Myth & History
The Great Code: The Bible and Literature.
by Northrop Frye.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 261 pp. $14.95.
Serious reading of the Bible is not an occasional pastime but a steady absorption, involving reading and rereading, deriving from the sustained experience a web of comprehensive meaning. There are few serious readers of the Bible today who are not either fundamentalists, mainline clergy—ministers, rabbis, and priests—or professional scholars and critics. The serious secular Bible reader, like the Common Reader of a generation ago, may well be a mythical creature. But if he doesn’t exist he has to be created, which is presumably why “Bible as Literature” courses flourish in colleges and universities. And he has to be created, preferably mass-produced, to leaven the cultural lump. Otherwise we have for the literary advocate of the Bible a distressing situation, a culture based upon a tradition, the once vital source of which is really not accessible, much less familiar to the general market of word consumers. This is not to say the Bible isn’t available, often freely distributed as an inducement to read it. Whether and how it is read are other matters.
Hence the problem Northrop Frye deals with in The Great Code: how to describe this book to secular readers when neither those who prescribe Bible reading nor those for whom it is prescribed are at all sure of its status. What is it? What it purports to be we know as a matter of history: in its respective forms, the charters of traditional Judaism and Christianity. Some at least of those who continue to take the Bible in these terms should take comfort from Frye’s work. But he is not writing for them. He is after the secular teacher of literature, and readers whose approach to the Bible will be, even if only initially, mediated by such teachers.
Frye himself is a very serious, lucidly articulate, and witty reader of the Bible. That he happens to be an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ often seems a distracting irrelevance, given his stature as the most powerfully original and honored literary critic in the English-speaking world. Yet much in his work points to whatever moved him to become a minister—a vocation he has apparently never practiced. He confesses that the whole of his great synoptic account of language and literature, focused first in the Anatomy of Criticism and successively elaborated, derives from his efforts to understand the complex unity and imaginative status of the Bible. Almost as evident is a kind of proselytizing energy directed toward shaping serious and knowledgeable readers of general literature who will also grasp the way the Bible conditioned the Western imagination. With The Great Code Frye has come ’round full circle to summarize and extend a lifetime’s quest and to set it out with the panoply of a collateral videotape series, thirty cassettes recording the critic in seminar. This is to be followed by the sequel to The Great Code, a second volume more in the nature of detailed commentary on specific biblical works, applying in practice the more abstruse theory.
The theory is a particular expression of his general theory of literature, developed from William Blake’s point, which provides Frye with his title, that the Bible is “the Great Code of Art.” Frye sees the Bible as a key to the design-making impulses of the human imagination and to language as a generative process accounting for our perception and coordination of different realities: the reality of the self and the external world, of space and time, of whatever is immanent within our experience and whatever transcends it. Since the Bible is imaginative language, it is best understood in terms of how it works within itself, rather than as, say, a historical account of a corner of humanity between two and three thousand years ago. In fact it has very little to do with what we call history, which tries to correspond verbally with some presumed objective order of things. It has more to do with myth, for Frye a complex word, particularly the kind of myth wherein our desires and fears shape the forms and language of narrative and poetry. His program seems simple enough:
Man lives, not directly or nakedly in nature like the animals, but within a mythological universe, a body of assumptions and beliefs developed from his existential concerns. Most of this is held unconsciously, which means that our imaginations may recognize elements of it, when presented in art and literature, without consciously understanding what it is we recognize. . . . One of the practical functions of criticism, is, I think, to make us more aware of our mythological conditioning.
Such awareness is ultimately undercut by modern empiricism which is at odds with the stages of language in which biblical myth evolved.
Frye sees language undergoing successive cultural phases. His discussion of it is best illustrated, I think, by his remark that the word “God” is meaningless in what he calls the demotic or modern phase of language. Our general “criterion of reality is the source of sense experience in the order of nature, where ‘God’ is not be found, and where ‘gods’ are no longer believed in. Hence . . . the word ‘God’ becomes linguistically unfunctional, except when confined to special areas,” those outside the jurisdiction of empirical criteria. Meaning, in short, requires for Frye that our notions of the biblical God be kept apart from our sense of ordinary history. But where then do we find the biblical “God” and in what order of language does He exist? Well, we find God meaningful in what the Germans call Heilsgeschichte or salvation history, as against Weltgeschichte or ordinary world history. And the linguistic function that best points toward the biblical God is the power of metaphor or metonomy, where one thing implies another in ways bounded only by the extent of the human imagintion. Metaphors, which we think of as imaginative substitutions, move from analogies or parallel relationships to identities of apparently dissimilar things. Hosea may only enact the relationship of God to faithless Israel by marrying a whore, but if the Gospel of John calls Jesus the Word, that, in the biblical context, is literally true.
