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Northrop Frye and Others: The Order of Words, Volume II

The University of Ottawa Press gratefully acknowledges the support extended to its publishing list by the Government of Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Ontario Arts Council. This book has been published with the help of a grant from the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, through the Awards to Scholarly Publications Program, using funds provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Copy editing:

Alicia Peres


Robbie McCaw



Cover design:

Édiscript enr.

Cover image:

Forest by Kazuo Nakamura, 1953, oil on masonite.
Collection of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa.
Gift of Charles E. McFaddin, 1974.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Denham, Robert D., author

Northrop Frye and the order of words / Robert D. Denham.

(Canadian literature collection)

Includes bibliographical references and index.

Issued in print and electronic formats.

ISBN 978-0-7766-2543-0 (softcover).--ISBN 978-0-7766-2544-7 (PDF).--ISBN 978-0-7766-2545-4 (EPUB).--ISBN 978-0-7766-2546-1 (MobiPocket)

1. Frye, Northrop, 1912-1991--Criticism and interpretation. 2. Influence (Literary, artistic, etc.). I. Title. II. Series: Canadian literature collection

PN75.F7D457 2017



Printed in Canada by Gauvin Press

© University of Ottawa Press, 2017


Northrop Frye: An Enumerative Bibliography. 1974.

Northrop Frye and Critical Method. 1978.

Northrop Frye: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources. 1987.

Northrop Frye: A Bibliography of His Published Writings, 1931–2004. 2004.

Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World. 2004.

Charles Wright: A Companion to the Late Poetry, 1988–2007. 2008.

The Early Poetry of Charles Wright: A Companion, 1963–1990. 2009.

Poets on Paintings: A Bibliography. 2010.

A Northrop Frye Handbook. 2012.

A Charles Wright Bibliography. 2015.

Essays on Northrop Frye: Word and Spirit. 2015.

Northrop Frye and Others: Twelve Writers Who Helped Shape His Thinking. 2015.


Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature: A Collection of Review Essays. 1978.

Reading the World: Selected Writings by Northrop Frye, 1935–1974. 1990.

Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays by Northrop Frye, 1974–1989. 1991.

Visionary Poetics: Essays on Northrop Frye’s Criticism, with Thomas Willard. 1991.

A World in a Grain of Sand: Twenty-Two Interviews with Northrop Frye. 1991.

The Eternal Act of Creation: Essays by Northrop Frye, 1979–1990. 1993.

The Legacy of Northrop Frye, with Alvin A. Lee. 1994.

*The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1932–1935. 1996.

*The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1936–1939. 1996.

*Northrop Frye’s Student Essays, 1932–1938. 1997.

*Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1982–1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World (first of two volumes). 2000.

*Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1982–1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World (second of two volumes. 2000.

*Northrop Frye’s Diaries, 1942–1955. 2001.

*Northrop Frye on Literature and Society: Unpublished Papers. 2002.

*Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts. 2003.

Northrop Frye Unbuttoned: Wit and Wisdom from Frye’s Notebooks and Diaries. 2004.

*Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays by Northrop Frye. 2006.

*Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings, with Michael Dolzani. 2007.

*Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for Anatomy of Criticism. 2007.

Charles Wright in Conversation: Interviews, 1979–2006. 2009.

Northrop Frye: Selected Letters, 1934–1991. 2009.

Remembering Northrop Frye: Recollections by His Students and Others in the 1940s and 1950s. 2011.

A Northrop Frye Chrestomathy. 2015.

Northrop Frye’s Uncollected Prose. 2015.

Helen Kemp Frye’s Writings on Art. 2016.

Northrop Frye’s Lectures: Student Notes from His Courses, 1947–1955. 2016.

* = Included in Collected Works of Northrop Frye

For Thomas Willard






Frye and the East

The Sutras

The Lankavatara Sutra

The Avatamsaka Sutra

The Translation of Ideas

Holism and Interpenetration

The Avatamsaka Sutra Revisited

The Incarnation and Interpenetration



“Machiavellian” in English Renaissance Drama


Hypocrisy and Personhood

Machiavelli, Shakespeare, and Hypocrisy Upward



Gargantua and Pantagruel as an Anatomy


Giantism and Allegory

The Seattle Illumination and the Oracle of the Bottle

Creative Descent



Blake and Boehme

The Deification of the Void

Nothing: Boehme, Eckhart, and The Cloud of Unknowing

Schematic Thinking and the Kabbalah

Numbers and Synchronicity

Coincidentia Oppositorum



Appropriating Hegel as a Student


The Hegelian Aufhebung

Aufhebung at Work


Levels of Meaning



Logos and the One Big Book

The Imagination





The Diagrammatic Basis of Thought


The Hero and Heroism






Coda: The Opposition



Frye’s Reading of the Cambridge Classicists

The Cambridge School and the Context of Archetypal Criticism

Dromena: Things Done

Eniautos Daimon

From Fluttering Female to Wise Woman



Elizabeth Fraser’s Letters to Northrop Frye






This is the second installment of a series of essays investigating the connections between Northrop Frye and a group of men and women who had a substantial impact on his thinking but about whom he never wrote a book (as he did with William Blake, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and T. S. Eliot), an essay, or a sustained commentary. The first installment, Northrop Frye and Others: Twelve Writers Who Helped Shape His Thinking (2015), examined the influence on Frye’s thought of Aristotle, Longinus, Joachim of Floris, Giordano Bruno, Henry Reynolds, Robert Burton, Søren Kierkegaard, Lewis Carroll, Stéphane Mallarmé, Colin Still, Paul Tillich, and Frances A. Yates. The whole project was triggered by a rather startling remark I ran across when editing Frye’s Late Notebooks—his proclamation that Henry Reynolds was “the greatest critic before Johnson” (CW 5: 236). Who, I asked, was Henry Reynolds? After learning that he was a Renaissance poet and critic about whom we know almost nothing, I was then motivated to discover why Frye lavished such a superlative on so obscure a figure. Although the references to Reynolds in Frye’s work turned out to be scant—only ten, and half of those are hardly substantive—they were sufficient to answer the question. At the other extreme is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, to whom there are almost four hundred references in Frye’s published and previously unpublished work.

Frye died in January 1991. When his book The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion was published later that year, it appeared that the Frye canon was complete. But when the Frye papers (letters, notebooks, diaries, unpublished typescripts, and the like), deposited in the Victoria University Library (Toronto), began to be examined in 1992, it became apparent that a vast body of material was worthy of publication and needed to be included in the Collected Works of Northrop Frye (CW). The project, which brought together Frye’s published and previously unpublished work in a standard, critical edition, saw the first volumes of the Collected Works appear in 1996. Sixteen years later volume 30, the index, was published, bringing the edition to a close. Alvin A. Lee has charted the history of the Collected Works,1 which was brought to completion in an astonishingly brief time. To this expansive collection we can now add Northrop Frye: Selected Letters, 1934–1991 (2009), Northrop Frye’s Uncollected Prose (2015), which includes material that was omitted from the Collected Works for one reason or another, and Northrop Frye’s Lectures: Student Notes from His Courses, 1947–1955 (2016). A list of all these titles is provided following this Introduction. In any event, the Frye canon has been expanded to some eighteen thousand pages.

