Daily Archives: November 5, 2009

Frye on Sports

frye athlete

Frye clutching a baseball in front of the family's Pine Street home, Moncton, N.B. ca. 1922.

Further to Russell Perkin’s earlier post:

As for Frye‑reading sports fans, I spent the first couple of decades of my life doing nothing but playing basketball, and a love of that game, along with tennis and handball, still runs deep.

I suspect Frye was not much given to sports because competition was too much rooted in the competitive instinct, though he does report that his first memories have to do with World War I and the game of shooting Germans. Anticipating Stephen Dedalus, he also says that early on he was given to “staying out of games because of danger of breaking glasses.” And then there is the violent aspect of competitive sports. Jack Megill, a character in Frye’s unfinished novel, describes “a scrubby little soccer game where the football was about the only one on the field that wasn’t kicked.” In a cryptic little “proverb from hell” on the topic of violence, he writes, “Sadism in sports: gladiators to hockey.”

Is part of it something in the Canadian psyche? Frye told one of his U.S. classes “that students conditioned from infancy to be part of a world power are bound to be very different in their attitude from students conditioned from infancy to watching the game from the sidelines and seeing more of the game perhaps than the participants.”

But if there’s a game at the center (“centre” for you maple‑leafers) of Frye’s world, it’s got to be chess, which is largely an archetype of the Eros vision, but there are games in each of the quadrants of his HEAP scheme: “the game of athletic contest (the epic game) has its tonic in Adonis, the game of fate (cards) in Hermes, the game of chance (dice, divination) in Prometheus, & the game of strategy (chess & board games) in Eros.” This comes from The “Third Book” Notebooks, where the game of chess is very much on Frye’s mind. Otherwise, from here and there in the corpus, this sampler:


The writing kids produced a very pleasant story by Catharine Card, who is a really sweet girl. Darcy Green tells me that her shyness actually is neurotic & she’s been under psychiatric treatment. It’s a women’s magazine formula, but very nicely done. Gloria Thompson did a parody of My Last Duchess. I find having all that beauty & charm & health & youth in my office a bit overpowering: I find, not unnaturally, that I want to show off. I never worked that out of my system because, not being athletic, I couldn’t show off in the approved ways during the mating season. (Diaries, 28 February 1950)

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Frye, Alter, and Rowan Williams


This is  a delayed response, Russell, to your post on Frye and “The Return of Religion.” I was piqued by some of your suggested criticisms of Frye’s approach to the Bible, and so resolved to undertake some of the reading you suggested. Eagleton? Well, nah, I think I’ll give that a pass, at least for the moment. But I did take a deep breath and plunged into Robert Alter’s article on Frye and the Bible in Frye and the Word.

It might be useful, but much too laborious and really not worth the time and energy to go through all the ways the man distorts Frye’s argumentation  in order to make him look foolish, uninformed, and deluded. He condescendingly alludes to Frye’s shakiness on the ground of Biblical criticism and theology, his philological ignorance, his Christianizing of the Bible, etc. But if you compare the examples he adduces to make his case you will find that the only way he can undermine Frye is by attacking a dummy custom-made for the purpose.

To avoid tedium, I will contain myself to one example. He claims that in The Great Code Frye, in a discussion of Ecclesiastes, translates the hebrew word “hevel” as “dense fog.” In sneering reproof, Alter observes that the word means mist or vapor, not dense fog. However, if you look at the pertinent passages in The Great Code you will discover that Frye mentions the significance of the word “hevel” and notes that it “has a metaphorical kernel of fog, mist, or vapor,” and “acquires a derived sense of ‘emptiness’.” It is only a good page later that, in a discussion of the invisible world as the means by which we see the visible one, he uses the phrase “dense fog”: “if we could see air we could see nothing else, and would be living in the dense fog that is one of the roots of the word ‘vanity.’”

This is not even splitting hairs; it’s splitting nothing, since there is nothing Alter can really argue with. That “vanity” is like the “void’ of Buddhist thought“, as Frye points out in the same discussion, is exactly what Alter himself says: that the significance of the word “hevel” is the vaporousness, the insubstantiality of what we take to be reality,  or its “nothingness,” as Frye says. So a disagreement must be invented where there isn’t one. He accuses Frye of tweaking the Hebrew, but who is really doing the tweaking of someone’s words here?

Alter fails to mention any of this. This is what I referred to in a previous post as intellectual dishonesty. Like other critics of Frye, such as Said–and predictably, like Said, Alter dismissively praises Frye for his “ingeniousness”–Alter engages in a deliberate short-circuiting of Frye’s arguments in order to caricature and distort them into something that at least sounds foolish, uninformed, and deluded, because at some level I suspect they know they aren’t. It would not be hard to show how egregiously Alter follows this procedure throughout his essay.