As Frye deals with them, the relationship of metaphor to the language of realities, and of both to history, seems telescopic: each is successively contained within the larger context. Hence I prefer mainly to look at the largest, the role of history, in Frye’s book, and my preference is supported by his earlier essay, “History and Myth in the Bible,” which seems to have been the pilot study for the present book. (The work at hand complicates matters for the reader by being worked out as a symbolic rather than as a logical or linear structure.) The fact is that the real issue the book presents us with is the Bible’s status with respect to myth and history. In that context it matters which Bible we are talking about.
For example, Heilsgeschichte is a term coined to align the selective historical and prophetic vision of the Hebrew Bible with Christology, the view that biblical history is consummated in Jesus as savior and as himself the meaning of history. With its neat dichotomy of salvation and ordinary history, it does not allow that the Hebraic sense of history may be neither. But it can be said alternatively that the biblical sense of history is dialectic, moving between aspiration or redemptive promise, and an engaged encounter with life as it is, that it is more involved in the sanctification of the process—in the ordinary world, than in a static fulfillment of it. Frye makes much of the biblical process, not, however as a dialectic, but as the working out of this vast design-making impulse in the collective human imagination. The heart of his theory is in fact how that impulse is exemplified in biblical myth and the typology which serves to bring it all together.
The sections dealing with these are the most important and the most problematic, since they necessarily hang on the Bible’s shape as the Christian Bible. It is of course the point of Frye’s quest to make sense of that work. A Jewish reader legitimately can only concern himself with what is made of the Hebrew Bible to that end, to ask how its fit in Frye’s scheme corresponds with his own sense of it as a distinct and self-contained work.
Overall, the mythic shape of Frye’s Bible begins with creation and ends in apocalypse. He sees this one vast myth sequentially unfolding through seven phases: creation, exodus (or revolution), law, wisdom, prophecy, gospel, and apocalypse. As narrative, the sequence is structured typologically by relationships of similarly shaped events whose similarity is seen as an underlying identity.
Typology in traditional Christian exegesis is the idea that things in the Hebrew Bible are types foreshadowing their fulfillment in the life and teachings of Jesus, as, for example, the sacrifice of Isaac is supposed to point to the sacrifice of Jesus. With the advent of biblical Higher Criticism in the last century, typology became suspect precisely because it seemed to distort biblical material into the shape of myths, whereas the modern search has been for the Bible’s underlying historical realities. And clearly it falsified Hebrew Scripture, which was not in fact written in anticipation of becoming the Old Testament to the Christian New Testament.
But no such assumption needs to be made in order to recognize that there are nevertheless large underlying patterns of recurrences that unify the two parts of the Christian Bible. The only real inference that can be drawn from them is not that the Old Testament concealed within itself the New, but that the New was shaped to harmonize with the Old. Frye tacitly accepts this, I think, and calls attention to the typological recurrences working entirely within the Hebrew Bible to unify it, such as the prophetic view of restoration as a new creation. And rabbinical or talmudic Judaism, which Frye sees paralleling the New Testament as a completion of the Hebrew Bible, used typology, I would add, to link often parallel portions of the Torah and Haftorah in synagogue readings. Indeed, one suspects this particular practice had much to do with how the early Jewish Christians interpreted the events and traditions that became the Gospels; how, in effect, an imaginative scenario took shape which in turn helped shape the accounts of Jesus. Thus Frye is right to put typology at the center of his approach to the Christian Bible and to use it to reinforce powerfully his account of the Bible as myth.
