Northrop Frye and Michael Dolzani
Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
TEACHERS GUIDE: TRANSCRIPT 30
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CONCLUSION: THE LANGUAGE OF LOVE
In descriptive writing, truth means truth of correspondence: to be true, a verbal structure must correspond to the body of facts it is describing. If there is no external structure to which the verbal structure is a counterpart, 'meaning' becomes centripetal rather than centrifugal, and the verbal structure is a literary one, a fiction. Words can achieve descriptive truth only to a very limited extent, because the description has to be elaborated in a grammatical structure, and a grammatical structure is a fiction. The traditional view is that the Bible is literally true in the sense of descriptive truth; but this view ends by subordinating the Bible to an external body of historical facts or doctrines. The literal meaning of the Bible, as the word 'literal' suggests, is the pattern created by the words themselves. The Bible's kerygma, or proclamation, is contained in those patterns which are patterns of narrative or story (myth) and imagery (metaphor). This language bypasses the divisiveness of fact and argument, and opens into the world of shared vision. It is the language of love.
Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts
1. In reading, the mind moves in two directions simultaneously: it tries to put the words together in a context or structure, and it tries to relate them to facts and meanings the external world.
2. When the latter or centrifugal tendency is the final one, we speak of descriptive writing, whose criterion is truth of correspondence. That is, the verbal structure corresponds to the body of facts it is describing.
3. When the structure of words exists for its own sake, meaning becomes centripetal or contextual, and the structure is a literary one. The criterion of truth is not factual then, but universal.
4. Words can achieve descriptive truth only to a limited degree, because of their inevitable tendency to cling together and form grammatical fictions.
5. The Bible is traditionally supposed to be literally true in the descriptive sense; yet the literal meaning of the Bible is not a historical or conceptual meaning but a purely verbal one. That is why it is full of poetic and symbolic language.
6. This language is the language of myth, by which we mean the self-contained narrative unit, the story rather than the history. Myth, with its attendant body of imagery, or metaphor, is the vehicle of the Bible's message or proclamation, called kerygma.
7. This language, because it bypasses the argumentativeness of fact and concept, encloses its readers in a community of vision beyond the aggressively held tenets of faith and skepticism. In short, it is a greater kind of language altogether, the language of love.
The Teacher's Perspective
We began this series with a consideration of the Bible's use of language in relation to the question of belief or faith. It may look as if our beginning were our end; but that kind of conclusion would only circumscribe us within the of symmetrical design that gratifies our love of finitude, and turn The Great Code in a rather literal way into what our last program called a sealed book. There is always a tendency for some students to do this with Prof. Frye's books: they get hypnotized by the charts of imagery and narrative schematics that were designed rather to break open the reader-repression that Blake called the 'corporeal understanding' and help them to think; they take an aphoristic sentence to be the Answer rather than a less stereotypical way of formulating the question. But to borrow a phrase from our author, that's just original sin.
So we do not want to finish with a closed circle, but rather with a series of expanding contexts like the ripples on a pond. If Eliot's 'East Coker' begins with a sense of the cyclic ('In my beginning is my end'), it ends with a quest outward: 'Old men should be explorers ... We must be still and still moving Into another intensity For a further union, a deeper communion'. We have dealt in this series with the literal meaning of the Bible as Prof. Frye understands it, with the details of its language of myth, metaphor and typology. But the closing pages of The Great Code suggest that this literal reading is only the beginning of a dialectical process that expands first into our minds, then into our actions and our lives, then into the world at large. This final program is designed to make students more aware of the stages of that process.
First of all, the Bible's sacred knowledge and history (revelation and Heilsgeschichte) confront the conceptual knowledge and descriptive history of the secular world. This is the point at which Prof. Frye's lecture begins, with the Bible considered as an autonomous and self-contained verbal structure. The phrasing of the previous sentence will possibly suggest to a teacher of literature the rhetoric used by the movement called the New Criticism: those to whom it suggests nothing in particular may look at such a book as Murray Krieger's The New Apologists for Poetry. It was the New Critics who defined a literary structure as a centripetal and self-referential one, and the argument summarized by the first of Prof. Frye's two blackboard charts (reproduced on p. 57 of The Great Code) is by now a very familiar one as regards normal literary fictions.
Still, it is not a totally adequate one. The New Critics soon began to run up against two theoretical problems, both of them bound up with literary criticism's attempt to use descriptive language to grapple with myth and metaphor, an attempt that immediately snarled it up in verbal paradox. One: if words were cut off from their ordinary referential meanings, that seemed to turn a verbal structure into a vacuum sealed off from ordinary experience. And two: the word 'structure' carried overtones of something too static and concrete: words are not Tinkertoys.
Clearly, some more dynamic concepts were needed to correct the balance. Some of these were provided by the movement called structuralism. It provided a solution to the first problem by considering the literary work not as an enclosure but as an interaction between text and reader--something like what Prof. Frye calls 'recreation' in Creation and Recreation. And it dissolved 'structure' into something more like a field of relationships. If the emphasis on texture and structure in the New Criticism is analogous to our study of the narrative patterns and structures of imagery in the Bible, the more dynamistic metaphors of structuralism have affinities with the Bible's recreative aspect, typology.
