Northrop Frye and The Work
Northrop Frye and The Work
The research notes that appear here comprise a version of ones that originally appeared in the third edition (2003) of “The Work in Canada,” a monograph that I compiled for private distribution. Five editions of the monograph appeared, in revised, corrected, and expanded editions, between July 1999 and January 2007. The third edition of 2003 consists of the commentary that is reproduced here with extensive notations on Work books.
It has long been my sense of things that the theory of archetypes in literature and life advanced by the literary and intellectual critic Northrop Frye (1912-1991) is visionary in the extreme. It was informed by a deep reading of the great poets of the English language, including Spenser, Milton, and Blake, and moderated by a temperament at once highly individual, resolutely religious, deeply traditional, inherently Christian, and exceedingly curious. — John Robert Colombo, Associate, Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria College, University of Toronto, and compiler of The Northrop Frye Quote Book (Dundurn Press, 2014)
I attended Frye’s popular course on William Blake delivered in 1958-59 at Victoria College, University of Toronto. I came upon Frye’s reference to “in the yogi tradition” in Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous in an entry in Frye’s hitherto unpublished notebooks:
In vision there is focussed vision & peripheral vision, visual awareness which is not really seeing but which expresses itself in a kinesthetic sense of orientation. Much in the rational tradition is based on the analogy of vision: there is truth or reality on which we focus, a peripheral “posse.” I’ve just been reading a book in the yogi tradition: Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous – which carries this analogy to the limit of completely eliminating the peripheral vision.
It curious that Frye would place the book “in the yogi tradition” because this is a misreading of the terminology. There are three recognized ways – in addition to the Way of the Yogi, there are the Way of the Fakir and the Way of the Monk – and Ouspensky places his book directly in the Fourth Way, the Way of the Sly Man.
Source: Northrop Frye, literary critic, Item 37, “Notebook 18”(1962-63), Northrop Frye Newsletter, Winter 2001-2.
Many other references of Work interest are to be found throughout Frye’s published and unpublished writings, which were collected, annotated, and published in a projected thirty-six-volume series titled The Collected Works of Northrop Frye. The volumes were compiled and edited by the scholars at the Northrop Frye Centre at Victoria University and published by the University of Toronto Press. To date (2006) more than half the volumes have been issued. (Since then all the volumes have appeared as well as supplementary volumes.)
The Great Code finds Frye devoting a paragraph to a discussion of Gurdjieff’s notion of “objective art.” Frye questions whether or not Gurdjieff understands this idea, but considers it “worth exploring, however tentatively.”
Anyone interested in Frye’s thought is indebted to Robert D. Denham of Roanoke College, editor of a number of Frye’s texts and publisher of the Northrop Frye Newsletter. He has undertakien a study of the marginalia of the 2,053 volumes annotated by Frye in the Northrop Frye Collection at Victoria University Library. To date he has surveyed the annotations that appear in 474 books.
Denham has limited his preliminary examination of books in the collection “to those on religion, the occult, the hermetic tradition, alchemy, the Kabbalah, states of consciousness, new age science, Eastern Religion, mysticism, and what Frye calls his ‘kook books.’” Denham described what he found in his article “Annotations in Frye’s Books,” Newsletter, Summer 2002.
Frye read – and annotated – omnivorously. For instance, he added 303 annotations to Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine and corrected 83 misspellings in Ken Wilbur’s Spectrum of Consciousness. He wrote in the margin of Stan Gooch’s Guardians of the Ancient Wisdom that “centrifugally this is crap: centripetally it’s fascinating.” Denham concluded, “The marginalia have to do with poetic coherence rather than scientific correspondence.”
What he wrote in the margins of P.D. Ouspensky’s The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution (1954) has to do with “interpenetration,” his term for the meeting of levels of reality in literature:
Ouspensky, in a passage about what he calls the “human centers” (intellectual, emotional, instinctive) as they relate to a diagram of the human body (head, chest, lower body and back), wrote, “In reality each occupies the whole body, penetrates, so to speak, the whole organism. At the same time, each center has what is called its ‘center of gravity.’” Frye’s marginal annotation: “interpenetration of a specific number.”
He had rather more to say about Gurdjieff in Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (1949):
I suspect that G. [G.I. Gurdjieff, Ouspensky’s teacher] got very little of this, except hints, from “schools” in the Orient. I think he dredged it out of the level of his mind that remembers all the “ancient wisdom.” If so, finding a teacher & school may not be so essential: it’s another form of the superstition of apostolic succession, which the Viennese quacks have taken over. The real teacher could just as well be Christ (transmitted for me through Blake), or a book. This is not to deny the value of teachers & schools where they exist, but when they don’t there’s nothing but the desert & the still small voice (116).
