We take our early morning stroll across a park and whistle a tune. We bring a touch of humour into greeting a neighbour or taking part in a community soccer game. We notice lovers or business associates freely bantering back and forth, making their interaction lighthearted and pleasurable. Yet we seldom refer to these activities as play or assign them the term “playful.” Perhaps we need C.S. Lewis’s reminder that “Venus is a partly comic spirit” and “makes game of us.” Hermes too, the patron of merchants and traders, liked to disguise himself and play practical jokes on both gods and humans.
If we approach the domains of Venus and Hermes with deferential gravity rather than carefree humour, it is undoubtedly because we are disposed to consider play as an activity that is distinct, separate from what amorous persons or business partners occasionally enjoy. The widely read analyses and reflections of Johan Huizinga (Homo Ludens) and Roger Caillois (Man, Play, and Games) confirm such views; these authors have regarded play as unmistakably distinct from other sorts of human doings. Still, they have not failed to notice that there are activities in our day-to-day existence that can hardly be called play but are nonetheless accomplished in the spirit of play – with an attitude of play.
In the present volume, I undertake a cursory analysis of play. Yet I do not propose here another book on play. The object of my enquiry is the play attitude, which, as I shall suggest, grows out of play and is usually adopted while playing, but which, even so, is distinct from play and embraces a much wider scope. I want to show that this attitude can be the mainspring or accompaniment not only of play itself but of all sorts of human activity and behaviour. I therefore view play both as an activity and, in the words of Émile Benveniste, as a “certain modality of all human activities.” I consider this modality a certain ethos, disposition, outlook, or thought with which an activity is carried out, whether within or outside the sphere of actual play. The reflections in this book are about human ways of being playful and acting playfully in the world. My intent is to delve into the persisting human tendency to take up – spontaneously or deliberately – a play attitude toward any kind of human experience. While many excellent books and articles have been published on the importance of play in human cultures and, more recently, on the beneficial functions of play activities in educational contexts, too little attention has been paid to the central role of play as an attitude toward human life.
Although an attitude of play can be practised and observed in its manifestations and contexts in almost every department of our lives, it defies analysis as an exclusive entity because it cannot be detached and isolated from concrete activity and seen in pure form. We may perceive its action, but the attitude that shapes it manifests itself only in part or escapes our notice altogether. Indeed, an attitude of play can manifest anywhere. For this reason, in the following pages, I turn my attention mainly to everyday occurrences and to experiences shared by people of diverse ages, backgrounds, and cultures.
Creative achievements in science and art have often been linked to play, and it is not uncommon to detect an attitude of play in the works of outstanding jesting figures of the past such as Rabelais, Erasmus, or Joseph Haydn. A playful attitude can also be an important aspect of present-day ordinary human life, manifesting in a great variety of circumstances not only in childhood but through all stages of becoming. If I mention outstanding historical personalities, it is because I see them as models that all of us may emulate in our individual contexts. As we shall see, we may grow into an attitude displayed by a person we hold in esteem and gradually make it our own.
My interest in this detailed study of play attitude was sparked by observing people’s activities in the workplace and in leisure settings. I noticed that people who approach their daily tasks or recreational pursuits with an attitude of play seem to lead a happier and fuller life. They may experience disappointments, become embroiled in conflicts, meet with failures, or, as we shall see, occasionally lose touch with reliable guidance for their conduct. Nevertheless, no matter how strong the headwinds they may face, they maintain a cheerful and good-humoured stance to life, hold fast to their own playful disposition, and find in it and its underlying qualities ways of learning and practising the art of life. The celebrated inventor Ernő Rubik, in his recent book Cubed, has voiced an opinion that goes to the heart of the matter: “Too often as adults we seem to believe play is just a diversion, or another form of competition outside of the workplace. But play is one of the most serious things in the world. We often do things really well only when we do them playfully. We are more relaxed about them; the task becomes not a burden or a test, but an opportunity for free expression.” On reading this, I asked myself: what kind of attitude allows people to do things playfully, to be more relaxed and to carry out their tasks with ease, subtlety, and expressive freedom?
