John David's Reviews > The Great Code: The Bible and Literature

The Great Code by Northrop Frye
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's review
Feb 09, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: from-the-library, literary-or-critical-theory, favorites
Read from February 09 to March 17, 2011

“The Great Code” really re-configured the way that I conceive of the Bible as a literary document. After two centuries of historical criticism (or narrative criticism as it’s called when applied to the Bible), it is refreshing to see a whole new interpretive methodology which looks inward at the Bible, instead of trying to test its significance by how well it correlates to something outside of itself. And that is the central thesis to Frye’s argument – that the Bible is a unified mythology, replete with its own literary devices, that hardly needs confirmation from history or archaeology to successfully tell the story (mythos) that it tells. Because of this, the book has been the target of a number of appropriate historicist critiques, all claiming that one can’t cut wholly separate the work of literature from its social and cultural context. Although these criticisms aren’t all fair themselves, as Frye even considers the structure of certain metaphors (like the ubiquitous flood myth) modulate themselves repeatedly via literary transmission into new texts.

The first part of the book consists of a highly condensed theory of language which Frye employs in the second half. I found this part just as useful, yet often elided in critical reviews. According to Frye, his own ideas are highly influenced by Vico’s “Scienza Nuova” which posits the idea of a cyclical theory of language wherein each human epoch uses language in a unique, irreducible way. In his tripartite interpretation, there is the hieroglyphic stage in which words have the pure energy of potential magic, the hieratic stage in which words begin to reflect an objective reality of a transcendent order, and the demotic stage, where prose continues its subordination to “the inductive and fact-gathering process,” and seems to be the stage we remain in today. If this evolution has taken us full circle from feel the pure immediacy of metaphor, how are we supposed to read the Bible (whose language is, of course, one of pure metaphorical immediacy)? Nietzsche said that God had lost his function, but Vico (and Frye in turn) might have replied that the Bible is simply entombed in a lost part of the cycle, inaccessible and unable to be interpreted by the demotic. His neo-Viconian theory of language goes some way in offering a theory for the vulgarism that so often takes the name of Biblical interpretation: “With the general acceptance of demotic and descriptive criteria in language, such literalism becomes a feature of anti-intellectual Christian populism” (45).

The second part begins the literary criticism as one would more formally recognize it. According to Frye, the Bible can operate independently precisely because it functions and maintains its own body of rhetorical devices, including metaphor, and type, antitype, and archetype. “We clearly have to consider the possibility that metaphor is not an incidental ornament, but one of its controlling modes of thought” (54). Metaphor and trope become the sole measure of the Bible’s inner verbal consistency. The “type” and “antitype” are essentially import; he construes the entire Bible as a series of musical call-and-response gestures between the Old and New Testaments: the Resurrection is the response to the Old Testament Promised Land, the baptism in the River Jordan is the New Testament’s answer to the Old Testament’s Red Sea. He also integrates a number of other complex typologies, including the Creation-Incarnation-Death-Descent to Hell-Harrowing of Hell-Resurrection-Ascension-Heaven motif and a nomenclature of types, including the “demonic,” “analogical,” and “apocalyptic.” This universe – multiverse, even – of complex metaphor, meaning, and type are the ones that we continue to recognize, read, and struggle with today, which accounts for the fact that myth goes a long way in exploring who we are and what we do as a community. Notice how Frye deftly bypasses any theological or strictly philosophical concerns. As Frank Kermode would comment almost a decade after the book was published, “Just as he exiled questions of value from the Anatomy [of Criticism], he exiles from his Biblical criticism questions of belief.”

I was considering giving this book four stars, because of my occasional disagreements with it (including the arguments from historicism mentioned above). But I can’t in good conscience do that. Just for the interpretive vistas that it opens up, I feel that anything less than five would convey an impression that I was less than impressed, which certainly is not the case.
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02/09/2011 page 31
03/20/2017 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Lee (new)

Lee Harmon very helpful review, thanks

John David You're very welcome, Lee. I saw that you have an interest in this type of scholarship. Please let me know what you think of his arguments, or the way I've treated them in the review.