Regarding what “G.” says about being subordinated to another man’s will, Frye wrote, “nobody but the risen Christ has such a will. Every teacher is a courtier, an adviser. Anyone who wants advice is a prince” (161). “The principles of the school are certainly the right ones if there have to be schools. There aren’t any schools, so there must be something wrong with the argument. If there were schools, organized as the apostolic succession idea, they’d simply follow his own law of octaves & end up biting their arse. The insistence of a school reads like an obsession. See pp. 312-13. I distrust this you-must-have-a-teacher line because (a) at 63 I haven’t found one & probably won’t, so I’m wasting my time reading this (b) it’s a me-or-else line in practice & if I distrust this in the Gospels I certainly distrust it in G. (237)
Northrop Frye’s Marginal Notes on Some of the Principal Texts
Northrop Frye (1912-1991) bequeathed his personal library of some 5,000 books to Victoria College, University of Toronto, the institution that he had served successively and brilliantly as student, professor, department head, president, and chancellor, all the while building an outstanding career as educator, essayist, and critic of literature and culture. In 1979-80, he was ranked as the world’s most-cited living author in the Arts and Humanities by the Philadelphia-based Institute of Scientific Information. In fact, in a list of the most-cited authors of all time, Frye was ranked eighth. Ahead of him were the following authorities: Marx, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Lenin, Plato, Freud, and Roland Barthes. Indeed, the most-cited, single book of the 20th century was Frye’s key work Anatomy of Criticism (1957). His “mythopoeic” approach to literature had a marked influence on a number of major poets and critics and left a permanent mark on English-language literary criticism and social and social commentary.
Frye was a constant reader of books and a tireless annotator who marked passages and scribbled on their margins. He left his thoughts and comments on 2,053 of the books in his personal library, and these are now carefully preserved in Special Collections, The E.J. Pratt Library, Victoria University, University of Toronto. This is where I examined a handful of them.
Examined is the right word. One does not read these notations and annotations; one pauses over them and puzzles over them, even ponders their insights. One scrutinizes the margins of these books for his words, phrases, and sometimes sentences. His reactions are here: written in a minute script, in a firm hand, but with an unsharpened pencil. Words and even phrases are sometimes impossible to decipher, like Linear B before Michael Ventris. The markings draw attention to typographical errors, correct spellings, interpret passages, relate the author’s words to the reader’s thoughts, and quite frequently express strong disagreement with the authors’ arguments.
The scholar Robert D. Denham, who surveyed the annotations that appear in 474 volumes, has printed some of Frye’s more choice comments in his lively article “Annotations,” Northrop Frye Newsletter, Summer 2002. Impressed with this treasure-trove of interpretation, I offered a review his findings in “Marginal Notes on Frye and Theosophy” in The Canadian Theosophist, Nov.-Dec. 2002.
In the present article I am focusing on the marginal notes that appear in four of Frye’s books, three written by P.D. Ouspensky and the fourth the magnum opus of G.I. Gurdjieff. I also examine Frye’s other references to students of the Work.
It is my contention that taken as a whole the marginal notes constitute a “fresh take” on traditional studies and reveal Frye as a most insightful commentator. He is seen to be a knowledgeable reader, well versed in gnosticism and other expressions of wisdom literature; he is a sympathetic reader, concerned with hierarchies of values and qualities; he is a religious-minded reader, an ordained United Church minister who has broader-than-usual interests and sympathies; he is opinionated and outspoken (at least in these private jottings, if not in his personal life or professional career); finally, he is a born teacher, intolerant of sentimental thinking, intellectualized emotions, and sloppy writing.
Ouspensky’s three books are The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution (1954), A New Model of the Universe (1969), and In Search of the Miraculous (1949). The years cited are those of the editions that Frye owned. Gurdjieff’s work is All and Everything (1949).
* P.D. Ouspensky’s The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954):
Annotations appear on thirty-five pages of this short work, which comprises a series of five lectures. In the main the annotations consist of underlined words and of vertical lines drawn down the margins to highlight paragraphs.
Here are pages numbers to this edition, with PDO’s words followed by Frye’s cryptic commentaries.
vii. PDO concludes his Introduction with this sentence about the reception of ‘new ideas’: ‘And then I wish you not to miss them, and to try not to interpret them in the old way.’
occultists have difficulty separating subjective and objective elements in thinking: the profound ideas from the emotional attachment to it or the pleasure about the notion of having profound ideas.
10. PDO writes about ‘levels of beings and different powers.’
it’s dangerous to set up an argument implying that the person capable of making it must be a superior being. Know hundreds of people who understand and who must be more intelligent, whether more conscious or not, than anything that could have produced this unconscionable luncheon style.
