From The Belly of The Whale: Frye's "Personal Encounter"

Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible as Literature. Toronto:Academic Press, 1982: 261 pp.
Northrop Frye, Divisions on a Ground. Ed. James Polk. Toronto: Anansi,1982: 199 pp.


In a cover story for Maclean's (April 5, 1982), Northrop Frye is reported to have said that his non-metaphorical reading of the Bible as a child under the direction of his mother (who educated him at home until Grade 4) was a "load of crap." Not surprisingly, his childhood, as he reportedly described it, was one "I always wanted to get away from." Though in the interview he was speaking literally, Frye, like most of us, came finally to realize that the only way to "get away from" the "crap" that inhabits our childhood is to see it metaphorically. The Bible as excrement is humanly unusable and has to be eliminated. The total form of it is Leviathan, a sea-monster that would, if it could, swallow us up as it swallowed Jonah. The mother who offers us to Leviathan is in the Bible Rahab, the sea-beast's whore usually referred to as the Whore of Babylon who releases the imagination to do its work, carrying within herself the bride. Like most children, Frye presumably spent much of his childhood in the belly of the whale. It was only much later as he came to understand Jonah's and Job's experience that he came to see his life as metaphor and grasp the archetypal meaning of his (and everyman's) world. Precisely when this happened is perhaps known only to Frye, though in the Maclean's cover story it is reported that late one night, while writing a graduate paper on Blake at Victoria College, he had an epiphany. In a flash of insight he realized that Blake was not the madman many critics believed but one of the sanest men who had ever read and understood the Bible. Out of that experience Fearful Symmetry (1947) was born, and out of Fearful Symmetry emerged in the fullness of time everything else.

     The personal dimension of Frye's career as one of the foremost literary critics in the long history of criticism renders him in the uncorrupted sense of the word an evangelist whose mission is to interpret the Word understood as the verbal universe shaped by the imagination, a universe which Frye considers man's true home. "I'm really building everything around a highly personal vision, a vision I think I've had since I was a child," Frye is reported saying in the Maclean's story. Apparently even as a child that vision managed to survive the "load of crap" in which it was offered to him. As a teacher, for whom (as he says) "patience has to be a substitute for heroism," that waste material still daily confronts him as he struggles to counter it with the organized innocence born of an epiphany while writing a graduate paper. "I've got this damn monkey on my back and it won't get off," he is reported to have said of the work yet to be done. "Why," he asks in his Introduction to The Great Code, "does this huge, sprawling, tackless book sit there inscrutably in the middle of our cultural heritage like the 'great Boyg' or sphinx in Peer Gynt, frustrating all our efforts to walk around it." Frye could be describing Leviathan; he is, in fact, describing the Bible which was once, and still can be, Leviathan.

     Like his mentor, Blake, Frye is engaged as a teacher and scholar in a ceaseless mental fight to build Jerusalem, Jerusalem in Blake's metaphor being the writer's bride, a redeemed Rahab in a kingdom of the imagination where there is no more sea. For Frye, as for Blake, this act of building is the act of writing when language is, like the language of the Bible, the language of love. Understood as communication, kerygma, the bride or Jerusalem is the author's body of readers. Addressing them in the truth of metaphor (which is a level of vision beyond faith), Frye in his approach to his readers hopes to evoke in them a human imaginative response. He is therefore careful at the outset to point out that his book "is not a work of Biblical scholarship, much less of theology." It expresses, he continues, "only my own personal encounter with the Bible, and at no point does it speak with the authority of a scholarly consensus." Its authority, in short, is the authority of a "personal encounter," and that "encounter" he must therefore explain. He discovered, he tells the reader, that if his students were to make much sense of the literature they were studying at the university they had first to make sense of the Bible. Making sense of the Bible, he further realized, was arousing a "sense" already potentially present within them, though in a sleeping or repressed state. His own personal encounter'' was the identity he found in the Bible as the identity repressed in his students. It was, as he elsewhere describes it, an encounter with a myth of identity. Another word for that myth is metaphor, something that fundamentalists knew almost nothing about, except as something to be feared or shunned. Frye, I think it can justly be argued, discovered in the Bible the reality of metaphor. As a result of that discovery, which came in a fully conscious way while writing a graduate paper on Blake, he broke finally free of a religious faith still contaminated with "crap" and entered the liberated world of metaphor. His understanding of that world, which is the Biblical vision beginning with Creation and ending with Apocalypse, constitutes the content of this long-awaited book.

