1930s that he was an introvert. He participated fully in the life of the college: he was a member of the debate team, helped with the staging of the annual Gilbert and Sullivan performances, attended the socials at Annesley Hall (“At-Homes,” they called them), played the piano, bummed around with his circle of friends in Gate House, wrote the script for The Bob and wrote articles, editorials, and jokes for Acta Victoriana, hung out in the local cafes, spent his holidays at the homes of friends (he couldn’t afford the train back to Moncton), and took advantage of whatever Hart House had to offer. And he participated as well in the life of Toronto, attending the concerts of Sir Ernest Macmillan’s Toronto Symphony Orchestra and frequenting the city’s arts galleries. If you’re interested in romance fiction, I think you’ll find no more engaging a love story that that contained in the very large body of letters that passed between Frye and his girlfriend Helen Kemp when they were students. By “very large” I mean more than 900 pages in their published form. They wrote to each other whenever they were separated: summer vacations, Frye’s stint on the mission field in southern Saskatchewan, Helen’s year studying art in London, Frye’s two years at Oxford. After coming back from his second stint at Oxford, where it’s clear he knew more than his tutor did and where he earned a first (one of his examiners was C.S. Lewis), he began teaching at Victoria.
The program of study was very different then, but I suspect that Frye would have liked at least some of the features of the Northrop Frye Stream of the Vic One program. “Streams” is an interesting metaphor, much more interesting than, say, the Frye track, with its suggestions of an iron-like rigidity and something one can’t get off of. “Steam” is much more invitingly fluid, and while we can swim with or swim against the stream, the word has the suggestion of a process. “The process of education,” Frye wrote in one of his early essays, “is a patient cultivating of habit: its principle is continuity and its agent memory, not rote memory but practice memory.” Frye wrote those words almost fifty years ago, and he so much liked the idea, which he really stole from Samuel Butler, that he repeated it over and over again. It appears in his last two books. Here’s the way he puts it in his last book, The Double Vision, written only a few months before his death:
There are two kinds of repetition: one is inorganic, a matter of merely doing the same thing over and over; the other is habit or practice repetition that leads to the acquiring of a skill, like practising a sport or a musical instrument. Inorganic repetition is precisely what the word superstition means: binding oneself to a continuing process that is mere compulsiveness, often accompanied by a vague fear that something terrible will happen if we stop. The acquiring of a skill transforms mere repetition into something that develops and progresses. If we ask what it develops into or progresses toward, we may provisionally say something like an enlargement of freedom: we practise the piano to set ourselves free to play it.
Vic One calls explicitly for the cultivation of habits of mind and skills of expression. One can’t think unless one has done a lot of thinking. Similarly with writing, or any other skill, like playing tennis or the violin. One thing that Frye didn’t practice to well was attending class. When he was at Emmanuel College he seemed never to have gone to class, thinking that there were more important things to do, such as reading Frazer and studying Blake.
There are other features of the Vic One program that would have attracted Frye. He thought that Victoria had sold out when it abolished the old honours program, so I think the Vic One objective of reading the great thinkers and studying modern history would be to his liking. Frye didn’t study literature at Vic. He took the honours philosophy and history option, which is one of the reasons his outlook is so interdisciplinary. In addition to the massive body of writing he did in literary criticism, Frye wrote about music and art and ballet and movies. He wrote education and the media, especially television. He wrote about religion and politics. He wrote about philosophy and history. Such breadth of perspective is no doubt one of the things that can issue from what the Frye Stream describes as engaging the humanities. I daresay Frye would have also liked the extracurricular emphasis spelled out in the Vic One objectives, which is to take advantage of the cultural opportunities of the city.
The Frye Stream is described as emphasizing the “educated imagination,” which is the title of one of Frye’s books, and one that used to be widely read in grade 11 of Ontario schools. The implication is of course that the imagination doesn’t come automatically at birth. It has to be trained, and it’s trained by wide reading in and reflection on all the products of culture, its arts and humanities and sciences. And it’s trained by the kind of habit and practice just mentioned. The Educated Imagination was published the same years as Frye’s first collection of essays, Fables of Identity. Frye’s own identity, he says in several places, was forged by three things: his church (he was ordained in the United Church), his political affiliation (he was a member of the CCF, later the NDP), and his university (he was formally associated with Victoria University for 62 years). Each of these was very important for Frye, and they go a long way in explaining who he was—that is, in explaining his identity. A large part of that identity got jump-started and then developed right on this campus.
