Having one’s Kant and eating it

Terry Eagleton

  • Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks 1982-90: Volume One edited by Robert Denham
    Toronto, 418 pp, £45.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 8020 4751 3
  • Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks 1982-90: Volume Two edited by Robert Denham
    Toronto, 531 pp, £45.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 8020 4752 1

If someone were to ask why art and culture have proved so vital to the modern age, one might do worse than reply: to compensate for the decline of religion. It is certainly a more convincing response than claiming that modern society finds art particularly valuable, as opposed to richly profitable. What modernity finds precious is less works of art, which are just one more commodity in its marketplace, than the idea of the aesthetic. And this reverence for the aesthetic reflects the way in which art, or at least a certain exalted notion of it, is forced in the modern age to stand in for a religious transcendence which has fallen on hard times.

T.E. Hulme caustically described Romanticism as ‘spilt religion’; but much the same could be claimed of art in the post-Romantic epoch, an epoch which is forever on the prowl for plausible secular versions of good old-fashioned metaphysical values. The dilemma of modern societies is that they need such strongly foundational values to legitimate their authority, but find themselves constantly discrediting them by their own rationalist behaviour. Art or literature, then, can restore an aura of mystery to a bleakly disenchanted world. And though this is a hope full of tremulous pathos, it is by no means entirely fatuous. Art, after all, has a good deal in common with religious belief, even in the most agnostic of environments. Both are symbolic forms; both distil some of the fundamental meanings of a community; both work by sign, ritual and sensuous evocation. Both aim to edify, inspire and console, as well as to confront a depth of human despair or depravity which they can nonetheless redeem by form or grace. Each requires a certain suspension of disbelief, and each links the most intense inwardness to the most unabashedly cosmic of questions.

From Matthew Arnold’s portentous idiom of sweetness and light to George Steiner’s reverent talk of artefacts as real presences, art is a domain of displaced transcendence. It is the one remaining intimation of immortality for those who mourn the spiritual barbarisms of modernity, but are modern enough themselves to feel thoroughly out of place in a pew. For Matthew Arnold and his progeny, literature is religion without theology – the edifying, poetic spirit of Christianity emptied of its increasingly rebarbative doctrines. To this extent, literature becomes a sort of aesthetic analogy of liberal Anglicanism, full of the atmosphere of belief without an embarrassing amount of doctrinal lumber. Just as it sometimes appears that you can be a zealous member of the Anglican Church while rejecting the existence of both God and Jesus, so literature as transcendence commits you to little beyond a sense of the numinous which makes a virtue out of not knowing what it means. But as Arnold recognised, such degutted religion is a way to preserve discipline and social order among a populace who are less and less inclined to enthuse over the Virgin Birth.

The affinities between art and religion can be multiplied. Literary interpretation takes its cue from hermeneutics, originally a theological discipline. The decoding of the word was always at some level a deciphering of the Word. Sacraments, which are traditionally thought to bring about what they signify, are instances of so-called performative discourse, just like the language of poetry. In both cases, the sign is incarnational rather than merely denotational. The metaphor of artistic ‘creation’ has always been latently theological, a re-enactment of God’s fashioning of the world ex nihilo. And just as the world is autonomous of its creator (which is part of what is meant by calling him ‘transcendent’), so the work of art is mysteriously self-generating and self-dependent, conjuring itself up miraculously out of sheer nothingness, obedient to no law but that of its own unique being. As a concrete universal, it is as much a coupling of sense and spirit, time and eternity, as the Incarnation itself, a microcosmic model of Christ. Art is all about inspiration, the wayward impulses of the Holy Spirit of the imagination; but like the Church it is a corporate, hierarchical, code-governed affair as well, conscious of being the bearer of tradition and convention, preserving canons of esoteric texts and grooming acolytes in their initiation into them.

Like the Church, too, art has had its popes and heretics, its martyrs and apostates. F.R. Leavis pulled off the improbable trick of being all four, as an outcast rebel against orthodoxy who nevertheless did a fair bit of canonising and excommunicating himself. The critical elitism he practised was a version of what Coleridge had dubbed the ‘clerisy’, a sort of secular priesthood. The artist as secular priest crops up as late as Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as Stephen Dedalus exchanges consecrating the eucharist for that transformation of the bread of daily experience into the host of sacred nourishment which he calls art. Flaubert and James, Proust and Joyce are adepts who immolate themselves on the altar of their own art, gathering profane experience into the artifice of eternity.

