Category Archives: Educated Imagination

Palin, Frye and Blood Libel


Palin blames “pundints” [sic] for “manufacturing a blood libel” against her

Roy Peter Clark cites Frye on metaphor to make some sense of Palin’s claim to be the victim of “blood libel” after the Tuscon shootings.

A sample:

Frye provides a cautionary lesson about metaphorical language: that the differences between the compared elements are as important as the similarities. If I present myself as a “light to the world,” I am asking my audience to see my divine qualities and will not blame them for observing the dissimilarities.

To describe oneself as a victim of blood libel carries with it a certain responsibility for proportionality, that the seriousness of the metaphor must equate in some measure with the experience being described. While the football game between the Steelers and the Ravens has already been compared to a war – and the players to gladiators – we recognize that as traditional and hyperbolic. But I would not call a failed athletic performance an “abortion” or a blowout of one team by another as a “holocaust” or “a virtual Hiroshima.”

George Orwell


From the 1985 film adaptation of 1984: The principle of perpetual war explained (video not embedded: click on the image and hit the YouTube link)

On this date in 1950 George Orwell died (born 1903).

Frye in The Educated Imagination:

The essential thing is the power of choice.  In wartime this power is greatly curtailed, and we resign ourselves to living by half-truths for the duration.  In a totalitarian state the competition in propaganda largely disappears, and consequently the power of imaginative choice is sealed off.  In our hatred and fear of war and totalitarian government, one central element is a sense of claustrophobia that the imagination develops when it isn’t allowed to function properly.  This is the aspect of tyranny that’s so prominently displayed in George Orwell’s 1984.  Orwell even goes so far as to suggest that the only way to make tyranny permanent and unshakable, the only way in other words to create a literal hell on earth, is deliberately to debase our language by turning our speech into an automatic gabble.  The fear of being reduced to such a life is a genuine fear, but of course as soon as we express it in hysterical cliches we are in the same state ourselves.  As the poet William Blake says in describing something very similar, we become what we behold.  (CW 21, 490)

Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway

“A man who is clearly an idiot”

On this date in 1582 William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway put up a bond for their pending marriage.

Frye in The Educated Imagination reminds us once again not to indulge in biographical fallacy:

We know nothing about Shakespeare except a signature or two, a few addresses, a will, a baptismal register, and the picture of a man who is clearly an idiot.  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.  Literature is the world that we try to build up and enter at the same time.  (42)

Eugene Ionesco


An interview with Ionesco (French with English subtitles)

Today is playwright Eugene Ionesco‘s birthday (1909-1994).

Frye in The Educated Imagination:

I said earlier that there’s nothing new in literature that isn’t the old reshaped.  The latest thing in drama is the theatre of the absurd, a completely wacky form of writing where anything goes and there are no rational rules.  In one of these plays, Ionesco’s La Chauve Cantatrice (“The Bald Soprano” in English), a Mr. and Mrs. Martin are talking.  They think they must have seen each other before, and discover that they travelled in the same train that morning, that they have the same name and address, sleep in the same bedroom, and both have a two-year-old daughter name Alice.  Eventually Mr. Martin decides that he must be talking to his long lost wife Elizabeth.  This scene is built on two of the solidest conventions in literature.  One is the ironic situation in which two people are intimately related and yet know nothing about each other; the other is the ancient and often very corny device that critics call the “recognition scene,” where the long lost son and heir turns up from Australia in the last act.  What makes the Ionesco scene funny is the fact that it’s a parody or take-off of these familiar conventions.  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. (40-1)

Gettysburg Address

The only known photo of Lincoln after giving the Gettysburg address.  The speech was so brief that it caught the photographer unawares.

On this date in 1863 Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

Frye in The Educated Imagination:

I often think of a passage in Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”  The Gettysburg address is a great poem, and poets have been saying ever since Homer’s time that they were just following after the great deeds of the heroes, and that it was the deeds which were important and not what they said about them.  So it was right, in a way, it was traditional, and tradition is very important in literature, for Lincoln to say what he did.  And yet it really isn’t true.  Nobody can remember the names and dates of battles unless they make some appeal to the imagination: that is, unless there is some literary reason for doing so.  Everything that happens in time vanishes in time: it’s only the imagination that, like Proust, whom I quoted earlier, can see men as “giants in time.”  (CW 21, 482)

Quote of the Day: The Imagination and the Electoral Process

From “The Vocation of Eloquence” in The Educated Imagination:

“During an election campaign, politicians project various images on us and make speeches which we know to be at best a carefully selected part of the truth.  We tend to look down on the person who responds to such appeals emotionally: we feel he’s behaving childishly and like an irresponsible citizen if he allows himself to be stampeded . . . What the responsible citizen uses is his imagination, not believing anybody literally, but voting for the man or party that corresponds most closely, or least remotely, to his vision of the society he wants to live in.  The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.” (85-6)

Battle of Hastings

Death of Harold (centre), Bayeux Tapestry

On this date in 1066 William the Conqueror defeated Harold II in the Battle of Hastings to become King of England.

Okay, yes, it’s a stretch — and the reference is only incidental — but I’ll use any excuse to cite Frye where he is most accessible on the unique authority of literature.  And it’s remarkable, isn’t it, how often we come across extraordinarily lucid passages like this one from The Educated Imagination:

We can understand though how the poet got his reputation as a kind of licensed liar.  The word poet itself means liar in some languages, and the words we use in literary criticism, fable, fiction, myth, have all come to mean something we can’t believe.  Some parents in Victorian times wouldn’t let their children read novels because they weren’t “true.”  But not many reasonable people today would deny that the poet is entitled to change whatever he likes when he uses a theme from history or real life.  The reason why was explained long ago by Aristotle.  The historian makes specific and particular statements as: “The battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.”  Consequently he’s judged by the truth or falsehood of what he says — either there was such a battle or there wasn’t, and if there was he’s got the date either right or wrong.  But the poet, Aristotle says, never makes any real statements at all, certainly no particular or specific ones.  The poet’s job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens: not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always takes place.  (35)