Note: The words ‘unconscionable luncheon’ seem odd, but the reading of them was confirmed by Frye researcher Nicholas Graham.
12. PDO: ‘Man cannot do.’
suggests that many theological friends, e.g. Calvinism on the state of and use, are psychological metaphors.
20. PDO: ‘The illusion of his being conscious of himself is created by memory and thought processes.’
similarly in our: states of consciousness recollected in tranquillity.
Note: The reference is to William Wordsworth’s celebrated definition of poetry as ‘emotions recollected in tranquillity.’
26. PDO: ‘The two functions following, instinctive and moving, will take longer to be understood …. ’
oh balls! the higher or Edenic consciousness is always in original state.
35. PDO: ‘ … in the state of sleep we cannot distinguish between dreams and reality.’ [Frye’s underlining]
nonsense: we don’t want to because dreams are more fun.
42. PDO: ‘In the system we are studying, these two parts are called essence and personality.’
Goethe & Carlyle
Types of Kantian formula
43. PDO: ‘By nature, man should like what is good for him …. ’ [Frye’s underlining]
49. PDO: ‘ … lying has a different meaning. It means speaking about things one does not know …. ’
it can also mean creating out of not enough
49. PDO: ‘Further, or even before that, one finds many very dangerous effects in the expression of negative emotions.’
very dubious: different things mixed up
76. PDO: ‘In reality each center occupies the whole body …. ’
interpretation of a specific number
83. PDO: ‘ … a man would poison himself if he lost all sense of taste and smell …. ’
not reliable as regards poisoning
115. On this blank page Frye has (as was his wont) written some notes that he calls his ‘Theory of Modes,’ which compares and contrasts various kinds of writing (e.g., encyclopaedic vs. episodic). The notes have little or nothing in common with the substance of the lectures except, perhaps, to illustrate the chief features shared by the two thinkers: Ouspensky and Frye are equally adept at devising schemes and creating categories.
* P.D. Ouspensky’s A New Model of the Universe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969):
Throughout the text about fifty pages in all bear annotations, which range from the marking of a word, a line, or a paragraph to the statement of agreement, disagreement, or amplification.
vii. PDO: ‘ … and we can see the result of the work of higher mind, those most accessible to us in the Gospels, and then in Eastern Scriptures: in the Upanishads, in the Mahabharata; in works of art such as the Great Sphinx at Gizeh, and in other memorials though they are few in literature and art.’
G.’s objective art
Note: Frye is familiar with Ouspensky’s teacher Gurdjieff and the disciple’s designation of him as G. in the later publication, In Search of the Miraculous.
194. PDO: ‘An imprisoned person, with no other book than the Tarot, if he knew how to use it, could in a few years acquire universal knowledge and would be able to speak on all subjects with unequalled learning and eloquence.’
much more true of the alphabet
242. PDO: ‘ … dismissal of psychoanalysis …. ’
set of physical analogies
242. PDO: ‘ … justification & defence of homo-sexuality by psychoanalysis …. ’
248. PDO discusses the symbolism of ‘stairs and roads.’
254. PDO: ‘The capacity for impersonation …. ’
258. PDO: ‘ … events in his dream.’
Yeats’ double gyre
258. PDO discusses how events in dreams work backwards.
to a fact
259. PDO: ‘ … development of dreams from end to beginning, fairly often …. ’ [Frye’s underlining]
273. PDO concludes the chapter titled ‘On the Study of Dreams and on Hypnotism.’
he doesn’t know very much about these subjects
284. PDO: ‘I had never read of flies …. ’
Note: Frye catches the allusion to Beelzebub, ‘lord of the flies,’ Gurdjieff’s spokesperson in the first part of All and Everything.
293. PDO: ‘ … medicine would stand on firm ground …. ’
327. PDO: ‘No books are necessary …. ’
That’s what Zen says, essentially.
333. PDO: ‘The soul and the future life are one and the same.’
Tied up [obscure] on his own obsession
333. PDO: ‘Life as a process …. ’
death as the definition of life
340. PDO: ‘unepxlored’ [a typo]
* P.D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace, 1949):
Frye read this book closely and annotated it throughout. There are a couple of hundred markings in all. Reproduced here are the ones that are important as well as a selection of ones that are interesting. Not all the notes and annotations could be deciphered.
