Category Archives: Apocalypse

“The Tree of Life” and “The Book of Job”

I saw The Tree of Life last night, and it is a remarkable film. I loved all 14 billion years of it. (Yes, it does stretch back to the creation of the universe, but with emphasis on the last 60 years.)

There are two explicit references to the Book of Job, beginning with the opening title card, which refers to God’s confrontation with Job where God asks in the midst of Job’s terrible suffering what he knows about the origins of creation: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth. . .when the morning stars sang together?” (38:4,7).  The entire movie is keyed to this reference, which even then may not fully penetrate the mood of mystery whose motifs seem to be never-ending rounds of love and loss.

Frye, of course, wrote extensively about the Book of Job — about this climactic confrontation between God and Job especially — and, not surprisingly, offers clarification. From The Great Code:

The fact that God’s speech is thrown into a series of rhetorical questions to which “no” is the only answer seems to give it a bullying and hectoring quality, and certainly there is no “answer” to Job’s problem. But did we ever seriously think that so great a poem would turn out to be a problem with an answer? To answer a question. . .is to accept the assumptions in it, and thereby to neutralize the question by consolidating the mental level on which the question was asked. Real questions are stages in formulating better questions; answers cheat us out of the chance to do this. So even if we are dissatisfied with God’s performance, a God who was glibly ready to explain it all would be more contemptible than the most reactionary of divine bullies.

We remember that Job himself was groping toward a realization that no causal explanation of his alienated plight was possible. In a sense God is speaking out of Job’s own consciousness here: any causal explanation takes us back to a First Cause, that is the creation. The rhetorical questions really mean, then, in this context: don’t look along the line of causes to the creation: there is no answer there, and no help there. How Job got into his position is less important than how he is to get out of it; and it is only because he was not a participant in creation that he can be liberated from the chaos and darkness within it. (CW, 217-18)

Frye on the Homosexual Jesus

Jesus and the Beloved Disciple

It’s Gay Pride Week, which makes it an especially good time to bring bailing buckets to the leaky boat of fear and intolerance.

Frye many times uses the term “homosexual” to describe the Jesus of the gospels, which makes sense archetypally because he is the second Adam who must redeem our fallen sexuality, including the always problematical subordination of women. He therefore consorts with men and has a “beloved disciple.” This is part of the “Eros Regained” aspect of salvation, the return to innocence of our sexuality (that is, sexuality without shame rather than suffused with it), the pinnacle of which is the restoration of the female. Frye in Notes 52:

Eros Regained starts with the homosexual refined Jesus lying on the bosom of a male beloved disciple, trying to get away from his mother but still so hung up sexually that he insisted his father was not his father and that his mother was a virgin, rescuing a bride symbolically but saying “don’t touch me” as his last words to a woman. This is the first phase of [Robert] Graves’ sequel: the mother-son one, where the son has to be “pure” to stay away from the Oedipal situation . . . I think the refined pure youthful Christ who’s been such a pain in the ass to later ages goes with the perversion of his teachings into a Mother Church. If I’m right about the Virgin as (this also seems to be Jung’s view) the glorified creature, or Man as the fourth person in the Trinity (except that it’s Woman), the Catholic cult of the Virgin is really a kind of narcissism.

What this ultimately means is that the restoration of Eros completes the resurrection of love where even the sexes become interchangeable, and, as with the Angels in Milton’s Paradise Lost, sex itself becomes interpenetration where “obstacle” they “find none / Of membrane, joint or limb” (8: 625-6). Moreover, if Christ is the bridegroom and the Church his bride, then all of humanity is female at the moment of salvation.

So maybe we can throw in transvestism as also doing God’s work.

Todd Lawson, “Frye and the Koran: Typology, Apocalypse & Epic”

Todd Lawson is professor of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto

In several, scattered places in his later writings, Frye treats the Koran as a text that deserves to be read very carefully as both literature and “more than literature”.  For example, in The Great Code he points out that those who see in the Koran’s version of the story of Mary and the birth of Jesus a confusion of Biblical material have simply got it wrong and are deaf to the music of typological figuration.

