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The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (review)
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The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, by Northrop Frye; xxiv & 261 pp. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982, $14.95. Discussed by Francis Sparshott IN his native canada, Northrop Frye holds a unique position as the sole humanistic academic guru. His new book received unprecedented publicity in die year before it appeared, has become a bestseller by local standards, and has been enthusiastically received in the popular press. But that reception has not been related to any close study of what the book has attempted or what it has achieved, concentrating rather on the image of itself the book projects. Among academic readers, whose expectations were high, its reception has not as yet proved enthusiastic. One hears expressions of disappointment, even of dismay. By academic standards it is indeed an appallingly bad book—just as the Bible, as Frye points out, if it is a literary work, is an implausibly bad one. Expectations were very high because the "big book on the Bible," which rumor had long promised and of which the present volume turns out after all to be merely die prolegomena, should have been the capstone of Frye's life work. Fearful Symmetry, his first book, was also his longest, his strongest, and his most visionary and revelatory; the Anatomy of Criticism, his second, was his most systematic. The two books established his reputation and his theoretical identity in a form which nothing in the quarter-century since then has changed. The Critical Path seemed to supply some necessary corrections, but in the main the steady stream of his later publications has consisted of applications and parerga. Yet something was missing from the system. Frye's general theory calls for the literature of a civilization to be the working out and maintenance of its mythology, the interrelated set of metaphors and narratives that articulates the imaginative world within which the civilization lives. It has been a key contention of his that the Bible presents the mythology that performs this function for Western civilization and makes Western literature intelligible. A great deal Philosophy and Literature Vol. 6 Nos. 1 and 2 Pp. 180-189 0190-0031/82/0061-0180 © 1982 by The Johns Hopkins University Press Francis Sparshott181 seems therefore to depend on Frye's being able to vindicate this claim for the Bible's centrality in some convincing (and, one would think, striking and interesting ) way. Somehow or other, it needed to be shown that the Bible really does enshrine the unique mythology to which all Western literary works are uniquely related, and that this is not because most Western writers have been doctrinally committed to accepting all or part of it as revealed truth but because it provided the literary imagination with its controlling forms. Somehow or other one had come to dream that Frye could either bring this off, or would make a brave attempt to do so, recapturing the trenchant vision of his youth. In the mumbling , rambling, self-indulgent, beslippered vagueness of the volume before us, these hopes seem to be brought to nothing. If Frye could have done it, he would have; and if he cannot, no one can. One ends the book feeling that one has learned nothing about the Bible, or about literature, or about the relations between them; and that that is because there is nothing along these lines to be learned. Frye is not to be blamed for our foolishness. It was absurd of us to have raised our hopes so high. We should have reflected that everything Frye had to say would have been implicit already in his earlier work. How could it have been otherwise? A different vision of the Bible could only have undercut the earlier structure, not have confirmed it. All Frye could have been expected to do was what he has in fact done and says he meant to do: to remind readers ignorant of the Bible of what it actually contains, or what it must seem to contain if one thinks as Frye does. Anyone who, like the present reviewer, has lived with the Bible and with Frye's work for many years is being merely stupid if he reads the book as...



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