The Universe of Myth

by Frank Kermode | June 9, 1982

The Great Code: The Bible and Literature 

By Northrop Frye

(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 320 pp., $14.95)

There have recently been published a number of books, all of them unusual and all in their way good, which approach the Bible not primarily as a religious work, or even as a collection of ancient books, but as a living literary presence, a still-important element in a secular culture, G. B. Caird, author of The Language and Imagery of the Bible (1980), happens to be an Oxford theologian, but here writes as an "amateur" in the study of such matters as the changing sense of words and the relation of literal to metaphorical senses. Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) uses techniques developed in modern narrative analysis to make us understand the rules and the skills of Old Testament storytellers. A different approach to the same body of material informs a study, just now being published, by the novelist Dan Jacobson.

None of these books is much like the others, and no one who knows anything about Northrop Frye, author of the fourth of these new-wave Bible studies, would suppose for a moment that he could be anything but himself, and wholly original. The publication of his Anatomy of Criticism in 1957 was a major event in the history of modern criticism; and although its influence has faded (it was always too idiosyncratic to be what the author and his disciples wanted it to be, the foundation text of a new scientific criticism), it did change the subject pretty completely. What is beyond doubt is the scope and force of the mind that produced Anatomy. It took on the whole of literature, and in hindsight it is possible to say that Frye always kept the Bible near the center of his interests, so that there would have to be a Bible book to serve as the other principal weight-bearing pillar of the entire large structure of his work. The advent of such a book has long been rumored, and now it has arrived, though what we have at present is only the first of two volumes.

The Great Code is in some ways a strange book, but the first thing that must be said about it is that it is a work of very great distinction. Since its subject is one that happens to interest me, it might be expected that I should add a tribute to its practical value, its usefulness to other (and inevitably lesser) literary critics or students of the Bible. I cannot do that, for it strikes me as beautifully deficient in all such respects; yet it is written with the full force of Frye's authority, and with all the old expressive power. At one point he makes a distinction between two kinds of simplicity; there is the simplicity of the Authorized Version of the Bible, "the simplicity of majesty, not of equality . . . the voice of authority"; and there is the other sort, which is displayed in good modern demotic prose, where the writer will be

as simple as his subject matter allows him to be. . . . That is the simplicity of equal- ity, where the writer puts himself on a level with his reader, appeals to evidence and reason, and avoids the kind of obscurity that creates a barrier.

Frye's prose is a superb example of the latter kind of simplicity; he is perhaps too modest to add that such prose, steadily practiced by fine intelligences, generates its own kind of authority. The Great Code isn't exactly an easy read, but it is as easy as the material permits. The writing is transparent upon the argument; it is also witty and rich in felicitous illustrations. It would be absurd to wish it other than it is—for example, merely useful.

 

The title comes, appropriately, from Blake, the subject of Frye's notable first book and his master as system builder: "I must Create a System or be enslav'd by another Man's." Blake called the Bible, Old and New Testaments, "the Great Code of Art," and Frye's book may be read as a long meditation on this remark. He treats the Bible as a whole, arguing that however the separate parts may have been brought together, they have historically been treated as bound into one volume, as of a purport ultimately to be seen as unitary. So regarded, the Bible is a great myth. The importance of mythology in Frye may be gathered from this remark:

Man lives, not directly or nakedly in nature like the animals, but within a mythological universe, a body of assumptions and beliefs developed from his existential concerns. Most of this is held unconsciously, which means that our imaginations may recognize elements of it, when presented in art or literature, without consciously understanding what it is that we recognize.

One function of criticism is to make us more aware of these inherited assumptions— of our mythological conditioning. As the Bible has played a very large part in forming that inheritance, there is an obvious duty to examine it with a view to bringing into consciousness that unconscious recognition. Frye has thus devised for himself a program that is manifestly post-Freudian and post- Jungian, though there is no direct indebtedness; nor is his concern with the social function of myth very obviously in the traditions of modern sociology and anthropology. He is doing his own thing with his usual ingenuity and power, and is enslaved by no other man's system.

