Frye on Bardo


Cross-posted in the Robert D. Denham Library

In Mahayana Buddhism, bardo, a concept that dates back to the second century, is the in-between state, the period that connects the death of individuals with their following rebirth.  The word literally means “between” (bar) “two” (do).  The Bardo Thödol, or “Liberation through Hearing in the In-Between State,” distinguishes six bardos, the first three having to do with the suspended states of birth, dream, and meditation and the last three with the forty-nine-day process of death and rebirth.  In The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is the principal source for Frye’s speculations on bardo, a priest reads the book into the ear of the dead person. The focus is on the second three in-between states or periods: the bardo of the moment of death, when a dazzling white light manifests itself; the bardo of supreme reality, in which five colorful lights appear in the form of mandalas; and the bardo of becoming, characterized by less-brilliant light. The first of these, Chikhai bardo, is the period of ego loss; the second, Chonyid bardo, is the period of hallucinations; and the third, Sidpa bardo, is the period of reentry.

In Frye’s Bible lectures he mentions the bardo in connection with the issue of whether one can be released from various projections and repressions and so escape from the wheel of reincarnation, or at least have the possibility of escaping next time around if one will only be attentive.   There, he said,

The word “apocalypse,” the name of the last book of the Bible, is the Greek word for revelation.  That is why the book is called Revelation in English translation, and what John at Patmos sees in the book is a panorama of certain things in human experience taking on different forms.  There is an analogy which seems to be a fairly useful one in the Oriental scripture known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. When a man is dying, a priest comes to his house, and when the man dies, the priest starts reading the Book of the Dead into his ear, because the corpse is assumed to be able to hear the reading and to be guided by what is said.  The priest explains to the corpse that he is going to have a progression of visions, first of peaceful deities and then of wrathful deities, and that he is to realize that these are simply his own repressed thoughts and images coming to the surface because they have been released by death; and that if he could only understand that they are coming out of his mind, he could be delivered from their power, because it is really his own power.  lt is also assumed that practically every corpse to whom this book is read will be too stupid to understand what’s going on, and will go on from one blunder to another until finally he wakes up in the world again: because the assumption behind it is one of reincarnation.  [CW 13, 587–88]

Otherwise, in his published writing Frye refers to bardo infrequently––once in The Great Code, once in A Study of English Romanticism, once in “The Journey as Metaphor,” and twice in “Yeats and the Language of Symbolism.”  In his notebooks and diaries, however, the word “bardo” appears more than one hundred times, and Frye’s own copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead contains some 240 annotations.  In Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World I point out that Frye almost always uses “bardo” in a telic sense: it represents a stage toward the end of the quest, and it is related to such ideas as epiphany, resurrection, recognition, and apocalypse––ideas that are omnipresent in Frye’s writings.  But his understanding of bardo warrants further study.

The following entries represent, I think, all of the places in Frye’s “unpublished” writing (now a part of the Collected Works), where the word “bardo” appears.  The “published” references are at the end.  The annotations have been omitted.  All material within square brackets is an editorial addition.


The Diaries of Northrop Frye (CW 8)

1949 Diary

[77] . . . Listening to street-car conversations of the so-I-says-to-him variety shows how near the surface of consciousness the will-to-power fantasy is—even “normal” people are continually mistaking it for reality, or at least allowing it to condition reality.  It’s the real “guardian of the threshold.”  The erotic wish-fulfilment fantasy demands what for “normal” people is a deliberate withdrawal from reality, a voluntary escape.  Below this is the creative world of art & thought, which demands not only relaxation from the world but concentration as well.  Below this is the world of meditation, which seizes the moment Satan can’t find, [“There is a Moment in each Day that Satan cannot find” (William Blake, Milton, pl. 35, l. 42] & in which the soul emerges through the mind as well as the body.  Blavatsky says that if you could remember your deep dreams you could remember your previous incarnations.  I don’t think it’s necessary to accept this, but it’s possible that if you could take a golden bough with you all the way in the original plunge to sleep, Alice’s fall down the well, you would never need to sleep again.  The Tibetan Bardo has something of this idea of an initial plunge & then a gradual rise back to the same old grind.  The trouble is you have to hypnotize yourself somehow to fall asleep: without some initial giddiness you just get insomnia.  This progression, if it exists, corresponds roughly to the Spenglerian progression of a cultural cycle, & if so is doubtless involved in the argument of Finnegans Wake. [CW 8, 79–80]

[169]  . . . However, [Peter] Fisher was full of fascinating ideas about Plato, some of them from Collingwood’s Principles of Art.  Plato was rejecting the representational element in art, & was trying to purify art by restoring its magical basis—hence the emphasis on music & the mode-mood connection, which is pure magic.  He attacked the Iliad not as epic but as tragedy—tragedy to him, as to the ludians, was bad taste, spiritual defeatism.  If you see the world turning on the spindle of Necessity you see it in the comic context which the symposium is—the Plato-Aristophanes tie-up is very deep, as I’ve guessed.  Theseus in Shakespeare’s MND [A Midsummer Night’s Dream] is a pure philosopher-ruler, & has many Platonic characteristics, including his view of art.  Then we went on to discuss the life-Bardo cycle. Normally we are dragged backwards through life & pushed forwards through Bardo, & attempt to find some anastasis at the crucial points, or else go through a vortex or Paravritti which leads us, not to escape, but to implement charity by going forwards through life, as Jesus did, & withdraw in retreat from Bardo.  There was something about the shades in Homer I haven’t got quite straight. [CW 8, 117–18]

[196] . . . I’ve thought of a novel on the life of Christ, & will collect things to put in it: but I wonder what would come of a Bardo novel.  [CW 8, 129]

[For at least thirteen years Frye entertained the notion of writing a Bardo novel.   See the entries from Notebooks 30o and 2 in Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writing, below.]

[200]  All Hallows’ Eve is a Bardo novel, & a type of fantasy that is not popular now because it will be later.  I notice he’s a bit cute: his Antichrist’s servant, whom he’s cured of a brain tumor, says: “We all carry his mark in our bodies.”  [CW 8, 131]

[201]  I must collect my impressions of Bardo novels: this Portrait of Jennie that I picked up is one, & Henry James’ Sense of the Past is another.  These last two are Dunneish stories, where the collision of two time tables is a main point, & the heroines are animas.  Williams’ story seems to be purer Bardo, & to grasp, imaginatively, the point that Purgatory was invented by the R.C.Ch. to bring Bardo into Xy [Christianity] .   In Huxley it would be the pure Eastern thing.  Yeats combines them too.  Also the fact that in Williams the heroine goes into the future & reports its knowledge to Simon puts a Dunne stamp on it too. [CW 8, 131]

[202]  I have deliberately fucked going to see [Alexander] Lacey.  I tell myself now that it’s too late, that I should do him no good & relieve myself only of a neurotic compulsion.  How much of that is true I can’t say.  James i, 27, is very silly: the rhetorical effort of a fashionable preacher who wants to make an effect & doesn’t know how.  Not that I get light on my problem by cursing James.  I come back to my Chik-hai Bardo point: time affords the opportunity for the inspired act: to neglect it is original if not actual sin, and all such sins are a waste of time, loss of time, a surrender of a bit more of oneself to the devouring mouth of hell.  That’s what Blake meant about the moment in each day. I wish I could find a way of living by faith that was not an abdication of decision—a break with the rhythm of original sin is what one is after, I suppose. [CW 8, 131–2]

[203]  All Hallows’ Eve was exactly the book I was looking for: I have temporarily lost my ambition to write a Bardo novel myself, & consolidated my impulse to write an article, perhaps for that Trollopian magazine, on the occult novels of Bulwer Lytton.  After fifty pages of Williams’ book, one has to pass a special critical Order-in-Council to keep oneself from dismissing it as a lot of blithering nonsense.  That kept me reading it, but it’s still as crude & tasteless a performance as the genre supplies.  His public is too sophisticated to worry about the factual basis of magic, so there’s none of Lytton’s naive & detached curiosity, & Lytton’s normal Victorian prejudices are replaced by a fetid, miasmic, oppressive & appallingly obtrusive priestly morality.  The ingenuity & intelligence with which he gears his fantasy to Christian doctrine makes the book positively bad instead of negatively inept, but reveals how completely ritual, the physical transmission & recreation of the divine community in time, is white magic, & exists & has influence only insofar as the forces of evil are conceived as black magic.  I can’t help feeling that the Christian drama of heaven & hell is one thing & Bardo another; that Bardo is essentially bound up with Karma & reincarnation, & though purgatory is the point of contact, it still wouldn’t come together even if one didn’t feel that the purgatory idea was alien to Christianity.  I’m not clear on this point yet.  In terms of my four forms, All Hallows’ Eve is a romance-anatomy, a Gothic horror tale in which the villain is (as he is occasionally in the cruder examples) the devil, & in which the anima moves in Bardo, as Lilian does in A Strange Story, which also ends with a magician destroyed within his own magic circle.  This Gothic horror romance is linked to an auctorius theory of Bardo: someone like Yeats who didn’t feel a compulsion to make Bardo rationalize priestcraft might have brought it off. [CW 8, 132]

