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History and Play: Johan Huizinga and His Critics Author(s): Robert Anchor Source: History and Theory, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Feb., 1978), pp. 63-93 Published by: Blackwell Publishing for Wesleyan University Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2504901 Accessed: 15/05/2010 13:22
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HISTORY AND PLAY: JOHAN HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS

ROBERT ANCHOR

Johan Huizinga (1872-1945),the pre-eminentDutch historian of the twentieth century, publishedhis majortheoreticalwork, Homo Ludens:A Study
of the Play Element in Culture, in 1938. Since then, this controversial

pioneeringwork of culturalhistory has become a landmarkin the growing literatureon the concept of play, its role in humanaffairs, and its relevance to the study of history. Huizingawas not the first thinkerto view man and society sub specie ludi. He had a long rich philosophicaltraditionto draw upon, dating back to antiquity. At the very dawn of Western thought, Heraclitus speculated that "the course of the world is a playing child moving figureson a board- the child as absolute rulerof the universe" (Diels, Fragment 52). Huizinga was especially partial to Plato's view of play. "What I assert is this; - that a man ought to be in serious earnest about serious things, and not about trifles;and that the object really worthy of all serious and blessed effort is God, while man is created, as we said above, to be a plaything of God, and the best part of him is surely just that; and thus I say that every man and woman ought to pass throughlife in accordance with this character, playing at the noblest of pastimes, being otherwise minded than they now are" (Laws, VII, 803). Another important source of Huizinga's theory of play is the famous passage in the fifteenth letter of Schiller's Aesthetic Education of Man: "Man plays only when he
is in the full sense of the word man, and he is only wholly man when he

plays." Similarviews were expressed by Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and other modern philosophers.' Although Huizinga was not the first to discover the value of play in explaininghuman behavior, he was the first to attempt an exact definition of play and of the ways in which it infuses and manifestsitself in culture, in all spheres of culture: the arts, intellectual life, politics, and even legal institutions and warfare. From the very beginning of his long and fruitful career, Huizingahad always been concerned with the theoreticalquestions of what cultureis, how and why specific cultures come into being and pass
1. Their views are discussed in Kostas Axelos, Vers la pensee planetaire (Paris, 1964), ch. 1. Play as a philosophical problem is the subject also of Eugen Fink, Spiel als Weltsymbol (Stuttgart, 1960).

64

ROBERT ANCHOR

away, how and why they sustain or fail to sustain themselves, and whether and how the historian is able to grasp their particular configurations. These were not merely academic questions to Huizinga, because he firmly believed that history is nothing less than "the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past."2 This definition, he held, is what distinguishes history from all other branches of learning and provides its raison d'etre. He also believed, in the tradition of Kant, that the historian helps to shape the history he writes about. "History itself, and the historical consciousness, becomes an integral constituent of the civilization; subject and object are recognized in their mutual interdependence."3 That is, the account a civilization renders to itself of its past what it includes and excludes, where the emphases fall, how it is structured and communicated - itself becomes an immanent, formative influence on that civilization. Huizinga believed that history was above all an "intellectual form" of understanding the past. But he also believed that the responsible historian could not evade the moral issues that arise in the course of the civilization's development of which his work is an "integral constituent." Late in his life, as fascism swept over Europe, Huizinga at last discovered the concept that he thought would enable him, on the one hand, to enrich history as an "intellectual form" and, on the other, to meet his moral responsibility in a time of crisis. That concept, toward which, without quite realizing it, he had been moving throughout his career, was homo ludens. But did not Huizinga's perception of man and society sub specie ludi imply, as some of his critics later charged, that historical thought itself was little more than a form of play? And, if so, was this perception compatible with the intellectual and moral responsibility that Huizinga ascribed to historical thought? In order to answer these questions and put Huizinga's position into proper perspective, we must examine how he arrived at his theory of play, what he meant by it, and whether it is intellectually valid.

I.

HUIZINGA'S PATH TO HOMO LUDENS

As a cultural historian, Huizinga had always been more interested in the arts, literature, religion, rituals, manners and morals, styles and sentiments - phenomena more closely and obviously related to the imaginativeness and inventiveness of play - than in such "serious" subjects as politics, economics, and administrative history. Studying such phenom2. "A Definition of the Concept of History," transl. D. R. Cousin, in Philosophy and History. Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer, ed. R. Klibansky and H. J. Paton [1936] (New York, 1963), 9. 3. Ibid., 10.

where Huizinga was born and raised. But the study of these play-related phenomena also sensitized him to their apparently irrational and illusory. Essays by Johan Huizinga. antiquities.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 65 ena sensitized him. Guggisberg."6 In his wry and amusing autobiographical essay. The state and commerce exist as configurations." published posthumously in 1947. The nature of these patterns is not set. Groningen 11-15 December 1972. but also in their details. a playful preoccupation with heraldry. or derive wholly. "Cultural history is distinct from political and economic history in that it is worthy of the name only to the extent that it concentrates on deeper. and easily degenerate into curios. 1872-1972."5 What Huizinga required. which produced a "secret vice" that Huizinga confessed he was never able to shake off: "a hankering for patrician origins 4. "Burckhardt und Huizinga. 28. W. Marle (New York. 6. were its proper domain. the masquerade and mock heroism of this celebration of his country's colorful past caught Huizinga's young imagination and nurtured his own childish sense of play. folklore. "Only when the scholar turns to determining the patterns of life. Papers Delivered to the Johan Huizinga Conference. "The Task of Cultural History" (1929). and Gees van der Plaat (The Hague. but rather a concept that would apply to culture as a whole and serve to synthesize its various elements (even the apparently senseless and superfluous ones) in the manner of a Kantian regulative idea or a Goethean Urphiinotnen. therefore. 155-175. Koops. Idem. E. general themes. in 1506. Kossmann. in his major essay on historical method. They obtain their form only beneath our hands. 1973). coin collecting. Holmes and H. Huizinga relates that his interest in history was first aroused when. coats of arms. H. defined cultural history so as virtually to deprive it of any possibility of grasping with certainty the configurations which. His interest in history continued in the form of a hobby. and the like. customs. from the artifacts of culture themselves (since none could be found.4 to the seemingly endless profusion of forms which culture assumes. Count of East Friesland. "The Task of Cultural History" in Men and Ideas. and thought taken all together can there actually be a question of cultural history. 5. Jacob Burckhardt. The pageantry and colorful costumes. he claimed. 1959). into the city of Groningen. of Edzard. J. was a concept that did not derive. S. "My Path to History. he witnessed a carnival celebrating the entry. transl. Culture exists only as a configuration. ed. R. which Huizinga found in abundance in late medieval Burgundian culture. he thought). . see H. R. v. unpredictable and sometimes escapist aspects. as it had his great predecessor. art. Zwei Historiker in der Krise ihrer Zeit" in Johan Huizinga. How were such phenomena. at the age of seven. For a comparison of the two. to be explained? And what did they signify? Huizinga's problem was complicated by the fact that he had. The details of cultural history belong to the realm of morals. H.

History had not lost its hold on Huizinga . all too obviously plebeian. As the title of this first of Huizinga's important commentaries on historical method indicates. but he still considered himself a linguist and Sanskritist."8 By the time he entered the University of Groningen in 1891. 10. The inaugural address Huizinga delivered in honor of the occasion. 1872-1972. a longing fed mainly on artistic notions and greatly re-inforced by the Bruges exhibition of Old Dutch paintings in the summer of 1902. For practical reasons he then accepted a job as high school teacher of Dutch history. he had fallen under the influence of the new Dutch literary movement known as the Tachtigers. 270. and the same year he was appointed professor of history at the university of his native Groningen. see G. "Huizinga..66 ROBERT ANCHOR and names. Simmel. as Huizinga grew older. Rickert. Pomerans (London. 251. 9."12 attacked the then fashionable positivist historical methods of Karl Lamprecht13 and came to the defense of the theories of the autonomy of the humanities as held by Dilthey. 252. Windelband. "My Path to History" in Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century and Other Essays. 1968). who were influenced by Kant and Hegel. 263. which sought the meaning of life within ourselves (which was a great blessing) and completely ignored politics and allied topics (which was a grave fault). was published in 1905.. Oestreich. . For an analysis of their respective positions."it continued to haunt me as it had in childhood" .. J. The Origins of Haarlem. "The Aesthetic Element in Historical Thought" in Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century. Ibid. his childhood interest in history gave way to a love of languages and literature. 12. which "rated literature far higher than science." which he described as "a rather long and difficult affair that bored most of my audience prodigiously.. Huizingas Groninger Antrittsvorlesung von 1905" in Johan Huizinga. This shift grew out of "a vague longing.but he did not yet regard it as "solid intellectual fare. and other German thinkers around the turn of the century. descent from Baptist pastors and provincial farmers. Lamprecht und die deutsche Geschichtsphilosophie. Ibid. 266-267."'l Huizinga's first historical work."7 But." 10 Only after Huizinga became lecturer on the history of Ancient Indian Culture and Literature at the University of Amsterdam in 1903 did his interest begin to shift away from the ancient East to the medieval West. 246. Ibid. Ibid. 1-29. he considered the study of history to 7. 13. transl."9 Huizinga completed his doctoral dissertation in Leipzig in 1897 on the subject of the court jester in Sanskrit drama. A. which seemed more suitable and potentially satisfying to an adolescent "prone to lyrical and sentimental moods. 11. "The Aesthetic Element in Historical Thought. 8. and a certain scorn for my own.

