Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architecht of the Spiritual World
by Robert D. Denham
University of Virginia Press, 373 pages, $37.50
Northrop Frye was one of the half-dozen most influential literary critics of the twentieth century, and his wide-ranging mind brought him unusual prominence in the study and interpretation of comparative religion and mythology. Born in Canada in 1912, he was associated for his whole career with the University of Toronto, first as a student and then as a professor and administrator until his death in 1991.
The University of Toronto Press has thus far issued fourteen volumes (out of a projected thirty-four) in the complete edition of Frye's works, and most of these volumes have been edited by the American scholar Robert D. Denham. Now, with Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, Denham has drawn on the private notebooks and letters he edited for the Toronto edition in an interesting and judicious study of Frye's thought.
The publication in 1947 of Frye's landmark study of William Blake, Fearful Symmetry, was followed in 1957 by his systematic treatise The Anatomy of Criticism. These two books earned Frye an esteem among humanistic intellectuals that was increased by his subsequent works, especially on Romanticism. By the 1960s he had become one of the most influential non-scientific intellectuals in the world, with a scope of influence among students, teachers, and scholars of literature equaled or exceeded only by T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and perhaps Lionel Trilling.
Unlike Eliot and Lewis, Frye was not himself a writer of imaginative literature, but like them, he had strong, systematic philosophical and religious interests and views. In addition, Frye started out his studies at Toronto in theology, was ordained upon graduation, and remained for fifty-five years a minister in the Protestant United Church of Canada. Frye's religious interests and views were reflected in all of his writing, but especially in the last three books he wrote—The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (1982), Words with Power: Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature” (1990), and The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion (1991).
In the 1960s and 1970s Frye was so influential and authoritative that he became something of a cult figure among critics and students. But his complex approach always had detractors, as well. Conservative Christian thinkers were suspicious of his use of the word “myth” to include Christian scripture and doctrine—and also of his apparent similarity to Joseph Campbell and the off-beat, countercultural, utopian radicals of those days, many of whom claimed to have been inspired by Blake, and sometimes by Frye himself.
Then, in the early 1980s, heavy artillery was brought against Frye from the opposite end of the spectrum, the cultural Left, led by figures such as Jonathan Culler and Terry Eagleton. While Eliot and Lewis could be written off by secular-minded critics as obviously partisan theological writers and critics, Frye's position was harder to attack, and his writing harder to ignore. His work had a systematic, encyclopedic, professional character (especially The Anatomy of Criticism), and it showed an ecumenical, syncretic generosity toward many literary traditions and works. Then too, like most critics on the British and American Left, Frye had opposed the neoclassicist and neotraditionalist assaults on Romantic literature—as “spilt religion”—that had been led by T.E. Hulme, Irving Babbitt, P.E. More, Eliot, Ezra Pound, Allen Tate, and Yvor Winters.
Still, from the outset in his great book on Blake, Frye's devotion to the Romantic imaginative tradition had different premises than that of most liberals and radicals. Two years of graduate study in Oxford in the late 1930s impressed upon him the ersatz religious—in some ways Romantic—character of Nazism and Fascism (which Denis de Rougemont called “a politics of collective Romanticism”). Ten years in production, Frye's Fearful Symmetry (1947) was written during World War II and was deeply affected by these hysterical, mythological ideologies and their apocalyptic effects.
Decades later he was to write that from the German Romantic poet Hölderlin onwards, “in proportion as the God of Christianity began to look metaphorical, the metaphorical gods began to look like objects of worship again”—Odin, Thor, and Wotan, the gods of war, blood, soil, and amoral will to power, were resurrected, a point made with terrifying prescience in 1834 by Heinrich Heine. A perverse current of defiant, atheistic, “heroic vitalism”—of Promethean self-divinization—ran from Byron and Shelley, through Carlyle, Emerson, Wagner, and Nietzsche, and down to Hitler. “The Führer's state,” Goebbels said in Danzig in 1939, “is the product of an imagination of genius.”