[207]  [Peter] Fisher & I talked of a lot of things: how people like myself, for whom things generally resolve, feel guilty about those who seem born for bad luck, a Cain responsible for a bleeding Abel.  It’s partly the tough luck Christ ran into, not that that can be called luck.  I complained loudly about Williams’ book & he said the Christian fear of the Jew (Antichrist in the book was a Jew) was like Tibetan Buddhism’s fear of Bön.  He denies the purgatorial element in Bardo, in fact in all Karma.  He seems to feel though that if you want moral purgation you’ll get it, as you can only go into the house you build yourself.  We discussed the geometry of thought, how Jung’s unconscious is obsessed by a diagram that places it underneath (in contrast to Freud, who puts it underneath because he’s talking about deliberate repressions.  All he says is that if you sit on a stool dropping things out of your bottom the hole underneath gets to be fairly shitty after a while).  But while it might be good exercise to work out the whole thing on another diagram that puts it above & calls it superconscious, one couldn’t attach oneself to the diagram either, because it would just lead (as so many translations of Oriental scriptures do) to renaming the sky-god.  If you must have a diagram, putting the conscious & the other mind beside each other is perhaps best, & that’s what Fisher thinks the “para” in such words as Parabrahman actually means. [CW 8, 134]

[223]  The moment of illumination, the flash of Chik-hai Bardo, the instant that Satan can’t find: that’s the anastasis that arrests the time-rhythm of original sin, the Karma of being dragged involuntarily backwards.  That is apocalypse: that’s what each life leads to as its own fulfilment.  Nobody can move toward it: inspiration, providence, instinct, intuition, all the metaphors of involuntary accuracy, including grace itself, are groundswells carrying us along in a counter-movement, forward to the moment.  We go by relaxing ourselves, & trying to put ourselves in the organized receptivity, the “negative capability,” of being ready to listen to or look at whatever comes along.  If it never comes, that’s not our business.  If death brings it, as the Tibetans say, that’s the point about death.  But to have something shown you & then refuse to admit that you saw anything of the kind: that’s the sin against the Holy Spirit of inspiration which is not forgiven (i.e. makes it impossible for you to arrive at release or anastasis) either in this world or the next (Bardo).  You can’t expect something, or you’ll find an oracle in every spiritual breeze that passes over you; you can’t expect nothing, or you’ll have in yourself no principle of escape. [CW 8, 140–1]

[226] . . . That’s the three-formed genital organ of creation, of which the mystic rose of the creature is the feminine counterpart.  I daresay that would shock a lot of people, including Dante himself, but only because we’re afraid of the other sterile prick of the mountain of purgatory, aimed at paradise but not quite getting there.  Dante was misled by the false doctrine of purgatory, I think, & couldn’t see that the mountain was the Tower of Babel, ejaculating a seed that never fertilizes but, like Onan’s, falls back to the earth.  He has this pattern in, but for human souls he buggers it with purgatory.  I still haven’t the relation of Bardo to purgatory clear, but I feel that purgatory must be an illegitimate adaptation of Bardo.  Not that Yeats & Charles Williams have done any better. [CW 8, 142]

[279]  . . . One thing in the Blake yesterday (1st yr. R.K., incidentally, on the Trinity, was a total flop): Byzantium is Magian culture, conceived by Yeats as classical tomb & Western womb, hence not only on the historical cycle but on the Bardo one, as the axis of both.  I spoke of a certain prudery in making moral judgements, e.g. about Fascism: “it’s all very terrible of course, but after all it is what’s coming, isn’t it?”  Contrast that with the poetry that he really feels deeply: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned” [Yeats, The Second Coming, l. 6]. [CW 8, 162–3]

[355]  Peter Fisher in & we talked of little else—he’s in a strong Bardo phase at the moment, & feels that it’s all the same world anyway. [CW 8, 198]

1950 Diary

[217] . . . I need to think more about the ironic suspended conclusion of a play like Troilus and Cressida, which seems to cut across my four categories.  It may be a Bardo or mime resolution. [CW 8, 298]

[228] . . . then something on Old Comedy & the ritual calendar, then an analysis of the relation of comedy to tragedy, symposium & mime.  It’s for the development that I need more knowledge of symbolism, especially of the WT [The Winter’s Tale] pattern.  For the recapitulation I need to think a lot about the meaning of persona & the Bardo play. [CW 8, 302]

1952 Diary

[223] . . . The topic [for the examination in English Poetry and Prose, 1500–1660] was comparing the Utopia with another book in the tradition.  I assign that subject every year, because I think they’re interested in it and they do quite well at it.  I’m interested to notice too that it’s a General Education type of topic.  Also for some reason it excites me.  I seem to get in a vaguely creative state of mind just reading essays about it.  I feel that I know when a situation of ideas is a fruitful one: this Utopia pattern has already given me part of my Living Church essay, but there’s more to be got out of it.  Also I periodically recur to my idea of writing a Utopia myself, making the ideal state a state of watchers in Bardo, occupying the same time & space that we do. [CW 8, 561]

[224]  This last is connected with a scheme that’s been in my head for at least ten years, and to which an extraordinary number of hunches have been attaching themselves.  If it is really true that I’m released from the obligation to do any more specific critical studies, except incidentally or episodically, and that two more books might actually include about all I have to say about literature, I might turn my energies to something different.  That has always been, since I got over my adolescence, a gigantic anatomy based on the theme of initiation or hierarchic degrees of knowledge.  Several themes have been included in it, and they feature the Utopia I speak of and some comprehensive treatment of the Bardo world.  Ever since I read Dante, I have been fascinated by the possibilities of the ascent or anabasis form (less by the Inferno, because so many others, like Orwell and Sartre & Koestler, have done that better than I can do).  I think vaguely of seven or eight metamorphoses on various levels of the spiritual world that a dead man’s soul goes through, including a Utopia, a vision of Bardo, an apocalypse, and finally a withdrawal into the Lankavatara “mind itself.”  The “novel” interest would consist in the fact that his whole earthly life would have to be reassembled in the process.  I should start collecting notes for it, anyway. [CW 8, 361]

[245] . . . And I suppose the concentration of symposium needs a Bardo setting—Shaw’s hell is entered after death and at the end there’s a prophecy of rebirth.  There were a few people in the audience who shouldn’t have been there, & two of them were unfortunately right in front of us, but on the whole it was an excellent audience.  (I note that, writing this some days after the event, I’ve confused two evenings: it was after this show that we walked home in a gradually increasing downpour). [CW 8, 572]

[255]  I think my anatomy project should have seven stages, along the lines of my general seven pillars idea.  First will be satiric, based on some central scheme of a shift of perspective; the second will be the Utopia, and the third Bardo.  That’ll take up most of my current ideas. [CW 8, 577]

Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts (CW 13)

[90]  In my early Yeats paper [“Yeats and the Language of Symbolism”] I talked about a hyper-physical world.  This appears to be the world of unseen beings, angels, spirits, devils, demons, djinns, daemons, ghosts, elemental spirits, etc.  It’s the world of the “inspiration” of poet or prophet, of premonitions of death, telepathy, extra-sensory perception, miracle, telekinesis, & of a good deal of “luck.”  In the Bible its connected with Lilith & other demons of the desert, with the casting out of devils in the gospels, with visions of angels, with thaumaturgic feats like those of Elijah & Elisha, & so on.  Fundamentally, it’s the world of buzzing though not booming confusion that the transistor radio is a symbol of.  The world of communication as total environment which inspires terror.  Shakespeare’s Tempest as heard by the imprisoned crew.  Chaucer’s Houses of Fame & Rumor (because no information that gets on that circuit is really reliable).  The world of drugs, multiple personality, and hallucination.  Before we come out on the other side of it, we recognize that ordinary life is a part of it, a Bardo perspective out of which apocalypse, or stage 2, finally comes.  It’s the polytheistic world of contending & largely unseen forces; it’s the world of terror that McLuhan associates with the oral stage of culture: twitching ears, & a poor sense of direction. [CW 13, 90]

[145]  The first birth, of course, repeats the fall & the second birth the redemption and creation.  (There are two creations, one of which is the fall: that’s a point I never quite got clear with Blake*.).  The first death follows the rhythm of the second birth, the second death that of the first birth.  Hence the latter could be, in some contexts, a reincarnation.  The first death is Chik-hai Bardo, the second either the demonic choice in Chön‑yid or Sidpa

* Yes you did. [CW 13, 104–5]

[256]  The scheme which is in the foreground just now is a ternary one.  Perhaps the complete compass could repeat three times (i.e. twice).  Two would be the conceptual & then the alchemic-turned-on-its-side process.  So Eros might be the hortus conclusus in 27–33, the interpenetrating-mystical Plato business in 60–66, the Bardo world in 90–99. [CW 13, 131]

