The Bible and Literature: a Personal View by Northrop Frye - Program 17 "Creating the Sexes"
Director: Bill Somerville Technical Director: Ted GlickmanConceived and Produced by: Robert SandlerExecutive Producer: Bob RodgersAudio: Gerard Beckers, Chris RodgersCamera: Richard Cable, Don Elsliger, Keith SpringerGraphic Design: Ken FongProduction Assistants: Anne Riemer Hart, Frances HandlemanAssistant to Northrop Frye: Jane WiddicombeDigitized and edited by Robert Fysh (2008)
Media Centre, University of Toronto, Canada
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Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
The birth of woman from man in Genesis is seen not as justification for a male-dominated society, but as evidence of the priority of the divine creation over nature. Contains material from Lecture 14 (Part 2) and Lecture 15 (Part 1).
Transcript:Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria UniversityLECTURE TRANSCRIPT: PROGRAM 17
This text is a transcript of the full lectures of Prof. Frye on Jan. 6 and 13, 1981. Only the bold parts are used in this version.Download a PDF of the TranscriptPlease note: These lectures were split in to three programs; the first part can be found under program 16 ‘Genesis: in the Beginning’; the third part can be found under program 18 ‘Exodus: A Revolutionary Heritage’.GENESIS: CREATING THE SEXES
Last term, I was concerned with trying to build up a unified picture of the narrative and imagery of the Bible, and the emphasis consequently was on its imaginative unity, the unity as revealed by the myth and metaphor that form its structure. But the Bible's disregard for unity is quite as impressive as its observance of it: it's just as possible to look at it as a large miscellaneous heap of badly established texts. Everything that could possibly go wrong with a book has gone wrong with the Bible at some stage or other in its history. So the Bible, therefore, is a unity which has passed beyond unity. It's not a matter of its having failed to achieve it, but of its having got past it to something which includes it.
There are two senses, in other words, in which we can use the word 'imperfect'. We can think of it as a limited or inadequate quality which falls below perfection, or we can think of it, as the tenses of the Hebrew language suggest, as the difference between the perfected, that which is finished and complete, and that which is still continuous and alive. The Bible has tried to present its unified message in that deliberately imperfect way: I'll try to show you something of that in the ending of the Book of Revelation, which as I said, is a remarkably open ending for a book of that length.
Now what I want to do this term is to examine a series of what seem to me to be phases in what the Bible has to say, phases of what is traditionally called revelation. It's a rather tricky business to try to understand what the Bible means by revelation, because in the course of centuries, we have eventually realized that its revelation is not the communicating either of historical know ledge or of scientific and natural knowledge. At the same time, revelation does seem to imply the communicating of some kind of knowledge, and the real nature of that knowledge is what I want to examine.
It seems to me that there is a progressive sequence in the Bible of stages, not so much of revelation itself, as of the understanding of it. First, creation; then revolution, which is the Exodus from Egypt; then law, which follows the Exodus; then wisdom, or the individualizing of the law; then prophecy: those five stages all have their center of gravity in the Old Testament. There are two others with their center of gravity in the New Testament: the gospel, and the Second Coming or apocalypse. That will be our general outline for this term, which means of course that we have to begin with the conception of creation in the Bible as it's set out at the beginning of Genesis and referred to elsewhere.
There are certain questions that obviously come to mind when you're reading the Biblical account of Genesis. One is, why is there such an insistence on days of the week, and why does the Bible talk about the first, the second and the third day before the sun was created to measure time? Another one is, why is the account of creation in the Bible so intolerably patriarchal? The creating God in the Bible is assumed to be male, which obviously must be a metaphor, because he is the creator of both male and female. We are also told that at the beginning of things, the first woman's body was created out of the body of the first man, in a violent reversal of everything that has happened since. For questions like that, there are always immediate answers: the emphasis on the seven days was put in to rationalize the law of the Sabbath, and the emphasis on the maleness of the creating agent was put in to rationalize the doctrines of male supremacy in ancient society. Now I have no doubt that those answers are true as far as they go. They don't go far enough to be very interesting, so I'm going to ignore their truth and try to get a little further.
First of all, in the beginning—the Hebrew simply says, in beginning, beresheth, God created the heaven and the earth. Now one of the first questions that's likely to come to a child's mind is: what happened before that? Or, more accurately, what was God doing sitting around all that time before making the world? Saint Augustine said that what God was doing before creation was preparing a hell for those who asked questions of that kind: which perhaps tells you more about Saint Augustine than it does about God. But to be told that we should not ask a question of course merely increases its urgency in any healthy mind.
