Study Guide: Some Notes and Questions on The Educated Imagination


With the school year beginning, a lot of students out there will be encountering Frye for the first time, and The Educated Imagination is likely to be their first encounter.  Here, therefore, is a study guide and some questions for them to consider as they read.

The spatial or schematic form of chapter 1:

Levels of Mind
1.  (Theoria or dianoia) Speculative or contemplative: one’s mind is set over against nature.  Separating, splitting, or analytic tendency: me vs. not me; intellect vs. emotions; art vs. science.
2.  (Praxis)  Social participation: motivated by desire (one wants a better world); intellect and emotions now united; necessity (work what one has to do); adapting to environment; transforming nature.
3.  (Poesis)  Vision and imagination: also motivated by desire but here it’s a desire to bring a social human form into existence, i.e., civilization; freedom.

Corresponding Levels of Language
1.  Language of consciousness or awareness; the language of nouns and adjectives.  Language of thinking.
2.  Language of practical sense and skills (work, technology); language of teachers, preachers, advertisers, lawyers, scientists, journalists, etc.); language of necessity.  Language of action.
3.  Language that unites consciousness (level 1) with practical skill (level 2); language of imagination; literary language; language of freedom. Language of construction.

1.  Awareness that separates one from the rest of the world
2.  Practical attitude of creating a human way of life in the world.
3.  Imaginative attitude or vision of world as imagined or desired.

Chapter 1, “The Motive for Metaphor” (phrase from title of a Wallace Stevens poem)

1.  What are the two points—one simple and one complex—Frye makes in connection with the relevance of literature for today (pp. 16ff.)?
2.  What is the motive for metaphor?
3.  What does Frye mean by “a world completely absorbed and possessed by the human mind”?
4.  What does Frye mean my transforming nature into “something with a human shape”?   What does he mean by “the human form of nature,” which he seems to say is the same thing as “the form of human nature.”

Chapter 2, “The Singing School” (phrase from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”)

1.  Third level of language = the language of the imagination = associative language = metaphor.  What does Frye mean by saying that the language of the imagination suggests an “identity between the human mind and the world outside it”?  A bit later he says that poetry is an act of “identifying the human and the nonhuman worlds.”
2.  Much of this chapter is devoted to a simple point—one Frye is fond of making over and over: literature is made out of other literature.  Why does Frye seem to place so much weight on convention?
3.  What do you make of Frye’s statement that “it isn’t what you say but how it’s said that’s important”?  His illustration of this is Campion’s poem about the cruel mistress, which Frye says is “pure convention.”
4.  The monomyth or the one great story, says Frye, is the “story of the loss and regaining of identity.”  What are its four forms?

Chapter 3, “Giants in Time” (phrase from Proust)

Some ideas worth thinking about and discussing:
—poetry gives us the typical, the recurring, the universal event
—“Many people think that the original writer is always directly inspired by life, and that only commonplace or derivative writers get inspired by books. That’s nonsense.”
—“There is really no such thing as self-expression in literature.”
—“We relate the poems and plays and novels we read and see, not to the men who wrote them, nor even directly to ourselves; we relate them to each other.”
Note on p. 31 that the issue of identity comes up again. What does Frye say about detachment? What does Frye mean by saying that literature “swallows” life, an image he got from Milton? What’s the relationship of literature to real life?  What is “real” life, anyway? Difference between imaginary (unreal) and imaginative (what poets create). Poets render not reality but the typical, recurring, universal experience. Notion of absorption: Sheep and flowers get absorbed and digested by literature, i.e., there’s some literary reason for using them.  “The allusiveness of literature is part of its symbolic quality, its capacity to absorb everything from natural or human life into its own imaginative body.”
What do you make of all this body talk—swallowing, digestion, and the like?
Symbol — allegory  — allusion
Original writers aren’t inspired by life; they’re inspired by books. We don’t relate poems & plays to their authors or even to ourselves. (We don’t?) We relate them to each other.  (We do?)
Possession.  p. 75.  Identity.  p. 77.  Why study literature?  Tolerance, p. 78.  What does Frye mean by the somewhat curious metaphor of possession? But literature gives more: Vision: see last two paragraphs.  What does Frye mean by vision?

Chapter 4,  “Keys to Dreamland” (phrase from Finnegans Wake)

The conventions of literature show little connection with real life. Imagination not related directly to life or reality, but to literature (p. 95). Para. on the blinding scene in Lear, 98-9.  What’s the function of this illustration? Top and bottom halves of literature: absorption and detachment:
—detachment: standing apart and seeing things for what they really are because they’re not really happening. How does Frye think we can best develop or educate our imaginations? Do Frye’s three levels of response (precritical, critical, possession) correspond to your own experience in reading?  How?  Why?  Or why not?

Chapter 5, “Verticals of Adam” (phrase from Dylan Thomas)

How to educate the imagination:
—Bible; classical mythology
—structure of the literary forms: tragedy, comedy, irony, romance
—other languages; other arts
—relation of literature to other subjects (philosophy, history, social sciences, etc.). How does Frye’s program for the education of the imagination conform to your own reading experience?
—What does Frye mean in last para. by the transfer of imaginative energy?

Chapter 6, “The Vocation of Eloquence” (phrase from St. John Perse)

—social function: contra advertising, propaganda
—fighting against the social mythology, the illusions that society threatens us with: good old days, ideas of progress
—free speech: freedom comes from practice
—vision of society: where does this come from?— not from society itself
—conclusion about the Tower of Babel myth. What do you understand to be the social function of literature from Frye’s perspective? How would Frye answer someone who said that the study of literature might be OK if we want to get a little cultural bulk in our diets or if we want to prepare ourselves for cocktail party chit-chat but that such study really has nothing to do with the “real world” and doesn’t actually prepare us for living?  Again, has Frye made you question the ordinary meaning of the phrase “real world”?

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