The Bible and English Literature by Northrop Frye - Full Lecture 15
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Lecture given by Northrop Frye on Jan. 13, 1981 for the Bible and Literature course. Videotaped with one camera for the Bible and Literature series.
Transcript:Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria UniversityLECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 15EXODUS: A REVOLUTIONARY HERITAGE
I've suggested that while there is a great variety of creation myths, if you look at the creation myths of Mediterranean countries in the general cultural orbit of the Bible, you find certain typical forms emerging. One of these we described as the sexual creation myth, which simply assumes that the creation was the beginning of the natural cycle. While there are many exceptions in mythology, one very natural figure for this kind of creation myth to focus on would be an earth-mother. And that seems to be, as far as we can see, the common type of creation myth in the east Mediterranean countries, in pre-Biblical times at any rate.
The one that we find in the first chapter of Genesis is an artificial Creation myth, where the world is originally made, rather than simply coming into being, and where the focus is a sky-father, rather than an earth-mother. I've suggested that one significant element in that contrast is that an earth-mother or sexual creation myth is simply the cycle of nature and the seasons extended, but that in the Bible there is a belief in a historical process, a sense of time going somewhere and meaning something, which involves a revolt against all cyclical conceptions of reality.
A cyclical conception of reality is essentially the deification of a kind of machine: that is, it illustrates the ineradicable tendency of the human mind to invent something and then abase itself in front of it. No sooner has the human mind invented the wheel than it starts inventing projections of a wheel of fate or a wheel of fortune, of something ineluctable and mysterious and stronger than man himself. It seems ironic that these projected images should almost invariably be taken from man's own inventions.
Anyway, the first chapter of Genesis, the later or Priestly account of Creation, seems to think in terms of a cosmos as emerging from chaos, and as being associated with an awakening of consciousness that seems to be symbolized in the emphasis on the metaphor of days of a week. The second, or Jahwist account, which begins in the second chapter, is much older, and not all the old sexual mythology has been eliminated from it. The second account begins with the watering of a garden, and we've already seen a suggestion in the Song of Songs and elsewhere of the garden as the bride's body. It's in this older account that Adam is made from the dust of the ground, adamah, which is a pun in Hebrew, and adamah is feminine. So there's a sense in which Adam had a mother as well as a divine father.
What is more important in this contrast for us at the moment is this: a sexual creation myth focused on an earth-mother has no problem with the conception of death, because it is a myth which concerns, very largely, living things, animals and plants, all of which die. In a sexual creation myth, death is built in. It is not only an inevitable part of the myth, it is in some respects the only element that really makes sense of it. But we suggested that the artificial myth thinks more in terms of sky metaphors, of the sun that sets in the evening and comes up again as the same sun the next morning. The bodies in the sky—the sun, the moon, the planets—are not living things in the same way, though they may be deified, as animals and plants are, and they suggest also a sense of planning and of intelligence, a control of affairs in which the same recurring phenomena are brought back.
So it's clear from this, and from many other considerations as well, that in the Biblical account of the Creation, God could have created only a perfect and model world in which there could be no death or sin or misery or pain. That is the reason we are told in that account in the first chapter of Genesis that God made something and then saw that it was good. As Bernard Shaw says in one of his essays, 'What would he say now?' The answer is of course that he would say, according to the traditional Christian interpretation, This is not the world I made, this is the world you fell into, and it's all your fault, and not the least little bit my fault. See Paradise Lost, Books I to XII'.
Now obviously we can only get to that interpretation by doing a certain violence to the Biblical account. For one thing, it is traditional—you'll find it in Paradise Lost as well as elsewhere—that everything we find inconvenient in nature, from mosquitoes to earthquakes, is the result of a fall in nature which accompanied or was part of the original fall of man. But that is of course pure reconstruction: there is nothing about a fall of nature in Genesis. It is said that God cursed the ground, but he removed the curse before the Flood, so that doesn't count either.
The essential point is that it is a matter of belief in Judaism and Christianity that the original world created by God must have been a model world: consequently, an artificial creation myth must have an alienation myth like that of the fall of man to account for the difference between the world as such a God must have made it and the actual world that we're living in now.
Of course, this implies that the perfect or model world was made primarily for man's benefits that is a belief which has obvious psychological links with paranoia. But as Thomas Pynchon remarks in his very remarkable novel Gravity's Rainbow, man cannot live except in a paranoid state. He has only the choice between creative and destructive paranoia. So it is not the fact that the world was created for man's sake which is the difficulty, but simply that for an artificial creation myth which assumes an intelligent and planning God, one needs, to complete it, the myth of the fall of man.
