The Bible and English Literature by Northrop Frye - Full Lecture 22
Digitized and edited by: Robert Fysh (2008)
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Lecture given by Prof. Frye on Mar. 17, 1981 for the Bible and Literature course. Videotaped for the Bible and Literature series.
Gerard Beckers, Chris Rodgers
Richard Cable, Don Elsliger, Keith Springer
Anne Riemer Hart, Frances Handleman
University of Toronto
Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 22
JOB AND RESTORED HUMANITY
I was dealing with the question in the Book of Job about the actual tone of the speech of God at the end, and questioning whether he is really the heavy blustering tyrant that he may seem to be on first reading, and that he has often been called by commentators on the book. There does seem to be a hectoring and bullying quality to some of the things he says, as in 40:7: 'Gird up thy loins now like a man: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me: Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous? Hast though an arm like God? Or canst thou thunder with a voice like him?' This is the kind of thing that puts people off a bit. And yet, if you think of the context, the situation is assumed by Job's friends to be a situation in which God must be justified because he's God, and in which Job therefore must be unjustified.
Throughout the argument, there runs the primitive superstition, which at the same time is very difficult to eradicate in the human mind, that if you're unlucky, then you must somehow or other have done something wrong, and that the unlucky are to be avoided, just like people carrying an infectious disease ought to be avoided. In Homer's Odyssey, for example, Aeolus, the god of the winds, gives Odysseus a favorable wind, but his treacherous companions let the wind out of the sack and the voyage ends in disaster. So Odysseus goes back to Aeolus and says that through no fault of his own he's run into bad luck. And Aeolus slams the door in his face, and says that an unlucky man is hated by the gods, and he'll have nothing more to do with him.
But I think that one of the things that God is expressing in this speech is the fact that you don't get anywhere in this situation by simply reversing it. If you just turn it inside out, and make it a drama in which Job is the noble suffering hero, and God is malicious and malignant, you've got a quite comprehensible dramatic situation. It doesn't fit the opening postulates of the poem very well, because a situation like that would identify God with Satan, and that, as I have had occasion to point out in this course already, is something that theologians are perpetually doing, one of their favorite amusements. But in the opening of Job, God and Satan are quite carefully distinguished, and even if Satan disappears from the rest of the action after the second chapter, the distinction is still in the reader's mind.
Around the time of Christ, there were various philosophers known as the Gnostics. There were Christian Gnostics and Jewish Gnostics and pagan Gnostics. We know the Christian ones best of the three, because they were so elaborately refuted by the orthodox, who quoted large passages from their writings to show how wrong they were. They were a large and influential party, just about as old as Christianity itself, and are referred to in the New Testament several times. But the Christian Gnostic view was that the creator of the universe and the God of the Old Testament, Jehovah, could only have been an evil God; and it was from that evil God that Jesus had come to deliver us. The Christian Gnostic view, then, would have led to the complete elimination of the Old Testament, and of the Jewish tradition from the Christian heritage.
That is one element in Christian Gnosticism. What I am even more concerned with, and what I think is even more significant from the point of view of Job, is the pagan Gnostic position, which was really an attack on the order of nature. The Gnostic view in paganism was that the order of nature was a hopeless bungle, that nature is something totally alien to man. Consequently, it could only be, once again, the creation of an evil being; and man has to fight his way out of this alien nature as best he can.
There is a very strong attack made on the pagan Gnostics by the neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus, who attacked them for holding what seems to us a most utterly obvious point. They said all men are brothers- including the base, as Plotinus adds contemptuously- but that men are not brothers to the stars. In other words, Plotinus’ case was that that the order of nature must be thought of as created perfect, and that man’s destiny is to fit himself into this order, not to break away from it. So the Gnostics are actually raising a pretty important issue and pressing it very hard.
Although this is several centuries later than Job, I am raising the point here because it is something that glints in the background its whole situation. The same situation turns up many centuries later in Shelly's poem Prometheus Unbound. Here, Prometheus bound to the rock is an image of suffering and martyred man; and Jupiter the sky-god is the cruel malevolent being that keeps man in that state of suffering and martyrdom. Some time before the play has opened, Prometheus has pronounced a speech in defiance of Jupiter, including a curse on Jupiter which is repeated soon after the poem begins. At that point, Prometheus says, 'Well, I'm sorry I made that curse', and recalls it. Everybody, including Earth, thinks that Prometheus has quit, has given in to the malevolent being, and they think it's all up with everybody forever. But what has happened is the exact opposite. Prometheus has realized that his defiance of Jupiter, his There is a very strong attack made on the cursing of Jupiter, is in fact the only thing that keeps Jupiter in business; so that when he recalls the curse, Jupiter simply disappears.