21. PDO: ‘Everything he says, does, thinks, feels – all this happens.’
26. PDO: ‘ … people living on the earth can belong to very different levels …. ’
30. PDO: ‘One man can do nothing, attain nothing.’
the hell with that
39. PDO: ‘There exists a general equilibrium which cannot be upset …. ’
I think this is shit
41. PDO: ‘Man is not born with the finer bodies …. ’
he’s born in order to bear them
47. PDO: ‘ … against nature, against God.’
49. PDO: ‘No “faith” is required on the fourth way …. ’
Jesus called it faith: depends what’s meant
50. PDO: ‘ … the way of the sly man …. ’
58. PDO: ‘And one man can outwit them, humanity cannot.’
trickster or Prometheus
75. PDO: ‘Our language does not have the idea of worlds contained one within another.’
76. PDO: ‘But the influence of the next world …. ’
in time or in space
77. PDO: ‘ … spatially perceive the “fourth dimension” …. ’
curious analogy with my Bible book, chapters 1 to 5 especially
The reference here is to Frye’s The Great Code, the first volume of two devoted to the study of the Bible and literature.
78. PDO: ‘The chain of worlds …. ’
FM band metaphor
81. PDO concludes Chapter Four.
there is an unsentimental toughness about this that is genuine enough, though it is exactly what the hanidval [indecipherable] (as a [?] calls the wisdom of Slavadas [?] and Probyelas [?] buddhas). G. is a spiritual totalitarian, like Stalin in another world, who came also from the Caucasuses and he was another chip off the old block – the Old Man of the Mountain. Or, more seriously, G. belongs to the Pythagorean Tradition of Plato the yogis (to which Jung in our day tries to belong) who thinks the whole [a kidnapping?] democratic chorus inside the mind ought to be silenced by a single philosopher-king
Note: Key words here are obscured or indecipherable.
95. PDO: ‘“Lord, make it so that twice two be not four.”’
very sensible prayer
96. PDO: ‘ … noticed that such questions always irritated G.’
they should not have done if he were a real teacher, seems to me.*
*I can’t get over the feeling that he’s a spiritual Lenin, and lacks compassion or something central in compassion.
101. PDO: ‘It is impossible to foretell the future for mad machines.’
curious but quite consistent
108. PDO: ‘ … undesirable changes …. ’*
*for instance, if one cures one’s stammer one develops a facial twitch instead. Maybe the Bolshevik revolution was the corresponding challenge to the work of G.’s group.
134. PDO: ‘It is only possible to learn this in a school …. ’
so far, I have to reject this
138. PDO: ‘ … and many things often happen just because …. ’
a lot of roads radiate from Rome
149. PDO: ‘Even if he tries to, he will lie to himself …. ’
this is the point I can’t get over
160. PDO: ‘The only chance he has …. ’
no use to me
61. PDO: ‘A man can have the fate …. ’
Yeats’ body of fate
166. PDO concludes Chapter 8.
I suspect that G. got very little of this, except [him to?], from ‘schools’ in the Orient. I think he dredged it out of the level of his mind and he remembers all the ‘ancient wisdom.’ If so, finding a Teacher & school of [the] way [may] not be so essential: it’s another form of the superstition of apostolic succession, which Viennese quacks have taken over. The real Teacher could just as well be Christ (Transmitted for me though Blake), or a book. This is not to deny the value of teachers & schools when they exist, but they don’t there’s nothing but the deep, still small voice.
221. PDO: ‘One man can do nothing.’
here we go again
226. PDO discussing ‘chief feature’ as ‘certain feature.’
231. PDO: ‘ … if one of them leaves …. ’
Note: Latin for ‘No salvation outside the church.’ By recalling this formulation, Frye has drawn a interesting parallel between fundamentalist thought about the centrality of the church and the thinking of other people about the need for special schools.
237. PDO concludes Chapter Eleven.
the disciples of the schools are certainly the right ones if there have to be schools. There aren’t any schools, so there must be something wrong with the argument. If there were schools, organized on the apostolic succession idea, they’d simply follow his own law of octaves and end up biting their asses. The insistence on a school reads like an obsession.
I distrust this you must have a Teacher or line because (a) ae 63 I haven’t found one & probably won’t, so I’m wasting my time reading this (b) It’s a me-or-else line practice, and if I distrust this in the Gospels certainly distrust it in G.
