Ruins of the Ogdoad: Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Renaissance Literature

This essay, based on an assessment of Michael Dolzani's edition of Frye's Notebooks on Renaissance Literature that I wrote in 2004 at the request of University of Toronto Press, has not previously been published. My detailed comments on particular points of scholarship in the edition have been omitted: those comments, though they may have been of some use to the editor, could be of no further interest following the publication of his edition. On the other hand, my assessment of Frye's project as a whole was offered as no more than one particular critical response, with no suggestion that Dolzani's already excellent introduction needed to take account of such views as these.


Michael Dolzani’s magisterial edition of Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Renaissance Literature1 has made available, for the first time, six notebooks and five sets of typed notes on Renaissance literature and related subjects that were left by Northrop Frye among his papers. Dolzani divides these materials, in a manner suggested by the Guggenheim Fellowship application that Frye prepared in 1949, into three groupings: notes on Spenser and the epic tradition, notes on Shakespeare and the dramatic tradition from Old Comedy to the masque, and notes on lyric poetry and nonfiction prose. As he explains, these groupings correspond to the first three of eight projected volumes that Frye contemplated in the late 1940s as constituting an ogdoad, a magnum opus that would achieve a vast “synthesis of modern thought.”2

The term ogdoad has strong Neoplatonic, gnostic and mystical overtones, referring as it does to a zone above the seven planetary spheres, sometimes associated with a primordial divine pleroma or fullness, to which it has been the ambition of some mystics to ascend. In late antiquity the planetary spheres (of the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) were understood as linked with heimarmene, fate or destiny; and the ogdoad, or realm of the fixed stars, became thought of as the domain of the creative demiurgos who had shaped this realm and everything within it.3

The ogdoad concept was richly elaborated during the second century of the Common Era in the anthropological-theosophical speculations of the Valentinian gnostics, as a name for the first eight emanations within the originary divine fullness or pleroma: the “Firstborn Ogdoad, the root and foundation of all things.”4 Hermetic mystics of the same period, or a little later, thought of the ogdoadic region more simply as the realm into which humans who have recognized their own essentially divine nature ascend as they shed the afflictions of materiality and the senses, escape from unreasoning sleep, and rise through the imprisoning cosmic framework into a full realization of divinity. This process is explained in the Poimandres, the first dialogue or tractate of the Corpus Hermeticum; elaborated in the thirteenth tractate, the “Secret dialogue of Hermes Trismegistus on the mountain to his son Tat”; and repeated again in the “Discourse on the Ogdoad and Ennead” that figures among the texts discovered in the Nag Hammadi gnostic library.5

If Frye's overarching project thus carried recondite overtones, in its name at least, it was perhaps tinged as well—if one pauses to think about the oddity of trying to explain “modern thought” in its totality through literary analysis alone—with an element of heroic eccentricity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson could argue in 1850 that modern philosophy and thought have become “Shakespearized”—because Shakespeare

wrote the airs for all our modern music; he wrote the text of modern life; the text of manners: he drew the man of England and Europe; the father of the man in America; he drew the man, and described the day, and what is done in it: he read the hearts of men and women, their probity, and their second thoughts and wiles; … he knew the laws of repression which make the police of nature....6

The conceit is breathtaking—not least because, while appearing to offer a very large explanatory leverage, it may actually explain very little of anything.

In Emerson's view, the originality of the representative man stems from his saturation in the social processes of large collectivities—in this case, especially, an emergent individualistic subjectivity in which Emerson could find resonances with the speculative temper of his own time. (He wrote that “It was not until the nineteenth century, whose speculative genius is a sort of living Hamlet, that the tragedy of Hamlet could find such wondering readers.”)7 And yet, as Michael Bristol has noted, “apart from scattered observations of this kind Emerson shows no inclination whatever to interpret anything Shakespeare actually wrote.”8

As a literary scholar, one may feel a degree of sympathy with Frye's project of repeating the Emersonian gesture—on a grander scale—a century later. Emerson had imagined Shakespeare as effectively the demiurge of modernity, but Frye proposed to reveal what would amount to the full cosmology of modern thought through an ogdoadic synthesis of the generic encodings of literature as inherited and transposed by Shakespeare and his contemporaries and successors.

