On Rediscovering Forgotten Books: Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination

A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues retired and began cleaning out his office. He had a stack of books on the floor beside his desk, and he invited me over to claim first dibs on any of the books I wanted. Because I teach English and Speech at a community college, taking any of these books, which were clearly left over from my friend’s days in graduate school (back in the late 1960s, I’m guessing) was a monumental indulgence for me: I knew I would not be using them in my composition or speech classes. But I’m a sucker for homeless dogs and books, as I have mentioned in an earlier post, and so I took about ten of them and found places for them on my crowded bookshelves.

One of these books is a small volume called The Educated Imagination, by Northrop Frye. I’m not sure why I picked it out, but it’s probably because I remembered reading Northrop Frye during my own grad school days (late 1980s). Frye is famous for creating archetypal criticism; before there was Joseph Campbell, in other words, there was Northrop Frye. I had never heard of this book, however, and picked it up on a whim.

I didn’t open the book for about a year and a half, but about two months ago, I began to read it. It’s actually a wonderful series of essays. The Preface tells us that it was originally a series of radio programs.
Here’s the really interesting part: the series was called “The Massey Lectures” in honor of a former Governor-General of Canada. That’s pretty cool in and of itself, but because my mind is a magnet for largely unimportant information, I know that The Right Honorable Vincent Massey may have been an important lawyer, diplomat, and Canadian statesman, but he was also the older brother of Raymond Massey–that’s right, the actor who played Lincoln before Daniel Day-Lewis did. masseyThe Masseys were one of the most influential families in Toronto, partly because they owned Massey-Ferguson Tractors. This is all, as I said, largely unimportant, but it does provide some colorful background information for the book.

Here’s a sample of the kind of wisdom that appears quite plainly on the pages of The Educated Imagination. In the second chapter, called “The Singing School” (taken from William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium“) Frye explains that literature is a tool for both self-discovery and escapism–at the very same time–although these two things seem to be the opposite of each other: how can one discover one’s place in society while one is actively engaged in forgetting that place by looking at society from the distancing prism of literature? Yet, Frye implies, this double duty is one of the most important functions performed by literature.

However, in the next chapter, called “Giants in Time,” Frye seems to correct his earlier statement by saying that literature is not really escapist after all: “Literature,” he tells us, “does not reflect life, but it doesn’t escape from life or withdraw from life either; it swallows it. And it won’t stop until it’s swallowed everything…. If even time, the enemy of all living things, and to poets, at least, the most hated and feared of all tyrants, can be broken down by the imagination, anything can be.” I had to stop and re-read that statement several times, because for me, a scholar/critic/theorist/writer, this is a ground-breaking idea. Think about it: we writers don’t read or write to escape from life. Rather, we read stories and write stories because we want more of life. We engage in these activities not because we want to escape from life, but because we want to gorge ourselves on life itself. Like No-Face in Hiyao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away, we want to swallow it all–stories, cultures, history, even time itself–in order to be part of the great conversation that is life as we know it. Spirited_Away__colored__by_DarkKenjie

That is a powerful idea, and one worth pausing over. I’ll be back in a couple of days with a few more comments on the second half of this important and overlooked book.

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