Essay

The play of days

I AM SITTING in the autumn shade at the edge of our long driveway. We always stop here on the way back from one of our walks because my son, ten months old, likes to play with the pebbles. We live in the midst of the jarrah forest that skirts the eastern suburbs of Perth, and one of the characteristics of the area is the gravelly laterite soils that produce a carpet of marble-sized burnt-orange pebbles rich in iron and aluminium. We sit here, and the boy crawls about, picking up one warm orange marble, then another, turning them over in his hands, weighing them up. Sometimes I offer my open palm and he places a small pebble there and I comment on it, how heavy or how small, or how orange or how round. Sometimes he piles them into his mouth, a knowing glint in his eye, mindful but defiant of my continued warnings about the threat of choking. But this is not a time for tension or dispute. I lean back. The sun has that subtle April warmth that makes you want to soak it up and there are red-capped robins flittering above us in the trees. The traffic on the main road is sparse and distant. After a while, the boy moves on, crawling up the steps, or else he is taken by a nearby bowl of water, dipping his hands in, shaking them about, calling out a small song of wonder. He and I have nowhere else to be, nothing else to do and I am grateful for that, but also, somehow, a little unsettled. We glimpse a fragile sort of joy here: bright and fleeting. It is one of the many aspects of this early relationship of ours that draws us together, imbricates one with the other. We drift together in play. Time falls away.

Before the child arrived, I used to wake fully rested each morning and know fairly quickly my tasks or goals for the day. I was always working at something. In the field of writing, where much of my attention has been focused during the past two decades, the endpoint was always a publication-ready work. Or alternatively, as a student or teacher, it was 'turning it in' or grading student work, and moving on. Either way, no matter how sidetracked I became by matters of process, my days were organised by a model based on plans, objectives, outcomes. At the university where I have worked for more than a decade the whole year is mapped out by schedules of one kind or another, and your performance as a worker is constantly, almost neurotically, subject to measurement. Models and objectives provide structure and a sense of purpose. Applied collectively and on a much bigger scale, this kind of system is largely responsible for civil obedience in countries like Australia. But what happens when the capacity to maintain order or achieve outcomes is eroded?

 

I HAVE TAKEN twelve months' leave from my usual work to be at home with a new baby, and one of the biggest adjustments I have had to make is to arrive at a new understanding of time, one measured only by the fragile, mutable pattern of basic human needs: sleep, food, warmth, contact. In the contemporary suburban house, with all the conveniences of an automatic washing machine, heating at the flick of a switch, refrigeration and easy access to the supermarket, new motherhood can no longer be said to involve endless days of laborious household chores. Sometimes the only decision for the child and me to make is where to play for the next few hours and in what manner. Frequently there is no real decision made at all; we play indiscriminately. We play until the child is hungry, then we eat. We play until the child is tired, then we sleep. We play with the pink and green pushcart we've borrowed from the toy library until we end up sitting on a log and singing, or slotting small pebbles into the cracks between bricks. We play with the big green ball until it falls off the edge of the retaining wall, then we play with the soil from an upturned pot. And it doesn't matter. Unless you can't shake the itch for something more meaningful to do.

According to the pianist and essayist Stephen Nachmanovitch, play is sometimes conceived as a threat to normativity precisely because it wastes time. A game of amateur soccer or netball is measurably productive: it is good for our physical health, it develops teamwork skills. Similarly positive outcomes can be matched to more intellectual games like chess or cryptic crosswords. But if we devote too much time to this kind of play at the expense of family or work duties, we open ourselves up to criticism. I wonder about this, and about the double-edged nature of my radically altered state since play became such a large part of my everyday life. 'Play is not the way to maintain a tightly controlled society,' writes Nachmanovitch, 'or a clear definition of what is good, true or beautiful.' No, it isn't. And that's what makes it so delightful. That's what makes me want to defend it.

 

'THE FIRST AND perhaps most important thing to understand about newborn babies,' according to a state government pamphlet pressed upon me by the local community health nurse, 'is that they do not have any understanding of being a separate person inside their own skin...They have feelings of pleasure when they feed successfully or hear a soothing voice, feelings of pain when they are hungry or frightened – but they don't actually know that fear is what they feel and neither do they understand that there is a "them" to feel it.'

The infant, in other words, has not yet developed a sense of self. When I read this excerpt to a Buddhist friend, she laughs. 'And then we spend the rest of our lives trying to return to that state,' she says.

For a small child, play is a kind of biological imperative, just like sleep. It enables the emerging subject to form a separate sense of self. It also makes visible a bunch of developmental milestones that health and education specialists are always asking new mothers to look out for as markers of normality. But play is generally recognised, in animals as in humans, as a juvenile preoccupation. What of the adult, then, cast out – albeit temporarily – of the capitalist economy, and into the paradoxical state of play? How, and by what means, should she dwell there?

