Johan Huizinga on finding order in the playground

Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) was a Dutch historian held by the Nazis during the last few years of his life. He is known for the literary as well as scholarly qualities of such writings as his major work, ``The Waning of the Middle Ages,'' dealing with France and Holland in the 14th and 15th centuries. He turned to a timeless subject in ``Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture'' (1938; English translation, 1949), which is briefly represented here by two of his numbered points analyzing ``the n ature of play.'' 6. More striking even than the limitation as to time is the limitation as to space. All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand either materially or imaginatively, with deliberation or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ``consecrated place'' cannot be formally distinguished from the playground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice are a ll playgrounds in form and function: they are forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed; within them, special rules hold good. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

7. Inside the playground a special order reigns absolutely. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order: it is order. Into an imperfect world, into the confusion of life, it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it ``spoils the game,'' robs it of its character, and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order may be why play has a tendency to be beautiful. The aesthetic impulse is perhaps identical with that impulse to create orderly form which animates play in all its aspects. The words we use to denote the elements of play belong mostly to aesthetics; they are terms with which we try to describe the workings of beauty: tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution. Play is invested with the noblest qualities we perceive in things: rhythm and harmony.

From ``Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture,'' by Johan Huizinga. 1950 by Roy Publishers. Reprinted by permission of the Beacon Press, Boston.

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