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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Great Moments of Western Play or Play’s Greatest Hits

D. L. Miller (1970) not only discusses the history of play and game theory since Homo Ludens, but also brings us back to the origin of ideas about play and games. While he does touch for a bit on the idea of lila, D. L. Miller's major focus is on the West. He begins the story quoting Heraclitus: “Time is a child playing, moving counters on a game-board: the kingdom belongs to a child” (p. 97). This should look familiar, since a version of this famous fragment from Heraclitus was carved by Jung as part of a dedication to the Telesphoros. D.L. Miller explains that for Heraclitus, the “gods and men were at one through ‘the always living fire,” whose other name is ‘play’ ” (p. 116). Continuing with ancient Greece, Plato also connected play and the Divine:

God alone is worthy of supreme seriousness, but man is made God’s plaything and that is the best part of him . . . . What then is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies and win the contest.” (Huizinga, 1944/1955, pp. 18-19)

Before and After the Fall

D.L. Miller (1970) notes that the Hebrew Wisdom literature pictures God at play while he fashions the world, and man at play in Eden. The creation scene is seen in the context of a divine game where man and God are players who are distinct from each other, as opposed to the unified view of Hinduism, where we are all part of the Divine. Paradisiacal Eden was imagined as a state of original freedom, “like that of an innocent child at joyful play” (p. 101). After the fall, not only mankind, but also the bliss of primal play was marred by work and toil. Play was the ideal state before time began, and also the goal for the time after life. So play is the alpha and the omega. D. L. Miller explicates:

Thus it is not surprising to discover that the metaphor of a child at play was applied, not only to accounts of Eden and arcadia, but also to utopia and the day of the coming of god’s kingdom . . . . The ideal state from which we were all of us banished upon the point of entrance into the life of temporal finitude is precisely the state to which we wish to return. (p. 101)

The dualistic West likes unity, too, and it tries to get there by being one-sided! The most extreme example of this one-sidedness being fundamentalists, who take things "oh so literally and seriously." This is amusing, because by doing this they are ultimately deluded, out of play! Although fun is part of the word "fundamentalism, " there is no fun in fundamentalism, and fundamentalism is fundamentally not funny. Maybe during the Fall they bumped their heads!

Not only did we get kicked out of the garden, play did, too, and we in the West began to get serious about seriousness, seriously! So here we find ourselves, expelled from the garden, in the middle—in liminal space—waiting for the kingdom to come. Speaking of the kingdom, that brings us to Christianity. Although Christianity contains moments of play, such as the line in the New Testament where Jesus says “unless you receive the kingdom of God as a child, you cannot enter into it” (D. L. Miller, 1970, p. 98), overall Christianity is not all that playful. D. L. Miller explains that much of Christian thought looks down on play but he gives a few examples of “happy surprises,” where play is celebrated. For example, D.L. Miller notes that Maximus Confessor wrote: “For this earthly life compared with the life to come, the true divine archetypal life, is but a children’s game . . . truly we deserve to be looked upon as a children’s game played by god” (pp. 109-110). Meister Eickhart, too, provides an example of playful thought in mystical Christianity:

The play was played eternally before all natures. As it is written in the Book of Wisdom, “Prior to creatures, in the eternal now, I have played before the Father in an eternal stillness.” The Son has eternally been playing before the Father as the Father has before the Son. The playing of the twain is the Holy Ghost in whom they both disport themselves and he disports himself in both. Sport and players are the same. Their nature proceeding in itself. (D. L. Miller, 1970, p. 158)

Shakespeare’s Stage

Perhaps Shakespeare came closest to how our lives truly are play—in its most cosmic sense, when he most famously penned in As You Like It:

This wide and universal theater / Presents more woeful pageants than the scene wherein we play in. / All the World’s a stage, /All the men and women merely players. / They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts. [II, vii, 137-143] (Hawkins, 1995, p. 104)

This can also be seen in The Merchant of Venice where Antonio says: "I hold the world but as the world…/A stage where every man must play a part/ and mine a sad one” (I, i, 77-9) (Hawkins, p. 108). In Macbeth, dismally likening life itself to a player in a play, Macbeth says: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" (OSS, 2003, Macbeth, V, 5, online)

Hawkins (1995) notes that this notion of the world being a theater, and the theater being a world “theatrum mundi” is not only echoed in Shakespeare’s plays, but also in the theater in which they were presented, The Globe. Although the original Globe burned down in 1613, was rebuilt, and then subsequently demolished by Puritans in 1644, Shakespeare's Globe has been faithfully recreated near its original location, and officially reopened in 1997. The Globe is circular, open to the night’s sky and the elements. Upon its ceiling is painted the sun, moon, and Zodiac, signifying the heavens. The flag for the Globe, traditionally flown when plays are in being performed, shows the crest of Hercules supporting the Globe and displays the motto: Totus mundus agit histrionem— “the whole world is a playhouse” (Alchin, 2005, online). Hawkins remarks: “The cosmic theater contains the human tragedy/comedy that contains the theatrical level of actions that contains . . . plays within plays containing cosmic, human and theatrical levels of action” (p. 109). As we shall see shortly, this is closely in accord with Hindu philosophy, and thus with Shakespeare’s work we come closest perhaps to the ludic cosmologies of the East.

