Northrop Frye is a famous Canadian English literature professor who wrote quite a few books on literary theory, among other achievements. Several buil...moreNorthrop Frye is a famous Canadian English literature professor who wrote quite a few books on literary theory, among other achievements. Several buildings at the University of Toronto have been named after him, and he's still a voice to be reckoned with in the field, though he died in 1991. In 1962 he took part in the CBC Massey Lectures with six lectures on "The Educated Imagination". This book is his six lectures, and if you're hoping for a review as intelligent as this book is, you've come to the wrong person.
Frye tackles many questions which revolve around the importance of studying literature and an analysis of literature, studying it, and having an imagination. He posits three kinds of language within a language - that of ordinary conversation and self-expression; of conveying information in a practical sense; and of the imagination, i.e. literature. That's overly simplified and there's no doubt a better way of summing it up, but that's what I've come up with. Naturally, arguments build one upon the other, and I would be setting myself a horrendous task to try to describe them in brief. It's just not possible, as the lectures cover a great deal. You'd be better to read the book itself.
Of all the lectures, I appreciated the last one the most, probably because it spoke to me the most. At one point he discusses freedom, and says "Nobody is capable of free speech unless he knows how to use language, and such knowledge is not a gift: it has to be learned and worked at." (p93) There can be no free speech in a mob, he says, only babble and grousing. What he doesn't say, but what he's saying, is that it's incredibly important for the lower classes to be well educated. With education comes not just the ability to express yourself articulately but to really see the world around you, and understand it. This is something that draws me to education, especially for the working class.
The other thing I loved about this lecture was how he validates having and using our imaginations, not relegating them to the realm of fantasy or child's play. He reveals how we use our imaginations constantly, how necessary the imagination is to everything, and how "literature speaks the language of the imagination, and the study of literature is supposed to train and improve the imagination." (p82) Which I absolutely agree with; the lectures give very good insight into how important the imagination - and an educated imagination - is to us.
At times his arguments read a little dated, but one in particular stands out, especially as it connects to the study of Dickens, which was what I was reading at the time, and helps me to understand why novels like A Week of This (Nathan Whitlock), which I read recently, don't have the same effect. "To bring anything really to life in literature," Frye says, "we can't be lifelike: we have to be literature-like." (p53) This is what he calls "writing badly", which Dickens does - it doesn't mean that he's a bad writer, but that he exaggerates and creates larger-than-life characters that feel more real than if they had been represented realistically. Reading Great Expectations you come across a great many of these characters, from Estella to Miss Havisham to the convict. Even Joe and Mrs Joe. They're almost like caricatures of themselves.
When you meet such a character as Micawber in Dickens, you don't feel that there must have been a man Dickens knew who was exactly like this: you feel that there's a bit of Micawber in almost everybody you know, including yourself. Our impressions of human life are picked up one by one, and remain for most of us loose and disorganized. But we constantly find things in literature that suddenly co-ordinate and bring into focus a great many such impressions, and this is part of what Aristotle means by the typical or universal human event. (p35)
Frye is a great proponent of classical literature and the necessity for studying the ancients, and then Shakespeare and Milton, and so on, as well as poetry. He has some good arguments that, re-worded, could work on the typical high school student. I'm not absolutely sure how much I agree, with his reasoning at least, but it's true that our culture and society is founded on such works and continues to influence them without our even realising or noticing - to be able to clearly see our world in such a way would take a lifetime of study. I don't think that the common way of throwing Macbeth in the faces of fifteen-year-olds works at all; in fact, it has a detrimental effect. The problem is that most English teachers don't get or like Shakespeare either - it's a cycle.
While Frye is a terrible name-dropper and obviously knows - knew - his shit, he sometimes reads like a stuffy academic who annoyingly links everything back to the Bible. That's not a bad thing, except it comes across as a bit narrow - you get caught up in his arguments, which are well-expressed in general, and suckered into his way of thinking. The margins are littered with my comments and thoughts and counter-questions - this is a book you need to read armed with a pencil. There are lots of great quotes, and it's very readable, even if you don't have a background in English Lit. I recommend it to teachers and readers and the general populace alike, because it is very interesting and presents a solid argument for the validity of studying English lit - and writing literature in the first place - which I wish our politicians would appreciate.(less)