The fall of man is described very obliquely in the Book of Genesis. There are two trees, we are told, a tree of life and a tree of knowledge: according to the principle of metaphor, they are clearly the same tree. The forbidden tree has a cursed serpent crawling limply away from it on his belly; and as the serpent is very frequently a sexual or a phallic symbol, one would expect that the tree of life, in an original version of the story, would have had an erect serpent climbing up through its branches, as it still does in certain symbolic systems like those of kundalini yoga in India. Elsewhere, too, the serpent is the symbol of wisdom, so that the knowledge that man gained by the Fall through the subtle serpent, the deceiving serpent, must have been in some respects an illusory knowledge.
It is also of course a knowledge which has something to do with the discovery of sex as we know it, because as soon as the knowledge is acquired, Adam and Eve knew that they were naked and looked around for clothing. Thus, the original unfallen state is apparently conceived as being a sexual ideal of a kind that we have since lost the key to. The Freudian psychologist Jacques Lacan speaks of the 'myth of the lost phallus' as being one of the most widespread of human conceptions, and it certainly seems involved in the Genesis account as well.
I'm passing over, for the moment at any rate, the Flood story, which in a sense completes the account of the fall of man, and would like to go on to the next phase of Biblical revelation, the phase known as Exodus, or the revolutionary phase.
In the first chapter of Exodus we are told that the Hebrews had entered Egypt under the patronage not merely of Joseph as the advisor to the Pharaoh, but of the Pharaoh himself. That is consistent with what we find all through the Bible, that the world ruler is not necessarily thought of as an evil or wicked man, but simply as one who rules over the kind of world in which sooner or later a successor of his will be evil. The Pharaoh who welcomed the family of Jacob into Egypt was a benevolent pharaoh, but in the course of time there was a pharaoh who 'knew not Joseph' and attempted to get rid of the Hebrews by genocide. The first Persian monarchs, Cyrus and Darius, are spoken of with the greatest respect, but before long we have Ahaseurus in Esther, who attempts another pogrom of genocidal proportions. At the time of the Roman Empire, Paul insists that 'the powers that be are ordained of God', but in no time at all we have Nero and the other persecuting Caesars; and although Alexander the Great is represented by Josephus as being welcomed into Jerusalem by the high priest, in the course of time, the Syrian Seleucian Empire produced Antiochus Epiphanes.
In many respects, the account in the Bible might have been simpler if it had begun where the story of Israel in effect begins, with God appearing in a burning bush to Moses. Moses in Egypt, having escaped from the original massacre of Hebrews and having been brought up as an Egyptian, looks over the landscape and sees a bush burning, yet without burning up. The emphasis is on the ear rather than the eye: the fact that the bush burns without burning up is merely there to attract Moses' attention; but it is the voice that speaks from within that is important.
Now if you begin the story there, you have immediately wiped out that whole dreary chess game that is known traditionally as theodicy. That is, how are you going to reconcile the existence of a perfectly good God with a horribly bad world, and yet without involving the good God in the bad world in any causal way? It's a problem of white not to move and win; a silly problem, I think, and a made-up one. The scene that begins the Exodus story is much more intelligible. Here, there is a situation of tyranny and exploitation going on to start with: the first datum is injustice, tyranny and exploitation. God then announces that he is giving himself a name and a highly partisan role, and is going to enter history on the side of the oppressed classes. Never mind how you got into this situation: how you get out of it is the important thing.
So Moses grows up and gathers Israel around him, and there occurs the story about the plagues, the hardening of Pharoah's heart, and then the crossing of the Red Sea, the event which separated Israel from Egypt. All through the rest of the Bible this separation of Israel from Egypt is one of the major tonalities, the theme which comes back again and again and again. And it is a matter of the highest importance for our understanding of our own cultural traditions that the tradition we have derived through Judaism and Christianity from the Bible has this revolutionary factor which the Exodus story gives to it. All the characteristics of the revolutionary mind are adumbrated right there, and you find most of them repeated in Marxism today.
One of those characteristics is the belief in a specific historical event as the starting point. That is, the story of Israel begins with Moses and the Exodus, and the story of Christianity begins with the birth of Christ. It doesn't begin with the Essenes or anything else that might have looked vaguely similar. The story of Communism begins with Marx and Engels and not with Fourier, Owen, St. Simon, or any of the other Utopian socialists. Islam begins with Mohammed and the flight from Mecca to Medina.
