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Homo Ludens

Playing and knowing

For archaic man, doing and daring are power, but knowing is magical power. For him all particular knowledge is sacred knowledge—esoteric and wonder-working wisdom, because any knowing is directly related to the cosmic order itself.”

The riddle-solving motif.

Greek tradition: the story of the seers Chalcas Κάλχας / Kálkhas, “making purple” by extension “darker, disturbing.”) 

and Mopsos (Μόψος / Mópsos: His unerring wisdom and discernment gave rise to the ancient Greek proverb, “more certain than Mopsus”).

Chalcas was considered “by far the best of the soothsayers, who knows the future, the present, past “(Book i, v. 69-70).  Iliad.  (See Comment below post)


Play and poetry

Poiesis, in fact, is a play-function. It proceeds within the play-ground of the mind, in a world of its own which the mind creates for it. There things have a different physiognomy from the one they wear in ‘ordinary life’, and are bound by ties other than those of logic and causality.For Huizinga, the “true appellation of the archaic poet is vates, the possessed, the God-smitten, the raving one”.Of the many examples he gives, one might choose Unferd who appears in Beowulf.

 The elements of mythopoiesis

As soon as the effect of a metaphor consists in describing things or events in terms of life and movement, we are on the road to personification. To represent the incorporeal and the inanimate as a person is the soul of all myth-making and nearly all poetry.”

Mythopoiesis is literally myth-making.

Play-forms in philosophy

At the centre of the circle we are trying to describe with our idea of play there stands the figure of the Greek sophist. He may be regarded as an extension of the central figure in archaic cultural life who appeared before us successively as the prophetmedicine-man, seer, thaumaturge and poet and whose best designation is vates.”

Play-forms in art

Wherever there is a catch-word ending in -ism we are hot on the tracks of a play-community.”

Huizinga has already established an indissoluble bond between play and poetry. Now he recognizes that “the same is true, and in even higher degree, of the bond between play and music”However, when he turns away from “poetry, music and dancing tothe plastic arts” he “finds the connections with play becoming less obvious”.But here Huizinga is in the past. He cites the examples of the “architect, the sculptor, the painter, draughtsman, ceramist, and decorative artist” who in spite of her/his “creative impulse” is ruled by the discipline, “always subjected to the skill and proficiency of the forming hand.”

On the other hand, if one turns away from the “making of works of art to the manner in which they are received in the social milieu” then the picture changes completely. It is this social reception, the struggle of the new “-ism” against the old “-ism” which characterises the play.

–from Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga: a study of the play element in culture. Beacon Press, 1950

Harry Matthews

un poète et peintre

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