Northrop Frye
The Educated Imagination

Jupiter himself has only survived because he disappeared into literature.


I feel separated and cut off from the world around me, but occasionally I've felt that it was really a part of me, and I hope I'll have that feeling again, and that next time it won t go away.


... allegory, where literature is illustrating moral or political or religious truths, means that both the writer and his public have to be pretty firmly convinced of the reality and importance of those truths, and modern writers and publics, on the whole, aren't.


To understand Blake's poem, then, you simply have to accept a world which is totally symbolic: a world in which roses and worms are so completely surrounded and possessed by the human mind that whatever goes on between them is identical with something going on in human life.


But a belief itself can only be replaced by another belief.


a North American city. All around you is a highly artificial society, but you don't think of it as artificial: you're so accustomed to it that you think of it as natural.


the red lips and blue eyelids that women put on because they want to conventionalize their faces, or "look nice," as they say, which means the same thing.


There's clearly a strong force making toward conformity in society, so strong that it seems to have something to do with the stability of society itself. In ordinary life even the most splendid things we can think of, like goodness and truth and beauty, all mean essentially what we're accustomed to. As I hinted just now in speaking of female make-up, most of our ideas of beauty are pure convention, and even truth has been defined as whatever doesn't disturb the pattern of what we already know.


What we'd never see except in a book is often what we go to books to find.


Works of literature get into legal trouble because they offend some powerful religious or political interest, and this interest in its turn usually acquires or exploits the kind of social hysteria that's always revolving around sex.


No matter how much experience we may gather in life, we can never in life get the dimension of experience that the imagination gives us.


We can't use our minds at full capacity unless we have some idea of how much of what we think we're thinking is really thought, and how much is just familiar words running along their own familiar tracks.


Everything man does that's worth doing is some kind of construction, and the imagination is the constructive power of the mind set free to work on pure construction, construction for its own sake.


... the shadow of an even greater Victorian lady appears behind her: Alice in Wonderland, remembering the manners her governess taught her, politely starting topics of conversation and pausing for a reply, unperturbed by the fact that what she's talking to may be a mock turtle or a caterpillar, surprised only by any rudeness or similar failure to conform to the proper standards of behavior.


Everything that happens in time vanishes in time: it's only the imagination that, like Proust, whom I quoted earlier, can see men as "giants in time."


in ordinary speech we are all bad poets.


... the end of literary teaching is not simply the admiration of literature; it's something more like the transfer of imaginative energy from literature to the student.


Society attaches an immense importance to saying the right thing at the right time.


... 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.


To protect ourselves in a society like ours, we have to look at such advertising as that movie display ironically: it means something to us which is different from what it says. The end of the process is not to reject all advertising, but to develop our own vision of society to the point at which we can choose what we want out of what's offered to us and let the rest go. What we choose is what fits that vision of society.


The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.


If a society changes very rapidly, and our society certainly does, we have to recognize the large element of illusion in all social mythology as a simple matter of self-protection.


... cliché, that is, the use of ready-made, prefabricated formulas designed to give those who are too lazy to think the illusion of thinking.


Progress myths come into all the phony history that people use when they say that someone is a "Puritan," meaning that he's a prude, or that someone else is "medieval" or "mid-Victorian," meaning that he's old-fashioned. The effect of such words is to give the impression that all past history was a kind of bad dream, which in these enlightened days we've shaken off.


You can't cultivate speech, beyond a certain point, unless you have something to say, and the basis of what you have to say is your vision of society.


... now it seems to him only absurd and a little pathetic. No psychiatrist or clergyman can do him any good, because his state of mind is neither sick nor sinful: he's wrestling with his angel.


One is around us, the other is a vision inside our minds, born and fostered by the imagination, yet real enough for us to try to make the world we see conform to its shape. This second world is the world we want to live in, but the word "want" is now appealing to something impersonal and unselfish in us. Nobody can enter a profession unless he makes at least a gesture recognizing the ideal existence of a world beyond his own interests: a world of health for the doctor, of justice for the lawyer, of peace for the social worker, a redeemed world for the clergyman, and so on.


There's something in all of us that wants to drift toward a mob, where we can all say the same thing without having to think about it, because everybody is all alike except people that we can hate or persecute. Every time we use words, we're either fighting against this tendency or giving in to it. When we fight against it, we're taking the side of genuine and permanent human civilization.


The civilization we live in at present is a gigantic technological structure, a skyscraper almost high enough to reach the moon. It looks like a single worldwide effort, but it's really a deadlock of rivalries; it looks very impressive, except that it has no genuine human dignity.


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.


[ back ]