Regarding Today in the Frye Diaries, Frye’s response to Helen’s death 40 years later.
From Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks, 1: 137–40, 142, 144, 145, 148, 150, 153, 156, 160, 191, 197, 204, 254, 345, 374, 379–80
This is not a diary, but Helen is dead. Not of cancer: she died in peace, I was told. Her Alzheimer fantasies were already turning her against me: she seemed to feel I could get her out of hospital if I only wanted to. It’s better for her to go now than to go through the final Alzheimer cycles, and it was very like her to slip out of the world so unobtrusively. I know nothing: Ned’s “iron door” doesn’t budge a crack. I think I know when she died—3.10 p.m. AEST,—but that may be an illusion. But they say there are helpers, and for so gentle and pure a spirit there must be. My hunch is that grief of survivors, being so largely self-pity, distresses, perhaps even impedes, progress to a world that makes more sense. I know that she would forgive me my sins of indolence and selfishness in regard to her, and therefore God will. I hope only that she knows now that I genuinely loved her very dearly, so far as human frailty permits. God bless, protect, and keep her among his own. I hope to see her again; but perhaps that is a weak hope. Faith is the hypostasis [substance] of what is hoped for, the elenchos [evidence] of the unseen. The one thing truly unseen, the world across death, may, according to my principle, be what enables us to see what is visible. I dreaded seeing her in the hospital, because she never smiled at me: she would smile at Jane, but I couldn’t keep the worry out of my face and tone, and I bored her. Besides, when Jane [Widdicombe] told her she was in hospital and had to get better before she could go home, she said “I can take that from you.” When I tried to say the same thing, she said “Don’t be so portentous.” It was the last thing she said to me, and it sounds like an oracle. Meanwhile there is Jane, a daughter sent by God instead of nature. Guardian angels take unexpected but familiar forms, as in Homer.
When I speak of helpers I am, of course, thinking of the books of reports from those who have nearly died and come back. Of course nearly dying is not evidence about actual death. But then, we do not know what we dream: we know only what our waking consciousness thinks it remembers of what we have dreamt. William James speaks of dreams of writing works of immense significance that were only the silliest of jingles when he “remembered” them afterward. Something in that significance was there and didn’t get through. Most, perhaps all dreams, have to pass through the gates of ivory, and whatever gets through the gate of horn is literature.
The creatures that turn up in seances are probably evil & mischievous ones, not the people they profess to be, whatever they know or pretend to know. Not all: the Witch of Endor seems to have evoked the genuine Samuel [1 Samuel 28:7]. But real spirits are only disturbed by this. I want Helen’s feet to be kept in the way of peace. She will speak when the time comes.
It was, as we say, “the best thing that could have happened,” that Helen should have died when she did. Why is it that an event which shows the care and the mercy of God would be the most hideous and insensate of crimes if I had taken her life instead? One of those questions so obvious that we forget even to ask it: it’s not as easy to answer as all the automatic answers that come pouring out suggest. Is it another dimension to God as scapegoat, bearing the sins of mankind? I suppose “vengeance is mine” is in a similar category.
Meanwhile, let’s think about the one idea all this grief has brought me so far. I said in GC [The Great Code] that the invisible world in the Bible was not a second order of existence, as in the Platonic tradition, but the means by which the visible world becomes visible, as the invisible air is the medium of visibility [GC, 124]. The one really invisible world is the world across death: is that what makes us to see the seen? Is the visible world the world of faith (pistis), as in Plato, that is the elenchos [evidence] of the unseen?
My suggestion that grief for the dead impedes and disturbs them may of course be the grossest and crassest of superstitions: one has to try out such things to see if they have any resonance. But grief emphasizes the pastness of the past, and so works against the mythical imagination. Helen was—that’s the beginning of tears and mourning. Helen is. What she is, perhaps, is a central element in the unseen which will clarify my understanding, if such clarification is granted me. My whole and part conception may have a link with this. It is right to pray to God, because God is the unity and totality of all this: but the perspective can reverse into millions of presences—the saints, in short. Helen would smile at the notion of being a saint, but I suspect that sanctity is something created by love, not necessarily some kind of essence.
