The Educated Imagination: subtle concepts + open perspectives
I’m so impressed by this book. If my mind is elastic, it is physically stretched by Northrop Frye. Wow is he an insightful and deliberative scholar. I honestly wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone who is tepid with literature (other than glossing over the first and last chapter to understand the role of literature in our society), because Frye writes extensively about the epistemic purpose and substance of an education in literature, and the scaffolding layers of it, like peeling an onion. His points progressively attach to each other, stringently, and require much concentration (and iced coffee) to absorb. To build on his points of repeating storylines and comparative value between works, this book is brand new to me. I’ve never read anything quite like The Educated Imagination on the subject of literature, and so I was quite swept away by the subtle new concepts that opened perspectives.
I read Frye’s curated collection of quoted poetry aloud — so, so, soo good. “The Motive for Metaphor” by Wallace Stevens is a new discovery that I can swoon over along with my other favourites. Such precision in the syllables.
As this book is academically dense and far from colloquial, I don’t think anyone can summarize or convey the excellence of Frye’s arguments without directly quoting him. Here are a few quotes that I read over once, twice, three times.
The world of literature is human in shape, a world where the sunrise is in the east and sets in the west over the edge of a flat earth and three dimensions, where the primary realities are not atoms or electrons but bodies, and the primary forces not energy or gravitation but love and death and passion and joy.
I desire to associate, and finally to identify, the human mind with what goes on outside it, because the only genuine joy you can have in those rare moments when you feel that although we may know in part, as Paul says, we are also a part of what we know.
No matter how much experience we may gather in life, we can never in life that the dimension experience that the imagination gives us. Only literature gives us the whole sweep and range of human imagination as it says itself. It seems very difficult for many people to understand the reality and intensity of literary experience.
Literature as a whole is not an aggregate of exhibits with red and blue ribbons attached 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 adjudication but the awareness of that revelation, the last judgement of mankind.
And just as it’s easy to confuse thinking with the habitual associations of language, so it’s easy to confuse thinking with thinking in words.
It’s clear that the end of literary teaching is not simply the admiration of literature; it’s something more like the transfer of imaginative energy from literature to the student.