He made the good book better: How Northrop Frye examined the Bible without excess piety
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 21 December 2004)

Northrop Frye, while producing the 30 or so books that established him as a great literary critic, also wrote about 1.5 million words in his diaries, leaving to the future a mountain of scattered insights, complaints and unanswered questions. The last category includes a brief note about Malcolm X, the most famous of the African American leaders who embraced Islam. "I must read Malcolm X," Frye wrote one day, "to see why the hell a black revolutionary would turn to the religion of the Arab slave-traders."

That's a question only Frye would raise. His mind moved easily through epochs and myths, identifying webs connecting belief with everyday life. He imagined that on some level everyone worries about such questions. It might never have occurred to him that Malcolm X cared little about African history and accepted Islam because it answered his immediate needs for discipline and fellowship.

The remark about Malcolm X appears in Northrop Frye Unbuttoned: Wit and Wisdom from the Notebooks and Diaries (Anansi), a collection that received less attention than it deserves when it was published earlier this year. Frye (1912-1991) always wanted to make a book-length miscellany of his thoughts, and Robert Denham, who has been studying Frye for decades, put this together as a posthumous fulfilment of that intention. His shrewd selection continues the process of revealing our most distinguished 20th-century intellectual as a suffering, insecure, original, shyly egotistical, sometimes funny genius.

I've been reading it alongside a book that's just appeared, Biblical and Classical Myths: The Mythological Framework of Western Culture (University of Toronto Press), by Frye and Jay Macpherson. It's the record of a course they gave together at the University of Toronto, Frye lecturing on the Bible and Macpherson on the classical myths, which, as she says, often resemble Bible stories.

The Frye material captures on the page his manner of speaking, which was more easygoing and matter-of-fact than the style of his essays and books. He had a way of examining the Bible without formality or piety, an approach students enjoyed and admired.

At one point we find him reflecting that the Bible leaves us with "a very human feeling that if we were God, we would work harder to earn our keep; that if we were in charge of what happened, we wouldn't make such appalling bungles as God appears to be making." After reading that, we can turn to Northrop Frye Unbuttoned and find a closely related notion in the book's first paragraph: "The worst thing we can say of God is that he knows all."

An ordained United Church minister as well as a critic and teacher, Frye wrote two major books on the Bible, The Great Code in 1982 and Words with Power in 1990. All his life he turned to the Bible for inspiration, refreshment and an understanding of the ideas behind Western civilization. As he said, his critical work, beginning with his famous study of William Blake in 1947, all revolved around the Bible.

But he seems never to have been a Christian in any traditional sense. Certainly he was a long way from an unquestioning believer. He not only didn't believe in Christian dogma, he didn't believe in belief -- "I don't trust anything that remains in the dark as an object of belief." He had the consolation of knowing he wasn't alone: "Christianity would go bankrupt overnight if it were supported only by the people who believe."

Certain key Christian doctrines earned his contempt. He was amused by historians who shuddered at the disasters Christianity avoided by steering away from various heresies, as if Christian theology was a long-running story. He claimed "Nothing could have been worse than the beliefs Christianity did adopt," such as Hell.

At one point we find him asking his notebook, "Why did man, or God, or whoever it was, bother to write the Bible anyway?" The answer remains ambiguous, but he's in no doubt that the Biblical myths of creation, fall, redemption and apocalypse provided the West's verbal energy and cultural framework. The DNA of the Bible dictates the mental and emotional structures in which we live; not to know about the Bible is not to know how we came to where we are.

Northrop Frye Unbuttoned also tells us, among many other things, that Frye's favourite English king was Arthur, not because of anything Arthur actually did in the sixth century but because of the Arthurian legends that began to appear in the 12th. By the time he arrived in the 20th century, Arthur had evolved into Frye's perfect ruler -- romantic, religious and mainly mythical -- a Holy Emperor who turned into a literary event.

In Frye's mind his own career as a thinker resembled a spiral; he was always turning back on his themes and ideas to restate earlier positions and modify them. Marxism fascinated him, partly because so many he knew were touched by it. He decided it grew so popular in democracies because it promised to pull people "down to a collective level where they wouldn't have to think any more."

Frye set down some words of reassurance about this season of merriment. He saw family Christmas as a stocktaking, an attempt to face one's childhood perspective, but also a necessary prelude. By ancient tradition the New Year was a time to bring life and belief into alignment; it was normally preceded by chaos. "Christmas season is a deliberately induced period of chaos & hysteria" leading to stability after the New Year.

Devoted Frye readers know that much of his thinking about structure came from his study of Sir James Frazer's anthropology and Oswald Spengler's gloomy critique of the West. In Northrop Frye Unbuttoned, he tells us, in a typically rueful way, that Alfred North Whitehead's Science and the Modern World influenced him just as profoundly: "I often reproduce its conceptions when I think I'm thinking." That sounds familiar. It's an experience many of us have replicated, but with Frye as the influence instead of Whitehead.

When someone suggested Frye should write an autobiography, he would answer, "Everything I write I consider autobiography." He meant that we could follow the development of his mind through the development of his theories and the writers he quoted. The evolution of his mind was his life story.

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