Playtexts: Ludics in Contemporary Literature

Playtexts: Ludics in Contemporary Literature

by Warren Motte Jr.

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Playtexts: Ludics in Contemporary Literature by Warren Motte Jr.

“Not hubris but the ever self-renewing impulse to play calls new worlds into being.”—Nietzsche Parents and politicians have always taken play seriously. Its formative powers, its focus, its energy, and its ability to signify other things have drawn the attention of writers from Plato and Schiller to Wittgenstein, Nabokov, and Eco. The ease with which an election becomes perceived as a race, a political crisis as a football game, or an argument as a tennis match readily proves how much play means to contemporary life. Just how play confers meaning, however, is best revealed in literature, where meaning is perpetually at stake. “At stake” itself, the risk of a gamble, is only one intersection between play and life. Playtexts reveals numerous junctures where literary playfulness—seemingly so diverting and irrelevant—instead opens the most profound questions about creativity, community, value, and belief. How do authors play with their words and readers? Can literature proceed at all unless a reader is willing and able to play?  No moralizing monologue, Playtexts is all for exuberance and creative surge: Breton’s construction of an antinovel, Gombrowicz’s struggle with adult formalities, Nabokov’s swats at the humorless, Sarrazin’s seductive notes, Eco’s recasting of spy and detective fiction, Reyes’s carnal metaphorics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803290785
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2015
Series: Stages
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 233
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Warren Motte is a professor of French and comparative literature at the University of Colorado. He is the author of Questioning Edmond Jàbes (Nebraska 1990) and of articles in Romanic Review, French Forum, French Review, Romance Notes, and Romance Quarterly.

Read an Excerpt


Ludics in Contemporary Literature

By Warren Motte


Copyright © 1995 University of Nebraska Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9078-5


Reading Games

The thing about playing is always the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects.

D.W. WINNICOTT, Playing and Reality

From Heraclitus's suggestion that time is a child at play to the latest and most egregious politics-as-football metaphor, play and games wind through our culture with astonishing ubiquity. This insistence has led to broad essentialist claims for play, arising in different periods and emanating from different philosophical traditions, yet commonly appropriating for play vast expanses of cultural terrain. The terms of these various speculations may change, but their core is very similar indeed. Plato's conception of play, for example, focuses upon creativity, defining it as ludic. Friedrich Schiller grounds humanity firmly in play, arguing that it is play alone which allows humans to realize themselves: 'man only plays when he is in the fullest sense a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.' Nietzsche suggests that play is the only way to approach great tasks. As different as the tenor and the ulterior intents of such arguments may be, their crucial gesture, which postulates play as an essential human activity, is the same.

In our own time, essentialist claims are once again couched in meditations upon the nature of culture and human experience. When Johan Huizinga contends that 'culture arises in the form of play,' his sweeping brief identifies play as the primary civilizing factor among all others. D. W. Winnicott, writing from the perspective of psychotherapy, argues that play is the principal shaping force in human development. Eugen Fink, a philosopher, postulates the ontological autonomy of play: 'Play is an essential element of man's ontological makeup, a basic existential phenomenon — not the only such phenomenon, to be sure, but still a clearly identifiable and autonomous one that cannot be explained as deriving from other existential phenomena.'

The claims I intend to stake for play are perhaps less august than the foregoing. My area of inquiry in any case is more confined. In examining certain literary texts I take to be exemplary, I test the notions that play is an essential, if variable, dimension of both writing and reading, and that both those activities may be characterized, more or less globally depending upon the case, as games. My claims thus become more ample only to the extent that those textual economies can be advanced as paradigmatic of other cultural artifacts. Before I attempt to elaborate a working construct of literary ludics, however, I would like to discuss three contemporary models of play in some detail, deliberately playing them one against another in order to render their theoretical strengths and weaknesses apparent.

The touchstone modernist formulation may be found in Huizinga's Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, first published in 1938. It is a masterly and inevitable work, one with which all serious subsequent inquiries have had to come to terms in one manner or another. Early on in Homo Ludens, Huizinga sketches out seven main characteristics of play (8–13). It is free, he suggests, 'never imposed by physical necessity or moral duty,' and, as such, opposes itself to 'real life.' Play is disinterested and occurs in an interlude 'outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites.' It is limited in both time and space. It is always orderly in character: 'Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection.' Play displays an element of tension; it is agonistic in nature and its outcome is uncertain. It tends to foster community, a play-community that, Huizinga argues, tends to become permanent after the game ends. Finally, play always declares its difference from 'real life'; it is 'extra-ordinary.'

In reviewing this catalog, it quickly becomes apparent that one notion subtends each of the seven characteristics of play Huizinga postulates: the premise that play is distinct from 'real life.' For real life, according to Huizinga, is not free, nor disinterested, nor limited, nor orderly; it is not necessarily 'tense,' and, if it engenders community, that community is starkly different from the sort of 'play-community' Huizinga describes. The same notion, predictably enough, colors the brief definition of play Huizinga offers further along in Homo Ludens: 'play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is "different" from "ordinary life"' (28).

