The Educated Imagination. Northrop Frye.

Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination (CBC Massey Lectures). Anansi, Toronto. 1963. NF; 5/18.

Frye was a giant in literary criticism at the time of my early adult fascination with literature. His ideas about myths and the imagination at that time were influential in English lit all over the Western world, and he and Marshall Mcluhan coexisted and taught at the University of Toronto for a short brilliantly blazing time in the 1960s, and were emblematic of two different aspects of what was going on in academia and culture in those years.

I can still see myself in my parents’ summer backyard in about grade 11 reading Fearful Symmetry, Frye’s study of William Blake, and at some point going holy shit. What we imagine and how we experience what we read is not only legitimate but could even be the Real Deal, as distinct from my parents’ Formica kitchen and 1957 Oldsmobile convertible. And maybe more than just what we read… But on somehow a different mental track I could see after reading Mcluhan’s Understanding Media a couple of years later (it was a science student friend that showed it to me) that “media”, what we use to represent to others who and what we are, are hard to separate from “what we are”. What, that is, we imagine ourselves to be. I saw as a late teenager a possibility of thinking about things quite differently. Terrible that focus on the imagination in that era somehow later twisted itself into the terrible divisive political mess we find ourselves in now.

I entered, I’m trying to say, the intellectual culture of the 1960s through these two Canadian academics (also through baggy pants, long hair, hallucinogens, free love (mostly imaginary) and getting quit of the kitchens and cars of my helpless parents).

The Educated Imagination is Frye’s little-bit patronizing simplification of his theory of literature, set out in more detail in his Anatomy of Criticism (which I had to read so I could write papers in English lit during the later 60s). Its chapters are lectures given on CBC radio to popularize Frye’s ideas: 1) there are certain often-recurring forms of stories that represent something fundamental in the human imagination, and 2) the world of that imagination is real, and more important than the world we see and hear with our eyes and ears.

A few quotes:

…as D. H. Lawrence says, don’t trust the novelist; trust his story. That’s why so much of a writer’s best writing is or seems to be involuntary…the forms of literature itself are taking control of it, and these forms are what are embodied in the conventions of literature.

No matter how much experience we may gather in life, we can never in life get the dimension of experience that the imagination gives us…. In ordinary experience we’re all in the position of a dog in a library, surrounded by a world of meaning in plain sight that we don’t even know is there.

…the imaginative world and the world around us are different worlds, and… the imaginative world is more important… 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.

I know this all sounds Platonic, but Frye and the rest of us were not ancient Greeks without the seductions of mid-20th-century materialism, never mind the terrifying ideologic schism that overran us 60 years later.

How did that happen? As I tried in about 1980 to figure out where the academic humanities went while I was offline memorizing in medical school, I found that Frye was by the new current standards stodgy and naïve. OMG he was an ordained United Church minister… He said “Everything man does that’s worth doing is some kind of construction”. Enter de-construction: everything (we) do “that’s worth doing” is born of and furthers a political agenda. And we can find and expose eurocentrism, phallic power, raw greed and a whole variety of other pushy motivations in everything from Shakespeare and architecture to our fundamental philosophy, economics and political science. In the decade of the 70s the focus of academic appreciation of creative work had shifted from the human imagination to politically divisive activism. And I somehow imagine that the culture itself drifted through a similar change.

The radical side of feminism seems to me to have got tangled in the machinery of that divisive thinking. But (I hope like most men) I embrace feminism’s success as a long-overdue recognition of half the population as human, as having strange as it seems an imagination (I try to make that point in a couple of my other book reviews: The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Prum and Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale by Ruth Chatlien). And I understand that life is in some ways a struggle between weak people and strong people, kind and nurturing people and greedy grabby people. But I’m afraid there’s something so fundamental in the human nature of both of those archetypes that we probably will never straighten that struggle out. Both greed and sharing are adaptive and therefore built into us, into life. But at our best we see past those old built-in motives and understand there is a better reality beyond them.

What are we supposed to do then with this new retrograde instinctive and polarized understanding of our culture? To quote Jordan Peterson “Taking the easy way out or telling the truth – those are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life. They are utterly different ways of existing.” And to quote me: “I’m doing the best I can to fight my little fight, and when I have energy left over I try to see if I can help somebody else” … never mind their gender, IQ, sexual preference, greed, race, or beliefs.

I just don’t think we’ve helped ourselves much by politicizing academia and institutionalizing anger in the broader world. What do I think we want? That comforting and satisfying even-handed decent human experience happens to us as we struggle against bad spirits inside and outside ourselves and eventually against getting old and sick and dying. Just give us “every little once in awhile” experience of love.

That’s all I can hope for. But sometimes I wish we could return to the lovely optimism of Northrop Frye’s structured primacy of the imagination. And sometimes I spend a bit of time there. I can’t imagine what the great man would think of today’s English lit and other humanities departments in universities (and what Mcluhan would think of the internet!).


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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