[15]  The Tibetans say that when you die you get a flash of reality (Chik-hai Bardo) that for everyone except a yogi saint is bewildering & unrecognizable, whereupon you pass into a plane of hallucination (Chon-yid Bardo) & then seek a womb of rebirth (Sidpa Bardo).  I don’t know about after death, but it’s an excellent account of all other crises of the spirit, & so may be true of that one.  So often it happens in meeting someone who needs help can & be helped (or encouraged) there comes a sudden flash of the right thing to do, the courteous & beautiful act, instantly smothered under a swarm of spawning Selfhood illusions of timidity, laziness, selfishness & the rest, whereupon the moment of what we rightly call inspiration passes, and we return to the ordinary level of existence.  It’s only rarely that we even recall having such a moment, & perhaps the capacity for having them could be destroyed.  One of the major efforts of all discipline is to unbury the consciousness of the moment that Satan can’t find, as Blake calls it.  Hence the importance of achieving spontaneity, Butler’s unconsidered control.  In social relationships we always admire the person who acts, to quote Blake again, from impulse & not from rules, and we assume, however unconsciously, that such impulses can be trained to achieve adequate & accurate expression.  That is perhaps why Jesus stresses the unconsidered life—I’m not thinking of the lily passage so much as the instructions to the apostles not to rehearse their speeches.  It is true, however, that the way of achieving such development is to concentrate on the present moment, which implies that all idealization or brooding over the past, and all idealization or worry over the future, are diseases of the soul—hence the lily passage.  [CW 13, 8]

[61]  That moment in the day that Satan can’t find—I can’t find it either, but it must be at a point when the dawning of a reviving Orc catches a flash of what it’s an analogy of—that instant of Chikhai Bardo we’ve all felt when the enthusiasm caused by novelty hits us.  Perhaps it’s in the early morning, the spot varying according to which of the Sheldon types Huxley uses, or misuses, one belongs to.  For the viscerotonic it would be the instant just before waking, when the penis is in full erection & sleeping & waking consciousness seem to converge on a focus of reality, before one commonplaceness gives way to another.  For the somatotonic it would be the dawn of the body, the rosy glow that follows the cold shower, the kiss of Venus rising from the sea which makes one “feel like a new man.”  For the cerebrotonic it would be that moment of breathless rapture when the success of the morning’s cock is assured, & with it the day’s mental clarity, when one has for a delusive second the sense of defecating the natural man. [CW 13, 26–7]

[136]  I say only one soul: the occult tradition, which for some curious reason has got itself stuck to the name of Plato, says only one spirit.  The soul-world to them is, first, the total magnet or anima mundi which accounts for mesmerism, telepathy, clairvoyance, second sight & magical healing cures; second, Bardo, the world of dead “souls” who in some systems are reborn & therefore unborn, & who are asserted to communicate with spiritualistic media; third, elementals & other non-human forms of more or less conscious existence.  I wish I had a consistent idea about this soul-world, which I may call Akasa. The Catholic purgatory belongs to it.  I rather wish I could throw out this world: I don’t like its rumor basis of quasi-fact, its vague Beulah fluidity (it’s not a real Beulah, though artists draw on it, as Shakespeare drew on the “elementals” Puck & Ariel, the ghosts (that’s different, though, as they aren’t in Beulah) & the magical healing of Helena.) I wish I could get a Beulah grasp on this Akasa world that would eliminate the subject-object dilemma about it. [CW 13, 54]

[159]  And perhaps the ultimate location of this second-apocalypse vision would be the Noh or Bardo world of Shakespeare’s Tempest, Paradise Regained, Blake’s Milton.  [CW 13, 305]

The word “apocalypse,” the name of the last book of the Bible, is the Greek word for revelation.  That is why the book is called Revelation in English translation, and what John at Patmos sees in the book is a panorama of certain things in human experience taking on different forms.  There is an analogy which seems to be a fairly useful one in the Oriental scripture known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. When a man is dying, a priest comes to his house, and when the man dies, the priest starts reading the Book of the Dead into his ear, because the corpse is assumed to be able to hear the reading and to be guided by what is said.  The priest explains to the corpse that he is going to have a progression of visions, first of peaceful deities and then of wrathful deities, and that he is to realize that these are simply his own repressed thoughts and images coming to the surface because they have been released by death; and that if he could only understand that they are coming out of his mind, he could be delivered from their power, because it is really his own power.  lt is also assumed that practically every corpse to whom this book is read will be too stupid to understand what’s going on, and will go on from one blunder to another until finally he wakes up in the world again: because the assumption behind it is one of reincarnation.  [CW 13, 587–88]

But it is better not to think in terms of relating some kind of future to the author of the book [of Revelation] at all.  We might take an example from one of the Oriental literatures there’s a very remarkable scripture of Tibetan Buddhism whose English title is The Tibetan Book of the Dead.  This is founded on a conception of reincarnation: when a man dies, a priest goes and reads this book in his ear.  The corpse is supposed to understand what is being read to him, and he is being told that he is going to see a long series of visions or epiphanies of gods, first peaceful ones and then wrathful ones, and that these are his own repressed thoughts coming to the surface, having been released by death.  He is not to think of himself as in any way subject to their power: he has created them himself, and if he could only understand that, he would be delivered from them.  He is adjured in every paragraph of the book to do the right thing, to become mentally conscious and deliver himself from the wheel of death and rebirth.  And then the priest says resignedly, “Well, you probably missed it again, so now you’ll have this other vision, and don’t miss it this time.”  [CW 13, 596]

The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye, 1964–1972 (CW 9)

[12]  The earthly paradise, then is on top of the mountain, and it has two Beulah gates, the gods’ entrances from above and the cyclical one below.  Either way goes through a vortex, the lower one being usually the Bardo vortex of reincarnation. [CW 9, 107]

[46]  At the centre of the Adonis world is the beleaguered Troy, which attracts our sympathies because it’s beleaguered & because it falls.  At its heart is the Adonis figure of Paris, the archer beloved of Venus.  The beleaguered and captive Israel is a cy [contemporary]-form.  Both societies move westward, in Morris’ words, until they reach the east again.  Morris links the “good land” of his romances with Iceland, with More’s Utopia and, in general, the spatial myth of Utopia (the myth of the spatial Utopia is what I mean, dammit) and with Rousseau’s buried society.  The trouble is that even the most realistically minded l9th c. writer can hardly avoid giving this “good land” notion the overtones of Bardo, reincarnation, fairies, and the whole wonderland bit. [CW 9, 140–1]

[81]  I suppose I should be thinking rather of the different aspects of a point of epiphany rather than trying to stretch them through space.  The Bardo reconciliation world is one such aspect, prominently assoc. w. Arthur in Parzival. [CW 9, 150]

[197]  The different versions of the cycle are subject to the rule that a cycle is really a p.d.e. [point of demonic epiphany] perspective, at best an axis one.  The Mental Traveller can only have the boy born N, going through Tirzah at N.W., Vala at W., completing his quest at S.W.  The Female Babe is born at S.: then he goes through the Promethean Bardo, & reaches E. where the Exodus imagery begins, after which he rolls up to the N. again.  Whether my hunch that Yeats’ Vision will work out as a reversed or S.-pointed vision in which the tragic runs up & the comic falls away I don’t know. [W 9, 179]

[243]  If I go back to my hundred-sections idea, section 1 is the centripetal-centrifugal conspectus, with, perhaps, a note distinguishing the categories of literature from the mnemonic devices for grouping them.  Section 2 begins with the literature-inheriting-a-mythology stuff, the two creation myths, & the two worlds of upper & lower consciousness.  Somewhere along here I want to embark on a historical survey of the Logos myth: how the mathematical vision, for example, declines after Newton, & then either turns demonic (Blake’s Europe, Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, Yeats’ Vision) or else gets reborn by way of some kind of games theory.  Hesse’s Glasperlenspiel & Mallarme’s Igitur & Coup des Des belong here, though I don’t just know how yet.  I suppose chess in Bardo gets attacked.  One of the things I find encouraging about this project is the way I’m being compelled to face things I’ve ducked in the AC: Poe’s Eureka, the epic circle, & the like.  Browne’s quincunx, too.  Because a lot of things seem to be converging on Yeats’ double gyre or hourglass figure, of which the X is one form: a conscious world where the mind is at the centre or top; a lower world where the mind is looking into itself below, “Poetic Cosmology”: it sounds like Vico.  [CW 9, 190–1]

[92]  What is a speculative myth, the subject of Two?  It’s a myth designed to contain, and provide a vision for, experience.  Therefore the further it gets away from actual evidence the purer it is.  I’ve worked this out in some detail in my Bible lectures.  For metaphysical cosmology, a much tougher job, I need Alexander, McTaggart & Whitehead.  It may become Three, but wherever it goes, it’s the chess-in-Bardo one. [CW 9, 21]

[107]  Certain structural principles: comedy with its three stages, the third a “repetition” of a recognized but inexperienced first (vs. subjective or sentimental, Blake’s “memory”), comes into my Shakespeare lectures, my Utopia paper, & my Dante reflections.  Beckett’s Murphy, alluded to above, is a chess-in-Bardo book. [CW 9, 24]