The present essays take advantage of this expanded canon—the previously published work and the extensive body of writing Frye did that was not intended for publication but which is now part of the Collected Works. In terms of quantity, the latter is approximately 46 percent of the total (close to five million words). The previously unpublished material appeared in print over an eleven-year period—from 1996 to 2007. It is this material that has caused some revisionary thinking about Frye, the first example of which, coming from a 1994 seminar in Australia, was Rereading Frye: The Published and Unpublished Works, edited by David Boyd and Imre Salusinszky (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999). This conference took place two years before the first volumes of Frye’s unpublished work appeared, but the members of the seminar had access to a generous selection of transcriptions and typescripts of a number of documents from the Frye archive at Victoria University. During the nineteen years since that time a constant procession of conferences, large and small, have been devoted to Frye’s thought, including the following twelve:

“Northrop Frye and China.” Peking University, Beijing, 12–17 July 1994. The papers from this conference were published as Fu-lai yen chiu: Chung-kuo yü hsi fang (Frye Studies: China and the West), ed. Wang Ning and Yen-hung Hsü (Beijing: Chung-kuo she hui k’o hsüeh ch’u pan she [Social Sciences Press of China], 1996). Conference papers were by A. C. Hamilton, Joseph Adamson, Kang Liu, Eva Kushner, Ian Balfour, Aiming Cheng, Ning Wang, Jonathan Hart, Ersu Ding, Zhang Hui, Fengzheng Wang, Robert D. Denham, Suxian Ye, Naiying Liu, and Yiman Wang, to which were added essays by Mario Valdes, Linda Hutcheon, and Roseann Runte. The articles of Balfour, Adamson, and Denham appeared earlier in Foreign Literatures 1 (1995): 3–21.

“Northrop Frye: The Critic in His City,” a special session of the Modern Language Association, annual meeting, Toronto, 28 December 1997. Papers presented by Robert D. Denham, Alvin A. Lee, and Michael Dolzani, with Thomas Willard as session leader and Johan L. Aitken as respondent.

“Seminario di aggiornamento su Northrop Frye.” Centro Didattico del Policlinico, Siena, Italy, 7 October 1998. Seminar papers presented by Deanne Bogdan, Caterina Ricciardi, and Federico Colucci.

“The International Symposium on Northrop Frye Studies.” Inner Mongolia University, Hohhot, China, 15–17 July 1999. The papers from this conference, along with other papers solicited by the editors, were published as New Directions in N. Frye Studies, ed. Wang Ning and Jean O’Grady (Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2001). The volume contains essays by Robert D. Denham, Jonathan Hart, Ning Wang, Jean O’Grady, Sandra Djwa, Thomas Willard, Graham Nicol Forst, Jan Gorak, Michael Dolzani, Glen Robert Gill, Suxian Ye, Mingdon Gu, Chizhe Wu, and James Steele. A slightly different version of this volume was published as Northrop Frye: Eastern and Western Perspectives, ed. Jean O’Grady and Wang Ning (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003).

“Frye and the Word.” McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, 17–19 May 2000. The papers from this conference were published in two volumes: The first, Frye and the Word: Religious Contexts in the Criticism of Northrop Frye, ed. Jeffery Donaldson and Alan Mendelson (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003), contains essays by Alvin A. Lee, Imre Salusinszky, Garry Sherbert, Michael Happy, Nicholas Halmi, Leah Knight, Glen Robert Gill, Robert Alter, Linda Munk, Johannes Van Nie, Jean O’Grady, J. Russell Perkin, Joseph Adamson, Jean Wilson, James M. Kee, Peter Christensen, Graham Nicol Forst, Ian Singer, Michael Dolzani, and Robert D. Denham. The second, Northrop Frye and the Afterlife of the Word, ed. James M. Kee, special issue, Semeia 89 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002), contains essays by Robert Alter, Joe Velaidum, David Gay, Michael Dolzani, James M. Kee, Patricia Demers, Margaret Burgess, William Robins, David Jobling, J. Russell Perkin, and Robert Cording.

Northrop Frye International Literary Festival in Moncton, NB, annual since 2000 (now under the name the Frye Festival). This festival is not devoted to Frye’s work but its organizers until recently made space annually for the presentation of papers on Frye and a discussion of his life and work. Papers have been presented by Branko Gorjup, Nella Cotrupi, Robert D. Denham, John Ayre, Naïm Kattan, Michael Dolzani, Jean O’Grady, Glenna Davis Sloan, and Bruce Powe. Some of these papers have been published in Verticals of Frye / Les verticales de Frye: The Northrop Frye Lectures and Related Talks Given at the Northrop Frye International Literary Festival, ed. Ed Lemond (Moncton, NB: Elbow P, 2005).

“Creation and Recreation: Northrop Frye and United Church Ministry.” Victoria University in the University of Toronto, 3 February 2001. Discussion of Frye’s Creation and Recreation by Alvin A. Lee and Glen Robert Gill. Presentations by Ian Sloan, Jeffery Donaldson, and Leif Vaage.

“Northrop Frye’s Vision of Spirituality in Higher Education,” a panel discussion, 3 October 2004, during the three-day conference “Faith, Freedom, and the Academy: The Idea of the University in the 21st Century,” University of Prince Edward Island, 1–3 October 2004. The keynote lecture for the panel was given by Glen Robert Gill, with the title “The Concern(s) of Northrop Frye: Spiritual Principles and Educational Process.” Respondents were Jeffery Donaldson, Jean O’Grady, Michael Dolzani, Alvin A. Lee, and Doug Mantz.

“Northrop Frye: New Directions from Old.” University of Ottawa, 4–6 May 2007. Papers by Alvin A. Lee, Michael Happy, John Ayre, Mervyn Nicholson, Jean O’Grady, Germaine Warkentin, Thomas Willard, Robert D. Denham, Jeffery Donaldson, Troni Y. Grande, Keith Haughton, David Jarraway, D. M. R. Bentley, Adam Carter, Robert Stacey, Peter Webb, Matthew Hiebert, J. Russell Perkin, Michael Sinding, Philip MacEwen, Ian Sloan, Sára Tóth, Michael Dolzani, Glen Robert Gill, Garry Sherbert, Johan L. Aitken, Glenna Davis Sloan, and Jean Wilson. Proceedings published as Northrop Frye: New Directions from Old, ed. David Rampton (Ottawa:U of Ottawa P, 2009).

