Our final two weeks in Dr. Watson's "Reading the Bible as Literature" course were devoted to The Great Code by Northrop Frye, the famous literary crit...moreOur final two weeks in Dr. Watson's "Reading the Bible as Literature" course were devoted to The Great Code by Northrop Frye, the famous literary critic. His book is devoted to an examination of the biblical material from a literary perspective. The title comes from William Blake: "The Bible is the great code of art and literature."
I absolutely loved the book, but almost no one else did. Gallagher was my only fellow Frye fan. The response of others in the class ranged from "I haven't read it" to "I don't understand it" to "This guy is an idiot." The first two were almost forgivable . . . the book was not short, nor was it an easy read, but . . . Northrop Frye is a genius. I was surprised by Frye's ability, writing as a secular figure, to achieve such balance and sensitivity to the material in his discussion of the Bible. Here is my explanation of the book (as produced for my final exam in the class):
In The Great Code, Northrop Frye begins by outlining his general purpose in the introduction. He will discuss in his book the idea that the Bible is a literary unity and is the most important book in Western history and culture. He will do this by describing general factors under the headings of Language, Myth, Metaphor, and Typology in Part I. In Part II he will apply these factors more specifically within the Bible, returning backwards through them and giving the book a chiasmic structure.
In Language I, Frye notes that Christianity, unlike either Judaism or Islam, has relied primarily on translations for its religious texts since the very beginning of its history. First there was the Greek Septuagint of the early church, followed by the Latin Vulgate in the Middle Ages. Around the time of the Protestant Reformation, translations in English and Germany gained prominence. And today there is a concerted movement to see the entire Bible translated into every language known to mankind.
In examining, in particular, the language of the Bible, Frye describes the three phases of history posited by Giambattista Vico: the Age of Gods, the Age of Kings, and the Age of Men. He also discusses the difference between langue (or different languages like French, English, and German) and langage (or the common experience of living on earth which gives all languages equivalent terms and the ability to be translated into each other). Frye notes that there is a history of langage which moves through three distinct phases. Vico calls them poetic, heroic (or noble), and vulgar. Frye describes them as hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic. However, for most of the chapter, he refers to them as metaphor, metonymy, and descriptive.
In the metaphorical phase of language, words carry a great deal of power with them, for they invoke their objects when they are used. A word is the object which it refers to, and all concepts (even those we might consider abstract today) are concrete and real. Thus we see in the Bible how God speaks and Creation begins, how Jepthah’s vow must be kept, how the Hebrew people never say or write out the name of God, etc. At the center of the metaphorical phase is the concept of the “god” of nature and the world. A sentient personality is given to virtually everything, and from this we have a sun-god, rain-god, war-god, and so on.
In the metonymic phase of language, words shift from a state of “this is that” to a state of “this is put for that.” The language becomes capable of sustaining abstract concepts, and the idea of a transcendent “God” (who is outside of and over all things) moves to the center of the language. In metonymy, what was once literal is now much more poetic in nature.
In the descriptive phase of language, words arise out of the need to describe that which we see before us. In this phase, “God” no longer has any linguistic function because the concept cannot be sensed physically or in any way tested or measured empirically. Therefore, in the third phase of language God is said to be dead. However, Frye points out that God “may not be so much dead as entombed in a dead language.”
Once he has described these three phases, Frye states that the Bible does not fall squarely into any of them. The Bible contains metaphorical language, metonymic concepts, and descriptive writing, but it is actually something else altogether. The Bible makes use of a kind of rhetorical oratory which claims to bring revelation from a time outside of time. The Bible, then, is what Frye calls kerygma, or proclaiming rhetoric. Kerygma, he says, is the vehicle of the Bible’s revelation. In turn, the linguistic vehicle of kerygma is myth.
Myth, Frye says (in Myth I), serves to “draw a circumference around a human community.” Myth is communicated in story form, and it delineates the things which a society needs to know about itself. Myth is differentiated from other forms of story in two ways. First, it is part of a larger canon, or a Mythology. Second, it serves to set a particular society or culture apart from all others by forming the basis of a cultural history.
There are two types of history: Weltgeschichte and Heilsgeschichte. Weltgeschichte is authentic, accurate history which recounts events as they actually happened. Heilsgeschichte explains the importance of and meaning behind those historical events. The Bible, Frye asserts, is the latter type of history, and accurate history is usually secondary (and even irrelevant) to the biblical message. The myth of the Bible serves to redeem history by explaining its purpose and meaning.