[152]  Epiphany is not a new experience: it is the knowledge that one has the experience: it’s recognition or anagnorisis.  The wise men did not need to journey to it: it was their own wisdom in the only form wisdom can take, the divine infancy or fresh beginning.  Epiphany is the containing of change, or the other, by bringing it into line with identity: in short, it’s the awareness of growth, when the line pointing from the object reverses its direction.  Death [arrows over each other, top toward Death, bottom toward Chih]   Chih-Kai [Chikhai] Bardo, or Resurrection (ultimate anagnorisis). [CW 9, 34–5]

[245]  I hope the Book of Luvah will solve such things as the chess-in-Bardo problem, and that it will give some indication of what it feels like to live in a totally mythical universe, where a dragon is literally “the seeing one.”  Note that I–IV is the progression from the mythical to the verbal universe, mythology to literature and what literature informs. [CW 9, 56]

[289]  Huizinga’s book, Homo Ludens, doesn’t distinguish contest play, like a game of tennis, from construct play: only the latter (except for some kinds of argumentative rhetoric) belongs in lit. csm [literary criticism].  The opposite of play is (a) seriousness (b) work.  This distinction has to do with the form-content one.  Suppose I’m asked to give a Convocation address: I want to say something “serious” people will remember, & so I “work” on a speech.  But the form, the whole symbolic set-up of a Convocation, is ceremonial play, a symbolic let’s pretend.  Chess is contest play, so chess in Bardo is the repetition of agon, specifically the Oedipus agon or killing of the king.  [CW 9, 66]

[361]  I think I’ve always had in my mind two cyclical patterns.  One is the ordinary progress from birth to death, which gets elaborated in literature as the ironic or white-goddess cycle of the Mental Traveller & the Gates of Paradise.  Sometimes it extends past death to Bardo & a ricorso.  The opposite cycle runs from the maze-of-Paradise creation-fall story to apocalypse by way of the katabasis, the stages of which are normally a) previous or preliminary trials b) the search for the beast c) agon d) pathos or mutual death, the third chamber of the labyrinth and the bowels of the monster e) sparagmos, loss of identity in the valley of dry bones f) anagnorisis, leading to the point of epiphany where one sees the cycle below g) apocalypse.  This of course is stock: it seems to me that the heroic descent-quest is conceived in its totality as opposite in direction to the ironic one, like Yeats’s double gyres, or more like his dream cycle moving against the waking one.  Only it’s the ironic cycle of ordinary life that’s the real dream: the heroic quest is the awakening to life, beginning in the middle like the epics (nel nozza is the opening of Dante).  Roughly, the Friday-death, Saturday-disappearance, Sunday-resurrection pattern contrasts with birth, life & death; apocalypse to rebirth. [CW 9, 82]

[12]  Anyway, this type is closer to Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale—I had a strong feeling when doing the Bampton Lectures that the four romances corresponded to four primary types of mythos.  The Tempest starts beckoning in the direction of that chess-in-Bardo will-o-wisp I’ve been chasing for thirty years.  Also Lear’s search for the natural man. [CW 9, 340]

[73]  If I could arrive at a suggestion about that the commedia would have four parts after all, an Ulro of images on a cave wall, a Generation of the attainment of freedom, a Beulah scherzo of fourteen sections taking me to 78, the Tarot number & a favorite of the Rabelais, & then a Last Twilight of 22, in which the different languages of the arts (V) might suggest a way of climbing up Babel again.  The scherzo might not only deal with but be the chess in Bardo problem: the opposed forces each with its own centre.  I talk as though I were about seventeen years old: actually I feel more like a bull in the ring, learning fast but therefore soon to die. [CW 9, 288]

Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Romance (CW 15)

[6]  In A Dream there are four men, of whom two are ghosts, though the other two don’t know it at first: again a “Bardo” setting.  The story is of a C of L proud mistress who orders her lover to sleep in a haunted cave as proof of his courage.  The word “guest” is used, but the cave is a world of death, very cold, & called the “ivory house.”  She follows him in, & they are condemned to a series of reincarnations where she takes a white-goddess role: a nurse in a hospital tending the hero as a wounded man; a queen embracing him after a battle.  Finally they meet in the room where the four men are talking (the word “statue” is associated with her) and vanish into a pile of snow-white ashes.  Cf. Shakespeare PT [The Phoenix and the Turtle], with its four named witnesses (bird of loudest lay, eagle, swan, crow).  The two ghosts who tell the story are old & young, shite and waki. [CW 15, 169]

[31]  Book 5 of Parzival] is the great vision of the Grail canto.  P. [Parzival] meets the fisher king as a fisherman, with peacock feathers in his hat & described as sorrowful.  The Grail castle is at what looks like the Mount of Salvation in the Land of Salvation, and, like the cave of sleep in Keats’s Endymion, it cannot be sought for but can only be found unawares.  It’s related thus to the timeless moment theme, Chihkai Bardo.  And, of course, the moment, once found, must be grasped: this is symbolized by the question.  The quest of question is thus opposed to the quest of courtesy: it’s out of courtesy that he neglects to ask. [CW 15, 175]

[38]  Gawain then comes up.  The spellbinding is also an amnesia: P. [Parzival] doesn’t remember his two fights.  Gawain appears to the brother-figure in the P. complex before Fierefiz.  Anyway, the two go to Arthur’s assembly & then come two entries of discord, Cundice, Wagner’s Kundry, who is a witch & looks like an animal, loads P. down with bitter reproaches because he didn’t ask the question about Anfortas’ grief that would have removed that grief.  Obviously the failure to ask has, like failure to grasp the Chihkai moment of Bardo, started another cycle turning.  Her reproaches are based on truth, but the parallel reproach to Gawain of having killed the accuser’s father is false.  Anyway, the narrative drops P. for two books & follows Gawain.  (Incidentally, notice the wood-of-Nemi way that P, became the Red Knight back in Book 3.)  The centrifugal movement breaking up the symposium-cast is a challenge to invade illusion & bring reality into it. [CW 15, 177]

[40]  Book 8 hasn’t much of interest except a curious episode where Gawain is caught unarmed & his girl friend takes him upstairs in a castle where he grabs a chess board for shield & she throws chess pieces down on the &, every his being a knockout.  As I think I’ve said, there’s a Bardo link in the fact that so many of the fights lead to reconciliations. [CW 15, 178]

[51]  Book 14: The recognition scene begins here with the arrival of P. the red knight into the Gawain story.  Society of love forms under all the hardware, & reconciliation, or renouncing of quest, gives a Bardo tone to the imagery.  [CW 15, 180]

[31] I’ve said that the main personal problem for me in writing this book is to progress from learning about what vision is about to learning about vision.  The psychology of the creative process (centre of gravity perhaps Coleridge, keeping well away from the American Road-to-Xanadu notion that imagination is a precipitate of memory), leads to probing into a part of Blake I’ve never quite figured out: the association, in Thel & the Antamon passage of Milton, between the birth of a child as an even in the whirling Paolo-&-Francesca current of the Orc cycle of life, death & rebirth, & the birth of an idea, image, or work of art as an event in the current of what Yeats calls the Anima Mundi––not that he’s the only one to call it that.  Also, of course, the morphology of yogas & spiritual exercises, mystic, iconic, psychosomatic & the rest.  If I can grasp a coherent idea of creativity in relation to Bardo & Anima Mundi extensions of Generation, I can perhaps force my way through to the allegory of the circumferential body as one finds it in The Tempest.  My present development, that is, has brought me to the wall of the Mundane Shell, & the realization that it is a Hell.  Yeats & Joyce, now leering at me like Og & Anak, have to help me through the seed-place of reality & into the circumferential Tharmas-world of Shakespeare, & Dante too with his apparatus of vortexes & mirrors.  I note that I’ve said this before: I should read my notes. (CW 15, 101)

[49]  But after all Generation is the image, the form or reality, of Regeneration, a fact which Blake came to take so much for granted that Lawrence thought he’d forgotten it.  In Yeats the Castiglion aristocrat is the mask, the persona or physical appearance of the creator, his centre as opposed to his circumference.  Also Yeats seems to move opposite (note the spiral again) from Blake, from J [Jerusalem] to MHH [The Marriage of Heaven and Hell].  Sex & the Glad Day are certainly what is discovered in the Last Poems.  The point is that the Castiglione ideal appears in society as a responsible leader, whereas actually it’s his detachment that’s ideal, and that that leads to the Prospero inner world.  It’s only the lost cause that is imgve:  one has to pass through a dark moonless night of the sould, a Gotterdammerung relapse into chaos.  Lear & Cuchulain fight the waves; the old man’s eagle mind beats the air on the way to the sun:  the elderly salmon leaps defiantly upstream. The serpent bites its tail as Orc & Urizen destroy one another, as Cuchulain kills his son & Orestes his father; & Purgatory is the prephysical Beulah world where one sees the cycle in all its hopeless murderousness.  All this is still Bardo & persona, Prospero unreleased, as the use of the Tibetan story about rebirth of Cuchulain as donkey shows. Christ as Orc, the raiser of Lazarus, is terrible, as Calvary & Resurrection indicate:  there he’s the turner of the wheel: remember Wilde’s story. [CW 15, 106]

[50]  But in Bardo you get at least a chance at the divine vision, the flash of articulate reality which traditionally the swan, outwardly a centre of proud beauty, gets.  The swan does more than just fuck Leda & lay the eggs of love & war: the eggs of the heron, swan & phoenix are images of the Mundane Shell that those fool spirits told Yeats was unbreakable.  Speaking of proud beauty, the female will Maud Gonne gave Yeats the female side of his Castiglione ideal, yet even there Yeats realized that attached beauty, the rabble-rousing Deborah or Boadicea fury, was wrong.  If Blake wore no persona, it was partly because he got no chance to. [CW 15, 106–7]

[52] Purgatory, the hyperphysical Beulah place of seed & moral fatalism on the other side of the world, the passageway to Paradise, the world of Thel where ideas & creatures are one, being both unborn, the whirling cycle-world of love (Paolo & Francesca) & where Swift continues to seek his twofold Emanation, the world which is the Bardo or hyperphysical form of the Church & thus the dark cupboard priests threaten their bad children with (Yeats too, in the Dreaming of the Bones), is Yeats’ development of the country of the Sidhe with their beautiful bodies, the Orc world called Tir-nan-Og, the country of the young, a shadow-Hades-Elysium of departed gods & heroes, imagvely [imaginatively] above our world, visibly below it, vortical to ours in either case.  Purgatory is a mountain & winding stair, a spiral pointing at infinity in one direction & indefiniteness in the other, a pyramid & a Tower of Babel, phallic both as male (tower) & female (cornucopia).  “Screw” is a very profound word.  This purgatory of Yeats owes a lot to Swedenborg.  Curious how Druidical it is, with its rebirth overtones, how analogous, in other words, for a poet who dimly felt that his own salvation lay in Protestantism, the vortex-creed that leaps over purgatory.  It’s the Druidical analogy to Japanese Buddhism too, which is kindly & hopeful about Bardo.  In Noshikiji the lovers are reunited, not frustrated as in The Dreaming of the Bones or The Hawk’s Well.  In Hagoromo the fairy who teaches the dance of the phases of the moon is a lovely creature, a shy naked nymph who wants her fan back, not one of those dismal pedants in V [A Vision].  In Kagekij a father & daughter meet in a moment of inexpressible tenderness, in contrast to the crazed pedlar butchering his father & his son in sacrifices to a maternal female will.  In Kuanasake the brigand-hero appears, like Cuchulain in OJE [The Only Jealousy of Emer], once as a man of peace (priest) & once as himself, reconciling himself with his slayer as the previous fight materializes out of the in medias res flashback narrative in a ritual sword-fight.  What lovely plays, with the Edgar-choruses moving in & out of the characters minds! [CW 15, 107–8]

[71]  In his most pre-Raphaelite period he doesn’t make nearly so much of the femme fatale as one would expect.  He’s quite sensible about it in fact.  Two primary romance archetypes, the straight knight’s quest or triumph of the Orc-libido, & the death in the pass, the quasi-ritual killing of the Adonis hero, emerge clearly.  The latter is potentially aharchist throughout.  He has a remarkably consistent Beulah, which is even a Bardo (“A Dream,” & to some extent “The Hollow Land”: in Gertha’s Lovers” it’s the straight lover Paradise of completed love).  It’s often a “good land,” like the one in Ruskin’s KGR [King of the Golden River] that represents his definition of wealth, shut in by mountains like the prison- Paradise of Rosalee.  Such a community (“Gerta’s Lovers abd “Svend and his Brethren” especially) is an Arcadia or Nowhere that represents a kind of “governor” principle: it’s in the world but not of it, & is regularly besieged by surrounding tyrannies, the allegory suggesting Spenser’s Castle of Alma & Maleager in “Sven his Brethren.”  This Arcadia descends to the fallen world by an act of sacrifice (a woman in it marries the enemy king:  the use of Iphigenia sacrifice patterns in a royal marriage is striking), & then leaves it, to go over the sea to an e.p. [earthly paradise] suggesting Iceland––Iceland & the spiritual fourfold England of NN [News from Nowhere] are both variants of the Hesperides.  Svend & his 6 Brethren represent the archetypes of an ideal society: a king, a craftsman, a philosopher, a poet, a musician, & two explorers.

[72]  The hopeless fight against enormous surrounding odds occurs all through: its anarchist basis makes it a congenial romantic form.  Troy, the English in France when losing (the period suggests the wider loss of the age of chivalry itself), the death of Arthur, are examples.  Psychological parallels are in the prison symbol & a curiously frequent nightmare paralysis (“Spell Bound”) theme.  When it’s the defence of the good land by a slain hero the two Orc themes are united.  “The Hollow Land” actually comes near to suggesting the vision-analogy pattern of medievalism which will be perhaps my main point.  “Golden Wings” is a straight defeat story: note that, like “The Story of the Valeron Church,” it’s told in Bardo.  Re the pre-R [pre‑Raphaelite] female will, I imagine “Frank’s Sealed Letter” is an example of what Morris’ life would have been like if Jane had lived up to the silly pre-R stereotypes.  Ineffectual fits & starts of restless activity & futile nostalgia would be a good parody; it’s what Morris just missed. [CW 15, 117]

[86]  The e.p. [earthly paradise] is really a Bardo, a stage of Beulah withdrawal from Europe into an Icelandic-Hesperidean-Atlantis imgve. world of cyclic stories wherefrom the G [Generation] world appears in outward shadows of possibility.  The wanderers (Viking-nomad symbol) settle (this settling, which is Icelandic & medieval, is the rooting of culture) in an e.p. after an Ulro or Druid episode, a heroic aristocratic episode, & a deified episode from which they are thrown out after a social revoltuion.  As the wanderers are essentially tale-tellers, their arrival at the e.p. purifies the vision of the tale from all heroic & divine entanglements.  Hence the e.p. is an allegory of the purifying of the tale vision the detaching of a myth from causation.  In Chaucer the tale is the B or spiritual form of the teller, & the E.P. [Earthly Paradise] preserves the going & coming original pattern of Chaucer along with the 24-book scheme of Spenser. [CW 15, 121]

[22]  The reading begins with the fall of an apple & Newton’s vision of the unity of matter, of the limit of opacity.  With Darwin comes a corresponding law of the unity of living form, of the limit of contraction or Adam (hence the conflict with Genesis), a destruction of the barrier between variety & species which leads directly to a vision of the Polypus or body of Luvah, the analogy of Albion.  What Yeats is doing is bringing out some of the still missing links.  The total Orc cycle of Generation moves cyclically in & out of an invisible Bardo or seed-world, full of the unborn, potential, unshaped, embryonic, deceased, astral & demonic forms, a world of confused voices & spasmodic powers, a world where one feels in touch with what one is always thinking of as Albion & which always turns out to be Luvah.  I suppose some knowledge of this world, even some power over it, is genuinely imaginative, but it’s dangerous & will lead one, if not to hell with Mephistopheles, at least to Druidism with Hitler. Everything in Yeats fits.  It’s a world of miracle, for wonder is in Beulah, & machines, the antennae of the instinctive mind, grope in it.  Erewhon is a profound parable of the whole damned business.  The root of the trouble is the Kantian butterslide, for a world of things in themselves is a world of pure objectivity. [CW 15, 132]

[51]  The suggestion of supernatural activity produces the tale form, where there’s a series of events suggesting a superpersonal march of action which overmasters the characters or else identifies itself with the heroic will.  In here come the myths of hermetic romanticism, as we get them in, for instance, Bulwer Lytton’s Zanoni & The Coming Race.  The essential romantic myths are founded, of course, on the mysterious Kantian unknowable noumenon which in rcsm. [romanticism] takes the form of the world as will.  From this we get the Akasa-myth: Vril, Od, élan vital, creative evolution (when rescued from the mother-goddess cult of Darwin & Huxley), ether, electricity, magnetism & galvanism (for one must be scientific) & other adaptations of anima mundi & astral light theories.  (These first turn up in Neoplatonism: how the hell did they, & the elementals business, ever get stuck on Plato’s name?).  These of course account for mesmerism & the feats of Indian jugglers, who develop an extensive mythology in the 19th c.  Another pattern is the (apparently always allied) theory of elementals or non-physical forms of existence.  These merge with spiritualism & Bardo-theories.  The neo-Pythagorean heroes, development of Simon Magus & Apollonius of Tyana, appear in Cagliostro, the Wandering Jew, Edmund [Dantés?] (withdrawal & return) & Frankenstein as the portents of a nomadic & anarchic civn.[civilization]. [CW 15, 143]

[20]  Joyce might have noted the passage in Plato, Rep. X, about Ulysses’ desire, unique in Bardo, to be reborn as an ordinary man.  Speaking of Bardo, I suspect that conception (that an archetypal dream-state is achieved after death) may be in FW [Finnegans Wake] as well. [CW 15, 69]

