A Painted Cliff: The Necessity of Play in Times of Chaos

Photo: © S.V. Bertrand. All rights reserved.

1. An Allegory of Want

Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner embody one of life’s most basic relationships: predator and prey. It’s a desert. There’s a scrawny coyote and only one source of food: a gloriously large, colorful bird. Wile E. isn’t a hero or villain in any traditional sense; it’s simply a matter of life and death that he eats. The bird enjoys supernatural speed, so the coyote’s pursuit must involve a never-ending series of desperate innovations: mechanical toys, traps and tricks, creative and absurd in equal measure.

But where the coyote’s motive is dire hunger, the fabulous bird conveys pure joy. The bird doesn’t need. Waving its plumage, the roadrunner won’t do Wile E. the favor of simply leaving him in a cloud of dust; it blows a raspberry before it goes. Even worse, Wile E.’s entire universe conspires with his adversary. Optical illusions become real for the bird—it zooms through the tunnel painted on the cliff—but not for the coyote, who crashes into the hard rock of reality when he tries to follow.

The show’s creator, Chuck Jones, got the idea for the coyote’s character when, at age seven, he read Mark Twain’s sympathetic description of the creature as a “long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton”:

The cayote [sic] is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him and even the flea would desert him for a velocipede. —Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872

As a kid I felt for Wile E., the luckless protagonist faced with a smug, cosmically superior quarry. The cartoon portrayed life as unfair and frustrating. People chase satisfaction, fail, and die (painfully) throughout the mean desert of history. That’s a grim take on existence—one that can look more persuasive as we age.

2. Disequilibrium Incarnate

I found turning 40 difficult. Say what you want about the arbitrary nature of such milestones, there is no escaping their symbolic weight. At 40, you watch the fabulous bird of youth blow its raspberry in your face and escape your grasping paws, as the sandstone boulder of mortality casts its shadow from above.

As if my own universe had conspired against me, my turning 40 coincided with Donald Trump’s first year as President of the country to which I had just pledged myself as a citizen. Here was a septuagenarian locked in perpetual mid-life crisis; i.e., a chaotic state of frustration, projection, and over-compensation. The man is disequilibrium incarnate. Like a spinning top in the throes of exhaustion, he careens wildly through the halls of power, a cartoonish figure spreading chaos and confusion wherever he goes. He’s an unholy fusion of coyote and roadrunner. As coyote, Trump has spent his life tinkering with various devices and ruses (pre-White House: reality TV; steaks; fake universities; since 2017: Sharpie markers and ventriloquism, turning appointees from the Attorney General to the White House physician into his dummies). He seems dubiously bent on winning something he will never touch: Respect? Glory? Whatever it is, he’s starving for it. Simultaneously, at the moment when most creatures would ram straight into the rock of reality, Trump the fantasist streaks through the illusion he paints, slippery and ungraspable. In his wake (or, perhaps, paving the way for him), a slew of fabulists parade: science deniers; flat Earthers; moon-landing conspiracy theorists and their ilk, immune to evidence, facts, or logic.

The rise of global populism has many factors, notably a blizzard of bullshit from bad actors. The online landscape we are increasingly bound up in is as treacherous as a Chuck Jones desert. Nothing is what it seems, and everything is slanted in favor of the raspberry-blowing reality denier. Meanwhile, the hungry creature that craves some genuine sustenance, like justice or truth—or the simple beauty of hearing a song played correctly, as in 1965’s Merrie Melodies cartoon Rushing Roulette—can go fall off a ledge, ram into a cliff, or trigger the piano’s explosion.

I don’t mean to present myself as any more “hungry for truth and justice” than most people, but I sure felt like the hard-done-by coyote in 2017. Picture him as a writer, hunched over a laptop, hunting something he doesn’t know how to catch. His head feels too big for his scrawny body and his neck hurts. He grinds his teeth in bed. He doesn’t understand how anything works, and keeps drifting laterally, frustrated and stuck. And then Trump wins, and won’t stop talking about winning.