By the same token he isn't doing anything that resembles professional biblical criticism, though I suppose he might allow that David Friedrich Strauss is among his remote ancestors. Readers familiar with Frye's passion for symmetries and his own sort of numerology will not be surprised to discover that his book is structured thus: Language I, Myth I, Metaphor 1, Typology I, Typology II, Metaphor II, Myth II, Language II; nor that the Bible is found to have seven phases of revelation: Creation, Exodus, Law, Wisdom, Prophecy, Gospel, Apocalypse, five in the Old and two in the New Testament. Nor, of course, do the seven represent a simple sequence. Each phase is the type of the phase that follows it, and the antitype of the phase that precedes it; each provides a wider perspective on its predecessor. In much the same way it is argued that interpretations are the antitypes of the texts to which they are applied, as the texts are their types; so typology is the key to almost everything. Not surprisingly, Frye is able to say with confidence that he knows of no other book that covers the same ground as this one.

The language of the Bible is a complex topic. Christianity has always depended on translation—from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek; Greek into Latin; Hebrew, Greek, and Latin into the vernaculars. Yet it remains clear that the sacred text uses several different sorts of language, and Frye specifies three main varieties, each belonging to a different cultural phase (this is his neo-Viconian aspect). He labels them hieroglyphic (poetry, aphorism, metaphor); hieratic (prose, dialectic, metonymy); and demotic or descriptive. An example of what happens to a hieroglyphic word in a later phase is Greek pneuma (Hebrew ruach creates similar problems). The Authorized Version says, "The wind bloweth where it listeth . . . so is everyone that is born of the Spirit"; but the word for both "wind" and "spirit" is, in Greek, the same word, pneuma. The metaphorical compactness of the original is lost; laterphase translation separates the compacted senses. In modern English, automobile tires are "pneumatic," but we can still use the same word to mean "relating to spirit or spiritual existence" (O.E.D.) without danger of confusion (though we may remember that much of Swift's marvelous jeu d'esprit, A Tale of a Tub, turns upon the etymological identity of wind and spirit and on taking one for the other). In the same way, expressions like "the Word became flesh" depend upon a metaphorical use of language alien to later phases. Frye is intent upon restoring our response to such language (as he says poetry does) —for instance, by arguing for the metaphorical identity of Christ and the Bible in that both are the Word, logos. By recovering an ancient feeling for the "radically metaphoric," we may become conscious of "the presence of a numinous personality in the world." The Bible itself, as we have seen, refracts this numinous presence in three sorts of language, not all radically metaphorical. It isn't all poetry and it isn't all prose; in fact it is a mixture, labeled by Frye kerygma or "proclamation"—another technical term, this time from biblical criticism, which Frye endows with a new sense. He won't have the distinction originated by Rudolf Bultmann between myth and kerygma; naturally he is opposed to "demythologization" on principle. For him kerygma is the heart of biblical mythology.

In trying to summarize Frye, one always makes him seem highhanded, arbitrary, so it is well to affirm that he doesn't give that impression at all. His "demotic" resounds with considered common sense. It is true that he wants his own myth and nobody else's, and that he can be pretty dismissive when he chooses. For example, he touches on the folktale element in Judges, but wants to avoid the notion that Samson, whose name resembles early Semitic words for "sun," is any kind of solar myth. True, he is powerful, burns crops, and is kept in a prisonhouse. But after all, we can say of Napoleon that here he reached the zenith of his fame, and there his fortunes were in eclipse, without making him a solar myth; we are simply speaking metaphorically. However, "Delilah" is probably connected with an early Semitic word for "night," and she cuts off Samson's hair and puts out his eyes; the parallel with Napoleon isn't close. The reason for such peremptory dismissals is that one doesn't want other people's awkward myths cluttering up the system. Frye's myth is larger, embracing the entire Bible. It has no more to do with solar myth than with historical fact. "If anything historically true is in the Bible it is there not because it is historically true but for different reasons"; and that applies to the New as much as to the Old Testament. Myths, and the whole Bible is one, "face inward to the concerns of the society," not outward on fact. Thus the Bible is, in a favorite word of Frye's, a "centripetal" work, as indeed his own book is. The question why some parts of the Bible, and especially of the New Testament, are very demotic or descriptive, wanting to sound like records of fact as well as bearing their load of typology, is one that is here touched upon but not really entered into. Yet as Auerbach long ago rvoticed, it is their extraordinary blend of what he called figura and mimesis that makes the Gospel narratives so distinctive, and enabled them to affect so decisively the later developments of realism.

 

Typology, says Frye, is "a neglected subject." As a statement of simple fact, this is not true; but it is true that what others make of typology may strike him as rather trivial. It is at the heart of his book, and perhaps of his thought generally. His Bible, like his book, is a system of mirrors; "Mirror on mirror mirrored is ail the show," as Yeats has it.