Christ leads us through no darker rooms
Than he went through before.
Perhaps my notion that the unseen world is the medium by which nature becomes visible (or intelligible?) is related to Yeats’ remark that nothing exists except a stream of souls. Only maybe he should have said “spirits”: the metaphorical link between spirit and air is stronger. Does the same principle account for the fact that the Christ of the gospels is discontinuous myth and not continuous history or biography?
I notice that my remarks about near-death & dreams, which I assumed to be genuinely new, are repeated from p. 46 [par. 148; see also par. 171]—quite recent entries. What that says about me I don’t know. One thing it may say is that I feed on myself and not on others. It’s conceivable that there are demonic things done unconsciously all the time, and that some day they will be brought to light. It’s possible that I drove Helen into an impasse where all she could do was die. It would be morbid to accuse myself of such an act when there’s no evidence for it, and when there is evidence that she was, most of the time, happy and loved me. But many Victorian husbands must have killed their wives believing sincerely that they loved them, and God knows what the psychologists of the future will know about such things. Perhaps that’s really what the Sacred Fount is all about: the hero (narrator) may be as corny as you please, but he may be a Cassandra like the governess in TS [The Turn of the Screw] for all that.
One thing involved here is the “what’s really going on” fallacy. What’s really going on is a cluster of illusions. I don’t think it’s an illusion that I loved Helen, but it would certainly be an illusion to claim that I always did the best I could for her. Of course it’s always an advantage to become aware that an illusion is one.
The judgment & trial legal metaphor of the Bible comes from the impossibility of reshaping the past after death. My indolence all too often made life much duller for Helen than it should have been: when I realized this I tried to “make it up” to her, to reshape time into a more comfortable context for her. Death puts an end to all that: never again can I do anything for her in this world, and the fact rebounds on me as a judgment. With her Alzheimer broken will and my own spinelessness leading us both to deadlock, we were both in a sense marking time. Perhaps every death has something of divorce about it: the kind of inevitable parting of ways that is parodied by suicide. On a more cheerful side, the last “m’amour” fragment of Pound reveals (though Pound may not have known it) the profundity of Blake’s “emanation” conception: the objectivity one identifies with, with the woman one loves as its incarnate centre.
How tedious is death. Death and his brother sleep. Sleep for me is a series of dreams in which Helen is alive and we’re talking and planning things together. Then I wake up hearing reason say “You will never see her again,” without bothering to add “in this life.” Reason makes the rest of me puke. Love is strong as death: now that makes sense. I take pills, of course, but a drugged stupor is not sleep. Nor is a spirit with a cremated body dead. Ay, madam, it is common.
Since Helen’s death I’ve felt my love for her growing increasingly beyond the contingencies of the human situation. I begin to understand more clearly what Beatrice and Laura are all about. If the relation is reciprocal there is nothing to regret beyond the inevitable mechanisms of regret.
I’ve said that I have hope about another life, but I don’t have faith, in the Hebrews sense of a hypostasis of hope. The furthest I can get is a negative faith: I do not believe that those ten squalid and humiliating days in the Cairns hospital is the total end of a lovely and lovable human being. (Total for all practical purposes: Butler & others would talk about surviving in the memory of others, but miserable comforters are they all.) But when people talk of recognition scenes & such I can’t commit myself. She’s in heaven, [my friend] Catherine [Runcie] said: but I don’t know where (or what) heaven is, or whether the word “where” applies to it.
All I can do is define my hope. I didn’t want her to go on living her way through the Alzheimer. I don’t want her back with that: I’m not sure that I’d even want her back in the frailty of the human condition. The Helen I now love is someone whose human faults & frailties count for nothing: the word “forgiveness” I shrink from, because it implies that I’m in a superior position. I think (with Keats) that life may be purgatorial in shape, only I’d call it a vale of spirit (not soul) making. I think of her as someone for whom the full human potential is now able to emerge. Perhaps my love and the affection so many had for her helped to do that for her, being the same kind of thing that the Roman Catholics, with their mania for institutionalizing everything, identify with masses & prayers for the dead. If so, then she’s an angel, not to be worshipped, according to the New Testament, but an emancipated fellow-creature. Martyrs don’t necessarily believe in rewards for martyrdom, but they behave as though they were citizens of a bigger multi-dimensional world than their persecutors.
It’s a good thing this notebook is not for publication, because everyone else would be bored by my recurring to Helen. What do I want? I don’t want the poor lamb back with her Alzheimer condition, or at all in any world she’d have to be dragged back to. I just miss her, and the miss is a blank in nature. I’ve accused myself of murdering her, at least to the point of understanding what Eliot was getting at in Family Reunion. Like Harry in that play, I have to learn to accept the Furies as Eumenides. But I find all my ideas regrouping around her in a way I can neither understand nor explain. The sermon, for example, was all about her [sermon delivered at the Metropolitan United Church, 5 October 1986], & so will this book be if I write it. She’s now a C of L [Court of Love] mistress, like the dead Laura or Beatrice. I think the judgment phase may be over for me, at this stage anyway. I helped murder her, but she was, I think, happier with me than she would have been with the other men interested in her. And perhaps I love her now in a way that I couldn’t have loved her before she died. I don’t want her to come back to me, unless she has her reasons for doing so, but if/when I go to her it will be all right. (It’s still hope, not faith. I don’t even know if it’s right to say “help thou my unbelief” [Mark 9:24], because that could lead to self-hypnotism. The Holy Spirit has to take charge here.) Meanwhile, some of my letters advise thinking about our happy days together: that’s like advising a starving man to remember that wonderful meal he had three months back (Job 29).
I may be heading for the grossest kind of illusion here, but I still wonder about Helen’s functioning as a Beatrice: it may be nonsense for a man of 75 to talk about a “new life,” but all I want is a new book. With God all things are possible. Beatrice was mainly a creation of Dante’s love; my love recreates Helen in the sense of recognizing that if a world exists that she’s now in, she’s an angel. Her human frailties, as I’ve said, are now nothingness: only what she really was remains. (My own weaknesses & guilt feelings, of course, have greatly increased.) She didn’t read my stuff, of course, & didn’t need to, but she respected what I did very deeply. So although both of us were physically infertile for many years, perhaps another Word can still be born to us, like Isaac.
And just as there is a living word and a dead word, so there are living and dead thoughts. A handful of dead hair comes out of my comb every day, yet I still have hair. A sewer of dead thoughts, verbal shit, flows through my mind constantly: I hope there are other kinds. The repetitive & endlessly recycled thoughts are part of this too. One should remember that thoughts are not just ideas: I hope, for example, that I have discovered something of the reality of love in losing Helen. That’s not just a neurotic return on myself: I think I’ve also got a clearer notion of what Beatrice & Laura were all about.
By the standards of conventional scholarship, The Great Code was a silly and sloppy book. It was also a work of very great genius. The point is that genius is not enough. A book worthy of God and of Helen must do better than that.
Faith, the schoolboy said, is believing what you know ain’t so. That’s why some people, including me and, I gather, Paul Ricoeur, have switched to hope as the real basis. Hope doesn’t assert: it says Perhaps A, but then, perhaps B. A sympathy note after Helen’s death told me the veil between life & death was very thin. To me it’s as thick as the distance to the next star. But if the two possibilities, of nothingness and of something that makes sense, weren’t equally present, the mind couldn’t grow. If I knew that there was nothing, my motivation for going on by myself would drop to zero. If there is something, and I knew what that something was, the next life would be essentially the same as this one. So the mystery in death guarantees the liveliness of life.
I am 75 years old, and my wife is dead. There are a lot of what look like winding-up symbols—the Italian conference, the G.G. medal, the Oxford degree, the San Francisco meeting—but I know they’re not connected to other symbols or processes. I have what seems like one more major book in me, which I might conceivably finish before too long—perhaps by the time I reach the age at which Helen died. I don’t feel suicidal: I just have no more resistance to death, though of course I still have the normal anxieties about it.
