Michael Dolzani: Necessary Angels

ouija

I remember Imre Saluszinsky writing to me years ago, when the Late Notebooks were first published, saying how astonished he was when he read passages from Notebook 44 such as the following, in which Frye is reacting to Helen’s death:  “When Helen died, the real Helen became an angel in heaven….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)” (CW5: 254).  Could Frye really mean that he thought Helen could be an angel?  Frye is a liberal intellectual, and for liberal intellectuals such metaphors as “eternal life” are merely figures of speech, not realities.  Surely eternal life really means to survive in the memories of friends, or to be “one with nature” by becoming part of the nitrogen cycle.  But if Frye was opposed to demythologizing the Bible, he would also have been opposed to demetaphorizing it. (I promise to use that hideous word only once).  This makes us uncomfortable:  it seems to move Frye closer to the kind of fundamentalist literalizers that he himself so often satirized.  So we are perhaps most comfortable thinking of the quoted passage “merely” as an irrational outburst of unbearable grief.  After all, the idea is not even Christian:  dead human beings do not become angels in Christian heaven.

However, this entry is the final one in Notebook 44; it occurs 117 pages after the announcement that Helen has died.  A mere 11 pages after that announcement, Frye is in a state of mind that most of us could understand more readily; moreover, in this earlier passage, he links Helen’s death to the passage from Hebrews that people have been discussing lately:  “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.  She’s in heaven, Catherine said:  but I don’t know where (or what) heaven is, or whether the word ‘where’ applies to it” (CW5: 148).

Yet Frye gradually develops that negative faith in the direction of a positive faith in Helen’s continued presence, in passages such as the following:  “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 to me” (CW5: 139).  Here, the hope for eternal life has been provided with substance and evidence: Helen is not absent, but present, here and now.  However, I think faith has two aspects, present and future.  It provides an experience of infinity and eternity here and now, the world in the grain of sand, eternity in an hour.  But the alternative translation of hypostasis as “assurance” for the future may be an aspect of faith as well.  This is the theme of Milton’s Nativity Ode:  that on the morning of Christ’s nativity, our redemption is accomplished now—but not yet. In Frye’s case, Helen is present now, but that presence provides hope for a future in which they will be reunited in eternity.  Only a saint could maintain such faith continuously, but the memory of such moments helps to sustain us in the dark times, when “we find ourselves staring blankly into an unresponding emptiness, utterly frustrated  by its indifference,” as Frye puts it in “To Come to Light,” a sermon of 1988.

Frye’s sense of Helen’s presence as a guardian spirit and Beatrice figure apparently remained on the level of intuition and not of direct vision.  He was, after all, an intellectual.  But in others, extremity has at times produced actual visions, such as Blake had after his brother Robert died.  An unexpected publishing phenomenon of the last couple of months has been that of Jung’s Red Book, in which he recorded and illustrated a series of visions he had over a period of several years, midway in the journey of his life, when he had been cast out of the Freudian movement and found himself in a dark wood.  Intellectuals, liberal and otherwise, have always been convinced that Jung was a nut case, and one awaits the inevitable reviews of the Red Book proclaiming that their hunches have been confirmed.  But the funny thing is, all sorts of people have become fascinated enough with the volume to pay $195 dollars for it.  Perhaps I should not be so impatient with such intellectuals, but they seem totally unaware of how they—like most people, to be sure—have carefully arranged their lives so that nothing visionary or uncanny could ever enter into them.  This provides circular proof for them that the visionary and uncanny do not exist, except as pathological delusions.