which is purely subjective."19 On Huizinga's view. 241."16 Huizinga's own playful childhood fascination with the past and his education in the arts bore fruit in this recognition of the importance of the aesthetic element to historical method.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 67 be more of an art than a science in that history and the arts form images and treat their subject matter in its individuality.. he discovered. Huizinga did not mean that history is only imaginative."18 Or. at the very origin of the historian's work .. 237. 18.. 16. Aesthetic Element in Historical Thought. Huizinga always distinguished clearly between art. The importance of aesthetic intuition is that it paves the way for rational explanation. the tendency is toward abstraction. the selection and interpretation of data. 229. 17. as Windelband has pointed out. "The Ibid. again: "For the historian there is only one ethical demand that predominates over all others: to present the truth. but only that imagination is indispensable in interpreting the past. 237. 15. 19. but nor are they separable. 242. and history. Huizinga's thoughts on the relationship between history and aesthetics came to fruition in his best known work. whereas the natural sciences formulate abstract laws and treat their subject matter as examples of general classifications. highly developed sensibility. Ibid. and analysis because the final historical unit to which it must apply itself is itself a complex problem par excellence: man and his actions. Although art and history both originate in the imagination. which makes use of the imagination to discover the truth about the past. Ibid. For it comes into play.in his perception of the uniqueness and complexity of historical phenomena and in all the subsequent stages of his activity: the formation of concepts and images. and the language he uses to communicate his findings. "What the study of history and artistic creation have in common is a mode of forming images. in historical imagination it is toward visualization. therefore. The Waning of the Middle Ages 14."15 Why this distinction? Because historical phenomena resist comparison and analysis. which are essential to the natural sciences. "Only when we deliberately encourage our imagination to transcend the bounds of historical imagination and to soar into the realms of pure fantasy. the aesthetic imagination and historical thought are not identical. "Historical analysis and comparison are greatly impeded by the fact that the whole of history is an irreducible complex comparison because it is impossible ever to find any kind of elementary similarity between the objects compared. do we risk falsifying the past. or what he understands by the truth." 226. Ibid. Ibid." 17 the two are by no means synonymous. ."14 "In natural science... and the historical sense is "but a very general.

The men of the fifteenth century could not understand that the real moving powers of political and social evolution might be looked for anywhere else than in the doings of a warlike courtly nobility. and why he thought it had dominated the late Middle Ages. they continued to impress the mind as dominant forms of life. that "the late Middle Ages was not so much a prelude to the future as an epoch of fading and decay. the absolute authority of the Church. N." but rather in the chronicles. first Eng. 15. Ibid. always keep before us "the vehement pathos of medieval life. 57.'"21 But where were such facts to be found? Not in the official documents."23 Huizinga concluded. that modern historians. pervasive pessimism. therefore.. Ibid. . But for the history of civilization every delusion or opinion of an epoch has the value of an important fact. and other characteristic medieval institutions and practices already giving way to new material. as expressed most purely in the chivalric code of conduct. "There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. 1924). undervaluing altogether the social significance of the lower classes. 23.. and its errors. ed. Ibid. "if. and the harsh realities of the time was the key to understanding the true spirit of the period and its correct relationship to the past and future. as he reflected on the art of the brothers Van Eyck. 57. its fancies. 22. which left little room for coping with unpleas20. The Waning of the Middle Ages."22 What Huizinga discovered in the chronicles was that "long after the nobility and feudalism had ceased to be really essential factors in the state and society. They persisted in regarding the nobility as the foremost of social forces and attributed a very exaggerated importance to it. was that the Christian teaching of renunciation had so captivated men's minds by that time as to have inculcated a deep. Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the Dawn of'the Renaissance (Garden City. had distorted reality precisely in correcting this delusion. when it suddenly occurred to him.Y. The reason Huizinga gave for this tension. Huizinga reckoned. however faulty in other respects. it sufficed to know its real and hidden sources and not its illusions. 24. "which rarely refer to the passions. political. relying on official documents. were not feudalism. which. to understand the spirit of an age.' 273.. this incongruity between the real conditions of life in the fifteenth century and what men of the time thought they were. 94. chivalry.. and cultural conditions that betokened the Renaissance? This view would be correct.68 ROBERT ANCHOR (1919."20 But how was he to test this hypothesis? By the fifteenth century. The idea for this study came to him on a Sunday stroll in the Groningen countryside. 1954)."24 The chronicles convinced Huizinga that the tension between the ideals of Northern Europe in the fifteenth century. "My Path to History. A Study of the Forms of Life.. 21.

fantasies. but rather among those so far removed from nature. was unknown to the Middle Ages. into one particular set of dreams. And even if we accept his argument that dream. improving the world through political and social reform. 220 ff. 38. continued to hold sway over men's minds long after feudalism and the nobility went into decline. 1872-1972. the more strongly this aspiration will make itself felt. . Arnold Hauser. it was by no means confined to that period."25 But. the easiest and most tempting ways to escape a harsh and uncertain existence. The only other way to a more harmonious and better life. and F. "Huizinga and the Autumn of the Middle Ages" in Essays in Later Medieval History (New York. we still want to know why people typically seek escape. Arnold Hauser has pointed out. transit.. fantasy.Y. to enter upon the quest for oblivion. S.. sought in the delusion of ideal harmony."26 Readers of this fascinating and controversial27 masterpiece know that Huizinga found the essence of "the vision of a sublime life" of the fifteenth century in its view of life as "a noble game. W. 26. H. F. E. and delusion are. 1968). 39. at all times. A second way. while this "poetical" solution was the one adopted by the fifteenth century. ed.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 69 ant and menacing surroundings other than escape into dream and fantasy. N."28 This was the first time that he made use of the idea of play as a tool of historical explication. 29. vol. Forsaking the world out of disgust would have been inconsistent with the Christian teaching of the basic goodness of God's creation. The Waning of the Middle Ages. For even if we accept Huizinga's theory that the chivalric code. see P. 8. For critiques of The Waning of the Middle Ages. "The Fame of a Masterwork" in Johan Huizinga. and the gloomier the present is. that naturalism in the arts does not usually flourish among peoples living close to nature. "For at all times the vision of a sublime life has haunted the souls of men. 3: Rococo. 91-104. 1954). The Social History of Art. at any given time. 168-199.29 25. we still want to know why they continued to exert such a powerful influence for so long. like the eighteenth-century court nobility and the nineteenth-century urban middle classes. Renunciation of the world is also the most difficult and ungratifying solution. and not in another." was escape into dream. Essays in Honor of Laurence Bradford Packard. 28. ch. "the easiest and most fallacious of all. Jacob. "Huizinga's Approach to the Middle Ages" in Teachers of History. S. "A promise of escape from the gloomy actual is held out to all. and it served an important purpose. Godman (New York. This solution first made its appearance during the Renaissance and did not become a significant historical force until the eighteenth century. N. 1957). Hughes (Ithaca. and the heroic values associated with it. Ward. Hugenholtz. 27. that they are in fear of losing it. which is marred only by man's sinfulness. and delusions. Ibid. Ibid. Classicism. for example. L.. After the religious and social solution we have the poetical. Romanticism. 37. we have only to color life with fancy.

at least for the mature adult. 3.so also did the city come to represent similarly ideal qualities . so to speak. It is precisely the remoteness and unreality of nature at such times that make it susceptible to idealization and dissolution into dream. strongly enough to be able to visualize it. innocence and purity . 1955). It begins and ends with itself. The same is true of play. suffers from the fact that it belongs too much to the realm of the serious. that is. or. 31. It creates illusions. improving the world by political and social reform. within its own proper boundaries of time and space. his perception of the former will govern his expectations of the latter. as involving production and consumption. . Homo Ludens. glamor and excitement . if we are at all realistic. is not only the most difficult and the rarest in practice. it is also the ideal path. It proceeds. we can always resort to play: either by seeking an alternative to reality in play. except for those who believe strongly in an afterlife.fun . But not until a person seeks to escapefrom something will he seek to escape to something. A Study of the Play Element in Culture [1938] (Boston. as distinct from play. "The fun of playing resists all analysis. this path makes it logically impossible to conceive of what the sublime life might be. Play is the opposite of seriousness. It produces nothing. illudere. in the world but not of it. Precisely because our ideals and plans for a better world belong to the same order as those we are trying to replace. But play is the ideal path to the vision of the sublime life because it is. (Huizinga notes in Homo Ludens that the word illusion literally means "in-play. Play is a voluntary activity that takes place outside ordinary life. For example. It is not serious. consider the possibility that our plans may fail or go awry. and in our plans for bringing it about. For purposes of comparison. Just as nature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries acquired the desirable qualities that the jaded nobility and bourgeoisie thought were gone from their lives . all logical interpretation. according to fixed rules in an orderly manner. 11.simplicity and sincerity.70 ROBERT ANCHOR Only then does nature become an object of adoration and a vehicle of escape from an unnatural existence. Play is not only the easiest and most accessible path to the vision of a sublime life. or inludere. that they may not endure.. as Huizinga conceived it.to the masses that migrated from the countryside to the cities in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. or else by transforming reality through play. forsaking the world. also. they are subject to the same vicissitudes. belongs to the realm of the serious. let us consider Huizinga's other two paths.freedom and opportunity. Ibid. distortions.) And when the serious business of life becomes unpleasant or intolerable."31 30. The first. no matter how ardently we may believe in our vision of a better world. (Even aesthetic activity. if they succeed.)30 It contains its own end ." from inlusio. and uncertain future.which Huizinga calls the essence of play. Huizinga's second path. we must.

33."33 Chivalry did hearken back to a mythical ideal past. according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding.. Huizinga held. 39. Ibid. Only when reality finally broke in upon its fantastic world. the chivalric code was able to survive the material conditions that gave rise to it precisely because it lent itself so well to play. This did not happen until the Renaissance. did it cease to serve as an outlet for play. "the fanciful brilliance of the heroism and probity of a past age . which regarded life as "a noble game. pomp and pageantry. chivalric. So long as its code of honor. 67. Ibid. Ibid. On Huizinga's theory. but precisely in its intentional indifference to reality lay its power "to veil cruel reality under apparent harmony and make life an art.. loyalty. 37. and chivalry was discredited and replaced by a new path to the sublime. 41. 28. ."34 Chivalry did create an incredible world of heroic illusions. 34. "besides its ethical value. when chivalry came to be viewed as an object of ridicule and irony. chivalry. in which the classical element is the chief motive power."38 Although now less important. and the consciousness that it is different from 'ordinary life'. but they served "to accentuate or to fix a lofty moral aspiration. 36. empty ceremonial rites and rituals. We also find them supplying romantic and erotic needs and degenerating into an amusement and a theme for raillery. an abundance of aesthetic value of the most suggestive kind. 38. because: "The dream of past perfection ennobles life and its forms." gave ideal expression to the play impulse. joy. . "What we call the Renaissance is a product of classical.. fills them with beauty and fashions them anew as forms of art."32 Now we begin to see the purpose served by the concept of play in The Waning of the Middle Ages.. and Christian aspirations. But even then. it continued to perform this function."37 Thus. the chivalric ideal remained alive as one of the three basic components of the Renaissance. Burckhardt's masterpiece has taught us to look upon ambi32. Ariosto. Ibid. but not the only one. Ibid."36 Chivalric ideals were impractical and unrealizable. The Waning of the Middle Ages. linked the Renaissance to the times of feudalism. Chivalry was unrealistic. as in the art of Cervantes. and Shakespeare.. 40.. "a world disguised in the fantastic gear of the Round Table. and self-sacrifice monopolized the spiritual sphere. dreams. Ibid. courtesy. 55. Chivalry was illusory. having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension. .HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 71 Huizinga summarized his definition of play in Homo Ludens as "a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and space. 35. but it contained."3" but precisely in order to bring the sublime within reach. 89.

as in the dance and in sacred stage presentations. 115. and in other technologically advanced societies. mechanized society. Play is culture. as it were. Play can pass over into art and rite. 40. he observed. Rowen [1918] (New York. What he observed about sport in America. Life and Thought in America. 115-116. the stylizing of the very feeling of youth. he wrote: "If an American who reads Dutch were to ask me: 'Can't you find anything in my country to which you can give unconditional praise?' I shall reply to him: 39. four years before the publication of The Waning of the Middle Ages. H. based on his travel notes from a trip to the United States in 1926. because it involves more merely than the development of physical skills and strength. from Afar and Near. in which he touched on the role of sport in modern."39 In 1915. a naive and imperfect prelude to the Renaissance" (197). Play is rhythm and struggle. then the loss of true personality is obvious. The competitive ideal itself is a cultural value of high importance." America. we see free youthful forces and courage reduced to normality and uniformity in the service of the machinery of rules and play and the competitive system. transl. like those of baseball and football. Huizinga was appointed to the chair of general history and historical geography at the University of Leiden. strength.72 ROBERT ANCHOR tion and a sense of honor as the two central characteristics of Renaissance man. In the foreword to his second work on the subject. H. Sport. 90. . and life. only confirmed his view of the universal significance of play."40 But at the same time. the mechanization and organization of sport counteracted the very urge toward individuality that made sport so popular in America in the first place. "The Problem of the Renaissance" [1915] in Men and Ideas. where he remained until it was closed by the German occupation authorities in 1942. A Dutch Historian's Vision. Both of these can be explained more readily as a direct extension of chivalric honor than as a result of the revival of classical studies. to modern man's quest to save his individuality. Huizinga attributed the importance of sport in America. a setting so very different from old Europe. Ibid. See also "The Political and Military Significance of Chivalric Ideas in the Late Middle Ages" [1921] in Men and Ideas.'"41 Huizinga was not unsympathetic to America.. 41. One of his first tasks at Leiden was to prepare a series of lectures on American history. a spiritual value of enormous weight. "It is also the giving of form. Not everything that glitters in the Renaissance is antiquity: the highly unclassical chivalric fantasy of the Amadis romances still reigned supreme in the minds of the sixteenth century. If we compare the tense athlete in his competitive harness with the pioneer hunter and the Indian fighter. 1972). "Man and the Masses in America. serves this purpose. where Huizinga restates this point: "The chivalric revival was. "In the immense sport organizations.

265. Ibid. he says here. was not due simply to his love of old Europe and its culture. became and remained a cultural conservative. and Luther. and Erasmus as against that of Augustine. like so many intellectuals of his generation during the terrible war and postwar years. Moreover. such criticism. Victor. 45.44 Throughout the twenties and thirties.what are these as forms of culture! Walkingonce in Cologne in the lost hours between trains. We need only think of Sinclair Lewis. 43. Hugh of St. The first was a culture based on "the ideals of a society combining the purest of faith with the highest of civilization. We prefer to speak least of what is best'. which he now saw passing away and wished to save. Rather. L. A service was in progress. and I felt that nine-tenthsof our presentday culturallife really doesn't matter. Speaking of American popular literature. H. "John of Salisbury: A Pre-Gothic Mind" [1933] in Men and Ideas. Ibid.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 73 'Weigh more heavily what I praise than what I seem to blame. In the half darkness the sounds floated low and clear."45 the 42. One of the most personal and revealing passages that Huizinga ever wrote appears in Life and Thought in America: Golf and the auto.and even concert-going. even by Americans. and the disillusioned expatriates. It was the spiritual crisis of modern civilization as a whole that concerned him in this work. I became indignantat the way the holy city on the Rhine had become ugly and banal. the features of American life that Huizinga disliked were not. confined to America.life at the beach or out camping. Ibid.. was not uncommon in the 1920s. and the naively anti-metaphysical attitude of American science . Bernard of Clairvaux. the vulgar materialism. John of Salisbury... 314."42 Nevertheless. in his opinion. but only most pronounced there. 230. But his hostility to modem society and culture. Huizinga asks. the anti-intellectualism. in exasperation: "Is the word itself no longer the product of the man but of the machine? And if so. in a series of superbly crafted essays. Modern civilization is on trial in America. apart from its value for eternity. where does culture reside. Abelard. 176. I realized at once what a true ritual means in life. Mencken. what it contains of culturalvalue.all come in for sharp criticism. Towarddusk I left the indifferentbustle of the street to enter the churchof Sankt Mariaim Kapitol. I felt the mighty seriousness of a time in which these things were the essence for all men. in the man or in the word?"43 Of course. the commercialization and trivialization of culture. as he understood it: culture considered as a harmonious balance of material and spiritual forces. Huizinga's criticisms of America are even sharper in this work than in his earlier lectures. which increased with time. . he was troubled by the passing away of the very concept of culture. 44. Huizinga came to the defense of the culture that he thought did matter: the Christian culture of Jerome. The mechanization of life in America. the film and light reading. Huizinga.

