The Play’s the Thing: Frye and “Homo Ludens”


Yves Saint‑Cyr has recently completed a Ph.D. dissertation entitled The Glass Bead Game: From Post‑Tonal to Post‑Modern (University of Toronto).  It’s an intellectually ambitious and stimulating romp through a wide range of complex literary, critical, and musical texts, painting, and mathematical theory.  In his chapter 3 Saint‑Cyr turns to Frye in order to illuminate Hermann Hesse: Frye’s theory of modes and his theory of the phases of the mythoi of comedy can, Saint‑Cyr argues, help reveal the formal structure of Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel.  But as Saint‑Cyr says early on, the ends and means of this project can be reversed: he wants to investigate the implications of Hesse’s Glass Bead Game “to model the role of recursive paradox in literary criticism.”  This seems to point in the direction of Frye as a Glass Bead Game player.  Saint‑Cyr does say that Frye might well conceive of literary criticism rooted in mythology as a Glass Bead Game, an inference he makes from one of the three places in his writing where Frye refers to the Glass Bead Game, but he never really develops the idea that Frye’s critical constructs are themselves a Glass Bead Game.

Not that he should have, but there is certainly enough in Frye’s published works to make such a case.  Bloggers interested in the topic should consult Graham Forst’s “‘Frye Spiel’: Northrop Frye and Homo Ludens,” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 36, no. 3 (September 2003): 73–86.  Forst argues that “play is reading’s central motif and that for Frye, readers see things holistically only when “playfully” detached: literature “is the quintessential ‘playful’ medium because it is ‘detached from immediate action.’”  But I suspect the last word on Frye and homo ludens [“man at play”] will have to take account of what he both says and implies about play in the notebooks, considering such constructs as the Great Doodle, the ogdoad (which began when Frye was nine as a dream of writing eight concerti), and the omnipresent HEAP (Hermes‑Eros‑Adonis‑Prometheus) scheme.  These are all like a giant board game, a centripetal structure on which Frye continually moves the pieces as he works to show how imaginative patterns inform self and society, cultural creations, history and philosophy––indeed, everything in the poetic and religious cosmos. 

The notebooks reveal the expansive free‑play of Frye as himself as homo ludens.  His own comments on his expansive “game” illustrate that in the tradition of both Huizinga and Schiller (and of the anatomy form itself) playing the game is serious business.  The game has scores of lesser doodles––permutations, based on schema that Frye has drawn from alchemy, the zodiac, the chessboard, musical keys, colors, the omnipresent “four kernels” (commandment, aphorism, oracle, and epiphany), the shape of the human body, Blake’s Zoas, Jung’s personality types, Bacon’s idols, the boxing of the compass by Plato and the Romantic poets, the Greater Arcana of the Tarot cards, the seven days of Creation, the three stages of religious awareness, numerology, among other schema.  Then there’s Frye’s enigmatic “chess‑in‑bardo,” which involves a dialectic of two opposing forces: agon and anagnorisis, choice and chance, descent and ascent.  All of these things can be seen as a web or net of interconnected imaginative processes, like the jeweled net of Indra.  To use Saint‑Cyr’s phrases, it’s a “conceptual model” and an “epitome of symbolic construction.”  The game involves the organizing of cultural symbols, literary ideas, poetic motifs, philosophical categories on a two‑dimensional grid, like a game board.  Its form is both dialectical and cyclical and at times, when Frye speaks of the gyre or vortext, it’s even three‑dimensional.  It’s not unlike the description of the Glass Bead Game that Hesse’s Knecht provides in his letter to Tergularius, where “every symbol and combination of symbols led . . . into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge” (Magister Ludi, 104–5).  This sounds like a description of Frye’s own ogdoad. 