For Leavis, the most precious novel is one which reflects a ‘reverent openness before Life’, and the religious idiom here is wholly calculated. It is inherited from D.H. Lawrence, for whom the novel was the ‘Book of Life’, the sacred scripture of a post-metaphysical social order. ‘Life’ for both Lawrence and Leavis is a transcendent rather than empirical affair, a matter of laying oneself trustingly open to a profoundly impersonal force which flows in its own sweet way through the spiritual elect. Like God, it is a force which is at once utterly inhuman and unfathomable and yet which lies at the very core of the self. One or two later commentators, in a profane equivalent of so-called negative theology, have given this elusive, quicksilver force names like ‘power’, ‘difference’ or ‘desire’. Leavis’s colleague I.A. Richards announced with stunning self-assurance that poetry ‘was perfectly capable of saving us’, while an English lineage from Henry James to Iris Murdoch discovered in the novel the quintessentially ethical form which would transfigure the whole concept of morality, shifting it from Kant to Kafka, from obedience to a code to the texture and quality of lived experience. It is art which will now answer the ultimate moral question: what, finally, do we live by? And though the answer may come only in sporadic flashes known as epiphanies, heard between two waves, in the ominous echo of an Indian cave, in the moment in the rose garden or in a sudden shout in the street, it can scarcely be claimed by the more conventionally religious that the Almighty’s own utterances are either less infrequent or less enigmatic.

Literature as religion, however, is a project doomed to failure. For one thing, the cultivation of the former involves too few people to be a plausible substitute for the latter. Religion is a symbolic form or ritual practice, sometimes of a highly arcane kind, which nevertheless engages countless millions of men and women in the course of their sublunary lives, and which connects their beliefs about when the universe was created with their beliefs about when it is permissible to fib or fornicate. If the champions of cultural studies were not so theologically illiterate, they would long since have identified it as history’s most astonishingly successful solution to the division between high and low culture. Within a single ecclesiastical institution, an intelligentsia of clerics is organically linked by both theory and practice to the mass of the faithful. No secular cultural project has come even remotely close to matching this extraordinary achievement, bought often enough at the cost of blood, bigotry and oppression. If culture in the artistic sense is too minority a phenomenon for such purposes, culture in the anthropological sense is a good deal too contentious.

For another thing, art is too delicate, and too impalpable, to be bent to such ambitious ideological ends. If you try, as has been tried so regularly since the Romantics, to atone for the death of God by fashioning art into a political programme, an ersatz theology, a body of mythology or a philosophical anthropology, you will impose on it a social pressure which it isn’t really robust enough to take, and end up producing in it what Jürgen Habermas has called ‘pathological symptoms’. The result will be an absurd inflation of this modest, marginal phenomenon, evident enough in the Leavisian faith that by analysing Hopkins’s syntax or Austen’s narrative form you were somehow contributing to the overthrow of commercial society.

It was perhaps inevitable, even so, that this steady convergence between theology and literature should finally assume literal, flesh-and-blood form in the shape of a major critic who was also a committed Christian. The Canadian Northrop Frye, previously known chiefly as a critic of Blake, burst on the literary world in a big way in 1957, with the publication of his remarkably original and ambitious study, Anatomy of Criticism. With previous North American criticism, we had moved within a modest discourse of tensions, ironies and ambiguities, of the poem as urn or icon; now, suddenly, we were plunged into a murky world of archetypes and fertility cults, male and female principles, humours and elements, emasculated kings and resurrected gods – as though the Fin-de-Siècle Cambridge School of Anthropology had suddenly been reborn according to its own rhythms of death and renewal in postwar Toronto. Such criticism represented everything that the briskly rationalist William Empson, who detested religiose aesthetics like those of Eliot, found most nauseating. It was enamoured of charts and diagrams, polarities and sub-divisions, with that odd combination of rigorous categories and occult contents which one associates with magic. Magic, as Yeats knew, is one of the most meticulously precise systems of fantasy, and in that sense resembles nothing quite so much as paranoia.

Indeed, it was just this combination of mystery and methodology that the age demanded. In the era of postwar reconstruction, the humanities had a choice between opposing technology and imitating it. If Leavis and the Christian Right took the former path, I.A. Richards, behaviourist psychology, positivist sociology and the early structuralists plumped for the latter. Literary studies had to decide between toughening up their methods to qualify as a kosher science and asserting the superiority of the creative imagination to any merely rationalist mode of cognition. The New Criticism which prevailed in North America when Anatomy of Criticism first appeared aimed in this respect for the best of both worlds, blending a belief in the poem as quasi-sacramental with a hard-nosed analytical criticism. Frye followed suit, cross-breeding the sacred and scientific to remarkable effect. Criticism, he considered, was in a sorry, unscientific mess, full of subjective value-judgments and idle gossip, and badly needed transforming into an objective system. At around the same time, Claude Lévi-Strauss was hatching much the same ambitions for anthropology. In Frye’s view, criticism’s task was to seek out the objective laws by which an apparently random assemblage of literary texts secretly operated, and these laws were to be found in the modes, myths, genres and archetypes according to which all literary works functioned. The phrase ‘a science of literature’ need no longer be regarded as an oxymoron. A science of the unique particular, to be sure, would be a contradiction in terms, and literary works might well be seen as exactly that; but there was also the question of literary form, which was general rather than particular, and which could thus constitute a valid object of scientific investigation.

