Re: Educating the Imagination

  • Northrop Frye, Alan Bewell (Editor), Neil ten Kortenaar (Editor) and Germaine Warkentin (Editor)
    Educating the Imagination: Northrop Frye Past, Present, and Future. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Graham Nicol Forst

Canada’s pride in the heritage of Northrop Frye receives another statement with this collection of scholarly essays chosen from fifty-odd papers delivered at the University of Toronto’s Victoria University on the occasion of the centennial of Frye’s birth in October 2012. Frye’s star has inarguably dimmed in the dawn-light of postmodernism and identity politics, but most of the authors of these essays (many of whom were his students or assistants) present his ideas of literature and society as if nothing had changed since the 1970s. The best of these papers, such as that of Michael Dolzani, accept Frye for what he was: a Romantic utopian and formalist systematizer conservatively focused on the Christian Bible and the Western literary canon, from which he famously claimed to extrapolate “the fundamental unity of all literature.” The weakest of the papers try to mould Frye into something he was certainly not: for example, a Derridean (Alexander Dick), a fellow-traveller with Paul de Man (Adam Carter), or, God forbid, a closet feminist (Troni Y. Grande) or Marxist (Robert T. Tally Jr.).

Educating the Imagination opens with “Reading between the Books: Northrop Frye and the Cartography of Literature,” by the eminent scholar of North American Indigenous languages Robert Bringhurst. It occasioned a standing ovation when delivered at Victoria University, but it reads like a defensive and adversarial rearguard justification of Frye’s formalism over the demon of deconstruction. The argument is totally circular: the deconstructionists cannot “map” literature because for them literature isn’t “real”; but because Frye had “faith” that “reality exists,” literature can be scientifically taxonomized. Those who deny this are “small-minded” and “impoverished,” “silly and . . . juvenile”; such deniers are “unhealthy” advocates of deconstruction, “a feeble . . . science” which is “lodge[d], like a cancer, in the body of literary criticism.”

Ian Balfour’s “Northrop Frye beyond Belief” is an unapologetic assay of Frye’s Wilde side—that is, of his view of literature (which includes of course the Bible) as literally “beyond belief.” As with Oscar Wilde, as Balfour shows, in Frye there are no “moral criteria” in literature, only “poetic and aesthetic” ones. Literature, that is, is always and only “a hypothetical verbal construct.” (Balfour, like Frye, never asks how one should take, say, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” or Elie Wiesel’s Night as “affirming nothing.”)

“From the Defeated: Northrop Frye and the Literary Symbol,” by Michael Dolzani, stresses Frye’s utopianism, which is rooted in the power of literature to “change the world” and to rebuild Jerusalem in England’s green and Brexit land. Literature possesses this power because, says Dolzani, mirroring Frye, the literary imagination is continually “recreating,” and thus is capable of “break[ing] the closed cycles of Spenglerian determinism” and “shattering . . . mind-forg’d manacles” and eventually even the “material chains of social tyranny.” As such, the imagination mirrors “the divine in us,” thus fostering a utopian impulse which is “not dead at all.” Looking back over the age of genocide, one can only wish this were so.

Alexander Dick’s “Frye, Derrida, and the University (to Come)” offers an interesting comparison of Frye’s vision of the modern university to Derrida’s: both saw it as the university’s role to foment “neurotic maladjustment” by confronting the student with “languages, myths, and metaphors that make [up] his or her deepest concerns.”

Adam Carter’s “Correspondences: Frye, de Man, Romanticism” draws a more tenuous link between Frye and de Man: both “mutual[ly] reject[] . . . the [Wordsworthian] assumption that the mind finds its correspondence in nature”—but for reasons so entirely different they moot Carter’s comparison. For de Man, such a notion is just existentially false: it represents “a delusory and inauthentic yearning of human consciousness for the stability of natural things.” Frye’s rejection of the notion of a unity between human consciousness and the natural order, however, is rooted not in existential angst but rather in the “terror” of the Canadian environment, so pervasively expressed throughout Frye’s writings on early Canadian literature.

The subject of Mark Ittensohn’s interesting “Romanticism and the Beyond of Language: Northrop Frye and the Wordsworthian Imitation of the Point of Epiphany” is that of the Romantic epiphany and its revelation of the “inadequacy of language.” Wordsworth called his epiphanic moments “spots of time,” which are literally “unsayable” moments—linguistically inexpressible, which, as Ittensohn shows, corresponds closely to Frye’s view of poetic discourse in the Anatomy of Criticism. There, poetry is associated with “total dream . . . infinite and boundless hypothesis.” Poetry and the Romantic epiphany are “inherently connected to mystery, to riddle.” And herein, surely, is Frye’s lasting legacy: not in a shotgun marriage with postmodernism or identity politics, or in jejune reiterations of his anachronistic utopianism, but in the realization that “what the arts cannot say may be as important as what they do say.”

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.