Something in the Colm Coyote simply broke. I became disgusted at the very notion of success, insofar as it belonged to Trump. I questioned the established markers, the basic principles of up and down. What did it say about me that I craved recognition, if he craved it too—and what did it say about the prize itself, if he could win it? What did it say about America, a place I loved because its people are so positive and enthusiastic, if a swath of Americans were directing their enthusiasm at him?

The scales of Justice looked dramatically out of balance, and I felt wobbly, too. So I set out to find my center. I took a year’s leave from my teaching job in New York and traveled with my family to my hometown of Cork, Ireland.

3. An Open Place

I squirmed in my self-imposed exile, looking for something—anything!—to ground this new phase in my life. Ireland is a lush green, but it felt like a desert; I was unsure what I was even hunting for. Physical exercise has helped me shake off depression in the past, so I searched for gyms. That’s when I stumbled upon Café Move. Their flagship class was a two-hour “Handstands and Coffee” gathering on Saturday mornings. With a mixture of curiosity and perplexity, I showed up that weekend at the given address, an unassuming unit in an industrial park.

The inside was minimalist: hardwood floors and tatami mats, with rings hanging from the ceiling. Around the coffee bar, I found an eclectic library and a chalkboard where clientele—along with Robbie and Karen, the owners—had jotted their goals, many involving acrobatics and combat, some purely fantastical: Defeat X with an armbar—again!… Bridge to handstand… Learn to levitate…

There was no trace of frenetic alpha-workout ethos. If there was a dominant ethos at all, it was curiosity: What do you want to learn? Let’s puzzle it out together.

The handstand class involved standing upside down, yes, but also a series of proprioception and coordination games (or puzzles) performed on one’s own, in pairs, or in groups. The games promote sensitivity to micro-movement and subtle changes in force vectors, alongside relaxation during effort. But I wasn’t thinking about that as I played. The games were so simple, yet challenging—like a good riddle—that I often found myself chuckling at how tantalizing they were. Everyone was smiling and laughing. This is a playground, I realized, and we’re children again. But such focused children! I saw the surprise that comes with discovery as people solved novel movement problems. The class leader, Robbie, had harnessed a collective genius of sorts. There was effort aplenty, but no labor.

Play leads naturally to a sense of connection and cohesion. The pre- and post-class ritual of conversation over espresso drinks became familial. We were balanced, you might say, between the physical and the social, and I came to see the class as a symbol of the profound equilibrium Café Move is trying to establish in its small corner of the universe. There’s no Wi-Fi. People interact, which makes this not just a gym but a hangout, a hub, a home. Regulars liken the place to Cheers on caffeine, but instead of one-liners, the core of interaction at Café Move is ideas. On that first day, I discussed chaos theory and surfing with a math teacher, and lateral thinking with a float-tank owner. This café bar on a Saturday morning was reminiscent of an intellectual salon from a century ago, or—further back again—the old idea of a liberal university: a place where curious people come to engage in the free play of thought.

The discipline of exercise has always satisfied me; exacting sports like gymnastics and martial arts, especially, set things in order. But this game-playing experience at the café was new. Why did I feel so centered—so relieved? Maybe it was because my physical and mental lives were no longer segregated from (perhaps even in opposition to) each other. The ancient Greek ideal of a gymnasium, a place of sophisticated movement, engaging speech, and honest reflection, was happening here, to me! 

4. The Ground of Play

The world is full of frantic chasing grounds. We chase justice in the courts, entertainment in cinemas and casinos, wealth in the marketplace. What do we chase in gyms? The phrase working out hints that the role of physical culture is to condition the body for yet more work, i.e., harder or longer chasing. Alternatively, physical culture is seen as the place where a broken body (over-worked, usually) gets fixed. This is exercise as therapy/repair, intended to get the body back to work. These are spheres of necessity, and I don’t dismiss them.

But beyond these pragmatic approaches, physical activity also encompasses the strange realm of play, which gets stranger the more it’s explored. Play doesn’t exclude pragmatic goals, but it adds a unique focus on discovery or experience. It’s a realm of intrinsic reward.

For the adult, play is uncertain, out-of-the-ordinary; its weirdness wakes us up. We can work, and work out, absent-mindedly, but at play we are present. And play is voluntary. You must work; you don’t have to play. Work has a reason. Play has no reason. And—in a difference that speaks to a 21st century anxiety—work is liable to be ceded to automation; the word “robot” is a coinage from the Czech that means “forced labor.” Conversely, play shows us what humans do when left to their own devices, following where curiosity and imagination lead. Many people are horrified at the notion of endless play; like George Bernard Shaw’s take on an endless holiday, it’s a good working definition of hell. But regular bursts of social, physical play may be the antidote to what increasingly feels like an alienating, profit-driven, mediated world where we live in constant, frustrated pursuit.

Writing in 1938, amidst the dizzying rise of fascism and a year before the outbreak of WWII, the Dutch historian and rector of Leiden University Johan Huizinga wrote Homo Ludens (Man the Game Player). It was the fruit of a thirty-year obsession the rector enjoyed with the “play element of culture,” something overlooked by the scholars of his day. The opening sentence is arresting:

Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them how to play.

Huizinga describes the play-ground as a place of “mirth and freedom” with its own rules and ways of being: “A sacred space, a temporarily real world of its own, has been expressly hedged off for it. But with the end of the play, its effect is not lost; rather it continues to shed radiance on the ordinary world outside.”

In a child’s life, the sphere of play is huge, encompassing most activities and informing growth. As the child matures, play patterns evolve. The chaos of paidia (childlike, free-form, improvised play) gives way to ludus (rule-governed, goal-oriented competition against oneself or others). Then, in the slide from the “serious play” of ludus into the earnest world of labor, laws, and civic duty, the child may warp into an adult who does little if anything for fun—who experiences no joy, no creativity, no discovery, only worry and responsibilities, and the grinding sense that life has passed them by.

Huizenga may have had in mind the toxic resentment and self-seriousness then engulfing most of Europe when he described how civilizations can meet this fate, too:

During the growth of a civilization [its heroic phase], the ludic function attains its most beautiful form. As a civilization becomes more complex … the old cultural soil is smothered under a rank layer of ideas, doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions which have all lost touch with play. Civilization then has grown more serious; it assigns only a secondary place to playing. The heroic period is over.

Perhaps this is overly-nostalgic. When I imagine the distant past, I see the coyote’s desert: Necessity is everywhere. Fear, pain and death are always close. But if I understand Huizenga correctly, by “heroic period” he means an epoch of exploration, of engaging in challenges for sheer exhilaration. Boundary-pushing play is nobility, and its absence is cultural impoverishment. One striking example he provides is the aristocratic Japanese convention of asobase kotoba, which he translates as “play-language.” Instead of saying: “I hear your father died,” the Japanese nobleperson says “I hear your father has played at dying.” To the extent that this translation is accurate, it’s evidence of an astonishingly ludic attitude: even death is a game or a role-play. Such play-language suggests that one can be artful at literally anything.

5. Play in Good Faith

Inspired by Huizenga, the French sociologist Roger Caillois began studying play in 1946. For Caillois, a game’s rules are fictions we pretend are real. Rules shape the play universe, making things more exacting for no reason than to see how far we can extend ourselves. Beyond that, they invite trust that the basic environment in which the play unfolds is fair and sound. A player’s faith in the soundness of the play-universe is the key to its continued existence. Player-and-game enjoy a spiritualized relationship, grounded in ritualized rules.

The idea that rules are essentially imaginative is obvious, but also easy to forget. Perhaps this is because we only consciously observe rules while learning them, but once we’ve mastered the game, we’re under their spell. We hold sacred the integrity of the play universe, and demand that cheats be threatened with temporary expulsion or banishment. But as both Caillois and Huizenga note, it isn’t the cheat who is the real threat to the play universe. The cheat still believes in the game, but has lost sight of the intrinsic rewards of playing: He or she is too caught up in the extrinsic rewards of victory and so succumbs to making illegal moves. Cheating is pathetic, but it doesn’t do real damage to the game universe itself—if anything, it shows how potent the lure of victory is to people who enter the magic circle.

The spoilsport, on the other hand, is the nihilist. In the middle of the game the spoilsport abruptly refuses to play; tries to break the spell by drawing attention to the arbitrariness of rules and conventions; jeers at how empty the symbolic victories are. There’s no arguing with the nihilist. They’re not wrong; symbols aren’t natural objects, and conventions aren’t physical laws. Their reality is entirely subjective, dependent on players’ investment in the game.

With the election of Donald Trump, who is by turns cheater and spoilsport, many Americans grasped a fresh understanding of the precariousness of democratic institutions. We glimpsed what damage a political system might incur when its particular conventions are held in contempt by a key player; how citizenship is, in a very true sense, active participation in a vast and fragile game.

6. From Active Play to Passive Entertainment

The coyote cannot reshape the game he’s in. His efforts at slanting the board to his advantage backfire for our amusement. But in his elaborate ploys, in the glimmers of an artist’s joy we see in his eye, he betrays a hint of nobility—that arch nonchalance Huizenga sees in the language of Japanese aristocrats. That’s the ancient story: Mortals should play to lose in grand fashion. Life is absurd, so enjoy but don’t cling to its prizes.

The modern (and American-inflected) story hinges on startlingly different beliefs: There are no gods but the ones we make, winning is all-important, and success is just around the corner for those who “never quit.” In professional sports, this ethos reaches its apogee—which is why, for both Huizenga and Caillois, professional sports have severely diminished the healthful role of play in our lives. For a start, those players don’t play on the court or pitch—they work; contracts are on the line; an injury could be career-ending. Fans become addicted to living vicariously, and such passivity easily becomes shackling habit.

Real play—the kind that Huizenga sees as sacred, purifying, and set apart from ordinary consciousness—is not only rare, but anathema to much of modern culture. The Zen-like ease that separates the blissful bird from the striving, conniving coyote is hard even to conceptualize if one hasn’t experienced it. And that means it’s even harder to value, because targeted branding is the epitome of ordinary modern consciousness. Robbie, the owner of Café Move, told me that explaining his enterprise to outsiders is one of his biggest challenges. As the sociologist and play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith remarked after six decades of studying games and play: “Something about the nature of play itself frustrates fixed meaning.” This should be a net positive, but in the world of sales and marketing, it’s a problem. If you can’t tell me what it will do for me, how can you expect me to pay for it?

That’s a question we’re used to asking. Yet with the transformation that increasingly sophisticated automation will inevitably bring, new light may fall on an eternal question: What should we do with our time? What activities bear the best fruits—personally, politically, spiritually, and culturally? Perhaps the profound uselessness of play is its value, and understanding how it can serve to humanize—if not spiritualize—the masses is one of the most important quests we can undertake for future generations.

With future seismic shifts in the labor market, I imagine two possible emergent realities. One is the hungry, frustrated face of the dispossessed—we might call it the coyote. Opportunities speeding out of his grasp, he may latch onto any scheme, even the “stable genius” of right-wing populism with its laundry list of scapegoats and hate targets. This would be a cynical turn for the world. (Interestingly, the word “cynic” is cognate with canis for dog. Chuck Jones fans will recall Wile E. was frequently introduced with joke Latin identifiers, as in “War and Pieces”: caninus nervous rex.)

The other, stranger possibility is that we will turn, in the face of labor redundancy, to the real genius of play. I mean something distinct from the distraction of “entertainment,” which might be considered play’s shadow. At its worst, entertainment amounts to meaningless, escapist frivolity. By contrast, the genius of play unlocks that magic dimension of abundance where the muse lives. I’m reminded of Chuck Jones explaining how he came to design the starving coyote’s tail:

When the Japanese artist wants to make a breaking wave frightening, he draws it like hostile claws rather than in the softer Western way. If you have a boat hanging on top of a wave in a Japanese painting, you know it’s going to go over. These are waves to die on, not to surf on. The normal way to draw the tail of any animal, from a squirrel to a dog, is to make it round and soft like the Western waves; reversing this created the Coyote’s tail. It is the difference between concave curves and convex curves, between the cuddly and the ratty.

The plush convex curves of the road runner’s tail versus the jagged troughs of the coyote’s tail: bliss vs. dread.

Coyote and Roadrunner seem to be playing the same game of chase in the same desert. But the rules are radically different for each of them. The bird isn’t affected by gravity. But gravity is the coyote’s constant nemesis. More accurately, gravity comes for the coyote in the moment he remembers it’s there—the moment after he charges off the cliff, lost briefly in the sheer thrill (or blind desperation) of pursuit.

As I embrace the frustrations of a handstand practice, which pits me constantly against gravity, I try to bear in mind the virtue of levity. No one needs to handstand. But there’s an absurd thrill just thinking about when I can play upside down again. It’s freedom. My clumsiness is a feature of the game, not a bug. This transformation of problems and weaknesses into challenges and opportunities for joy hints at the magical. Sutton-Smith has a wonderful term for this tension between chaos and order (or any other frisson of opposing qualities in a game): dialudic. To become dialudic is to accept a host of contradictions in both yourself and the world around you, an embracing meta-quality.

7. The Golden Key

If we allow that play can be a mode of living, how might we promote it? Over the last few years, a nebulous “movement culture” has blossomed, aided by the Internet. Facebook groups, Instagram pages and YouTube channels are devoted to clips of people engaging in a variety of poses and movement patterns, many of them borrowed from dance (particularly capoeira), acrobatics, climbing, and animal mimesis. This rejection of categories—not quite dance, not sport—claws back a portion of paidia for the adult. I have this growth of movement culture to thank for Café Move, and for my optimism about the future of physical (play) culture worldwide.

But in this sub-culture, as in all others, there is the danger of status-obsession. “Movement” is being sold as a luxury product to elite audiences, and claims of proprietary rights seek to limit who can use the language of these emerging forms. Playfulness gives way to the cultish and fetishistic, which gives rise to new orthodoxies. To quote the mystic Santayana: a fanatic is one who redoubles his effort even when he has forgotten his goal.

The parallels between play and mysticism are many. Both present the same paradox: how do I strive after an experience that is beyond striving? Grace is a free gift that one cannot earn through virtue. Can a free thing remain free once we pursue it?

Maybe these paradoxes would be more easily resolved in a different value system: one that prioritizes presence and connection over acquisition and dominance. Whether practicing alone or with my fellow handstanders at Café Move, I fall and fall and fall, like the coyote leaving little dust clouds upon impact. Why can I not stop smiling? As with G. K. Chesterton’s dictum in What’s Wrong with the World (1910): “If a thing is worth doing at all it is worth doing badly!”

Chesterton championed the amateur over the expert or professional. In his biography of Browning, he laments how we treat the word “amateur”—from the Latin for “lover”:

The word amateur has come by the thousand oddities of language to convey an idea of tepidity; whereas the word itself has the meaning of passion. …the actual characteristic of these nameless dilettanti is a genuine fire and reality. A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. Such a man must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it.

An amateur is someone full of “genuine fire and reality”—a lover, quite beyond reason or mercenary tactics. In his autobiography, Chesterton affectionately describes his father, who was a real estate agent by trade but led a rich inner life devoted to painting, photography, magic lanterns, and other acts of seeing the world anew:

To us (children) he appeared to be indeed The Man with the Golden Key, the magician opening the gates of goblin castles … but all this time he was known to the world as a very reliable and capable, though rather unambitious businessman. It was a very good lesson in what is also the last lesson in life: that in everything that matters, the inside is much larger than the outside. On the whole, I am glad that he was never a professional artist. It might have stood in his way of becoming an amateur. It might have spoilt his career—his private career.