248. PDO: ‘ … to tell the story of my life …. ’
G. never told the story of his life
259. PDO: ‘ … far too great an imagination on the subject of sex …. ’
Freud’s excessive imagination
275. PDO: ‘Fire then is the Absolute for a piece of wood.’
296. PDO: ‘In subjective art everything is accidental …. ’
inspiration as automatism
302. PDO: ‘ … merely repeats like a parrot …. ’
302. PDO: ‘ … this prehistoric Egypt was Christian …. ’
308. PDO: ‘ …“consciousness” and “mechanicalness” …. ’
I don’t see the contradiction; when mechanism is opposed as a whole it becomes demonic
308. PDO: ‘’involuntary’ and ‘evolutionary’ …. ’
Gnostic idea, I think
309. PDO: ‘ … evolution of a certain group …. ’
here I think is the turning point of an obsession
321. PDO: ‘A baked potato is more intelligent than a raw potato.’
362. PDO: ‘People of the objective way …. ’
they do all the good that is done, I am beginning to suspect
362. PDO: ‘Obyvatel.’
sounds as though it meant bourgeois or philistine.
Note: The Russian word is used by Ouspensky to refer to the ‘good householder’ who is neither the ‘lunatic’ nor the ‘tramp.’ In Russian the word means ‘the man in the street,’ ‘Philistine,’ ‘resident,’ or ‘inhabitant.’
371. PDO: ‘We might easily be cut off …. ’
he’s demoralized by his opposite number
376. PDO: ‘ … he was continuing work in Tiflis …. ’
perhaps G. thought he would take over Russia
* G.I. Gurdjieff’s All and Everything (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited, 5th impression, 1967):
Frye read the contents of this book closely and he annotated it heavily, but he did not read all of it (or at least he did not annotate all of it). His annotations come to a halt after page 368 but begin again on page 1165. There is no evidence that he read the intervening pages. So he left his reactions to about one-third of the text.
3. GIG: ‘the ancient Toulousites’
6. GIG: ‘during the whole of my life I have never written not only no books …. ’
topos of claim of illiteracy, here well justified
8. GIG: End of chapter.
Tristram Shandy Jean Paul [?]
12. GIG: ‘by a stick, which, as was said, indeed has two ends.’
13. GIG: Bottom of page.
this conception of the debasing of – Babel / language I’ve met in scholar (George Steiner) but never believe it
16. GIG: ‘definite picturing’
Wittgenstein’s Btson [?]
16. GIG: Bottom of page.
See the Fourth Essay of the A.C. where it’s said better
Note: This is not a reference to Aleister Crowley but to Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.
25. GIG: ‘One consciousness is formed from the perception’
25. GIG: ‘and the other consciousness is formed from the so to say’
44. GIG: ‘both of my recently discovered “souls”’
I, for example, don’t like writers who put words in quotation marks
48. GIG: ‘Just when my friend’
death-allegory with overtones
50. GIG: ‘Teacher of Dancing.’
pseudonym of Sabizes [?]
51. GIG: ‘And that is why Beelzebub, after’
overtones of individuation
Note: Frye employs Jung’ term for the self’s coming to terms with life.
55. GIG: ‘That is why Hassein also’
Socratic dialogue coming up
57. GIG: ‘Mullah Nassr Eddin’
Hadja, the archetypical jester
61. GIG: ‘the fullness of their strength’
62. GIG: ‘the principal organs’
66. GIG: ‘in the year 185′
76. GIG: ‘Only now have I’
77. GIG: ‘And all this they did’
paradox of posterity
82. GIG: ‘two large fragments’
90. GIG: ‘as I have already said’
98. GIG: ‘And they prefer books’
100. GIG: ‘he “wiseacred”’
5th Gospel fantasy
102. GIG: ‘dwelling on the planet Earth.’
allegorical technique rather like Melville’s Mardi.
103. GIG: ‘able to recognize’
read alleged recognition
110. GIG: ‘I may remind you that the ship Occasion’ [Frye’s underscoring]
vertical dimension of time
111. GIG: ‘began to be crystalized’
screening out process
113. GIG: ‘a “wage”’
119. GIG: ‘such a “psychosis”’
obvious ending of wisdom or traumatic knowledge
123. GIG: ‘Time in itself’
124. GIG: ‘Heropass’
no beginning of time
124. GIG: ‘the vision of one’
pulsation of the onsley [?]
125. GIG: ‘cosmic phenomena’
drama of orchestra
Note: This may well be a reference to Sir John Davies’s poem “Orchestra” (1596) which deals with the Music of the Spheres.
129. GIG: ‘the flow of time’
cf. end of world in Celtic stories
133. GIG: ‘any normal being-sensations’
prose style designed for people who live longer
133. GIG: ‘approximately correct representation’
synchronicity = time
interpenetration = space
137. GIG: ‘its maleficent effect’
time as the enemy of God
138. GIG: ‘The first’
141. GIG: ‘Sacred Triamazikamno’
withdrawl of weireness [?]
148. GIG: ‘a little more in detail’
I don’t think it’s entirely bullshit, though it certainly pretends to be.
150. Bottom of page.
the three-brained beings on Saturn appear to have cleft palates as well. They’re [worms? sheeps?], of course.