49. "Historical Ideals of Life" [1915] in Men and Ideas. tury. G. 91-92. "History has taught the world to look forward in its struggle for happiness. but the first more so than the second. and second. as an anachronism in the slogans of the French Revolution and in the art of David. "Abelard" [1935] in Men and Ideas. classicism asserted itself for the last time: first. But Huizinga also recognized that it was the culture originating with Augustine that had prevailed throughout the centuries in times of spiritual crisis. who had attempted to do so. although he did praise the Englishman's faith in human reason."46 Both were steeped in classical culture. when it was in full flower. so that it becomes increasingly difficult to tell where play ends and non-play begins. Huizinga found the shallow optimism of H."48 But the very historicism that had educated the Western world away from the ideals of the past failed to produce new ones of comparable human significance. "More and more the sad conclusion forces itself upon us that the play element in culture has been on the wane ever since the eighteenth century. "Whenever there was a great religious crisis the words of Augustine outweighed those of Jerome in the scales of the ages. Once Western man became accustomed to thinking historically.49 And it is no accident that Huizinga marked the beginning of the decline of the play element in Western culture as occurring at the same time.I had almost said."50 In "The Task of Cultural History" Huizinga returned to the attack on positivist historiography that he had begun in "The Aesthetic Element in Historical Thought" and had continued in "A Definition of the Concept of History. it plays false. Wells little better than the hopeless pessimism of Oswald Spengler."47 At the end of the eighteenth century. 206. Civilization today is no longer played. 50. but the second more so than the first. as the decline of classicism as an historical ideal of life.74 ROBERT ANCHOR second was a culture of "the burning heart and absolute faith. Homo Ludens. Both cultures were ascetic. "Two Wrestlers with the Angel" [1921] in Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Cen158-219. It is clear why Huizinga sympathized more with the first. 195. cannot and should not even try to achieve the exactness of the natural sciences. Historians like Ranke and Lamprecht. the late eighteenth century. he could no longer believe in the ideals of the past. 48. For it was the culture originating with Jerome that had succeeded in keeping alive the ideals of classical antiquity. as the source from which Goethe derived his purely modern ideals of life. Idem. and no longer to drug itself with retrospective dreams of life. . had misunderstood the goals and 46. which had nurtured the best in Western civilization down to the eighteenth century. 47. and even where it still seems to play it is false play . he says here." History.

HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 75 methods of history. Instead."53 Moreover. 26. there must alreadybe a synthesis present in the mind. unlike the data of the natural sciences. and sentiments. Idem. symbols. 65. are never "given. since the historian's understandingof the past is governed by his inquiry. "The Task of Cultural History" in Men and Ideas. 52.."55 But the difference between cultural and all other branches of history is one of degree and not kind. with Ranke's famous phrase - wie es eigentlich gewesen .is that it presupposes a well-defined past reality. For one thing. 51. not of reconstructiononly. If the es in Ranke's phrase is to have meaning. it does not correspondto the objective past. which never presents itself to the historian as nature presents itself to the physicist. 25. the former deals only with configurations:"the manifoldforms and functions of civilization as they can be detected from the history of peoples and of social groups." They must be discovered and selected accordingto their importance. "That unity can never be an arbitraryslice of past reality itself. Ibid. the historiancan never know how complete they are. his sense of its unity belongs to the present. the data of history. "Even the best and most complete tradition is in itself amorphous and mute. styles. which the historian strives to reassemble completely and accuratelyin the mannerof a jigsaw puzzle. Ibid. 55. All history is subjective to some extent. but only by that of a loosely bound bundle of sticks to which new twigs can be added as long as the band aroundthem allows it. not to the past itself. "In order to begin an analysis.'"51 The trouble. his sense of coherence and meaning. concepts. ideals."52 Huizinga's second point is that the historian's conception of the unity of the past is determinedby the questions he puts to it. Since the data are never given. The mind selects from traditioncertain elements it synthesizes into a coherent image. which remain open and cannot be expressed by "the metaphor of links forming a chain. which was not realizedin the past as lived. A conception of orderedcoherence is an indispensable preconditioneven to the preliminarylabor of digging and hewing. he forms conceptual contexts. in contrast to political and economic history. 53.the concept of causality is of little use to him.. But this preconception of the past is only a subjective construction that the historian superimposes on the remnants of the past available to him. themes.and the historian's subjectivity. "it must be determined beforehandby a conception of a certain historical and logical unity one is attemptingto delineate more precisely. It is an act of synthesis. Therefore. motifs. for example. . inevitably enters into this process of selection. 53."54 Synthesis plays an especially large role in culturalhistory because. Idem. and as they consolidate into culturalfigures.

Ibid.. moments of a sudden penetration of the spirit. Idem. Ibid. 46. 58. contact. "He achieves the living contact of the mind with the old that was genuine and full of significance. a notion inspired by and similar to Dilthey's Erlebnis."60 This special contact with the past "can be evoked by a line from a document or chronicle.. but not identical with it. Ibid."57 This does not mean that the historian arbitrarily imposes personal meanings on the past. which is the ultimate task of history."59 Interpreting the meaning of the meaningful. . not in it. and be able to verify by the canons of historical research. it makes up for in significance. is no longer bound by such a requirement.. 24. Re-experiencing as a method of cognition assumes a more or less continuous perception constantly accompanying the labor of reading and thinking. that what he is describing must have been that way. the criterion obtains that nothing can be called history which does not spring from the need for a perfectly genuine picture of a certain past. goes beyond adherence to the canons of historical research. The weakness of literature as a vehicle of historical understanding is precisely "the lack of coherence between its products and its everlasting indeterminacy. But as long as history is considered as Sinndeutung des Sinnvollen. 43. this sensation. vision. Ibid.. In reality. The historian can achieve living contact with the past only by the "historical sensation" that Huizinga calls Ahnung or intuition. however. 39. by a few notes of an old song. 59. by a print. 61. In their variety and their difference in value new notions added to the conception of a historical context are like newly found flowers in the nosegay: each one changes the appearance of the whole bouquet."56 But what history lacks in exactness. giving meaning to the meaningless. but as an understanding that is closely related to the understanding of music."61 Ahnung enables us to visualize the forms in which the past assembles itself in our minds. 60."58 Real living contact with the past lies beyond the book of history. But the historian must believe. is limited to moments of special intellectual clarity. 57. "One does not realize the historical sensation as a re-experiencing. Ahnung. and thereby to construct a morphology of the human past. interpreting the meaning of the meaningful. 54.76 ROBERT ANCHOR Perhaps more suitable than a bundle of sticks might be a bunch of wild flowers. Ibid.. 56. "The person who unreservedly chooses the formula that history is merely Sinngebung des Sinnlosen. For it is precisely the synthetic activity of the historian and the indefiniteness of his data that enable him to discover the meaning that the past has for the present. of cultural history in particular.

The spectatorsgo home.64 In The Waning of the Middle Ages.in particular. the current myths of national and racial superiority. In the Shadoit' of Tomorrow. J. Ibid. 63. the players take off their masks.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 77 Alarmed by spreading fascism. To this list Huizinga added the perversion of play. whether it be a cult. and the politicization of all spheres of life. is that at a certain momentit is over. A far-reaching contamination play and serious activity has taken place. he had produced a definition of culture in general and the means by which the historian is able to perceive. . And here the evil of our time shows itself. In his autobiographical essay. Rather. which he now considered "one of the most important aspects of the malady of our time. 46. the performancehas ended. Europe of the 1930s. nor a history of the idea of play. the misuse of science and technology. All these motifs converged at last in Huizinga's decision to devote a special study to play and its relationship to culture in general. sustained. Finally. seemed to Huizinga to be on the verge of collapse. and whose characteristics are a harmonious balance of material and spiritual values and a more or less homogeneous ideal in whose pursuit the community's various activities converge. Huizinga had discovered the importance of play as a formative force in medieval culture. is present when the control over nature in the material. and evaluate particular cultures. 177. and spiritual field maintains a state which is higher and better than would follow from the given natural conditions. he discovered that the perversion of play was a serious symptom of the crisis of contemporary Western civilization. In his theoretical writings. interpret. 1964). the decline of critical judgment. it is 62. the moral. 64.''63 The most fundamentalcharacteristic of true play. Ibid. in In the Shadow of Tomorrow."62 From this definition Huizinga proceeded to compare the crisis of Europe in the 1930s to earlier crises in Western civilization and to isolate the elements that made it unique and uniquely dangerous . the rise of social conformity and the threat of irresponsible mass action. as a condition of society. or a festivity. transl. HOMO LUDENS HomnoLudens is neither a history of play. The of two spheres are getting mixed up. like Europe of the late Middle Ages. H. and shaped his own personal interest in the past. 182. Huizinga applied his insights into the nature of culture and the historian's ability to interpret it to an analysis of contemporary Western civilization in In the Shadow of Tomorrow (1936). He began his investigation with the following broad definition of culture: "Culture. nor a study of play as one among many other human activities. LI. he reveals how his sense of play aroused.. Huizinga [1936] (New York. For nowadays play in many cases never ends and hence is not true play..