Now I'm not sure how clearly I can convey the point in relation to Job, but obviously a continuously-defying Job would be keeping a whole Satanic part of Creation in business. Hence, Job's surrender at the end is not a simple surrender. If you look at 40:6, he says, 'Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes'. Now, most western readers of that verse would take it to mean that Job was simply saying that man is always evil, and God is always good, and consequently that the best man can do is to abhor himself, and try to be as much unlike himself as possible. But somebody trained in an Oriental religion might read it very differently. He might read 'I abhor myself' more as meaning, 'I no longer consider what I call myself, an ego, as any reality at all, and I am withdrawing from it'.
There is a remark I may have quoted already from Rimbaud. Rimbaud says in one of his letters, 'Je est un autre': I is somebody else. And that may be Job's final discovery: that the person he's been calling Job, the Jobego, is in fact not there; and that you don't see with your eyes, you see through your eyes: your eyes are merely a lens. You don't think with your brain, you think through your brain: your brain is a filter or an amplifier, or something of that kind, for the consciousness. And you don't live as the ego: it's another kind of consciousness altogether that lives through it. It's something of that kind of intuition that comes to Job at the end.
The sense of the subject as the perceiving ego is a kind of perspective we've been born with; and yet there are all kinds of experiences which make us realize that we are not in fact the starting point of our own experiences. For one thing, we are social beings before we are individual ones: we thing. Consequently, our individual egos are rooted in the society we belong to. Whenever we begin to use our consciousness, we find that we can be as objective to ourselves as anything else can be. The central teaching of nearly all higher religions has been precisely that point: man does not discover who he is until he gives up the notion that he is himself.
Thus, consciousness is incarnated and individual, but is not confined to the individual. It's in the discovery of the realms of consciousness beyond the individual that all the teachings of salvation and enlightenment all the religions are directed towards. The principle that the ego perceives only what is vague and hazy and general, and that what perceives the specific and particular is something universal in the perceiver is, I think, an awareness that a great many religions come to focus on.
In Greek tragedy, the hero is very often a god himself, like Prometheus, or a demi-god like Hercules, or is somebody of divine descent, or he is somebody whose nature is somehow half divine and half human. As the action of the Greek tragedy unfolds, its dialectic tends to separate him from anything like a divine destiny. Well, of course that can't happen in a Biblical tradition. You can't have, in the Old Testament at any rate, a human being who is in part divine. Consequently, Job is not in the position of the tragic hero in a Greek tragedy. For one thing, he can't make any noble or heroic gesture: you can't make a heroic gesture if you have to stop and scratch a boil. And the fact that his courage is of the kind that expresses itself in patience and endurance is bound up with the fact that he is not to begin with the typical tragic hero of the Greek kind, who is at least partly divine in nature. So it’s a matter of achieving a fully realized humanity; and one of the things that the Book of Job is saying is that a fully realized humanity is redeemable.
I was saying that the shadow of the malevolent or malignant Creator appears in the background of the Job problem; but the postulates of the poem itself really rule that out. There isn't a malignant Creator there, because we have already been shown the distinction between God and Satan. And that, of course, takes us into the heart of the tragic perspective in Job.
If you've read the Shakespearean tragedies with any attention, you must have often noticed how characters in tragedy assume sources for tragedy that are much more mysterious than any that you can actually see. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo speaks of his mind misgiving him that there was some consequence still hanging in the stars. He speaks as though a kind of tragic fate were being woven for him astrologically in the patterns of the stars. When he hears the false news that Juliet is dead he says, 'Is it e'en so? Then I defy you stars', and makes his own resolve to kill himself. But we who look at the play don't feel that we need any astrological explanations for the deaths of the young lovers. They have a perfectly comprehensible cause in the idiotic family feud of the Montagues and the Capulets. Similarly, Gloucester, after he's been blinded, says 'As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport'. And yet Gloucester's miseries have been caused by the treachery of his bastard son Edmund, and by the brutality of Cornwall, who has put his eyes out. Again, I was saying that the shadow of the male- the source of Gloucester's tragedy is perfectly human and comprehensible, and - there's no need to postulate the existence of malicious gods.
Outside Shakespeare it's the same thing. In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the final paragraph says, 'Justice was done and the President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess'. But that's only a literary flourish which Hardy puts in to show how well-read he was; because actually nothing happens to Tess in the story that does not have a quite specific locatable cause in human malice or arrogance or stupidity.
The general principle to which that leads is that the only mystery is in the existence of evil itself: there's no mystery about its effects. It is that origin of the mystery of evil that Job keeps circling around; and the nearest that we get to it as readers is in the speeches of Satan in the presence of God.