[63]  Gogol’s story The Overcoat is an expert handling of an ironic archetype: the overcoat is a “Bright Visitant” stolen from a poor crushed little man—the Bardo epilogue I haven’t quite got.  The Nose is more radically ironic, a little like Kafka’s cockroach story, & I must look at it again when I really look into the matter of fragmentation techniques.  The Portrait has an odd paradox inadvertently concealed in its sinister artefact archetype—it’s a portrait of a Satan or Antichrist who’s an Archimago or master of illusion, yet the portrait owes its power as [slip for “of”?] catching the demonic soul of the sitter to its realism.  I say inadvertent, because the conception of art involved in the story is a bit phony. Nevsky Avenue is a dumbbell-shaped story, like Flaubert’s “Spirals” theme as reported by Yeats. [CW 15, 82]

[64]  But it’s the one called The Terrible Vengeance that interests me. To crack my next nut I need a topos for Romantic fiction corresponding to the four-levels of art & nature one that opens up so much of Spenser & Shakespeare & Milton.  This looks as though it ought to be near the centre of it.  Heroine a wife whose father is a mysterious magician who turns out to be Antichrist—incestuous feelings for her, natch, & he eventually kills her husband, infant son, & herself.  The epilogue—Gogol’s fond of epilogues—sometimes they complete the scheme, as in The Portrait; sometimes they’re author-appearances (Nose); sometimes they add the initial scene, as here & in The Portrait—I meant Nevsky Avenue above & not The Portrait, & sometimes they’re a Bardo twist, as in The Overcoat.  Well, anyway, the evil old man is Antichrist all right, but he’s under a curse pronounced long ago & agreed to reluctantly by God—it’s a Fall archetype, only it involves two “brothers” in an Esau–Jacob relationship—well, Cain–Abel, I suppose.  For some reason the sorcerer is persistently associated with the river Dnieper, & his daughter with the long-legged bait in the river—demon lover archetype.  In the epilogue the original brothers are upper & lower circle: the Thel figure is a Feltro hero on the mountain-tops, but he can’t enter heaven because of his desire for vengeance.  The black brother is an imprisoned Loki whose writings cause earthquakes: his desire for vengeance is impotent, & the sorcerer is the last of his line.  The sorcerer, by the way, is imprisoned & released by the heroine—reverse of the Merlin–Vivien complex.  [CW 15, 82]

Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writing (CW 25)

[For at least thirteen years Frye entertained the notion of writing a Bardo novel. The seven following entries are from CW 25, 151–2]

[1]  How the hell would one write a good Bardo novel.  It would have to be short, or get laborious.  I don’t know how one could introduce incident or dialogue.  It wouldn’t do at all unless it could acquire a powerfully convincing logic: I’d want something as concrete as Dante and yet carrying its punch within its own argument, and not depending on the traditional Church fables.  To do that I think I should have to assume that you get to a certain spiritual abode when you get there, i.e., that one’s environment is appropriate to one’s character, as the doctrine of karma or original sin establishes for this existence.  The trick is to make a logical sequence of experiences without preaching, and yet implying a complete theory of Bardo.

[2]  The only ideas I have are, first, the old Swedenborgian notion that the newly deceased doesn’t know he’s dead.  Hence a trick opening scene: soul gets up and dresses, hoping nurse doesn’t see him, goes out and engages in a conversation with people he knows and puts a remark in here & there: is hurt when no one attends to him and eventually discovers the truth.  Second, the Paracelsian idea that the things seen in d.t.’s are really there, like stars in daytime.  Again, I’d like to show how this perception of the physical world becomes cubist.  Oh, hell, I’d want to do something versatile and with a light touch, like the Sword in the Stone, yet packing a terrific wallop and making monkeys out of the persons.

[3]  I think of it naturally as a continuous philosophical narrative, but that’s an easy way out.  The ideal job would be a sequence of scenes on the pattern of the first one, constituting a sequence of dramatic metamorphoses.  I’ve got more or less to the point now at which I feel that if I knew how to write a good book I might get around to writing a good book.  The general shape would have to be purgatorial.  I haven’t any idea what the final scene would be: maybe reincarnation, which is implicit in the whole scheme.  That’s the satiric or what I call the selalk resolution.  The point is that the narrator had prepared for death by reading and meditation, but the swoon took him unawares and, like everyone else who dies, he woke up in Bardo not knowing he had died.  That’s the regular Tibetan formula.  Hence reincarnation could be explained as a second swoon, again catching him unawares and as a result of the fact that the first one committed him to pyschical cycle rather than pneumatic liberation.  Thus the climax would come at the upper limit of Beulah, whatever that involves me in:  a vision of the liberated world beyond all conventional heavens.  I’m vague here, of course, but so’s everybody.

[4]  Bardo is the happy-hunting ground of all priestcraft, from Egyptian hike to Catholic collections for souls in purgatory.  I have no conscience about trying to bust any sort of a priest’s racket; but that can’t be my only angle.  I don’t want supernatural materialism either.  The book’s ideology would be a Bardo projection of my own: perhaps the deadee would regret not having developed my kind of outlook and would go back to get it.  It wouldn’t be quite as bald as that in presentation, but it would be in essential theory.  God damn it.  This kind of mooning isn’t fiction-writing.

[5]  Two possibilities for the opening scene are, first, the one suggested above, second, the one in Outward Bound which is also Swedenborgian.  I had a curious experience with that play: several people described the plot to me before I read it, and I was fascinated by it: I thought it must be an almost definitive Bardo plot.  I read it and discovered it was tripe—the opening scene was effective enough, but there was no follow-through, as he had nothing to say about Bardo, and even the opening scene depended for much of its effect on the emotional association of crossing the bar or the sense of detachment from the world on shipboard.  It’s a fine opening milieu, though, and I wish I could get away with stealing it.

[6]  (One curious feature of all my fictional reveries is the prophetic: several times a notion I’ve had actually turns up in some professional writer.  Thus Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools has just (April 1962) appeared.  This is one of the many reasons why I suspected my Bardo novel is not something to write, but a koan to think about and exercise the mind.  If I write it I might be snatching the bread out of the mouth of somebody who otherwise would have done it better.)

[7]  The crisis of a Bardo plot is almost necessarily a threshold scene, a plunge into another order of being.  The recognition similarly is the return.

[20]  I want to write a work of prose fiction that will incorporate everything I myself most like to read in romance, novel, confession & anatomy, & yet has an original & not an eclectic form.  I think of using the framework of the Bardo story:  i.e., I begin with the narrator as dead, & looking at the world from that perspective.  At the same time I want humour, intellectual paradox, & the absolute opposite of morbidity.  I read essays with some impatience because I feel I’ve outgrown that form.  And I have too much respect for dialogue, characterization and plot to neglect the novel & romance phases.

I read Bulwer Lytton’s Strange Story and Zanoni with enormous pleasure, disregarding the corn.  But nobody, I think, has ever faced the vast tangle of complications ensuing from taking the conception of a consciousness persisting after death as a fictional hypothesis.  There’s Huxley, & of course Williams, but they’re preachers, not paradoxists.

I think of a longish book in two parts, with a picaresque shape, & second part being the after-death one. That means that the first part will be a sort of normal story, only a shade wackier. [CW 25, 127]

[5]   What ethical & practical power would such a belief have?  Well, I suppose, it’s reincarnation without quietism.  The “saved” in the birth‑world would perhaps have the choice of deliverance or transformation‑body, as in Buddhism.  I suppose though that it’s not sacramentally oriented—no priesthood stands to make money out of it.  A more difficult question is the kind of experience, the kind of society, involved in this world.  I mean the other world.  The Tibetan Bardo is as far as I can see a completely isolated world of subjective hallucination.  Now this last is something I’d like to look into—a double parallel of lives, the hidden meaning of each revealed in the other.  Perhaps the dream ­world of the triumphant libido is in this other world, or closely linked with it. [CW 25, 142]

[10]  Every once in a while I get a fit of euphoria, probably induced by gas in the stomach, in which I feel that I’m capable of writing good fiction.  The old superstition that fiction is creative & criticism second‑rate & second‑hand talking about creation dies hard, although I’ve lived to see

most criticism, including mine, become more creative than most fiction.  Finishing the A of C left me willing to speculate about Bardo again.  [CW 25, 143]

Notebook 30r (unpublished)

Try to shift the centre of your sexual gravity to the sex act, & of your human gravity to the human act, the act of kindliness, of Chih-kai Bardo, which, like the sex act, depends on timing.