“Anatomias criticas: Simposio internacional sobre Northrop Frye en el cincuentenario de Anatomy of Criticism.” University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, 24–25 May 2007. Papers by Robert D. Denham, Jonathan Hart, Luis Beltran Almeria, James A. Parr, Kurt Spang, Jaume Aurell, Brian Russell Graham, and Luis Galván, published as Visiones para una poetica: en el cincuentenario de “Anatomy of Criticism” de Northrop Frye, ed. Luis Galván, special edition, RILCE (Revista del Instituto de Lengua y Cultura Españolas) 25, no. 1 (2009): 1–166.

“Northrop Frye 100: A Danubian Perspective.” An international conference organized by the Institute of English Studies of Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary and the School of American and English Studies of Eötvös Loránd University, 7–8 September 2012. Keynote lectures by Robert D. Denham and Péter Dávidházi. Papers by Sára Tóth, János Kenyeres, Tibor Fabiny, Katalin Kürtösi, Joseph William Frank, Annamária Hódosy, Judit Nagy, Claude Le Fustec, Todd Lawson (by Skype), Rebekah Zwanzig (by Skype), Júlia Bácskai-Atkári, Sándor klapcsik, Larisa Koci´c-Zámbó, Brian Russell Graham, Miklós Takács, Glen Robert Gill, Michael Sinding, Sylva Ficová, Arpád Kovács, Balázs Nyilasy, Csaba Horváth, József Fülöp, Andrei Dullo, Mária Dancáková, Zoltán Kelemen, and Judit Erzswébet Sinka. Video presentation by Milorad Krsti´c. Conference proceedings published as Northrop Frye 100: A Danubian Perspective, ed. Sára Tóth, Tibor Fabiny, János Kenyeres, and Péter Pásztor (Budapest: L’Harmattan Kiado, 2014).

“Educating the Imagination: A Conference in Honour of Northrop Frye on the Centenary of His Birth.” Victoria University in the University of Toronto, 4–6 October 2012. Plenary lectures by Robert Bringhurst, Michael Dolzani, Ian Balfour, Gordon Teskey, and J. Edward Chamberlain. Papers by Joseph Adamson, Robert D. Denham, Duncan McFarlane, Jan Gorak, Glen Robert Gill, Neal Dolan, Michael Sinding, Sára Tóth, Robert T. Talley, Jr., Ning Wang, Paul Hawkins, Michael Fischer, Alvin A. Lee, Diane Piccitto, Mark Ittensohyn, Alexander Dick, Thomas Willard, Ian MacRae, Michael Demson, Jo Carruthers, Mark Knight, Andrew Tate, Suzanne P. Stetkevych, Franklin Lewis, Paul Losensky, Peter Matthews Wright, Garry Sherbert, Adam Carter, Manuel Jofré, Troni Y. Grande, Kevin Godbout, John Ayre, Jeffery Donaldson, Melissa Dalgleish, Oana Fotache Dubalaru, Craig Stephenson, Tjirk van der Ziel, and Tom Miller. The papers by Bringhurst, Balfour, Teskey, Dolzani, Tally, Sherbert, Dick, Willard, Ittensohn, Carter, Grande, and Chamberlin were published in Educating the Imagination: Northrop Frye, Past, Present, and Future, ed. Alan Bewell, Neil Ten Kortenaar, and Germaine Warkentin (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens UP, 2015).

Some of the papers presented in each of these gatherings have taken advantage to greater or lesser degrees of Frye’s notebooks, diaries, and unpublished papers, student essays, and correspondence, material that now accounts for thirteen of the twenty-nine volumes of the Collected Works, and in so doing they have often revealed features of Frye’s thinking not previously available. It seems likely that as this material comes to be assimilated by those interested in Frye’s achievement, new dimensions of his thought will come to light. I list the conferences and symposia as a way of indicating that the interest in Frye’s criticism, contrary to pronouncements here and there, has not abated. In any event, much of what I write about in the essays that follow draws liberally from the previously unpublished material, and much of what I say could not have been said with only Frye’s published books and articles in front of me. With the Collected Works now completed—and available in electronic editions—it is possible to track down with relative ease all the references in the corpus to a given person or topic.

My own books and articles on Frye go back now more than forty years, and I have occasionally lifted sentences, even paragraphs, from them. In this respect I am following in the footsteps of Frye, who freely borrowed from what he had previously written. No significance should be attached to the order of the essays, which is simply chronological, following the birthdates of the individual subjects.

Frye is an expansive, subtle, complicated, and challenging thinker. There have been fifty-eight books devoted entirely to his criticism, thirty-seven of which have been published since the time of the Australian seminar, and he figures importantly in well over 2,750 essays and more than 930 theses and dissertations.2 The continuing response to his work has been recorded in The Northrop Frye Handbook (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland and Co., 2012). Much, however, remains to be discovered and explained and evaluated. We have hardly begun to explore, for example, the riches contained in the thousands upon thousands of annotations in the books of Frye’s personal library. But the greatest sources for new discoveries and revisionary understanding are the notebooks, diaries, student essays, correspondence, and previously unpublished articles. In Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World (2004) and in Northrop Frye and Others: Twelve Writers Who Helped Shape His Thinking (2015) I used these materials extensively, and I do so again in the present collection, with the hope that these essays will spur others to follow similar lines of inquiry into that half of the Frye canon which has not yet been sufficiently mined.

To understand the relationship between Frye and, say, Shakespeare, Blake, Milton, or Eliot one has a coherent body of writing to examine, and in the case of these four writers a book, or for Shakespeare four books. Then there are numerous essays and reviews by Frye about each of these writers: thirteen for Shakespeare, twenty-two for Blake, five for Milton, and fifteen for Eliot. For a number of writers who were important for Frye there is, then, a substantial body of writing from which to infer influences, relations, parallels, and other connections. But for the writers in the Frye and Others essays, what Frye wrote about each is most of the time quite meagre and is scattered throughout the twenty-nine volumes of his published and previously unpublished work. The way I proceeded was to isolate all the references in Frye’s work to a given thinker and put them in a separate computer file. I would then note certain thematic clusters that emerged. The topic of these clusters would most often become the titles of the subsections of a given essay. I would usually begin the essay by noting what Frye had read of each of the writers as best this can be determined, paying attention to the books in his own library, particularly the annotated ones. The procedure I followed was not so much a method as it was a process: here is everything Frye had to say about a given thinker, here is one way of organizing the thematic clusters in what he had to say, and here are the conclusions about the influences on his work or at least about parallel modes of thought.