That historical consciousness is something that I have stressed already, because it gives to us the typological way of reading the Bible that I have been concentrating on in this course. As I tried to explain, typology is not a form of allegorical interpretation: it is a theory of history, or more accurately of the historical process, one which says that in spite of all the chaos and confusion in human events, nevertheless those events are going somewhere and meaning something, and that eventually something will happen which will indicate what their meaning is. That is what is distinctive about the Biblical tradition and is what that tradition has contributed to modern theories of history, both progressive and revolutionary. It is something which, so far as I know, is confined to that tradition. I don't find it in the Orient or in the Classics.
Another characteristic of the revolutionary tradition is the dialectical habit of mind, in which everything that is not for us is against us, so that all the middle ground is progressively eliminated. The Hebrews made their great contribution to our own cultural traditions, as is the wont of human nature, through their least amiable characteristic. It was not their belief that their God was true that became influential: it was their belief that all other gods were false. That conception of false god again is something that would have been almost unintelligible to, say, an educated Greek or Roman. A Greek merchant travelling in Babylon would naturally commend himself to the gods of Babylon before going to sleep. And we can see various traces in the Old Testament of an original belief, ascribed to other people such as the Syrians, that there was nothing nonexistent about other peoples' gods.
I think I may have called your attention to a passage in the Book of Kings in which the Syrians say among themselves when they're going to war with Israel, 'Well, Israel is a hilly country; consequently, Jehovah must be a God very good at hill fighting. If we can only get the Israelite army out of the hills and on to the plain, then we'll clean up on them'. And of course this resulted in disaster, because Jehovah, thin-skinned as ever, took offence at the notion that he wasn't equally good in valleys. Similarly, if you look at the Trojan War, you'll see that when the Trojans are defeated, the Trojan gods are defeated with them, and have to be taken by Aeneas to Italy to get refurbished for another period of power. All that is extremely remote from something like the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel, where the object is to prove, not that Jehovah is stronger than Baal, but that Baal does not exist at all. He is not really a god, but a figment of the human imagination. That dialectical separation between the God and no god is something which seems to have come in with the teachings of the prophets, and which again is almost unintelligible to a polytheistic mind.
I think I mentioned earlier that in a tribal organization of society, the gods are local epiphanic gods. Like the nymphs and the satyrs and the fauns of later mythology, they are immediate deities of trees and stones and mountains. When tribes are organized into nations, the gods become an aristocracy, and usually sit on tops of mountains. When the nations grow into world empires, where the ruler thinks of himself as the ruler of the world, then you do get a kind of monotheism in which all the effective gods retreat into the stars except usually one supreme god. All through history you find this type of monotheism associated with world rulers: with an early pharaoh of Egypt, Akhnaten, who practically wrecked his empire in quest of his one god, and the early rulers of Persia, Cyrus and Darius, who were very fervent and devout monotheists. But that kind of imperial monotheism is totally different from the revolutionary monotheism of the Bible.
Imperial monotheism is a very eclectic religion that tends to identify local cults with the service of the supreme god, as they are all the same god anyway. A liberal-minded person in the late Roman Empire, for example, might even go to the point of collecting gods, and would have no objection what ever to having statues of Jehovah and Jesus in his collection. That is, he would think of any number of gods as equally ways of reaching the truth of one God. That is again an attitude of mind that is totally opposed to the kind of monotheism one finds in the Bible, where God has a specific name and a specific role in history, and is not simply a god in whom every other conception of deity may be absorbed.
Another feature of the same revolutionary mentality, I think, is the tendency to do precisely what the Israelites did, to build up a sacred book, and to mark it off clearly from other books that are apocryphal or secular or in some other respect peripheral. The conception of a sacred canon is something that seems to have grown up uniquely with the Israelite tradition. It's possible that there is a scene in the Bible that catches the moment of its birth. In II Kings 22, we have one of the last kings of Judah, and one of the few kings that the narrator approves of. One of the first things he does is to repair the Temple, and in the course of repairing the Temple, a document is found, the book of the law. In verse 8, 'And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord. And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it'. Then they report this fact to the king, verse 11: 'And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes'. And then he said: verse 13, 'enquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah concerning the words of this book that is found: for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according unto all that which is written concerning us'. Now what is of special significance in this passage is the king's conviction that it was a matter of the highest importance for the people as a whole to know the contents of a written document. We're a long way from democracy here, but democracy is founded on the basis of public access to documents, so you can see history turning a rather decisive corner at this point. Such a book would have to be in the first place a law book, because it is the laws which are almost invariably regarded as sacred, as of divine origin and as something that it concerns everyone to know.