So what took place before the creation? Well, in the first place, that question has got fouled up with the category of time, because the category of time is the fundamental way in which we perceive reality. Considering that the category of time is divided into three dimensions, the past, present and the future, that none of these dimensions actually exists, because the past doesn't exist any longer, and the future doesn't exist yet, and the present never quite exists at all, it seems a funny way to grasp reality. But that's the way we do grasp reality: we grasp it with a category which is totally nonexistent.
Further, you will see if you try it that it is entirely impossible to think of the beginning of time. You can talk about a beginning of time, talk about it forever, but you cannot actually think of the notion. A beginning of time is unthinkable. Consequently, all notions of the eternal in religion which mean endless time are notions which have not got clear of the category of time. Popular Christianity tells us that after death we live forever either in heaven or in hell, meaning endlessly in time. But in saying eternal when you mean endless time, you are not getting clear of the category of time at all. Jesus uses the term aionios, which the King James Bible translates as 'everlasting'; and if you think carefully about that word 'everlasting' as a translation for aionios, you'll see that it's a little masterpiece of question-begging. 'Everlasting' means persisting indefinitely in time.
However, early Christianity discovered that Christianity would be much more salable if you perverted its good news into bad news, and in particular if you put at the center of your teaching the doctrine that after death, unless you did what you were told at this moment, you would suffer tortures for eternity, meaning endlessly in time. Every system of organized priestcraft has had a doctrine of that kind, and the only thing to be said in favor of it is that it makes sin creative: that is, we owe a great deal more to the people who went on sinning in spite of it than we do to the people who tried to restrain sin by threatening it. But that is merely an example of what John Bunyan says, that the mouth of hell is open at the gate of heaven, and that turning God into the devil is one of the commonest of all theological errors. So whatever the word 'eternal' means, try to think of it as something that transcends the category of time altogether, and then you'll get a little closer to what the Bible is talking about.
So, negatively, that brings you to a partial and tentative answer to the question, why does the Bible insist on an absolute beginning? Clearly, it is trying to assert that the category of time is not the ultimate category, and that the activity of God as the Bible understands it in Genesis cannot be put on the same level as this moving belt of past, present and future that we experience as time. The doctrine of an absolute beginning, which is something you cannot think as long as you are talking about the category of time itself, is there to indicate that the creation comes out of a world which is above time.
In the seventeenth century, the age of Galileo and Newton, Biblical scholars, including Newton himself, were gravely explaining to each other that the creation probably took place in 4004 B.C., probably at the spring equinox, probably around ten in the morning. So the discoveries in the nineteenth century in geology, which eventually pushed the age of the earth back to about two billion years, if not three—but as the government will be saying in the future, what's a billion?—made an impact that was out of all proportion to its importance. But scientists, of course, like anybody else, find that they can't get along without creation myths; and eventually we have a Big Bang creation myth, which says that the world exploded, oh, say fifteen billion years ago or thereabouts, and has been scattering in all directions ever since.
Well, that's fine: what happened before that? And you immediately are up against the fact that as long as you are thinking of the order of nature, the conceptions of beginning and end do not apply. But we begin and we end, and because of what Thomas Pynchon calls creative paranoia in the human consciousness, we insist that because we begin and we end, beginnings and endings must be much more deeply built into the scheme of things. And so we start out the Biblical creation myth with an absolute beginning, associated at the end of Revelation with an absolute end.
The first phenomena of creation were light and sound; and in one of Chaucer's poems, an eagle picks up the poet and takes him on a flight to the House of Fame, and keeps talking the whole time, which makes Chaucer very nervous because he is held in the eagle's mouth, and he doesn't want the eagle to drop him. The eagle gives him a long speech on the nature of sound and of words, and he says, among other things, 'Sound is naught but air abroken', that is, words are air. It's a traditional enough association.
My point here is that the Creed speaks of God as having made all things visible and invisible, and there are systems of thought including some Christian ones, which assume that there are two orders of existence, one invisible and the other visible, and that the invisible world is a higher order of reality. That doesn't seem to be the way the Bible thinks of things at all. As soon as you start trying to think of things that you can't see but know exist, the first thing you would think of would be the air. You can't see the air. If you could, you could see nothing else. You'd be living in a dense fog, and fog is in fact an extremely important metaphor in the Bible, as we'll see when we get to the Book of Ecclesiastes. It's the basis of the word which is translated in that book as 'vanity'. And in a sense, paradoxical as it sounds, we don't really see light either, as distinct from seeing a source or a reflection of light. What we see is symbolically and metaphorically fire, the source of light, rather than light itself. So the Bible doesn't think of the invisible world as a superior order. It thinks of it as that by means of which the world becomes visible: that is, the invisible world is the medium of the visible world. It is the emptiness that permits things to exist. The twentieth century philosopher Heidegger says that the first question of philosophy is, why are there things rather than nothing? And he eventually winds up with the answer that, if there were not nothing, there would be no things.
