Posted by Michael Happy on November 14th, 2009
Russell’s latest post on Alter and Frye has got me thinking about my longstanding assumptions about Frye, particularly with regard to the Bible and literature. The Bible and literature occupy the centre of Frye’s critical universe, and understanding what he says about both is to appreciate the full potential of his critical vision.
The Judeo-Christian Bible as the supreme artifact of Christian culture down to about the 18th century is of course easy enough to assume. As Frye points out, the Bible is a primary source of imagery and stories well into the 20th century — and, in these apparently apocalyptically-minded times, into the 21st century as well.
But the Bible is not just a source of mythos and dianoia, to use the Aristotelian terms Frye adapts in Anatomy. It is the source also of a “unique” arrangement of myth and metaphor represented by typology, the progressive succession of type-antitype-type (e.g. Creation-Incarnation-Revelation). Although Frye rather conspicuously only says it once, he nevertheless observes on page 80 of The Great Code:
The typological organization of the Bible does present the difficulty, to a secular literary critic, of being unique: no other book in the world, to my knowledge, has a structure even remotely like that of the Christian Bible.
That structure is the “double mirror” of the Old Testament and the New Testament — the latter concealed in the former and the former revealed by the latter — which provides the Christian Bible’s kerygmatic vision of the human condition that Blake characterizes as the revelation of the “human form divine.” The typological structure of the Christian Bible that furnishes its distinctive double mirror character, however, does not originate with Christianity: the Hebrew Bible is the source of these typological principles, and the first “Christians” were themselves Jews who compiled what would become their “new” testament using the same typological structure of their traditional holy scriptures. As Frye observes:
Typology in the Bible is by no means confined to the Christian version of the Bible: from the point of view of Judaism at least, the Old Testament is much more genuinely typological without the New Testament than with it. There are, in the first place, events in the Old Testament that are types of later events recorded also within the Old Testament. (GC, 83)
When Frye suggests, therefore, as he does in The Great Code (and there alone, it might be pointed out) that the culturally ascendant phases of language we have observed so far — the hieroglyphic, the hieratic, and the demotic — may be, for the first time in human history, about to be succeeded by a kerygmatic phase, he is making about as revolutionary a statement as he ever made. I’m not sure it is possible to approach his work as a whole without thinking about its implications.
Frye’s point about the Bible in The Great Code is that it is not merely “literary” but, thanks to its typological structure and kerygmatic vision, expressive of “literature plus.” That “plus” is the Bible’s synthesis of the imaginative and the concerned represented by the appearance in human history of a just and loving God who eventually takes human form, offers himself for sacrifice, and redeems the fallen human community by doing so. When it comes to Frye’s “second study of the Bible and literature,” Words with Power, however, he seems to soft-pedal this point. Frye’s notion of the kergymatic is no longer restricted to the Bible but extends to the literature of Bible-based cultures. I am never comfortable second-guessing Frye, but I suspect the reason for this is his realization that, notwithstanding the Bible’s status as a unique verbal paradigm, its prophetic power can and does pass into literature and can be accounted for by literary means.
The key here, I think, is the inherently metaliterary conditon of literature that is so readily apparent in the dialectic of romance, with romance, in turn, being the pre-generic mythos of which the other three mythoi – comedy, tragedy, irony-satire – are phases. For Frye, the metaliterary refers to more than just the self-reflexive condition of literature when it shows awareness of itself as literature; the metaliterary is self-reflexive also in the sense that it prophetically reveals the primary concerns that underlie literature’s otherwise imaginative impetus:
The metaliterary begins with the process of perceiving some kind of “that’s for me” detail in one’s reading. In literature, this quality may be present in the magical line or phrase, earlier referred to, but suddenly seems to extend one’s vision… As isolated passages become more frequent, the contact expands from the oracular flash into the possession of or identification with the narrative, as in Eliot’s famous phrase about listening to music so deeply that we become the music while it lasts. (WP 113-14)
This is what Frye means by the “intensified consciousness’ of the kerygmatic vision available by way of the critical study of literature.
I argue in an as-yet unpublished paper that while Frye’s notion of the kerygmatic begins with the unique ”literature plus” typological structure of the Bible, he ends up eliding the distinction between literature and the “literature plus” of the Bible because he found he could demonstrate the kerygmatic dimension of language in purely literary terms. I say, therefore, that when it comes to kerygma, the issue is degree, not kind: once the potential is perceived, the kerygmatic can be discerned in all literature everywhere. However, I don’t think there’s any getting around the fact that Frye himself perceived the kerygmatic by way of the Bible, and that (second-guessing him again) he considered the existential authority of literature to be an expression of the primary rather than ideological concern that derives ultimately from the Bible where God is typologically manifested first as an omnipotent creator, then as a concerned giver of law, then as an incarnated Son of Man, then as sacrifice and redeemer of sin, then, finally — apocalyptically — as the infinitely recreating human form divine on the edge of forever.
Whatever else we do with Frye, we cannot ignore or dismiss his reading of the Bible in relation to literature. To do so, I think, is to miss how primary concerns surface at the end of his career as the source of literature’s true authority and how the critical recognition of that authority endows our words with power — including the power to transform this wicked world into something much more like what we claim to want it to be.