Susanna Crossman reflects on the power of play. “Play is a powerful motor.” Play involves a “leap in the dark” and requires trust. Play, the thinker Eugen Fink writes, “unites ‘the highest desire and the deepest suffering’.” Play is thus deeply connected to the very human way of being alive, something we can hear in its etymologies, many of which go back to the Latin ludere. “Ludere in Latin refers to leaping fishes and fluttering birds. The Anglo-Saxon lâcan means to move like a ship on the waves, or to tremble like a flame. The Sanskrit kridati also, as in Germanic languages, describes the movement of wind. In play, we are rarely immobile. We’re alive.” Leaning on Hannah Arendt’s insights into freedom of action divorced from utility, Crossman writes:
In her article ‘Society and Culture’ (1960), Arendt wrote that
When my daughters are five or six, I observe them playing their first ‘as if’ games. Rose says: ‘I am making a train.’ For hours, she puts chairs in lines, for ‘passengers and drivers’. When everything is ready, she announces – to my surprise – ‘It’s finished. Can I have a snack?’ The game is the process, not the finished product. Importantly, when we play and make art, the products we make, the things we do are autotelic – they are their own end in themselves; as Hannah Arendt wrote: ‘only where we are confronted with things which exist independently of all utilitarian and functional references … do we speak of works of art.’ In this way, play could be considered as an anti-capitalistic activity.
Writing with reference to the philosopher Martin Heidegger, Fink said that it’s ‘because we are open to the world’ (which is ‘an openness of Dasein to the world’) that we can play at all. Heidegger’s notion of Dasein, a peculiarly human quality of being-in-the-world, is not unlike that experience defined by the positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a flow state, or in the zone. In flow, consciousness of time and self disappear. We feel fulfilled, and seek to repeat the experience. Extrapolated into a clinical context, experiencing flow during sessions means that patients return and engage over time, delving deeper into the therapeutic process….
without the beauty of man-made, worldly things which we call works of art, without the radiant glory in which potential imperishability is made manifest to the world and in the world, all human life would be futile and no greatness could endure.
Despite all of this, the word ‘creative’ sits uncomfortably in my mouth, with its pop-psychology connections: a corporate jamboree feeding on ‘capitalist realism’, gurus in collarless shirts, hand-holding, sticking hearts onto walls. As a play practitioner, I have deep reservations about formulaic, one-size-fits-all doctrines of play. I see play and making as intimate, personal acts. Their force in changing the individual is their Locus Solus. In the 52nd fragment, Heraclitus describes Aion, cosmic time, as a child at play, play as a metaphor for the ever-living cosmic fire pur aeizoon, ‘the lightning-bolt which steers all things’. We can and must share imaginary acts, but our imaginations – if they are to empower, overturn and keep us awake at night because we’re creatures who desire – should be allowed to burn with a unique, vibrant light.