     Of the eight chapters in The Great Code, two are devoted to metaphor, the other subjects being language, myth and typology to each of which Frye devotes two chapters. One of the great virtues of metaphor, particularly as Frye explores the various ways in which it works to keep a mythology open rather than allowing it to close, is that to identify two things (A is B) releases the imagination to do the work that is particular to it. Outside of the imagination it is quite impossible that A can be B without ceasing in some sense to be A. Metaphor not only asserts that it can, but displays or enacts that it can. Metaphor affirms that whatever the imagination can make is. "To find no contradiction in the union of old and new," writes Coleridge, "to contemplate the ANCIENT of days and all his works with feelings as fresh, as if all had then sprang forth at the first creative fiat, characterizes the mind that feels the riddle of the world, and may help to unravel it." God, the most ancient, Coleridge here suggests, becomes, through metaphor, the most new. Metaphor brings us into the presence of "the first creative fiat." In the Book of Job, God asks Job if he was present when he created Leviathan. Job's answer is a qualified yes, having nearly been swallowed by him. Even that qualification will be removed, however, when, finally, Job's Redeemer stands upon the earth, for then he will be fully present in an understanding of what he has been through. The New Testament Christ, suggests Frye (exploring the Bible's typology in which everything in the Old Testament becomes the type of everything in the New) is the antitype of the Old Testament Job.

     Frye, following Blake, describes the making of metaphors as "a vision of upward metamorphosis, of the alienated relation of man to nature transformed into a spontaneous and effortless life — not effortless in the sense of being lazy or passive, but in the sense of being energy without alienation." This transformation of nature into a vision of man's original spontaneous and effortless life'' that characterizes childhood becomes in the closing lines of Blake's Jerusalem "All Human Forms identified even Tree Metal Earth & Stone. / All Human Forms identified, living going forth & returning wearied / Into the Planetary Lives of Years Months Days & Hours reposing / And then Awaking into his Bosom in the Life of Immortality." By making a city into a bride (or whore), the city becomes a bride (or whore); by making a lamb (or tiger) into Christ, the lamb (or tiger) becomes Christ; by making Christ into God, Christ becomes God; by making man into them all, man becomes them all, which is to say, the identity of ''all Human Forms.

     The alienated relations between man and nature, which is man imprisoned in nature and crying to get out, communicates itself in that descriptive language which accepts and consolidates the separation of subject and object, mind and body, the self and other. The literary representation of this fallen condition can be found in simile and allegory where comparisons call attention to separateness rather than identity. They are, as such, arrested forms of the imagination's "upward metamorphosis" which, given the energy that properly belongs to it, cannot cease from mental fight until Jerusalem (metaphor) has been attained. Thus, for Frye as for Blake, the Bible does not so much reject the "alienated relations of man to nature" (the metaphor of which is Egypt, Babylon, Rahab, Leviathan, Satan) as enact in a continuously consistent and incremental way (rather like a ballad) the overcoming of it through the imagination's construction of a fully energized life without alienation (the metaphor of which is Jerusalem). That life, argues Frye, is "the person of Christ" not as the "so-called 'Jesus of history'," but as the Bible itself. The person of Christ is the Word made flesh, given, that is, the form in which it exists.

     The understanding of the Bible as the person of Christ constitutes, for Frye (as for so many evangelical Christians), the entrance into the divine life, a life without alienation in creative possession of its own energy. For the evangelicals at least, this entrance takes the form of a "personal encounter," a direct and immediate enlightenment. Frye does not call it a conversion because he wishes to avoid the restrictions of religious "belief' which he describes as "a terminus of belief." For that "terminus" (in which an enlightenment can also be a blinding of a dogmatic and permanent sort more closely related to tragedy than to the divine comedy of the Bible) he would substitute something "more tentative," directed, as he puts it, "to the open community of vision, and to the charity that is the informing principle of a still greater community than faith." This "open community of vision" constitutes for Frye, among other things, the vast body of literature which finds its archetypal origins in the Bible understood as "the Great Code of Art," a phrase that comes from Blake.

     At the end of his concluding chapter, Frye turns to Paul's account of his "personal encounter" with the person of Christ which he describes in II Corinthians 12. Two things happened to Paul. First, his solid ego that separated him from Christ dissolved so that he was no longer sure whether he was "in" or "out of' his own body (he was "in" the body of Christ, the imaginative form of his own). Second, he sensed his inability to make the experience intelligible without opening up a new language which, initially, he thought was forbidden. This new language, Frye finally suggests, is the language of love that escapes from argument and refutation. It is the language of metaphor which is and is not, though not as opposition, but as a dwelling together even as in Jerusalem the lion and lamb dwell together.

     In describing Paul's moment of enlightenment, Frye, I suggest, is also, though of course he does not say so, recognizing within it his own "personal encounter" with the Bible metaphorically understood as "the person of Christ." What to others was either a stumbling block or foolishness was for Blake the highest form of sanity: man fully awake in possession of his creative power. In writing a graduate essay on Blake, Frye one night in Victoria College suddenly understood that sanity as perhaps no previous reader of Blake had. "He feels a certain reluctance in stressing the experience," Frye writes of Paul's encounter, "mainly, no doubt, because of his strong revolutionary slant: he wants the world as a whole to wake up, and individual enlightenment is useful chiefly because it may be contagious, which it cannot be if it is incommunicable."

