Friday, February 01, 2008

Frye's Educated Imagination

The Educated Imagination / Northrop Frye
Toronto : Anansi, 1997, c1963.

Another volume chosen by Yann Martel; somehow I don't think the Prime Minister will be getting to it, even though this book carries Martel's message most clearly - how literature is valuable in all areas of life, by virtue of its training of the imagination. This is the collected 1963 Massey Lectures, by the brilliant Northrop Frye. Even though it originates in the 60's it is still relevant in many ways. This is the same reaction I had to my recent reading of A Voice from the Attic by Robertson Davies; so much has NOT changed in the last 40 years! Davies' book discusses the art of reading literature, while this one discusses the art of teaching it. They both contain a few things that forty years have made passé, but in their theories of literature they are bang on.

Many of the reviews of The Educated Imagination point out that it is the most accessible entry into Frye's work. I found it very easy reading, not overly academic, and full of thought-provoking commentary on why we even bother with literature. Karen over at U Krakovianka has providentially also just been reading this aged Canadian work, and has made some very good points about it. It's a set of six essays, and each has something to say about elements of literature. Since I've been reading quite a bit of science writing lately as well, I was struck by Frye's comparison of literature and science in his first essay, The Motive for Metaphor. Speaking of language, he says there are 3 levels inherent in a language; the level of consciousness and self-awareness, the level of social participation, and the level of the imagination. He continues:

On this basis, perhaps, we can distinguish the arts from the sciences. Science begins with the world we have to live in, accepting its data and trying to explain its laws. From there, it moves towards the imagination: it becomes a mental construct, a model of a possible way of interpreting experience. ... Art, on the other hand, begins with the world we construct, not with the world we see. It starts with the imagination, and then works toward ordinary experience: that is, it tries to make itself as convincing and recognizable as it can.... Still, the fact that they start at opposite ends, even if they do meet in the middle, makes for one important difference between them. Science learns more and more about the world as it goes on: it evolves and improves. A physicist today knows more physics than Newton did, even if he's not as great a scientist. But literature begins with the possible model of experience, and what it produces is the literary model we call the classic. Literature doesn't evolve or improve or progress. We may have dramatists in the future who will write plays as good as King Lear, though they'll be very different ones, but drama as a whole will never get better than King Lear. King Lear is it, as far as drama is concerned; so is Oedipus Rex, written two thousand years earlier than that, and both will be models of dramatic writing as long as the human race endures.

I think I absorbed the first essay most thoroughly, but there are shining bits of brilliance scattered through the book like morning dew; ie: pretty much everywhere! This is a book that is so perfectly expressed in its form that to explain it would be just to quote page after page. So, I will just recommend that you read it and enjoy Frye's unique mind for yourself. Just one more quote which may be of particular import to us book bloggers, as it has to do with lit crit - with one caveat, "he" and "his" and "mankind" are assumed mean all of us, this was written in the 60's after all:

The critic has always been called a judge of literature, which means, not that he's in a superior position to the poet, but that he ought to know something about literature, just as a judge's right to be on a bench depends upon his knowledge of law. If he's up against something the size of Shakespeare, he's the one being judged. The critic's function is to interpret every work of literature in the light of all the literature he knows, to keep constantly struggling to understand what literature as a whole is about. Literature as a whole is not an aggregate of exhibits with red and blue ribbons attached to them, like a cat show, but the range of articulate human imagination as it extends from the height of imaginative heaven to the depth of imaginative hell. Literature is a human apocalypse, man's revelation to man, and criticism is not a body of adjudications, but the awareness of that revelation, the last judgement of mankind.

If only I could be so articulate! This has been one of my favourites of the books Yann Martel has recommended so far; every essay made me think. Enthusiastically recommended!

1 comment:

  1. The one copy of this my library had is missing so I added it to my Amazon wish list. It sounds like a keeper.


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