Northrop Frye’s Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism” (CW 23)

[90]  All through English literature there has been a green England, a forest Beulah land of Faerie antipodal to historical England (which is red and white): a Bardo-world of opposite solstices (as in MND [A Midsummer Night’s Dream].  This is Marvell’s world: it’s often Edenic, because of the garden symbolism of Eden proper, & it’s the alchemic green lion out of which the body & blood of the world of opposites comes.  Atlantid & Hesperian tones here are, I think, more Renaissance than medieval.  It’s antipodal morally as well as seasonally (Robin Hood & the Green Knight), & some suppressed paganism lurks in it.  This forest world is that of the F.Q. [Faerie Queene] as opposed to that of Arthur, & the F.Q.’s knights are mainly born in it—Artegall is the exception, as Q5 [The Faerie Queene, bk. 5] has the one purely historical allegory where the green world fades into a brown waste land. [CW 23, 41–2]

[92]  Of course, Dante’s four levels of allegory translate into Sidney’s pattern: once the “literal” is rejected, as it practically is in Spenser, the allegorical & the historical become the same thing.  Anagogy is thus a synthesis of moral & historical allegories.  Is it being over-symmetrical to say that the Arthur-world, the red & white England, is the historic allegory, & the Faerie or green England the moral one?  For Spenser’s green world is not an antipodal Bardo, as in the Middle Ages, but a Beulah world of archetypal ideas or forms. [CW 23, 42]

[97]  There are three worlds: the physical world, the psychic world & the pneumatic or verbal world.  I prefer verbal (ultimately it will have to be “logical,” although Ulro has usurped it) to pneumatic because it is wrong to say “in the beginning was the breath or spirit.”  The N.T. corrects the O.T. on this point.  From the word one can get to organic law, freedom in discipline (this is part of the Oresteia progression) & from breath only to Aristotle’s first mover.  I think this equivalence of verbal & logical is a point in refuting the “logical positivist” position, which claims to be anti-verbal and attains only logically or verbally correct patterns.  Anyway, the logical world is the world of one form which I expound from the Bible & related works.  From there one can try to descend into the psychic world & make sense of it.  This is Beulah, the world of angels, devils, ghosts, spirits in purgatory, unborn spirits, elementals including fairies & automatic potencies like those employed in magic.  The problem of exact demarcation between B [Beulah] & G [Generation] is difficult & not mine: I doubt if it can be solved scientifically or mediumistically, by way of G, exposing oneself to automatic impressions of evidence as the scientist & the medium’s friends do (the medium himself is only a telephone or dictaphone, apt to scramble messages like the one I saw at the fair[)].  The difficulty about the psychic world is that it can be seen in relation to the logical world, as imaginative, or to G, as “actually existing.”  No matter how thoroughly you explore one side of the other, a residual doubt in relation to the other side remains.  Perhaps clarifying the logical world will help as much as clarifying the scientific (empiric) one.  In this sense “religion” (constructing verbal patterns) & science are both apocalyptic, for Beulah is torn in two in the apocalypse.  It is the world of past history & future prophecy as well, & is the apocrypha of both verbal & empirical mythology.  Ultimately G, which is also Maya, & U [Ulro] are included in it.  Maybe that’s all the Lankavatara is saying: maybe I hit a home run in FS after all.  Man spirals & gyres in the B-G world, in G during the day, in B in sleep, in G in life, in B in death (Bardo).  Above him is the Word, below him the second death.  He moves toward an apocalypse in which he is saved from death by the understanding of the Word.  In occult terms, spirit & body fight for soul.  I wish I knew what the hell I was getting at. [CW 23, 44–5]

[11]  I have occasionally felt that there was no such subject as comparative religion, as I’m not sure just what gets compared.  But such a subject, if I worked it out & clarified my ideas about it, would presumably be the theme of [Paradox], or [Ignoramus], either of which might be studies in comparative religion.  The previous note indicates the direction of assimilating my views about society with a study of the archetypes of history.  I think comparative religion would have to start with an isolation of the essential elements in religion, & with a relating of the different levels to different phases of history.  Maybe we start, as Cassirer, following Usener, with the occasional epiphanic god, which is individual.  Then we get the local god, corresponding to the tribe, & so to the occult element in religion, the one surviving in ghosts, fairies, gnomes, elves, the powers in Paracelsus, devils & demons, the world of magic & spiritualism, of divination & astrology, of automatic writing, poltergeists & controls.  Totemism is I think the progressive principle of this stage, as it has the social element.  The beginnings of rituals & imitative dances belong here too.  I don’t want to dismiss the “mezzanine” world of Yeats & Blavatsky as purely unreal: some such theory as Bardo might make sense of it, as I’ve always thought.  [CW 23, 117–18]

[118]  Spenser has the pure anagogic in I and the top of the purgatorial mountain in VI: maybe I have to distinguish them.  That’s a bore, because there isn’t any apocalyptic-­type anagogic that works, as far as I can see.  Anyway, Error & the cannibal feast in VI are Druidic.  The point of V is evidently on the circle of law, though Spenser probably buggers it: maybe he’s trying to put in on reason, opposite II, which is certainly the experiential.  Anyway III is Arcadia, though some of the implications of GA [Gardens of Adonis] are higher.  Obviously I can’t expect clear zoning laws.  IV is higher up—and lower down too likely: the Druidic analogies of the hermaphroditic Venus thing are lower than Busirane.  The release of waters is springish—I should find names for the zones of Beulah.  Utopia, Arcadia, Bardo and whatever the ark‑boat complex is. [CW 23, 193–4]

[62]  Somewhere, maybe in the account of irony in 3, I need my Chih-kai Bardo point about the lost moment (Augenblick) leading to inorganic repetition.  Then Prufrock’s sense of lacking the strength to force the moment to its crisis, Proust’s sense of paradise lost, the stammer or hesitant moment in FW [Finnegans Wake], all belong to a consistent pattern.  (Also the Comus point of the cycle as itself the final enemy.) [CW 23, 221]

[64]  Several of my plans have come smack up against a theory of Bardo, & I can’t help wondering if I don’t need at least a literary theory of ghosts, if not of the whole supernatural.  I must start with the vampire theme in Wuthering Heights & see if I can attach it to my floating notions about the echo & the preservation of identity in DM [Daisy Miller], & of the returning ghost in Senecan revenge plays as neurotic, blocked & bound to a pattern of recurrence.  The ghost theme in Eliot’s Waste Land (water-nymphs recalling the bodiless souls of Purgatory) winds up with a quotation from the Spanish Tragedy [ll. 266 ff., 432].  Also the Kurtz business, Kurtz being, like Heathcliffe, a “lost violent” soul [The Hollow Men, ll. 15–16]. [CW 23, 222]

Northrop Frye’s Notebooks on Renaissance Literature (CW 20)

[45]  A good title for the passage dealing with my attack on Shakespeare’s personality would be “the sanctified & pious bard.”  Bard, Bardo, Barth, Byrd & the Birds about sum up what the book covers. [CW 20, 115]

[47]  The Tibetan conception of Bardo, an archetypal dream achieved by the soul (or whatever it is) between death & rebirth, is something I have now to struggle with.  It’s Blake’s Beulah, of course, but there are implications in MT, [The Mental Traveller] CC [The Crystal Cabinet], & more particularly the Antamon passage in M [Milton], I haven’t fully comprehended.  These link with the Bardo theme in the Xn drama (Harrowing of Hell) & most of the great crises of drama: T [The Tempest], because the island is an obvious Bardo, complete with demons of wrath, for the Court Party; Parsifal, with its Good-Friday to Easter pattern; maybe the Birds too—anyway, with the whole ritual-death conception of the mysterious, as Still attempted to point out.  These latter link with Virgil & with a Friday to Easter pattern in both Dante & Goethe.  Don’t forget the open grave in Hamlet either, or PT [The Phoenix and the Turtle].  And, of course, my whole point about Toynbee’s movement of withdrawal & return & the church as the place of seed between two cycles being linked with Spengler’s notion of a Magian cavern-culture between a cycle of body & a cycle of  function goes: note that here the returning movement is the reverse of the disappearing one, as in Dante & as in my theory of language. [CW 20, 115–6]

[241] The dialectic seems to start with an analysis of New Comedy, then moves to Old Comedy to explore the patterns involved where they’re more explicit, then to the Christian separation of heaven & hell, commedia & the ritual-bound demonic sacrifice, the world the eiron points to & the world the alazon gestures in front of.  Note that in 3 goes the enunciation of the “nature & nothing” principle.  So, very vaguely:  1) New Comedy  2) Old Comedy  3) Commedia & [demonic] ritual  4) Comedy vs. Tragedy  5) Comedy & Symposium.  That completes a tentative exposition. Development starts with a historical chapter 6) on the Christian & medieval developments of drama, winding up with a general statement of the Elizabethan setting.  7 I think of only as a red & white chapter, dealing with the interrelations of comedy, tragedy & history.  8 is about the green world & the phoenix; 9 is about the Apuleian Bardo.  10 strettoes the history them of 7 in a commentary on Cy [Cymbeline], where Fidele is the phoenix as a social body (overtones of the Xn Church).  11 strettoes the green world & phoenix theme in a commentary on WT [The Winter’s Tale]; 12 strettoes the Bardo theme & comments on T [The Tempest].  That’s assuming I don’t do anything organic with H8 [Henry VIII] or TNK [The Two Noble Kinsmen]. [CW 20, 190]