The American neuroscientist Stuart Brown calls play 'an altered state', which interests me because of the way we associate altered states with drugs and alcohol, or meditation, or trance, but also because my own frame of mind, post-birth, feels very much altered. Brown arrived at the subject of play through a background in criminology, and the desire to test out the theory that a particular mass-murderer evolved into the person he became because he was denied opportunities to play during childhood. 'The opposite of play is not work,' says Brown, 'it's depression.'

In a lecture available online Brown makes regular reference to 'hard science', saying things like: 'nothing lights up the brain like play.' He cites experiments with rats or cats, and I picture these animals wired up, and I shift in my seat and wonder, not for the first time, about the ruthless stupidity of so-called hard science. For whom is it hard? It's not difficult to guess the answer when Brown describes an experiment with a group of rats. Apparently rats are 'hardwired' (Brown's metaphor) to know that the scent of a cat equals danger. When a cat's collar is dropped into their cage, they run and hide. Such is the response of two separate groups of rats described in Brown's experiment. One of these groups has previously been 'allowed' to play, and the other group has been 'denied' play. He fails to go into detail about the means by which these allowances and denials have been achieved. In any case, the difference between the two groups, Brown states matter-of-factly, is that the rats that have been allowed to play poke their heads out of their hiding places periodically, after the appearance of the cat's collar. Eventually this group is able to assess that the danger has passed and they go back to their usual duties. The other rats, those 'denied play', never come out again. 'They die in their bunkers,' says Brown.

 

SOMETIMES I THINK identity is a very simple idea. It's who you start to become when you follow certain patterns. It's a habit you form.

A few months after my son turns one, we stay at my mother's small Aged Care Housing unit in Adelaide for two weeks. She seems at times impressed and sometimes disgusted by how much I play with the child. 'You're lucky to have a mother who plays with you,' she says to him. Or, 'You can't climb all over your mother all day. Go and amuse yourself.' We have become something other than ourselves, this baby and I. We have become a pair that plays too much.

Increasingly drawn to the theory of play, I seek out the writing of women thinkers on this topic, for surely it is mothers who have spent the most time playing with children under two. But try as I might, I find little serious philosophy written about this by women, except for work caught up in play as it relates to education and early childhood development. Reading the work of Maria Montessori, I find that her radical recasting of education for early childhood was based on her cynicism about notions of the imaginary. For Montessori, whose methods are said to have developed from observation, children do not play out of a desire for fantasy; rather, their so-called play is evidence of a strong desire to make sense of everyday reality. Montessori banned myth and fairytale in her classrooms, and worked instead to develop highly ordered environments in which children could 'play' at life skills such as cooking, cleaning, dressing. Her emphasis, in the classroom, was on presenting the children with interesting, age-appropriate, 'hands-on' materials, minimising interruptions and allowing freedom of movement. 'Freedom in intellectual work,' she wrote in her early research on spontaneous activity, is 'the basis of internal discipline.'

At the local Montessori playgroup where I take my eighteen-month-old son the playthings lined up neatly along the side of the room are called 'jobs'. He finds them each intriguing in an inquisitive mood, but something about the place disagrees with him; he spends so much time resisting the routines and rituals the facilitator is trying to set up that his attendance is a constant struggle for both of us. The boy throws himself to the floor and howls, or else wanders off, noisily off-task while the others are all lined up obediently on the mat to sing songs. I give up after about three weeks and stop taking him there.

 

AT THIS AGE my son is fascinated by cars and trucks, but sometimes despairs when he finds that there is no driver behind the wheel of a toy vehicle. He brings the toy to me and points inside the little cabin, saying, 'Gone, gone, gone.' He is the same age as Freud's famous grandson, Ernst, when he was observed playing the game of 'fort/da' (here/gone) with a cotton reel on a piece of string. I have never offered my son a cotton reel on a piece of string, but I now watch the same game, in principle, carried out across a number of contexts. He hides himself behind curtains or under blankets, amused when I pretend to look for him, then crying out with glee when he reappears to me; he lugs bags and containers around with him, stopping in the doorway to wave and call 'Bye! Bye! Bye!' – only to reappear again moments later and repeat the whole manoeuvre in a different part of the house. He hides little cars and tractors underneath the lounge or a blanket ('Gone! Gone! Gone!'), then gives a cheerful 'Oh!' when the disguise is retracted and the object reappears.

As Freud saw it, this game of fort/da, the wilful manipulation of an object to make it disappear and reappear over and again, is a game of mastery, converting the infant's hitherto passive role in relation to his mother into an active one. Freud understands the game as acting out an impulse 'suppressed in actual life, to revenge himself on his mother for going away from him'. He imagines the child's internal dialogue with the mother as one bound up in anger and frustration: 'All right, then, go away! I don't need you. I'm sending you away myself.' But feminist commentators have questioned this interpretation for its emphasis on a struggle for power and mastery. Jay Watson, for example, reads the fort/da game as an engagement with the mother's subject position via exploration and experiment, rather than as an attempt to overcome her. 'Fort/da confirms that growing up is more than just a matter of learning to live at a distance from the mother,' writes Watson. 'It is also a matter of learning to do the kinds of things she can do.' Considering the play between presence and absence in a broader sense as the play between life and death, Elisabeth Bronfen argues that the key objective behind fort/da is more likely the development of infant subjectivity. Linking the absence of the mother's body to the threat of death, the game becomes an experiment in both submitting to and resisting death, enabling the emerging infant to develop a sense of subjectivity without being overwhelmed by the fear of death.

In thinking this through, I am reminded of Stuart Brown's play-denied rats, dying in their bunkers out of fear of an imaginary cat. But also of the way in which my own identity has been radically altered since being immersed in – and hence subject to – infant play. For even while I find myself engaged with and by the child's play, I am also, always, distanced by it.

'The most irritating feature of play,' says Robert Fagan, a theorist in the field of animal play, is that it 'taunts us with its inaccessibility. We feel that something is behind it all, but we do not know, or have forgotten, how to see it.'

 

THE IDEA THAT infant play might be about exploration and experimentation, rather than about the kind of antagonistic mastery that Freud saw, fits in my mind with the kind of grown-up play I have always enjoyed through writing fiction. It also enables the idea that play is not just an aid to development and attainment, as the early childhood development school would have it, but a crucial and ongoing experiment that helps us to 'be' in the world. Most of us would agree, albeit with a slight tint of romanticism, that the condition of childhood requires what the ludologist David Golumbia calls 'a kind of unbounded, free play,' one that has the capacity to exist both within and beyond a specific set of rules, or both within and outside of organised institutions. Child's play, according to this understanding, can break its own rules and make up new rules frequently. It has been argued that it is this untameable aspect of play in childhood that enables not just adult creativity but perhaps adult language and representation more broadly.

In the six months before my son's second birthday, his ability to use language bursts forth in a barrage of single words and gobbledygook. Objects are named and words overheard, repeated, joined together, parodied. We take to calling out sounds like oh and ee and ah to one another as we zoom along the highway in the hatchback. The boy discovers many ways to make a single syllable imply meaning: excitement, despair, agreement, absurdity, stupidity, concern. We screech with laughter at one another's performance or at the sheer volume we can raise with voice alone. As Thomas Mann once said of art (quoting Goethe): 'This is very serious jest!'

At the end of summer, the boy says his first sentence. 'There it is!' he exclaims, pointing at an object he may or may not have been searching for. It is followed several days later, by a second, in the form of question: 'What is this?' he asks. 'Oh! What is this?' Repeated, again, again.

In his 1908 paper 'Creative Writers and Daydreaming' Freud equates the creative writer with the child at play, making clear the kind of emotional investment and energy that serious play demands from both writers and children. But Freud's understanding of play is strongly imbued with the idea of fantasy, the notion that play constitutes a rejection of reality. Somewhere between Freud and Montessori, there must a kind of middle ground that permits both understandings, that permits a multiplicity of relations between play, imagination and the real.

As the parent of an infant I have had my own reality, and with it my sense of self, profoundly interrupted. My once busy and fulfilling – you could also say insular – writing and academic life seems distant to me. I do not have the privilege of extended periods of isolation that both these roles require; and when, on occasion, the gift of time is given to me, a sense of disorientation pervades, so that my ability to concentrate flounders and falters. I cannot remember who I was prior to the arrival of the infant, and what it was I wanted to do. Sometimes this sense of disorientation is so pervasive that I find myself reluctant to separate from the boy. His play has become, over time, my play. It is curious that as he practises being me – here/gone, here/gone – I am practising losing myself, in a willing and not altogether unfulfilling way.

For Hélène Cixous, who has written extensively on the writing process, the kind of empathetic identification that a writer needs to make when representing another constitutes an extraordinary pilgrimage into another self. The purpose here is not about mastery, but rather about investigation and reflection. 'I become, I inhabit, I enter,' she writes. 'Inhabiting someone, at that moment, I can feel myself traversed by that person's initiatives and actions.' As Cixous understands it, identification with the other is not about erasure, but rather about 'permeability' or a 'peopling' of the self. You inhabit and are inhabited by turn. Or as Cixous puts it, 'one is always far more than one.' Writing, for Cixous, is the primary means by which we can engage in this to-and-fro. We can easily imagine how play between mother and infant might engage the same kind of alterity.

