A Defense of Reading: Northrop Frye and the Educated Imagination

Northrop Frye (1912-1991), Canadian literary and cultural critic. Image source: https://macblog.mcmaster.ca/fryeblog/2010/01/24/mervyn-nicholson-on-the-death-of-northrop-frye/.

In my last post I started off with a groan-inducing question. So for consistency, let me start this post in a similar vein: Why read at all?

Well, that’s not a terribly useful question – literacy is intimately linked with survival, for better or worse, and everyone who is literate has access to information and power that the illiterate do not. Written language may well be decomposing/transitioning (take your pick) into shorter and shorter units of meaning, but the principle of writing itself, and the systems we use to write (i.e., alphabets, character-based syllabaries, etc) don’t appear to be disappearing any time soon.

So much for literacy then. As you’ll probably have guessed, though, there’s another way to rephrase that question, and since this is ostensibly a blog about books and reading experiences, here’s a related idea to consider: Why read literature at all?

Once your eyes have stopped gyrating and your groans subside, click the jump for some (worthwhile, I promise) ideas.

The book I really want to talk about here is The Educated Imagination, written by the late Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye (1912-1991) and published back in 1964. In the world of 20th-century criticism – particularly in mid-century – Frye was a venerated figure, perhaps best known for his studies of symbology in the work of William Blake (Fearful Symmetry) and his inauguration of a unified critical approach to literature that eschewed more traditional value judgments (Anatomy of Criticism). I started trying to read Anatomy recently, and while I find its theory difficult to understand in one reading, I can sense how influential it has been to literary criticism ever since its initial publication.

But back to Imagination. This particular work is actually a collection of six radio talks – part of an annual series dubbed “The Massey Lectures” – that Frye delivered to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) back in 1962. The six talks all deal with some aspect of literature as it relates to society, and Frye offers some remarkable insights that I’ve found to be pretty inspirational. You can listen to the original talks for free on the CBC’s website (they’re each about half an hour in length), though if you can find a copy of the book I’d highly recommend it. (Someone else, it seems, was kind enough to post the first talk, “The Motive for Metaphor.”) None of his conversations are dense or abstruse, and even if your literary experiences have not been particularly deep or widespread, you’ll still (I think) be able to appreciate what he has to offer.

So what does Frye have to say about literature? In his own words, his questions are pretty simple: “[F]irst: what is the relation of English as the mother tongue to English as a literature? Second: what is the social value of the study of literature, and what is the place of the imagination that literature addresses itself to, in the learning process?” These are not terribly original questions today – reading any “defense of the humanities” article will tell you as much – and it’s likely that they weren’t very novel in Frye’s time either. But it’s his reasoning through these ideas, and the way in which he makes that reasoning perfectly natural (it is), that are worth considering, if only through the words of someone else who just dipped his toes into the water. (That’s me.)

One key idea that Frye addresses in his first talk is how we relate to the natural, impersonal world around us. Using the familiar metaphor of man-stranded-on-desert-island, he observes that we immediately view our surroundings on two planes of thought: the level of “intellect,” or the aspect “that feels curious about [the island] and wants to study it;” and the level of “emotions,” or the aspect that generates value judgments about what is there. The big jump from observation to judgment comes once we begin expressing our preferences, because these judgments in turn become statements about identity, and with identity comes the potential for creating things – structures, spaces, tools, etc – that corroborate our self-recognition as being human. In Frye’s words:

Our emotional reaction to the world varies from “I like this” to “I don’t like this.” The first [statement], we said, was a state of identity, a feeling that everything around us was part of us, and the second is the ordinary state of consciousness, or separation, where art and science begin. Art begins as soon as “I don’t like this” turns into “this is not the way I could imagine it.” We notice in passing that the creative and the neurotic minds have a lot in common. They’re both dissatisfied with what they see; they both believe that something else ought to be there, and they try to pretend it is there or to make it be there.”