. . Das sogenannte Bose.. such as discharge of excess energy. ordinary. lies the very essence."69 We may question. and that most of them are mutually exclusive. Tindbergen.78 ROBERT ANCHOR a morphology of play. N. To clarify his intention. this power of maddening. Ibid." Science 160 (28th June. the primordial quality of play. that its perversion can endanger society led him to realize "the supreme importance to civilization of the play-factor. Ibid. Huizinga argues. Yet in this intensity."67 Huizinga asserts that play is an irreducible phenomenon. 2-3. Huizinga states in the foreword: "It was not my object to define the place of play among all the other manifestations of culture. Ibid. ii. a study of play as a structure that manifests itself in all spheres of human culture. that play can ennoble society and. i."65 His findings. such explanations shed some light on the motives for and effects of play. Huizinga dismisses them on the grounds that: "All these hypotheses have one thing in common: they all start from the assumption that play must serve something which is not play."66 Huizinga starts with a definition of the nature and significance of play. in The Waning of the Middle Ages. Wesen und Sinn des Spiels (Berlin. H. Zur Naturgeschichte der Aggression (Vienna. in In the Shadow of Tomorrow. . 1872-1972. 70.68 but also because it precedes human society and culture chronologically. . Buytendijk. "On War and Peace in Animals and Man. 68. this absorption. But they tell us little about its nature and significance. however inadequately defined. with E. Gombrich. always presupposes human society. the need for relaxation or distraction. and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.. 66. Play is a fundamental category. Huizinga's source for this point was F. play finds no explanation in biological analysis. J. desire to imitate.. 150 ff. 1963). that no one of them captures the essence of play.. 3. everyday life. . and absorption in. Ibid. not only because it cannot be explained by anything else ("the fun of playing resists all analysis. preparation for life. 67. but rather to ascertain how far culture itself bears the character of play.Huizinga's Homo Ludens" in Johan Huizinga.. . all logical interpretation"). Huizinga correctly observes that all these explanations are only partial. 69. for culture. Homo Ludens. desire to enter into competition to prove one's superiority. sublimation of instincts forbidden direct satisfaction by society. and the like. a fundamental category that can only be defined in terms of its opposite: serious. The intensity of. From this definition he explicitly excludes all biopsychological explanations. that it must have some kind of biological purpose. 1. Gombrich's sources are Konrad Lorenz. . Most of them deal only incidentally with the question of what play is in itself and what it means for the player. At best. 1933). J. "Play is older than culture.70 whether animals 65.

Play begins and ends with itself and produces nothing beyond itself. thinkable. philosophy. language. It proceeds within its own properboundariesof time and space accordingto fixed rules and in an orderly manner. Just as in play. It is an activity connected with no materialinterest. But Huizinga's assertion of the primordial quality of play does not stand or fall with his assertion of the origins of play in the animal world. 3. Huizinga then tries to show how far the higher forms of culture . that the identification of play with holiness does not detract from the latter. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their differencefrom the common world by disguise or other means. the participants become totally absorbed in the ceremony. 72. The essence of play is fun. or play in the same sense. and W. which is dominated by determinism. delimited and separated from the world and ordinary life. regardless of content. bears the character of play. Series B. as human beings.72 Using this definition as his model. All play has its rules the breaking of which destroys the fragile play world. Thorpe. law. The strengths (and weaknesses) of his definition lie. in which the religious ceremony takes place. "Ritualization in Ontogeny: I. for example. Huizinga claims. In this enclosed space. in his careful delineation of play from that which is not play. regulated and symbolic movements are executed. military procedures. and no profit can be gained by it. ed. He finds that play functions in these spheres in two ways: as a contest for something. Huizinga insists that all religious ritual. 1411-18.manifest the character of play. for a specified time. Huizinga begins his definition with the proposition that "play only becomes possible. that religious ritual manifests all the formal characteristics of his definition. Ibid.. It is voluntary and spontaneous. J. CCLI (1966). He hastens to add. insignia.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 79 play. and the arts . H. . or as a representation of something. Play involves a play community that sets itself apart from others by means of special uniforms. It is a "stepping out" from real life. or rituals. 13. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. which transports them to another world. which are supposed to represent or re-enact transcendent realities. "In play 1968). and understandable when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos. No."'71 From there he proceeds to enumerate the formal characteristics of play. 772. Huxley. Homo Ludens. however. The sanctuary or church is the enclosed space. Summingup the formal characteristicsof play we might call it a free activity standingquite consciously outside 'ordinary'life as being 'not serious. but rather exalts the former. poetry. rather. 71. Animal Play" inA Discussion on Ritualization of Behaviour in Animals and Man. It takes place within specified limits of space and time.religion.' but at the same time absorbingthe player intensely and utterly. Play is the antithesis of seriousness.

Huizinga does not deny that competitive play can easily degenerate merely into a will to win and assume violent and exploitative forms. as. The need for a comprehensiveterm expressing 'not play' must have been rather feeble. In archaic societies. for example. to be first. an imaginative reconstruction of reality in figurative or poetic terms. . as pure play. For seriousness seeks to exclude play.a process which . and the verbal battle. 51.in the realm of the beautiful and sacred. and esteem that competitive or agonistic play engenders and ennobles culture. The ap- pearance of a term for 'earnest' means that people have become conscious of the play concept as an independent entity . And the decision arrived at does not serve as a precedent for future decisions. . or else forces it to become serious. of which Huizinga distinguishes three: the game of chance. serious matters are settled in play-like contests."73 Play manifests itself in language most visibly as metaphor. happens rather late.. and modern . as the child does. But this does not happen until a civilization grows more complicated and serious and either loses touch with the original spirit of play.. and to be honored for that. Ibid.primitive. the contest. which is essentially a play on words. and in naming them raises them into the domain of the spirit. for example. 44-45. . Legal processes."75 In his wide-ranging analysis of customs in the primitive and ancient worlds.. but we can also move above it . 19. we find that the two terms are not of equal value: play is positive. a representation. Competitive play flourishes in the archaic (heroic) stage of a civilization's development. and the various expressions for 'seriousness' are but a secondaryattempton the part of language to invent the conceptual opposite of 'play'. but instead provides a 73. in the ritual of the potlatch and in the sacred Olympian games. . In the making of language. earnest negative. the human spirit constantly plays with the faculty of naming things. however. . which. whereasplay can very well include seriousness.. . . classical. 74. Leaving aside the linguistic question and observing the play-earnest antithesis more closely. 75. Ibid. . Huizinga argues that it is in this striving for excellence.to express the idea of play convinced him that the play concept appeared earlier and is more fundamental than its opposite: seriousness. Huizinga's etymological analysis of the words used in various languages . superiority. . Justice in the primitive world is not decided according to ideal standards of truth and dignity.74 The play element appears in law and warfare in the form of competition. is not primarily a will to defeat or to dominate. . "The primary thing is to excel others. but rather according to standards of honor and esteem. Ibid.80 ROBERT ANCHOR we may move below the level of the serious. assume competitive play forms. which are satisfied in one or more of these three ways. .

Huizinga does not deny or minimize the cruelty and violence of war. not necessarily because it is beautiful. its insistence on honoring treaties and making formal declarations of war. Society then sinks down to the level of the barbaric. entertainment. and prestige as well as for serious political and economic aims. church. and a verbal battle. riddle-making. and religious 76. doctrine. which are fought for glory. which is executed at a specified time and place according to pre-arranged rules. Even after civilized justice makes it appearance.as the sole norm of its political behavior. proclaims the interest and power of its own group . The inference from all this is that in the absence of the play-spirit civilization is impossible. artistry. party. its diplomatic procedures. . prophecy. jousts. Poetry as a social activity of little or no aesthetic value can be found everywhere and in a variety of forms: antiphonal singing. That is to say that poetry performs a social and liturgical as well as an aesthetic function. Civilized justice still retains qualities of a game of chance. the need for order in human affairs) is recognized and respected. a contest. its creation of world courts and organizations (referees) to interpret rules and negotiate disputes . class. however. soothsaying. Unfortunately. military songs. warfare assumes the form of a noble game of honor and virtue. Ibid. which is readily apparent in tournaments. persuasion. impromptu versifying.all bear a formal resemblance to play rules in that they are binding only while the game itself (that is. or whatever else . The play element is also present in the conduct of wars. and original violence retakes its ancient rights.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 81 solution for a stable relationship in a particular case. As with legal proceedings. Poetry is the preferred language of primitive man and children because it is pleasing. which Huizinga regards as its purest cultural expression.be it nation. the play element in politics becomes more apparent when international law is violated than when it is observed. not only does the last vestige of the immemorial play-spirit vanish but with it any claim to civilization at all. and duels. it does not entirely lose its play-like character. International law continues to bear the traces of its origins in play.' 76 Play also permeates poetry. either in practice or in theory. Rejecting theories that explain poetry primarily or exclusively in aesthetic terms. he observes that poetry combines at one and the same time ritual. Its acknowledgment of reciprocal rights and obligations. sorcery. and competition. and the system of states it regulates retains something of the character of a play community. "As soon as one or more of a community of states virtually denies the binding character of international law and. But he does defend the civilizing influence of the play element in warfare inasmuch as it gave rise to chivalry.. 101. crusades. pride. which in turn served as a basis for modem international law.