How do we know that the Gospel story is true? Because it confirms the prophecies of the Old Testament. But how do we know that the Old Testament prophecies are true? Because they are confirmed by the Gospel story. . . . The two testaments form a double mirror, each reflecting the other but neither the world outside.

No other book is quite like the Bible in this respect: it treats its own pages, its own past, as a body of potential types, any or all of which may be fulfilled, explained, made sense of, by later "events," as the thirty pieces of silver in Zechariah find their fulfillment in the price paid to Judas, and Jonah's sojourn in the fish in the entombment and resurrection of Jesus, With great boldness Frye argues that other books may aspire to this typological condition —the whole oeuvre of Plato, for instance; and in the history of Marxism the nineteenth- century prophecies of Marx and Engels are fulfilled by Lenin's organization of the Bolshevist revolution. But none matches the Bible. And indeed the power of the Bible over Frye's imagination really lies, I think, in its provision, between a single set of covers, of a model for the way in which, historically, the human imagination works to provide us with necessary shelters against history and reality. Type and antitype are, as we move into his later phases, replaced by notions of causality but just as metaphor survives into the age of the demotic, so typology, though transformed, continues to work beneath the surface of the post-typological theologies. Indeed, those theologies are themselves the antitype of the biblical types, and they may be revolutionary in character, like the Reformation or like Marxism; for "revolution is the antitype of history as a whole."

The biblical phases mentioned above are themselves a series of types and antitypes with Apocalypse as the climax. Apocalypse is the typological summation of the whole series, but also a representation of "the way the world looks after the ego has disappeared"; that is, it reverses Freud's famous dictum, "Where Id is. Ego shall be," and is, obviously, its antitype. All the biblical stages, but especially Apocalypse, are subject to demonic parody of various sorts (Frye would probably agree with D. H. Lawrence that the Whore and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, in Revelation, are split off from the same original).

The skill and ingenuity with which these instances are marshaled into argument are beyond praise. They never interfere with the powerful overall design; the structure of the Bible is like that of comedy, U-shaped; "apostasy . . . followed by repentance, then by a rise through deliverance to a point more or less on the level from which the descent began," And this is not only the shape of the work as a whole; it recurs repeatedly in the accounts of the historical vicissitudes of Israel, in the separable tales, of Samson, for instance, or of Job; in the parables of the New Testament. The myth of the Bible covers the whole of time, but it also shapes every episode and reflects all our imaginative dealings with the world, our social constructions of reality. That is why the great preachers, meditating a single text, could meditate the whole, assuming it to be an inconceivably complex map of the human and spiritual worlds.

Frye is a critic, and thinks his job is to bring to consciousness such assumptions; so he is, in his measure, a skeptic. Yet the driving force of this amazing book is more mystical than skeptical. It is Frye's own antitype of the Bible; it ignores the improvisations of centuries of faith and doubt, and sets up its mirror before the Bible itself, as it really is or seems to be. Of course, every heresy has its history, and there are, as I've suggested, antecedents for Frye's. But that does not diminish one's opinion of his power and originality.

Having read this book three times (and despaired of giving an adequate account of it), I experienced a return of the sensations I had when reviewing Anatomy twenty-five years ago. I am certain that we have no living critic who can match Frye's intellectual scope and drive; indeed, he is in some ways more like the founder of a religion, a Swedenborg or a Marx, than a literary critic. Global systems of the kind he produces are hard to use, as the epigoni of the 1960s discovered; and although he is fascinated by rival systems—those of Dante, Blake, Yeats, Hegel—Frye is, of course, committed to his own. He can hardly have approved of what became of Anatomy—it was as if vandals broke pieces off the great monument to build their own hovels. Perhaps th.at will also be the fate of The Great Code and its successor. Or perhaps it will survive as Gibbon's Decline ami fall has survived, not as a history of the Roman Empire but, translated from history to poetry, as "a classic of English literature, or at any rate of English cultural history"; or "as a Cimabue painting of the Crucifixion comes to be, in the course of time, more important as a picture than as an icon of the death of Christ," It remains to add that in a time when publishers—at any rate English publishers—tend to reserve for literary criticism their shoddiest paper, type, and binding, as well as their highest prices, Harcourt Brace has produced Frye's book very handsomely and at decent cost. 

 

Frank Kermode is the author or editor of more than 60 books. His most recent work is Concerning E.M. Forster.

 

 

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