Frye's loyalty to the Romantic tradition was to its most strongly Protestant figures: Blake and Coleridge, and behind them, Milton as a Christian revolutionary, republican, and visionary. As Denham's book makes clear, Frye was also an astute and lifelong reader of Hegel, whose Phenomenology of Spirit was a seminal book for him. The Blake-Coleridge doctrine of “imagination” seemed to Frye superior not only to neoclassical ideas of reason, imitation, and formal control, but also to the ascendant scientific rationalism-reductionism of the French Enlightenment.
Blake believed this reductionism had already been present in the great proto-Enlightenment English thinkers Bacon, Newton, and Locke: “May God us keep / From single vision and Newton's sleep,” he wrote in 1802. Like later thinkers as diverse as R.G. Collingwood, C.S. Lewis, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling, Frye saw Romanticism generally as a powerful and necessary response to the reductionism implicit in the French philosophes' program, with its ultimately dehumanizing assimilation of the human person to nature. In a notebook from the last decade of his life, Frye wrote: “Hell is human life as ‘mere nature,' as Blake says; purgatory is the effort of the spirit to emerge from this.”
Frye's notebooks record an epiphany in the summer of 1951 that encouraged him to continue to resist what he thought of as the inevitable product of “single vision”—the abyss of modern alienation, absurdity, and anxiety. The “double vision” he wanted was the Christianity of Milton, Blake, and Coleridge: a radical rejection of scientific, naturalistic, and positivistic monism. In this insistence Frye resembles contemporary philosophical Christian poets and critics such as Czeslaw Milosz, Geoffrey Hill, and Wendell Berry. Along the way, Frye was willing to search for allies and resources in Eastern religions and even New Age spirituality, to oppose what he once called “progressive, numerical, self-hypnotic scientism.”
Frye came to believe that the concept of the “Logos,” from the pre-Socratics to St. John's Gospel, was the key intersection in history of the divine and human and that it was at the heart of human sanity and creativity. His theo-poetics was rooted in the Bible, Plato, Dante, Spenser, Milton, Blake, Coleridge, and Hegel. Deeply suspicious of the sufficiency of propositional language, he employed religious language as the only adequate vehicle for the most important features of human creativity: prophecy, kerygma, incarnation, apocalypse, charity, resurrection.
There was no evasion or obfuscation in Frye, despite the occasional charge that he was “an idealizing and escapist visionary.” Generously open to all sorts of literary art as well as to novel, off-beat, consciousness-expanding literature (“kook books,” he called them), Frye's own analytical and expository discourse was normative, realist, and anti-nominalist. Though the structure of Frye's analysis can be breathtakingly vast and elaborate, and the allusiveness nearly overwhelming, there is an underlying modesty of diction.
Much inspired by Frye, the voluble Romantic and gnostic critic Harold Bloom was unhappy with the mature consolidation of Frye's religious vision. He complained that in Frye's last book, the posthumously published Double Vision, Frye insisted that “it would be absurd to see the New Testament as only a work of literature.” But this insistence was nothing new. Readers of Denham's book will see how continuously important Frye's faith was both to his life and to his work. His critical imagination had always been animated by a radical Protestant vision of logos and charity, and by devotion to a tradition of social gospel Christianity that stretched from his own Methodism through Christian Socialism, Blake, Bunyan, Milton, Langland, and St. Francis, and back to the Scriptures themselves.
Whether Frye's magisterial systematization of literature will survive the attack or neglect of current literary critics is uncertain. Conservative Protestants and Catholics may still hold him in suspicion—perhaps because they lack the tradition of high literacy that Frye worked so hard to safeguard and convey. As for worries about the orthodoxy of Frye's encyclopedic, prophetic, literary-religious vision, we might remember Moses' rebuke to those who would have had him silence the unauthorized prophets Eldad and Medad: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would pour his spirit upon them!”
<span style="font-variant: small-caps">M.D. Aeschliman</span> is professor of Education at Boston University, adjunct professor of English at the University of Italian Switzerland, and author of The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.