Can it happen for you? And what do we mean by identity, anyway? Here comes the sermon I promised.
Identity is, first of all, the principle that makes metaphor possible. To state that two things are each other moves us a great distance from saying that they are comparable. Simile is based on the principle of analogy, and it is very easy for us to understand how two things are similar. But metaphor says that two things are literally the same thing, not similar. This is a simple observation but a radical and mind-blowing one. The model is grammatical: one thing is linked with another by the copula or even by juxtaposition. Metaphor tells us that “X is Y” and of course this involves paradox. Keats identifies his Grecian urn with an unravished bride, a foster child, a sylvan historian, and other things. Charles Wright, in his poem “Charlottesville Nocturne,” writes “The late September night is a train of thought, a wound / That doesn’t bleed.” Here, no similarity, analogy, or comparison is involved. In the model of identity (X is Y), paradox is always involved. We all know that in such expressions as “Grecian urn is unravished bride” or “night is unbleeding wound,” X is in fact not Y. Yet metaphor tells us it is and so paralyzes our rational faculties, which is to say it blows our minds. The rest of what I’ll say has to do with paradox and mind-blowing.
Mind-blowing, it seems to me, is one of the things that should go on in Vic One’s Northrop Frye Stream. Frye himself sometimes refers to “mind-blowing” as the expanding or intensifying of consciousness, the effort to move ourselves away from our ordinary habits of mind in a subject/object world and toward an imaginative world. He sometimes calls this an apocalyptic or visionary world, a world higher than the world of sense. “Apocalypse” is a word with religious connotations, and the counterlogical relations that define metaphor lie at the heart of religious language as well. Something very mysterious goes on in the gap between X and Y. Consider, for example, what is perhaps the ultimate metaphor in the Christian tradition—the Incarnation. Here we are told that the divine and the human are identical—not that they are in some ways similar, but that they are the same. As Frye often observed, we have the same process at work in the compound expressions found in the ancient traditions of natural religions: sky-god and tree-god and river-god and the like. Here the hyphen is really an equal mark, a hyphen doubled, we might say. Primitive human beings were identifying, in the first serious effort of metaphor, some aspect of nature with god or at least a personality. The same point is being made in the cave drawings at Lascaux and Altamira. In these examples there seems to be no distinction between subject and object.
If we think of the world, à la John Locke, as being separated into the perceivers and the perceived, then we are, so to speak, locked into a world of subjects and objects. But the world of metaphor collapses this distinction. Or perhaps better, metaphor tries to develop some relation between the subject and object. What this relation is we are inevitably required to find still other metaphors to define—such as power or energy. Martin Buber said that what exists between the world of the “I” and the “It” was a “Thou.” This, I think, is the highest state of metaphorical experience—what Frye, following Heidegger, calls ecstatic metaphor. It’s an experience in which we have a sense of uniting ourselves with a presence that it not ourselves.
If identity is a structural principle of metaphor, it is also a structural principle of narrative or myth. In literature, which is my own field, nothing is more fundamental than what Aristotle called the mythos or plot. And when we look at the large contours of the history of literature, it is possible to see the entire history of the stories we tell as a single story, the story of the loss and regaining of identity. What is lost and regained is in its simplest form the state of existence in Eden before the Fall, and so it’s what exists on the other side of the world of absurdity and alienation, a world in which women and children get blown up in Iraq, in which a undersea earthquake wreaks untold death and destruction, in which US imperialism, sorrowfully, continues ever to expand, unchecked, around the globe. The principle of identity as a structural principle expands, however, from literature to life. If literature has its recognition scenes, we have our own self-recognition scenes. We, of course, often use identity in this fairly commonplace sense: identity is what defines our character as a person, the essential point being that, outside of our genes, we are what we identify with, and this, it seems to me, is what education is all about. There is also, of course, a social identity, which is constructed from all those groups we identity with—social, political, educational, religious—all those things that connect the past with the future, and which will continue, if they’re genuine, after we have gone.