I appreciate the kind words.

message 3: by Sue (new)

Sue Very interesting John. I can't pretend to totally understand the intricacies of it but I find the premises fascinating. I haven't read Frye since reading "Anatomy of Criticism" in college. My recall of it is poor. Maybe someday I'll give this a try. Personally I think the world would be a better place if everyone could read and see the similarities between all the creation stories, etc.

John David Thanks, Sue, I'm really so grateful that you enjoyed it. You're one of the reasons why I write them.

I read "Anatomy" a few years ago, and I'm glad that I took notes! His stuff on typology would have been a little mind-boggling if I didn't have them to look back on.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was that he talks about Babylonian and other types of myths that gradually worked their way into the Bible.

message 5: by Sue (new)

Sue I happened to be watching one of the PBS stations a couple of weeks ago late in the evening and an episode of Invitation to World Literature came on. It discussed The Epic of Gilgamesh. Have to say I was entranced with the discussion and the work. I have some recall of discussing it in college but no real memory of the story so I added it to my list.

Several nights later I happened on a discussion of a book by Orhan Pamuk (not sure if I got the n and m in the right spots). Once again another book on my list.

Anyway, your mention of Babylonia made me think of this.

I do enjoy reading your reviews that take me to different spheres that I haven't traveled in for some time. It lets me know that that part of my brain is still receptive.

message 7: by Sue (new)

Sue Thanks Lee! I've bookmarked this for later reading. Nice to meet you.

John David It's funny that you mention Pamuk (and yes, you did spell it correctly). One of my best friends in high school spotted him to win the Nobel Prize about 5 years before he did. (I'm jealous of his impeccable tastes.) If you haven't read anything by him, I would highly recommend "Snow" or "My Name Is Red."

message 9: by Sue (new)

Sue "My Name is Red" was the book that was discussed in the show I mentioned. I've added it to my list. I was at the local Borders that's closing and scouring the shelves today. They didn't have that or I would have bought it--especially at 50% off. They did have "Snow" but I didn't know anything about it other than the award and I'm captivated by the story of My name is Red.

message 10: by Melissa (new)

Melissa We read and discussed My Name Is Red in the Constant Reader group not too long ago (2009 if I remember correctly). My son gave me a copy of Snow for this past Christmas, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet. But I admired My Name Is Read very much, along with the one or two stories by Pamuk that I've seen in The New Yorker magazine.

Sorry for pushing this tangent even further from Frye! Both of his books mentioned here have strong reputations.

message 11: by Sue (new)

Sue Actually, these conversations are one of the things I really enjoy about this place. (I'm a very tangential thinker and speaker as everyone who knows me will attest. Of course they will say I'm the master of non-sequitors which isn't quite the same thing.)

I wonder how I'd feel about Frye now without the stress of college graduation hanging over my head.

message 12: by John (new) - rated it 5 stars

John David If you haven't read literary criticism in a while, he might take some getting used to. I love to read it, and as you can probably tell by my review, I sort of slip into critic-ese (against my better sense) when I write about these kinds of books. If you're interested in reading the book, I think the first half stands very well on its own merit (see the "theory of language" that I referred to in the review), and comes in just at 100 pages.

message 13: by Sue (new)

Sue I'll give it some thought and maybe a try.

Yes I have noticed the critic-ese as you call it and just try to translate it for myself (ha ha)

The idea of 100 pages is inviting as a warm up to something I haven't read in years. I'm also wondering what Anatomy of Criticism would be like now!!! But I really don't know if I want to relive senior year frights.

message 14: by T (new) - rated it 5 stars

T Fool John,

This very smartly handles this book which has given me difficulties -- Frye is so brilliant, so compact with ideas, I really have to think things through. You've helped.

Actually, my foray into this led me to digress into the Anatomy of Criticism in which I'm finding, by the page, insights into a field where I should be claiming some expertise.

Thank you!


message 15: by John (new) - rated it 5 stars

John David Trulyfool, thank you for the kind words. Since Frye doesn't even stop for the breath to explain what he means in several places, I too was sent running back to "Anatomy" several times. I'm humbled that you think the review helped you with the book.

message 16: by Jamie (new) - added it

Jamie yes I too have delved into his typology and it is truly mindboggling. I agree that many annotations should be made.

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