We have there, as we have so often in the Jewish and Christian and Islamic religious traditions, the sense of God as being in charge of the order of nature, but without interfering in it. There's always something of a very human feeling that if we were God, we would work harder to earn our keep; that if we were in charge of what happened, we wouldn't make such appalling bungles as God appears to be making. But all these the questions focus on the question of the origin and the existence of evil itself.
So in the foreground, on what I regard as a relatively superficial level of the argument, we have this alleged problem of faith and doubt. Job trusts in God, and his trust is vindicated: whereas, if he had doubted, he would not have been vindicated. But one wonders whether looking at Job as a problem with a solution really gets us very deeply into it. In any case, what appears to be obvious is that Job is vindicated partly because he does protest, and consequently, that doubt is not the enemy of faith. Doubt is the dialectical opposite of faith, and it is an essential part of faith. A faith which never doubts is not worth having. It's in the dialectic of faith and doubt that the reality of faith emerges. The enemy of faith is not doubt, but rather the sheer insensitivity of mind that doesn't see what all the fuss is about.
And so, we have to go from this intellectualized problem of faith and doubt down to the deeper existential problem. Here the virtue is hope rather than faith, and the opposite of hope is not doubt, but despair. Again, despair is not the enemy of hope but the dialectical complement of hope, the thing that hope must fight against if it's to attain its reality. And so, Job goes through the depths of despair. It is because he does so that the hope is sustained at the end.
There's a poem of Emily Dickenson's about hope in which she says, 'Could hope inspect her basis-Her craft were done-Has a fictitious charter-Or it has none'. That is, hope is simply the will to believe the impossible, and without its basis in fiction or illusion, there could be no such virtue. There's a good deal of truth in that, perhaps. What it amounts to is the question of illusion and reality. All through the story of Job, there is the irreducible reality of Job's isolation, his misery, his boils, all the disasters that have happened to him. And at the core, the illusion that there is something on his side, though he doesn't quite know what. At the end of the poem, we have the reversal of these relations of reality and illusion: the miseries all vanish into illusion, and Job's hope, whatever it is, is the one that becomes a reality.
Perhaps I could try to explain that by an analogy; and this might throw a light on what I was saying earlier about withdrawing from ego as the source of our knowledge of reality. We tend to approach things on the assumption that reality is what is out there, the thing that stares back at us when we stare at it; and that illusions are the subjective things that we have inside ourselves. But now, if we go into a theater and watch a play, we are at once confronted with an objective illusion. That is, what is on the stage is an illusion, but it's just as much objective as any other datum of sense experience. There's no reality behind that illusion. You can crawl around the dressing rooms and the wings indefinitely without finding any reality behind it. If you ask where the reality is, the nearest you come to an answer is that it is the mood generated in the audience by the play. So that the experience of entering a theater turns your ordinary experience of reality and illusion inside out by presenting you with an objective illusion and a subjective reality.
The reason that happens in a theater is that it is part of the human creative world. Thus, you begin to realize that a serious view of the world is impossible until you begin to recognize an element of unreality in what is objectively there, an element of illusion in the unchangeable world around you, and at the same time, an element of reality in illusions and wishes and fantasies about what might or could or should or ought to be there instead.
That is where the serious view of the world begins in which human creativity can operate. So that what is restored to Job at the end of the poem is in a considerable measure the world of what Job has recreated by his own endurance.
Northrop Frye and Michael Dolzani
TEACHERS GUIDE: Lecture 22
It would be fairly easy to think of Job as a defiant hero and God as a bullying tyrant. But a continuously-defying Job would actually keep the Satanic part of creation in existence: it is Job's ego that perpetuates his trial and sufferings by its very nature, by its existence as an inherently-alienated consciousness, a subject split off from an objective world. Therefore, when Job says, 'I abhor myself', he may really be saying that he has now stopped thinking of himself as a separate ego. This in turn resolves the problem of a malignant deity: no such being needs to be evoked to account for the evil and suffering that is simply built into the nature of the situation. Job transcends his limited consciousness partly because he doubts: doubt is not the enemy of faith, but its dialectical opposite, as despair is really the dialectical opposite of hope. Doubt and despair tell us that everything we believe in and hope for are fictions. Faith and hope, by persisting in the attempt to make those fictions real, reveal the element of illusion that is present in reality and the element of reality that is present in our wishes and fantasies.
Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts
Biblical Passages Cited
Job 42:6. 'Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes'.