The bottom line is: Alter simply wants nothing to do with the imaginative element, with metaphor or myth in the Bible, or if it must be admitted,  since it is everywhere, only as a kind of rhetorical ornamentation that is easily hedged in by  a crabbed and mean-spirited descriptivism.

So what a joy it was today when I received my copy of Rowan Williams’s Dostoevsky, Faith and Fiction (just in time for my class on Dostoevsky next week), and read the following passages in the first three pages of his preface. You’d think he’d read Frye, and I guess he may well have at some point, or read someone who read him:

Metaphor is omnipresent, certainly in scientific discourse (selfish genes, computer modelings of brain processes, not to mention the magnificent extravagances of theoretical physics), and its omnipresence ought to warn us against the fiction that there is a language that is untainted and obvious for any discipline. We are bound to use words that have histories and associations; to see things in terms of than their immediate appearance means that we are constantly using a language we do not fully control to respond to an environment in which things demand that we see more in them than any one set of perceptions can catch.

The most would-be reductive account of reality still reaches for metaphor, still depends on words that have been learned and that have been used elsewhere . . .

This will involve the discipline of following through exactly what it is that language of a particular religious tradition allows its believers to see–that is, what its imaginative resources are.

This is not–pace any number of journalistic commentators–a matter of the imperatives supposedly derived from their religion. It is about what they see things and persons in terms of, what the metaphors are that propose further dimensions to the world they inhabit in common with nonbelievers.

Williams speaks of  the “forming of a corporate imagination” as “the more or less daily business of religious believers,”  of “a common imagination at work . . . in the labors of a variety of creative minds.” He explains that the series for which the Dostoevsky book was written “look[s] at creative minds that have a good claim to represent some of the most decisive and innovative cultural currents of the history of the West (and not only the West), in order to track the ways in which a distinctively Christian imagination makes possible their imaginative achievement.”

And he asks:

What, finally, would a human world be like if it convinced itself that it had shaken off the legacy of the Christian imagination?

He speaks very insistently, not of the imperatives of  belief, but of  metaphor and imagination.

What a godsend for a church to have such an archbishop.

Who Was Elizabeth Fraser?

Fraser's ullus.2

Illustration by Elizabeth Fraser

In mid‑October 1936 Frye has a chance encounter with Elizabeth Fraser, a Canadian graphic artist and book illustrator with whom he and Helen Kemp had had a passing acquaintance in Toronto and who was living in London and (sometimes) in Oxford.  “We parted with expressions of esteem,” Frye writes to Helen, “and promises to come together later.  I may give a tea for her and [Douglas] LePan soon.  She looks interesting.”  But before he can send an invitation, Fraser asks him over for a meal, which he accepts, showing up at her place two weeks later.  Thus begins the most intriguing relationship Frye has during the year.  Fraser, a pipe‑smoking free spirit who is twelve years older than Frye, is trying to survive in Oxford by illustrating books, always living on the brink of insolvency.  One of her projects, described in some detail in Frye’s letter of 3 November 1936, mystifies him because he cannot imagine why she is drawn to the turgid prose of the text.  Fraser completes twenty or so extraordinary drawings for the book, which turns out to be Plato’s Academy: The Birth of the Idea of Its Rediscovery by Pan Aristophron, published in 1938 by Oxford University Press.  Frye says that Fraser is “a very remarkable girl” and is attracted to her ideas, which he says “have been gradually developing the way mine have on Blake, into a more and more objective unity all the time,” as well as to her drawings, which he sees “as sincere as the book is faked, and as concrete as the book is vague.”

Aristophron says nothing at all in his preface about Fraser’s drawings, which are identified only by her stylized initials—EF—tucked away in the corner of several of the illustrations.  The book was printed by John Johnson, “Printer to the University” and also a friend of Fraser’s.

Fraser was also interested in preserving wall paintings in medieval churches, and so she and Frye would go to churches in and around Oxford and sketch the paintings, which are in various states of disintegration.  They share each other’s company on a number of occasions during November and December 1936, having tea together, going on a “pub‑crawl,” hiking to the countryside and surrounding villages on numerous occasions, and seeing plays and movies together.  “God knows what one can make of the girl,” Frye tells Helen. “Her relief at finding someone who wouldn’t blush and look the other way when she powdered her nose and who wouldn’t think she was a fallen woman if she wanted to go find a bush in the course of the walk suggested that she had been making rather a fool of herself in front of Englishmen recently—I suspect she has a genius for that.”  They continue to see each other frequently throughout the 1937 Easter term.  Toward the end of the term Frye writes to Helen that Elizabeth is “a lonely girl with lots of courage, pride and sensitiveness, but she is a swell girl.  She hits hard and rubs people the wrong way, in a way I think you understand, after six years of me, but she’s more honest and straightforward than I am and has more guts.  You’ll love her when you meet her.”  Both Frye and Fraser frequently borrow money from each other, and each is attracted to the other’s creative bent, even though Frye hardly knows how to respond to some of her illustrations and designs.

