The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott said it simply—one of those simple but profound truths worth remembering: “It is creative apperception more than anything that makes the individual feel that life is worth living.” Creativity is not peculiarly human, but humans are peculiarly creative. We have a need to create, and to love, and to inquire—to express ourselves and see ourselves reflected in the world. We have the urge to play, an urge innate in our biological nature. “Creative impulses are the stuff of playing. And on the basis of playing is built the whole of man’s experiential existence.” The child plays with his toys and his playmates, exploring his new world in the realm of fantasy, like the poet and the artist. The musician plays music, as the athlete plays a sport. In theater, one watches a play. The scientist and the philosopher play with ideas, perhaps in great seriousness but with those elements of fun, creativity, “tension,” and voluntary submission to implicit rules that Johan Huizinga invokes in Homo Ludens (1938) to define play. Social life is essentially playful, very clearly so as regards flirting and dating, in which the tension of play takes the form of sexual tension. And when things get more intimate the partners engage in sexual foreplay—and intercourse itself can be delightfully playful. The ubiquity of games in human societies, from simple hide-and-seek to chess and complex card games, in addition to the thrill of friendly competition in indefinitely many forms (athletic, intellectual, artistic, etc.), shows how the agonistic spirit suffuses the human mind. The spirit of play, in short, is the spirit of freedom, “superfluity,” joyful self-expression, and immersive engagement with the world.
At the other end of the spectrum are modern institutions. Humans, it turns out, are capable not only of play but also of dull and dead seriousness. We have the capacity to obey authority, and to imbibe its individuality-denying, repressively collectivistic norms. We join institutions or are subject to them, to the impersonal rules that dictate how we are to act and think, and without even noticing it we participate in the near-extirpation of our individuality (at least in the institutional context). The self-effacing, amoral, mechanical mentality of the typical bureaucrat is the obvious example, which, as Hannah Arendt observed in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), can lead straight into complicity in monstrous crimes. But more benign manifestations exist. Theodor Adorno already remarked in the 1940s that “even the so-called intellectual professions are being deprived, through their growing resemblance to business, of all joy. Atomization is advancing not only between men, but within each individual, between the spheres of his life.” In leisure time one might still “play” and be creative, though mass-produced culture was sapping even leisurely pursuits of their authentically creative and spontaneous element; but in the context of the “job,” the rote conformism of seriousness had crowded out freedom and self-expression. Ultimately corporate capitalism itself, with its hideous architecture of concrete hierarchies to control society and amass profit, was and is responsible for such pernicious tendencies—for the bureaucratic collectivism that requires but a nudge to become fascist totalitarianism, and for the detaching of hapless functionaries from the consequences of their actions so that professionals and bureaucrats and intellectuals can all become little Eichmanns engineering distant horrors, and for the kitschifying of culture that brings totalitarianism into the sphere of play, and for the routinizing and vulgarizing of creativity that empties life of its meaning. The two principles are at opposite poles: creative play, and capitalist-institutional atomization.
It is the tragedy of modern man that “two souls, alas, dwell within my breast.” We seek self-affirming self-expression—authentic engagement with others—even as we let ourselves be regimented by authority. The path to reclaim play, i.e., our very humanity, is the path to reclaim democracy, human dignity, and social justice: tear down the walls that divide us from ourselves and others. Bring back the “ballad-singing, street dancing, tumbling, [and] public games” [to quote Mike Walsh from the 1840s], and scandalize the bosses with your flouting of their rules. Resurrect the public.