WORDS WITH POWER
Being a Second Study of
"The Bible and Literature"
By Northrop Frye
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 342 pp. $24.95
WHO in 1980 would have predicted that within 10 years the Bible would be making literary news? In 1981 Northrop Frye published The Great Code, a study of Biblical myth and literature in English, and since then we have seen important literary studies of the Bible by scholars such as Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. Just this fall Harold Bloom and David Rosenberg's The Book of J, an effort at reconstructing one of the narratives composing the Pentateuch, was published to great acclaim, and there have been other recent considerations of the Bible as well.
Why the renaissance of interest in these ancient writings? In his Words with Power Northrop Frye, one of the three or four literary critics regularly read by nonprofessionals, never attempts to answer the question directly, but it's obvious from his title that he for one doesn't consider the batteries of Scripture run down at all, no more than he did when he wrote The Great Code. Words with Power includes a string of internal notes referring to The Great Code when matters at hand have already been treated more fully there. Of course it's better to have read the earlier book before its sequel, but Words with Power functions very well on its own and is by itself one of the most intelligent and passionate surveys of mythology-and-literature ever written, with Frye's earlier books as its only real competitors.
As Frye states in his introduction, "the subject of this book is the extent to which the canonical unity of the Bible indicates or symbolizes a much wider imaginative unity in secular European literature." "Indicates or symbolizes": does Frye mean "parallels"? Or does he mean "perfects"? Readers may be left in doubt, particularly in the opening chapters of the book. The Great Code and its sequel Words with Power remind me of Wagner's Ring cycle: You may plunge in at any point and find something extraordinary under way, gods and mortals acting in opposition or concert, mythological relationships being developed with strength and amplitude. But the plot advances neither rapidly nor directly, and there are frequent recapitulations. Even so, by the conclusion of the book, Frye seems to have crossed some sort of bridge, leaving the objective stance of academic criticism behind, and to account it a world well lost.
The book is divided into two parts, the first a summary and further commentary on Frye's general position, developed from Vico's cyclical theories of civilization. For Frye, the Christian Bible is, more than any other source, the body of living myth that has shaped Western literature. That doesn't mean that his chapters overlook the legacy of classical Greece; on the contrary. Some of his most convincing analyses center on Dante and Milton, whose works try, as he demonstrates, to strike a balance between the twin origins of European literature. Actually, there's nothing donnish or rigid about this study. Frye constantly spills over the boundaries of his announced subject with plangent or trenchant or funny observations on just about everything under the sun, and the book is the richer for it. For Biblical writing he uses the term "kerygmatic" (from the Greek word for "proclamation"), which he sees as having to do with the question of "How do I live a more abundant life?" Describing a generalized encounter with the Gospels, he says, "But if anything in them strikes a reader with full kerygmatic force, there is, using the word advisedly, a resurrection of the original speaking presence in the reader."
The book's second part takes up four themes or image-systems, the Mountain, the Garden, the Cave and the Furnace, and shows how they have appeared in countless permutations throughout Western literature. The resonances of motion up and down on the scale of mythic space are explored with great ingenuity, but also with an abiding concern for the life lived "more abundantly." The same applies to Frye's treatment of his other archetypes. He expands, for example, the discussion of the Garden to include the issue of sexual relationships. About efforts to interpret the erotic imagery of the Song of Songs as pure allegory, he says, "Commentators infected with this repression cannot explicitly say that God ought to be deeply ashamed of himself for having instituted in human life what Sir Thomas Browne calls 'this trivial and foolish way of union,' but in practice that is much their point of view, and when they approach the Song of Songs they tend to treat it as a sublimated vision of the love of God for his people, where the meaning is allegorical and never really refers to (ugh) sex." He notes that the fall of Eve is redeemed in the framework of myth by the doctrine of Mary's virginity and says that, "Readers of Jung will have noted his insistence on the importance of the recent proclamation of the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, as having transformed the Holy Trinity into a still more holy Jungian Quaternity, by adding a representative of humanity, specifically female humanity, as a fourth term. However far we follow this suggestion, it is at least an authentic example of mythical thinking, in contrast to the occasional announcements of church dignitaries that they can no longer believe in the Virgin Birth, with everyone assuming that the statement is heretical instead of merely illiterate. Meister Eckhart told his congregation that each of them was a virgin mother charged with the responsibility of bringing the Word to birth; but then Eckhart did understand the language of proclamation that grows out of myth, and its invariable connection with the present tense." THE TEMPTATION here is simply to make a catalogue of brilliant and wise sayings; a much better plan is for readers to go through the book and discover their own. But I will submit a few lines from the incandescent concluding passage on Job, to show how far we have come from a dry-as-dust taxonomy of world myth in the manner of Mr. Casaubon (the character in George Eliot's Middlemarch): "When we become intolerably oppressed by the mystery of human existence and by what seems the utter impotence of God to do or even care anything about human suffering, we enter the stage of Eliot's 'word in the desert,' and hear all the rhetoric of ideologues, expurgating, revising, setting straight, rationalizing, proclaiming the time of renovation. After that, perhaps, the terrifying and welcome voice may begin, annihilating everything we thought we knew, and restoring everything we have never lost."
Alfred Corn, a poet and essayist, edited "Incarnations: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament."