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Category Archives: On Play

The great archetypal activities of human society are all permeated with play from the start. Take language, for instance that first and supreme instrument which man shapes in order to communicate, to teach, to command. Language allows him to distinguish, to establish, to state things; in short, to name them and by naming them to raise them into the domain of the spirit.
In the making of speech and language the spirit is continually “sparking” between matter and mind, as it were, playing with this wondrous nominative faculty. Behind every abstract expression there lie the boldest of metaphors, and every metaphor is a play upon words. Thus in giving expression to life man creates a second, poetic world alongside the world of nature.

Or take myth. This, too, is a transformation or an “imagination” of the outer world, only here the process is more elaborate and ornate than is the case with individual words. In myth, primitive man seeks to account for the world of phenomena by grounding it in the Divine. In all the wild imaginings of mythology a fanciful spirit is playing on the border-line between jest and earnest. Or finally, let us take ritual. Primitive society performs its sacred rites, its sacrifices, consecrations and mysteries, all of which serve to guarantee the well-being of the world, in a spirit of pure play truly understood.
Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin : law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play.

– Johan Huizinga (Homo Ludens, man-the-player, p. 4-5)

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These rules in their turn are a very important factor in the
play-concept. All play has its rules. They determine what “holds”
in the temporary world circumscribed by play. The rules of a
game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt. Paul Valery
once in passing gave expression to a very cogent thought when he
said : ” No scepticism is possible where the rules of a game are
concerned, for the principle underlying them is an unshakable
truth. . .” Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the
whole play-world collapses. The game is over. The umpire’s
whistle breaks the spell and sets “real” life going again.

The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a
“spoil-sport” . The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player,
the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on
the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle. It is curious
to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the
spoil-sport. This is because the spoil-sport shatters the play-world
itself. By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity
and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut
himself with others. He robs play of its illusion-a pregnant word
which means literally “in-play” (from inlusio, illudere or inludere) .
Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the
play-community. The figure of the spoil-sport is most apparent
in boys’ games. The little community does not enquire whether
the spoil-sport is guilty of defection because he dares not enter
into the game or because he is not allowed to. Rather, it does
not recognize “not being allowed” and calls it “not daring”. For
it, the problem of obedience and conscience is no more than fear
of punishment. The spoil-sport breaks the magic world, therefore
he is a coward and must be ejected. In the world of high seriousness,
too, the cheat and the hypocrite have always had an easier
time of it than the spoil-sports, here called apostates, heretics,
innovators, prophets, conscientious objectors, etc. It sometimes
happens, however, that the spoil-sports in their turn make a new
community with rules of its own. The outlaw, the revolutionary,
the cabbalist or member of a secret society, indeed heretics of all
kinds are of a highly associative if not sociable disposition, and a
certain element of play is prominent in all their doings.

– Johan Huizinga (Homo Ludens ‘Man the Player’, p. 11-12)

Whoever, like myself, prompted by some enigmatical desire,
has long endeavoured to go to the bottom of the question of
pessimism and free it from the half-Christian, half-German
narrowness and stupidity in which it has finally presented itself
to this century, namely, in the form of Schopenhauer's
philosophy; whoever, with an Asiatic and super-Asiatic eye, has
actually looked inside, and into the most world-renouncing of all
possible modes of thought--beyond good and evil, and no longer
like Buddha and Schopenhauer, under the dominion and delusion of
morality,--whoever has done this, has perhaps just thereby,
without really desiring it, opened his eyes to behold the
opposite ideal: the ideal of the most world-approving, exuberant,
and vivacious man, who has not only learnt to compromise and
arrange with that which was and is, but wishes to have it again
AS IT WAS AND IS, for all eternity, insatiably calling out da
capo, not only to himself, but to the whole piece and play; and
not only the play, but actually to him who requires the play--and
makes it necessary; because he always requires himself anew--and
makes himself necessary.--What? And this would not be--circulus
vitiosus deus?

 Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil, #56)