Wednesday 24th June—Ch. 9: Literature and the educated imagination (Committee Rm 2)
Summary and reflections on chapter
What good is literature? What are the benefits of reading literature? Through the essays and observations of high school students and their reading of Northrup Frye’s 1963 The Educated Imagination, as well as his own critical reading of Frye’s work, this chapter questions what have become commonplace and enduring assumptions about the superiority and importance of ‘literature.’ Contrary to these assumptions and Frye’s ideas, which are especially embedded in the teaching of literature in university departments (where high school literature teachers are trained), and which are seeped into ordinary discourse, this chapter considers the negative, damaging role of literature. This includes a colonial inheritance that is embedded in literature, and is inherent in assumptions of literature being civilised and having civilising properties. It also includes an assumed belief in the transcending and uplifting powers of literature – that sees literature as somehow separate from the world.
Frye’s arguments typify an approach towards reading world literature that “radiates from a Western canon.” Frye’s argument relies, Willinsky argues, on colonial imageries of “island paradise, plantation economies and evolutionary hierarchies. This imperial lives on today as a trace element in our educational lives, not toxic in itself but worrisome as it goes unspoken and unexamined…. Literature survives the empire that first carried it abroad, but how…has our thinking about the story told my literature changed in the process. ”
So the question we ask is where such literary criticism locates itself/is located? Willinsky writes: “The traces of an imperial legacy situate the centre and the periphery, the civilised and the primitive.”
Frye - The global sense of a brotherhood of genius, civilisation as a “little cultivated world with a human shape, fenced off from the jungle.” Willinsky - “Frye’s idea world of literature is a left-over from the jungle conquering age of empire.”
The presumed universality therefore – of the literature and the literary criticism is, as Achebe writes “a synonym for the narrow, self serving parochialism of Europe.”
To go beyond this we need to examine how our imaginations were educated, Willinksy argues
1)Frye’s The Educated Imagination
a)The Island Metaphor
Frye refers to the idea of the desert island – “Suppose you’re shipwrecked on an uninhabited island in the South Seas.”
The idea of the uninhabited desert island in literature… as a place of control, monopoly - recreating space, owning people – this myth/idyll plays out colonialism, it is colonial imagery. “Starting anew in a newfound land, of going back in time to an untainted version of the homeland.” (isn’t this what Willinsky is doing in terms of literature?)
This image, reminding us of Robinson Cruesoe and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, has seeped into this culture/consciousness – eg Desert Island Disks - and Willinsky points out its connection to colonialism…. With this image (unconsciously?) Frye reminds us of Europe’s civilising mission.
p.226 “In choosing the island metaphor Frye suggests that to reach people where they live, one begin with their bookshelves…”
“But for all its sense of escape, the Western idea of the South Seas Island also carries with it the hope of rescue and a return to one’s proper home.” …a fantasy of escape.
The island metaphor also serves to place “the Orient on a distant horizon.” He attributes a superstitious quality to the oriental.
“Frye’s great learning (as he references works of literature from around the world), lightly seasoning his text, gives his claims a universal purchase. Even as he situates literature within an evolutionary scale that locates India and China in the past.”
He suggests that “racial prejudices are simply too vulgar for the cultivated imagination.”
b) The three stages of literature
Frye inscribes his island with the apparent “three stages through which language makes its civilising progress:
1 – Language as a ‘consciousness and awareness” that leads to basic forms of self-expression.
2 – Language in a ‘practical sense’
3 – Imaginary realm - language as poetry, plays, novels etc
Frye creates evolutionary poles of the primitive and the civilised. “You find that every mother tongue in any developed or civilised society turns into something called literature. “Primitive literature hasn’t yet become distinguished from other aspects of life; it’s still embedded in religion, magic, social ceremonies.”
Writes Willinsky “He misses the chance here to allow that every language and culture has its literature, its imaginative retelling of the world and its ways.
