Category Archives: Death

Frye’s Musings on Death

From the Notebooks

The creation is not in the past; the Last Judgement 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 Judgement conception will clear up, & 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. (11f.29)

Death is a process, not a condition.  A stone is not dead: when did it die? (11f.66; see Great Code, 157)

It’s only in nature’s Heraclitean fire that time is irreversible.  Hopkins is impressionist, he likes “dappled” things, because that preserves the sense of identical particulars while coming to terms with the dissolution of all form.  But the resurrection isn’t just a comfort, or even what makes the particular adamant or immortal diamond: it’s something that stops the irreversibility of time.  What is immortal is not the life we are going to live after death, but the life we have lived.  The Resurrection must be retrospective. (11f.98)

Death is not the opposite of life; death is the opposite of birth.  The new birth that Jesus spoke of to Nicodemus is also a release from death.  Matthew & Luke have infancy narratives about a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes; Mark & John start with the symbol of the second birth through water & the spirit.  Coming out of the water with the redeemed from the dragon. (11f.144)

I come back to the feeling that one’s eternal existence is to be connected, not with where one is going after death, but with where one is at death.  (21.30)

The total similitude of death turns into the particular point of light that turns similitude into the universal identity.  That is what resurrection means now. (21.473)

Birth means death & consciousness means nothingness.  Between birth & death you can help produce other bodily lives: between consciousness & nothingness you can help produce creative activity.  Hence maybe the two poles of the Atman, Thou & That, can produce the new child-spirit who is also ourselves. (11e.7)

The business of life is to make a path for the incarnation: the business of death is to make a path for the resurrection. (11b.31)

My hunch is that grief of survivors, being so largely self-pity, distresses, perhaps even impedes, progress to a world that makes more sense.  I know that she [Helen] would forgive me my sins of indolence and selfishness in regard to her, and therefore God will.  I hope only that she knows now that I genuinely loved her very dearly, so far as human frailty permits.  God bless, protect, and keep her among his own.  I hope to see her again; but perhaps that is a weak hope.  Faith is the hypostasis of what is hoped for, the elenchos of the unseen. The one thing truly unseen, the world across death, may, according to my principle, be what enables us to see what is visible. (44.170)

From Notebook 3

[15]  The Tibetans say that when you die you get a flash of reality (Chih-kai [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 [Matthew 6:28] so much as the instructions to the apostles not to rehearse their speeches [Matthew 10:19–20].  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.

[45]  . . .  The mystics also think in terms of an ascent, a ladder of development, usually to be completed after death—well, that’s the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, which seems to me an effort to adapt the doctrine of rebirth to Christianity.  If I had to believe in either, I’d choose rebirth, as purgatory as a set plane of existence different from this doesn’t make sense—Dante’s purgatory is in this world, by the way.  The Protestants identify the initial conversion with the final vortex, & I wonder if this Lankavatara Sutra I’m reading, in spite of its traditional guff about a stock of merit accumulated for God knows how long, doesn’t point in the same direction.

[71]  We speak of fruitful & sterile ideas, & it is perfectly true that ideas beget & reproduce like everything else alive, but it isn’t just a linear Orc-reproduction: we want novelty, but we want too a consolidating form, a family appearing as a single Man.  And while one shouldn’t be a Thel, & should haul our ideas out into Generation & write books & take the bushels off our lights, still what really happens is simply a growth in our minds, a turning from a centre to a circumference.  Hence, really, all ideas are unborn.  If there is no death there is no birth either, and of course no life.

[95]  When a man of eighty says he never felt better in his life everyone knows he has never been so near his death, but the statement may be true for all that.  I used to think of people who never believed anything except on evidence or reasonable deduction therefrom as materialistically minded.  Now I just think of them as stupid.  That looks from outside as though I were getting bigoted & provincial, but I know I’m not, or if I am it doesn’t matter.  Peace, it’s wonderful.

[119]  Here is a speculation which probably makes no sense whatever: Christians & Buddhists have the same sense of escape from time, but the Westerner says we never die because he thinks of immortality as continuity of energy, & the Easterner says we have never been born because he thinks of immortality as release from karma or causation.  But both are equally true, or untrue, whichever you like.  When the Westerner tries to absorb the idea of unbornness, he tumbles into the “predestination” pitfall; when the Easterner tries to get clear about deathlessness, he gets into the “reincarnation” one.  There are forms of these doctrines which make sense, of course: the ones that don’t, the babies slated for hell & the there’s-that-man (or beast)-again superstitions, illustrate the difficulty.

[139]  The Delphic oracle urged man to know himself, meaning not an increase of introspective knowledge, but the struggling of consciousness which at the same time apprehends the world more accurately.  Dreams are subjective, but maybe a dream fully interpreted would become a vision.  There must be a point at which it ceases to be true that it’s a subjective experience.  Dreams aren’t Ulro nightmares: in general, man lives in G [Generation] during the day & B [Beulah] at night, as, perhaps he lives in G from life to death & in B from death to life.

[146]  The past is hell, the eternally fixed state where the ghosts of dead sins & errors are forever imprisoned.  The future begins in childhood as a world of infinite potentiality.  As life goes on, the future becomes steadily more predictable, & the life consequently less interesting.  Children fascinate us; old men bore us because they conceal no surprises.  At death the future finally merges with & joins the past—in Dante’s hell the future but not the present is known.  Life reaches its crisis nel mezzo del cammina, the sun at its highest in the sky, realizing with a shudder that it is bound to a cycle & must now descend.  Hence the importance Jung attaches to the 35–40 period: its timing may depend partly on the length of the life, which of course the unconscious always knows.  I think one has to be reborn now & start in fancy all over again in relation to a new kind of life, as though the sun at zenith were to think of itself as at the bottom of reality & start rising & straight up.  That way, the imgn. [imagination] may grow stronger as the foolish body decays.  The optimism I have inherited from my father, the feeling that next year things may be quite different & much better, should be conserved, though some of it is dodging.  I have inherited another feeling, of wanting to get rid of things that are lost, or spoiled, or a bother, as quickly as possible instead of trying to recover or patch them up, & there is a certain danger of applying this to my own life & going off the deep end over reincarnation.  This conception of hell as the past may be useful.  Dante was psychoanalyzing himself, & straightening out the kinks in his character by analytic reduction, in going into hell.  In connection with that, I suppose the psychological value of the doctrine of original depravity is in upsetting the smugness of the egocentric consciousness.  The consciousness is transitory, and we derive our idea of the present from it.  Each dimension of time breeds fear: the past, despair & hopelessness & the sense of an irrevocable too late: the present, panic & sense of a clock steadily ticking; the future, an unknown mystery gradually assuming the lineaments of the consequences of our own acts.  Hope is the virtue of the past, the eternal sense that maybe next time we’ll do better.  The projection of this into the future is faith, the substance of things hoped for.  Love belongs to the present, & is the only force able to cast out fear.  If a thing loves it is infinite, Blake said, & the act of love is itself a vision of a timeless world.  Oh, God, how well I talk.  Deteriora sequor.  Or do I just say that because of an obscure feeling that such statements are somehow approved of by some atavistic God in my infantile shadow world?

[149]  Evidently the superego transforms the Ego-Id relation into an Ego-Tu one.  The ego swallows its parents and puts them to guard the door of the Id.  As obstacles, they’re Satan & Rahab; as transparent, Los & Jerusalem.  The ego, the reality-principle, deals with conflicts of truth & error; the id, the pleasure principle, with conflicts of good & evil.  As opaque, the parents are narcissistic, reflecting the ego on itself, & also presenting the pleasure-pain values of the id in terms of a moral law of good & evil.  Freud says that the id is inherited & the ego isn’t; the superego, being the boundary, is a memory which may be a revived inherited memory, Jung’s archetype.  Anyway, what the ego has to do is swallow its parents a second time, in their second or permanent death, & occupy their place.  When it does so it is, in Jungian terms, the Self, between the ego & the id.

[161]  One should think of truth, not only statically as the correct formulation of propositions, but dynamically, as the normal current of the energy of the soul.  These correspond to the allegorical & moral levels in Dante.  A lie is to the intellect what a neurosis is to the emotions, a blocking point which dams up the current; a stone around which it forms whirlpools.  Hence imaginative people who keep spinning spider-webs in their minds make the best liars, as they make the best use of neuroses.  For vigorous extroverted people “living a lie” is an intolerable burden, & confession for them has the quality of a physical compulsion.  A great deal is said about the psychological rightness of Catholic auricular confession: as usual, the priest absorbs both the indwelling Christ & the social community.  The point about “know thyself” is to pervert self-deception, so that the lies one is obliged to tell in the interests of the persona won’t stay in the mind—thus Johnson’s “clear your mind of cant.”  Probably one has to lie to men—certainly to women—but not to know that one is lying is to lie to God.  Honesty with oneself carries off social lies in a private excretion.  Honesty with others follows: you can’t interpret James’s “confess your sins to one another” [James 5:16] as the Oxford Group does, because shitting in a group is a perversion, or rather a fixation of childish curiosity.  One has always to remember the dynamic nature of truth, and hence of reasoning.  “My father has money; I shall have it when he dies; I need money now; he must die now.”  Depending on the extent of one’s capacity for parricide, that sequence may be anything from irrefutably logical to unthinkable.

Frye and I, A Skinny Chinese Guy: On the 19th Anniversary of His Death Jan. 23, 2010


Among my family and friends, Northrop Frye, Canada’s greatest thinker, is the forbidden four letter F-word.

No small talk, gossip or conversation begins or ends without my mentioning his name. Back from the cottage? Frye says you re-enacted the Exodus story, escaping the city for your promised land. A fan of the Dougs, Flutie or Gilmour?  Frye calls them the classic David/Goliath, underdog story. The success of The Blair Witch Project? Frye sees it as the ironic unhappy reversal of the Hansel/Gretel story, complete with witch, forest, trail of stones, and house. The demise of hockey czar, Alan Eagleson? Frye says life imitates literature, as Eagleson exploited players just like Bluebeard exploited his wives, until one dared to bring him down. My Ukrainian wife, Leah’s surprise “that the man of my dreams turns out to be a skinny Chinese guy”. Frye says beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, as my competition, the”tall, dark, and handsome” archetype, is, thankfully, a mass media construction.

Outside of the boxed holdings at U of T’s Victoria College, Frye’s Alma Mater, one of the greatest collection of Frye paraphernalia — autographs, out-of-print books, tape recordings, photos, films, videos, lecture notes, juvenilia, short stories, caricatures, cartoons, reviews, t-shirts, interviews, newsletters — belongs to me, a skinny Canadian Born Chinese Guy (CBC for short; American Born Chinese are ABCs). Frye fanatics at Victoria College were dubbed Fryedolators or SmallFrye.  My best man, R. Bingham, christened me StirFrye.

So, why do I, and so many others, love Frye? The short and long answer: he takes us everywhere we want to go. And today, on the 19th anniversary of his death, after the tributes of more qualified and distinguished academics and writers, I have finally gathered enough nerve to pay tribute to the greatest 20th century literary critic, on behalf of his favourite audience — the non-specialist, reading lay public.

Like many readers, I first encountered Frye in ENG 101, in “The Motive for Metaphor,”  an essay I read out of patriotic duty, as he and Atwood were the only Canadians represented.  Reading Frye reminded me when I first read Revelations:  understanding little, but the incredible rush of striking metaphors — in an essay, no less — clustered in my brain like a drug-induced dream, a Frye high for awakened minds. That piece led me to the rest of The Educated Imagination and his works.

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