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Words With Power: Being A Second Study Of `The Bible And Literature`

by Northrop Frye
320 pages,
ISBN: 0070831212


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The Canons Of The Authentic
by Richard Paul Knowles

Northrop Frye`s Words with Power is a monumental addition to one of literary criticism`s most impressive edifices THIS BOOK WOULD SEEM to he the final chapter in the great book that Northrop Frye has been writing for the past 50 years. Its central predecessors have been Fearful Symmetry (1947), The Anatomy of Criticism (1957), and The Great Code (1983, Fryes study of "the Bible and literature" of which Words with Power is the continuation). Over the years, there have of course been many other books and articles by Frye -- digressions, fillings in, lecture series, and sidebars -- in which he has made major contributions to the study of Shakespeare, Canadian literature and culture, and education, to name only a few. But it is in this central triptych that he has most clearly outlined his great and coherent systematizing vision of romanticism, literature, and the Bible. Words with Power is fully continuous with the earlier Volumes, and its view of the Bible is one first outlined in Fearful Symmetry: The basis of the Bible is ... religious and historical saga concerned with anthropomorphic gods and theomorphic man, part of it legendary history and part prophetic vision ... It is the historical product of a visionary tradition. It records a continuous reshaping of the eartier and more primitive visions, and as it goes on it becomes more explicitly prophetic, until the confused legends of an obscure people take the form of the full cyclic vision of fall, redemption and apocalypse. The Old Testament begins with an account of an escape from Egypt into Canaan led by Joshua, and ends with the prophetic allegorical recreation of this event: the escape of the imagination from a "furnace of iron" into a City of God through the power of a divine humanity or Messiah. The Gospels consolidate this vision of the Messiah into the vision of Jesus, who has the same name as Joshua, and the proof of the events in Jesus` life, as recorded in the Gospels, is referred not to contemporary evidence but to what the Old Testament prophets had said would be true of the Messiah. The imaginative recreation of Old Testament visions in the New Testament ... merely Completes A process which goes on to a considerable extent within the Old Testament itself. The focus of Anatomy of Criticism, of course, was the whole of Western literature, but even there the single most frequently cited work is the Bible, and the only real Surprise about the pub lication of The Great Code was that it took 2 5 years (after Anatomy) to produce. In that book Frye Studied "how the structure ofthe Bible, as revealed by its narrative and imagery, was related to the conventions and genres of Western literature." Here he describes that work as "a preliminary investigation of Biblical structure and imagery." Words with Power, as a sequel, "puts more emphasis on critical theory, and tries to re-examine the Bible on a level that makes its connection with the literary tradition more comprehensible. It is therefore," he says, "something of a successor also to ... Anatomy of Criticism ...; in fact, it is to a considerable extent a summing up of my critical views." As in his earlier work, Frye`s approach, like his mind, is synoptic and all-encompassing. His critical position "revolves around the identity of mythology and literature, and the way in which the structures of myth ... continue to form the structures of literature." He believes that "every human society possesses a mythology which is inherited, transmitted and diversified through [a] literature," that "incarnates mythology in a historical context"; and, dismissing both analytical deconstruction and the new and old historicisms, he is concerned primarily to illuminate what he sees as "the central structural principles that literature derives from myth, the principles that give literature its communicating power across the centuries through all ideological changes." The specific subject of Words with Power is "the extent to which the canonical unity of the Bible indicates or symbolizes a much wider unity in secular European literature." The reference to "canonical unity" -- in the Bible and in literature -- is one to which I`ll return; but faith in such unity and coherence informs Frye`s work and shapes the nature of his insights, all of which have to do with "suggesting a context which is part of [the] meaning" of specific literary works, "relating works of literature, through their conventions and genres, to a coordinated view of literature`; and exploring "why the poets whom we consider most serious and worthy of exhaustive study -- i.e., the canonical writers -- "are invariably those who have explicitly used the kind of imagery studied here." Frye`s primary critical principle in this book is, as he says, "an inference from the principle of coherence as a critical hypothesis": The poetic imagination constructs a cosmos of its own, a cosmos to be studied not simply as a map but as a world of powerful conflicting forces. This imaginative cosmos is neither the objective environment studied by natural science nor a subjective inner space to be studied by psychology. It is an intermediate world in which the images