171. Bottom of page.
he’s unintelligible enough to be still a great scientist
182. GIG: ‘their strange Reason alone’
Blake’s Druid age
237. GIG: ‘name of “predisposition”’
238. GIG: ‘called Wiseacring’
entropy of tradition
239. GIG: ‘Most Saintly Final Cosmic Results’
Fire Sermon, no doubt
240. GIG: ‘and counsels were^made by Him Himself.’
268. GIG: ‘the very Saintly Ashiata’
Note: Here there is a break in the annotations.
1165. GIG: ‘my own personal opinion’
breaking chain of tradition
1166. GIG: ‘Reason-of-knowing’
‘Verstand’ [intellect] and ‘Vernunst’ [reason]
1167. GIG: ‘the new impressions’
repetition as reconciliation
1174. GIG: ‘Thou Unique VANQUISHER’
time as dragon
1174. GIG: ‘And Now Only Rest’
1181. GIG: ‘try to formulate your question’
well, that’s something
1183. GIG: ‘the inevitability of his own death’
consciousness of death
1184. GIG: ‘From the Author’
1188. GIG: ‘candidates for lunatic asylums’
1192. GIG: ‘a carriage, a horse’
model [?] of Phaedrus image
1198. GIG: ‘a locality named ‘Transcaucasia’
1211. GIG: ‘without any self-imagination’
1216. GIG: ‘that seven worlds exist’
closest to mine, I think
1221. GIG: ‘the inevitability of his own death’
Tibetan chödoite [?]
1227. GIG: ‘no longer
needed, disappears forever’
Note: The reference is to the Button Molder who represents fate in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt.
1228. GIG: ‘individually the life of every man’
12 years of grandson
1230. GIG: ‘these subjectivized second-grade results’
allegory setting belabored
1231. GIG: ‘to acquire the kernel of their essence’
if you buy what I’m selling
1235. GIG: ‘preceded by Babylonian civilization’
1237. GIG: ‘Old Calvados’
Rabelais’ oracle of bottle at end
References to Work-related people crop up in Frye’s reading and thinking. Perhaps he kept abreast of developments on this front through a college chum, Pete Colgrove.
For work on this paper I wish to thank the librarians and staff of the E.J. Pratt Library, Victoria University in the University of Toronto; the editors at the Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria University, notably Jean O’Grady and Margaret Burgess; and independent researcher, Nicholas William Graham.
Other Frye Sources
“Seekers after Truth”
For some unstated reason Northrop Frye agreed to deliver a talk on the subject of William Blake before a meeting of the Women’s Club of Toronto. The talk was in a series titled “Seekers after Truth,” and he described the proceedings in a letter to his future wife Helen Kemp, at the time an art student in London, England. The following vignette comes from his letter postmarked May 3, 1935:
It appears that the Blake was only one meeting out of a series entitled “Seekers after Truth.” The first meeting dealt with Akhnaton and Isaiah, another with Plato and Socrates (bracketed) and Aristotle, another was on the ideal state, with More, Sidney (contribution to ideal state unspecified), Rousseau and Karl Marx, the last given by this Mrs. Daly who runs the Music Club, on St. Paul and Ouspensky, the latter being a nineteenth-century Russian occultist, a sort of secondary Blavatsky, whose name I had picked up somewhere in Saurat, but whose book I had not read, to the vast surprise of most of those present. Fortunately, these females had brought their husbands along, which improved the discussion. (437)
The source is the two-volume edition The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1932-1939 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996) edited by Robert D. Denham. The account in Volume 2: 1936-1939, p. 437, offers a number of surprises.
First, Frye has the century wrong. P.D. Ouspensky is in truth “a twentieth-century Russian occultist”; after all, his first book (Tertium Organum) appeared in 1911.
Second, Frye is saying he has “not read” Denis Saurat’s book Blake and Modern Thought (1929). Yet it is unlikely that the future Blake scholar would (or could) have avoided reading this imaginative work.
Third, Frye backhandedly admits to having read Saurat’s writings, because he states that he found Ouspensky’s name “somewhere in Saurat.” But where? Saurat makes no reference in his books to Ouspensky (though he does refer in his writings to Gurdjieff). The statement that Frye had not read Saurat’s Blake and Modern Thought surprised the husbands and wives who were “Seekers after Truth” at the Women’s Club in 1935. Even today it is surprising. It may occur to latter-day seekers after the truth that Frye is going to some length to avoid acknowledging the influence of Saurat. (“Somewhere in Saurat” would make an excellent title for an essay devoted to this subject.)
Fourth, “Mrs. Daly” is Mrs. R.A. Daly, who is described by Tom Daly, her son, the documentary film producer, as someone “interested in comparative religion and other studies.” He went on, “She joined a group for some time that studied the Bhagavad Gita. She met a teacher of the Baha’i faith, and studied that. This man came several times to our apartment. She read Tagore and Kahlil Gibran.” The passage appears in D.B. Jones’s The Best Butler in the Business: Tom Daly of the National Film Board of Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), p. 52.
Tom Daly met Olga and Thomas de Hartmann, friends and disciples of Gurdjieff from his days in St. Petersburg, when they were temporary residents of Rawdon, Quebec’s Eastern Townships. They were awaiting immigrants’ visas to enter the United States, but during their Canadian stay, Olga and Thomas de Hartmann established the Toronto group in Mrs. Daly’s apartment in the early 1950s.
Frye wrote out his thoughts as they occurred to him in the privacy of his journals. He envisaged the “Third Book” to be his third major book after Fearful Symmetry and Anatomy of Criticism. Here is a passage from the notes he kept for use in the “Third Book.”
I’ve been looking at a book on Gurdjiev, not that I find either him or Ouspensky very rewarding, but just to see if his enneagrams & such are a genuine Logos vision or a put-on. They could be both, of course: the emphasis is on oral teaching, as with other religious leaders, and those who just try to read the book are outside in the court of Gentiles. But I wonder if the higher consciousness he talks about exists only as an experience, or can’t be attained in creative work. There’s no evidence that Shakespeare or Bach habitually attained higher consciousness, but what they wrote certainly manifests that world. Perhaps this is the real basis for the traditional distinction between active & contemplative life.
The source of the passage is The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 1964-1972: The Critical Comedy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002) edited by Michael Dolzani. This is “Notebook 12,” Item 264, p. 195. The source note identifies the “book on Gurdjiev” as Kenneth Walker’s A Study of Gurdjieff’s Teaching (1967). It goes on to note passages in Frye’s writings that express similar ideas.
Reading Colin Wilson’s novel The Mind Parasites (1967), Frye came across the names of some influential independent thinkers and commented upon them:
Velikowski, Hörbiger, Gurdjieff, & other lunatics ….
The source is “Notebook 12,” Item 344, of The “Third Book” Notebooks, p. 201.
The same reference in “Notebook 12,” p. 245, includes the following remark:
Gurdjiev had a remark about “objective” art that impressed me, although in his context it was probably all balls.
In “Notebook 12,” Item 285, p. 201, he refers to five book that may be considered to be encyclopedic forms rather than episodic in nature.
These are Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Sawyer, Finnegans Wake, Mardi, ‘& Gurdjieff’s All and Everything’.
Blavatsky and Ouspensky
Frye is discussing aesthetic proportion in terms of the differences between non-objective art (close to mathematics) and abstract art (close to music). The subject arises during a discussion of the art of Lawren Harris in an essay published in The Canadian Forum. The source is “The Pursuit of Form” (1948), Northrop Frye on Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003) edited by Jean O’Grady and David Staines, p. 87.
It comes out in the traditional occult philosophy, which stretches from Pythagoras and Plato to Blavatsky and Ouspensky, and which assigns to arithmetical number and geometrical form a critical place in the growth of mental comprehension.
The Great Code
Frye followed William Blake in referring to the Bible as “the Great Code.” He was much impressed or deeply moved by the “notion” of “objective” art and how it differs from “subjective” art:
I get a strong impression, which may be quite unfair, that Gurdjieff did not really know what he was talking about, but had derived the notion from someone who did.
The source is The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (N.Y.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), p. 216. It is curious that the name Gurdjieff is treated so casually, warranting neither first name nor initials. Yet the observation as it stands is an interesting one.
Essence and Personality
Another distinction that was of interest to Frye was the standard one between essence and personality:
One of the most impressive figures in this tradition in our own century, Gurdjieff, distinguishes two elements in man: the essence and the persona, what man really is and what he has taken on through his social relationships. Gurdjieff clearly thought of the kind of training that he could give as essentially a developing and educating of the essence. Perhaps there is also a way to develop through the persona, through transforming oneself into a focus of a community. This includes all the activity that we ordinarily call creative, and is shown at its clearest in the production of the arts.
Source: “Expanding Eyes” (1975), Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), p. 120. The reference is to P.D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous (1949).
“All and Everything”
Northrop Frye was quite familiar with the tome that bears the title All and Everything and the subtitle “Ten Books, in Three Series, of which this is the First Series.” What he read was the first volume in that series of three volumes.