“The order of words” is a phrase that serves as a kind of shorthand signature for Frye’s lifetime project. In Anatomy of Criticism he writes:

It is clear that criticism cannot be a systematic study unless there is a quality in literature which enables it to be so. We have to adopt the hypothesis, then, that just as there is an order of nature behind the natural sciences, so literature is not a piled aggregate of “works,” but an order of words. A belief in an order of nature, however, is an inference from the intelligibility of the natural sciences; and if the natural sciences ever completely demonstrated the order of nature they would presumably exhaust their subject. Similarly, criticism, if a science, must be totally intelligible, but literature, as the order of words which makes the science possible, is, so far as we know, an inexhaustible source of new critical discoveries, and would be even if new works of literature ceased to be written. (CW 22: 18–19; AC 17)

For Frye there is a temporal order, which manifests itself in the myths and modes of literature, and a spatial order, which reveals itself in the metaphors, symbols, and images of literature. These manifestations, in fact, apply to all uses of language. That there is an order of words is most clearly seen in the fulsome taxonomy of conventions set forth in Anatomy of Criticism. It is in that book, where “the order of words” is a refrain sounded throughout, that Frye speaks of the order of words in the context of memorable literary experiences:

In the greatest moments of Dante and Shakespeare, in, say The Tempest or the climax of the Purgatorio, we have a feeling of converging significance, the feeling that here we are close to seeing what our whole literary experience has been about, the feeling that we have moved into the still centre of the order of words. Criticism as knowledge, the criticism which is compelled to keep on talking about the subject, recognizes the fact that there is a centre of the order of words. (CW 22: 109; AC 117–18)

Frye does not gainsay the uniqueness of any verbal construct, literary or otherwise. But his interest is in making connections among these constructs, in showing how, in his familiar formulation, literature is made out of other literature. Frye is among our greatest analogical thinkers. He is forever pursuing connections among things, and one of his favorite words to describe this pursuit is “links”—both as a verb and a noun. He favors the inclusiveness of a both/and approach to the restrictions of either/or thinking. This means that Frye is also an interdisciplinary thinker. One of the things the present collection of essays reveals is just how expansively Frye casts his net, for here we find him engaging the order of words beyond the literary—the words of religious, philosophical, political, anthropological, critical, social, and mystical thinkers.

“Nietzsche’s remark,” Frye writes, “that it’s hard to get rid of God as long as we believe in grammar does contain a genuine intuition, silly as it sounds. There’s no reason I can see to want to ‘get rid of God,’ and grammar isn’t a thing one believes in; but I have always made an order of words part of my thinking, and have always suspected that my ‘verbal universe’ was the creation” (CW 5: 227). One of the fullest descriptions of this verbal universe is the theory of language developed in the first chapter of “The Order of Words,” part 1 of The Great Code. The order of words throws the emphasis on the communal rather than the individual. “The poet,” Frye writes, “manifests what is already latent in the order of words, and every work of art is the focus of a community, again an antecedent community formed by the traditions and conventions of culture” (CW 4: 259). The order of words means that the products of the imagination form a coherent field of study.

The first chapter of this book is a preliminary examination of what Frye learned from two Mahayana Buddhist sutras—the Lankavatara Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra. In Sanskrit “sutra,” literally a string or thread, has come to refer to a set of aphorisms or rules on a particular subject. In Buddhism, “sutra” more broadly means canonical scriptures. The earliest specific reference to the content of the sutras in Frye’s work is in a 1949 diary entry in which, after having met with his student Peter Fisher for one of their weekly dialogues, Frye records their discussion of the Pratyekabuddha, the lone or private Buddha, who does not need a teacher to achieve enlightenment (CW 8: 172). Fisher identified the Pratyekabuddha with the philosopher-king, and Frye points out how contemporary examples of the Pratyekabuddha (the pope, the king, President Eisenhower) are detached from society. He then reports that he said, “The Lankavatara suggests that the Pratyekabuddha is attached to his detachment: ‘that’s why he can also be a hermit’” (ibid.).3 Had it not been for Peter Fisher, it seems unlikely that Frye would have come to incorporate into his own thinking such ideas from the Lankavatara as paravritti (turning around or reversal) and cittamatra (mind-only or consciousness-only). One of Frye’s insistent themes in his late work is that the possession of the myths and metaphors created by the imagination can lift us to higher states of consciousness or at least expand our consciousness. In making these claims Frye no doubt had the notion of cittamatra, encountered years before in the Buddhist text, in the back of his mind.

The central concept that Frye derived from the Avatamsaka Sutra is the idea of interpenetration. There were a half-dozen sources for this seminal idea, including Oswald Spengler, A. N. Whitehead, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and David Bohm, but the primary one was the Avatamsaka Sutra. There is no concept more important to the development of the spiritual vision that emerges in Frye’s late work than interpenetration and no source for that idea more important than the Avatamsaka Sutra.

In the mid-1980s Frye registered his intention to write a book, framed by characters from “the four early 16th c. books that define the nature of Renaissance secular society”: the prince (Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince), the courtier (Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier), the statesman (Thomas More’s Utopia), and the fool (Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly) (CW 5: 178). Frye did manage to write essays on Castiglione and More,4 but he never got around to the ones on Erasmus or Machiavelli. What might he have said had he written the essay on Machiavelli? Or what was it in Machiavelli that Frye thought deserving of our attention and would thus help account for the numerous references in his notebooks and elsewhere to the political theory in The Prince? Those are the questions posed by the chapter 2, on Machiavelli, which examines the meaning of “Machiavellian” during the Renaissance, as well as the significance of virtù and hypocrisy as principles of action.

Chapter 3 is on another Renaissance giant, François Rabelais, the writer, according to Frye, “who most clearly grasped all the dimensions of language and verbal communication” (CW 6: 458). The chapter begins with a discussion of Gargantua and Pantagruel as an anatomy, looks at what Frye means by “prose rhythm” in Rabelais, and glances at the allegory behind his giant characters. It concludes by considering how Gargantua and Pantagruel helps us to understand Frye’s enigmatic “Seattle illumination,” which involves the no less enigmatic movement from oracle to wit. The first volume of Rabelais’s classic—Pantagruel—was published in 1532, the same year that The Prince appeared.

The third Renaissance writer whose relationship with Frye I examine, Jacob Boehme, began writing his first book in 1600, but his major works appeared in the early 1620s. The attention Frye accords Boehme enables us to examine in chapter 4 certain mystical and esoteric thematics that appear rarely in Frye’s published work but are widespread throughout his notebooks. The Renaissance survey course Frye taught at University of Toronto’s Victoria College, English 2i, included a substantial number of writers who were not English, including Rabelais, Castiglione, Erasmus, and Machiavelli. Although Boehme appears not to have been on the syllabus for this class, Frye read Boehme when he was studying Blake in the 1930s and 1940s. He was drawn to Boehme not simply because Blake had read him but because, like Blake, Boehme was a visionary who had come from the left-wing Protestant traditions of the inner light. For all of the difficulties that the form and content of this unlettered cobbler’s prose caused for Frye, he and Boehme were nevertheless spiritual comrades. On the last page of the final chapter of Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, Frye writes, “It has been said of Boehme that his books are like a picnic to which the author brings the words and the reader the meaning. The remark may have been intended as a sneer at Boehme, but it is an exact description of all works of literary art without exception” (CW 14: 414; FS 427–8).