Nonetheless, it is far less evident how typology is a shaping force working within the framework of the Hebrew Bible taken by itself. Contending as he does that the Old and New Testaments are mirror images of one another, Frye has to argue that the canon of Hebrew Scripture, from Genesis through Chronicles, anticipates in mythical outline the shape of his overarching biblical myth. But this mythical outline is hard to make out in the shape of the Hebrew Bible. In Frye’s terms this may be its deficiency, its incompleteness. But there it is. I would say that the Hebrew Bible has as its ulterior model not myth but something the final redactors thought of as a temporal process deeply attached to ordinary history, although clearly not identical with it. Hence, where Frye sees in the last books an analogue for the Apocalypse, it would seem the final redactors thought of it (not entirely without a shaping and distorting bias as ordinary history. Divrei Hayamim, the Hebrew name for Chronicles, the last books, means, very roughly “the things that happened.”
I should repeat that, for Frye, myth and its apparent antithesis are such qualified terms that his use of them cannot be oversimplified without injustice. But it has to be tried, for with all his careful definition, biblical myth and typology lead Frye into a kind of Platonic (or really an astonishingly archaic Neoplatonic) substitution of the greater reality of the mythic Idea the Bible incarnates for the lesser, almost negligible, accidental reality of whatever historical basis there is to the Bible. A limited comparison on these grounds between his work and two other books on the Bible published recently by Robert Alter and Dan Jacobson makes a point.1 Both Alter and Jacobson start, as Frye does, with the assumption that biblical narrative is not history but literary fiction, a story or stories shaped by art and, as Alter sees it, often shaped in typically recurrent patterns. Alter’s concern is only with the Hebrew Bible, while Jacobson’s is primarily with the Hebrew Bible and with the New Testament as a transposition of what it purports to complete.
Differences of Jewish and Christian perspective are not the issue here, but whether the assumption that literary art shapes the Bible necessarily leads to a de facto if not de jure repudiation of the Bible’s historicity. For Alter, the function of narrative art in the Bible is to elicit from events what otherwise they do not readily reveal, how human individuality and freedom are in unending tension with a design that is the bafflingly enigmatic working of God in history. Biblical art points, in short, beyond itself to the human situation in “the perilously momentous realm of history.” Similarly, Jacobson insists on the fictive character of biblical narrative, but sees the Bible evolving, as I do, as a historical dialectic in terms of the covenantal sense within Israel of being alternately and recurrently chosen and rejected. Again the significance of the design is geared to the historical frame of reference. If one looks hard enough, one finds that Frye says so too. But in the relative emphases there is a world of difference, for he begins with the sense of the Bible’s overwhelmingly mythical design. Hence for him the Bible is really self-referential in a way that makes historical concerns irrelevant.
Why insist upon this? The issue can be seen in theological terms worth illustrating in a moment, though they are not my own terms for the significance of these matters. Mine have to do with the conviction that history is more important than art, or rather that art serves history and not the other way around. Very recently I listened to the Russian dissident Aleksandr Ginsburg begin a talk to a college audience in moving words that had a startling biblical ring: “I am a man of no importance in myself. But I bear witness to the truth, to what really happened. And for that reason I was persecuted.” Frye might say these words resonate metonymically with the power of their recurring archetype in the Bible. To me they are also a statement about the prior importance of history, of objective truth. That this needs to be said derives from a context of biblical literary criticism in relation to history within which it becomes clear that Frye’s work itself is something of a landmark in a modern process of devaluing history.
He begins by disclaiming the authority of speaking from a scholarly consensus. It is conceivable that, as his dated references suggest, he stopped reading purely biblical studies many years ago and simply does not know the extent to which he has become within that field the shaper of a consensus. The Anatomy of Criticism (1957) along with Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (English translation, 1953) inaugurated a new departure in biblical literary studies: Auerbach with only the short but brilliant first chapter comparing the binding of Isaac story to an episode in Homer’s Odyssey; and Frye with his programmatic account of literature seen as an extended and elaborate pattern of thought that even then bespoke a biblical shape.
These works appeared when much of biblical scholarship found itself unable to cope adequately with the no longer valid traditional belief that real historical events, corresponding narrowly to the account of them in the Bible, underwrote its truth as divine revelation, and hence as the basis for any theology derived from such claims. At that juncture, when a new basis had to be found for affirming whatever truth the Bible possessed, literary criticism, long regarded as reducing the Bible to an aesthetic artifact (like Keats’s Grecian Urn murmuring, “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”), suddenly took off with unprecedented boldness to articulate just that basis.