The third Sura of the Koran appears to be identifying Miriam and Mary; Christian commentators on the Koran naturally say this is ridiculous, but from the purely typological point of view from which the Koran is speaking, the identification makes good sense. (GC 172, italics added)

Several similar instances demonstrate Frye’s characteristic perspicacity and even unto a text as foreign in cultural presuppositions, form and content as the Koran. I am studying Frye’s relationship with the Koran through both printed and unpublished works where he either explicitly refers to the text or where his remarks on other texts are equally apposite in the case of the Koran. I am also exploring, with the able and valuable assistance of Rebekah Zwanzig (who actually also discovered this blog), the Frye archive to study his marginalia and notes on related texts, such as English translations of the Koran and of Rumi’s poetry.  Results so far suggest that Frye’s faith in the “sacrament of reading” allowed him to develop a remarkably open, if critical, attitude towards the Koran, something in which he was certainly then – and may still well be – ahead of his time.

My interest in Frye’s Koran began in the early ‘80’s when I was working on a PhD thesis at McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies. My subject was a particularly challenging unpublished manuscript of an Arabic Koran commentary. In taking a break, reading the newly published Great Code, I saw that Frye had solved one of the problems that had been eluding me. His discussion of the above-mentioned typological figuration and its persuasive power and efficacy was in fact a revelation and provided a key I had not found elsewhere. When I started teaching at U of T in 1988 I secretly held the hope that I would one day be able to meet the great man and express to him my gratitude for his unbeknownst help. Of course, I also hoped of thus being able to search further the Frygian experience of the Koran. Alas, this meeting never happened. In fact, and in the context of the present research, a rather ironic signal brought the possibility to a clear, cold end . . . it was the evening of January 23, 1991. In those days I was in the habit of listening to the radio about the Gulf War while I worked in the evening in my office at Robarts Library. The bombing of Baghdad — home and scene of the great efflorescence of Arabo-Islamic learning and culture from the 8th to the 13th centuries — had begun five or six days earlier and was commencing apace.  The reports of this massive (and in retrospect perhaps phobic) attack were interrupted on the CBC to announce the passing of Northrop Frye. He had just been there, virtually across the street. Now he was gone. But, it seems, not forever.

Fifteen years later, I decided to have our conversation anyway. Having returned to the University of Toronto from McGill, and encouraged in my general research by a SSHRC award to study the Koran as an example of literary apocalypse, I decided to weave Frye’s very illuminating work into my methodology. In order to be as rigorous as possible about this, I organized two successive, year-long graduate seminars, entitled the Koranic Apocalyptic Imagination, around the above-mentioned later works of Frye, which included the Double Vision. It was as if the students recognized a long lost friend. It is amazing the way these young Islamicists became excited and encouraged by Frye’s remarks about the structure and content of the Bible because they could apply many of them to their own reading of the Koran, a text which for many of the students was certainly more than literature. And they also discovered how it was literature as well.

The current project, bringing into some kind of order the various aspects, apparent contradictions and other problems of a Frygian Koran, is meant to be background for a chapter in the eventual monograph on the Koran as apocalypse, a topic that has thus far attracted an astonishing lack of attention. Why this lack of attention? It is an interesting question, but one which I will forbear from addressing here. I look forward to hearing from scholars who may be interested in or actually working on Northrop Frye’s reading of the Koran and his understanding of Islam. I am grateful to Bob Denham for the extremely helpful postings here on Frye and the Koran and for general encouragement. And I am grateful to Michael Happy for passing along my initial note to the blog to Bob and, of course, for all of his hard work and creativity that has gone into this invaluable website.

Rupture (Reposted)


Bill Maher’s Armageddon weather forecast

It’s 6.30 and we’re still here. But then so probably is our pro-family values (i.e. anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion), pro-corporate and anti-NGO evangelical prime minister. But as long as we are all here and in it together, we should pay close attention to any overlap between public policy and the fundamentalist religious beliefs of Stephen Harper and those who advise him.

For example, the proposed “Office of Religious Freedom” doesn’t sound like it’s about “freedom” at all, but about imposing particular religious values upon our foreign affairs and commitments, where they have no place. Harper and his supporters in the evangelical community can believe to whatever degree they wish that Armageddon is coming and that Canada has a specific role to play. That’s their business. But they can’t make it a problem for the vast majority of Canadians who do not share it.

