Human Apocalypse: A Response to The Educated Imagination
". . . just as [our society] looks real, so this ideal world [of literature] that our imaginations develop inside us looks like a dream . . . But it isn't. It's the real world, the real form of human society hidden behind the one we see." (The Educated Imagination, 152).
Northrop Frye's The Educated Imagination always seems to hint at, but never spells out, what the reader suspects will be the key to the cosmos. The above quote can bring to mind Plato and his forms, or visions of an alternate reality, but Frye does not elaborate. Rather, he stays on point: “This is . . . the world out of which we . . . will be building . . . Canada” (153). Frye is interested in this world, and how we shape it. Frye explores the relationship between an imagined world, and this 'real' world, and the way literature teaches us to access the former, which then informs our efforts to improve the latter. While Frye's main questions are concerned with the place of literature and literary education, his arguments are based on profound observations about human nature, and what at first looks like philosophical realism regarding (16, 77, 95).
Two key ideas Frye builds his case upon are identification and a sense of home. The book starts with an imaginary scenario: you are stranded alone on an island. Between bouts of feeling lonely and alien, “you may have moods of complete peacefulness and joy, moods when you accept your island and everything around you. . . . they'd be moods of identification, when you felt that the island was a part of you and you a part of it” (18). The feeling of unity with, or being at home (what Frye calls identification) in the island soon evaporates. You want something different. You want a world of human construction, of human shape. In short, you want a home.
In dreaming of something other than what is, humans exercise imagination. Imagination, Frye argues, “belongs in the scheme of human affairs. It's the power of constructing possible models of human experience” (22). Thus, imagination is humanity's capacity to envision things other than reality. In this instance, we imagine how the world could be more than our environment; it could be our home, or what Frye calls a “totally human world” (29). Here, at the intersection of imagination and humankind's desire for another kind of world, literature comes in. Frye writes: “Literature belongs to the world man constructs, not to the world he sees; to his home, not his environment. . . . The world of literature is human in shape . . .” (27-28, italics mine). Frye sums up his first talk by saying that the impulse for literature, or the “motive for metaphor,” is grounded in our desire to associate the world with the human mind. His assertion is that humans only feel true joy when we feel like we are truly a part of the world (33).
Frye is referring to a universal and profound human experience: the desire for peace, joy, and a sense of belonging. The desire he refers to, and the reality he describes, are akin to the biblical concept of shalom – the idea of everything in its right place. Shalom, and indeed The Educated Imagination, carry teleological and even eschatological significance. They are both about identity. The biblical narrative is an archetype of what Frye says is the “framework of all literature . . .This story of the loss and regaining of identity . . .” (54). So literature is a tool with two uses: it gives expression to the urge to identify ourselves with the world; and, perhaps more basically, literature is humankind's attempt to fulfill that most basic desire – the desire to fit into one's place in the universe. Literature expresses our longing to re-discover our identity as human. Our yearning for Eden (53).
But here Frye seems to reveal a kind of philosophical realism. He explores the idea of a reality behind literature, and uses striking language about literature and this imagined world. He sees the canon of Western literature as one, “complete world,” as if literature has its own ontology – its own being (69). Thus, good literature is constrained, even bound, by literary conventions, and by the vision of the poet, who, almost passively, can only describe what he sees. The literary author does not invent a world – rather he bears witness to it: “That's why much of a writer's best writing . . . seems to be involuntary. It's involuntary because the forms of literature itself are taking control of it, and these forms are what are embodied in the conventions of literature” (93). As Frye concludes, he appears to dive into the deep end of Platonism. Thus, the quote we began with, about the world behind literature: “. . . It's the real world, the real form of human society hidden behind the one we see” (152). But Frye does not espouse Platonism; quite the opposite in fact. In his last section, he finally cuts to the chase, and confesses the secret of the universe – and it is far from Platonic
Frye's meaning is not given in one succinct and easily-handled thesis. Rather, he has embedded it into each piece of each talk. It is hidden in plain sight throughout. What at first may sound like Platonism – some intangible, 'higher' reality, accessed by imagination – is actually something quite corporeal. For Frye, literature expresses human ontology. The “real form” of human society, the “reality” behind literature, which the human imagination taps into, has been clearly explained from the beginning. It is human in form. Literature, and indeed literary imagination, is humankind's effort to humanize the world around us. That is why literature is so variegated and yet so unified: because it reflects humankind – in all its billions of individuals, and its vast and narrow unity.
Again, Frye's thoughts are congruous with the biblical narrative: mankind is created in God's image, and he is on a broken quest both to rediscover his place, and fulfill it. We strive to fulfill our role in the created order; to find our home in the universe. Meanwhile, as God's vice-regents, we have the urge to shape the Earth, grooming for ourselves and for him a vast garden-temple, reflecting our own image reflecting his. Far from tapping into some Platonic realm of the forms, human literature is unified and inter-related because it all comes from a unified source: humankind – the creature made of dirt. Literature represents our envisioning of the most tangible and earthly reality: our home as we would have it. A “totally human world” (29).
Thus, Frye argues that when we look at literature, we look at humankind. The only 'forms' literature imitates are our own forms - human forms. The only reality under-girding the literary world is the reality of human experience. We see who we are, who we wish we were not, and who we wish to become. We receive a vision of a world that could be. A world that should be. We also see the warped and twisted face of a broken race, an “alien nature” that does not quite fit here (56). Thus, literature is a mirror, reflecting man who in turn reflects his creator, though the glass is cracked; and criticism is our attempt to understand and assess that image. “Literature is a human apocalypse, man's revelation to man, and criticism is not a body of adjudications, but the awareness of that revelation, the last judgment of mankind” (105).
Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Indiana University Press, 1964.