Small Talk with Professor Northrop Frye

Posted on: September 12th, 2012 by Eleanor Johnston No Comments

Small Talk with Professor Frye

“Simply put,” the Dean of Women at Victoria College told me in November 1970,  “Professor Frye can’t or won’t, and definitely doesn’t, engage in small talk.”

Miss Carmichael had chosen me, a second-year undergraduate, as head of table for a formal residence dinner, with Professor Northrop Frye sitting at my right hand as honored guest. “You’re an English major–you can strike up a conversation with him.” She added, “You are known to talk a lot.”

Until that moment, the only problem I’d had with Miss Carmichael was her determination to make all residents of Annesley Hall eat lima beans.

Would any other professors be attending? “Yes, one or two at each of the twenty tables. At the other end of your table, to the right of your roommate, will sit Mrs. Frye.” How was she at small talk? “Mrs. Frye isn’t a problem.”

I was an optimist in those days. Neither would her husband be a problem. My plan was to become the first undergraduate mortal in Vic history to pose, for Professor Frye’s consideration, such original and intelligent questions that he would delight in discussion with all the students at the table. After all, he liked talking to us in class.

My roommate, Margie, and I sat at the back of his next class on “The Bible as Literature” while I wrote out dozens of potential questions. When Professor Frye asked, “Any questions?” no-one understood enough of what he’d just said to frame a decent one. He waited, without apparent embarrassment, until someone couldn’t stand the silence a second longer and blurted out a poorly-worded query. Frye helped the student define his terms, then thanked him for his relevant and thoughtful question. Margie drew a big X across my page to impress me with the need to avoid typical undergraduate inanities.

I could, perhaps, memorize significant quotations. Margie nodded her approval. We knew some of Professor Frye’s favorite poems.  He taught in a gentle monotone but roused himself to enthusiasm whenever he found an excuse to sail off on a tangent involving The Bible, anything by Blake, The Waste Land, or “The Idea of Order at Key West.” I soon had several pages of his favorite lines and no idea how to use them. I did, by some intuitive good sense, ignore the poems of Sarah Binks.

Margie warned about another strategy to avoid: humor. In class Frye occasionally made a joke so unfunny that we only recognized it as a joke from his little smile as he waited for someone to chuckle. We could not conceive how he found it funny. Of course, we considered ourselves fortunate when we understood even one sentence per class. Any undergrad who claimed to grasp his lectures was immediately suspect in terms of honesty. Joking with Frye would be even more difficult than listening to him. My problem remained. How could I presume to talk one-on-one with this great brain? I asked if Margie would change chairs for the dinner. “Sorry,” she said. “No.”

Our favorite professor, Jay Macpherson, seemed able to converse with Frye. We watched as they walked, happily chatting, across campus to eat at Burwash Hall. We could understand her lectures. How did she talk at his level?

Frye was Vic’s answer to the existence, in other faculties and colleges, of genius such as Glenn Gould’s in Music and Marshall McLuhan’s at St. Mike’s.

Frye was a daily presence, and we felt honored to breathe the same air in the classrooms of New Vic. He peered at us with mild curiosity, and we stared back. He was clearly at the Einstein level of brilliance. Both had hair that appeared to have been accidentally frizzed by phenomenal mental powers.

What did he accomplish? Professor Frye freed us from uncritical acceptance of the assumptions of our culture. His brain danced nimbly from the humor of Aristophanes to the rage of the Minor Prophets, from the universality of Shakespeare’s dramatic structures to the brilliance of the Upanishads, Don Quixote and Crime and Punishment. His mind ranged with confident flexibility over the whole human story. One amazing presumption was to read The Bible not as Holy Writ but as literature. He expected us to read, as well, the wealth of human achievement in all non-Western myths, stories and poems.

If his ideas were difficult, his integrity was crystal-clear. An ordained United Church minister in a time of shifting moral relativity, he stood for social justice. In 1970 we were shocked to hear the rumor that the RCMP was spying on Frye for his political activities. This rumor proved true.

All too soon the night of the Annesley dinner arrived. Still dreading the hour I was assigned to converse with Professor Frye, I met him at the front door and escorted him to the dining hall. Expecting to demonstrate painful ignorance, I attempted to kick start a conversation—Professor Frye looked down at his hands and answered my questions in monosyllables. The other students chatted happily. Margie and Mrs. Frye had their heads together. Miss Carmichael, in her seat at high table, waved her hands as if I could understand what she was trying to communicate. Lima beans lay cold and starchy on my plate.

Inspiration: instead of wasting the time of our resident genius, I would stop chattering and let him think. I focused on the design etched on the silver dishes and flatware and the matching pattern stitched on the linens. When the meal was finished, my guest of honor leaned slightly towards me, smiled, nodded, stood and left. Professor Frye had taught me the role of the silence that supports the world of great thought.



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