In Metaphor I, Frye explains that the Bible, in accomplishing the construction of a mythology, uses a great deal of poetic imagery, despite the absence of a literary purpose as such. The reason for that is because of the value a verbal structure has in constructing a corresponding material structure. Frye notes that, when any verbal structure of words is created, it artificially links disparate material elements into a material structure. These material elements are only a minute part of all material reality, and may be totally unrelated without the presence of the linking verbal structure.
The purpose of this sort of structuralization in the Bible is to draw together the various events of the past in the construction of a unified, purposeful history. The Bible at its core consists of a universalized structure which remains open to a variety of theological interpretations. The history of the Bible presents a natural cycle of events which recurs over time, moving us towards a final denouement, or judgment, in which all creatures are divided between paradise and hell. Although Frye states that the Bible cannot be reduced to a single “metaphor cluster,” the guiding purpose throughout this historical movement is embodied in the word of God. The word of God can refer to both the Bible itself and to Jesus Christ.
In Typology I, Frye reveals that the Bible is able to carry its purpose (to account for the forces guiding all of human history) because it possesses a typology. A typology is essentially a theory of historical process which holds that there is a meaning and a purpose behind all events which transpire. Every event which occurs is a type, pointing to some event in the future which will remain clouded and unknowable until it actually takes place, thus revealing both itself and the manner in which it was concealed in the preceding event. This future event is the antitype of the type that came before.
Frye shows that the Bible consists of Old Testament and New Testament, which are type and antitype of each other, forming a “double mirror” in which each reflects the other but not the world outside. However, not only are the Old and New Testaments type and antitype, but every event in the Bible is in some way the type of what is to come and the antitype of what has already been. In this way, Frye believes, the Bible moves inexorably from beginning to end, carrying a single purpose forward throughout.
In Typology II, Frye discusses the seven specific “Phases of Revelation” which make up the totality of the Bible: five in the Old Testament, two in the New Testament. These phases in order are: Creation, Revolution (the Exodus), Law, Wisdom, Prophecy, Gospel, and Apocalypse. Each of the seven is, as previously discussed, the type of the phase after it and the antitype of the phase before it. Frye carries the reader through each of these phases, describing them and their links with each other. These descriptions serve largely as review material for anyone who possesses previous familiarity with the text.
In Metaphor II, Frye discusses the unity of biblical images. Imagery in the Bible is of two kinds: either Apocalyptic (good), or Demonic (evil). Each of these kinds is further divided, Apocalyptic into Group and Individual, and Demonic into Manifest and Parody. Parody only exists within the Demonic type because everything within Parody is a perversion of something good. Good does not pervert evil, so there is no Apocalyptic Parody. Parody itself is further divided into Group and Individual.
Once the images have been placed beneath one of the above headings, they are further divided into one of seven categories: Divine, Angelic (or Spiritual), Paradisal, Human, Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral. All biblical imagery fits somehow into this scheme, presenting the reader with a unified picture of the world where everything is part of the positive picture or the negative picture, all the way from the divine down to inanimate objects on earth.
In Myth II, Frye discusses the unity of the biblical narrative. He describes the entirety of the Bible as a rising and falling cycle of high points and low points tracing their way throughout history towards a final, ultimate high point. The narrative goes something like this: Garden of Eden, Sin/Wilderness/Cain’s City/Ur, Promised Land I (Pastoral), Sea/Wilderness/Pharaoh, Promised Land II (Agrarian), Philistines, etc., Jerusalem/Zion, Captivity/Babylon/Nebuchadnezzar, Rebuilt Temple, Antiochus Epiphanes, Purified Temple (Maccabees), Rome/Nero, Jesus’ Spiritual Kingdom.
Within this narrative, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Antiochus, and Nero are all spiritually the same oppressor, and Egypt, Babylon, and Rome are the same place. Furthermore, the Garden of Eden, the Promised Land, Zion, and Jesus’ Spiritual Kingdom are all metaphors for the same place, and Moses, David, Joshua, etc. are all pointing towards the coming Messiah.