Where indeed might the literary scholar expect to find, if not in literature, the measure of modern thought? And yet, given the immense ramifications of modernity in the century between Emerson and Frye, the project cannot help but seem quixotic—and how much more so now, a further sixty years on?

Of course, the most salient feature of this project must be the fact that it never went beyond that stage—and was, moreover, left unmentioned by Frye in any of his published books and essays. The notebooks published by Dolzani in this volume contain preparatory materials for the first section of Frye’s ogdoad, three books which were to have provided a complete account “of literature up to about 1600,” or alternatively, of “the cultural and literary synthesis that culminated in the Renaissance and Reformation.”9 Since the project was abandoned—even though it underlies and is also in certain respects developed and superseded by Frye’s books from Anatomy of Criticism onward—we are also encountering here the fragments of what one might describe as an immense ruin.

One not very adequate analogy might be to the fragmentary thirteenth chapter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. That immensely long chapter, had it ever been written, would by Coleridge’s own account have been no more than a draft of his likewise never-written treatise on the Logosophia. In the letter “from a friend, whose practical judgement I have had ample reason to estimate and revere” that replaced the main body of this thirteenth chapter—a letter which, needless to say, Coleridge himself composed—the chapter is compared successively to “one of our largest Gothic cathedrals in a gusty moonlight night of autumn,” and then, more revealingly, to “the fragments of the winding steps of an old ruined tower.”10

An actual cathedral, the thirteenth-century duomo of Siena, may offer a more useful analogy—and contrast—to the disjunction between what Frye projected and what he achieved. Had plans laid in the early fourteenth century not been interrupted by the Black Death, Siena’s splendid existing cathedral would have become no more than the transept of an immensely larger structure—whose principal surviving traces are the great striding arches of what were intended as the walls of the nave, and the monumental proposed front of the new cathedral, from the top of which one looks across an empty plaza the size of an Olympic hockey rink to the roof and dome of the existing building.

One might say of Frye that the completed structure formed by his magisterial Anatomy and the books that followed it is likewise oriented in a direction transverse to that of the encompassing but never-written projections that would have enveloped and incorporated the lesser structure. In this case, however, the unfinished project came before the published works.

Whimsical though it might seem, this analogy raises what may be an interesting question. The expansion of the Siena duomo was interrupted by a sudden historical catastrophe; one may wonder whether what Dolzani calls the “evolutionary narrative” of Northrop Frye’s ogdoad project was in a more gradual manner blocked by a growing awareness on Frye’s part of contradictions between the historical metanarrative of his project and the movement of late twentieth-century history in directions which Frye’s social criticism of the late 1960s and early 1970s shows he found dismaying.

Dolzani quotes Frye as referring in an early published essay to the historical cycles described by Giambattista Vico in the early eighteenth century and by Oswald Spengler two centuries later—and as speculating that since the industrial revolution there may have been a larger evolutionary rhythm at work behind these cycles, something he hesitated to describe in terms of a “theory of progress,” but which nonetheless might be seen as “mak[ing] us, in the words of Wyndham Lewis, the cavemen of a new mental era.”11

But if the movement of history, as Jean-François Lyotard and others surmised in the 1970s, might rather be one that led during the twentieth century to the collapse of optimistic meta-narratives—among them the myth of progress, the so-called “Whig view of history,” and the post-Enlightenment faith in a progressive liberation of humankind from bondage to superstition, ignorance and tyranny12—then Lewis’s notion that we might be “cavemen of a new mental era” can, in retrospect, acquire a bleakly ironic meaning.

I believe Dolzani’s introduction rightly sees Frye’s work as “having historical affinities to the Renaissance and Reformation on the one hand and the Romantic revolution on the other, with Blake as a hinge between them.”13 Dolzani is right as well to quote from The Secular Scripture, as a central statement of principle, Frye’s view of “the mythological universe” as simultaneously “a human creation” and “something uncreated, something coming from elsewhere.”14 The difficult task Dolzani undertakes in his introduction of showing how Frye’s published and unpublished writings alike were “summoned into existence by a pre-existing imaginative framework”15 is an important one, since it involves giving a detailed account not just of Frye’s early intellectual development but also of the very complex structural articulations of Frye’s published books.