Frye was familiar with Hegel from his student days, but it was not until he read A. V. Miller’s translation of Phenomenology of Spirit (1977) that Hegel became his chief philosophical hero, even more important than Whitehead had been in his early days. Two brief passages from the Late Notebooks indicate Frye’s high opinion of Hegel’s Phenomenology:

The rush of ideas I get from Hegel’s Phenomenology is so tremendous I can hardly keep up with it. (CW 6: 631)

If Hegel had written his Phenomenology in mythos-language instead of in logos-language a lot of my work would be done for me. (CW 5: 192)

Chapter 5 seeks to explain the central thing Frye took from Hegel, the dialectical process known as Aufhebung, a process containing a triple pun: cancelling, preserving, and lifting up. The importance of this process in Frye’s late work came to me in a eureka moment when I was writing Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World. It suddenly became apparent to me that this process was at work at the end of all eight chapters of Frye’s Words with Power, and at the end of the four chapters of The Double Vision as well. I realized swiftly and unexpectedly that the dialectical opposites Frye had introduced in each of these chapters were cancelled and then lifted to another level. Chapter 5 traces the contours of Frye’s appropriation of this process and several other aspects of his Hegelian debt.

The nineteenth-century British thinkers were central in the development of Frye’s social, political, religious, and literary ideas. In one of his notebooks for Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays he remarks that he is contemplating a series of five studies in Victorian thought—“something to work on at odd moments” (CW 23: 120). The candidates for inclusion are Edmund Burke, J. S. Mill, Jeremy Bentham, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Morris, Samuel Butler, John Ruskin, John Henry Newman, Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and Charles Kingsley. This project never came to fruition, though late in his career Frye did write separate studies of Morris and Butler: “The Meeting of Past and Future in William Morris” (CW 17: 307–25; MM 322–39) and “Some Reflections on Life and Habit” (CW 17: 341–53; MM 141–54). And he did write a major essay on a number of the nineteenth-century thinkers just mentioned: “The Problem of Spiritual Authority in the Nineteenth Century” (CW 17: 271–86; StS 241–56). He begins that essay by saying, “The aspect of Victorian literature represented by such names as Carlyle, Mill, Newman, and Arnold seems to me one of the seminal developments in English culture.” He adds, in what seems not to be hyperbole, that the Victorian prose writers ranked “with Shakespeare and Milton, if not in literary merit, at least in many other kinds of importance. This is mainly because of the extraordinary fertility and suggestiveness of the educational theories it [sic] was so largely concerned with” (CW 17: 271; StS 241).

Of the three nineteenth-century figures considered in the present volume—Coleridge, Carlyle, and Mill—the last two were central players in the course in Nineteenth-Century Thought (English 4k) that Frye taught for a number of years. So far as I can determine, Coleridge was not on the course syllabus, but Burke was. Frye was an equal-opportunity teacher and critic, making space for conservative, even reactionary, social and religious thinkers alongside the liberal ones, such as Mill.

One can understand why Frye was so intrigued by Coleridge’s great work on the Logos, because he himself had grandiose plans for his own great work, the book that was to follow Fearful Symmetry and Anatomy of Criticism. He called it his “Third Book,” and he devoted four notebooks to sketching its form and content, part of which was to develop his own Logos vision. There are more than fifty references to the Logos in The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 1964–1972: The Critical Comedy. Coleridge kept announcing that his own book on the Logos was forthcoming, but, like Frye’s “Third Book,” it never appeared. For Frye, the Logos was always positioned at the top of his order-of-words diagrams, opposite Thanatos at the bottom. It included at least four thematic clusters:

One, the Shekinah, or revealed presence of God, symbolized by the sun. Two, the musico-mathematical vision of intelligible order symbolized (among other things) by dance, correspondence & the music of the spheres. Three, the apocalyptic consolidation of metaphors, or the pulled-up chain of being, contained in the city. Four, the point of epiphany, which includes the earthly paradise as a female body and the penseroso dark night. (CW 9: 214)

Frye confesses that his conception of the Logos turns out to be “hopelessly chaotic” (ibid.). What he is able to rescue from the Logos as part of the Third Book ends up as the dialogue of Word and Spirit in Words with Power. In any event, Coleridge and Frye are linked both by their intention to deliver a definitive treatise and by their inability to pull it off. Chapter 6 explores this matter, as well as the theory that both writers held about the re-creative power of the imagination.

Frye is much taken by the metaphor of clothes in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus—the paradox that what conceals also reveals—but otherwise Frye critiques Carlyle’s theories of the hero and heroism and of symbolism. They both agree on the importance of creative work, though Carlyle has no theory of leisure that would permit the creative work to flourish. These issues are explored in chapter 7.

In reply to a correspondent about the influence of J. S. Mill on his thinking, Frye said that of all the writers on the syllabus of Nineteenth-Century Thought, Mill was the person who most interested him. Chapter 8 traces this influence, which is mostly a matter of Mill’s liberal political views—the tyranny of the majority, minority rights, and freedom of thought and expression. Mill clearly had an impact on Frye’s view of both the social order and education. He believed that Mill’s On Liberty, with its emphasis on freedom of thought as the essential principle that needs to be defended and safeguarded, ranked with Milton’s Areopagitica as a foundational document for cultural autonomy.

In a notebook from the mid-1960s Frye writes that whatever area of scholarship he turns to he is met by books written by wise women. He lists ten, including Jane Ellen Harrison. The other nine are Gertrude Rachel Levy, Maud Bodkin, Jessie Weston, Helen Flanders Dunbar, Madame Blavatsky, Frances Yates, Enid Welsford, Bertha Phillpotts, and Ruth Benedict (CW 9: 71).5 Harrison was a member of a group, active around 1890 to 1920, of like-minded classical scholars mainly from Cambridge, who were interested in ritual as the precursor of myth and drama, especially the ritual of the seasonal killings of the eniautos daimon, or the Year-King. She helped redirect classical studies away from the Homeric pantheon and toward religious rites. She was an unconventional scholar in that her views relied less on texts than on images, which she gathered from vase paintings, bas-reliefs, coins, tablets, and so on. Most commentators who have studied the Cambridge group agree that she was the primary force behind this loosely defined group.

Chapter 9 examines Frye’s knowledge of the Cambridge ritualists, the chief of whom were Sir James Frazer, F. M. Cornford, Gilbert Murray, and Harrison. Several of the papers Frye wrote as a theology student at Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto acknowledge their debt to the Cambridge school. Fifty years later, when Frye was working on Words with Power, the Cambridge anthropologists were less fashionable, but Frye was never one to pay much attention to the winds of fashion. He writes in one of his notebooks from the 1980s, “Re the Cambridge Classicists—Frazer, Cornford, Murray, Harrison—critics are lazy, and can’t hold things in their minds that aren’t in vogue. It’s an easy step from ‘I forget the stuff’ to ‘that stuff’s out of date.’ It’s a still shorter step from there to ‘well, it must have been discredited by somebody’” (CW 5: 177). What was not discredited for Frye was Harrison’s thesis that the sympathetic magic associated with Dionysos eventually became a ritual song, no longer seen as efficacious for the growing of crops, but sung at the festival of the winter solstice. Chapter 9 traces Frye’s appropriation of the ritual arguments of Harrison, herself a Dionysian spirit, and the way these arguments spill over into the Third Essay of Anatomy of Criticism.