But even structuralism did not iron out all the wrinkles: it could lay emphasis on the process of 'reading', but it still had to postulate a text somewhere; it could stress relationships and systems over mechanical structure, but it still needed units to form the relationships in the first place. Enter the next movement: the 'deconstructionism' of Jacques Derrida, mentioned by Prof. Frye in the lecture transcripts. To Derrida, structure (and therefore 'meaning') never quite exists: it is a ghost we are always chasing further and further into a void or abyss. It is what Prof. Frye calls a donkey's carrot, something we have projected as an illusion beyond ourselves. This is an inevitable feature of ego-consciousness, and Derrida, who is a rather ironic thinker, sees human consciousness condemned forever to pursuing an unattainable desire for meaning, structure, wholeness, identity.
But here too the Bible follows us up: its rhetoric suggests a way of breaking through the limitations of the ego into Eliot's further union and deeper communion. Derrida works from the point of view of descriptive language: his verbal world is one of power and the will-to-power, symbolized by the aggressiveness of facts and arguments; and metaphor to him means only something like discontinuity, a gap in the world of real experience. The Bible's kerygma is rather the language of love.
This means that it is like a new language altogether. If we could learn to think in this language, new ways of seeing and therefore new powers of action might be open to us: for the way in which our modes of thought and perception are bound up with language, see Samuel Delany's science fiction novels Babel-17 and Tales of Neveryon. Every attempt in literature to suggest what the quality might be of an infinite language capable of expressing exactly everything that our ordinary language represses has been greeted with initial incomprehension, even with accusations of insanity. The class may easily think of examples: those which perhaps most immediately come to mind include Joyce, Blake, Mallarme, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas.
What does ordinary language repress? It represses what ego-consciousness itself represses, the sense of identity-in-difference that is released only in myth and metaphor, and released only by the opposite of ego-consciousness, the imagination. Ordinary mental states range from full focused attention, which tends by its very nature to detach and isolate its objects, downward to sleep and dream, where inclusiveness is at its maximum and limitations of time, space, identity and non-contradiction do not apply, but where discrimination and reason are greatly weakened. If we could put these two halves of human mental experience together we would have something like a waking dream, where events were perceived as both simultaneous and sequential, objects as individual yet sharing a common identity. It is this tremendous intuition that such works as Finnegans Wake or Dylan Thomas' 'Altarwise by owl-light' are trying to awaken in us. That is why they make punning coinages and strain syntax: to suggest a sense of polysemous meaning exploding to infinity: one census of Finnegans Wake is titled 'Who's Who When Everybody is Somebody Else'. The relation of the Bible to all this is by now perhaps obvious: when it says that Sodom and Egypt are the same city, it means what it is saying. When it says that Christ is the antitype of Adam, meaning the realized form of the same identity, it still means what it says, though if this were pursued for its full metaphorical meaning, it would start tugging at what is possibly the final repression, the sense of the antithesis of creator and creature-the original source of alienation from God that is sin itself. Here we reach the first leap in Prof. Frye's dialectic, the leap from the level of knowledge to the level of the existential, getting beyond the dichotomy of sacred revelation and secular knowledge to a point where the terms of the antithesis become rather faith and doubt (see The Great Code, p. 229).
There are two kinds of professed faith, in the Christian sphere at least: one that is faithful in the sense of holding to the traditional interpretation of Christian symbolism, and so can be called conservative in the best sense; and another that is faithful to the original root of all interpretations, the typological tendency in that symbolism to keep recreating itself through time, and so can be called radical, also in the best sense ('radical' = root). Since divine revelation can only manifest itself to human beings through human beings, this radical faith lays emphasis upon human creative power as the necessary agent of this recreation.
The bone of contention between these two commitments is traditionally expressed as the doctrine of original sin: 'This doctrine holds that since the fall of Adam human life has been cursed with a built-in inertia that will forever prevent man from fulfilling his destiny without divine help, and that such help can be described only in terms of the external and the objective' (The Great Code, p. 232). Radical faith often tends to reject this objectivity as legalism; and from William Blake to Alan Watts' Myth and Ritual in Christianity there is a great deal of contempt for traditional Christianity's fear of immanence. Conservative faith is often so aware of the terrible reality of human evil that it becomes certain of man's using any autonomous creative power only to make himself into the Antichrist. The class may look at C.S. Lewis' science fiction trilogy, especially the first volume, Out of the Silent Planet: Lewis denies there that man will do anything with his newfound ability to travel through space except to spread his own corruption. A similar point is debated by James Blish from a Roman Catholic standpoint in his tetralogy After Such Knowledge.
