False play

Huizinga, writing in 1938:

Modern social life is being dominated to an ever-increasing extent by a quality that has something in common with play and yields the illusion of a strongly-developed play-factor. This quality I have ventured to call Puerilism, as being the most appropriate appellation for that blend of adolescence and barbarity which has been rampant all over the world for the past two or three decades
Homo Ludens (1945), p205

Later, he describes “walking in marching order or at a special pace” and “the wearing of badges and sundry items of political haberdashery” as “puerilism of the lowest order”, before remarking that

We have seen great nations losing every shred of honour, all sense of humour, the very idea of decency and fair play.

He was writing in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, and not surprisingly was locked up soon after writing this. Seen from the present-day, a lot of his views seem reactionary and at odds with current orthodoxies: for example, he thought the 18th century represented the pinnacle of civilisation and that the Boy Scouts were a “great innovation”, neither of which are fashionable opinions outside the offices of the Spectator. But there’s something inspiring and noble in this way of calling the Third Reich uncivilised. At around the same time I suppose Wodehouse must have been mocking Spode and his fascistic Black Shorts.

Distinguishing between genuine play and things that merely appear play-like is still important today. I’m grateful that, unlike Huizinga, I don’t have to think very hard about Nazis. But there are still large parts of my life that have been colonised by political and commercial interests who pretend to a kind of playful intimacy — “My Computer”, “the Big Conversation”, the kind of copywriting pioneered by Innocent — and it’s just as vital to call attention to the false nature of this ersatz playfulness.

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