Chapter 10 differs from the other nine in that its focus is on a series of letters Frye received from Elizabeth Fraser, a pipe-smoking, bohemian graphic artist, during the two years he studied at Merton College, Oxford (1936–37 and 1938–39). Frye had made her acquaintance during a casual encounter at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario), and they spent a good deal of time with each other, especially during Frye’s first year at Oxford. My purpose is not to explore the intellectual or creative influences they might have had on each other or to examine the parallels between their ways of thinking—information about those things is rather scant—but rather to lay out what information we do have about their relationship. This is made difficult by our having only Fraser’s side of the correspondence and by the frequently disjointed nature of her prose, where the connections, allusions, and the identities of people who weave their way in and out of her letters often remain mysterious and come to us as a 1930s version of text-messaging. Still, by reproducing Fraser’s side of the correspondence in its entirety, it is possible to answer, at least in part, the question: who was Elizabeth Fraser? The focus of chapter 10, then, is, unlike that of the other nine chapters, biographical. Fraser has no inhibitions in writing to Frye about anything, and my own conclusion about the relationship is that it was not platonic. But readers can decide that matter for themselves. I should add that I have no corroborating evidence about their relationship.

“Frye and Hegel” appeared earlier in the University of Toronto Quarterly 83, no. 4 (Fall 2014): 1780–1802, and “Frye and Niccolò Machiavelli” was previously published in Quaderni d’italianistica 35, no. 1 (2014): 41–53. I thank the editors of those journals for permission to reprint these essays. Permission to reproduce the letters of Elizabeth Fraser to Frye has been granted by the Victoria University Library (Toronto). These letters are in the Helen Frye Fonds, 1.1 General Correspondence, 1991 accession, box 3, file 1. An earlier version of these letters appeared on the Frye blog “The Educated Imagination,” hosted by McMaster University and maintained by Professor Joseph Adamson: https://macblog.mcmaster.ca/fryeblog/.

I thank my editor at the University of Ottawa Press, Dominike Thomas, for shepherding the manuscript through the submission and evaluation process, and I thank the two readers she secured for their perceptive and thorough reviews. I thank as well the production manager, Elizabeth Schwaiger, the copy editor, Alicia Peres, and the Publications Committee of the Awards to Scholarly Publications Program for a grant that made possible the publication of this volume.

In the quotations from Frye’s previously unpublished papers I have regularized his use of periods and commas within quotation marks, according to standard North American practice, and I have italicized words and phrases he has underlined. I have not called attention to any of the minor corrections that Frye himself made on both the holograph and typed manuscripts, and I have silently corrected the few obvious typographical mistakes in Frye’s typescripts. Otherwise, my aim has been to reproduce the text exactly as Frye wrote it, which means that I have let stand variant and sometimes erratic spellings.

In-text citations are to the Collected Works of Northrop Frye (CW). When the passage cited can also be found in one of Frye’s books, that reference is provided immediately following the CW reference, making it easier for readers who do not have access to the Collected Works to locate cited passages in other volumes. Abbreviations for the CW volumes and for Frye’s other books are given in the two lists that follow.

Abbreviations and Short Titles for Northrop Frye’s Collected Works, Selected Letters, Uncollected Prose, and Northrop Frye’s Lectures

CW 1 = The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1932–1935. Vol. 1. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1996.

CW 2 = The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1936–1939. Vol. 2. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1996.

CW 3 = Northrop Frye’s Student Essays, 1932–1938. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1997.

CW 4 = Northrop Frye on Religion. Ed. Alvin A. Lee and Jean O’Grady. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000.

CW 5 = The first of two volumes of Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1982–1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000.

CW 6 = The second of two volumes of Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1982–1990: Architecture of the Spiritual World. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000.

CW 7 = Northrop Frye’s Writings on Education. Ed. Jean O’Grady and Goldwin French. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2000.

CW 8 = The Diaries of Northrop Frye, 1942–1955. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2001.

CW 9 = The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 1964–1972: The Critical Comedy. Ed. Michael Dolzani. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2001.

CW 10 = Northrop Frye on Literature and Society, 1936–1989. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002.

CW 11 = Northrop Frye on Modern Culture. Ed. Jan Gorak. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002.

CW 12 = Northrop Frye on Canada. Ed. Jean O’Grady and David Staines. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003.

CW 13 = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2003.

CW 14 = Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Ed. Nicholas Halmi. Intro. Ian Singer. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004.

CW 15 = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance. Ed. Michael Dolzani. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2004.

CW 16 = Northrop Frye on Milton and Blake. Ed. Angela Esterhammer. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2005.

CW 17 = Northrop Frye’s Writings on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Ed. Imre Salusinszky. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2005.

CW 18 = “The Secular Scripture” and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1976–1991. Ed. Joseph Adamson and Jean Wilson. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2006.

CW 19 = The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. Ed. Alvin A. Lee. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2006.

CW 20 = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Renaissance Literature. Ed. Michael Dolzani. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2006.

CW 21 = “The Educated Imagination” and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1933–1963. Ed. Germaine Warkentin. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2006.

CW 22 = Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2006.

CW 23 = Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism.” Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007.

CW 24 = Interviews with Northrop Frye. Ed. Jean O’Grady. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2008.

CW 25 = Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings. Ed. Robert D. Denham and Michael Dolzani. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007.

CW 26 = Words with Power: Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature.” Ed. Michael Dolzani. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2008.

CW 27 = “The Critical Path” and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1963–1975. Ed. Eva Kushner and Jean O’Grady. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2009.

CW 28 = Northrop Frye’s Writings on Shakespeare and the Renaissance. Ed. Garry Sherbert and Troni Y. Grande. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010.

CW 29 = Northrop Frye on Twentieth-Century Literature. Ed. Glen Robert Gill. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010.

Selected Letters = Northrop Frye: Selected Letters, 1934–1991. Ed. Robert D. Denham. West Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland and Co., 2009.

Uncollected Prose = Northrop Frye’s Uncollected Prose. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2015.

Northrop Frye’s Lectures = Northrop Frye’s Lectures: Student Notes from His Courses, 1947–1955. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholar’s Publishing, 2016.



Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.


Northrop Frye on Culture and Literature: A Collection of Review Essays. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978.


The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1971.


Creation and Recreation. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1980.


The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991.


The Educated Imagination. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964.


Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963.


Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947.


Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1967.


The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.


