Tuesday, February 8, 2022

The Vocation of Eloquence

What is writing but our attempt to re-articulate what has mostly been said before in forever new ways? If our vocation is eloquence, it is firmly built upon the heightened speech of others who have made the same climb up the ladder of cultivated intelligence. People like Canadian English professor Northrop Frye. The mark of a good author is that we are astonished anew by his revelations when we turn to read them years later.  I recently re-opened his book The Educated Imagination, published in 1964, and based on six talks aired on the radio (a kind of pre-Podcast lecture series). I was mightily impressed by the depth of his thinking and his power of articulation. 


So here I present select passages from his final talk titled The Vocation of Eloquence. Much delicious and nutritious food for thought— enjoy the meal!


• Literature speaks the language of the imagination and the study of literature is supposed to train and improve the imagination. We use our imagination all the time… the choice is between a badly trained imagination and a well-trained one. 


• The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in… and how to relate the two. 


• The first thing our imagination can do for us when we learn to read and write and talk, is to fight to protect us from falling into the illusions society threatens us with. Those illusions are produced by the social imagination, but it’s an inverted form of imagination, What is creates is the imaginary which is different from the imaginative.

¨• If our only aim is to get by in society, our reactions will become almost completely mechanical. That’s when we resort to clichés. Clichés are the ready-made, prefabricated formulas designed to give those who are too lazy to think the illusion of thinking. 


• In a society which changes rapidly, many things happen that frighten us or make us feel threatened. People who do nothing but accept their social mythology can only try to huddle more closely together when they feel frightened or threatened and their clichés turn hysterical.


• The study of language and literature is essential to free speech. We are in a battleground between the speech of a mob and the speech of a free society. One stands for cliché, ready-made ideas and automatic babble and leads us inevitably from illusion into hysteria. There can be no free speech in a mob. 


Nobody is capable of free speech unless he knows how to use language and such knowledge is not a gift; it has to be learned at worked at, like practicing the piano. 


• 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 of 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 … it looks very impressive, except that it has no human dignity. For all its wonderful machinery, we know it’s really a crazy ramshackle building and at any time may crash around our ears. We are living in a modern Tower of Babel and what will make it collapse is a confusion of tongues. 


All had originally one language, the myth says. That language is not English or Russian or Chinese—it is the language of human nature, the language that made 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 to heaven, and that it is time to return to earth.


Thank you, Northrop Frye. The difference between clichés and genuine free speech, between the imaginary (conspiracy theories!) and the imaginative (art), the need to cultivate and educate the imagination (pay attention, schools!), to listen in leisure (the gift of the pandemic), the inability to truly listen in a state of panic and hysteria and the need to plant our feet firmly on the earth. Good reminders for us all, some 60 years after you spoke them. 


If this was my 5th grade book report, I’d end with: 


“I recommend you read this book.”

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