The Teacher's Perspective
What kind of meaning a reader gets out of the Book of Job is likely to depend on how he interprets its initial scene. For the commonsense reading of what happens in the court of heaven cannot possibly be the correct one, even though the author of Job, by leaving the old folktale opening intact, does not bother spelling this out for his less reflective readers, and would not have been so great a poet if he had. The only clue he gives that he is transforming the sense of what had apparently come down to him from an older time-Job is mentioned in Ezekiel 14:14 as a proverbial figure of uprightness, along with Noah and Daniel--in the form of a fairly simple didactic tale, is the tremendous dramatic structure to which he attaches it. Students may compare what Shakespeare does to the old legend of King Lear as recounted in Geoffrey of Monmouth and Milton's History of England.
As readers, in other words, we can believe one of two things. Either the author of Job was incapable of seeing that the dark and penetrating dialogue of his poetry is irreconcilable with the simplistic ideas of a bet with Satan and a naive restoration of dead daughters; or else he is recreating the folktale motifs that he inherited, expanding them into symbols for something far wider than any moral or explanation could ever touch; expanding them so far that their interpretation is still beyond the energies of many of his readers. The chances that the latter is closer to the truth are overwhelming: it is not reasonable to assume that the imagination of an author capable of such terrific poetry has not really produced a coherent poem. And to assume that the God of the opening scene is doing what it looks as though he were doing; or that in his later speech to Job he is saying what it sounds like he is saying, is to assume that the poem is either ignoble or incoherent. Therefore, we have to 'deconstruct' these appearances, as Jacques Derrida would say, to arrive at something that makes less 'literal' and more imaginative and symbolic sense.
As there is no possible justification for a God who is the First Cause of the kind of hideous suffering that exists in the world, we are driven to realize that the puppet deity who resigns power to his sadistic general in the first scene cannot really be God at all: such a notion must be a projection of somebody's mind, either Job's or the reader's. If Job's- and this is the way Blake interpreted it in his late illustrations to the Book of Job- then it is apparently an unconscious projection on his part, since we are given no indication that he knows consciously about the bet in heaven. It must be an explanation his unconscious has imagined, and as such would be a kind of Freudian Primal Scene, a dramatizing of the repressed traumatic wish to eliminate the father that produces the Oedipal neurosis: Freud himself applies such a theory to Israelite history in Moses and Monotheism. This is not as farfetched as it may sound: there is a definite element of it in Blake's illustrations, where the sickly old God of plates 2 and 5 is pushed out of the way by a vigorous young Satan. In the lower world, the advocates of that sickly God, Job's three friends, also old duffers, are pushed out of the way by the accusing young Elihu, in the parallel action of plate 12: the dead or sleeping old man at the bottom of the plate indicates the significance of what has happened. The family relationship between God and Job, so to speak, is further hinted at in Blake by their similarity of appearance. The Oedipus story is a Classical analogue to the fall of Adam, which also includes a sexual element and a rebellion against the Father. The sexual element does not really get into the Job story as such, though students may compare some of Blake's earlier illustrations to Job in which Job's wife is more traditionally rendered as a kind of temptress or Dalila figure. However, they may notice that the fall of the universal man Albion in plate 43 (or 29, depending upon the ordering) of Blake's Jerusalem is recounted in imagery that evokes Genesis less than the Book of Job, particularly the smiting with boils; and a harlot temptress figure named Vala figures heavily in this account. All of this is explained in more detail in Prof. Frye's essay 'Blake's Reading of the Book of Job' in his book Spiritus Mundi.
Another appearance of a female figure involved in the Job story is in Carl Jung's strange and brilliant Answer to Job (available in The Portable Jung, edited by Joseph Campbell, and in Jung's Collected Works, volume 11). Jung portrays Yahweh as divided between a false obsession with his symbolic bride Israel and faithfulness to his real consort Sophia, the female Wisdom from the Book of Proverbs and the Apocrypha (see program 21). This corresponds roughly in Blake to Albion's division between his desire for Vala, the delusive goddess of external nature, and his love for his 'emanation' Jerusalem. Jung was influenced by Gnosticism, and does come much closer to portraying Yahweh as an evil being (see the transcripts for the relation of the Gnostic argument to Job): and yet Jung's Yahweh is not really an evil God, only a blind and unconscious one; and as such, Jung says, he is capable of growing and developing. Jung's Yahweh is in fact not only unconscious: he more or less is the human unconsciousness objectively projected, which means that although Jung portrays the widening of consciousness involved as happening to Yahweh rather than to Job, his final meaning is not all that dissimilar. He even quotes in passing Jesus' statement 'I saw Satan as lightning fall from heaven', which Blake illustrates in plate 16, though it is not of course 'literally' in the text of Job at all.