When Chesterton speaks of “everything that matters,” he means life’s great challenges: “the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state.” In other words, what matters most is deciding what games we will play, how we should play them, and with whom. Creation, procreation, and politics: the natural domains of the amateur. It is the central axiom of “the democratic faith: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves…” (The Ethics of Elfland).

In a perfect world, the more democratic a society is, the easier it is to ditch the labels conferred by caste and embark on whatever adventure our skills and aptitudes allow. This is why Caillois (in Man, Play and Games) sees a good education as a set of games:

In a general way, play is like education of the body, character, or mind, without the goals being predetermined. From this viewpoint, the further removed play is from reality, the greater is its educational value. For it does not teach facts, but rather develops aptitudes.

And yet, as anxiety about automation grows, education in the United States, and elsewhere, has regressed to favor the kinds of tasks and activities at which A.I. will always outstrip humans. Students are trained to see life as a serious test that needs to be passed, rather than an experience to be savored or explored in ways that, at least for now, only humans can manage. Free play is jettisoned at an ever-earlier age, recess is curtailed across the board, and formal extracurriculars crowd out kids’ schedules, leaving little unstructured time.

Why does our world so often seem to be heading in the wrong direction? Let’s not overlook Chesterton’s inclusion of “the laws of the state” with the things that matter, right beside mating and rearing children. The idea that government could be something personal, rather than the very embodiment of the impersonal, is startling. But the absence or banishment of the devoted amateur from politics alienates many citizens. A dangerous level of automation follows. Orwell, a man who saw the connection between imaginative expression and healthy political structures, needs to be heeded now more than ever. In “Politics and the English Language” (1946) he wrote about how professional politicians can mutate into bots:

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases… free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder one often has the curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of machine. … [He] may be almost unconscious of what he is saying. … And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

Without the humanizing spirit of play, some creatures will hunker down into rote tribal responses. Worse, others will engage in the hollow laughter of nihilism: It’s all only an empty game. Let’s order the Acme dynamite and blow the whole board up. We can’t get what we really want. Vote Trump. Screw it. Maybe things will at least get interesting. Perhaps the elusive answer to the question of Trump’s appeal has something to do with that roadrunner-like quality. To those who can’t or won’t see his desperate coyote side, he is simply the fabulous bird—blowing raspberries at the career politicians who talk circles around every issue; with a performative flourish doing (or claiming to do) effortless, magical things.

8. Grace

What am I doing when I balance upside-down on my hands? Is it a distraction? Am I shirking from the fight against oligarch-cheats hogging all the pieces, against nihilist-spoilsports threatening to upend society’s game board?

I hope not. I’m earning my own set of goblin castle keys; I’m wobbling into the Homo ludens mode of being. It says: forget what you should be doing, and look to where you are, which is typically a state of disequilibrium. Life’s game is to master your own equilibrium. A creature that consistently seeks its true center, which is always moving, and is open to that: Such is the quality of grace.

A novice handstander overreacts to their topsy-turvy situation, and scrambles to control the wayward levers of the body. They fall constantly. But, gradually, palms attend to the floor. The joints grow stronger and more flexible. The inner ear adjusts to inversion. As subtler awareness emerges, the wrists or shoulders make micro-adjustments to prevent falling before it begins. Eventually, the handstander appears at rest. It’s as if they have finally righted themselves, and the world around them is upside down.

I wandered into Café Move with no clear aim, but what I found there brought into focus my biggest questions: Can play open an impossible passage in the cliff face? What’s on the other side? Something new, perhaps. Something beyond the desert.

Interviewed by the New York Times in 1989, the 77-year-old Chuck Jones reflected on his career with the genuine humility borne of losing oneself in play: None of those working on the cartoons from the 1930’s through the 1950’s, he said, were prepared for the critical acclaim they have received in recent years for advancing the art of animation.

“We were just having fun,” he said. “But when you take yourself seriously, you’re dead.”

Colm O’Shea’s poetry has been anthologized in Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century (Bloodaxe Books) and Initiate: An Oxford Anthology of New Writing. He teaches essay writing at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts.

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