In short, the application of the Glass Bead Game to Frye’s own extraordinary game‑playing would be a topic worth investigating.  It would fill in the hints in that direction we get from Saint‑Cyr.  In Words with Power Frye writes: 

In ordinary speech we distinguish work and play (GC 125): work is energy expended for a further end in view; play is energy expended for its own sake. Discursive language is working with words, which means that the words should normally be laid out in a straight line leading to the centre of what is being said. But we speak of playing the piano or tennis, and of dramas, even tragedies, as plays. Doing such playing well takes a lot of work, of course, but the end of the work is, or is closely allied to, the self-contained energy of play. It seems clear that the popular conception of discursive prose as more responsible and serious than poetic language is an aspect of the work ethic, an aspect of ideology strong enough for poets themselves to feel its pressure. Nonetheless literature constitutes the intensely difficult and exacting operation of wordplay, and even granting that there is something of Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game about the arts, the element of play in them should not be misunderstood as withdrawing from the serious business of society. The distinction of work and play is symbolized by Valéry in the contrast of walking and dancing: one has a goal in the distance, the other does not. But when a highly skilled person is performing his skill, it is hardly possible to distinguish the two: the dancer is the dance, as Yeats implies. What then is expressed by this work-play? This brings us again to the word “concern,” a word I have dropped already once or twice, and hope is self-explanatory, as I am not using it in any special sense. (41-2)

 The other two places where Frye refers to the Glass Bead Game are in The “Third Book” Notebooks:

Somewhere along here I want to embark on a historical survey of the Logos myth: how the mathematical vision, for example, declines after Newton, & then either turns demonic (Blake’s Europe, Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, Yeats’ Vision) or else gets reborn by way of some kind of games theory.  Hesse’s Glasperlenspiel & Mallarmé’s Igitur & Coup de Dés belong here, though I don’t just know how yet.  I suppose chess in Bardo gets attached. One of the things I find encouraging about this project is the way I’m being compelled to face things I’ve ducked in the AC: Poe’s Eureka, the epic circle, & the like.  Browne’s quincunx, too.  Because a lot of things seem to be converging on Yeats’ double gyre or hourglass figure, of which the X is one form: a conscious world where the mind is at the centre or top; a lower world where the mind is looking into itself below.  “Poetic Cosmology”: it sounds like Vico. (190–1)

In any case the sequence VirgilProust seems the organizing one: the motto of Adonis movement is always “The only paradises are those we have lost.” It seems to me too that Glasperlenspiel is a movement from Adonis pastoral to Adonis reality, & that at the end the Master enters death at Nomos, in a reversal of the Eros Socrates-pupil situation, leaving the labyrinth a Hermes Oedipus inheritance. (202)

 For those interested in pursuing the issue, here are some sources for the homo ludens/Huizinga theme in Frye:

            The Late Notebooks of Northrop Frye 1:114

            The Late Notebooks of Northrop Frye 1:256

            The Great Code 125 (in Collected Works edition, 145)

            The “Third Book” Notebooks of Northrop Frye 66

            “The Bridge of Language,” in On Education 167 (Collected Works: Northrop Frye on Modern Culture 329)

            The Secular Scripture 56 (Collected Works: The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory 40)

            “Vision and Cosmos,” in The Secular Scripture and Other Writings on Critical Theory, 220

            Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on the Bible and Other Religious Texts 105, 113, 122, 124, 548–9 (the final reference is also in Frye and Macpherson, Biblical and Classical Myths, 174–5)

            The Modern Century 68 (Collected Works: Northrop Frye on Modern Culture 38)

Outside of Huizinga Frye wrote about games and game‑playing in a number of places.  Here’s one example:

As a literary critic, I am much concerned with symbols and with conventions, and a graduation ceremony like this one [at Franklin and Marshall College] is both symbolic and conventional. We spend a lot of time playing games, where certain rules are set up and certain illusions agreed upon. Some of these games are contest games, like tennis or writing examinations; some are ritual and ceremonial games like this one. Everything about this occasion: the processions, the gowns, the speeches, the conferring of degrees, are part of an elaborate symbolic let’s pretend. You will not feel tomorrow any different from the way you feel today, but nevertheless we are pretending that today you cease to be a student, whose natural impulse it is to change everything in sight, and that tomorrow you will be an alumnus, whose natural impulse it is to keep the college the way he remembers it.  (Northrop Frye’s Writings on Education, 317; a slightly different version appears in Reading the World 105)

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One thought on “The Play’s the Thing: Frye and “Homo Ludens”

  1. Yves Saint-Cyr

    Good post!

    I am in fact convinced that much of Frye’s work can be approached from the point of view of the Glass Bead Game. Of course, Hesse’s novel and his conception of the GBG itself are deeply ironic. However, even this sense of irony, with all of its self-referential and parodic implications, is relevant to Frye’s discourse. I am at present in the process of writing a book specifically on the conjunction of Frye’s theories and Hesse’s “Das Glasperlenspiel.”

    -Yves Saint-Cyr


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