After completing his examinations at the end of his first term at Oxford, Frye finds himself miserable and penniless, waiting to receive the next instalment of his Royal Society grant so he can go to London for the Christmas vacation.  But his spirits are lifted by the arrival of ₤50 from the Royal Society and by “a fairly concentrated dose” of Elizabeth Fraser.  On 19 December he escapes to London for the holidays, staying with Edith and Stephen Burnett, friends of Kemp through Norah McCullough, the educational supervisor at the Art Gallery of Toronto.  Elizabeth Fraser shows up in London on 26 December for a five‑day visit, and she and Frye attend two performances of Murder in the Cathedral. (Fraser gets sick at the first performance and has to be hauled home in a taxi). They also wander out to Hampton Court to see a painting by Mantegna.

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Frye, Favre, and Vettel: The Place of Sports in the Mythological Universe


Last weekend I found myself re-reading The Double Vision in between intervals of watching sports on TV.  Not only were all four major North American leagues in action on the same weekend, but there were a number of sports events that I was especially interested in: Paula Radcliffe’s attempt to win her fourth New York marathon, the last race of the Formula 1 season at the futuristic new track in Abu Dhabi, the NASCAR race at the legendary Talladega circuit, a Leafs-Canadiens game, and Brett Favre’s return to Green Bay as a Minnesota Viking. 

Northrop Frye does not give the impression of being someone who was much interested in sports, and I started wondering idly about the role of sports in ideas of liberal education (Newman says in the Idea of a University that “there are bodily exercises which are liberal, and mental exercises which are not so”), and about how sports would fit into Frye’s discussion of primary and secondary concerns.  The relationship between literature and sports is sometimes problematic: often in North American culture it is typified by in a comment I once overheard at a holiday party: “I hope you had a good Christmas, with no books and lots of sports equipment.”  But St. Paul was not averse to athletic metaphors, and Tom Brown’s Schooldays inspired a tradition of fiction that continues in the games of Quidditch in the Harry Potter books.  There is also a tradition of cultivating the body as well as the mind that finds expression in the Renaissance ideal of the courtier; I like to draw students’ attention to the fact that Sir Philip Sidney begins his “Apology for Poetry” with an anecdote concerning horsemanship.  The first time I ever heard of Marcel Proust was by reading an essay about sport in The Remembrance of Things Past in Sports Illustrated  (I kid you not: check out the SI Vault, 17 December 1973). 

Unlike critics such as Stanley Fish, Frye is not given to sporting metaphors, though one does turn up in an incidental way in The Double Vision.  Illustrating the difference between a purposeless and a purposeful repetition, Frye writes that the latter “is habit or practice repetition that leads to the acquiring of a skill, like practising a sport or a musical instrument” (52).  Of course, it is the musical example that he goes on to develop.  Because I teach at a university with a strong athletics programme, I often find myself using the sports analogy that Frye employs here, saying something along the lines of “There are a few people who are natural athletes and don’t need to practice, just as there are some people who are brilliant scholars who don’t need to study much, but most of us have to work hard to achieve anything.” 

In his discussion of the fulfillment of primary concerns in human civilization, Frye talks of the necessity for both work and play.  The latter “opens up a world of freedom and leisure out of which the typically human form of consciousness comes, and it produces the creative arts.”  The creative arts, in turn “set up models of what I have been calling primary concerns” (DV 28-9).  Can we say that sports transforms activities that exist in the world of nature, such as running away from predators or fighting for survival, into forms of play such as competitive running or football?  Are such forms of play models of primary concerns?  If sport is part of the fulfilling of primary concerns, does it too often get displaced into secondary concerns by economic factors or nationalism? 

I suppose one could also view sports as a kind of mythological world of its own, with its heroes and patterns of ascent and descent.  Commentators and analysts interpret the careers of athletes in terms of triumph and tragedy, disgrace and redemption.  If one wanted to view this negatively, one could view sports fanaticism as a kind of debased substitute religion; alternatively, one could that sports are part of a wider spiritual path for many.  In any case, it is hard not to see the analogies between sports and cultural archetypes: for example, I was teaching Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (“I cannot rest from travel: I will drink / Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d / Greatly, have suffer’d greatly”) during one of Brett Favre’s “Will I retire or come back next year?” dramas. 

I wonder whether there are other Frye-reading sports fans out there, and if so what you have to say on this topic.  By the way, Paula Radcliffe came fourth in the marathon, the German whiz kid Sebastian Vettel won the Grand Prix, to place second in the World Championship, and Brett Favre beat his old team.