Now it's been practically the only thesis in Biblical scholarship that the majority of Biblical scholars are agreed on that this book of the law which was then discovered either was or was very closely related to the existing Book of Deuteronomy. And that means, therefore, that the Book of Deuteronomy was the germ, the core, out of which the entire canon developed. It was probably later than that that the priests began to conflate the older accounts which they already had in temple records, and which survive in such things as the earlier account of Creation and the Genesis stories. The authors of Samuel and Kings are known as the Deuteronomic historians because they follow the general dialectic of Deuteronomy in their historical attitudes.
The Book of Deuteronomy itself seems to have been influenced by the writings and teachings of prophets who came before it, or at least before the time of its discovery. That seems to leave us with the conclusion that such people as David and Solomon had never heard of Moses, that the notion of the contract at Mount Sinai which gave the Israelites the law is a post-Deuteronomic idea and grew up some time after this discovery of the book by Josiah in the 7th century B.C.
The notion of a canon, of books that seem to belong together as especially sacrosanct, seems to be taking shape. We don't know very much about the way it operated, but that it was there seems inescapable. And there's a curious symbolic contrast between the fact that the successful and prosperous empires of Egypt and Babylon and Assyria produced the great temples, whereas the Israelites, who were never lucky at the game of empire, produced a book. To the people who wanted the kind of success that Assyria, Persia and Babylon had, production of a book must have seemed a good deal like a booby prize. But if you think of the relative durability of a book and a monument, you'll see that the facts are very different.
There's a wonderful scene in the Book of Jeremiah where Jeremiah's secretary is reading to what is practically the last king of Judah a prophecy of Jeremiah consisting very largely of denunciations of the king's very foolish and obstinate policy of resistance to Babylon. We're told that it was a cold day, and there was a fire burning in the room in the palace. Every so often, the infuriated king would cut a piece off the scroll with his knife and throw it in the fire. Well, that means that it was a papyrus scroll, because if it had been parchment, it would not only have bankrupted the prophet, but it would also have been tough enough to spoil the king's gesture. But we have the contrast between the prophecy of Jeremiah, entrusted to the most fragile and combustible material that the ancient world produced, and the king's palace, built presumably out of the stones of Solomon's palace, which had taken him thirteen years to build. After 2500 years, not the slightest trace remains of the king's palace, whereas the book of Jeremiah remains in reasonably good shape.
The contrast between producing a book which can be wiped out by the merest breath of accident and the great stone monuments that are there to endure forever and actually crumble in a few years, is rather like the difference between life and death perhaps, because any form of life can also be snuffed out very quickly.
The final item in this list of revolutionary characteristics I'm discussing is the tendency to regard your near neighbor, who is separated from you only by a very slight heresy, as a much deadlier and more detestable enemy than the agreed-on common enemy. Early Christianity, for example, didn't so much attack the pagans as the Gnostics or the Arians, whom they called pagans. In a Marxist struggle for power today, the people attacked are not capitalist reactionaries: it is the Trotskyites or supporters of the Gang of Four who are called agents of the bourgeois counter-revolution.
And with Judaism similarly, there is a much greater bitterness against the Northern Kingdom for its secession, and later on with the Samaritans who occupied the same place, than there is against, say, the Persians.
The word 'canon' is an interesting one. In the prophecy of Ezekiel, Ezekiel is told to take a reed and measure the Temple of God. The word for reed is qaneh and it's from that word ultimately, through Greek intermediaries, that we get our word 'canon'. And so symbolically, at least, there seems to be some connection between this symbol of measuring the Temple and constructing a verbal canon. If you look at the 11th chapter of Revelation, you will see that it begins with the angel giving the narrator a reed like a rod and telling him to measure the Temple of God. Immediately following is the account of the martyrdom of the two witnesses who, as we saw, are connected with Moses and Elijah, the two pillars of Scripture, the symbolic law and prophets.
Teacher's Guide: Northrop Frye and Michael DolzaniCopyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria UniversityLecture 14, Part 2 & Lecture 15, Part 1GENESIS: CREATING THE SEXES
(Note: AV=Authorized Version, OT=Old Testament, NT=New Testament)Synopsis
There are two recurring forms of creation myth, the sexual and the artificial. The sexual creation myth derives from the unending cycles of nature, and often focuses upon the figure of an earth-mother who is the womb and tomb of all life. The artificial creation myth derives from the cycles of the celestial bodies, and focuses upon the figure of a sky-father. The Bible insists upon an artificial creation myth because it resists the overtones of cyclical fatality implied by the inevitability of birth and death in nature. But the problem with an artificial creation myth is that it necessitates the idea of a fall of man, because the perfect model world it postulates as the result of divine planning and intelligence cannot be the world of death and corruption that we live now. The original unfallen state is conceived in the Bible as a kind of lost sexual ideal, one of whose symbols would be an erect serpent in the tree of life, as contrasted with the cursed serpent crawling on the ground.
Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts
In contrast to the cursed serpent crawling limply on the ground, the symbol of this would be an unfallen serpent erect in the tree of life.
The Teacher’s Perspective
We said in program 3 that the paradisal garden is the symbolic place of origin, and that this accounts for the haunting recurrence of themes from the Book of Genesis throughout the history of western culture. Indeed, some writers seem hardly able to get away from them; and the early poetry of Dylan Thomas, for example, could be looked at almost as an intricate series of variations upon the story of the Creation and the Fall: the class may compare such examples as ‘In the beginning’, ‘Before I knocked’, or ‘Incarnate devil in a talking snake’ to Milton’s own creation of Genesis in Book VII of Paradise Lost. The comparison will perhaps suggest what Prof. Frye says in The Great Code (114), that ‘The essential meaning of the creation story, for us, seems to be as a type of which the antitype is the new heaven and earth promised in Revelation 21:1’. For Thomas especially, inheritor of Romantic ideas about the importance of the human creative imagination, a corollary to this seems to be that the idea of a creator God is itself a type, of which human creative power is in effect the antitype, the realized form or fulfillment. Creeping in around the edges of ‘Incarnate devil’ and ‘In the beginning’ is the suggestion that the original Creation was in some respects a Creation-Fall such as we explained in the last program. Prof. Frye’s Creation and Recreation is largely concerned with the revolutionary implications of human creativity, with the fact that human creation works by annihilating some aspect of the Creation, and as such, that book forms a natural supplement to the present program.
Just how far western culture lay under the dominance of the artificial creation myth from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century is far from being an undisputed question, with some Renaissance scholars claiming that such concepts as the Ptolemaic cosmos and the great chain of being appear so prominently precisely because they were in the process of being challenged: that creative writers were drawn to them, not because they were a secure foundation that was taken for granted, but because they were the era’s chief focus of intellectual controversy. In an age where astrology is more popular than astronomy and ‘creationism’ fights court battles with evolution, it would be well to keep in mind that the idea of a great unquestioned ‘medieval synthesis’ is probably a nostalgic illusion. Nevertheless, the presence in poetry from Dante to Milton of an artificial and hierarchical cosmos ordered more or less from the top down is clearly demonstrable, and such incidents as the persecution of Galileo suggest that the artificial creation myth still had enough clout to suppress dissension in the seventeenth century. Indeed, it is still the prevailing popular belief in our time: but the argument for a change in sensibility somewhere around the eighteenth century rests on the fact that it had list enough cultural ascendency by that time to be openly challenged on the higher levels of culture.
A surprising number of such challenges have involved the revival of some sort of goddess worship, the best-known example being Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Man Who Died’ gives us a Christ assimilated to the cycles of nature, and E.R. Eddison’s Zimiamvian trilogy attributes to his dark goddess Fiorinda some of characteristics of the ‘cruel mistress’ of courtly love poetry, the chief secular form in the goddess her tradition was preserved in the Renaissance, its religious equivalent being the Catholic cult of Mary (see Henry Adams’ Mont St. Michel and Chartes). When she appeared in more directly mythological form, the earth-goddess usually appeared in Renaissance poetry as a monstrous figure, often the mother of the elder Titans deposed by the Olympians in Classical mythology, such as the Night of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Book I, canto 5. In Blake’s Four Zoas (and elsewhere), she is called Vala in her role as a nature goddess, and Enitharmon as Queen of Heaven. In Finnegan’s Wake, she is Anna Livia Plurabelle, Or ALP, who is also the river Liffey with its fertile delta.
The Freudians have naturally enough provided us with the majority of our insights about fallen sexuality: in fact, the classical Freudian Oedipus complex is a variation of Prof. Frye’s statement that the mother is the parent that we have to break with in order to get born. If something prevents the separation from taking place naturally, a neurosis develops, and the maternal image turns into what Jung in Symbols of Transformation calls the Terrible Mother, such as the Indian death goddess Kali or all the wicked stepmothers of the fairy tales. Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur, a penetrating study of mythology from a feminist point of view, argues that the necessity of breaking with the figure of the mother is a chief cause for the ambivalent feelings towards women in our society.