The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare’s Problem Comedies. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1983.


Myth and Metaphor: Selected Essays, 1974–1988. Ed. Robert D. Denham. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990.


Northrop Frye in Conversation (with David Cayley). Concord, ON: Anansi, 1992.


Northrop Frye on Shakespeare. Ed. Robert Sandler. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1986.


A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearian Comedy and Romance. New York: Columbia UP, 1965.


On Education. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1988.


The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton’s Epics. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1975.


Reading the World: Selected Writings, 1935–1976. Ed. Robert D. Denham. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.


The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1976.


Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976.


A Study of English Romanticism. New York: Random House, 1968.


The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism and Society. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1970.


Words with Power: Being a Second Study of the Bible and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.


The Well-Tempered Critic. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1963.


Frye and the Mahayana Sutras

Northrop Frye was always forthright in acknowledging the significance of the “mythological framework” he inherited. He was inescapably conditioned, he says, by the “cultural envelope” of the classical and Christian traditions of Western culture; the Methodist heritage of his upbringing; and his white, male, middle-class identity. The antifoundationalists, along with others more interested in difference than identity, refer fashionably to this commonplace as a social construction. The implication has often been that Frye is unable to step outside his own Western conditioning to take a broader and more inclusive view of things, so that what we end up with is an insular, ethnocentric, and outmoded structure of thought. Thus, Jonathan Culler’s attack on Frye for being a dogmatic religious ideologue (1327) and Terry Eagleton’s for his being a middle-class liberal and Christian humanist (199–200). While there can be no doubt that Frye is rooted in the tradition of Western liberal humanism in its classical and Christian forms, his notebooks and diaries reveal that he was more influenced by Eastern thought than is commonly imagined and therefore able not simply to engage worlds outside his own cultural envelope but to assimilate their religious principles into his own world view.


Frye’s readers will be aware of the occasional references to the religion and culture of the East—from his comments on Zen Buddhism in Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake at the beginning of his career to those on Eastern techniques of meditation in his posthumous The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion—but no one would take such occasional comments as significant features of Frye’s grand vision. In the Anatomy of Criticism one runs across references to such classical Eastern works as the Brihadaranyaka and Chandoga Upanishads, Chinese romances, the Noh musical drama of Japan, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, Chinese and Japanese lyric poetry, and Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji,6 and Frye makes an occasional comment on the East-West connection in his other books. In A Study of English Romanticism, for example, he calls attention to the similarity between Shelley’s use of “interpenetration” in A Defence of Poetry and the apocalyptic visions of the Eastern poets (CW 17: 201; SR 160).

But in most cases Frye is using these texts for purposes of illustration only, and if they were removed from his argument nothing much would be lost. Sometimes Eastern literature has a more functional role to play in his argument, as in his use of Cao Xueqin’s The Dream of the Red Chamber (dated to the eighteenth century) and Kalidasa’s Sakuntala (dated some time between first century BCE and fourth century CE) in The Secular Scripture (CW 18: 72 and 68, 71, 97; SeS 108–9 and 103, 107, 147). But in his published work it is clear that Eastern literature is not at all fundamental to Frye’s criticism. Similarly, with Eastern religion and philosophy: there are scores of references to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism scattered throughout Frye from Fearful Symmetry to the two books on the Bible, but here Frye’s interest is primarily in the occasional analogue; Eastern religion and philosophy lie on the periphery of his major concerns.

In the notebooks, however, the attraction that the East holds for Frye is considerably less marginal. Notebook 3, for example, contains extensive entries on the path of Patanjali’s Eightfold Yoga, which Frye turns to in order “to codify a program of spiritual life” for himself (CW 13: 38). He also writes about other forms of yoga: Bhakti Yoga, the path to the devout love of god, and Jnana Yoga, the path of abstract knowledge. On the verso of the flyleaf of Notebook 3 is the neatly written entry “Paravritti of July 26/46”—paravritti, Sanskrit for “the highest wave of thought,” meaning the complete conversion of the mind.7 Frye defines it in different ways: “epistemological apocalypse,” “Wiederkehr [return],” “the descent & return through the vortex,” the “reversal of the current… the notion inherent in conversion,” a “revolutionary leap of sudden deliverance,” “the regaining of liberty,” and a “turning around.”8 Paravritti is another way Frye tries to capture the sense of apocalyptic reversal and recognition. Notebook 3 also has entries on Bardo, the “in-between” state in Tibetan Buddhism that connects the death of individuals with the rebirth that follows—an idea that fascinated Frye from the time he first read The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Frye was aware of the dangers of what he called the “cleaned-up versions” of Eastern religion, the kind that issue from extracting yoga or Zen from its own culture, and he kept in mind Coleridge’s principle that we can distinguish where we cannot divide, meaning that he could differentiate, for example, between the Logos vision of Christianity and the Thanatos vision of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism (the “Oriental big three,” as he calls them), and Confucianism. The Eastern religions have no clear sense of the resurrected spiritual body, of a personal god, or of the existential transformation that is found in Christianity outside its institutional forms. The focus of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism is rather on what Frye calls the “evaporation” of the soul (CW 13: 180). Again, while there is a parallel between Jesus and the humble hero of the Tao Te Ching, “the supreme sacrifice of dying for the people does not appear to be anything that would appeal to a Taoist” (CW 4: 225–6; DV 73–4). Frye makes no effort to reconcile these differences. Still, he claimed that we can “learn infinitely and indefinitely from Oriental religions” (CW 24: 1018). His personal library contained forty-four books on Eastern philosophy and religion, forty-two of which have his marginal markings and annotations. Frye learned a great deal from three very different traditions of Mahayana Buddhism (the sutras, Zen, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead), from Hinduism (Patanjali’s yoga and Kundalini), and from Taoism and Confucianism. The most important of these, I believe, were the Mahayana sutras, and we turn now to explore Frye’s interest in these sutras. Notebook 3, just mentioned, includes several extended reflections on the Lankavatara Sutra, a key text for Frye’s understanding of interpenetration, which turns out to be a bedrock idea in his religious thinking.