Update: Article 11 of the “Statement of Faith” of the Christian and Missionary Alliance based in Colorodo reads:

The second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is imminent(32) and will be personal, visible, and premillennial.(33) This is the believer’s blessed hope and is a vital truth which is an incentive to holy living and faithful service.(34)

Articles 10 and 11 of “The Statement of Faith” of the Canadian CMA, of which Harper is a member, read:

10. There shall be a bodily resurrection of the just and of the unjust; for the former, a resurrection unto life;22 for the latter, a resurrection unto judgment.23

11. The second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is imminent and will be personal and visible.24 As the believer’s blessed hope, this vital truth is an incentive for holy living and sacrificial service toward the completion of Christ’s commission.25″

There appears to be a deep-seated premillennarian disposition in CMA theology which is not explicitly present in the Canadian branch of the church, but the shared theological base seems otherwise consistent. particularly with regard to the resurrection to “life” of the “just” and a resurrection to “judgment” of the “unjust.”

Furthermore, Marci McDonald’s reporting suggests that there are elements of a growing premillennarian faction in Canada, apparently encouraged by increasing American influence and the use by the PMO of American religious advisers. In any event, the shared doctrine that the second coming is “imminent, personal and visible” seems to indicate an exclusionary fundamentalism. That in turn appears to be consistent with openly proclaimed intolerance for secularly evolved priorities defined by generations of popular will and expressed by many decades of government initiatives and legislation. The hostility to women’s rights, gay rights, and rights in general has to be coming from somewhere, and its sources do not seem to be just a difference of political opinion.

We’ll be returning to the efforts pursued so far by the Conservatives to turn back these secular advances, as well as their continued efforts to do so on other fronts: such as the law and order bill promised within the next 100 days that will reportedly compel Internet Service Providers to provide the police with increased power to conduct internet surveillance of citizens without warrants.

May 21st, 6-ish


Harold Camping tells me so. . .

Frye brings a little sanity to those who insist upon being insane, and on a deadline too. From Notebook 11F:

The miserable bureaucratic parody of religion that says that all those who are not good enough for heaven must be bad enough for hell, when it’s so obvious that nobody is fit for either. Something here that blocks up the doctrine of immortality. No serious person will listen to such nonsense. The creation is not in the past; the Last Judgment is not in the future; we must get a proper view of creation that isn’t a projected sexual or artefact myth: when we get it the Last Judgment conception will clear up, and & when that clears up there shall be a way open for a conception of life without birth & death that isn’t either before birth or after death. (CW 13, 77)

TGIF: “Kotex Classic” — And Frye on Laughter, Menstruation and Apocalypse

I usually post comedy on Friday assuming that it’s a source of end-of-the-week relief whose relevance is implicit, but today’s post invites more consideration.

Here’s a groundbreaking SNL commercial parody from 2002 featuring Tina Fey, Amy Poeher, Ana Gasteyer, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch. These five women did a lot to change the place of women in comedy over the past decade, and this parody encapsulates how they did it: by demystifying feminine taboos and making them funny on their own terms. You can watch the video over at Funny or Die here.

Meanwhile, here’s Frye in “The Nature of Satire” on our response to the “naive and childlike quality in satire” that arises from otherwise risky subject matter:

[Satire] of this kind is based on a solid physical laugh, an earthquake in miniature, a laugh which begins far down in the abdomen, bursts the vest buttons, rolls the stomach, shakes the diaphragm, suffocates the throat, reddens the face, and finally reduces the whole body to rolling and kicking in an epilepsy of joy, then, after quieting down, returns for the next few hours in a couple of dozen squalls of splutters, gasps and reminiscent chortles, and finally sinks into the subconscious to be left until called for. (CW 21, 48)

In Notebook 12, he reflects on the barriers in getting past the anxiety associated with excretory functions, something that this sort of humor helps to diffuse:

I imagine it will be a long time before we have public toilets without distinction of sexes. That seems to be the last stronghold of the primitive passion for separate houses & initiation rites for the sexes: I am noting a strong desire for co-educational residences & the like, & am wondering if excretion rather than sex is the real basis for sexual segregation. E.g. puberty rites & seclusion at menstruation. (CW 9, 248)

In The Return of Eden, Frye delineates the convoluted relation between creation, sex, shame, and sin in Milton’s Paradise Lost as the state of fallen consciousness:

In refusing to recognize the Son as their own creative principle, then, the devils are closing the gate of their own origin.  This theme of closing the gate of origin recurs all through the epic, and is the basis of the feeling which later appears in humanity as what Milton calls shame.  Shame to Milton is something deeper and more sinister in human emotion than simply the instinctive desire to cover the genital organs.  It is rather a state of mind which is the fall itself: it might be described as the emotional response to the state of pride.