of higher and lower, the categories of beauty and ugliness, the feelings of love and hatred, the associations of sense experience, can be expressed only by metaphor. FRYE DIVIDES Words with Power into two parts, the first of which, "Gibberish of the Vulgate:` sets out what Frye sees as the different idioms of linguistic expression, tries to outline the distinctive social function of literature, and attempts to establish the basis of the poet`s authority. The second part, "Variations on a Theme," deals with the image of the axis mundi -- the vertical dimension of the imaginative cosmos -- and consists of a series of essays in comparative mythology between the Bible and literature. The first four chapters are in part useful and lucid reviews of relevant material covered in Anatomy and The Great Code. Chapter I concerns itself with four modes of language: the descriptive, which deals with "facts" and answers the question "what?"; the conceptual, which deals with argument and metaphysics and answers "why?"; the rhetorical (or ideological), the allegorical and moral strands of which are concerned respectively with "what you should believe" and "what you should do; and finally the imaginative, which is concerned with the conceivable rather than the "real:, and which is the realm of myth. Frye presents these in the reverse order of their usual chronological development, and groups the first two modes together as "impersonal" or "objective," while the last two operate in a realm of acknowledged subjectivity. Criticism itself, Frye claims, is "distinguishable ... from the different forms of verbal practice just considered:` because it is "the theory of words and of verbal meaning" It deals, he says, with "the canons of the authentic" in literature, representing "the forming of a social consensus around it" The second and third chapters compare in detail the rhetorical and poetic, or ideological and literary modes; define the literary as myth after the ideology has dissolved; and outline what Frye describes as the two levels of human "concern." Primary concerns -- food, sex, property, and liberty of movement -- he calls transcendent, and places in the realm of myth; secondary concerns -the social contract, the religious, and the political -- he calls historical and places in the realm of ideology. The first of these types of concern Frye sees as the vertical line on an imaginary axis, while the second is the horizontal. Frye locates the poet at the intersection of these lines, bringing together the social and ideological (or historical) concerns of the writer`s own time with the "mythological" line that extends back to Homer and forward to the reader. Thus horizontal structures -- narrative, cyclical or linear -- form a journey through time and are essentially experiential; while vertical structures are spatial and temporally transcendent, become apparent upon reflection after reading, and provide the meaning, metaphor, and "visualized unity" of a work of literature. The chapter that concludes the first half of Words with Power introduces a fifth linguistic mode, the "kerygmatic" or prophetic, in which symbol expands towards identity with what is symbolized, mythos moves towards identity with logos, and language functions as proclamation. Where the previous two chapters had focused on the relationships between the poetic and the rhetorical, this one deals with the literary and the kerygmatic, concerning itself with poetic and prophetic inspiration, and, Ultimately, with revelation. It is one of the most intriguing and engaging chapters in the book. THE SECOND HALF of Words with Power outlines four groups of images of the axis mundi, each of which is centred around a different primary or secondary "concern." The first two have to do with the "higher" world and are introduced in Genesis through the two accounts of creation; and the last two have to do with the "lower" world and are introduced through the fall of Adam and Eve and the story of the rebel angels, respectively. The first group, outlined in a chapter entitled "The Mountain," deals with "wisdom and the word:, and with systems of hierarchical order. These images of ladders, chains of being and the like -- are all related to human consciousness of time and space and to transcendence (upward); and they all address the concern to make and create through freedom of movement and thought. The second set of images, outlined in a chapter called "The Garden," have to do with "love and the spirit," and with non-hierarchical natural systems of vitality and growth. These images -- of sexual fulfilment and frustration, of sacred and demonic marriages, of woman as nature, and so on -- all have to do with eros, and they all address the concern to love. The last two chapters of the book deal with the lower world. The first of these, "The Cave," focuses on creative descent (drawing energy from below rather than above), and return from descent (as revolutionary). Here Frye deals with the concern to sustain oneself and assimilate one`s environment, the primary concerns of bodily integrity, food and drink; and here he points to "the two great organizing patterns in the Bible and in literature" as the cyclical myth of renewal (union) and the linear myth of the apocalypse (separation). The cluster of images in the final chapter, "The Furnace," has to do with the demonic and titanic, from rebel angels to revelations, and its exemplars are Prometheus (compared to the Christ of the Passions), Dionysus, tragedy, and the Melville of Moby Dick. Here the concerns addressed are escape from slavery or restraint, and concerns of property and extension of power. UNQUESTIONABLY THE WORK of a great synthesizing imagination, Words with Power has an unparalleled (in criticism) capacity to order and shape the products of the imagination. Like Frye`s earlier work, it is a model of systematic thinking, with an astonishing range of reference, and it is written in Frye`s usual lucid and luminous prose. It may in fact be the most accessible of Frye`s major works, and it is replete with memorable insights and phrases. (My own favourite is a passing reference to sensuous biblical passages that have been "chewed by the rodents of prudery.") As Frank Kermode said of The Great Code in The New Republic, this is not a useful book, but that is because it is itself more literature -- or even scripture -- than criticism: it satisfies or disturbs on its own terms, but can`t be judged by its utility. Frye satisfies, of course, primarily as a builder of unities, a kind of Aristotle of romanticism. He has always been at his most illuminating when writing about the romantics, and Words with Power is no exception. Moreover here as elsewhere he draws heavily and sympathetically on Aristotle: Much of my critical thinking has turned on the double meaning of Aristotle`s term anagnorisis, which can mean "discovery" or "recognition," depending on whether the emphasis falls on the newness of the appearance or its reappearance. For the universalist Frye, who is capable in this book of describing myth as "the great recognition scene ... that lies behind the totality of human creation," and of referring to Revelations itself as a recognition scene, the difference is not significant. "Every true discovery," he says, "must in some sense relate to what has always been true, and so all genuine knowledge includes recognition, however interpreted" Words with Power, then, will satisfy its readers` drive toward unity, but will annoy critics, theorists, and others who feel that there may be better things to do with literature than divide it up, classify it, and group parts of it together in order to name and thereby gain dominion over it. Frye, of course, is interested in what is similar among things, or what can reassuringly be seen or constructed as similar; and he treats the Bible and literature as raw material for his own shaping vision, a vision that through the construction of unities allows him to control, contain, or "comprehend." He has little patience for pluralism, which he considers to be a temporary aberration of critical discourse, or for those interested in the construction of difference in the poststructuralist sense, where all meanings are provisional. Indeed, although he is on some occasions quite careful to acknowledge the historicity of "truth" and "reality," he is also capable of an extraordinarily simplistic absolutism when dismissing his critics. To those who considered The Great Code to be antihistorical because it seemed unlikely on historical grounds that the unity it "demonstrated" in the Bible could exist, he glibly replies, "as it does exist, so much the worse for history." All of this brings us back to "canonical unity" and to Frye`s essentialist humanism, which allows him to perceive or construct a mythological unity and coherence in literature and in the Bible that transcend time and place, and that hold different periods of history together. There is a circularity in the argument that "the poets whom we consider most serious and worthy of exhaustive study are invariably those who have explicitly used the kind of imagery studied here." Here as elsewhere Frye ignores the historical forces that shape his and our privileging of certain species of myth, and certain canons of writing. He too readily, for me, dismisses or ignores schools of criticism that study the ideological processes through which "great" books are canonized, that explore the readerly production of texts, or that interest themselves in multiplicity, heterogeneity, or contingency. Indeed Frye makes clear his belief that a consistent and unified ideology is necessary because the only alternative is "brutality and barbarism." At the root of his dialectical and revolutionary romanticism is the very conservative belief that one consistent ideology can only be replaced by another, that pluralism leads to chaos and destruction. For all the expansiveness of his vision, then, Frye`s critical stance is, in Mikhail Bakhtin`s terms, monologic. He values forms of literature such as epic, or tragedy, that possess a kind of intrinsic generic coherence, and for the most part avoids more open, disruptive, or irregular forms; and he tends to explain away the multiple voices that he acknowledges make up the Bible by imposing upon it an overriding formal coherence and integrity that is occasionally in danger of reducing everything to the language of Frye`s own criticism. It would be ungenerous, however, to close by criticizing a book by one of literatures greatest synoptic thinkers for the very things that make it great. Words with Power stands effectively on its own, and is even more powerful as a recapitulation and rounding out of Frye`s architectonic vision. Monumental, articulate, and provocative, it could have been written by no one else.
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