119. Ibid. rhyme. the savage.''78 Huizinga traces the origin of philosophy to the sacred riddle-game. which was at one and the same time a ritual and a form of entertainment. music and dance remain closest to 77. an age that delighted in displays of esprit. . 166. 79. poetry was inseparable from myth. Only poetry remained as the stronghold of vital and noble play: an activity which proceeds within certain limits of space and time. and images. the festive play of courtship.82 ROBERT ANCHOR hymns."79 The competitive spirit of play carried over to the literary and intellectual disputes of the eighteenth century. 78. 129. commerce and science. law and warfare. in a visible order. "If a serious statement be defined as one that may be made in terms of waking life. Huizinga observes. ecstasy.. The play spirit in Latin life and literature found expression in the arts of declamation and rhetoric. and the charm of the salon. mockery and invective.. enchantment. except poetry. and which evokes rapture and enthusiasm. laughter. the grace of rococo. poetry will never rise to the level of seriousness. and polemics cannot be divorced from agonistics. Ibid. 80. the martial play of the contest. 155.and this naturally includes philosophy. "All poetry is born of play: the sacred play of worship. Ibid."77 Originally. '80 Of all the arts. progressively lost touch with play. the nimble play of wit and readiness. "is polemical by nature. It lies beyond seriousness. the animal. "To beat your opponent by reason or by the word becomes a sport comparable with the profession of arms. Huizinga traces these social and liturgical functions of poetry to its origin in the primordial play impulse and its retention of the quality of play. the disputatious play of braggadocio. in the region of dream. Plato and Aristotle. and the seer belong. outside the sphere of necessity and material utility. on that more primitive and original level where the child. To understand poetry we must be capable of donning the child's soul like a magic cloak and of forsaking man's wisdom for the child's. took such pains to refute the sophists as to indicate that their own thought had not yet broken loose from the archaic sphere of play. and is sacred or secular according to the occasion. Ibid. As civilization became more serious. according to rules freely accepted. and competition was a very pronounced feature of the whole development of the medieval university and scholasticism. poetry retained its function of expressing man's understanding of the cosmos in play-like language: the language of rhythm. But even their opponents. and the other civilized activities. "All knowledge . but as belief in the literal truth of myth declined. The play spirit remained vigorous in Greek philosophy.." Huizinga concludes.. especially among the sophists.

and the negation of every norm not only exist (as they always have). as a social impulse. utility. or truth.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 83 play. and politicization of sport. Ritualgrew up in sacred play. . which involve more than purely practical and aesthetic objectives. 173. by means of rhythm and harmony. the musical arts. The spirit of playful competition is. professionalization. The rules of warfare. is too immersed in and concerned with the real world to qualify as play. there is more emphasis in scientific competition on vanquishing rivals than there is in true play. And Huizinga notes that all true ritual is sung and danced. which perverts recreation and 81. We have to conclude. played. The least ludic of the higher forms of culture is science. Huizinga claims. and all honorable competition. although often competitive and polemical. Music has nothing to do with practical life. in its earliestphases.the conventions of noble living were built up on play-patterns.degenerate into pseudo-play. produce and evoke a purely emotional experience. which rises partly into the sphere of ideation and judgment. which is the primordial ground of play. older than cultureitself and pervades all life like a veritableferment. music and dancingwere pure play. The play element is less pronounced in the plastic arts. which are governed by considerations of economics. war. whereby the serious business of life politics. that civilization is. It does not comefrom play like a babe detachingitself from the womb: it arises in and as play. Even more than poetry. poetry was born in play and nourishedon play. artlessness. duty. all noble activity. Here Huizinga depicts contemporary civilization as one in which material interests. and thus its power to act as a culture-creating activity. detachment. Moreover. The decadence of play is evident also in the commercialization. and its values transcend logical ideas. but are elevated into absolutes in place of the rules that underlie all play. and joy. because science. and never leaves it. as is evident in the rich historical tradition of art and architectural contests. But Huizinga holds that the inclusion of the crafts among the arts in the archaic phase of civilization and the recurrent theme of competitive artisanship in myth and legend have left a definite impress on the actual development of art and technics. and play loses its indispensable qualities of spontaneity. and existing techniques of production. The decadence of play is evident in the breakdown of the distinction between play and seriousness. utility. Huizinga summarizes his findings thus: It has not been difficultto show that a certain playfactorwas extremely active all throughthe culturalprocess and that it produces many of the fundamental forms of social life. economics. Wisdom and philosophy found expression in words and forms derived from religious contests. Ibid.. The pleasure of music is the pleasure of ritual. especially architecture. therefore. and morality . cynicism.81 Homo Ludens ends with a bitter chapter that returns to one of the main themes of In the Shadow of Tomorrow: the decadence of the play element in modern times.

not in fact harmless. especially his insights into the nature of play and its role as a civilizing force. 85. Some. Huizinga was unprepared for the brute fact that an elderly. instead of making boys into men. which. "Johan Huizinga and the Task of Cultural History. whose situation and options as a Jew in Nazi Europe were uniquely desperate. Colie. tortured. After making much of the influence of Huizinga's Mennonite upbringing on his aloofness from politics as an adult. honorable professor was fundamentally a political being. It is evident in the perversion of culture by puerilism. 83. In praising Bloch's undeniable heroism. and idealizing the past so as to make the present appear worse than it was. however. HOMO LUDENS: FOR AND AGAINST Almost all of Huizinga's important critics acknowledge his originality and eminence as a cultural historian." History and Theoty 2 (1963). adapts the conduct of the community to that of the adolescent age. 619-620."82 III.. while others contend that it goes in the wrong direction. however. R. Colie goes farther: "Because he had so long kept politics at a distance from him. had he joined. considering the troubled times in which he lived and wrote. and without knowledge of how to win and lose graciously. as far as it goes. 231-262. and was arrested. since Colie does not say so explicitly. Professors are by definition not neutral. 84. the ability not to confuse its own tendencies with the ultimate and highest goal. 211." American Historical Review 69 (1964). The supreme importance to civilization of the play factor is precisely that "civilization presupposes limitation and mastery of the self. Marc Bloch. Two of them. Exactly how Huizinga at sixty-eight could have served the Dutch underground.85 who served in the French army. Geyl faults Huizinga on two specific counts: overlooking the political origin and nature of the world crisis that culminated in World War 11. "Huizinga as Accuser of His Age.. whatever they may think. P. 629-630. Huizinga was. All of this. clearly shows that there can be no civilization without play and rules of fair play. They respect his work. argue that it does not go far enough. . Colie. Ibid. which they regard as particularly indefensible. Pieter Geyl and Rosalie L. compares him unfavorably with his friend. but to understand that it is enclosed within certain bounds freely accepted. Colie.83 criticize Huizinga's apparent blindness to the importance of politics. or what he would 82. joined the resis tance after the fall of France. Colie neglects to mention that he was a Jew. and shot in 1944. Huizinga's alleged nonpolitical stance tacitly succored the Nazi cause). Colie then.84 ROBERT ANCHOR reduces it to crude sensationalism. 607-630. respectable. Huizinga concludes. Geyl."84 (Presumably. Ibid. somewhat unfairly. without conventions consciously established and voluntarily adhered to.

It continues to enjoy a certain primacy because it is so much the morphology of society par excellence. Huizinga. found politics personally distasteful. was his generation's one-sided preoccupation with and misleading inflation of the importance of politics to the detriment of historical understanding. In "The Task of Cultural History. 87."87 What troubled Huizinga throughout his career. But he immediately added: "Political history brings its own forms: a state institution. admittedly. a peace treaty. see "Der Mensch und die Kultur" in Parerga [1938] (Basle. Now if we still agree that the acquisitive life does not mean civilization. "Conditions for a Recovery of Civilization. they have succeeded in presenting a picture of the Middle Ages in which economic and social points of view are so dominant that one tends to forget that. "Combing the records in which chivalry is. chivalry was the strongest of the ideas that filled the minds and the hearts of those men of another age.that is.. She muddies the waters further by invoking Julien Benda as a critic of the non-political attitude of his generation of intellectuals. next to religion. at least not the whole of it. when in fact Benda castigated them for having abandoned disinterested intellectual activity and allowing their talents to be manipulated for political and nationalistic ends.are always a secondary function of human life. little mentioned. 1945). 90. .90 Such statements were not those of a man insensitive to the role of poli86." 197." 58-59. but he was never blind to its importance.. "The Task of Cultural History.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 85 have accomplished by martyring himself Colie does not make clear.88 As early as in The Waning of the Middle Ages. lies the fundamental character of political history. there is no need for pointing out that the absorption of mental faculties by the political and economic purposes of society raises grave fears as to the healthy state of our civilization. 615. a dynasty. Politics. Huizinga chided the medievalists of the time for their overemphasis of social and economic factors to the neglect of the spiritual values of the Middle Ages. however importantand unavoidable. and increasingly so during the 1930s." he insisted that "the historical forms of political life are already to be found in life itself" . In addition to In the Shadow of Tomorrow'." Fortnightly Review 147 (1940).86 Such criticisms might be justified if they concentrated more on what Huizinga thought and did than on what he did not think or do. within the matrix of culture as a whole.. the state itself. 390-400. which is inseparable from the paramount importance of those forms themselves. They can never be either the essence or the ultimate pursuit of a civilization. a war. Ibid. 89. "The Political and Military Significance of Chivalric Ideas in the Late Middle Ages. 88. indeed."89 Huizinga summed up his lifelong attitude toward politics in an article published in 1940: The importanceof the political seems so overwhelmingthat we are apt to forget that politics and economics togetheronly form part of that nether domainof human activity which the Greeks called the acquisitive art.. In this fact.