Identity is also constructed by our identification with other people, represented, say, in the marriage ceremony as two becoming one—an abstract metaphor but a metaphor nevertheless of the X = Y variety and symbolized by the metaphor of the ring. If metaphor is defined by identity, personal identity is often defined by metaphor. We are what we take into ourselves, what we possess. And what possesses us operates as our informing principles: our identity is defined by what our imaginations “swallow,” to use one of Frye’s metaphors, the metaphor of ingestion. This is one of the principal reasons for studying the products of culture—to possess its powers. The metaphors of ingestion and possession are combined in the remarkable example of Ezekiel’s eating the scroll (2:9–3:3): Ezekiel is possessed by the Word and so he takes it into himself, the literal and the metaphorical in this case being the same thing. A similar example of this metaphor of identity is embodied, to use that word metaphorically, in Montaigne’s remark, that he was consubstantial with his book. Frye said the same thing when someone asked if he could write Frye’s biography: my life is my books. Still another example of such possession is Milton’s phrase “the Word of God in the heart,” a different bodily organ from Ezekiel’s but one that still indicates that one’s identity is what is taken into the body. These bodily metaphors, all of which Frye himself points to, signify the idea that our identity is what we internalize from outside the self and are therefore what we possess and are possessed by. The ultimate Christian metaphor for such ingestion is the Eucharist, and here, at least in the Roman Catholic tradition, the literal and the metaphorical are indeed identical: bread is body and wine is blood.
Possession, it seems to me, is what should go on in the ideal Vic One classroom, one where the teacher has more or less disappeared and where the subject has taken over and is completely possessed by you, where you begin to define your own identities by taking into your minds and hearts and imaginations whatever writer you happen to be reading. This seldom happens: too many egos, the main one being the teacher’s, get in the way. But it remains a hope. This is certainly one of the ways to construct a self: we are what we identify with. I myself have been trying for the better part of forty years to take possession of the writings of Northrop Frye, and a good part of my identity is defined by that journey. Recently, I have been trying to do the same thing with the poetry of Charles Wright. Both Frye and Wright are religious visionaries, though of very different kinds. Both have provided a springboard for me to what Joseph Campbell calls “myths to live by.” Literature itself does not directly provide myths to live by. They spring rather from an existential response to literature. They are models for action, belonging to those concerns, to use Frye’s formulation, that a society is most devoted to learning and preserving, although retaining, so I think, a tolerance that permits an openness to other myths to live by. Because it deals with the hypothetical, with imaginative possibilities, and thus is detached from direct belief and action, literature opens the door to tolerance.
If there is a close connection between identity in metaphor and identity in life, a similar connection exists between the stories in literature and those in life. Most stories tell of a journey that takes the form of a quest. In the most complete form of the quest-cycle, which is the romance, the hero or heroine eventually arrive at some point renewed and transformed. We see this in Virgil, where the movement is from old Troy to new Troy. We see it in Homer, where the movement is from Ithaca, through the horrors of war and then a series of marvelous adventures, concluding with a restoration back in Ithaca—a restoration of kingship and marriage and fatherhood. We see this in the Divine Comedy, with the conjunction of Dante and Beatrice, and all the divine illumination she represents. We see it in Milton, where we move from paradise lost to paradise regained. And we see it in the Bible, which moves from Creation to Apocalypse, the Genesis garden with its water and trees having been restored in the final chapter of Revelation, or at least a vision of this garden appears and is available to those who accept, in that extraordinary verse in the last chapter, the invitation from the Spirit and the Bride to drink.
One thing I tried to get my own students to embrace is the idea that just as there are journeys in literature—linear journeys, cyclical journeys, and vertical journeys up and down the axis mundi of the literary universe—so our own lives are also journeys. We always seek, or at least should seek as I see it, the path back to our proper home—which is Eden. We may not get there, but what life should be like, the Utopian vision, remains our goal. In Taoism, the Tao is often translated as “way,” and in the Tao te Ching we learn that the way is the “way of the valley,” the way of humility and self-effacement. Our own journey takes place in middle-earth, as Tolkien would have it, in the purgatorial valley suspended between heaven and hell, the apocalyptic and the demonic. Speaking of valleys, Keats says that life is a vale of soul-making, which is a formula I cannot improve on.
