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  • Secrets of the Oracle: A History of Wisdom from Zeno to Yeats
  • David Gay
W. David Shaw. Secrets of the Oracle: A History of Wisdom from Zeno to Yeats. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. 387 pp.

The subtitle of this book suggests a chronological history of wisdom from the ancient to the modern world; however, its overall structure is more complex than simple chronology. History pertains to the author’s assessment of the current condition of wisdom, as he “explores the changing languages of seers and poets in an age beguiled by technocrats and sophists, when wisdom itself is in widespread retreat” (6). The book is thus an “an elegy, a lament for lost wisdom” (3). Focusing for the most part on Victorian and Modern texts, and incorporating a wide range of literary, philosophic, and religious comparisons, Shaw has constructed an extensive taxonomy that provides scope for comparative analysis, critical classification, and personal reflection on the subject of wisdom.

The design of the book sheds light on its purpose. Conceptually, Shaw calls his study “a sceptic’s companion” to Charles Williams’s The Descent of the Dove as it traces descent as both “the lineage and decline” of wisdom (3). Shaw’s major influence, however, is Northrop Frye, whom he calls [End Page 224] his “intellectual father” (x) and “Canada’s most celebrated wisdom writer” (6). Frye is the subject of chapter 14, but his influence is pervasive in the argument of the book and apparent in its symmetrical and sequential design. Frye’s term for this kind of relationship was “preceptor”: just as Frye recreated Blake’s claims for the radically imaginative potential of the Bible in the twentieth century, so too does Shaw recreate Frye to recover the potential of literary wisdom in the twenty-first. Hence, in a passage on Wallace Stevens, Shaw observes that, “Knowledge is discovery, but wisdom is remembrance” (156). This precept (and Shaw’s style is appropriately proverbial, witty, personal) constructs the basic relationship between past and present that criticism maintains.

This dialectic of discovery and remembrance grounds the questions Shaw pursues. He asks how “an oracle that reinvents its world can both find something and recreate it? How can truth be discovered and refashioned at the same time?” (9). This dialectic generates the shaping forces of his study. If the aphorism is the mode of wisdom, then the oracle is the mode of prophecy. Assimilating Frye’s phases of revelation in The Great Code, Shaw suggests that wisdom “individualizes the law and is geared toward the past” while prophecy “individualizes the revolutionary impulse, and is geared toward the future” (6). These biblical precepts are not limiting but promote comparisons between Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) and Buddha, among others. Wisdom writing of transformative power would require a writer with “a genius for inventing oracles” and a “talent for minting fresh, arresting aphorisms” (7). Transformative power, however, tests the boundaries between sacred and secular literature that Frye maintains by reserving the term “kerygma” for the sacred. If Frye considers literature a rhetorical analogue of sacred truth, or a “secular scripture,” Shaw establishes kerygma as a parameter of various conjunctions and transmissions of oracular and aphoristic texts in Western and Eastern religious, philosophical, and literary traditions. Hence, the “oracles and aphorisms discussed in this book form part of a personally selected kerygmatic anthology” (4).

The book consists of eighteen chapters in four main sections, with each section addressing an aspect of the history of wisdom. Part one, “An Owl for Apollo: Wisdom and the Poets,” begins with the formative influence of five philosophers on five poets: Schleiermacher on Browning, Scotus on Hopkins, Bradley on Eliot, Berkeley on Yeats, James on Frost. These relationships yield interesting readings, as when Shaw observes James’s influence on the nature of nouns in Frost’s “The Mountain” or argues that Bradley, the subject of Eliot’s doctoral dissertation, may be the “compound [End Page 225] ghost” of “Little Gidding.” A comparison of Tennyson and Zeno in terms of the temporality of “infinite regress” leads to a sequence of temporal-oracular categories: the sublime is “dying to time”; the beautiful is “making peace with time”; the grotesque is the...


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pp. 224-227
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