The radical opposition of play and 'real life' is at bottom a matter of attitude for Huizinga: we play in a ludic spirit, we face 'real life' in a spirit of seriousness. This distinction constitutes the most problematic element of Huizinga's ludic model, and it has served as a lightning rod for many of his revisionists.

For my purposes, one of the principal attractions of Huizinga's theory of play is the importance it accords to poiesis.

This question is, in a sense, at the heart of any discussion of the relation between play and culture, for while in the more highly organized forms of society religion, science, law, war and politics gradually lose touch with play, so prominent in the earlier phases, the function of the poet still remains fixed in the play- sphere where it was born. Poiesis, in fact, is a play-function. It proceeds within the play-ground of the mind, in a world of its own which the mind creates for it. There things have a very different physiognomy from the ones they wear in 'ordinary life,' and are bound by ties other than those of logic and causality. (119)

Huizinga stresses this notion throughout the rest of Homo Ludens. For him, poetry embodies the ludic spirit in its purest, most noble form, successfully resisting the 'puerilism' into which other forms of play inevitably decay (205–6). Although his conception of poetry may be flawed by the radical opposition of play and seriousness that characterizes the rest of his study, I find his description of poetry as a dynamic, interactive ludic system most provocative and fruitful.

In Les Jeux et les hommes, first published in 1958, Roger Caillois revisits Huizinga, proposing substantial new directions in theory of play. Calling Homo Ludens a powerful and original work, Caillois nonetheless suggests that most of its affirmations are highly questionable and proceeds to challenge Huizinga on several fronts (31–34). He argues that Huizinga fails to classify and describe games, faults him for speaking of the spirit of play to the exclusion of games, and says moreover that, even within his limited compass, Huizinga examines only one sort of play, that of ordered competition, or agôn. Caillois contends it is incorrect to say that play is always associated with secret and mystery; on the contrary, it is almost always spectacular. Huizinga is wrong in excluding from play the possibility of material gain, dismissing in this fashion a whole range of wagers and betting games of considerable cultural significance.

Yet curiously enough (for all his demurrals), when Caillois finally comes to postulate his own model of play, it resembles Huizinga's point by point. For Caillois, play has five fundamental characteristics (42–44). It is free and freely accepted; one is free to play or not. It is separate: circumscribed in time and place, it takes place apart from other activities. It is uncertain, in that the outcome of play is never known beforehand. It is unproductive; play creates no new goods of any sort, but merely displaces them within the playground. Finally, play is always either ordered by arbitrary rules that suspend and supersede conventional rules of behavior, or fictive and 'accompanied by the specific consciousness of a second reality or a frank irreality in comparison to ordinary life.' He specifies that these last two characteristics are 'almost mutually exclusive.'

Caillois's first category is virtually identical to Huizinga's. His contention that play is separate echoes Huizinga's notion of the limited character of play. The uncertainty Caillois emphasizes resembles Huizinga's category of tension. In suggesting that play is unproductive, Caillois differs from Huizinga's category of disinterest only in his assertion that play displaces goods; like Huizinga, he feels that play never creates 'real life' commodities. Finally, when he argues that play is either ordered or fictive, he reformulates Huizinga's fourth and seventh points, without substantially modifying either. Moreover, the distinction Caillois draws between ordered and fictive is murky at best, since both are based upon the impermeable opposition of play and seriousness and tend toward conflation on that axis. In fact, the only one of Huizinga's categories Caillois does not adopt, the notion that play fosters community, in its turn becomes a capital element of his own model as he proposes, later in Les Jeux et les hommes, to found a sociology upon games.

Where Caillois does break new ground is in his attempt to catalog and classify games. There, he argues that games fall into four broad categories (47–91). He calls the first agôn, and he groups therein competitive games such as soccer, marbles, and chess. The category he calls alea brings together games of chance, such as roulette and lotteries. Simulacrum and mimesis are the modes of mimicry, devoted to make-believe games, such as pirates and cops-and-robbers. Finally, the category of ilinx is dominated by confusion and disarray, grouping games of 'vertigo' such as seesaws, carnival rides, and mountain climbing. Caillois further suggests that each of these categories should be conceived as stretching along a continuum between two attitudinal poles, paidia (characterized by fun, turbulence, free improvisation, and fantasy) and ludus (constraint, arbitrary rules, effort, adroitness, ingenuity). Thus, in the category of agôn, for example, hide-and-seek would tend toward paidia, whereas chess would tend toward ludus; among games of mimicry, one might in similar fashion distinguish cops-and-robbers and a production of King Lear.

Caillois's classification is both interesting and useful. This is not to overlook its flaws: the fact that the boundaries between the various categories are less inviolable than Caillois would have us think; that the distinction between paidia and ludus seems to repose on the shaky ground of an opposition of childlike and mature play; that some of the games he mentions may not, in certain of their manifestations, be games at all. Grave problems arise, however, when Caillois proposes to use this system to found a ludic-based sociology.