     Frye, as a social critic, has over a number of fruitful years revealed his "strong revolutionary slant"; anyone familiar with what he has written about this country, particularly poetry in this country, must know how strongly he wishes to wake this country up. Waking Canada up is, of course, in the Biblical metaphor to which Frye, like Blake, is mentally committed, a matter of building Jerusalem here. Frye as a social critic chooses his metaphors well. Describing the entrance to Canada through the mouth of the St. Lawrence into the belly of a vast inland ocean in his conclusion to the Literary History of Canada, Frye at once aligns the work of the imagination in this country with the work of Jonah and Job and Christ. Much that is now best in the work of Canadian writers (Macpherson's Boatman and Reaney's Alphabet come to mind) reveals the fact that Frye's "personal encounter" as a graduate student at Victoria has indeed proven "contagious," which it certainly could not have been had it remained "incommunicable."


At least since Lester Pearson impressed the world with his performance at the United Nations, the dominant cliché about the Canadian character is that, being of colonial descent, never having fought for its independence, strongly resistant (because of the French-English polarity) to a genuine national identity, it is the ideal mediator: objective, bemused, ironic, curious, detached. Geographically without a home (the north-south axis regularly dismantling from within and without the artificial east-west axis), it makes for itself an inner world which has the moral support of a still dominant Puritan ethic. The ancestral Canadian cultural hero is probably Milton whose conviction that Adam through moral and physical sweat could build a "Paradise within [him], happier far" than the one he lost strikes for many nature-anxious Canadians precisely the right note, even if Milton's inner Paradise turns out to be a garrison. Not surprisingly, therefore, Milton studies at the University of Toronto for years led the way. Equally unsurprising is the fact that Milton is Frye's favorite poet, despite the fact that his book on Blake remains his major achievement in his dealing with a single artist. Frye's Blake, however, is the Blake that led many of us back to Milton, not to persuade us that he was "of the Devil's party without knowing it," but to force us to look again at the kind of inner dynamic that builds an inner Paradise understood as identity and the freedom that identity confers. Puritan liberty, as Woodhouse explained in what Frye describes as his "epoch-making introduction" to his edition of the Clark Papers, releases the individual from that binding to the state which Hobbes described as Leviathan. Far more than most peoples, Canadians, as Frye makes clear when exploring the geography of this country, understand Leviathan, know what it is like to inhabit his belly. It is perhaps for this reason that Canada as a country lends itself to finding its cultural heroes in Leviathan-slayers like Milton and Blake. Frye, who more than any other Canadian has described the tradition that joins them, has in a very real sense described us. Frye is our cultural hero. The Great Code, more than any book I know (other than the Bible itself), provides a comprehensive account of the roots of the English Canadian Protestant vision. It is, I suggest, a book which only an English Canadian could have written.

     Though most Canadians, being Canadian, must and do ask themselves why Frye with his international reputation chose to remain at Toronto instead of going to Harvard or Oxford (the two universities which being most admired best uphold our colonial outlook), they still find the obvious answer difficult to absorb. Frye makes a rather personal stab at it when he suggests that he remained at Toronto because the four year undergraduate program hooked him and he could henceforth never leave. The kind of inner Paradise that begins to take shape for a Toronto student in the honours program is, Frye suggests, man's real home. Having found it, why leave? Beyond that, however, Frye found in Canada the kind of environmental conditioning that fed and supported the critical viewpoint at which he finally arrived. Frye, as critic, is a constellator. He maps out the verbal universe by locating literary works in their appropriate places both in relation to themselves and to each other. His interest is in what binds literary works together, how they communicate with each other, and what that intricate system of communication means when understood at its major source, the Bible itself as "the Great Code of Art." James Polk, commenting (in his "Preface" to the recent collection of Frye's essays) on the title which he selected, Divisions on a Ground, has this to say:

    The title may also bring to mind Canada's geographical ground and the mapmaker's divisions which give us our shaping silhouette. Frye has often emphasized the importance of Canada's physical land-mass, noting that its empty spaces encourage a suspicion of nature and a "garrison mentality" in our cultural outlook. In the pieces collected here, he continues to explore Canadian space, pointing out, for example, that not only does it prompt a certain sobriety in our nature poetry, but that it also explains our bias for communications and communications theorists.

