- Frye and the Word: Religious Contexts in the Writings of Northrop Frye
Frye and the Word is the second product of a May 2000 conference at McMaster University; a previous collection, overlapping with this one, has [End Page 386] already appeared as Northrop Frye and the Afterlife of the Word (Semeia 2002). The essays included belong to two fields, religious studies and what one would have to call 'Frye studies,' over which Robert Denham presides as doyen, where Frye's texts are approached as literature and Frye himself as a canonical author and, at times, almost a literary character.
Jeffery Donaldson's introduction takes this tack as it situates Frye himself as an eiron, 'the reluctant hero and benevolent trickster who looked on the disciplines of religious and literary studies from an ironic perspective with the kind of critical detachment that gave him a unique view of whatever principles and assumptions operated within them.' Donaldson views Frye as in a 'marginalized' position relative to both fields, and there may be some truth to that today. But of course marginalized figures don ' t usually become the object of 'studies,' including festschriften, conferences, and uniform editions. Those educated as I was in the 1960s rather than the 1980s are more likely to view Frye as an alazon than an eiron: a magisterial figure whose Anatomy of Criticism served as the 'key to all mythologies.' hat literature was an ideal order, T.S. Eliot had assured us, but it was Frye whose array of modes, symbols, myths, and genres allowed us to envision that order. And if the New Criticism provided the hermeneutics, it was Frye who gave us a transcendent rationale for the study of literature as Western society's 'secular scripture.'
This also explains why The Great Code and its successor volumes on the Bible were so much less influential than Frye's Anatomy: Frye was much better at explaining Everything than at explaining any individual thing. And the Bible, despite Frye's insistence on its overarching unity, stubbornly remains an anthology of wildly disparate items, created over more than a millennium, and transmitted over two more with unpredictable vagaries of editing and translation. Frye understood William Blake's Bible without any more Hebrew or Greek than Blake himself knew, and perhaps thought no more could be needed. He did not set himself to learn its languages and contemned its scholarly and critical tools, which may seem strange in a man whose ambition it had once been to make literary study more scientific.
With the exception of Robert Alter's informed critique, the essays in Frye and the Word do not generally evaluate Frye's project, but neither do they adopt it, using his methods to analyse individual biblical texts. The authors find a great deal to say about Frye's texts and very little about the Bible. Those who find it dispiriting to contemplate a failed system may find most successful the essays that apply Frye's ideas to works like Breton's L'Amour fou or Wilde's De Profundis, which be might only fancifully called 'religious,' or those that explore other typologists, like the Gnostic Marcion. [End Page 387]
David Richter, Department of English, Queen's College, City University of New York