The modern world has been not exactly uninterested, shall we say, in the possibility that we might regain some portion of an unfallen sexuality. In Blake, the apocalypse begins in the loins, Lawrence, in The Plumed Serpent, is clear that this apocalyptic sexuality would be ego-transcending, not so clear about what would be a practical program for achieving it. The speculations of such books as Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization and Norman O. Brown’s Live Against Death and Love’s Body are even more uninhibited. The students may read Yeat’s ‘Crazy Jane Talks With The Bishop’ for its Blakean insight into what has happened to sexuality because of the Fall: ‘For love has pitched his mansion in/ The place of excrement;/ And nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent’. This provision explains what is sometimes taken as a mere emphasis on perversity in some modern literature: in fact, it is a more or less exact gloss on the final sexual act in Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Students will be likely to enjoy the gorgeous description of the unfallen serpent in Milton’s Paradise Lost; another view of him is at the end of Dylan Thomas’ ‘ Altarwise by owl-light’, as the serpent of wisdom who ‘builds with the gold straws of venom/ My nest of mercies in the rude, red tree’. The ancient symbol of the serpent with his tail in his mouth, the Ouroboros, may be either an ironic image of the natural cycle or a symbol of the consciousness that breaks free of that cycle, in which case it becomes emblematic of eternity: often a double meaning seems in fact to be intended, as when Lessingham, the hero of E.R. Eddison’s aforementioned fantasy trilogy, wears an Ouroboros emblem on his ring without realizing its full import, or as with the serpent of Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Auroras of Autumn’, whose flashing scales are the aurora borealis in the night sky. The image of the cycle may also bear a double character, as it does in Finnegans Wake, whose last sentence breaks off and is finished on page one.
There is one further aspect of the subject of creation, that of the Logos, or creation by the Word. The word ‘logos’ comes from Heraclitus, where it means something like an intelligible cosmic process or order in which we all have our being. It was later picked up by the Stoics, and still later by the Gospel of John, where of course it becomes Incarnate. As Prof. Frye points out, the opening of the Fourth Gospel is a kind of antitype to Genesis. The modern career of the Logos concept descends from Coleridge, who attempted to combine its Christian meaning with some parts of German philosophy in his famous definition of the primary and secondary imagination in the Biographia Literaria: it is the ‘universal I AM’ of that passage, and Coleridge dreamed all his life of making it the subject of a work that, had he completed it, would apparently have made Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason look like a modest essay. He never began it. Two modern Logos poets are T.S. Eliot in the Four Quartets, which are prefaced by two quotations from Heraclitus, and in Ash-Wednesday, part V; and also Dylan Thomas: the ‘long world’s gentleman’ of ‘ Altarwise by owl-light’ is in fact the logos himself, the ‘walking world’; and there is a whole series of puns on words, letters and writing embedded throughout that complex sequence.
Judges 6: 25.
The ‘grove’ or wooden poles (asherah) of the fertility goddess Asherah.
Jeremiah 44: 15 ff.
Asherah as Queen of Heaven.
Diana of the Ephesians, many-breasted goddess of fertility.
The earth-mother and the cycles of nature.
Creation and Recreation, Northrop Frye, University of Toronto Press, 1980.
‘The Revelation to Eve’, in The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Literature and Society, Northrop Frye, Cornell University Press, 1970.
Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions
Lecture 15, Part 2
EXODUS: A REVOLUTIONARY HERITAGE
Our own cultural traditions, derived from the Bible through Judaism and Christianity, have been powerfully affected by the revolutionary tendencies imparted to the Bible by the Exodus story. One characteristic of the revolutionary mind is the belief in a specific historical revelation; another is a dialectical habit of thinking; a third is the tendency to build up a canon of sacred writings. The kernel out of which the entire Biblical canon developed was apparently the core of the existing Book of Deuteronomy.
Biblical Passages Cited
I Kings 20:23.—Syria makes the fatal mistake of assuming that Israel's God is only good at hill fighting.
I Kings 18:19 ff.—Elijah and the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel.
II Kings 22:8, 11, 13.—The discovery of the book of the law in the Temple.
Jeremiah 36:21 ff.—The king of Judah burning the scroll of Jeremiah piece by piece.
Exodus 3:2.—The burning bush.
Exodus 3:14.—God announces his name and enters history.
Exodus 7, 8, 9.—The plagues of Egypt.
Exodus 14.—Crossing of the Red Sea.