Well, I’ve entered the Elizabethan age [that is, married to Elizabeth Eedy Brown]. Not one atom of my feeling for Helen has changed: neither is my feeling that we’re linked somehow in the spiritual world. But my notions of spiritual union may have clarified: there is no spiritual marriage because marriage has to be ego-centered and a mutual possession. In that world all books lie open to one another.
One very widespread myth (ancient Egypt, the Orient) is that the psyche consists of several elements, which break apart at death. Let’s follow out the Oriental version for a bit. Everybody has, I’ve said, a lost soul, and should make sure it gets good & lost. When you bust up, the crucial question, as with multiple personality cases, is: which one is the real you? When Helen died, the real Helen became an angel in heaven. There was also a sulking and egocentric Helen, who would become a preta or unhappy ghost, and wander around Cairns for a few hours and then disintegrate. Lycidas was a Christian angel, a pagan genius, an absence, and a drowned corpse. Helen was a pile of ashes, an absence to me, and an angel: perhaps she’s a genius to me (or anyone else who loved her and is still living or not living and still confused).
There seem to be three stages: the virgin mother, who represents the analogy of authority; the forgiven harlot, and the bride. In the Bible the archetypal harlot is the Rahab who allowed the Israelites to penetrate into the moon-city of Jericho, and so destroy the moon. In Dante the “moon” extends over Mercury & Venus as well: the earth’s shadow, & Rahab comes at the end of that. [See Words with Power, 214.] The bride can’t appear in an orthodox Xn. [Christian] poem. All this takes more shape for me as in my old age I enter Yeats’s “dreaming back” phase. [The second of the six states that Yeats envisions between birth and death. “In the Dreaming Back [state], the Spirit is compelled to live over and over again the events that had most moved it; there can be nothing new, but the old events stand forth in a light which is dim or bright according to the intensity of the passion that accompanied them” (William Butler Yeats, A Vision, rev. ed. [N.p.: Macmillan, 1956], 226).] Once Helen was gone she became Ariadne: my love for her intensified and entered a new life, and that’s my road to the stars now. I only wish the “unforgetting” process would be more extensive.
Re the Rilke reference: it seems to me that a relation of love entirely free of the sado-masochist cycle is simply not possible under the “selfish gene” conditions of human existence. A loving & happy companionship is possible, with the aid of a few illusions, but they leave one with a sense of the reality of love as something to be achieved in another level of existence, not the renewal in difference (revival in another form) but renewal in identity (resurrection). Certain other “emanation” factors come into play at that point. I never deliberately hurt Helen, but a lot of selfishness, as well as indolence & ineptness, got into our relations and cramped her style. I daresay she used me to cramp her own style, though that isn’t my business. I think celibate orders are, by & large, a perversion, but one can see how they arose. Milton’s “He for God only, she for God in him” [Paradise Lost, bk. 4, l. 299] was never intended as the model for husband-wife relations in this world. It’s a quite accurate statement of the relation of Christ to his Bride or people. Before his fall, the first Adam would have had the authority of the second one in relation to Eve, and by extension to the unfallen Adamic family that never materialized.
The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God [Psalm 53:1]. But every human being is a fool, and every human being has denied God in his heart. One may say other things later, but that is what one says first, & that is what one continues to hold to, as the central principle of existence, through life. One reason is that the first positive feeling in life is “I am,” which carries with it the sense “there is no other.” An embryonic consciousness of God may begin with the sense of the reality of other people; next comes the sense of the inevitability of death, where the feeling “I shall be not” suggests “something other is & will be.” For most people this other could only be nature; then comes the specifically vulnerable loss (often a parent, only Helen for me) suggesting “if she is not, what is?” Or, more related to myself: “if I am to be not, maybe I’ve got hold of the wrong I.” Anyway, “God is dead” is a silly bloody remark; “God never was” would at least be intelligible.