I finished a couple of books today. One was The Great Code by Northrup Frye. This book seemed uneven to me. It began with some interesting ideas that caught my attention. But there were sections where he seemed to be almost rambling which was so odd after succinct sections.
He came up with very clever organization principle. He began a chapter on Language then one each on Myth, Metaphor, and Typology. Then the next four chapters reversed this order of subjects and moved from chapters on Typology to a final one on Language. I was tantalized when he revealed this was going to happen early in the book. What a lovely circular spiral. Than I was disappointed that there wasn’t a bit more coherence to the over arching discussion that impelled this clever organizing principle.
I was also expecting more insights on literature and/or Bible. I found that I knew both areas that he chose to emphasize. I don’t think it helps that I am so entranced with the scholarship of Robert Alter and the Norton Edition of the English Bible. They are writing decades after Frye and I find them much more convincing and helpful.
This sense of deflation was somewhat allayed when he pulled some cool stuff out of his hat in the final section on Language.
A few pages from the end, Frye remarks that “The Bible includes an immense variety of material, and the unifying forces that hold it together cannot be the rigid forces of doctrinal consistency or logic which would soon collapse under cultural stress, but the more flexible ones of imaginative unity, which is founded on metaphor.”
It may surprise you that he sees the Bible as held together with some kind of unity of purpose, but he makes some clear observations that support this well.
When the Old and New Testament are lumped together as a specifically Christian expression, the Bible begins with Creation and ends with Apocalypse. Frye sees a sort of rhyming of structure in the Old and New Testament. One convincing aspect of this is that the Gospel of John seems to restart Creation by it’s beginning: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God.”
Alter’s three volumes of the Hebrew Bible follow a specific known understanding and terminology: the five books of the Law, the Prophets (which includes history), and the Writings which include the poetry of Psalms and Job as well as the Apocalyptic writing of Daniel and other books.
He uses Hebrew terms for these as subtitles: Torah (law), Nevi’im (prophets), and Ketuvim (writings).
Frye sees a pretty convincing (at least to me) parallel: Gospels – law, Acts – histories, Epistles – prophets, Revelations – writings.
Here are a couple of sections toward the end of Frye that I thought were lovely.
“One of the commonest experiences in reading is the sense of further discoveries to be made within the same structure of words. The feeling is approximately ‘there is more to be got out of this,’ or we may say, of something we particularly admire, that every time we read it we get something new out of it. This ‘something new’ is not necessarily something we have overlooked before, but may come rather from a new context in our experience.”
This happens to me all the time and not just with reading words. As I play my way through music I love by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Hindemith, and others, I often feel that I am experiencing it differently because of my own new context of better understanding.
Resisting Milton’s (and others’) notion that “No passage of Scripture is to be interpreted in more than one sense,” Frye draws on an idea of Dante’s that understanding a text is moving through a series of “more senses than one.” Frye says that this is a “series of phases or stages of comprehension: is a “feature of all deeply serious writing.”
He takes Dante one step further:
“What is implied is a single process growing in subtlety and comprehensiveness, not different senses, but different intensities or wider contexts of a continuous sense, unfolding like a plant out of a seed.”
I quite like that.
On a completely different note, I was just looking on Facebook for a certain link and discovered a very moving and flattering thank you note from a musician who was a kid at Our Lady of the Lake and was inspired by me to be a musician. We never officially met. He now teaches music in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s funny because I knew this guy was a young musician and watched him from afar play with people I knew when he was in high school but got the idea he didn’t think much of my own work. In fact, if I have my facts right, I probably intimidated him into staying at a distance. Wow. It would have been fun to have him for a colleague.
It makes me crazy how partisan the Supreme Court is right now. This is an insane challenge mounted by a church and would have been ratified had Supreme Court Justice Roberts not sided with the sane ones. It feels like Roberts is at least aware of the appearance of partisanship.