as in the late Middle Ages. Such statements. were not neutral." Antoni's essay ends with the provocative but misplaced question: "What sort of spirit can be demanded of the participant in a play called upon to defend that which he knows to be nothing but a fatuous game? And how is it possible to lament the fact that all things 'which once stood firm and sacred' have now been shaken? Especially if one has asserted the relativity of all cultural phenomena and the legitimate plurality of all forms?" 92 Had Homo Ludens been available to Antoni. . Play. "was itself a symptom of the evil which he deplored. but only that the higher forms of civilization originate in and flourish as noble play.91 Antoni's essay. 206. and held that any confusion of the two perverts both. and war were the most conspicuous signs. and the new justifications for violence. he would have known that Huizinga scarcely thought of civilization as a "fatuous game. lies outside morals. Carlo Antoni. transl." It makes only one brief reference to In the Shadow of Tomorrow. and Games.." He would have known that Huizinga distinguished sharply between play and seriousness. 92. Roger Caillois. Antoni concluded that Huizinga lacked conceptual rigor and was guilty of subjectivism and relativism. and that they suffer when play declines. In itself it is neither good nor bad. Man and the Sacred. is based almost wholly on The Waning of the Middle Ages. More to the point are the criticisms of Carlo Antoni and Roger Caillois. 1961). published in 1937. Homo Ludens appeared a year later. Erasmus. Ill. Caillois presents his own theory of play in Man. 1959). our moral conscience will at once provide the touchstone. but made his position to the contrary clear in the conclusion to Homo Ludens: "Play . 1959). Barash (Glencoe.. . M.. Hayden V. As soon as 91. Finally. He would have known also that. as in modern times. while Huizinga insisted that civilization "arises in and as play. But if we have to decide whether an action to which our will impels us is a serious duty or is licit as play. Ibid. Appendix II." he did not mean or imply that civilization is equivalent to play and nothing more. But they were the statements of a man who plausibly viewed politics as symptomatic rather than causative. and who sought to diagnose the disease of which the myths of national and racial superiority. White (Detroit. transl. The Nazis deemed them dangerous enough to detain Huizinga during the occupation in the out-of-the-way town of De Steeg. 5. therefore. M. ch. and never leaves it. indeed. On the basis of the writings he used. and "The Task of Cultural History. Barash (Glencoe. Ill. Antoni would have known that Huizinga did not rate play above the serious business of life. From History to Sociology. or when play gets out of hand. transl.86 ROBERT ANCHOR tics or to their "paramount importance" as a reflection of the morphology of society as a whole. cruelty. . that his historiography.

conventional. subtly transmuted the historical category of play into a timeless philosoph93." 149 ff. . and how they could be compatible with yet distinguishable from the play structures in which they find expression. or gratuitous human activity. there is an element of truth in Antoni's charge that Huizinga's conception of the relationship between play and reality is unsound. 213. the values of Christianity and the values of rationality.96 By "essentialism' he means that approach which. Whatever we may think about individual arguments he employed. Huizinga repeatedly insisted that play does not exclude seriousness . "Huizinga's Homo Ludens. E. in the manner of medieval realism. it would obviously make no sense to ask how far culture itself bears the character of play. indeed what had prompted him to reject romantic aestheticism in favor of an uncompromising search for truth. By starting with a definition designed to capture the essence of play. so Gombrich's critique runs.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 87 truth and justice. Huizinga. His stand was to be against relativism in all forms. Huizinga succumbed to the temptation of treating play as an Urphainoinen. Huizinga never claimed that war. and religion were only play. regards things as epiphenomena."95 In fact. Man and the Sacred. As a result of this ambiguity."94 Nevertheless.if the two were mutually exclusive. Homo Ludens. But Antoni and Caillois both were correct in observing that his theory failed to explain how these activities could be simultaneously playful and serious. it was a noble stand in an important cause. which could be used to explain almost every regulated. The same is true for the sacred. The fallacy of "essentialism" is that it mistakes concepts for realities. compassion and forgiveness have part in our resolve to act. poetry. our anxious question loses all meaning. On the other hand. was a faith in absolute values. and then classifies them according to similarities that may be only superficial or coincidental." 143. "The military arts do not explain war. Thus. 95. he was unable to provide an objective criterion for judging where play ends and seriousness begins. 94. nor does law explain the requirements of justice. H. 'Huizinga's Homo Ludens. 96. Gombrich attributes this ambiguity to what he calls the "essentialism" of Huizinga's definition of play. 161."93 What a different picture from Antoni's Gombrich presents! "I venture to think that none of Huizinga's critics have quite confronted the agony of his position. neither does prosody explain poetry. in order to preserve his definition intact. Huizinga was equally insistent on maintaining play and seriousness as two separate categories. Caillois also charged that Huizinga confused the playfulforms of culture with its serious contents. What had sustained him throughout his life. On the one hand. What so deeply upset him was the spectacle of reason undermining rationality.

and the probative riddle of initiation no more than a pun (jocus)." To have chosen the second way would have undermined his distinction between noble play and its perversion by puerilism or its contamination by reality . and never leaves it. was even less inclined than Huizinga to view the relationship between play and seriousness as symbiotic. If the sacred be defined by the consubstantialunity of myth and rite.that is. of the sacred words that give religion its power over reality. Huizinga believed that the anthropological and linguistic evidence he mustered so skillfully was sufficient to warrant an essentialistt" definition of play. we can say that there is play only when half of the sacred operationis performed. Gombrich correctly objects that this evidence. he traces the origins of play to the idea of the sacred in primitive religion. however impressive. But where Huizinga considered the two as complementary . the divine struggle for possession of the sun becomes a football game (ludus). Emile Benveniste. "the rite is reduced to a mechanism ruled by acts that are henceforth ineffectual. The linguist. to a harmless facsimile of the ceremony."The Platonic identification of play and holiness does not defile the latter by calling it play. of which it offers an invertedand brokenimage." Conversely. . 99. then re-introduced it into time sub specie aeternitatis."99 When this separation takes place.Benveniste maintains that play results from the separation of myth from rite. fails to prove that behavior which resembles play actually is play." Deucalion 2 (1947). the norinative value of-his definition. "Le Jeu comme structure. Huizinga understandably failed to resolve this dilemma. or else that his definition of play was only an a priori construction. Logically. which splits play off sharply from the sacred. myth without rite results in a simple play upon words (jocus). For to have taken the first way out would have undermined his thesis that all civilization "arises in and as play. or that play actually is an Urphdnomen. or the rite alone into acts. Deprived of myth.88 ROBERT ANCHOR ical category."97 Like Huizinga." 164-165. rather it exalts the concept of play to the highest regions of the Spirit"98 . Homo Ludens. writing shortly after World War 1I. 164. that is. Benveniste sees play as a "desocializing operation. to a pure game (ludus). 19.when the myth alone is translatedinto words. "Le Jeu comme structure. he should have decided either that play is not an Urphianomen. 98. having value as a heuristic device. "Jocus is characterized by the deliberately fictive nature of the reality to which it alludes. Nevertheless. from the decomposition of religious ceremony into its two basic components. but not as an accurate description of reality. We are then outside the 97. words without sum or substance. From these premises Benveniste concludes: Play originatesin the sacred.

which makes it efficacious.. 31-58. at one and the same time. Consequently. what remains when utility and purposefulness are subtracted is sterility and gratuity. "Every coherent and regulated manifestation of collective and individual life is transposable into play when the rational or empirical motivation. 101. from different standpoints. such as compulsive behavior or apparently motiveless crimes? And if play is distinguishable from seriousness only by its gratuitousness. 166. Eugen Fink. Jacques Ehrmann (Boston. Reality is seen as corrupted play. ed..play incarnateseach of the two halves into which sacred ceremony is split. but is. then. Two of the most fruitful critiques of Homio Ludens come from Jacques Ehrmann and Eugen Fink. the missinghalf in each of its two forms: in word play. is eliminated. because it is ideologi100. will have two forms: jocique. nor a structural substrate (Benveniste). Gedanken zil eiter Ontologie des Spiels (Freiburg and Munich. and T. .HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 89 divine and humansphere of the efficient. and serious activity. Benveniste implies that play is merely a lower order of reality: seriousness minus its rational or empirical motivation. which is Benveniste's thesis as well as Huizinga's? Benveniste's theory fails to answer these questions. he fares little better than Huizinga in explaining whether and how the higher forms of culture can be. Ibid. Play. Ibid. 1968).'00 Benveniste even provides a formula for recognizing the structural relationship between play. Oase des Glficks.Play. Literature. when the myth is reduced to its own content and separatedfrom its rites. nor a set of selfcontained forms (Caillois). as he conceives it. 165-166. Saine and appears in Game. This assumption is false. in an autonomous world which conventions have protected from the fatalities of the real world. Literature. and play as devoid of reality. This fiction allows the acts and the words to be consistent. in physical play. how can it be said to have a civilizing influence. Where Huizinga held that play and seriousness are two distinct but compatible categories. Jacques Ehrmann. ludique. playful and serious. 1957). For them. instead. A portion of this work has been translated by U. 19-31. thus conceived. we act as if motivated by a rational reality. through make-believe. a particular mode of behavior that is coextensive with and reflective of culture as a whole. Ehrmann observes that all of these definitions rest on the false assumption that play is simply what remains when seriousness is subtracted. play is neither an Urphanomen (Huizinga). From this dual standpoint. when the rite is practicedfor itself and separatedfrom its myth. 'Homo Ludens Revisited" in Gamne. play characteristicallyrecomposes. Thus.'"101 But what. Moreover. 102. Fink's more extended study of play as a philosophical problem is Spiel als Weltsymbol. correctly object that play does not take place in isolation from or in opposition to the rest of reality.102 both of whom. distinguishes play from any other gratuitous activity. according to Ehrmann. Play. we act as if some actual reality should result.