The Teacher's Perspective
According to Ezra Pound's Cantos, a Chinese emperor had inscribed on his bathtub the motto, 'Make it new'. This became Pound's program for the modernist revolution in poetry and the other arts, a revolution for which he was a remarkably effective promoter. And yet Pound's own characteristics did not much resemble those of the Chinese civilization with which he was so fascinated, a civilization that, despite the emperor's motto, until the twentieth century was one of the least revolutionary in history. Pound, like Yeats and many of the other literary modernists, envied the Orient its millennia-long continuity of culture and its reverence for tradition. Yet the Cantos themselves are a highly-experimental poem obsessed with the historical process, and Pound himself by World War II came to resemble, in appearance and rhetoric, nothing so much as an Old Testament prophet who had tragically mistaken the Antichrist for the Messiah.
The point is that 'make it new' has become a watchword in western society, as Future Shock or any of its imitations will show the class; and that this is a manifestation of what Prof. Frye calls the revolutionary mind. The belief that all change is progress is so pervasive in our society that we often fail to recognize it in its subtler forms, even as we reject it in its grosser manifestations. Radicals who snort with contempt at the naïve belief in the bourgeois democracies that improvement means progressively newer models of gadgetry, or progressively newer theories of education and economics, or progressively newer avant garde movements in the arts, are often those who accept without question the idea that the true form of progress is a complete social revolution which will finally produce the same new models and gadgets. Very few people, radical or conservative, entirely reject the idea of progress: when they attack it, they are usually only attacking what they consider to be one of its false forms. To most people, loss of belief in the possibility of at least some form of progressive improvement looks like nihilism and complete despair.
Nevertheless, there is a tradition of thought which has believed in daring that abyss. This line of thinkers perhaps begins with Nietzsche, who defined the truly heroic act as the ability to stare in the face the cyclic fatality of what he called 'the eternal recurrence of the same'. It is this ability that defines the Superman; and Nietzsche would have regarded Hitler's idea of a Third Reich as a distortion of his own cyclic philosophy into a teleological one. In fact, he might have pointed out indignantly that the Third Reich was a demonic parody of the Christian idea of the coming age of the Holy Spirit. The maverick Christian philosopher of the Middle Ages, Joachim of Floris, had prophesied that, as the law of the age of the Father was superseded by the gospel of the age of the Son, so the gospel would be superseded by the inner illumination of the age of the Holy Spirit. The fact that this doctrine was declared to be heretical is an indication of how difficult it has been for the Church to contain and limit the revolutionary tendencies of the Biblical tradition.
It is interesting to see how often thinkers rejecting the idea of a historical progress have reached back instinctively to Classical culture for evidence of a belief in cycles that could be considered parallel to their own. The Renaissance revival of Classical culture had drawn rather upon those elements in it that were most congenial to the Christian ideal of an end of time and a meaning to history, as for example the Aristotelean telos or the Platonic 'ascent of Eros' from the material to the ideal. One of its favorite Classical poems was Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, which it considered more or less a pagan anticipation of the Nativity of Christ. The Fourth Eclogue celebrates the birth of a child from a Virgin, a birth that will renew the golden age. But the real context of the poem is in fact cyclical: the virgin is Astraea, the last goddess to abandon the world at the end of the golden age, and therefore the first to return at its renewal. Yeats returns to this original cyclical conception of the Fourth Eclogue in his 'Two Songs From a Play', doubtless with the fact in mind that Shelley, one of his major influences, had included a version of the Fourth Eclogue in Hellas. In 'Two Songs', this cyclic pattern is also identified with the cycles of the dying god Dionysus, and the 'Magnus Annus' is the Platonic Great Year, 24,000 regular years long, which is the length of the entire cycle of cycles. Allen Ginsberg's 'Plutonian Ode', a poem about nuclear peril, is based on the pun that 24,000 years is also the half-life of plutonium. Yeat's elaborate theory in A Vision of 2000-year cycles of recurrence, of which the Classical and the Christian are the two most familiar, incorporates astrological notions also discussed in Jung's Aion, as well as being powerfully influenced by Nietzsche.
The notion, popularized in the sixties, of a coming 'age of Aquarius' derives from the same complex of symbolism: each of the twelve astrological signs dominates a period of 2000 years, and we are now witnessing the troubled transition from the age of Pisces to the age of Aquarius; again, the total number of years in the whole cycle is thus 12 x 2000 = 24,000. The constellation Virgo, the Virgin, who holds the star Spica in her hand, was traditionally associated with Astraea, the Christian counterpart of which would be the Virgin Mary and the star of Bethlehem. Yeats also subordinates the revolutionary idea of a specific historical revelation to the vision of an endless series of cycles. The Classical cycle was initiated by the rape of Leda: in Yeats' 'Leda and the Swan', those two figures form the Classical counterparts to the Virgin and the Dove who initiated the Christian cycle. In 'The Second Coming', the 'rough beast' slouching towards Bethlehem is not, despite the misleading title of the poem, the Christian Antichrist, but the herald of the new cycle that will succeed the Christian age in its turn.