The first volume is best known as An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man or Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. The second volume is called titled Meetings with Remarkable Men, and the third volume is called Life Is Real Only Then, When “I Am.” All three comprise All and Everything (originally, playfully perhaps, called “All of Everything”). The volumes are of quite different lengths (going from 1238 pages, to 303 pages, to 177 pages) and genres (scenario, memoir, lecture). They make unique and uniquely different demands on their readers.
Powerful if partial commentaries on Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson were prepared by A.R. Orage (who lent his considerable talents to the translation and revision of the work) and by J.G. Bennett (who had an association with Gurdjieff that extended over a quarter-century). Brief but especially insightful is the detailed letter about the tome written by the Anglo-French scholar Denis Saurat and addressed to his friend and publisher C.S. Nott; it elucidates some of the book’s outstanding ideas from a literary perspective. In recent years independent scholars have prepared specific studies; Sophia Wellbeloved’s Gurdjieff, Astrology & Beelzebub’s Tales is the fullest and finest.
Frye’s contribution to an understanding of the text is not of this order, nor was it intended to be. After all, it consists of a collection of jottings made en passant, on the margins of the text, so to speak; in no way does it rise to any public occasion but it exists as a private exercise. Nor did Frye plan to write an essay on what he called his “kook books.” He was familiar with a great range of occult publications, including The Secret Doctrine. (Indeed, in a letter he described Ouspensky confusingly but curiously as “a nineteenth-century Russian occultist, a sort of secondary Blavatsky.”) Yet taken in conjunction with his pencillings on the margins of Ouspensky’s key books, Frye offers the contemporary reader who has a taste for the Work a critique of some of its principal texts from the perspective of a person who is exceptionally knowledgeable and responsive to ideas about religion, gnosticism, myth, allegory, fable, issues of identity, traditional wisdom, and the “mythopoeic” imagination (to name a few subjects of concern).
Here are some of the contributions that he has made to this “reading” of the main texts.
* Rather than treat the writings as expressions of traditional wisdom or works of occult transmission, in effect as “lay scriptures,” he regards them as attempts to come to grips with current human problems and social disorders through psychological means.
* He takes pains to identify parallels between references in the texts to references in Western literature. Blake, Yeats, Rabelais, and other poets and prose writers are recognized as having made identical, similar, or related points.
* He finds these writings to have philosophical underpinnings, not so much with Plato, Plotinus, or Pythagoras, but with Fichte and Kant, at the time of their composition dominant influences.
* Explanations of a psychical or parapsychological nature interest him less than does the psychological approach of C.G. Jung, notably the Swiss doctor’s theories of individuation, archetypes, collective unconscious, etc.
* The schematic description of man as a “three-brained” being is old news to Frye; after all, it corresponds to the physiological approach of the U.S. psychologist W.H. Sheldon who memorably described the three “body types” (endomorph, mesomorph, ectomorph), a division widely known when the texts were written.
* It is popular today to distinguish between religion and spirituality. Frye wrote a lot about religion and visions and had no problem with keeping religion and spirituality under one roof, especially if that roof covered both a congregation of people and a library of books for the congregants to read. Gurdjieff and Ouspensky cast cold eyes on the world’s religious practices, but they were deeply appreciative of the art and architecture that had been inspired by the fixed religions in the past, and they sought to identify and isolate continuing traditions from the prehistoric and even the archaic past. Frye makes frequent reference to shamanic practices, Buddhist psychology, and the principles of Zen, and he seems to find confirmation in such texts of what he himself feels and thinks.
* Frye expresses the exasperation he feels with much that he encountered in the texts. Critics of his approach may take comfort in the fact that he failed to heed Gurdjieff’s advice to read his work three times. Judging by the annotations, he did not succeed in reading it through even once. There is no question that his reading is marginal (pun intended) but in no way did he marginalize the work. He gave it considerable attention.
* In sum, Frye’s approach to the texts and to Beelzebub’s Tales in particular is a literary one and a Christian one. To him the texts appear to be way stations on the path of inspired literature (“secular scripture” he once called it) that takes the reader from the scriptures of old to the writings of François Rabelais, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. The notion of “schools” is dismissed with a wave of the hand, the same hand that waved goodbye to the notion of Christian “apostolic succession,” a notion that he describes and dismisses as “a superstition.” He regards gurus from a distance with dismay. Hence he repudiates group work and has nothing at all to say about its characteristic practices. He finds the source of the powerful ideas and expressions in these books to be buried alive in the human psyche, not derived from “masters” in the Himalayas, “survivors” of sunken Atlantis, or “aliens” from extra-solar civilizations. In making these observations, his pencil may have been blunt, but his mind and heart remained alert and his fabled associative faculties served him well indeed.
2 August 2003