argues Ehrmann. Benveniste. It is ideologically slanted because it takes reality uncritically as given. as existing prior to its components (including play). Ibid.. which is external to the manifestations of the culture that expresses it. become apparent. obscures the fact that the problem of reality and the problem of play are one and the same problem. when a breakdown of the distinction between play and seriousness occurred that eventually contaminated both spheres. in which the utilitarian and materialistic attitude toward culture "entails the expulsion of play into the exterior of gratuitousness and futility. and hence is protected from "the fatalities of the real world. reality must not be the starting-point of an analysis of play (or any other social phenomenon). they are each elaborated. that whatever cultural utility play may have. Ibid. commentaries on. It implies an invalid dichotomy between a supposedly fixed." Ehrmann correctly observes.. luxury. they are all simultaneously the subject and the object of the question which they put to us and we to them. where no such antithesis between play and seriousness exists. and on the other its components. constructed through and on the basis of the two others. which are viewed merely as variations. . on the one hand. and thus as a norm. To define play is at the same time and in the same movement to define reality and to define culture. all culture was articulated in and as play. maintained that. 47. normative reality. where it becomes the utopian complement of seriousness. and that play continued to be a vital culturecreating force until the end of the eighteenth century. "Homo Ludens Revisited. "In an anthropology of play.90 ROBERT ANCHOR cally slanted and methodologically unsound. As each term is a way to apprehend the two others." 105 But this assumption does not hold true of other cultures." 55. 105."'103 Huizinga. and Caillois all held that play is useful to culture precisely because it is isolated from an a priori reality. but rather its termination. The procedure must be reversed. or relaxation . on this assumption it must always remain merely an accompaniment or complement of seriousness: an adornment. For his well-meaning attempt to protect play from "the fatalities of the real world" corresponds exactly to the antithesis of work and play in the industrial phase of modern Western history. in the earliest stages of human history."the Sunday of life. which undermined his analysis. And Huizinga's whole analysis of 103. Huizinga himself."'04 Ehrmann grants that this assumption may be true of contemporary Western society. But here the ideological implications of Huizinga's position. 45. Such a procedure. None of the three existing prior to the others. however. or interpretations of this preconceived reality. stable. as we have seen. play cannot be defined by isolating it on the basis of its relationship to an a priori reality and culture. 104.

And where there is consumption. how much they play. Once the ritual character of play is recognized. Hoino Ludens.in a word. that the potlatch really is. there must be production somewhere. . which was.or an-economic" interpretation of play is evident. Ehrmann adds. revenge). by the wholesale destruction of one's possessions just to show that one can do without them. past and present. if subtracted. He also means that Huizinga's definition of play as entirely lacking in material interest and utility does not justify the conclusion that play has nothing to do with economics. on glory. 58-59. and sometimes considerable property. .HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 91 play." as Ehrmann calls it. revenge. for example. by his own theory. 106. power. The opposed groups do not contend for wealth or power but simply for the pleasure of parading their superiority . but must be considered. which provides vital information about the society in which it takes place. He does not mean only that Huizinga disqualified gambling." Huizinga deplored the decline of play in modern times. as communication. it can no longer be viewed as an isolated phenomenon. and commercialized sport as play on the grounds that money necessarily corrupts play. and how play influences and is influenced by the social order in which it takes place. Ehrmann grants that play may produce nothing. presupposes the very "ethnocentric perspective. . for glory. therefore. energy. which will have a great deal to do with how people play. prestige and. therefore. games of chance. must perceive play in relation to the external world and recognize that both participate in the same economy. What Ehrmann calls Huizinga's "anti. last but not least."'106 But what Huizinga failed to see is that the apparently gratuitous gift is in fact an exchange. like all other cultural phenomena. but it does consume something: time. the ritualization of the economic and political practices of feudal society in the throes of disintegration. besides being a path to the sublime. was not this decline inevitable? If play is merely an adornment of reality. glory. . on being superior. the ritualization of an economic and political ethos. Any valid theory. Much the same criticism applies to Huizinga's interpretation of chivalry. . what is even more striking. The potlatch and everything connected with it hinges on winning. . which. that the participants give in order to receive (prestige. "In the potlatch one proves one's superiority not merely by the lavish prodigality of one's gifts but. in his analysis of the potlatch. how could Huizinga have expected play to have resisted or survived the eventual onslaught of reality? Ehrmann blames Huizinga's inability to answer these questions on his failure to recognize the economic function of play. which consigns play to the periphery of life and assigns to it the role of a "utopian complement of seriousness. But. would leave reality intact (albeit dull and ordinary).

"'107But he denies that play is the only such phenomenon. we play truth. Toward an Ontology of Play" in Game. 24. work. 19. play is always partly.. Play.92 ROBERT ANCHOR The relationship of play to reality is also the subject of Eugen Fink's writings. and to assert his freedom by recreating it imaginatively. without losing touch with reality. . Thus. confronts them all . man plays in the real world and knows himself to be playing even as he plays (unlike the schizophrenic. 109. It always has to do with real objects. reality.the doll that becomes a child. and yet it is never a real thing among other real things. Thus. Ibid. . On the other hand. For Fink. . "an essential element of man's ontological makeup. the player consciously exists in two different spheres simultaneously. we play love and death and we even play play itself. a clearly identifiable and autonomous one that cannot be explained as deriving from any other existential phenomenon. we play reality. play is not subordinate to the serious purposes served by all other human activities. "The play world is not suspended in a purely ideal world. Seen from within. it is the symbolic function of play that makes it unique and useful as a tool of philosophical and historical understanding. This capacity to exist in two different spheres at once is uniquely human.. It enables the player to withdraw temporarily from the real world. just as primordial and autonomous as death. Fink agrees with Huizinga and his critics that play is a unique phenomenon. although it has an absolute need of real things as a point of departure. the play world is unrelated to anything outside itself. love. and that it is unique because it stands apart from or in opposition to the rest of reality. Play. "If we define play in the usual manner by contrasting it with work. we falsely juxtapose it with other existential phenomena. we play work. so to speak. And the plaything . On the one hand. Play is a basic existential phenomenon. We play at being serious.forms the link between the pure subjectivity of the player and the concrete world that surrounds him. The play world possesses its own internal space and time. the finger that becomes a pistol . The relationship between play and reality is not antithetical. but never wholly."109 107. who cannot tell the difference)."'108 Fink attributes the symbolic quality of play to its double character. "The Oasis of Happiness. and struggle for power. seriousness and authenticity. It always has a real setting.it absorbs them by representing them. but it is not bound to these other phenomena in a common ultimate purpose. which set it off from the real world. 22. but without concealing it. 108. because this double existence is essential to play (and to the higher cultural forms derived from play). Ibid. but rather symbiotic. the broom that becomes a horse. which fantasy transforms into play objects. Literature. the creation of fantasy. an existential phenomenon .

how play differs from other activities. the meaning of existence as encoded in play. But it can also be used to understand the meaning of play. As with the player and the plaything. . Play reflects the real world as a mirror reflects real objects. "Even if it has long since been forgotten. however. which was the fruit of Huizinga's life and labors. now reveals its methodological value.HUIZINGA AND HIS CRITICS 93 From this double nature of the player and the plaything. for which Homo Ludens laid the foundation. the play world does not simply reflect passively something outside itself. in it man seeks the meaning of existence. then. For it can be used by the philosopher and historian to understand not only how and why man plays. and man at play is both the subject and object of his playing. Fink concludes that the play world is a mirror of behavior in the real world. play is at the same time the thing reflected and the reflection itself."110 The concept of the play world as a symbolic representation and re-enactment of existence. because the behavior reflected in play is the behavior of the player himself and the real world in which he lives. the play world also possesses a double nature. University of Southern California 10.. and the uniqueness of the play medium. Thus. Unlike a mirror. human play is the symbolic act of representing the meaning of the world and life. through which man creates and communicates meaning. reflects reality symbolically. 28. and what it contributes to culture. Ibid. The play world.

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