It was able to do so for reasons that had nothing to do with biblical studies but a great deal to do with the sense that history was less compelling a form of understanding events than story (compare T.S. Eliot’s “We had the experience but missed the meaning”), that fiction in fact “invents” history, which in any case is never more than an arbitrary and selective view of things impossible to know in the totality of possibilities. Beyond this kind of relativistic skepticism about history there was also discernible uneasiness, if not distress, with its burdens as well as its limitations. The best fiction, with Joyce, Proust, and Kafka, had stopped taking historical realism, a correspondence with a linear temporal order of events, as its model. Indeed history, for Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, was the nightmare from which he was trying to awaken, and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is a densely associative account of an alternative dream reality progressing less through time than through the sluices of imaginative or verbal congruities. More recently history reappears (as in Thomas Pynchon’s fictions) as a wholly invented category whose meaning is necessarily sinister or demonic.
It is against this background, I suggest, that Frye’s latest work needs to be seen. Disclaiming any taste for doctrine or theology, he is probably shaping for the future what is already being taught in seminaries as “The Theology of Story” (I quote from a brochure). Certainly he can offer Christian theology, currently in a state of crisis over the issue of historicity, what an Anglican theologian, Don Cupitt, has called for, a breakthrough to a “purified non-realist account of religion.” Non-realist in this context means ahistorical with respect to the unknowable realities upon which the central biblical stories are based: in the case of Judaism, the stories of successive covenants by which God made Israel His chosen people, and particularly the Mosaic covenant as the climax of the exodus from Egypt; in the case of Christianity, the story of Jesus, and particularly the account of his last days, climaxing in the resurrection.
There are and no doubt there will always be biblical scholars who try to document these events with the help of the latest archeological findings, or by elaborating new hypothetical reconstructions of existing evidence. But apart from fundamentalists in both faiths, the movement seems to be in the direction of abandoning what is ordinarily meant by history, while redefining it, as Frye does, as a form of knowledge no whit superior, indeed inferior, to the narrative fictions the Bible offers the major faiths. Whether abandoning means throwing out the baby with the bath water remains to be seen. Frye repeatedly refers to the anxieties his approach provokes. His answer seems to be that there is nothing to fear for the Bible so long as the liberating, life-enhancing character of its larger myth is recognized. Granted our acceptance of his understanding of myth, he might demur at the tone but should not otherwise object to my paraphrasing, in what I take to be his sense, a New Testament exhortation: “Ye shall know the myth and the myth shall make you free.”
Literary criticism is being welcomed by biblical scholars these days as a way out of the impasse of historical criticism. But the impasse is more a crisis than most biblical scholars themselves seem aware of, and I for one am not certain literary criticism can provide answers to questions for which history seems still the arbiter. A regard for history—what another biblical literary critic working this vein called “mere positivistic historicism”—is not simply anxiety. History is a touchstone to which continually we have to refer ourselves if we are not to get lost in imaginative structures, however ingenious, even breathtaking, they are.
So I come back to the point we started from, how the Bible is read seriously. A recent work by George W. Ramsey, The Quest for the Historical Israel (John Knox Press, 1981), ends bemused by the unhistoricity of the Bible’s account of Hebrew origins, with a chapter entitled, “If Jericho Was Not Razed, Is Our Faith in Vain?” Put like that, the problem seems slightly comical and probably unimportant to Christians or even to Jews. But the key phrase here paraphrases Paul, who affirmed to his fellow Christians that if Jesus did not indeed rise from the dead then the faith of all Christians was in vain and they were the most miserable of men. There are probably many different kinds of Christians for whom this still matters, as there are Jews who assume they have a meaningful biblical past. There are anxieties. And there are anxieties. Some of them the Bible itself defines, Frye notwithstanding, in terms of a history that went on, that goes on, outside of the Bible. And history can exact fearful penalties if it is underestimated. Or so the Prophets tell us.
1 Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981); Jacobson, The Story of The Stories: The Chosen People and Its God (Harper & Row, 1982).