God is invisible for the same reason that air is invisible. If he were directly visible, well, then he would have been an entirely different metaphysical setup: but when Isaiah says that he saw the Lord high and lifted up, or when Ezekiel has the vision of the chariot, they mean that they see a source of visibility, just as when we look at the sun we see the source of visibility. That's what I mean by the doctrine of the invisible in the Bible, that the invisible is the medium by which the world becomes visible. If God were not invisible, the world would not be visible; that is, God would not then be a Creator.
Now I've said that myth and metaphor, rather than the historical and doctrinal, are the basis of literal meaning in the Bible. So the question arises, what is the metaphorical kernel, let us say, of this conception of beginning? It might be, as I suggested a few moments ago, the metaphorical kernel of getting born: we begin when we join a continuum of living creatures, and we end when we drop off it. But actually, a much clearer metaphorical basis is that of the experience of waking up in the morning, where you dismiss a dark, chaotic, confused world. You simply abolish that world, and with the help of your alarm clock, you enter a world which you consider for practical purposes more real, though any philosopher could tie you in any number of knots about its reality. Still, as far as you're concerned, it's the real world, and you get up and get dressed. This metaphorical kernel of abolishing a world of chaos and finding a world which for practical purposes is your real world in front of you is as close as we get to the experience of an actual beginning.
Now, I previously said that many creation myths begin with a hero-god killing a dragon, who represents the chaos of the world before the creation, and I've cited the Babylonian poem, enuma elish, where Marduk, the hero-god of Babylon, kills the sea monster, Tiamat, chops her in two, makes heaven from half of her and earth from the other half. We have tried to suggest that this dragon fight, which is referred to many times in the Old Testament, lies closely behind the account of creation in Genesis. One reason why it is not mentioned there is that the dragon by this time is being conceived in negative terms as pure inertness. That is, you don't have to kill the dragon: the dragon is death, and to kill death is to bring to life.
And I suspect that it is this immediate connection with the experience of waking up that accounts partly for the metaphor of days in the creation. Of course, there are historical and cultural reasons. There's the law of the Sabbath. The law of the Sabbath itself derives probably from an original lunar cult, and in a sense, the symbolic or metaphorical moon is older than the sun. A tribe of desert wanderers would find that the sun was a killer, and that the moon was a friendly guide on their night journeys, and hence they would be very apt to make a friendly deity out of the moon. There are many traces of a very early lunar cult among the Hebrews in pre-Biblical times, and one of these traces is the emphasis on the numerical unit of seven days of the week, which marks the phase of the moon. In the Gospel of John, the Word of God is spoken of as a light shining in darkness, and of course a light shining in darkness suggests the moon, or a bright star like the star of Bethlehem, rather than the sun. So the moon is to that degree a more eloquent symbol of beginning even than the sun. We're told that the words like 'hallelujah', which have to do with the praising of God, were in pre-Biblical times connected with new moon festivals and with the greeting of the new moon in the sky. The three-day rhythm of the old moon, the dark night, and the new moon has woven itself very intricately into the Christian Passion symbolism.
And so, as I say, I think it is the metaphorical connection between the idea of a beginning and the experience of waking up that accounts for the emphasis on the day, which begins, you'll notice, with the evening: 'And the evening and the morning were the third day', and so on, even though the machinery to regulate days did not appear until the fourth day.
So far I've been talking about the account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis. That comes from what scholars call the Priestly narrative, which is much the latest of the major documents that make up the first five books of the Bible. A second and much older account of the Creation begins in Genesis 2:4: 'These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens'. The one that comes first is the later, the more philosophical account, where Creation is thought of metaphorically as the creation of dry land out of the waters: that is, chaos is metaphorically identified with the waters or the face of the deep, and practically the first act of the creation is a separating of the dry land from the sea. In the older account, you begin with a universal drought, and the creative act starts with what the King James Bible calls a 'mist' in verse 6 but which in the Septuagint is pege, 'fountain', which makes a great deal more sense.