 

LATELY THE BOY and I have discovered the joy of repetition. We play a game in which he drops a tennis ball down the garden steps, traces its journey, then pursues and recaptures it before returning to the top of the steps and beginning the cycle anew. I am closely involved because of his inability to negotiate the steps on his own. So, side by side, we watch the ball's trajectory. It is never the same pathway twice. We descend the steps hand-in-hand and I stand by as he scrambles into the bush after the ball, then wait to hold his hand again for the ascent. We count the steps together, one through eight, or repeat the monosyllabic word up, up, up. At the top, he releases the ball again. It is curious how involved I become in this game, even taking comfort in the pattern of variation versus surety: the haphazard pattern of the ball's descent, the predictability of our progress through the cycle; the always tenuous grip of the boy's feet on the stairs, the ease with which we both begin again. There is barely any need for words.

'Mind is nowhere; play is nowhere,' writes Stephen Nachmanovitch.

Somewhere towards the end of the child's second year, the restlessness and boredom, the lack of ease I had earlier felt when engaged in play with the child, lifts away. This same period is matched by a gradual return of my desire and ability to write.

I'm not sure that writer's block adequately describes my writerly inactivity during the past two years. Over this period, I have been frustrated by not being able to write, but at the same time I have lacked the desire to produce new work. There was the practical issue of being able to make appropriate use of the small blocks of time in which I was able to write; but there was also what I have taken to thinking of as my altered state: a mixture of exhaustion, dislocation and a kind of giddy state of otherness, described by Cixous as simultaneously 'traversing' and being 'traversed by' another. Two novels into my writing career, it seemed at times to be all over. I was not interested in playing the game of authorpreneur required of writers in today's environment. But more than that, I felt I could not write because I was, indeed, nowhere. My altered state, while at times profoundly debilitating, remains a way of being I feel compelled to protect. I have unravelled, and though at times I have felt desperate to be more absolute, I have also been, mostly, unwilling to reconstruct my earlier (mis)understanding of selfhood. While my narrative self has unravelled, the baby's narrative self has been striving to land somewhere, to begin.

 

TWO YEARS AGO, cast outside meaningful production and into the role of mother/carer/playmate for a pre-lingual child, I entered quite abruptly a zone in which my previous understanding of self needed to be radically renegotiated. My altered state, though enlightening, pleasurable, challenging in the way of the best sorts of games, also enforced upon me a muteness of sorts. I have missed the sort of narrative play I had once believed myself good at, and have not easily found my way back to it. Immersed in the world of infant play, I have erased old habits. I have inhabited, instead, the world of the daydreamer who takes joy in the small pebble, the sound of a vowel, the chaos of the dropped ball's trajectory through space.

My initial unease was perhaps the result of a misunderstanding: play does not necessarily require mastery, subjection, waste, just as falling away from organised productivity does not necessarily involve falling away from meaning. Actually, the kind of play at which I have now become adept depends on narrative interruption. It is about being prepared to be taken away by another beyond the self-same and certain. It is, as the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy might say, an experience of being-in-common.

The commute to and from home to work and day care is lengthy, sometimes delayed further by an accident on the highway, or a heavy load being transported at a snail's pace up the gradual incline of the Darling Range. In the car, the boy and I share a packet of party blowouts between us. They are dazzling in metallic blues, silvers and reds. My occasional glances in the rear-view mirror are punctuated by the sight of a clownish paper tongue, unfurling, retracting, unfurling. Mostly our blowing into the mouthpieces produces only the sound of paper crackling and the whoosh of air forcefully exhaled. We are dilly-dallying. But sometimes at a change of gear we each produce a trumpeting sound with simultaneous force. The joint proclamation is ridiculously brassy and self-important. Then it tails off with a limp, almost melancholy change of tone. This amuses us.

 

References

Bronfen, Elisabeth. 'The Lady Vanishes: Sophie Freud and Beyond the Pleasure Principle.' South Atlantic Quarterly. 88.4(1989):961-991.

Brown, Stuart. 'Stuart Brown Says Play is More than Fun; It's Vital.' Serious Play: 2008 Art Center Design Conference. May 2008. Web. 14 April 2010.

Cixous, Helene. The Newly Born Woman. 1975. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1986.

Freud, Sigmund. 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle.' 1920. Gay, The Freud Reader. 594-626.

'Creative Writers and Daydreaming.' 1908. Gay, The Freud Reader. 436-442.

Gay, Peter. The Freud Reader. London: Vintage, 1994.

Government of Western Australia. 'Child Development: 0-3 months.' Department of Health. May 2006.

Golumbia, David. 'Games without play.' New Literary History. 40(2009): 179-204.

Lillard , Angeline Stoll. Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. New York: Oxford UP, 2007.

Nachmanovitch, Stephen. 'This is Play.' New Literary History. 40(2009): 1-24.

Nancy, Jean Luc. The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1991.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1997.

Watson, Jay. 'Guys and Dolls: Exploratory Repetition and Maternal Subjectivity in the Fort/Da Game.'American Imago. 52.4(1995): 463-505.

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