Reading Notes

p. xviii: "Every teacher of the humanities employed by a university is expected to be a 'productive scholar,' and in the present state of criticism not everyone can be that. It follows that there have to be critical methods developed, including my own in its narrower aspect, which enable scholars to produce what are primarily academic exercises, not really increasing the understanding of literature as a whole but demonstrating a certain competence in the subject."

p. 16: "In the medieval theory of polysemous meaning, or at least in Dante's exposition of it, there is nothing that directly corresponds to our conceptual mode, but there are two levels of what I am calling the rhetorical one. The first is 'allegorical' (better called analogical or typological); answering the question quid credas, what you should believe; the other moral or tropological, answering the question quid agas, what you should do. We can call these the theory and practice respectively of Christian ideology."

p. 41: "In ordinary speech we distinguish work and play: work is energy expended for a further end in view; play is energy expended for its own sake."

p. 47: "I think of a poet, in relation to his society, as being at the center of a cross like a plus sign. The horizontal bar forms the social and ideological conditioning that made him intelligible to his contemporaries, and in fact to himself. The vertical bar is the mythological line of descent from previous poets back to Homer (the usual symbolic starting point) which carries on into our own time."

p. 69: "The act of reading, or its equivalent, consists of two operations that succeed one another in time. We first follow the narrative, from the first page or line to the last: once this pursuit of narrative through time is complete, we make a second act of response, a kind of Gestalt of simultaneous understanding, where we try to take in the entire significance of what we have read or listened to. The first response is conventionally one of the listening ear, even if we are reading a written text. The association of the second response with visual metaphors is almost inevitable."

p. 74: "Experience is of the particular and the unique, and takes place in time; knowledge is of the universal and the assimilated, and contains an element withdrawn from time."

p. 96: "Literature is a technique of meditation, in the widest and most flexible sense. We journey through a narrative; then we stop and confront what we have read as though it were objective. It is not objective, because it is already part of ourselves."

p. 113: "What we read is, however tiresome we may find the phrase, 'food for thought,' or imagination, and like other food it has to be taken discontinuously, in bites. If we watch a student underlining sentences in a textbook (hoping he owns the book) we see the process at work: certain sentences seem to be keys to the total meaning, and they are the first parts of the narrative to undergo the transition from their context in the narrative to their new context in the reader."

pp. 113-14: "The metaliterary begins with the process of perceiving some kind of 'that's for me' detail in one's reading. In literature, this quality may be present in the magical line or phrase...that suddenly seems to extend one's vision. Others may find it in the sententious, the great thought or epigram that may become detached from its context and become a proverbial expression in its own right. Still others will seize on assonances and inner harmonies, such as Poe's much admired line, 'the viol, the violet, and the vine.'"

pp. 116-17: "In the first three modes we surveyed at the beginning, there is an emphasis on compulsion: the compulsion to accept ascertained facts in the descriptive mode, the compulsion to accept the logic of the argument in the dialectical mode, the compulsion to accept social and authoritative pressure in the ideological mode. In the poetic mode there is no such compulsion: anything in the imaginative world can be assumed to be true for the duration of the individual work. So the imaginative and its freedom to create must be the basis of whatever goes beyond it. What does go beyond it is the 'myth to live by,' a myth which is also a model for continuous action, and which is the distinctively kergymatic feature."

p. 126: "The Jesus of history, according to most Christian views, was a soul-body unit like anyone else; the spiritual body of the risen Christ is everywhere and in everyone, may be a part of us or we may be a part of it."

p. 127: "As for the 'air' aspect of the metaphor, the air we breathe is invisible because if it were visible nothing else would be. Hence the spiritual or higher air world is not an invisible order independent of the visible one, but an invisibility that enables another kind of reality to appear, a mystery turned into revelation."

p. 129: "Belief is...the creative energy that turns the illusory into the real. Such belief is neither rational nor ideological, but belongs on the other side of the imaginative. One could practically paraphrase the Hebrews verse [11:1] as: 'Faith is the reality of hope and of illusion.'"

p. 135: "Faith, then, is not developed by clogging the air with questions of the 'Does a God really exist?' type and answering them with equal nonsense, but in working, in words and other media, toward a peace that passes understanding, not by contradicting understanding, but by disclosing, behind the human peace that is merely a temporary cessation of war, the proclaimed or mythological model of a peace infinite in both its source and its goal."

--Northrop Frye, Words with Power: Being a Second Study of "The Bible and Literature" (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990).


  1. These quotes give this reader many thoughts.

    I am struck by the very monastic, meditative emphasis.

    As historians we should increase understanding of human nature and literature and not just complete an academic exercise. How do we get more people to listen to us?

    I love the idea that literature is a technique of meditation.

    Lastly, the theological statements about Christ and faith are problematic for me.

  2. "Lastly, the theological statements about Christ and faith are problematic for me."

    Why? Frye's argument is actually rather more subtle than these excerpts may make it seem. He isn't saying that God doesn't exist, just that that is the wrong question to ask. I agree with him there.

  3. The Jesus of history is also the Risen Jesus. Even in his glorified state, He is still a rational soul and body. He is also both fully human and divine. While He is everywhere, He is not in everyone.

    God gives us faith so that we may believe the promises of God in Jesus. He is the reality on which our hope rests and the One who goes beyond all our illusions. Actually, the last quote (p.135) wasn't the one that bothered me.

    This sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for blogging.


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