     Continuing his exploration of"Canadian space" (The Bush Garden is, of course, the title of his previous collection of Canadian essays), affirming again the inherent strength of its regionalism, Frye understands that regional voices do not finally constitute a network unless a communications system draws it out by bringing it into consciousness. Frye, therefore, should certainly be included along with Harold Innis (whom he admits he was slow to recognize) and Marshall McLuhan (about whom he has reservations) as one of the three outstanding "communications theorists" who have led and given international prestige to the intellectual life of this country. Though he describes himself as a "watcher" rather than a maker'' (''I have also been watching the Canadian cultural scene for about forty years," he told UNESCO's International Council of Philosophy and Humanistic Studies in September, 1977), he fully knows how intimate is the connection between watching and making when the mind is alert to its own activity. He has long rejected the subordination of the critical faculty to the creative, preferring, like (and unlike) Arnold (who subordinated in theory if not in practise the one to the other), to assert their necessary connection if the "power of the man" and the "power of the moment" were to be joined and knit together. "But he [Arnold] also assumed that the critical faculty was 'lower' than the creative one," Frye writes, "and I felt that this Romantic baggage of high and low metaphors was getting to be a nuisance." What Frye has been "watching" for the last forty-five years is also something which he has been "making" in the sense of giving it a human shape and meaning. It is for this reason that in this second collection of essays on Canadian culture he can take obvious pride in what he calls the "final phase" of our cultural growth "in which provincial culture becomes fully mature." This development occurs, he writes, "when the artist enters into the cultural heritage that his predecessors have drawn from, and paints or writes without any sense of a criterion external to himself and his public."

     Frye, more than any other Canadian critic, has laid out for artists who wished in whatever way to avail themselves of it that "cultural heritage," assisting them thereby to affirm their necessary regionalism (or, if you like, "provincialism") in the same way that Aeschylus, for example, could affirm the few miles of Greece with which he was on intimate terms (Blake described what he could see from the roof of his cottage at Felpham as the universe). The fact that James Reaney did not have to travel beyond Lucan to find his own tragic content owes much to what Frye in this country helped as a critic to make current. "But if we look at the pictures of Kurelek on the prairies or Jack Chambers in Ontario, or read Buckler on the Maritimes or Rudy Wiebe on Alberta Mennonites," he writes, "we can see the 'provincial' aspect of Canadian culture going into reverse, from inarticulate form to articulate content."

     When I suggested that Frye helped to make current in this country a "communications theory" capable of binding regionalism to a larger vision of what it is I had in mind his predecessor in England, Matthew Arnold. In an early essay, setting forth his critical position, "The Function of Criticism as the Present Time", Frye, deliberately borrowing Arnold's title, was at once aligning himself with Arnold and suggesting his own kind of development (and divergence) from him. Arnold was deeply concerned about the "provincialism" of Victorian poets who had learned from the Romantics how to reduce a representative action to an allegory of a state of mind. The problem with the Romantics, he argued, was that, for all their energy and creative force, they did not know enough. One reason for this, he suggested, was that critics had not done their job. The "function of criticism at the present time," he therefore continued, was to provide poets with "a current of ideas in the highest degree animating and nourishing to the creative power." Lacking those ideas, Byron remained empty of matter, Shelley remained incoherent. Arnold's task, as he explained it, was to assist the poet to move from this deplorable condition (one that he had himself fallen into) toward the creation of a poetry that constituted in the highest sense a criticism of life. Frye, of course, would not state it quite this way, nor would he see poetry in the moral framework that Arnold imposed. Nor would he view Byron as empty of matter, or Shelley as incoherent. And yet when he speaks of the movement in this country "from inarticulate form to articulate content" he has in mind something very like what Arnold is asserting. Given the differences between them (and they are many and major), Frye could nevertheless be described as being for Canada at this point in time what Arnold was for Victorian England. Both of them, to cite but one example, address themselves to what Arnold described as "machinery" in much the same way.

     This most recent collection of Frye's essays on Canadian culture, interestingly arranged by their editor James Polk, is not likely to gain the kind of international attention that The Great Code has already received. It is nevertheless right and proper that the two books should have appeared almost at the same time. Divisions on a Ground should not be understood merely as footnotes to Frye's more cosmic concerns. Those larger concerns constitute the background of these Canadian essays, the "ground" (to apply Polks's title) from which these "divisions" take off in what Polk describes as "startling and provocative ways." They reveal, if you like, the critical evangelist on his own native ground (Blake's Jerusalem is also his daily walk through Mayfair) where he can speak rather more personally and regionally about universal matters. Matthew Arnold, after all, could turn from the Athens of Sophocles or the London of Shakespeare to a consideration of Wragg in custody without forsaking his high critical ground. Wragg's counterpart in Canada does not in these essays escape Frye's attention. His larger vision is very much the ground under his feet. But that is partly because in no other country is space so spaced out,'' far so ''far out.''

Ross Woodman