He begins by postulating for each category of play three sorts of social manifestations: in cultural forms circulating in the margins of the social mechanism, in institutional forms integrated into social life, and in 'corrupted' forms (122). For instance, in the category of agonistic games, Caillois argues that sports exist in the margins of society, whereas business competition and competitive examinations are socially integrated; violence, unchecked lust for power, and ruse are corrupted forms of the same kind of game.

In elaborating such a theory, one of his tasks is to reconcile two contradictory notions that, in his view, compete in previous theories of play: on the one hand, that everything degenerates into play (arms become playthings, incantations become nursery rhymes, and so forth); on the other hand, that culture arises from the game (124). His ultimate goal is to found a theory of society upon the sorts of games played in a given culture. To this end, Caillois further nuances his model, suggesting that societies can be described using one of four binary conjunctions of the categories he has proposed (145–249). One might speak, thus, of a mimicry-ilinx society, or of an agôn-alea culture.

The strengths of this model are several. If Caillois neither particularly broadens nor brings precision to Huizinga's theory of play, he does nonetheless achieve much in his discussion of the game and in his analysis of individual games. Specifically, his attempt to locate the game in society and to suggest explicit social functions for various sorts of games is welcome. But here, too, Caillois's theory is conspicuously flawed. For throughout his discussion of the social function of play, a familiar theme recurs. Caillois feels that, just as children grow toward adulthood, so paidia strains toward ludus. This encourages him to postulate still other ludic tendencies: solitary games evolve toward competition, free play toward ordered play. Caillois interpolates these notions (disastrously, I think) in his social theory: mimicry-ilinx cultures evolve toward agôn-alea cultures, 'primitive' societies gradually become 'civilized' societies. His model is grounded in an uncritical vision of progress and a paternalistic, colonialist perspective upon the world. He evokes the example of what he calls 'tohu-bohu societies,' dominated by the mimicry-ilinx conjunction, opposing them to 'advanced' societies (169); he criticizes the inhabitants of such societies for not working: 'they are left to vegetate like eternal children' (280); he alludes disparagingly to the 'old values' and quaint ludic traditions of such countries as Cameroon and Gabon, which were, at the time he wrote Les Jeux et les hommes, French colonies (281–84).

Caillois's theory of play is intimately bound up in prejudice of this sort. Clearly, for Caillois, if 'tohu-bohu societies' are primitive, it is because they play primitively; their games are 'of the simplest kind' (282); they are 'rudimentary' (283). Finally, and in spite of the fact that he criticizes Huizinga's narrow approach, Caillois's own conception of play is a reductive one, for it becomes progressively apparent in Les Jeux et les hommes that he is interested in only one of the many characteristics of play that he proposes: the notion that play brings order to the world. One should have suspected this from his prefatory definition of civilization: 'it consists in the passage from a rough-hewn universe to an administered universe' (18).

It ought to be pointed out that Caillois's model eloquently illustrates Huizinga's otherwise contestable idea that most play degenerates into puerilism: as he builds up his system, Caillois moves his focus farther and farther from play. This tendency, pernicious on many more important fronts, flaws his theory of ludics vitally.

The third model is the one elaborated by Jacques Ehrmann. In a special issue of Yale French Studies published in 1968 and entided Game, Play, Literature, Ehrmann and his collaborators propose a collective revisitation and reinvigoration of theory of play. Ehrmann's own essay offers persuasive readings of both Huizinga and Caillois, as well as a singularly acute reformulation of certain key aspects of play. He suggests that Caillois did examine certain aspects of play that Huizinga neglected but finally 'succumbed to his own classifications, believing that he could confine play within them.' If Huizinga was wrong to limit his analysis of play to one of its characteristics, competition, he was nonetheless right to distribute play broadly among human activities, rather than confine it to a domain ofitsown (32.).

Ehrmann faults both Huizinga and Caillois on the grounds of the play-seriousness opposition that colors their models (32 –34). He argues that this distinction reposes dubiously upon the second term, taking it as the 'given.' That second term is never scrutinized in Huizinga and Caillois; it is offered as self-evident and unproblematic. This, he says, is symptomatic of their shared worldview. Here, I think, Ehrmann points to the root of the problem. For the 'seriousness' to which Huizinga and Caillois oppose play, and all the notions that are invoked more or less synonymously with the former — 'reality,' 'everyday life,' 'utility' — are in fact constructs that are every bit as slippery as the construct of play itself. As such, if the opposition is to be maintained, they deserve to be interrogated with as much rigor and skepticism as one might accord to play.


Excerpted from Playtexts by Warren Motte. Copyright © 1995 University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1 Reading Games,
2 Novel Breton,
3 Formal Gombrowicz,
4 Authoritarian Nabokov,
5 Articulate Sarrazin,
6 Deadly Perec,
7 Permutational Mathews,
8 Telling Calvino,
9 Speculative Belletto,
10 Carnal Reyes,
11 Constructive Eco,

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