Frye was familiar with several of the Mahayana sutras. As noted in the Introduction, “sutra” refers to sacred scriptures. Frye annotated his own copies of the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra,9 and he refers to the sutra on the void. But the first two are never mentioned in the notebooks, and the sutra on the void is referred to in Notebook 3 only in passing (CW 13: 65).10 The Lankavatara and the Avatamsaka Sutras, however, appear with some regularity in the notebooks and diaries. The Lankavatara Sutra (“Sutra on the Descent to Sri Lanka”) is a Mahayana Buddhist text that stresses inner enlightenment, the erasing of all dualities, the concept of emptiness, and the truth of cittamatra, “mind only” or “consciousness only.” The author and the date of composition of the Lankavatara are unknown, though some think it was compiled in the first century CE. The Avatamsaka Sutra is an extravagant and often ponderous text that stresses the identity of all things or the interpenetration of all elements in the world.11 Its author is likewise unknown, though some think it was composed in several stages, beginning as early as five hundred years after the death of Buddha. The Avatamsaka is the only Mahayana text Frye ever mentions in his published work. But there are forty-eight entries in the diaries and notebooks where he records his observations on the Lankavatara and the Avatamsaka Sutras. For all their complexity12 these sutras became for Frye, as he says in one notebook, “vade mecums of practical meditation” (CW 6: 714). Both sutras advance a form of absolute idealism, which has a Western analogue in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but the Avatamsaka presents it in a mode that is often concrete and metaphoric, whereas the Lankavatara favours an abstract, almost Hegelian mode over the symbolic one.13

Sometimes Frye seems to regard what he finds in the sacred texts of the East as analogies of Western ideas, as when he observes that the Protestant conception of conversion, different from the straight line of Dante’s Commedia or the parabola of rise and descent in tragedy, is like the vortex of transformation that he finds in the Lankavatara: they are not identical, but they “point in the same direction” (CW 13: 21). Similarly, Frye sees in the miraculous power that often accompanies Eastern enlightenment an analogue of the miracles in the New Testament (CW 4: 211; DV 56) and of Christian salvation without all of the legalism that was never purged from the doctrine (CW 19: 125; GC 105–6). At other times Eastern and Western conceptions seem to be practically identical for Frye. In the Buddhist conception of maya (the illusion of the phenomenal world which the unenlightened mind takes as the only reality) he finds both an affirmation and a denial of the law of noncontradiction, and he remarks that the “Christian conception of evil as the product of original sin & a fallen world is really exactly the same: the same combination of something that exists & yet cannot exist” (CW 13: 43–4). When identity rather than similarity underlies the East-West conjunction, the result is an insight that helps to define his own position: in such cases what he finds in the Mahayana sutras is constitutive.

Frye is wary of framing the connections in philosophical terms. He is attracted to the Lankavatara idea of cittamatra (mind-only), but he finds that it “suggests pantheism to a Western mind” and that its parallel doctrine of vijnaptimatra is “very like Platonic idealism.”14 Still, Frye recurs to the Yogacara doctrine of “mind only” throughout the notebooks, not simply because it corresponds well to his holistic view of apocalypse but also because it helps to define it. Citta means generally the storehouse of thoughts and actions, and specifically, when used in conjunction with matra, it is synonymous with alayavijnana, “storehouse consciousness,” or the fundamental consciousness of everything that exists. Frye’s knowledge of cittamatra is indebted to D. T. Suzuki’s technically intricate commentary, which comes down to this: cittamatra is both a psychological theory of the way the mind operates and an ontological and religious theory, the grasping of which enables one to get beyond dualistic ways of thinking.15 In the Buddhist citta, Frye writes in an essay on Jung, “the self becomes fully enlightened by realizing its identity with a total self, an indivisible unity of God, man, and the physical world” (CW 21: 206; CL 120). But Frye is more interested in the ontological and religious theory, the initial postulate of which is a spiritual unity that transcends logic and the opposites found in all forms of dialectic. In reflecting on a novel he wants to write, he identifies cittamatra with the goal of the apocalyptic quest: “Ever since I read Dante, I have been fascinated by the possibilities of the ascent or anabasis form (less by the Inferno, because so many others, like Orwell and Sartre & Koestler, have done that better than I can do). I think vaguely of seven or eight metamorphoses on various levels of the spiritual world that a dead man’s soul goes through, including a Utopia, a vision of Bardo, an apocalypse, and finally a withdrawal into the Lankavatara ‘mind itself’” (CW 8: 561). One of the goals of the apocalyptic quest is unified consciousness, and the emphasis on unity in cittamatra appeals more strongly to Frye than does the psychological thrust of the word, as we see in this extraordinary passage on the holism of total form, where the words “one” and “uni-” function like power-laden symbols of a secret mantra:

Anagogy begins with the postulate of the verbal universe & its corollary, the one word. Aristotle’s physics leads to the conception of one mover at the circumference of the world.… To make sense of the shape of any subject, you have to assume an omniscient mind. No one mind comprehends the whole of physics, but the subject wouldn’t hang together unless it were theoretically possible for one mind to comprehend it, all at once. And if there is such a thing as “the whole of” physics, the subject must have an objective unification at its circumference. This universal mind is not God, in any religious sense, for it doesn’t necessarily exist: it is necessary only as a hypothesis completing a human mental structure.… But the fact that the guarantor of all our knowledge is a universal mind, of which we can say only a) that we have no reason to suppose that it differs from other human minds except in the amount of knowledge it has, and b) that we have no reason to suppose that it “exists,” certainly makes a lot of sense of the Lankavatara Yogacara doctrine [of cittamatra]. Anyway, the point is that allegorized bodies of knowledge assume an objective single or total form. The musical universe leads to the one chord, the music of the spheres. The historical universe, or the universe of events, leads to the one event, or nature, that which is born, the one thing that is & has happened. The mathematical universe leads to the one number, or as we should say the one equation, which is what Pythagoreanism was all about. The philosophical universe leads to the Form of Forms, the One Idea. Similarly, literature, the verbal universe, leads to the One Word. I don’t know yet how many of these universes there are, or how few they can be reduced to. Thus biology leads to one organism. Blake’s Polypus, & Samuel Butler’s known God, the anima mundi who in Browne is the Holy Spirit, at the circumference of the biological universe. But that seems to disappear in the physical universe, where the one form is nature, the one organism plus the one environment. Also, where does the difference between the descriptive & the hypothetical disciplines come in? I’ve found only the word & the number. Nonsense: there’s a musical universe, & there should be a pictorial & a sculptural one & an architectural one, though the last three seem to disappear into the One Man who is one building. Certainly it’s important that all social & political questions disappear in the One Man.… Chemistry, the analysis of the mixture of elements, lead[s] to one element at the circumference of the universe, in other words quintessence. This, if we identify quintessence with the elixir, which shouldn’t be too hard, was the point about alchemy. Many of these one-form structures are superstitions, i.e., premature, but the development of modern sciences is in the direction of their original vision. (CW 23: 132–3; emphasis added).

This is Frye’s reading of cittamatra. In the Lankavatara, cittamatra is the discarding of all discrimination in spiritual discipline, which, for Suzuki, is the ultimate goal of the Lankavatara.16 In the passage just quoted Frye extends the principle to everything in the verbal universe.


In the Lankavatara the Buddha denies any number of dualities with repetitive insistence (for example, to select from a large catalogue of oppositions: birth and no-birth, being and nonbeing, oneness and otherness, bothness and not-bothness, existence and nonexistence, perceived and perceiving, evolution and cessation, individuality and generality, different and not-different). “The gate of highest reality,” declares the Buddha in the Lankavatara, “has nothing to do with the two forms of thought-construction [subject and object].”17

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