The fact that these faiths cannot define themselves except in opposition to each other suggests that they are not genuine limits either. As Creation and Recreation puts it: 'The terms 'Word' and 'Spirit', then, may be understood in their traditional context as divine persons able and willing to redeem mankind. They may be also understood as qualities of self-transcendence within man himself, capable of pulling him out of the psychosis that every news bulletin brings us so much evidence for. I am suggesting that these two modes of understanding are not contradictory or mutually exclusive, but dialectically identical' (p. 71). The same is true of the next leap in the dialectic, as faith itself confronts the solid bedrock of doubt. Skepticism is in itself a kind of professed belief, and no one can believe in absolutely nothing: as Blake puts it in 'Auguries of Innocence', ‘If the Sun and Moon should doubt, They'd immediately go out'. And faith can so often only emerge through doubt, defiance, even rebellion, taken to the awful limit. The definitive figure here is perhaps Mann's Faustus figure, Adrian Leverkuhn, who tries to damn himself completely in order to prove that God's mercy, being infinite, will save him unconditionally, even beyond the hopeless barrier of mortal sin. A similar figure, and doubtless a model for Adrian, is Ivan Karamazov. For examples in poetry, see the Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions.
We seem to be returned to the idea of a new kind of language. Ordinary language can suggest the kind of dialectical synthesis we have been talking about only in terms of unity and integration, which once again turn out to be an expression of human finiteness. We are speaking of a kind of unity of opposites that somehow transcends even the antithesis of unity and alienation, which is what keeps this final 'unity' from being merely idealistic and conciliatory. The experience of this final condition has been called many things, but one of the most common has been joy. In creative joy or sexual joy or religious joy, whenever human beings are caught up in such an ultimate emotion, they may feel the possibility of perceiving this unity, of speaking the first word of this new language. Students may look at the endings of Yeats; 'A Dialogue of Self and Soul' and 'Lapis Lazuli', and at the first poem of the sequence 'Vacillation'. A more social way of expressing it is that we have been given the invitation to a banquet of language, where the word 'communion' will begin to take on some of its full meaning.
The difference between ordinary language and the Word is like the difference between the old closed model of the Ptolemaic universe and the new model of a universe that is constantly expanding, except that the latter would have to be conceived not as expanding towards greater alienation and entropy, but as carrying the feeling of centeredness and human meaning along with it in its expansion. This is not just a rhetorical flourish either: Carl Sagan in The Cosmic Connection also discusses what new religious metaphors might be derived from the new metaphors of astrophysics. The class may also compare the efforts of thinkers with very different perspectives to find a spiritual vocabulary that will bridge some of the traditional gaps, as with Abraham Maslow and Paul Tillich, both of whom work with the idea of a 'language of Being' (compare The Farther Reaches of Human Nature and Religions, Values and Peak Experiences with The Courage To Be, the former non-Christian and empirical, the latter Christian and theological). These work from conceptual beginnings: but it is probable that the new language would include aspects that have been lost in the ordinary world and are accessible only to the language of the mad, as Smart's Jubilate Agno and Yeats' Crazy Jane poems suggest, or in the language of dream, as in Finnegans Wake. The one thing we can be sure of is that its energy would take us beyond the comfortably closed circle of what we are and what we now know and can express. If this series is to be of any value, it must convey some hint of that challenge to its students.
1. Corresponding Passages in The Great Code
Chapter One. Language I.
p. 29-30. Kerygma.
Chapter Three. Metaphor I.
p. 56-64. Centrifugal and centripetal meaning.
Chapter Eight. Language II.
p. 220-33. The Bible's dialectical expansion of vision through language: the language of love.
Creation and Recreation, Northrop Frye, University of Toronto Press, 1980. See especially Chapter Three: divine and human creation; faith and doubt.
Fearful Symmetry, Northrop Frye, Princeton University Press, 1947. See Chapter Five, 'The Word Within the Word': Blake and Christianity; the creator-creature antithesis.
Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions
1. Discuss the problem of preserving what is valuable in the feeling of human freedom and autonomy while committing oneself to a professed faith. Use the following poems or others of your choice as specific examples: George Herbert's 'The Collar', Francis Thompson's 'The Hound of Heaven', Dylan Thomas' 'Vision and Prayer'.
2. The Victorian era was the most prolific in English literature of works dramatizing the conflict between faith and doubt. Why should this have been so? Discuss the resolution of this conflict in such poems as Tennyson's In Memoriam, 'Carrion Comfort', Hardy's 'The Oxen', Browing's 'Epistle' to Karshish, 'Cleon' and 'Bishop Blougram's Apology', Arnold's 'Dover Beach'.
3. Discuss various images which illuminate aspects of the idea commmunion, including the central image of the banquet in the Last Supper, in Plato's Symposium, Pratt's 'The Depression Ends'. In science fiction, the idea is often expressed in terms of telepathy: what distinguishes the evolutionary ideal of a mental gestalt in Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human or Robert Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil the demonic parody of such a communion in Heinlein's Methuselah's Children and The Puppet Masters?