In certain quarters of public life, by comparison, I have also noticed, not without a certain astonishment, people’s inability to accept an attitude of play in interactions with colleagues, representatives of institutions, fellow travellers, even friends – in short, all those they happen to meet in the hustle and bustle of their daily lives. It seems that their everyday worries and trepidations or an overarching despondency colours their words and actions, and makes them immune to the spirit of unguarded playfulness. I have also noticed a complete humourlessness and unctuousness in exchanges in some professional circles. The corresponding absence of qualities pertaining to human interaction – tolerance, acceptance of flaws, and regard for the whole truth, for instance – has reminded me of the oppressive atmosphere created by totalitarian political systems. The ability to listen to people who see the world in a different way, and the capacity to admit that they might be right after all were non-existent in these milieus of exaggerated rigidity. In such settings I observed that humorous comments, teasings, and pranks were banished from certain dried-up public institutions; people were inclined to adopt a cautious, remote, and unsmiling manner, guarding their tongues or filling their conversations with a set of stock responses. Such situations bring to mind Heinrich Rombach’s admonition to initiate and maintain human communication or to accomplish professional assistance with genuine humour: “Hardly anything is more important for humans than humour and it is very sad that this unparalleled educational objective appears nowhere in our educational plans.”
While I was thinking of the actions and values that we need to uphold for the younger generation, a sobering warning for our times advanced by John Berger often came to mind: “The culture in which we live is perhaps the most claustrophobic that has ever existed; in the culture of globalisation, as in Bosch’s hell, there is no glimpse of an elsewhere or an otherwise. The given is a prison. And faced with such reductionism, human intelligence is reduced to greed.” I maintain that, by taking an attitude of play, we have a chance of gaining access to an “elsewhere,” acting “otherwise,” and guiding our mind away from hoggish self-interest and stifling uniformity. We become able to focus on the intrinsic meaning of things while at the same time exploiting or ignoring their practical utility. My reluctance to treat this kind of freedom from the perspectives of functionality and pedagogical and remedial usefulness does not mean that I do not wish to see it rooted in ethical and aesthetic values. I have been fully aware of the cautionary note of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who, in his Terre des hommes, disdained risk-taking that was not grounded in an “accepted responsibility” and saw it as a “sign of poverty and excess of youth.” Such considerations suggested that there was another temptation to avoid: detaching elements of the attitude of play from fundamental ethical and aesthetic concerns and replacing their wider anthropological description and genuine praise with blind and narrow idolatry.
In the course of my reflections on the presence and absence of play attitude in our conventional life, a remark by Hungarian poet Attila József, made in 1936, also struck a chord in me: “I don’t understand why play, the joy of children, should be seen as something inferior. During my happy moments, I feel as if I was a child. My heart is serene when I discover in my work occasions to play. I am afraid of persons who are unable to play and I will do what I can to keep alive people’s playful mood and to stamp out all the constraints which undermine the spirit and possibility of play.” What kind of person is it who is unable to play, to introduce a spirit of play into an activity, and take an attitude of play? The compulsive person, fixated on the search for certainty and perfection, unable to change daily routines or improvise an action spontaneously without concern for its outcome, is a person unable to adopt a play attitude. Likewise, the fanatic person, who adheres to a given set of ideas and uses violent means to convert ideas into reality, is surely never visited by a playful mood.
I have, then, asked myself: what are the human qualities in our contemporary life that could counter the pernicious influence of fanatical rigidity and compulsive pedantry, foster the spirit of play, and provide opportunities to shape our destinies freely, fearlessly, and above all, peacefully? I agree with André Leroi-Gourhan, who has offered an insight into the evolutionary origin of our humanity: “I should like to think that humour was the first invention of human being, the first condition of his survival.” Humans, he suggests, were able to survive because their plays and play attitude, in the form of humour or purposeless and generous acting, sought to create a common ground of understanding, collaboration, and recognition. Ferdinand Ulrich too doubtless thought about this kind of serene and tolerant coexistence when he proposed this concise definition: “Play is the guarantor of peace.”
The reader will find in this study a constant appeal to immediate experience. I consider concrete situations in which individuals, young and old, adopt a play attitude and, thanks to a temporary or lasting change in their inner disposition, modify for a longer or shorter time their way of relating to their fellow human beings and their environment. By turning to the lived manifestations of this altered relation – loving relationships, sport and leisure activities, conversation, leadership practices, teaching and lecturing, strolling, drinking wine – I hope to contribute to a better understanding of the attitude of play and to reflect on its existential implications. The first step in exploring this theme is to clarify the concept of attitude and to highlight its central importance. Thereafter, I would like to show that the five ways of adopting a play attitude are rooted in play, in its most complex and prevalent forms, and that that they can influence or favourably guide human behaviour beyond the realm of play. And further, I want to dispel the notion that instilling humour and fun into our activities is synonymous with being frivolous and undignified; and I will offer examples of how an attitude of play allows us to experience well-being and moments of genuine happiness.
This article is from the introduction to the author's latest book: Gabor Csepregi, Attitudes of Play, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, Kingston, 2022