How Northrop Frye's 'literary cosmos' can help us reimagine life in 2020

What good is the study of literature? Northrop Frye’s 1962 CBC Massey Lectures were his attempt to answer that age-old question. Frye scholar and friend Deanne Bogdan revisits the lectures and helps us map Northrop Frye’s expansive vision of literature, life, and human nature.

'Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with,' says Frye

Northrop Frye revolutionized literary criticism. From his landmark Anatomy of Criticism, to The Great Code, the literary theorist describes literature as an immense, imaginative structure, comprised of interconnected myths. A structure that he calls ‘unlike life’ but essential to it. (CBC Still Photo Collection)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Northrop Frye didn't love radio. But he loved teaching. He taught undergraduate students at Victoria College in the University of Toronto his entire career, even at the peak of his powers as an internationally renowned literary critic. 

In 1962, he took to the airwaves to 'teach' CBC Radio listeners — through the Massey Lectures that he delivered that year, entitled The Educated Imagination. The book version of the lectures, published by House of Anansi, is still in print nearly 60 years later.

Frye began with a simple, yet profound question: what good is the study of literature? It's an ancient question, one that dates back at least to Plato's Republic, and the way it is answered often relates directly to the era in which it is asked. 

In 1963, Deanne Bogdan was a new mother in Don Mills, Ont., and contemplating graduate school when she first encountered The Educated Imagination. She mail-ordered the book from the CBC. When she read that question on the first page, she realized she had been fascinated with it herself.

She was so taken with Frye's literary vision that she did her doctoral dissertation on him: Northrop Frye and the Educational Value of Literature. 

It's as Frye says in the Massey Lectures: it's the 'let's assume' world. It's the 'what if' world.- Deanne Bogdan

Frye made his name by describing literature as a realm of interconnected works that exposed certain archetypal patterns. But it was where he placed this realm, and how he characterized it that captured Bogdan's imagination. 

"When I read Frye's canon, I was not really interested in the practice of his type of archetypal criticism," Bogdan says.

"What I read for was what he called the 'anagogic perspective' on literature as an 'order of words'. By anagogy, he meant the widest possible distance between a work of literature (or the 'order of words' as a literary cosmos) and what we call life.

"And it was only within this anagogic perspective that I felt that Frye ... had the answer to Plato's banishment of the poets; that is, how can the lie of fiction make a claim to truth?"

Here are three components of The Educated Imagination that might give you a new, or renewed, sense of the nature and value of literature as Frye saw it

1. 'Life-like' vs 'Literature-like'

We hear often of life imitating art, or vice-versa, but for Frye, literature is very much unlike life.

According to Frye:

"Almost every story we read demands that we accept as fact something that we know to be nonsense: that good people always win, especially in love, that murders are complicated and ingenious puzzles to be solved by logic, and so on.

"It isn't only popular literature that demands this; more highbrow stories are apt to be more ironic, but irony has its conventions too. If we go further back into literature, we run into such conventions as the King's Rash Promise, the Enraged Cuckold, the Cruel Mistress of love poetry...never anything that we or any other time would recognize as the normal behaviour of adult people; only the maddened ethics of fairyland."

And yet, we've been drawn in by a good yarn for all of human history. Deanne Bogdan says that it was critical for Frye not only that literature be experienced as being unlike life, but that it be recognized as such. 

Deanne Bogdan sees Northrop Frye as more than just a philosopher of education, but also as 'an archetypal apologist for literature in the tradition of [English poet] Sir Philip Sidney's defence of poetry.' (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"It must be perceived. It must not be life-like. It must be literature-like; that is why poetry for Aristotle and for Frye and for [Sir Philip] Sidney is more philosophical than history. Because it raises the level of the literary imagination — not of saying something, but of both saying and not-saying, in the postulation of a hypothesis.

"It's as Frye says in the Massey Lectures; it's the 'let's assume' world. It's the 'what if' world."

2. Horizontal vs Vertical Perspective

When we read a story or a poem, we might be tempted to identify some aspect of it in our own lives. This is what Frye refers to as the 'horizontal perspective'. Of much more value to us, he says, is to stretch our imagination into the vertical axis: 

Deanne Bogdan read Northrop Frye's entire works for her doctoral thesis, and later became friends with the literary theorist. (Submitted by Deanne Bogdan)

"In literature, we always seem to be looking either up or down. It's the vertical perspective that's important, not the horizontal one that looks out to life. Imagination gives us both a better and a worse world than the one we usually live with and demands that we keep looking steadily at them both… Literature gives us an experience that stretches us vertically to the heights and depths of what the human mind can conceive, to what corresponds to the conceptions of heaven and hell in religion." 

Deanne Bogdan says that in Frye's vision, the 'horizontal' perspective represents a 'partial response' to a literary work. In order to respond more fully to it, and to integrate it into our imagination, we need to be able to enter the vertical, better-and-worse world.

"We do identify with what I've called ... partial form, when one wants to look out into one's own life and say, 'oh yeah, that's just like the way I was feeling the other day when I was sad about losing my cat',or whatever. 

"This is not what Frye wants. But he knows that as readers and as people living in the real world, we do that. That's what he calls the 'horizontal perspective'. He wants readers to stretch themselves into the 'vertical perspective', which is the world of myth and metaphor that keeps us as 'unlike life' as possible so that we get both worlds together."

3. Detachment and Tolerance 

We often talk about walking a mile in someone else's shoes to get a sense of their situation. This is a recipe for empathy. But Frye describes what seems at first to be a paradox: that detachment encourages tolerance:

"When experience is removed from us a bit, as the experience of the Napoleonic War is in Tolstoy's War and Peace, There is a tremendous increase of dignity and exhilaration. I mention Tolstoy because he'd be the last writer to try to glamourize the war itself or pretend that its horror wasn't horrible. 

"There is an element of illusion even in War and Peace, but the illusion gives us a reality that isn't in the actual experience of the war itself: the reality of proportion and perspective, of seeing what it's all about, that only detachment can give."

According to Northrop Frye, Leo Tolstoy's novel, War and Peace creates an illusion that isn't the actual experience of war but rather the reality of 'proportion and perspective, of seeing what it's all about, that only detachment can give.' (Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Deanne Bogdan fleshes out the concept:

"Tolerance and detachment… work together because the distance, the stretching into the vertical perspective, continually widens the parameters of my own beliefs. Suspension of judgment, the accepting [of literary works] on their own terms, makes you question the parameters of your own belief systems."

That the world of literature, 'unlike' our own, 'detached' from our experience, and 'both better and worse' than it, can encourage self-reflection, is a good first step toward social transformation.  But for Frye, such a transformation still depends on the collective will. He concludes his 1963 Massey Lectures with a reference to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel:

"All had originally one language, the myth says; that language is not English or Russian or Chinese or any common ancestor, if there was one. It is the language of human nature, the language that makes both Shakespeare and Pushkin authentic poets; that gives a social vision to both Lincoln and Gandhi. It never speaks unless we take the time to listen in leisure, and it speaks only in a voice too quiet for panic to hear. And then, all it has to tell us when we look over the edge of our leaning tower is that we are not getting any nearer heaven, and that it is time to return to the earth."

More about our guest in this episode:

Deanne Bogdan is Professor Emerita in the department of Social Justice Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She is the author of Re-educating the Imagination: Towards a Poetics, Politics, and Pedagogy of Literary Engagement (Heinemann, 1992).

* This episode was produced by Sean Foley.


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