When Blake reads the Book of Job in the light of the gospel like this, he is simply extending the insight that the legal framework as a definitive structure for Job has to be transcended. A bet is a kind of contractual agreement, and the God who is envisioned as making a bet with Satan can only be part of a legalistic perspective. Blake replaces the callously-betting God of the initial scene with a truer God who was actually doing something quite different. As Prof. Frye remarks, not only does God after all seem to be distinguished from Satan, but he seems to be confessing to an intimate concern of his own in the matter of Job's fate. What he is really doing may somehow really be closer to a self-sacrifice.
If the preceding interpenetration of the dramatis personae seems to the class more like something out of Finnegans Wake than out of the Bible, they may compare how C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity describes the drama of redemption as a play in which the only real actors are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Lewis is the last person one would think to accuse of nee-Gnosticism or private interpretation: he is simply making a legitimate and indeed quite traditional deduction from the principle of metaphor, where A = B without ceasing to be also itself.
One final point about all this: if the idea of God as a kind of Watergate character whose subordinate, with or without his tacit approval, has been guilty of some pretty questionable meddling, is pretty definitely a misinterpretation, there might still be something true in the image of Satan as a tolerated figure in the court of God. When Blake writes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that Satan is such a titanic figure in the beginning of Paradise Lost because Milton was of the Devil's party without knowing it, the implication is that just as moral virtue is always making a God out of a diabolic principle, it also commonly rejects many aspects of God himself, especially his power and energy, as belonging to the Devil. Prof. Frye makes the point that God in his speech to Job seems to be rather proud of Leviathan; and from the description of him, it does seem hard to believe that such a wonderful creature can be completely demonic: 'By his neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out… In his neck remaineth strength, and sorrow is turned into joy before him… He maketh the deep to boil like a pot . . . He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary' (41:18, 19, 22, 31, 32). In the same way, perhaps in God's timeless and perfect sight there remains something about Satan of the original Lucifer, son of the morning, after the truly demonic element has been cast out. Second Isaiah has God say, 'I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things' (45:7). The God of Second Isaiah is pre-eminently a Creator; and yet perhaps we have to dissociate the idea of a Creator from the dreary idea of a First Cause, since God must be by his nature above the chain of causality as he is above time and space, all three of these being merely aspects of the fallen world. What we see as a terrible conflict of opposites, the God of Second Isaiah seems to perceive as what Blake called 'contraries' when he said, 'Without contraries is no progression'. An unfallen Satan might be a contrary in this manner. The great nineteenth-century fantasist George MacDonald expressed in his Lilith the belief that Satan, the 'Great Shadow', would be the last thing to be redeemed by such a God.
Such a God was to Blake identical with Jesus, as he was also to the King James translators who rendered go'el as Redeemer. But for Blake, he is also identical with the human imagination, so that faith in him has to be, or at least to begin with, faith in a fiction, as in the Emily Dickinson poem quoted by Prof. Frye (#1283 in the Collected Poems). Wallace Stevens says in 'Asides on the Oboe': 'The prologues are over. It is a question, now, Of final belief. So, say that final belief Must be in a fiction. It is time to choose'. This choice is not an easy way out, as it may at first sound: it does not mean convincing oneself that the fiction is 'real'; it means believing it at the same time that we know it is by all normal standards of reality an illusion. Reason cannot do this; it cannot really even conceive of it, since its only available categories are the real-and-true and the unreal-and-false. Only the imagination, with its nonlogical vocabulary of metaphor, has any chance of articulating such a faith. The imagination does not even seem to be bound by the final logical distinction between creator and creature; and when Stevens goes on in his poem to speak of the 'impossible possible philosophers' man', he means something other than an ordinary man, something not fundamentally different from Blake's Divine Humanity. In 'Poem on His Birthday', Dylan Thomas speaks of 'fabulous, dear God', and says that 'Heaven that never was Nor will be ever is always true'. And Ernest Becker speaks eloquently of 'life-enhancing illusions' in his The Denial of Death, a book which argues that such illusions, however weak and inadequate they may seem, are the only thing we have to defend ourselves with against the absolute certainty of death.
Noah, Daniel and Job as proverbial figures.
'I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things'.
Job 41. The poem on Leviathan.
Chapter Seven. Myth II.
pp. 193-98. The Book of Job.
'Blake's Reading of the Book of Job', Northrop Frye, in Spiritus Mundi, Indiana University Press, 1976.
Answer to Job, Carl Jung, in The Portable Jung, Joseph Campbell, editor Viking Press, 1971. Also in Jung, Collected Works, volume 11.
Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions