Category Archives: Esoterica

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.

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Frye on Chess



Cross-posted in the Robert D. Denham Library

Frye often uses chess as an example of a rule‑governed game or set of arbitrary convention, which he likens to the conventions of literature.  But there are more than ninety references to chess scattered throughout his work.  A large number of these speculate on chess as an archetype.  Then there is the cryptic phrase “chess-in-Bardo,” which Frye associates with the theme of ascent and the world of romance––what he calls the Eros archetype.  Solving the “chess-in-Bardo problem,” he writes, “will give some indication of what it means to live in a totally mythical universe” (CW 9, 56).  Frye circles around the “problem” throughout his notebooks, associating chess-in-bardo with the agon or contest, with the recognition scenes in Alice in Wonderland, The Tempest, and Finnegans Wake, and with a vision opposite from that of the dice-throw in Mallarmé (the Adonis archetype).  Michael Dolzani’s reading of the chess-in-bardo problem focuses on its associations with the agon and the recognition.  See his Introduction, in CW 9, liv–lv.

By the time he came to write The Secular Scripture (1976) Frye had caught up with the ignis fatuus that he had been tracking since the 1940s.  In that book he provides a clue to the meaning of “chess-in-bardo” in a brief commentary on Alice in Wonderland:

Alice passing through the looking-glass into a reversed world of dream language is also going through a descent. . . . Before long however we realize that the journey is turning upwards, in a direction symbolized by the eighth square of a chessboard, where Alice becomes a Psyche figure, a virginal queen flanked by two older queens, one red and one white, who bully her and set her impossible tasks in the form of nonsensical questions. Cards and dice . . . have a natural connection with themes of descent into a world of fatality; chess and other board games, despite The Waste Land, appear more frequently in romance and in Eros contexts, as The Tempest again reminds us.  As Alice begins to move upward out of her submarine mirror world she notes that all the poems she had heard have to do with fish, and as she wakes she reviews the metamorphoses that the figures around her had turned into. (155–6)

Chess-in-bardo, then, involves a dialectic of two opposing forces: agon and anagnorisis, choice and chance, descent and ascent.  Neither of the opposite forces can abolish the other, for each has “its own centre” (CW 9, 288), as in the magic of Prospero and its renunciation.  Frye says that The Tempest leans in the direction of chess-in-bardo (CW 9, 340).  But at the same time, chess-in-bardo appears to be related to reversal, as in the ascent of Alice.  “Chess in Bardo?  Is it a modulation of dice in Bardo?” Frye asks.  “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).  Chance may never completely disappear in chess, but each move works toward an eventual reversal.  The entry in Notebook 50 following the one just quoted appears to be related: “Perhaps sacrifice is the carrying out of death in reverse, identification through death to union with God–well, obviously it’s that.  This identity with death turns into an identity across death” (CW 5, 318).  This is another way of describing the movement from death to rebirth in The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

But there are other meanings that attach themselves to chess in Frye’s writings, as can be seen in the passages that follow.

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Angels, Again


This is a meditation and mini‑sourcebook, triggered by Michael Dolzani’s uncommonly perceptive post (not uncommon, of course for Michael, my editorial sidekick, who, as I’ve said several times in print, is a reader of Frye without equal).  Here’s hoping that he’ll continue to share with us what’s on his mind.


Angels for Frye belonged to a complex of entities he called the world of “fairies and elementals.”  In his notebooks he keeps promising himself to write an article of “fairies and elementals” (On the topic, see Late Notebooks [CW 5], 189–90, 195, and Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible [CW 13], 54; Notebooks on Romance [CW 15] 143, 144; Notebooks for “Anatomy of Criticism” [CW 23], Notebook 25, par. 7 [unpublished but posted in the Library as sect. 7 of “Unpublished Notes”]).  He never got around to writing the article, but there are hints here and there about what the article would contain.  At one point in his Great Code notebooks Frye appears to conceive of three strands in the “elemental” esoteric traditions:

1.  The fairy world itself

2.  The bardo world

3.  The “total magnet or anima mundi which accounts for mesmerism, telepathy, clairvoyance, second sight & magical healing cures” (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, 54).  Frye sometimes calls this third strand the soul-world or Akasa (Sanskrit for “space” or “ether”), a term that he adapted from Madame Blavatsky.  Angels belong to what he refers to as “non-human forms of more or less conscious existence” (ibid.)  In Anatomy of Criticism, these “forms” belong to the existential projection of romance (64), meaning that the writers of romance accept the world of fantasy as “true” and so populated their stories with angels, fairies, ghosts, demons, and the like.  Angels, of course, occupy their place in Frye’s accounts of the ladder of being on the rung between the human and the divine.  They belong as well, in Blake’s four‑storied cosmos, to Beulah, and they are a part of what Frye called in his first essay on Yeats “the hyperphysical world” (Fables of Identity, 227).  Twenty years later he describes this world as

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 it’s 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.  (Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible, 90)


I wonder if in Frye’s anguished katabatic experience of Helen’s death in Cairns we might not have a conjunction of the oracle and wit insight that was the essence of his Seattle epiphany.  This occured to me by looking again at the ultimate and penultimate remarks of Helen before she died––after which Jane Widdicombe becomes a guardian angel.

The oracle: “Besides, when Jane told her she was in hospital and had to get better before she could go home, she said ‘I can take that from you.’  When I tried to say the same thing, she said ‘Don’t be so portentous.’  It was the last thing she said to me, and it sounds like an oracle.  Meanwhile there is Jane, a daughter sent by God instead of nature.  Guardian angels take unexpected but familiar forms, as in Homer” (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 137–8).

The wit: “She died at 3.10 p.m. on August 4 (the medical attendants said 3.30, but I happen to know when she actually left me).  She was a gentle and very pure spirit, however amused or embarrassed she might be to hear herself so described.  The day before her death the intravenous machine ran out of fluid and started ticking:  Helen opened an eye and said “Is that your pet cricket?”  I am grateful that in practically the last thing I heard her say there was still a flash of the Helen I had known and loved for over fifty years” (“Memoir,” Northrop Frye’s Fiction and Miscellaneous Writings, CW, 42).

Michael Dolzani shows how Frye, in all those passages about Helen in Notebook 44, moves from a negative to a positive faith, having been transported from the abyss where he has confronted her death to some form of apocalyptic revelation, where Helen has now become for him a Beatrice or Laura.  He needs no longer now accuse himself of having murdered her by taking her to Australia.

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