Angus Fletcher vs. Northrop Frye

I mentioned once that I found Northrop Frye more comprehensible than Angus Fletcher, the author of Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode, a bizarre and much-lauded book that drove me up the wall. This was true for Frye’s books The Anatomy of Criticism and Fearful Symmetry. I am not sure it is true for The Double Vision, the last book Frye published. In fact, I think I have similar reactions to The Double Vision and Allegory: both books present creative but doubtful propositions argued in such a compressed form, taking so much painstaking and idiosyncratic thought for granted, that the reader (ok, this reader) needs to work very hard to unpack the connections and often fails through laziness or inability. Which would be (to my taste) exhausting but delightful—if there were a payoff in truth or insight at the end. Instead, when I finally understand why each author thinks what he proposes, I often (not always) find the connection to be shaky. (I have been told that my writing slides into the first fault, and I know that it slides into the second, though no teacher was ever so rude as to say so outright. Let Frye and Fletcher be a lesson to me.)

The difference? Fletcher anxiously traces tenuous connection after tenuous connection with very little in the way of an ultimate vision, whereas Frye’s work is all about ultimate vision, although I can’t yet make said vision stick as a whole in my head. Inductive reasoning (Fletcher, ish) is probably in general more reliable than deductive reasoning (Frye, ish), but I do not think this is true in Fletcher’s case, and even so, it is not always as informative because it’s harder to see the forest for the trees (although I grant that with deductive reasoning there is the danger of saying thins like of “Being spiritual creatures, we must live in the sky; the sky is very beautiful and has properties x, x, x, and only small minds insist that these large, woody clouds are trees”).

 In addition, If I’m going to read something difficult and complex that also falls significantly short of truth as I understand it, a quality of both Fletcher and Frye, I want the ideas presented to be interesting, exciting, aesthetically pleasing, or generally to have some value as art.

More concretely, I have, the joy of puzzle-solving aside, very little desire to believe or even understand assertions like (my paraphrase of Fletcher) “All allegorical heroes are daemons, which are actually people possessed by daemons—but there isn’t any difference—and they’re struggling to become robots, and allegory is inherently, inescapably obsessed with hierarchy and power even when it’s ostensibly opposed to hierarchy and power, and still allegory is in no way not a desirable form of writing.” (I wish Fletcher had at least grappled with the possibility that a mode that is inevitably about power struggles may not be a mode we want to make central to our understanding of the world and literature, not that I agree with him that allegory is inevitably about power struggles, but, y’know…)

On the other hand, I find some attraction in ideas like (my paraphrase of Frye) “the truth of the Bible is metaphorical” and “metaphorical language allows contradictory things to be true at once, as opposed to rational argument, which tries to exclude opposites and is inherently about power-mongering” (even though I disagree with this one rather intensely) and “even so, there is objective reality” and “the mind of God is large enough for people of different faiths” and “hell is here, and it’s entirely a human creation” and “criticism of literature is also criticism of life and it is indispensable.”

So, backing up, things I take from this book:

  1. Frye was, in addition to being an original thinker, an ordained minister, and this book is about his decidedly complex Christian vision. I hadn’t realized this from his other work.
  2. Frye was, I’m betting, almost as crazy as Blake, and in almost as wonderful a way. He says his years of writing are an effort to translate perhaps an hour’s worth of intuitions, which may be revelation; a lot of the rest of what he writes here and elsewhere goes straight back to Blake. And many of his ideas have the intoxicating, paradoxical strangeness of psychotic and visionary insight, though he pointedly distances himself (and Blake) from what smacks of insanity.
  3. I have a real desire to read more Frye and return to The Double Vision.

Next week I may (depending how I feel) delve into the content of The Double Vision, but today I’ll leave you with the big question I wanted to ask Frye when I was finished:

What is God, in what sense does God exist, and what is the relationship between God and the natural world, in which Frye is adamant that we should not seek God? Apparently the fact that God has a real, positive effect on Christians means that God has some objective reality. Yet Frye vehemently denies that God has any responsibility for human cruelty and failure, and states that it is demeaning to imagine God as an engineer designing the intricacies of the natural world—and then he turns around and uses very religious language about God’s creating and recreating us continuously, and says that heaven is the action of God acting through humanity whereas hell (or the demonic) is what happens when humanity acts without God. 

He speaks also about the humanity of God; I wonder if he would say that God is a metaphor, or, alternatively, that the “natural” world is.

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