Northrop Frye on literature and imagination

“…modern writers speak of these visions of sacred golden cities and happy gardens very rarely, though when they do they clearly mean what they say. They spend a good deal more of their time on the misery, frustration or absurdity of human existence. In other words, literature not only leads us toward the regaining of identity, but it also separates this state from its opposite, the world we don’t like and want to get away from. The tone literature takes toward this world is not a moralizing tone, but the tone we call ironic. The effect of irony is to enable us to see over the head of a situation-we have irony in a play, for example, when we know more about what’s going on than the characters do-and so to detach at least in imagination, from the world we’d prefer not to be involved with.

As civilization develops, we become more preoccupied with human life, and less conscious of our relation to nonhuman nature. Literature reflects this, and the more advanced the civilization, the more literature seems to concern itself with purely human problems and conflicts. The gods and heroes of the old myths fade away and give place to people like ourselves. In Shakespeare we can still have heroes who can see ghosts and talk in magnificent poetry, but by the time we get to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot they’re speaking prose and have turned into ghosts themselves. We have to look at the figures of speech a writer uses, his images and symbols, to realize that underneath all the complexity of human life that uneasy stare at an alien nature is still haunting us, and the problem of surmounting it still with us.”

“…in literature you don’t just read one poem or novel after another, but enter into a complete world of which every work of literature forms part. This affects the writer as much as it does the reader. Many people think that the original writer is always directly inspired by life, and that only commonplace or derivative writers get inspired by books. That’s nonsense: the only inspiration worth having is an inspiration that clarifies the form of what’s being written, and that’s more likely to come from something that already has a literary form. We don’t often find that a poem depends completely on an allusion, as Chesterton’s poem does, but allusiveness runs all through our literary experience. If we don’t know the Bible and the central stories of Greek and Roman literature, we can still read books and see plays, but our knowledge of literature can’t grow, just as our knowledge of mathematics can’t grow if we don’t learn the multiplication table.”
“One of the things I’ve been trying to do in these talks is to distinguish the language of the imagination, which is literature, from two other ways of using words: ordinary speech and the conveying of information. It has probably occurred to you already that these three ways of using words overlap a good deal. Literature speaks the language of the imagination, and the study of literature is supposed to train and improve the imagination. But we use our imagination all the time: it comes into all our conversation and practical life: it even produces dreams when we’re asleep. Consequently we have only the choice between a badly trained imagination and a well trained one, whether we ever read a poem or not.

When you stop to think about it, you soon realize that our imagination is what our whole social life is really based on. We have feelings, but they affect only us and those immediately around us; and feelings can’t be directly conveyed by words at all. We have intelligence and a capacity for reasoning, but in ordinary life we almost never get a chance to use the intellect by itself. In practically everything we do it’s the combination of emotion and intellect we call imagination that goes to work. Take, for example, the subject that in literary criticism is called rhetoric, the social or public use of words. In ordinary life, as in literature, the way you say things can be just as important as what’s said. The words you use are like the clothes you wear. Situations, like bodies, are supposed to be decently covered. You may have some social job to do that involves words, such as making a speech or preaching a sermon or teaching a lesson or presenting a case to a judge or writing an obituary on a dead skinflint or reporting a murder trial or greeting visitors in a public building or writing copy for an ad. In none of these cases is it your job to tell the naked truth: we realize that even in the truth there are certain things we can say and certain things we can’t say.

Society attaches an immense importance to saying the right thing at the right time. In this conception of the ‘right thing,’ there are two factors involved, one moral and one aesthetic. They are inseparable, and equally important. Some of the right things said may be only partly true, or they may be so little of the truth as to be actually hypocritical or false, at least in the eyes of the Recording Angel. It doesn’t matter: in society’s eyes the virtue of saying the right thing at the right time is more important than the virtue of telling the whole truth, or sometimes even of telling the truth at all. We even have a law of libel to prevent us from telling some truths about some people unless it’s in the public interest. So when Bernard Shaw remarks that a temptation to tell the truth should be just as carefully considered as a temptation to tell a lie, he’s pointing to a social standard beyond the merely intellectual standards of truth and falsehood, which has the power of final veto, and which only the imagination can grasp.”

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