In Language II, Frye first addresses the question of the biblical canon which has formed this unity of imagery and narrative that he has just discussed. He believes that it has been formed around the book of Deuteronomy. The other books in the Pentateuch were re-written to conform to it. Earlier prophecy was interpreted according to it. Histories were written in light of it. And, finally, the New Testament books were selected according to their conformity with, and illustration of, Deuteronomy 6:5.
While some might see the question of authorship as integral to the selection of the canon, Frye states that this is not the case. In fact, authorship and the question of inspiration are fairly irrelevant. If inspiration is to be believed, then we must also believe in the inspiration of editors, translators, compilers, and so forth.
As for authorship, Frye states that the Bible was largely composed during a transitional phase between oral tradition (wherein the author is anonymous) and writing tradition (as in modern times, where the author is named). In this transitional phrase we have a great deal of pseudonymous writing, in which the actual authors will attach the name of some famous or important person in order to show the legitimacy of their writings. Frye supplies us with the example of II Peter.
Frye further describes the unity of the Bible as being largely built out of innumerable smaller units, or kernels. Examples of these include the proverbs or aphorisms of Wisdom literature, the oracles of Prophecy, the commandments of the Torah, and the pericope of the Gospels.
Proceeding forward, he discusses the importance of the Bible as a piece of objective (rather than subjective) art. Objective art by Frye’s reckoning consists of works which form an integral part of a society’s cultural history. In our case, this might mean such things as the writing of Shakespeare, Dickens, and, of course, the Bible.
Objective art, he states, has achieved “resonance” with its audience. In other words, particular phrases have achieved their own power and significance within a culture, even when separated entirely from their context within the original text. The example he gives is the phrase “Grapes of Wrath” from Isaiah 63, which has become a famous line in a culturally significant song as well as the title of an important piece of literature.
Next he describes Dante’s ideas of finding multiple meanings within a single passage. Dante classifies these meanings as: Literal, Allegorical, Moral, and Anagogical. Literal is the obvious meaning of the actual words. Allegorical is how the words form a picture or symbol of our salvation from a fallen state. Moral is how the words form a picture or symbol of our movement from a sinful to a virtuous life. And Anagogical is how the words form a picture or symbol of our glorification from base, human, earth-bound existence to an existence in the divine presence of God. Frye is careful to note that these varying meanings do not conflict with each other, but rather operate on various levels and are all, in some sense, true.
There are two cautionary notes which Frye provides to the application of Dante’s theory of polysemous meaning, however. First, it assumes the validity of a single worldview through which we interpret (in Dante’s case, Medieval Catholic Christianity). Second, it assumes that the words themselves are not important, but rather some higher meaning which exists behind the words.
However, Frye states that what Dante is trying to accomplish in the search for polysemous (but unified) meaning in a religious or spiritual sense is very near to what Frye is advocating in the application of polysemous (but unified) interpretation in a literary sense. He states that this approach is the most useful in any consideration of the Bible as literature. It must be considered as a unity of narrative and imagery, a product of composition which sought to account for a purpose behind history, and a self-contained work of proclaimed revelation in order to allow for the most useful study of its text in literary terms.
I found that Frye had a great deal of value to communicate in The Great Code. His approach to the Bible was both profound and meaningful. At times his writing could be quite difficult to follow and understand, yet this was not a failing of that writing, for once I understood what it was communicating I could think of no better way to explain whatever he was trying to say. In other words, I found the reading of the book to be a very rewarding and stretching experience. Frye challenged my beliefs without belittling, demeaning, or dismissing them, and I think I came away from the book ultimately strengthened in those beliefs.
Nevertheless, it is a marvel to me that a man with Frye’s obviously intimidating intelligence should be capable of conducting so thorough and knowledgeable a study of the meaning and value of the biblical text without himself believing in the truths espoused within that text. There were times in The Great Code where I felt that he was very close to believing just that, times when he seemed puzzled because something did not quite add up between his own assumptions and the actual situation he found, yet somehow he does not seem to have been capable of making that last leap to faith.
Even towards the end of the book when he is describing the nature of faith so well, there does not seem to be the least spark of any such knowledge or sentiments on his part. This both astounds and saddens me. However, Frye’s lack of faith in the Bible does not in any way affect the importance of what he has to say about it in his book. The Great Code was of considerable value to me in giving me perspective on what exactly the Bible is that I had never before heard or considered on my own.(less)