Friday, October 26, 2012

Counting out -- 2

There is a wonderful book about play that was on every intellectual's reading list when I was a young man: Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens (playful man). Huizinga writes:
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 demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it "spoils the game," robs it of its character and makes it worthless…Play casts a spell over us, it is "enchanting," "captivating." It is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony.
The first playground is the parent's lap and the first game is the nursery rhyme. The rhyme is a special activity, marked off from ordinary discourse, structured by rhyme, rhythm and alliteration. The child reacts with pleasure to "rhythm and harmony," is consoled by a feeling of familiarity and order. The least deviation from the rhyme is put right: "That's not the way it goes."

These same needs and emotions led early cultures to impose images of familiar figures on the otherwise chaotic scattering of stars in the night sky -- swans, bears, human heroes, etc.. The constellations provided the pleasure of recognition ("Look! Orion!") The stories that accompanied the figures were not as important as the figures themselves, which gave a sense of necessity, rightness. The constellations were "enchanting," "captivating." They created order.

But there were deviations from the patterns. A few stars, the so-called "wandering stars" (the planets), had the annoying habit of moving about, breaking the rules. A more general "rhyme" had to be invented that made these stars once again part of a pattern. It was not an easy task, and required more than a mythological figure or story, but the basic human need was there -- the need satisfied on the parent's lap or in the playground -- for rhythm and harmony, for order. It was precisely here, in the problem of finding a "rhyme" that encompassed the motions of the Sun, Moon, and planets, that science as we know it was born.

Nursery rhymes and the eccentrics, equants and epicycles of Ptolemy have this in common: repetition and alteration. It only makes sense to see them springing from the same emotional needs. Huizinga writes: "In the faculty of repetition lies one of the most essential qualities of play. It holds good not only of play as a whole but also of its inner structure. In nearly all the higher forms of play the elements of repetition and alteration are like the warp and woof of a fabric."

More Monday. I note that Jacques Barzun has died at age 104. I'll reprise an appreciation tomorrow.