He connects primitive literature to poetry; “the most primitive nations have poetry, but only quite well developed nations can produce prose.” He believes that children should move, from an early age, from poetry to prose – “to recapitulate the ascent of civilisation and overcome the stagnation of primitive and poetry bound cultures.”
p.227 the idea of the relationship between ‘literature’ and a developed, civilised society….of literature and cultural progress. Language as as a culmination of civilisation. Frye contrasts ‘primitive literature’ from ‘the timeless classic’
c) The third imaginary realm – universal, timeless, of this world yet not of this world, spiritual
‘Literature’ carries the assumption of ‘universality’. According to Frye, the educated imagination is boundless and free-ranging, while remaining attentive to details of time and place.”
“Although it is easy to speak of the imagination as unbounded, Frye is actually retracing… the well trod path from Homer to Wordsworth, which was also followed in ships’ cabins, plantation mansions, and schoolhouses around the colonial empire.”
Great literature is timeless (ie unsituated, apolitical…) Frye - "But it doesn't follow that Whitman is a better poet than Dante: literature won't line up with that kind of improvement. So we find that everything that does improve, including science, leaves the literary artist out in the cold. Writers don't seem to benefit much by the advance of science.”
Of this world yet separate from it
Willinsky goes onto discuss the way in which literature is seen as simultaneously separate from life and to reflect it – in Frye’s work but also in common assumption.
Frye -“Literature belongs to the world that the man constructs, not the world he sees”, suggesting that it is naïve to relate literature “directly to life or reality.” According to Frye, it is naïve to imagine literature’s involvement in a worldly category such as imperialism. Rejecting a sense of literary and agency Frye secures a space for literary study that is safely bounded by literature’s structures…. Protected from earthly cares. Frye’s professional calling is to hive off literature from ‘ordinary life’…
At the same time however, Frye celebrates the way in which a book/character can capture a nation’s history.
We see this contradiction constantly – the separation of literature into a separate realm, and the assumption that it can tell us about other cultures, tell the story of a nation, people etc.
Willinsky p.236 “In this, Frye and I are not so far apart. We both want to talk about literature as apart from yet a part of the world.”
p.237 “I agree that literature, as a whole tends towards a certain antidogmatic mutability and equivocation.”
Frye appeals to literature’s spiritual value in warning his listeners that “if we shut out the vision of (literature) completely out of our minds, or insist on its being limited, something goes dead inside of us, perhaps one thing that is really important to keep alive…. 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.”
When he speaks of literary criticism, as “uniting literature and society,” the critic sounds like “the church bringing the word of God to humanity.”
Willinsky – “I have desire or reason to be smug. My work shares the same inclination, using, in my case books such as Fosters’ and Frye’s to “help us grow” in a worldly striving to move beyond the earlier global turn of imperialism and all that it has come to mean for literature and education.
I would suggest that Willinsky, being white and a product of such literature departments, does not push far enough. He still retains optimism in the possibility of literature overcoming the blip of a period of history. The role of form, the English language,
But Willinsky also, as he writes, is a product of this education and literature p.214”that I, no less than many other students, learned to love and loved to learn…”
p.222 “What is needed is a return to our ideas about the value of literature, ideas that, after the centuries of literature’s engagement with imperialism, are bound to bear something of a legacy devoted to civilising the savage, to bringing sophistication of feeling and thought to the primitive. A student’s literary education needs to include this historical role of literature as an educational tool that supported, and at times stood against, the expansion of empire.”
I would question the assumption that postcolonial critics are fundamentally questioning these assumptions, drawing out the connection between literature and the world. eg most postcolonial critics are white and/or upper class. The influence of the work of Said and his ‘Orentalism’ – he is not separate from these assumptions. He still is a product of such English literature education/departments and still carries an assumption of literature’s superiority and sanctity. (eg his defence of Rushdie’s novel).
Frye is interested in “how literary study still works the rhetoric of empire.”
The focus in this chaper remains largely on colonialism….. and its legacy. As if colonialism has polluted ‘literature’ – (something like the idea of colonialism polluting the western psyche – embedded in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.) As if there is something positive to return to.
I would argue that these structures are more subtle and pervasive in all of literature, including our own literature – need to examine more closely – form, the English language……
Willinsky seems to focus on white readers. What is the impact – of such an education, and literature – on readers and writers of colour?
Literature today as a product of globalised capitalism, consumerism…. How this does/doesn't change the ways in which literature in entangled in the world? How this reflects new forms of imperialism and whiteness in contemporary literature.