Here, then, was a literary discipline appropriate to a technological age; but its beauty lay in the way that it united this brisk technocracy of the spirit with a pastoral, pre-urban insistence on literature as myth. Myth, that is to say, in the post-Nietzschean sense of a source of primordial wisdom incomparably deeper than any drably discursive knowledge. A scrupulously categorising, religious-humanist criticism could thus have its Kant and eat it. Even more, it could outflank the New Critics while remaining just as formalist and unhistorical. For Frye, literature is an ‘autonomous verbal structure’ quite without reference to reality, powered by its own internal processes. If his own critical system is internally consistent, it is because it is equally remote at all points from empirical reality. Yet literature also represents an insatiable hankering for utopia, a collective dreaming which reflects the latent dynamic of all human history. It can thus figure as a substitute history for the one we actually have, uniting a rejection of actual historical life with a totalising sweep which would be the envy of any Hegelian. As with Eliot’s Tradition, there is an ideal order behind secular time which is more real than reality. The author of literature, which represents the true narrative of humanity, is the human species itself, which finds in myth the one place where it can be free from the bondage of empirical history. The only mistake, so Frye informs us, is that of the revolutionary, who naively imagines that such freedom might be historically realised. Here, at least, is one sloppily subjectivist value-judgment which he is unafraid to pronounce. A literature severed from all sordid connection to social reality ends up more or less capable of telling us which way to vote.

Northrop Frye, who died in 1991, ended up as a Glastonbury-type guru who might well stage a comeback as a cult figure for the New Age. Certainly these latest, meticulously annotated volumes in the handsome Collected Works now being published from the University of Toronto pull out all the coolest spiritual stops. Frye kept notebooks for over fifty years, and these two collections of them, the fruit of the last eight years of his life, are crammed with allusions to apocalypse, Atlantis, Plato, Eros, God, Anti-Christ, Prometheus, Doppelgängers, the Book of Revelation and the like. Yet if some of the contents are dippy enough, the tone is brisk, racy, occasionally pugnacious. In language somewhat less than Papal, he tells us that ‘the Spirit is the successor or Son of the Word. Anyone who calls this a lot of crap can stick it up his ass with the rest of his own crap.’ The tension between the spiritual content and the brusquely self-assertive form, here as elsewhere in Frye’s work, is telling.

Since I myself stage a brief appearance as ‘that Marxist goof from Linacre College’, it is more than usually munificent of me to note just how formidably erudite these jottings are, for all their hothouse hermeticism. Even by the time of Anatomy of Criticism, Frye seemed to have read just about everything; and though he puts his learning to some eccentric uses, inquiring into the distinction between the cosmos and the universe or between white-goddess and black-bride imagery, it is the mark of one of the last great humanists of our time. That his schemes, like Casaubon’s, are as free from obstruction as a plan for threading together the stars, is simply the price he has to pay for this visionary idealism.

Another such price is bathos. Frye moves in a heady sphere of angels and demons, Moses and mandala symbols, and thinks that such workaday pursuits as marking students’ essays should be done by machines. All structure and no texture, he has little of the literary artist’s sense of the contingent detail, the eloquent nuance, the ambiguous gesture. It is no wonder that he assigns realist fiction such lowly status in his critical hierarchy. Rarely has the creative imagination been lauded in such sterilely abstract a style. As a Christian, Frye is interested in Jesus as Hermes figure, androgyne or (can he be joking?) ballet dancer, not in the Jesus who spoke up for the common life and the dispossessed.

Yet all of this high-toned, heroic stuff comes down in the end to the most tritely conventional of wisdoms. Here, as in his book The Critical Path, Frye informs us that he is all for counterbalancing freedom with order. The mighty march of the human spirit from Adam to Auerbach culminates in such incontrovertible banalities, finding its niche somewhere between left-wing Tories and right-wing Labourites. It also seems to find its natural focus in one Northrop Frye, who receives by far the longest entry in the index, a good few pages longer than the one for Jesus. These two renowned figures are at one point closely paralleled: the difference he feels between his true self and his public image, so Frye tells us, is rather like the difference between the resurrected Jesus and the Jesus of the Gospels.

Not that he is lacking in Christian humility. In a coda to these notebooks, he observes that many scholars and critics have been more intelligent, better trained and more accurate or competent than himself. It is a pity that he then rather tarnishes this winning modesty by adding that he, unlike anyone else in the humanities known to him, had genius. This pronouncement is headed ‘Statement for the Day of My Death’, and as such seems deliberately intended as his last word. It would have been far preferable for him to have left a note reminding his nearest and dearest to feed the goldfish. It is rather as if Christ had asked for a notice to be pinned to his cross proclaiming: ‘I may not be a hotshot scholar but at least I’m the Son of God.’ Frye’s breathtaking arrogance in the face of death is not an uncommon trait of his unpleasantly vaunting brand of humanism. A man whose last notebooks include a good deal on Adonis but only one passing reference to Auschwitz seems not to have learnt Yeats’s lesson that no humanism can be authentic which has not passed through its own negation – that nothing can be whole without being rent. But that would be a question of tragedy; and though Frye can find ample room for such tragedy in his literary typologies, he can find damagingly little space for it in his sense of life – if there is any for him – outside the text.