FOR THE PAST three and a half decades, since the publication of his still authoritative study of Blake, Fearful Symmetry , in 1947, Northrop Frye has been assembling and polishing the critical equipment for what looks to be his most ambitious literary ascent: a two-volume assault on the central and highest massif of Western civilization. Six years ago he gave a hint of his intentions by titling his expedition up the foothills of Romance, The Secular Scripture .
It is no accident, I think, that Frye has chosen a phrase from Blake for the title of the first volume of this biblical exploration. The subtle echo across a lifetime's work echoes, in trun, the most important structural link he posits in the Bible itself: "Adam and Eve, then, when they are expelled from Eden, lose the tree and water of life, and at the very end of the Bible it is the tree and water of life that are restored to redeemed mankind (Revelation 22:1-12)." One completed circle, to shift images, mirrors another.
Indeed, the book itself is deliberately built on a "double mirror" principle, reflecting Frye's traditional understanding of the relation between the two Testaments. In "The Order of Words" we ascend from language through myth and metaphor to typology, while in part two, "The Order of Types," the movement is in exactly the reverse order. For those familiar with Frye's extensive body of criticism and especially Anatomy of Criticism , these categories will hold no surprises, but even readers new to this particular world of discourse need have no fear. As long as they bring a genuine interest in the Bible as our central cultural and religious document and a willingness to think about the familiar (or even the unfamiliar) in a new way, they won't be disappointed. Only the most intransigent fundamentalist will object, for example, to the critic's attempt to establish a "literal" meaning for the Bible that takes seriously the "literary" connotations of that word rather than a pseudo-scientific sense that runs counter both to the historical origins of the vairous texts and to the findings of modern scientific research. This is a literary not a theological study as Frye is at pains to insist more than once, but his comments on thee general import of the Gospels, for instance, are as "inspiriting" as anything I've read recently in books with a more designedly spiritual intent.
All that being said, it remains true that The Great Code is meant for the armchair or the deks not the hammock. Frye wries clearly, even elegantly, but he is compressing a lifetime's worth of erudition and speculation into fewer than 300 pages, and so the pace is often brisk and the argument sometimes allusive. The single greatest difficulty we have in approaching the Bible is taking seriously, and at the same time, both its literary forms and its more-than-literary intentions. So Frye begins with a discussion of language that discriminates among myth, metaphor, and description as three progressively more abstract (not necessarily better) ways of putting experience into words. Our cultural prejudice in favor of the descriptive and the analytical as the model for discourse tneds to distort our perceptions of thhe Bible which took shape, as poetry still does, in a world of metaphor and symbol. Thus to find the "literal' meaning of the Bible we must begin by taking its metaphors seriously.
Similarly with "myth" itself, a word that Frye has done as much to redeem from the bondage of scientism as any critic of his generation. Demythologizing the story of the Exodus in the interests of scientific historiography makes as much sense as dismantling Macbeth or king Lear for the same reason. The meaning is in the myth, and the meaning, as Frye points out, is not purely literary or aesthetic. It has a social dimension insofar as it is through common myths that a people establishes and maintains its identity, and thus makes sense of its history. No myth, no community; which may explain our modern fixation on the notion and experience of alienation. What makes the Bible so fascinating and so difficult for us to comprehend is that it rejects our neat disjunction: either poetic vision (hence fictitious) or historical record (hence verfiiable from outside). The Bible will have it both ways, just as it will insist on making universal truth claims, not in the abstract language of philosophy, but in the allusive diction of metaphor. Frye remarks at one point, in a characteristically incisive aside, "'gnostic' and 'agnostic' are both dirty words in the Christian tradition", priggish illumninati and weary cynics have found biblical revelation unpalatable, too coarse for the former, too exotic for the latter.
Beyond myth and metaphor, which tend to be static, moves typology, the last of Frye's categories and the most important for understanding the relations between the two Testaments and between the whole Bible and ur postbiblical world. It would be no exaggeration to say that the New Testament writers treated the Jewish Scriptures as an enormous quarry from which to hew the stones for their new temple. But it was precisely because Christ was seen as the true temple -and the true lamb, and the true vine -of which the Old Testament realities were merely types (i.e. foreshadowings) that this process of transposition could go on. The Old Testament was read now in light of the New, and soon the New was being read in the light of developing church doctrines (e.g., the Trinity and the Incarnation).
One of the most interesting developments of this typological reading was the emphasis laid on what Frye calls the "royal metaphor," where a group is summed up in an individual. Jesus thus becomes the antitype (i.e. the fulfillment) of the whole people of Israel, and the Church in turn becomes the extended body of Christ in the world, and thus a possible precursor of collectivist models of society. But by another route that metaphor is reversed since,, for Paul, Christ also lies totally in him, liberating his ego and making him not a subordinate part of a greater whole, but an autonomous expression of the whole. In the balance between the two metaphors hangs the distinction between totalitarian and democratic polities.
The importance of this distinction for Frye becomes clear in the second half of the book where the emphasis shifts to biblical themes and their typological foreshadowings and echoes. For what primarily interests Frye in all this is the developing notion of salvation in the Bible (and throught the Bible) that culminates in the apocalyptic enlightenment or awakening of the Book of Revelation. On the way he comments on the various stages of the biblical progress form creation to apocalypse, showing how, for example, the wisdom literature individualizes and humanizes the law while prophecy acts analogously on the revolutionary impulse of Exodus. This sifting and refining of metaphors has as its ultimate purpose, in Frye's view, a clarifying vision that is a the same time a redemptive action. With Jesus, God is no longer in front of man requiring propitiation, but behind him or (better, I think) within him providing infinite energy. and at the end of Revelation the apocalyptic vision itself has been interiorized, having passed through fire and blood to a second life that is also a reversal of the original fall.
For Frye "apocalypse" maintains its root meaning of revelation without surrendering its association with the end times, and so the apocalyptic sense of any image or narrative passage reveals a world newly made whole. Achieving this apocalyptic perspective involves a precess, analagous to Zen enlightenment, of emptying the ego, of finding the infinite in the particular. A fascination with the possiblity of expanding vision rather than any doctrinal concern has shaped Frye's reading of the Bible as Western culture's principal imaginative text. But despite the confessional disclaimers, The Great Code has a profoundly Protestant outlook, locating as it dos the ultimate text not in a book, even less in an institutional interpretation, but in the enlightened heart of an ideal reader. Not surprisingly, Milton, for whom the gospel spelled freedom, is Frye's prime example of such a reader.
Like Milton, Frye would reinterpret for his (secular) age the book in which our collective and personal history can be read. The form is criticism rather than biblical epic, and the aim is more modestly stated, but Frye hopes nonetheless to crack the great code and show us how an immersion in the biblical text can illuminate our deepest desires and dreads. In literary terms, at least, he would unlock the Word and induce us to read as fervently as any reformer. However one may wish to quibble with the exegesis of a particular passage, the overall performance is astonishing in its perception and elegance. I can only wish him Godspeed on the promised second volume.