Against all this, the Bible offers its own version of Pound's 'make it new', most specifically in Revelation 21:5, 'Behold, I make all things new', but also in 21:1, the 'new heaven and a new earth', which is the antitype of Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22. There is also Paul's 'new creature' or 'new man' of II Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15, Ephesians 2:15 and 4:24, and Colossians 3:10. For the association of fatality and the cycles of nature, the class may look at the first chapter of Ecclesiastes.
The second characteristic of the revolutionary mind, the dialectical habit of thinking, is evident in the recurrent tendency of the Biblical tradition to iconoclasm, discussed in The Great Code, pp. 116-18. This habit goes far beyond the smashing of church windows and other such nonsense, however. Arguments and definitions can become idols just as easily as visual symbols; and the need to smash the currently-prevailing conception of things, sometimes merely because it is the currently-prevailing explanation, has also become part of the western revolutionary tradition. In Christianity, this has sometimes taken the form of what was called the sacrificium intellectus, the renunciation of mere human reason, born out of the realization of the limitations of the intellect, as in Tertullian's statement that he believed in Christianity precisely because it was impossible, or in the mystic St. Bernard's persecution of the rationalistic Abelard.
In modern times, there is something of it in Kierkegaard's 'leap of faith' and in Paul Tillich's 'God beyond God', the God who appears when God has disappeared in despair. The Great Code speaks (xxii and p. 213) of the philosopher Jacques Derrida's attack on the idea of a 'metaphysic of presence', the original presence being that of some kind of Logos, the power of the Word that stands behind and gives authority and meaning to all language. Derrida's denial of this presence, and his radical statement that meaning in a text is not an essence that we can ever grasp or possess, is a good example of secular idol-smashing, of revolutionary thinking turned back upon its original cultural sources. It is worth noting that Derrida has been influenced by Nietzsche.
In poetry, this concentration upon the ear rather than the eye has taken the form of what the critic Harold Bloom calls 'the internalization of quest romance': see the article by that title in his book The Ringers in the Tower. Prof. Frye uses the word 'internalized' in relation to the Bible's own visual imagery in The Great Code, p. 118. Another aspect of this is Milton's insight in Paradise Regained that the verbal agonor contest between Christ and Satan during the Temptation is the true form of the dragon-slaying myth.
The third characteristic of the revolutionary mind, the idea of a verbal canon, has had an incalculable influence on our ideas about literature. Most of the works we regard as 'classics' in fact tend to reproduce in some way the encyclopedic form in which sacred books, including the Bible, are usually written; this is particularly true of works that are or resemble literary epics, especially in their tendency to expand into an entire cosmology and mythology, to become a literary imitation of a complete body of revelation. Examples include the poems of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton and Blake, and the prose works of Joyce. This idea is discussed fully in Prof. Frye's Anatomy of Criticism under the title 'Specific Encyclopedic Forms'. The mandala of Tibetan Buddhism is a symbolic diagram of such a cosmology, used as a focus of meditation, and often discussed by Jung as a symbol of psychic wholeness. In his essay 'Expanding Eyes', Prof. Frye says that people have sent him mandalas of literature based on the Anatomy of Criticism; he remarks that while there is nothing wrong with this, the real mandala is not something to see, but something to see by.
1. Biblical Passages
Genesis 16:13.Judges 6:23. Judges 13:22.Exodus 33:20 ff.Isaiah 6.Ezekiel 1.John 1:18.
Visions of God by Hagar, Gideon, Samson's parents, Moses.
Visions of God by Isaiah and Ezekiel.
'No man hath seen God at any time'.
'every eye shall see him'.
'Behold, I make all things new'.
'a new heaven and a new earth'.
Isaiah 65:17.Isaiah 66:22.
New heaven and earth.
II Corinthians 5:17.Galatians 6:15.Ephesians 2:15. Ephesians 4:24. Colossians 3:10.
Paul's 'new creature'.
The 'new man'.
Revelation 11:1 ff.
Exhortation to measure the Temple.
Source of Revelation 11:1 ff.
Zechariah's measuring line to measure Jerusalem.
2. Corresponding Passages in The Great Code
Chapter Five. Typology II.
pp. 114-18. Revolution.
Chapter Eight. Language II.
pp. 199-202. The canon.