"Frye Spiel": Northrop Frye and Homo Ludens

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Capitalizing on the appearance of the first ten volumes of the Collected Works of Northrop Frye, this essay shows how Frye took Johan Huizinga's sociological notion of homo ludens--man the player--and developed its implications for the humanities.

The [German] word for peace, Friede, means the free, das Frye.--Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought

The question of play, of it's not really happening, is inseparable from all cultural development.--Frye, Late Notebooks

As the early volumes of the University of Toronto Press's mega-project The Collected Works of Northrop Frye appear, we notice an important theme consistently emerging in Frye's thinking about topics as diverse as literary criticism, the profession of teaching, the institution of the modern university, religion, politics, history, and aesthetics. That theme is the need for humans to emerge from homo sapiens into homo ludens--from "man as knower" into "man the player," that is, as disconnected from "'commitment' and 'engagement'" a disconnection that permits us to say, "This, even if necessary, is still wrong; this, even if logical, is still absurd" (Frye, Writings 350-51). Only when thus "playfully" detached, says Frye, are humans able to stand at arm's length from a subject and see it holistically, see the relation of whole to part, subject to object, present to past. Thus, for Frye, literature is the quintessential "playful" medium because it is "detached from immediate action" (Myth 182); and "the contemplation of a detached pattern [is] [ ... ] clearly a major source of the sense of the beautiful, and of the pleasure that accompanies it" (Anatomy 74). So "the critic qua critic is not himself concerned but detached" (Critical 99). Similarly, the "immediate purpose" of teaching works of literature to children is to allow them "to understand them with a critical intelligence blended of sympathy and detachment" (Writings 158-59). And near the beginning of Frye's Words with Power we read that the "impulse" behind all literary writing, inclu-ding the Bible, is purely "a gaya scienza, a form of play or selfcontained energy" (43; cf. 128).

Frye says in the notebooks he was keeping while writing Words with Power that his notion of play was "got[ten] originally from Huizinga" (Late 256)--that is, from Johan Huizinga's 1938 treatise on "the play element in culture" called Homo Ludens, which he read in translation around 1955 (his annotated copy is in the E.J. Pratt Library at the University of Toronto). In brief, Huizinga's play thesis is that "civilization arises and unfolds in and as play" (see Foreword). By"play" Huizinga signifies "a free activity standing quite consciously outside 'ordinary' life as being 'not serious'"; an activity that is "connected with no material interest, and [from which] no profit can be gained." And finally, play, very importantly for Huizinga as it was later for Frye, must always be seen as "proceed[ing] within its own boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules" (13).

For Huizinga, play, seen as such, is "an absolutely primary category of life" and one that becomes possible only "when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos." Thus, play "confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation." All of the definitive activities of human life are "permeated with play from the start," says Huizinga, including law, war, science, poetry, myth, philosophy, and art. Thus, concludes Huizinga, "instead of the old saw: 'All is vanity,'he more positive conclusion forces itself upon us that 'all is play'" (212).

As attracted as Frye was to Huizinga's play theory, he had two closely connected reservations about it. The first he spelled out quite clearly in one of his newly published The "Third Book" Notebooks of Northrop Frye: "Huizinga's book, Homo Ludens, doesn't distinguish contest play, like a game of tennis, from construct play [and] only the latter belongs in lit. …