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

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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.

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2 thoughts on “Frye, Favre, and Vettel: The Place of Sports in the Mythological Universe

  1. Joe Adamson

    Russell’s post reminds me of a great spoof the Varsity did when I was a grad student at the U of T. They published an interview with Frye in one of their fall issues (a bogus interview of course) in which he was asked who he picked for the World Series, the comparative strengths of the different teams, how he thought so-and-so’s arm would hold up, who he thought was the best choice for MVP, that kind of thing. And Frye came back, of course, with these really savvy sportswriterly answers. I wish I’d kept a copy; it was really funny, because so incongruous.

    There is of course the famous baseball example he gives in Anatomy: umpire as cathartic play-scapegoat for a not-for-real howling mob:

    “There is certainly no evidence that baseball has descended from a ritual of human sacrifice, but the umpire is quite as much of a pharmakos as if it had: he is an abandoned scoundrel, a greater robber than Barabbas; he has the evil eye; the supporters of the losing team scream for his death. At play, mob emotions are boiled in an open pot, so to speak; in the lynching mob they are in a sealed furnace of what Blake would call moral virtue.”

    I’ll tell you, the umpire sure had the evil eye for Andy Pettitte last night, until the Yankee starter gave him a well deserved tongue lashing.

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  2. Peter StirFrye Yan

    Frye and Basketball metaphor from Late Notebooks Vol 5 p. 244

    “…but I was working out an anti-mimetic theory of literature; Malraux said a few excellent things but was full of bullshit; Maritain, as I said, kept busting his skull against this preposterous ‘art vs. scholasticism’ thesis, insisting that critical theory just had to come out of St. Thomas, who cared as much about the arts as I do about basketball league playoffs”.

    I am sure that Frye would agree about the religious metaphors in sports, where the trophy is the holy grail, and the hall of fame is heaven, all the heroic players are on a quest romance armed with swords, stick, bat or racquet as they conquer the villains dressed in their dark uniforms.

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