Fast Forward a Few Centuries

Fast forwarding closer to the present day, we see the Platonic and Heraclitian ideas about play in the spirit of man as reflected in the work of Schiller and Nietzsche. Schiller said:

For to declare it once and for all, man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only wholly man when he is playing. This proposition . . . will assume great and deep significance; it will, I promise you, support the whole fabric of aesthetic art, and the still more difficult art of living. (D. L. Miller, p. 118).

Nietzsche was a big believer in play and we started out with a quote of his about play in the gloss at the beginning of this chapter. Nietzsche also wrote: “to become mature is to recover that sense of seriousness which one had as a child at play” (D. L. Miller, 1970 p. 118). In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche (1892/1978) speaks of the metamorphosis of a man’s life as proceeding from that of a burdened camel, accepting the “thou shalt’s” of the world, to a raging lion who can utter a “sacred 'No'" even to duty, and finally to an innocent child, who is able to create new values. “The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’ For the game of creation, a sacred ‘Yes’ is needed” (p. 27).

D. L. Miller sums up the Western history of play, in language that is important to consider as we continue with Shiva’s dice game, Grof’s cartography, and my version of the Cosmic Game:

The history of the idea of play therefore is a story that once began with Heraclitus and that began anew with Nietzsche. The story is about a movement of an idea out of an originally religious, unified configuration, proceeding through a period of fragmentation, individuation, and breakdown, and ending with a rediscovery of an original harmony which had never been forgotten or lost in some forms of eastern religious wisdom. The story is a story of paradise regained . . . we are attempting once again to catch a glimpse of “life as a children’s game.” (D. L. Miller, 1970, p. 116).

In a footnote, D. L. Miller notes that Owen Barfield, Norman O. Brown, and Erich Neumann echo this same pattern in their writings regarding consciousness itself: “the origin and history of consciousness is the story of the loss of original unity, followed by a process of differentiation, leading ultimately to the need for reintegration” (p. 190). We have not seen the last of Nietzsche, we will return to him again soon.

Let the Games Begin Again . . .

After a 1500-year hiatus, the Olympic Games were revived in 1896, fittingly in their native land, Greece. The original Olympic Games occurred every four years for a period of nearly twelve hundred years and “combined elaborate religious ceremonies with art and athletics in a fusion of festivities scarcely imaginable today,” but they were banned in 393 by crazed Roman emperor Theodosius, who also ordered the destruction of all pagan temples throughout the empire (Cousineau, 2004c, p. 34).

Cousineau (2004c), in The Olympic Odyssey, shows the spirit behind the games, seeking to show the combination of myth, play, festival, competition, and the pursuit of excellence. Cousineau notes the fundamental and evolutionary nature of play and its relation to the Olympics and quotes psychiatrist and play expert Stuart Brown, with whom Cousineau earlier collaborated on the film about Joseph Campbell’s life, The Hero’s Journey (Balnicke & Kennard, 1987):

My first inclination is to ground play and games in the wondrous world of animal play and the mysteries of self-organizing systems. Grace and agility, endurance and perseverance, optimism and confidence are grounded in that special state of being that is hard to define but is recognizable as play. The Olympic Games are a manifestation of an evolved play-game cooperative festival that has its heritage in 100 million years of ancestral trial and error. While not everyone is an Olympic-level athlete, we are all players, animals and humans alike. The utter joyous absorption of the true player in his or her play-art has its parallels in the quest for excellence in body, mind and spirit. (Cousineau, 2004c, p. 54)

As we will shortly see, play is at heart paradoxical and chaotic, which is perhaps why play has such long term benefits, because as animal play expert and play researcher Bob Fagan believes: “play is a rehearsal for the challenges and ambiguities of life.” (Cousineau, 2004c, p. 54).

Although play has been making a comeback recently, most notably since the 1960s, as D. L. Miller (1970) so thoroughly discusses in Gods and Games, nowhere in the West, , do we have what Handelman and Shulman (1997) describe as a truly ludic cosmology. For that, we have to turn to the East. Interestingly, the Telesphoros on Jung’s stone at Bollingen faces East, standing silently in the middle of the walled garden, near the shore of Lake Zurich, perhaps welcoming the dawn of each new day, or as the sentinel awaiting the dawn of a new age. But whatever the reason, taking my cue from the stone I shall turn towards the East, too.


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