The Social Function of Literature


Thank you so much for your comment, Clayton, in response to my previous post. You ask some big questions: “What does a life look like that has listened to what literature has to say? How does having an educated imagination affect one’s commitments? Or does concern replace commitment?” Any answer I offer here will simply be a stab in the dark, but here goes.

Frye, as you well know, does not assume that an active reader of literature automatically becomes a “good person.” I am reading the Third Book Notebooks right now, and I am struck with the emphasis he puts on education or the “educational contract” over the social contract as informing society and therefore social and political action: in other words, for him, the university is the ideal or Utopian form of society. In one of his previous posts Michael Happy cites Frye’s statement that universities are, or should be the engine room of society. Criticism and literature are, for Frye, a central, indeed perhaps the central part of that engine room, which is the world of the arts and sciences. This world, along with–in a much more complicated way–religion, seem to be the only thing that proves we are something more than “psychotic apes” on a berserk rampage bent on destroying both human society and the earth. I love Michael’s image of the crowbarring and “hacking away that has been done by self-declared iconoclasts and comfortably tenured revolutionists” that in the end have only weakened public support for liberal education, and thus undermined any strong intellectual defence against the very clear and present danger: the increasing privatization of the universities and the very sinister encroachments of corporate capitalism.

In terms of concern and commitment, as you also well know, Frye places ideology (political or religious belief) and  kerygma (spiritual proclamation) on the opposite sides, as it were, of literature, and the lines here tend to blur in certain forms of literature. Obviously, there are more rhetorical forms which aim at persuasion. On the kerygmatic side, in my own field of study, I think of Thoreau, whose Civil Disobedience and Walden are obviously much more prophetic and geared towards informing our actions than something like Poe’s poetry and tales which, if you could ever treat them as prescriptions, would lead you straight to suicide, murder, or a mental institution. A serial killer might read Poe that way, and indeed Poe pops up famously in thrillers and crime fiction precisely in that guise: as a guru for psychopaths. There is a killer in one of Michael Connolly’s novels, for example, who reads Poe “kerygmatically,” if one can use the term in such a context. Fictional though it may be, this is an extreme example of the countless possible illustrations of Milton’s famous statement: “a wise man will make better use of an idle pamphlet than a fool will do of sacred Scripture.”

It is often difficult to find something like a later concept in Frye–one is so often proved wrong–but it is my impression at least that he puts a greater emphasis in his later writings on the prophetic dimension of literature, especially post-romantic literature. Here the prophetic is not conceived of so much as informing a program of action as confronting history with vision. Writers like Dostoyevsky or Kafka seem to leap over their times in their capacity to give us an unsettling vision of the most nihilistic and catastrophic potential in their respective Zeitgeists, as though they had a sixth sense of the cultural fissures that were going to lead straight to the horrors of the Holocaust, concentration camps, and the Gulag.

On the ideological side, as Frye points out, literature is always more or less compromised. In the pre-eighteenth century dispensation the imagination is almost completely constrained by what the calls in The Critical Path a central “myth of concern.” In The Third Book Notebooks, he observes that “ literature, being part (the central part) of the myth of concern, is profoundly impure” (CW 9: 67). According to him, in the post-romantic age this myth of concern breaks down, but slowly, and is still with us to some extent. At the same time, with the ascendancy of science and a liberal myth of freedom the writer is increasingly freed from any central ideological constraint. (This was Melville‘s point in a letter when he said that even Shakespeare for all his truth-telling was constrained by the feudal order of his time, and that “the declaration of independence makes a difference.”) The dark side of this is that ideologies become polarized and you end up with writers like Celine–or “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot/fighting in the Captain’s tower,” as Bob Dylan’s lyric goes– writers whose personal programs of action are often repugnant, at least to those of us who are not authoritarians, anti-Semites or fascist sympathizers. Literature gets both more imaginatively pure (Poe, Mallarme, etc) and messier, if that makes any sense.

I fear I have not really answered your question however, which is perhaps: what is the function of literature in a society when it is much more removed from either the ideological or prophetic strains?