In “The Top of the Tower: The Imagery of Yeats,” Frye provides an apocalyptic perspective on excretory functions:

To return to his creator, man has to come back down again, return on himself, seek the source of creative powers which are close to the sexual instincts, and are therefore in “the place of excrement,” as [Yeats’] Crazy Jane says, partaking of the corruption out of which all life comes [Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop, l. 16.]

And, finally, in “On the Bible and Human Culture” (among other places), he associates the apocalyptic with the female — perhaps the best way to round out any meditation on why menstruation is funny until it isn’t because, like everything else wrongly associated with fear and shame of the human body, it is in fact an intimation of deliverance:

The story of the fall in the Jahwist account tells us that the woman took the initiative in breaking the divine prohibition regarding the tree of knowledge. This was of course a standard proof-text, for many centuries rationalizing a patriarchal social system, and in fact the Jahwist account itself says that patriarchy would result from the fall. Commentary has been so anxious to make this point that it has overlooked the fact that the creation of woman was placed at the end of this creation account, as the climax of the whole procedure. Besides, the conception of fall is unintelligible without its complement of reconciliation. Humanity falls as woman, that is, as sexual being, and it is clear that the eating of forbidden fruit has a good deal to do with the loss of innocence and the developing of the sexual relation as we now know it, or what D.H. Lawrence calls sex in the heard. In the Jahwist account, as in so many forms of social psychology today, morality, the knowledge of good and evil, is founded on the repressing or sublimating of the sexual instinct. But if humanity falls as woman, humanity must be redeemed as woman. In Christian typology the souls of all human creatures, whether they are biologically men or women, are symbolically female, forming the body of the bride Jerusalem or the people of God. The Virgin Mary in Catholic thought is placed at the head of all created human beings, below only the Jesus who was begotten, and she is the second Eve in much the same sense that Jesus, in the Pauline phrase, is the second Adam. (CW 4, 122)

Panoramic and Participating Apocalypse

Further to the impending Judgment Day, here’s Frye in The Great Code distinguishing between panoramic and participating apocalypse:

There are, then, two aspects of the apocalyptic vision: One is what we may call panoramic apocalypse, the vision of the staggering marvels placed in a near future and just before the end of time. As a panorama, we look at it passively, which means it is objective to us. This in turn means that it is essentially a projection of the subjective “knowledge of good and evil” acquired at the fall. That knowledge, we now see, was wholly within the framework of law: it is contained by the final “judgment” where the world disappears into its unending constituents, a heaven and a hell, into one of which man automatically goes, depending on the relative strength of the cases for the prosecution and the defence. Even in heaven, the legal vision tells us, he remains eternally a creature, praising his Creator unendingly.

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 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 own power.

If we take a similar approach to the Book of Revelation, we find, I think, that there is a second or participating apocalypse following the panoramic one. The panoramic apocalypse ends with the restoration of the tree and water of life, the two elements of the original creation. But perhaps, like other restorations, this one is a type of something else, a resurrection or upward metamorphosis to a new beginning that is now present. We notice that while the Book of Revelation seems to be emphatically the end of the Bible, it is a remarkably open end. It contains such statements as “Behold, I make all things new” (21:5); it describes God as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of all possibilities of verbal expression; it follows the vision of the restoring of the water of life with an earnest invitation to drink of it. The panoramic apocalypse gives way, at the end, to a second apocalypse that, ideally, begins in the reader’s mind as soon as he has finished reading, a vision that passes through the legalized vision of ordeals and trials and judgments and comes out into a second life. In this second life the creator-creature, divine-human antithetical tension has ceased to exist, and the sense of the transcendent person and the split of subject and object no longer limit our vision. After the “last judgment,” the law loses its last hold on us, which is the hold of the legal vision that ends there.

We suggested earlier that the Bible deliberately blocks off the sense of the referential from itself: it is not a book pointing to a historical presence outside it, but a book that identifies itself with that presence. At the end the reader, also, is invited to identify himself with the book. Milton suggests that the ultimate authority in the Christian religion is what he calls the Word of God in the heart, which is superior even to the Bible itself, because for Milton this “heart” belongs not to the subjective reader but to the Holy Spirit. That is, the reader completes the visionary operation of the Bible by throwing out the subjective fallacy along with the objective one. The apocalypse is the way the world looks after the ego has disappeared. (CW 19, 156-8)