Now if you examine creation myths across the world, you will find that certain recurring types seem to sort themselves out, and one very common kind of creation myth is the sexual creation myth, which says essentially that the world came to be in the first place in the same way that it still comes into being in the springtime, when lambs are born from sheep, and new seeds sprout out of the ground. You have in that kind of myth a sexual creation myth, and it is essentially a myth which accounts for the origin of life, for the beginning of things that live, animals and plants. They first came into being in the same way that they still do. Now in the world that we know, everything that lives has been born from a female body, and so in mythology the sexual creation myth is very frequently and very naturally associated with some kind of earth-mother. This earth-mother has both a cherishing and a sinister aspect: cherishing because everything comes to birth from her body, and sinister because everything that dies returns to her body. She is both the womb and the tomb of all forms of life, the mother of life and the mother of death. There is no rule without many exceptions in mythology, but that is a very common type of creation myth.
Now you'll notice that that creation myth has underlying it the notion of an endlessly turning cycle. The new life comes in the spring. What was before that? There was the winter. What was before the winter? The last spring, and so on back. It's a myth which conforms to the facts of nature to the extent that it does not try to answer the question about an absolute beginning. Sexual creation myths turn on the question, which came first, the chicken or the egg, and there is no answer to that question. You simply go back in an endless cycle of time.
I've tried to show in my analysis of its imagery and narrative that the Bible strongly resists this conception of cyclical fatality. It talks more about absolute beginnings and absolute ends, and this tendency goes back to the particular kind of creation myth that it has. In the Bible, the creation myth is an artificial one. That is, the world originally was made. In a play of Bernard Shaw's, somebody quotes the Horatian tag that poets are born and not made. Somebody says that that's a silly thing to say because everybody's born and not made. But not according to the Book of Genesis: everything at first, including the first man and woman, was made, and the cycle of birth was instituted later. Just as it is natural to associate a sexual creation myth with an earth-mother, so it is natural to associate this artificial creation myth with a sky-father. It is easy to think of God as a father because he's a mysterious being who goes to his work in some office to which you can't follow him, and doesn't nurture his children. I've spoken of the Biblical resistance to the idea of cyclical fatality, and the mother is the parent that we have to break from in order to get born. The creation myth of the Bible associates this conception of the break from the mother, in this case the earth-mother, with that cycle that goes around and around forever without ever stopping.
Then again, I said that the sexual creation myth was a myth about living things, whereas, if you put some kind of mythmaking Robinson Crusoe into a landscape by himself and took all his social conditioning away from him—it isn't possible, but we could think of it experimentally—and said, now you produce a creation myth, the kind of creation myth he would produce would depend on whether he was looking up or looking down at the point at which you've released him. If he were looking down, he would see the cycle of animals and plants coming out of the ground in the springtime, the sap moving in the trees, the new lambs being born, and so forth; and that would condition him in the direction of an earth-mother, a sexual creation myth. But if he looked up, he would see the sun going across the sky, and what was unmistakably the same sun coming back again the next morning. So if he looks down to the cycle of animals and plants, he sees what Plato would call the cycle of the different, because the new life is never the same as the old life. The flowers that bloom in the spring are never the same flowers that bloomed the previous spring. But up in the sky, there is the sun with its daily recurrence, the moon with its slower recurrence, and eventually the planets with theirs; and that suggests something more like planning and intelligence. Hence, the artificial myth tends to become associated with the upper cycle, the cycle of the same rather than of the different.
The cycle of the same suggests a sense of planning and intelligence and ordering; that is, this sexual creation myth suggests what Spinoza would call the natura naturans, nature as a living organism. Whereas, what you collect from the movements of the sun and moon in the sky is rather the sense of natura naturata, of nature as a structure or system, where all things return to their sources. It depends, of course, on the social organization that man belongs to. The notion of a sky-creator is said to be an extremely ancient one, but in early or primitive societies, this sky-creator doesn't do anything. He leaves the government of the world to inferior beings, a pattern that reflects a kind of tribal organization of society. But when you get into more highly developed societies like the late Roman Empire, you find that all the effective gods have retreated into the sky, and that there then becomes a connection between the sense of a natural order and a moral order.
If you are in a cycle that goes around without stopping, then you are in a sense an embryo: there's a bigger womb that you never escape from; and what's more, this endlessly turning cycle is, when you analyze it closely, a mechanical symbol. The Hebrew word for embryo is golem, and in Jewish legend the golem became a mechanical monster like the one of Frankenstein's. This means that Jesus' emphasis on the Father has a great deal to do with this sense of an order higher than that of time and with the sense of the urgency about waking up into this order above time and above the area of mother nature. That's what Christianity calls resurrection.
Material in this program was drawn from two lectures, the second of which appears in the following pages.
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 whatever 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 UniversityTEACHERS GUIDE: PROGRAM 17Download a PDF of the Teacher's GuideGENESIS: CREATING THE SEXESSynopsis
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