Frye has answered this in different ways. First of all, the reading of literature tends to make one much more conscious of the verbal, imaginative and conceptual patterns that inform not just literature, but other forms of communication and media, as well as the ways in which we think about our lives, society, and the world in general.

Secondly, the reading of literature–especially literature removed from us culturally or historically– means that we engage with cultures and societies that are markedly different from our own, with different assumptions and beliefs. Adopting these alternative perspectives makes us think more critically about the structures of our own society. Thus the study of literature qua literature should make us better critical thinkers.

Literature also, and most importantly, strengthens our vision of a world that would make a lot more human sense than the one we live in. In a very clarifying passage near the end of Words with Power, Frye speaks of the social norm that operates inside and outside of literature, “the sense that enables irony to be ironic” (309). So literature has a lot to do with giving us that vision. As he says:

The same assumption of a social norm operates outside literature: one can hardly imagine, say, doctors or social workers unmotivated by some vision of a healthier or freer society than the one they see around them. (309)

At this point, he speaks of secondary and primary visions, the latter being the higher level vision of

fulfilled primary concerns, freedom, health, equality, and happiness. If this vision disappears or is replaced by the ideological one, then, however admirable the ideology may be in theory, it is subject to strong pressures to become obsessive, and so start on the downward path already indicated [that is, towards a “hysterical or counter-hysterical” response]. (310)

Herein lies the argument against replacing the vision of literature with the narrower and more anxious vision of ideology. The proponents and practitioners of New Historicism and cultural studies are inspired, at their core, it would seem, by precisely the vision of fulfilled primary concerns that Frye speaks of. But that vision has been replaced by a political belief that is “subject to strong pressures to become obsessive.” Obsessive is a psychological term, and it is this psychological, or subjective and compulsive element that is the problem with ideology. It is the repressed emotional element in ideology, the passionate element in belief, the element of anxiety, that drives it in an obsessive direction, whether on the right or left.

And it is the demands of archetype and design and literary form that allow literature to transcend that obsessive element and still remain concerned: the fact that literature comes from other literature, that you can’t write a poem or story except on the basis of literary conventions, is a counter-compulsive force at work in the very making of a literary work, an exacting counter-subjective, counter-obsessive force on the writer if he wants to write a poem that anyone might care to read. This is the liberal element in all literature, the liberating element–the playful, detached, hypothetical, imaginative element in our experience of literature–that transcends ideology, but at the same time informs us with a concerned vision of human life.

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One thought on “The Social Function of Literature

  1. Peter StirFrye Yan

    The Authority of Literature and the Arts

    Short Answer: Literature shows us the world we want (comedy and quest romance) and the world we don’t want (tragedy, irony, satire).

    Long Answer: At the risk of sounding glib, for my younger students who could not read Words with Power or understand primary and secondary concerns, I point to Abram Maslow’s needs of life. The authority of literature is to remind us of the needs for life. Every story shows these needs either being fulfilled or denied/subordinated. Usually my students watch their favourite movie and report on the following checklist whether these needs are fulfilled or denied.

    1. Physical Needs (movement, food/air/water, reproduction/family, clothing, shelter, property, technology and money).

    2. Safety

    3. Love/Belonging

    4. Self-Esteem

    5. Cognitive needs (need to know)

    6. Aesthetic needs (need for beauty/art)

    7. Humour/Optimism

    8. Self-Actualization (power to help oneself)

    9 Transcendence (power to help others).

    I once had a parent angry that I screened the Eminem movie 8 Mile (13 kilometres in Canada), saying it was crap. After giving her the list, she understood what art does as a whole, even popular art.

    As Frye says, his ideas are for the average 15 or 19 year old. A vision of heaven, anagogy, should be open to anyone with a imagination.

    The interesting thing is that Maslow’s Needs are most often taught in high school marketing/business courses to brainwash the public.

    It’s time that literature reclaimed the imagination, showing how advertising is applying literature’s disinterested vision of an ideal world.


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