The Double Vision

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion by Northrop Frye

Frye The Double Vision

The subtitle of The Double Vision is misleading: it should have been Language and Meaning in Christianity (or perhaps in Biblical Religion, a phrase to which Frye resorts in its pages). He does advert briefly to Oriental “cults” imported into North America in the 20th century, and to the paganism of the ancient near east and Hellenistic antiquity, but only in order to frame his own religion. Considering the origins of the volume, such provincialism (not a word I expected to use of Frye!) is unsurprising; the original audience for this material were his fellow alumni of Emmanuel College, the theological faculty of Victoria University.

The four chapters were originally given as three lectures and a paper. The third chapter “The Double Vision of Time” is the best of the lot; I would be profoundly impressed to hear it given as a sermon. (Frye was an ordained minister of the Methodist-descended United Church of Canada, even if his only pulpit was in a university English department.) “The Double Vision of God” at the end is the worst. It is full of terribly wrongheaded historical claims, such as the one that the solar element only “enters Christendom with the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV of France.” (61) This badness is also unsurprising in light of Frye’s own earlier emphasis on the distinction between Weltgeschichte and Heilgeschichte

“That the literal basis of faith in Christianity is a mythical and metaphorical basis, not one founded on historical facts or logical propositions.” (17)

Frye’s strength is obviously in myth and metaphor, not history. The ambition of this book to make more accessible his earlier works on literary hermeneutics of the bible (The Great Code and Words with Power) is thus frustrated by his insistence on attempting to connect with the historical context of modern secular culture. There is considerable intellectual value in those earlier books from a critic who views the Bible “not as a source of doctrine but as a source of story and vision.” (3) But in The Double Vision, he is snared in a paradox, coming too close to repeating the very procedure he derides: “Most Protestantism … turned to history rather than metaphysics as an infrastructure for revelation.” (69) What is lost in the process is what made the revelation sacred, and the history that results tends toward the valorization of ignorance.