06 August 2004

Thank God It's Fryeday

Benedictus? Benny never touched us!

(Sorry-- an old joke.)

      Wound up quoting Northrop Frye in an email this morning, a wonderful passage from the end of his last volume The Double Vision, and this of course led me to rediscover some of the book's other nuggets of gold, one of which is the following, a clever bit on St. Augustine:

      We may talk about a beginning and en end to time, but we cannot realize such things in our imaginations.   Whether we speak of a creation by God which began time (that is, our experience of time) or of a big bang many billions of years ago, the human mind cannot help thinking that there must have been time 'before' that.   St. Augustine was bothered by this question, which he raises several times, notably in a famous passage in the Confessions, where in effect he answers the question, 'What was God doing before creation?' by saying, 'Preparing a hell for those who ask such a question.'  If we were to guess at the repressed elements in the saint's mind when he wrote this, they might well have run something like this: If you ask God what happened before time, you embarrass God, who probably doesn't know either, and as God hates to be embarrassed, you are risking a good deal by asking.
It's easy to forget what a deft wit Frye at his best could be, and how gifted he was as a prose stylist for the Casual Age.   He surely has a poet's visionary sensibility if not his metrical impulses, and while that puts many of Frye's readers, I tend to react quite differently; in fact, to be a true critic of literature, one has to share at least some of the creative impulses of that which you study.   From the same volume comes this passage, which I quoted this morning, and which surely has the fingerprints of Herakleitos, John Donne, Wallace Stevens, and William Blake (among others) all over it:

The omnipresence of time gives some strange distortions to our double vision. We are born on a certain date, live a continuous identity until death on another date; then we move into an 'after'-life or 'next' world where something like an ego survives indefinitely in something like a time and place. But we are not continuous identities; we have had many identities, as babies, as boys and girls, and so on through life, and when we pass through or 'outgrow' these identities they return to their source. Assuming, that is, some law of conservation in the spiritual as well as the physical world exists. There is nothing so unique about death as such, where we may be too distracted by illness or sunk in senility to have much identity at all. In the double vision of a spiritual and a physical world simultaneously present, every moment we have lived through we have also died into another order. Our life in the resurrection, then, is already here, and waiting to be recognized.
And it's as curiously modern an articulation of an ancient concept as I've read in some time, and it provides a particular kind of comfort, at least intellectually, that might not come so easily from more historically-distant texts.   If there is a God-- and that's a might big "if"-- it only stands to reason that the orchestrator of a world so infinitely complex and self-informing would implant a natural process of spiritual conservation whereby nothing is finally completely lost but merely, like energy, shifted as necessary.   But the turn on the word "conservation," reverberating against our modern notions of ecological necessity, modifies the context, recalculates it, imports it.   It's a handy quote to keep around when one is daunted by questions of change and death-- and it's a handy reminder of the beauty even a critic can create.

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