[233]  That’s plain sailing, more or less. What buggers the whole scheme is the intrusion of a fourth form of drama, or what I now think of as a fourth form: mime, gesture & action, which in ritual is dance & in myth agon.  This is what’s connected with my “persona” notes, & it seems to be connected with the masque, the theme of disguise, and, perhaps, the whol notion of “mimesis.”  If it really is a fourth form, it’s the ultimate secret of the Bardo world I have to explore in 12, a chapter to be called “The End of the Revels.” [CW 20, 191]

Northrop Frye’s Late Notebooks (CW 5 and 6)

[593]  Some of the people Dante meets in hell, such as Vanni Fucci, hate to give their names: there’s a close parallel in such dialogues to the ghosts in No plays.  If the setting of the Inferno were Bardo it would be a less barbaric poem, if not necessarily a better one.  [CW 5, 226]

[68]  Figuring out the second four chapters will be hard work, but I mustn’t think in terms of, say, stuffing Dante into 2.  Dante will spread over 1, 2 & 3 anyway, and Goethe, or at least Faust, over 2, 3 & 4.  The 3rd or circle chapter will likely be the one for this: Dante faces the three beasts, can’t take them, and his running away takes him through the whole cosmos.  Faust wants magic rather than theology, summons the Erdgeist, can’t take him, settles for a deal with Mephistopheles, but goes through hell to heaven–note that his quest is in time rather than space metaphors.  And the Bardo Thodol, with its flash of light that practically everyone misses, & has to go through the cycle again.  My FW [Finnegans Wake] point about the cycle being the only “symbol” for what’s beyond a cycle, is in AC [323–4].  Ist nur ein Gleichnis: [“Alles Verg aungliches ist nur ein Gleichnis: [“All in transition is but reflection”] (Faust, pt. 2, ll. 12104–5, trans. Hamlin)] everything’s an analogy or mirror.  In spite of all the “die That” crap, Faust is not saved by works. [The allusion is to Faust’s “Im Anfang war die That” [“In the beginning was the deed”], (Faust, pt. 1, line 1237).  For Frye’s gloss on the line, see Great Code, 18, Myth and Metaphor, 240, and Words with Power, 34.]  He’s dragged off to heaven by Christianized Valkyries in spite of himself.  Keats’ Endymion, another road with a detour sign. [CW 5, 270]

[73]  What’s the initiative excluded from the higher kerygma?  Something that goes outside the verbal, which is why it can’t have much of a role in my book.  It starts after we’ve finished the Bible and accepted its invitation to drink [Revelation 22:17].  But Zen & others say that it’s a renewal of vision, the same world but seen in enlightenment.  If so, the five modes go round in a circle.  But that won’t work: it just brings back the old cloven fiction.  No: the conception of interpenetration can’t be avoided.  Although, once again, there could be a cyclical movement that represents ultimate failure, just as reincarnation is a cycle representing the failure to achieve the Chih-kai Bardo flash.  Somewhere there has to be the notion that return to this world doesn’t mean being hitched to a death-journey. [CW 5, 271]

[167]  Back to thematic stasis for a moment: there’s a myth that one’s life appears as a total vision at the moment of death or near-death: I have yet to confirm this in my own experience.  But I’ve always been fascinated by the Chih-kai Bardo business in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and it fits here.  The complete picture comes to us in a jigsaw puzzle box, and criticism is the art of putting it together. [CW 5, 288–9]

[313]  Chess in Bardo?  Is it a modulation of dice in Bardo?  A chess move is a decisive choice that may not abolish chance, but sets up a train of consequences that forces it to retreat into the shadows. [CW 5, 318]

[376]  The missed moment, the peripeteia, which starts the cycle turning again, has fascinated me ever since I met it in the Chih-kai Bardo.  It’s in de Quincey, of course, and in FW [Finnegans Wake], where I’ve dealt with it. [“Cycle and Apocalypse in Finnegans Wake, Myth and Metaphor, 356–74.]  I don’t know if the renounced quest belongs, though it’s central in PU [Prometheus Unbound]: in Macbeth the completing of a revenge quest sets time free, & I suppose Pr’s [Prometheus’s] renouncing of the curse on Jupiter that keeps Jupiter in business does the same.  [CW 5, 331]

[56]  Evolution is not a myth, but designs constructed from it, like the onward-and-upward construct, are myths.  They don’t necessarily have to be scrapped for “new” myths, but there’s a progression like that of the hallucinations in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  [CW 6, 623]

Notes on Romance (The Educated Imagination weblog Library)

. . . “The Life that dwells in Death” (385) is the opposite of Life-in-Death, of course.  Lona is said to have been a long time dead when she was killed by her mother-don’t get that.  The Little Ones all go and lay down and go by-by: harrowing of hell and recognition of holy family, more or less.  Hero is sent out to go bury Lilith’s hand; the result is a journey through Bardo where he’s tempted in rather obvious ways.  Meets an old man like the one in the Pardoner’s Tale.

[559]  Vision of sudden death.  The crucial thing here is what’s expressed in the Tibetan Book of the Dead as the vision of Chih-kai Bardo: i.e., the instant of death is a crisis that only the profoundly disciplined yogi can meet; everybody foozles it and goes on around the cycle to rebirth.  Not many men have to face the crucial trial that exposes their peculiar weakness.  “But potentially, and in shadowy outline, such a trial is moving subterraneously in perhaps all men’s natures.” Focusses on a type of anxiety dream, of lying down in front of a lion (cf. Dante’s ducking away from the three beasts), “that dream repeats for every one of us, through every generation, the original temptation in Eden.” “It is not without probability that in the world of dreams every one of us ratifies for himself the original transgression.” Joyce knew this passage, according to Frank Budgen (there’s also an account of a conversation with George III in the autobiographies that sounds a bit like the dialogue in the second chapter of FW [Finnegans Wake]).  Here the driver of the mail coach was asleep, and the crisis came partly for De Q, who was at the back of the coach and couldn’t have grabbed the reins, and more particularly for the young man in the light calash who was taking his girl friend for a drive.  In our inorganic society this is just the kind of highway fatality that we have by the hundreds every week; De Q [De Quincey] focuses on it without that kind of blurring.

Bardo in Frye’s Published Works

Northrop Frye’s Writings on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (CW 17)

We are constantly in a twilight world between life and death, like the world of Beckett, or a world between physical objects and mysterious forces of which the objects are symbols, like the world of Ionesco, or a world like the “Bardo” world between death and rebirth which Yeats imported from the Orient. [CW 17, 134]

“The Journey as Metaphor” in The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 1976-1991 (CW 18)

This aspect of journeying forms the theme of the various sacred books written for the guidance of the dying, of which the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead are the best known.13 The Egyptian journey was to a world very like this one, where anything dangerous or sinister could be warded off by spells or by a proclamation of one’s virtue during life.  This conception of a postdeath “better land” is ignored in the Old Testament, though it seems to have been well known in Greece, judging from Plato’s attacks on it, and even in popular Jewish belief.  But it was in Christianity that it made its most energetic revival, and a quasi‑material heaven very like the ancient Egyptian one was central to most forms of Christianity as late as the nineteenth century—still is, of course, in some quarters.  The Tibetan Book of the Dead, on the other hand, is set in the framework of the Buddhist belief in reincarnation.  Here the recently dead soul is informed, by the reading of the book to him, that he will see a series, first of benevolent, then of wrathful, deities, and that as all these are hallucinations projected from his own mind, he should not commit himself to any belief in their substantial existence.  In practically all cases the discarnate soul is assumed to wander in an intermediate world between death and birth known as “Bardo,” until he is finally attracted to a female womb and enters it.  Here again there is a continuing cycle within which all journeys take place.  [CW 18, 416–17]

The Great Code (CW 19)

Anyone coming “cold” to the Book of Revelation, without context of any kind, would probably regard it as simply an insane rhapsody.  It has been described as a book that either finds a man mad or else leaves him so.  And yet, if we were to explore below the repressions in our own minds that keep us “normal,” we might find very similar nightmares of anxiety and triumph.  As a parallel example, we may cite the so‑called Tibetan Book of the Dead, where the soul is assumed immediately after death to be going through a series of visions, first of peaceful and then of wrathful deities.  A priest reads the book into the ear of the corpse, who is also assumed to hear the reader’s voice telling him that all these visions are simply his own repressed mental forms now released by death and coming to the surface.  If he could realize that, he would immediately be delivered from their power, because it is his own power. [The Great Code, CW 19, 156–7]

Northrop Frye on Twentieth‑Century Literature (CW 29)

The idea of reincarnation came to Yeats from Oriental sources through theosophy. A much better account than he gives of the progress from death to rebirth is in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, as it is called in the English translation, where the world inhabited is called Bardo.  In the Japanese Noh plays, too, which so deeply affected Yeats’s dramatic technique, the Bardo-world is the normal setting. [CW 29, 65–6]

Dante puts the Garden of Eden at the apex of his Purgatory, and both Blake and Spenser also have a lower Paradise in their symbolism, associated with the moon and with the Bardo world of the dead and unborn, which is yet a hyperphysical world and a part of the cyclic order of nature. {CW 29, 69]

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