An Early Modern Phil Ochs

Since I read Anatomy of Criticism, I have been wondering how I could use Frye’s myth criticism, especially given that I’m skeptical of the idea of unified, transhistorical literary structure—whether of characters, genres, or stories. This is not a question, sadly, on which I make daily progress. But I do have two little thoughts, as a result of reading Surprised by Sin, about Frye’s approach.

1. Frye’s approach is, in effect, an invention of the Renaissance, and its technical name is “monomyth.” People like Milton used monomyth (or something very much like it—the word seems to have been coined later) to assimilate Greek myth and literature into the Christian scheme. If you love and respect Ovid, but you believe in Christian history and theology, it helps to identify the correspondences between the two and to identify the incarnated divine visits to Baucis and Philemon with, say, the annunciation scene. Obviously, at its core monomyth reflects some of the archetypal patterning of the Christian Bible, and its correspondences to the Hebrew Bible (which were used to retroactively read the Hebrew Bible christologically). But monomyth—the idea that all stories are at their heart one story, or parts of one—seems to have been spurred by the pressure to include extra-canonical voices (I don’t know if there’s work on whether the Age of Exploration played a role or not, but I would not be surprised).

In ways, these Early Modern assimilative desires also play themselves out in Frye’s work and context. Frye himself was ordained as a minister, and reading his books, you notice first of all the vast range of his references (all periods of literature, high and low, prose and poetry). Further, if Frank McConnell is to be believed, Frye appealed to students in the sixties in large part because, in opposition to the New Critical purism then “regnant,” Frye offered an inclusive, eclectic criticism. As scholars were just starting to tug at the seams of the canon, they needed an even vaster, more expansive monomyth.

2. I have no idea if these mythic threads are real, but they are ubiquitous. So, for instance, this morning, on my daily run, I was listening to Phil Ochs’s version of “The Ballad of The Carpenter,” Ewan MacColl’s politically radical retelling of Jesus’ life and death.

As you can tell from the title, the song foregrounds Jesus’ having been a worker, and he recounts the Passion as the story of a revolutionary (“he noticed how wealth and poverty / Live always side by side“) undermined by and betrayed to the “rich men.” I’ve always loved this song. But only this morning did I realize how deep its retelling goes.

The interpretive climax comes when, finding that the poor, among whom “Jesus walked,” won’t allow the Roman troops to “get near enough / To take him from behind,” the Romans find an alternate solution:

So they hired one of the traitors’ trade,
And an informer was he.
And he sold his brother to the butcher’s men
For a fistful of silver money.

The trick here is the oral closeness of “traitor” and “trader”—indeed, different versions of the lyrics have different readings here—which ties commerce, to exploitation of the poor workers. Jesus urges us to resist this betrayal: “If you will only stand as one, / This world belongs to you.” 

The reading of Jesus as advocate of the poor is, to my politics, all well and good. But I think that this song catches many of us in the kishkes in part because it accesses a particularly monomythical Christianity. That is because, as Fish points out, in Christian monomyth, the Fall becomes the type of all sins, as Adam is the type of all humanity. To quote a spectacular passage from Milton’s prose De Doctrina:

For what sin can be named, which was not included in this one act? It comprehended at once distrust in the divine veracity, and a proportionate credulity in the assurances of Satan; unbelief; ingratitude; disobedience; gluttony; in the man excessive uxoriousness, in the woman a want of proper regard for her husband, in both an insensibility to the welfare of their offspring, and that offspring the whole human race; parricide, theft, invasion of the rights of others, sacrilege, deceit, presumption in aspiring to divine attributes, fraud in the means employed to attain the object, pride, and arrogance. Whence it is said, Eccles. vii. 29. ‘God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions.’ James ii. 10. ‘whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.’

Because the Fall “comprehended” all subsequent sins, in essence every further sin repeats the Fall. Thus, Judas’s betrayal stands for all human temptation to betray our fellow; it signifies that he remains unnamed in the Ochs song. For, although the poor stand close to Jesus, in fact the unity Jesus councils remains only aspirational. Here Ochs has done well to render the original poem’s concretes more abstract. His “If you would only stand as one” is stronger than MacColl’s more literal-minded “If you will only organize,” both because of the heartbreaking, postlapsarian subjunctive, and because “stands” quietly suggests the alternative to falling. If Jesus is “brother” to Judas, then it won’t suffice to say he acts according to class interest. Even Jesus is offered bribes “to desert the cause of his fellow man / And work for the rich men’s tribe.” The traitor’s trade is illusory. One enters it only through alienation from humanity, and this alienation tempts us all.

“The Ballad of The Carpenter” is itself assimilative monomyth, grafting as it does the Passion to contemporary radicalism. But, more than that, I think the pre-existing monomythic structures in Christianity (they probably exist in most religio-literary systems as well, although perhaps they are less carefully theorized) allows the song to offer not only Jesus as an inspirational hero for progressives, but as the type of radical history, the redemption from our sinful natures. For, after all, if Judas’s sin is ours as well, so too “The dream of this poor carpenter / Remains in the hands of you.”

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “An Early Modern Phil Ochs

  1. I like this piece, and having read it several times, I think I understand your points. It brought back memories of being in college and reading ‘English’ English literature that heavily relied on the New Testament and Christian stories and myths, largely which I was unfamiliar with, and not getting it for quite awhile. I realize that is not what you are writing about. It’s a good piece. love, Mom

    LhS Sent from my iPhone

    • Thanks for commenting, Mom. I think this is pretty closely related to what I was talking about; I like to think that one of the questions Frye was struggling with was how you teach the English canon in a world where people come from diverse cultural backgrounds (so that everyone doesn’t have the same preparation in Christian and Greek myth—since the latter had already been folded in successfully hundreds of years ago). You’re a little like the human analogue of the Greek myths that Renaissance scholars were trying to incorporate into Christian theology; the post WWII American (and Canadian, Frye being Canadian) university had all this immense cultural difference to incorporate. And I think it still does and is consequently still struggling with this canon-reformation problem.

  2. Good piece. I stumbled on here looking for more information about Ochs’s song but I like your interpretation. Thanks for pointing out the pun (whether intended or not) on traitor/trader, which is a rather interesting link between sin in the Christian story and in modern times. I didn’t know of this meaning of the word monomyth either, which I tend to associate either with Joseph Campbell’s theories or with an obscure Dutch stoner rock band.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s