That bolded statement is my take-away from the passage, and I think it drives home why art, in all its forms, is so important to those who pursue it. It’s the impulse to create things that reflect our identities – poems, paintings, portraits, pieces of music – that separates the human experience from the natural one. Literature just happens to use numerous words and particular structures to capture that human dimension. It might not be a particularly profound revelation, but for me it’s deeply reassuring to recognize how crucial art (and by extension, literature) is to shaping our world, and vice-versa. Frye extends this observation throughout the second talk, this time with a more direct reference to “modern writers” and their relationship to human civilization and “nonhuman nature:”

We notice that modern writers speak of these visions of sacred golden cities and happy gardens very rarely…They spend a good deal more of their time on the misery, frustration or absurdity of human experience. In other words, literature leads us not only toward the regaining of identity, but it also separates this state from its opposite, the world we don’t like and want to get away from….

As civilization develops, we become more preoccupied with human life, and less conscious of our relation to nonhuman nature. Literature reflects this, and the more advanced the civilization, the more literature seems to concern itself with purely human problems and conflicts….We have to look at the figures of speech a writer uses, his images and symbols, to realize that underneath all the complexity of human life that uneasy stare at an alien nature is still haunting us, and the problem of surmounting it still with us.

The idea that literature can create, or seeks to create, “the world we don’t like and want to get away from” is a powerful one, not least because others have recognized – and more often than not misplaced – the potential for textual forms to incite violence and moral destruction. (Frye develops this idea in a discussion about censorship.) And I find that comment on the “alien nature” underpinning human existence – a profound emptiness hidden by our “human problems and conflicts” – personally moving, not least for someone who is still trying to shape conversations on reading for reading’s sake. (That’s me, too.)

So where is Frye’s defense of reading? I’d much rather you discover his answers through the talks themselves – his voice may be dry, I’ll grant you that, though I believe his writing is pretty clear and concise – but I will mention another favorite passage of mine, one that talks about the usefulness of an “educated imagination:”

Let us suppose that some intelligent man has been chasing status symbols all his life, until suddenly the bottom falls out of his world and he sees no reason for going on….He discovers immediately that he wants more education, and he wants it in the same way that a starving man wants food. But he wants education of a particular kind. His intelligence and emotions may quite well be in fine shape. It’s his imagination that’s been starved and fed on shadows, and it’s education in that that he specifically wants and needs.

Believe me – I’m really trying not to quote the entire three pages’ worth of observations Frye puts forth. Let’s just say that after this paragraph, he remarks that once this man realizes that “he recognizes no other society except the one around him…the world we live in and the world we want to live in become different worlds.” Now for the crossover to the importance of education:

My subject is the educated imagination, and education is something that affects the whole person, not bits and pieces of him. It doesn’t just train the mind: it’s a social and moral development too….If our society in 1962 is different from what it was in 1942, it can’t be real society, but only a temporary appearance of real society. And just as it looks real, so this ideal world that our imaginations develop inside us looks like a dream that came out of nowhere, and has no reality except what we put into it. But it isn’t. It’s the real world, the real form of human society hidden behind the one we see. It’s the world of what humanity has done, and therefore can do, the world revealed to us in the arts and sciences.

If you read the last piece I wrote about poetry as a vehicle for representation, then you may have noticed the passing reference I made to Frye: that literature serves to link the “real world” with the creative imagination. Having finally finished reading The Educated Imagination, I can’t help but appreciate that comment even more. Despite all of our ideas about fiction and fable and myth being “unreal” or somehow “inauthentic” – yes, Frye considers this concept too – these very forms are but several of the many possible ways we can represent the world, and all of them stem from one common source: our imaginations. This is why I have such a strong belief in reading literature, and it’s also why I find great joy in writing about it – skillfully or not – through a blog like this one. Because a world without literature, without the arts and sciences, and without any other means of linking the personal and the impersonal, wouldn’t even be a world at all. It would just be a non-existent state, and no literature has ever prepared us for that scenario.

I could, of course, go on and on about Frye’s work, because I’ve found it to be quite inspirational. But I’ll leave you to keep reading The Educated Imagination for yourself – and that in itself is as powerful a defense for reading as any other.

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About csquaredetc

I'm a graduate student in English at the University of Pennsylvania (or "Penn" for short). My most prolific writing is on The Hong Kong Project, a blog about my former experience as an exchange student: thehkproject.wordpress.com
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One Response to A Defense of Reading: Northrop Frye and the Educated Imagination

  1. Pingback: Bookmarks: 11/24 – 12/15 | Shelf Reflections

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