But it seems to take only a small step outside the boundaries of routine “normality” to provoke a response from the invisible world on the other side of ours.  (Commentators on Freud note that his Unheimlich, translated as “uncanny,” literally means “un-homelike”).  Years ago, I made Frye a gift of James Merrill’s verse epic, The Changing Light at Sandover, mostly because Merrill wittily drops Frye’s name on the very first page.  I am pretty sure Frye never read it, but the whole narrative is purportedly based on a series of Ouija board conversations that Merrill and his partner David Jackson had over many years, both with spirits and departed friends.  There is no reason, in my view, to think that Merrill is making this up.  My view, to be honest, is colored by an uncanny Ouija board experience I myself had many years ago with a couple of friends—an experience startlingly parallel to Merrill’s, though it took place decades before the publication of Sandover.  And, believe me, I am one of the intellectuals who normally live a life of routine banality (there is no room for the uncanny in the life of a department chair).

One of the departed is Yeats, whose wife had communications with the dead through automatic writing.  As usual, the skeptics pounce on the admission of Yeats’ wife that she faked part of it, but Yeats had plenty of uncanny experiences of his own.  Granted, Yeats was clearly trying to believe in as many things as he possibly could:  he reminds one of Blake’s Ezekiel, deliberately eating dung and lying on his left side in order to jump start the machinery of vision.  Nonetheless, to reject the uncanny or the visionary outright is superstition in the opposite direction.  There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of by the philosophers—as Hamlet discovers.  We cannot dismiss the Ghost in Hamlet as Hamlet’s delusion born of his obsession with his dead father and faithless mother.  It is Denmark itself that provokes the Ghost to walk, a Denmark anxious and neurotic in a period of chaos and crisis.  Once Hamlet is infected, he begins seeing the Ghost when no one else does, fitting it into his system of private obsessions.  But originally the Ghost is either a product of collective hysteria—or a Ghost.  Likewise, the safe way to read Macbeth is as the story of a man who convinces himself that three nutty old women can really tell the future.  But that is much too reductive a reading of a play in which nothing is real but what is not.

We are not just speaking of peculiar, marginal experiences:  there is an aspect of this that touches literary criticism.  Frye did not have the dramatic visions of a Blake or Jung, complete with characters and dialogue.  But he did have visions of a more intellectual kind, usually epiphanies of order, of “an immense number of things making sense.”  There is a sudden outburst in one of Pound’s Cantos:  “Splendor!  It all coheres!”  Out of these epiphanies arose Anatomy of Criticism, with its conception of a total order of words.  No one still knows quite what to make of this.  Deconstruction looks at a text and sees aporias; cultural studies looks at the literary tradition and sees an army of ignorant ideologies clashing by night.  Even to a more common sense point of view, it seems obvious that “unity” and “total pattern” are simply not “there,” and are being projected out of some kind of wish-fulfillment, comparable to the wish to think of Helen not as an Alzheimer’s patient dead in a hospital halfway around the globe but as a spiritual presence here and now, and forever.  But I think the order of words is present, not as an empirical fact, but as Helen was present.

Any text first confronts us as an Otherness, and therefore presents the appearance of a tehom, a waste and void, a Chaos because we do not comprehend it, mysterious and alien.  But we find, eventually, that it is not merely Chaos after all, and we find that out by interacting with it. We interrogate the text, and it talks back.  We discover that we are not free to make it speak anything we want:  it seems to speak what it wants to speak, though at the same time we are not sure these communications are not coming out of, or at least being influenced by, our own unconscious; and we are not sure our unconscious has not been conditioned by our ideology or the rules of our interpretive community or whatever.  But, nonetheless, interpretation is conversation with Otherness, a passing back and forth, by means of which an I-It relationship becomes, at least ideally, an I-Thou.  Thus, to engage with a text is to talk with a Ouija board.  (Those who feel that Ouija boards are kitsch may read Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World and note the resemblances between it and the methods of divination practiced by the Yoruba in West Africa.  Or, for that matter, between it and the I Ching, which Frye was very much interested in).   What we do is create an order of words out of chaos—with the understanding that by “create” we do not mean arbitrarily superimpose, but rather mean something more like “evoke.”  Out of the chaos, as the result of creative struggle, arise order and pattern; out of absence dawns presence—the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.  This is how we read; this is how we live our lives.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

*