Frye’s understanding of Renaissance and Reformation cultural and intellectual history is both wildly schematic, and also, since it quietly elides all but the most obvious forms of conflict evident in the period, powerfully misleading. Nonetheless, Dolzani’s lucid presentation of the world-view that informs Frye’s notes on Renaissance literature offers certain pleasures: these stem in part from its echoes of the dry wit and lightly-worn but encyclopaedic learning that mark Frye’s own prose, and in part from what one might call its anagogic energy—its capacity, that is, to demonstrate linkages between various levels of meaning and the overarching structures that contain them.

At the conclusion of his introduction, Dolzani remarks on the curious absence from Frye’s Guggenheim proposal of any mention of “the prose form that Frye adopted as his own, the anatomy, whose greatest Renaissance example, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, gave him a name for the entire category.”16 Equally surprising is Frye’s abstention (to the best of my knowledge) from remarking at any point in his writings on the fact that Burton’s Anatomy actually exemplifies two quite distinct notions of ‘anatomy’.

The main body of Burton’s book anatomizes melancholy in the always potentially encyclopaedic sense of the Greek ana temnein, ‘to cut up’; but the long introductory letter of Democritus Junior to the reader is an anatomy in the alternative sense in which the term was applied to the anti-genre of Menippean satire. Oddly enough, some of the key works of that Renaissance “cosmopolitan humanist culture” to which as Dolzani notes Frye was powerfully attached—Henricus Cornelius Agrippa’s De vanitate and Desiderius Erasmus’s Moriae encomion among them—belong to or participate in that satirical anti-genre.17

This curious blindness offers an opening for counter-readings of Frye’s Renaissance notebooks that might, in the event, produce a reconfigured appreciation of his overall achievements. “Anatomy,” rather than ogdoad, became Frye’s term for the model in which he sought to frame a totalizing centred understanding of the workings of human imagination and thought. But within the period that provided Frye with the richest field of examples of his structural configurations, “anatomy” also referred to satirical counter-discourses that broke the rules of genre, decentring and dispersing claims to originary authority, whether spiritual or secular.

Perhaps within the term itself we can discover a pull between the impulse toward a grand analytical synthesis and the ruination of that project.




1  Michael Dolzani, ed., Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Renaissance Literature, Collected Works of Northrop Frye, vol. 20 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).

2  Ibid., p. ix.

3  See Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, trans. R. McL. Wilson et al. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 67-68.

4  Giovanni Filoramo, A History of Gnosticism, trans. Anthony Alcock (1990; rpt. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), pp. 63-67.

5  See Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a new translation, trans. Brian Copenhaver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 6-7 (C.H. I. 26-30) and 50-52 (C.H. XIII. 5-15); and “The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth” (VI, 6), in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. and trans. James M. Robinson et al. (3rd ed.; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), pp. 321-27.

6  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men, “V. Shakespeare; or, the Poet,” in Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1895), p. 192.

7  Ibid., p. 190.

8  Michael Bristol, Shakespeare's America, America's Shakespeare (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 127. (In this paragraph I am drawing on Bristol's analysis of Emerson's use of Shakespeare in pp. 123-28.)

9  Ibid., p. x.

10  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, or Biographical Sketches of my Literary Life and Opinions, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, (2 vols.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), vol. 1, pp. 300, 301, 302-03. I discussed this passage—and the interesting tendency of critics and anthologists of criticism to conceal from readers the fact that the famous conclusion to Coleridge’s deduction-from-first-principles of imagination (the “esemplastic” or unifying power) rests upon a palpable fiction and a splitting of his own voice—in Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars (Toronto: Anansi, 1996), pp. 174-81.

11  Frye's allusion to Wyndham Lewis occurs in "Two Books on Christianity and History," Canadian Forum 29 (September 1949): 139; the text is reproduced in Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, ed. Jan Gorak (Collected Works of Northrop Frye, vol. 11, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), p. 230.  

12  Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

13  Dolzani, p. xxiv.

14  Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), pp. 60-61; quoted by Dolzani, p. xxiv.

15  Dolzani, p. xxv.

16  Ibid., p. lii.

17  In the first paragraph of his introduction (p. xxi), Dolzani quotes Frye’s remark that Blake was seeking to revive “the great cosmopolitan humanist culture which arose in Europe between the Renaissance and the Reformation” (Fearful Symmetry: A Study of Blake [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947], p. 150). The most widely read works of the first three writers Frye cites as exemplars of that culture (Erasmus, Rabelais, and Cornelius Agrippa) are Menippean satires.