Frye's Bible and Postlapsarian Syntax

This piece has not previously been published. In October 1982 I sent it to the editor of English Studies in Canada, noting that recent issues of PMLA had been “enlivened by exchanges of letters,” and suggesting that the occasional printing of such notes might remind ESC authors that they have an interested and active readership. No dice: ESC's editorial board had decided “not to give space to exchanges of letters and notes of this sort,” and the editor's suggestion that the journal would be happy to assess in the normal way “any full-length essay of formal rebuttal” seemed disproportionate. But the preparation of this piece involved spending some pleasant hours with my colleague Moshe Starets, who generously led me through relevant passages of the Torah and of Moshe David Casuto's commentary.


Two aspects of Diane Tolomeo's review of Northrop Frye's Creation and Recreation in English Studies in Canada (June 1982, 245-48) call for comment. The first is a matter of naivety; the second, of scholarship.

One reads with surprise that Professor Frye's approach to much of the Bible as myth “will undoubtedly be offensive to some, who will not find it easy to agree with such assertions as: 'it is only when the creation story is considered factually false that it can be of any conceivable use to us.'” Dr. Tolomeo's remark belongs, I suspect, to that interesting category of self-evident truths which it is the duty of every responsible academic either to ignore, or to attempt to change. This book will indeed be read by some fundamentalists and born-again (recreated?) Creationists, and that such people will find parts of it disturbing is much to Frye's credit. It is, however, strange to find this predictable reaction presented as though it constituted a criticism of the book. Surely if one is going to take note of the reactions of people who are unaware of the most basic conclusions of modern biblical scholarship, it should be with the intention not of flattering their ignorance, but removing it.

I hasten to add that I share many of Dr. Tolomeo's reservations about this book, which seems at times a distinctly offhand performance; and I also have further reservations of my own. But the reviewer who (to borrow Dr. Tolomeo's disarming image) throws pebbles, after due hesitation, “at one of the giants of literary criticism,” has a certain obligation, given so large a target, to ensure that they hit it.

Elsewhere, in the same review, Frye is taken to task for his remark that in Genesis 3: 22-23 God's fear of the threat posed by mankind is “so great that he cannot even finish his sentence.” “This is an unfair blow to strike,” writes Dr. Tolomeo, for the Jerusalem Bible and “numerous other translations ... remove the faulty syntax” (247). In the Jerusalem Bible's version of these verses, which the reviewer quotes, God does indeed speak in a full sentence, rather than a fragment. It follows, apparently, that Frye's “conclusion about the 'threat' man poses to God seems unfounded. This is especially irresponsible because Frye does deal later on with the problem of translation and is fully aware of the need to capture the sense of a passage.”

These comments are strangely irrelevant—even, if you like, irresponsible. The King James Version's rendering of Genesis 3: 22-23, which Frye uses, reads as follows: “...Behold, the man is become one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden....”

The syntax of this passage (which is preserved in the Revised Standard Version) follows that of the Torah; so also does the text of the Latin Vulgate. The shift in the Hebrew text from an unfinished sequence of thought in direct speech to third-person narration may possibly be even more startling than it is in these translations. For the words Hen and veyata which the King James Version translates as “Behold” and “and now” are found elsewhere in biblical Hebrew, where their function, according to the commentator Moshe David Casuto, is to signal that the first of two linked sentences introduces what will be said in the second, while the second completes the pattern initiated in the first. A clear semantic signal, then, is overridden by the discontinuity of the text. One may very well decide that Professor Frye's interpretation of this discontinuity is eccentric, but it is hard to see what the Jerusalem Bible, or any other translation which sets out to alter the original syntax, has to do with the matter.

My comments may themselves appear irrelevant in a different sense, now that Creation and Recreation has served its function of whetting our appetites for The Great Code. But perhaps those of us who (like me) spend many of their waking hours wrestling in Grammar and Composition courses with the contorted syntax of the 1980s may derive some small comfort from this passage in Genesis. Here, after all, is the archetype and first ancestor of all sentence fragments—and consider its source! This particular feature of postlapsarian syntax may well be—like birth-pangs, toil, and mortality—something that we will have to learn to live with. To quote (out of context) two appropriately ambiguous lines from a poem by John Glassco:

So it happens, from time to time, 
The suspended sentence falling on us like a fist....