The journey can also be seen as a vertical metaphor, one in which we go up and down the ladder, like those angels descending and ascending Jacob’s own ladder (Genesis 28:12). In one of his epigraphs to the Four Quartets Eliot, quoting one of Heraclitus’ fragments, says, “The way upward and the way downward are the same.” This is a myth that gets repeated over and over in our literary tradition. Odysseus has to descend to Hades before he can get home. Orpheus descends to find Eurydice. In the Sumerian myth, Ishtar has to descend to the underworld in search of her lover Tammuz or Adonis, a story, incidentally, alluded to in Ezekiel, who has a vision in Babylon of the women weeping for Tammuz (8:14). The fancy word for this downward journey is katabasis, and perhaps our most famous katabasis is Dante’s descent into hell, a journey he must take in order to emerge triumphantly on the other side. And we of course have numerous versions of this downward descent in our own time, from Marlow’s journey into the heart of darkness in Conrad to Eliot’s through the waste land. You have doubtless encountered many other versions of this in your readings in Vic One. This mythical or narrative movement is all very mysterious, and it creates a good deal of anxiety (who wants to go to hell?), but in the consciousness of many writers it seems to be a requirement before the moment of recognition or illumination or vision.
Vision and recognition are based on metaphors of seeing, and nothing is more important in literature or in life than that. Our ears are of course important: we hear the story as it’s told, as we turn the pages to see what happens next. But the punch line—what characters come to see and what we as readers come to realize—is a matter of the eye. Let me give one example of such recognition by way of closing.
“To recognize” means literally “to know again,” but like many other words having to do with knowledge, it means figuratively to see. Anagnorisis, ordinarily translated as “discovery” or “recognition,” is a central category in Aristotle’s theory of dramatic tragedy, and it should be a central category, I think, in your own encounter with literature. There is a literary form of recognition, and there is a religious or spiritual form. At the level of literary anagnorisis Oedipus discovers who murdered King Laius, and he comes to recognize that he is guilty of parricide and incest. But if we leave the story at that, we have only a detective story, and if Sophocles’ play were only a murder mystery, then it would have long since disappeared into the dustbin of history. Something else in the play is compelling, and this something else is the vision Oedipus has at the moment of recognition and reversal—the moment he blinds himself and screams out against Apollo. This vision does not cancel our experience of the literary level: it lifts the detective story to another level, forcing Oedipus now into the role of a cosmic detective. What Oedipus discovers at this level—a moment of intensified consciousness—is difficult to articulate, but surely it has to do both with his awareness of the limitations of his own human power and with his hope, even when he feels most polluted and helpless, that genuine self-knowledge and social enlightenment might come to him if he quits blaming Apollo and patiently endures the suffering he must undergo. Aristotle points out that the reversal and recognition in Sophocles’ play are coincident. At one level the reversal is obvious: Oedipus’ fortune has been turned upside down. But at another level we have a sudden spiritual transformation. The Mahayana Buddhists call this a paravritti, a word that literally means “turning up” or “change,” but it corresponds to conversion in religious experience. The recognition of Oedipus is a paravritti—the complete conversion of his mind and soul at the moment of his deepest desolation.
There are of course many other kinds of conversion experiences, and we would wish that whatever kinds of recognition come to us they would come with less pain than Oedipus’. Sixty-one years ago, young Northrop Frye was sitting in an all-night coffee-and-doughnut place on Bloor St. called Bowles Lunch. It was two or three in the morning. He’d started trying to write a paper on Blake’s Milton, which he was to read the next day in seminar. It was not coming together. Then suddenly, as Frye reported later, he “began to see glimpses of something bigger and more exciting than [he] had ever before realized existed in the world of the mind.” As he told one reviewer, the “universe just broke open, and I’ve never been, as they say, the same ever since.” This was the beginning of Frye’s commitment to write a book on Blake. The book didn’t come for another dozen years, but when it did it revolutionized Blake studies. Frye has a similar recognition scene as a student when he was reading Spengler’s Decline of the West, and it’s clear that part of his identity—what he identified with—was forged from these two experiences. That’s the kind of thing that can happen to you if you take advantage of the various ways that the Frye Stream seeks to educate your imagination. My hope for you, as you’re beginning your university careers, is that you will have moments of illumination similar to those of the former Victoria student who has given his name to your stream.