I’m in a psychoanalytic kind of mood at the moment; it comes over me from time to time that way. I’ve always loved psychoanalysis because I’m immensely curious about the way people tick, and the games that we play in relationships and all those big questions about motivation and desire and identity. And of course psychoanalysis and literature are deeply entwined, as they both grow from a shared belief in the extraordinary power of stories to change the way we look at things. Just recently, mostly due to the fantasy and dream book, I’ve become very interested in the concept of play, a notion for which I have a high personal regard. I realise that I’ve been lucky enough in life to make a profession out of my hobby, and that the lovely pleasure I get from reading, thinking and writing about books comes from a sense of playing with literature and the ideas it contains. Naturally there are days when translation homework needs to be marked, and there’s a stack of student references to write, and a lecture for which I am underprepared is zooming towards me, when I don’t feel in the least bit playful. But I know the time for play will come, and I don’t know how people survive in jobs, or indeed in life, without the space of freedom and creativity it affords.
Winnicott, my psychoanalyst of the moment, suggests that it is not possible to survive without playfulness, and that when people end up in consulting rooms, it’s because they have forgotten how to play in some vital area of their life. Things, in other words, have become all too serious. When he talks about play, Winnicott doesn’t mean that we all have to get down on our hands and knees and construct something out of coloured bricks. It’s the spirit of play that he’s interested in, and that can be brought to bear on any kind of activity. The point is that play should be open-ended, unconstrained, free from debilitating rules, mutually engaging (if in involves another). A child absorbed in play is always a joy to behold, because there before us is an individual uncomplicated by desires or fears, freed from the modal straightjacket of must and ought and should, simply following what interests and intrigues them. Often such children are described as being ‘without a care in the world’, and good play takes you to that place, no matter how old you are.
‘We tend at times to be drawn towards being controlled,’ Winnicott writes, those times being characterised by fear, confusion, chaos, uncertainty. Times when we seek excitement to distract ourselves, or wallow in apathy and inertia to cripple ourselves. The things we fear lead us into power games of submission or domination where the balance between the inner and outer worlds of reality is destroyed. Either we let others control us and we accept compliance, a state Winnicott feared probably above all others for mental wellbeing, or else we resist and rebel and seek to dominate the cause of our unease. Both positions herald the end of any kind of self-development. Neither allows us to exist properly in the world. I see this a lot with students who are so afraid of the self-exposure involved in telling me what they think about a novel that they long for some kind of magical ‘right’ answer to be given them. Teaching, like psychotherapy, is a lot like playing, in that if I dominate the class with my own interpretations, and demand complicity from my students, then they will learn nothing and fail to develop their own potential. I can give them ideas, and encouragement, but they must be brave enough to put their fear to one side in order to use them, and therefore begin to play. Equally, Winnicott would suggest the need for any teacher to respect their student’s initial ‘period of hesitation’ or ‘period of suspicion’ as he called it. Resistance is in some situations the recognition that play requires a space of absolute freedom. You cannot force a child to play, just as you cannot force it to learn. We do know what we want, Winnicott says, and we also have to come to it in our own time.
As an analyst, Winnicott was always interested in the journey, never the arrival, and the essence of his method was to seek to recreate the ideal environment for development and growth. For this reason, as he grew older, so he became more and more unconcerned with the idea of self-knowledge, preferring to celebrate and respect a fundamental opacity at the heart of every individual. His concept of play remains entirely true to this ethos, as play works to the extent that it is never conclusive, never end-oriented. The point of play was not to seek knowledge or insight, for conviction makes us into convicts, prisoners of an inflexible rule of reason or logic. Playing is instead the process of finding out what interests you; it’s a state of creativity that is of necessity inconclusive, because what Winnicott privileged above all in this life is the sense of being alive, of feeling the world real and present around us in a continuous way, one that doesn’t come to an end when the right answer is reached. What is knowledge compared to the joy of vitality? I don’t mean to suggest an either/or here – knowledge is there to be used and played with as well. It’s a fine tool to be subsumed to that particular game, but it should not be mistaken for life itself. Equally, Winnicott does not seek to suggest that the entirety of life can be spent in play. But if the daily grind becomes too serious, if it feels like we have stopped developing ourselves, if freedom is just a memory and creativity an abandoned project, then the way forward is to find a little space, a little time out of time, and remember that fun is not frivolous, but the key to unlocking our vibrant sense of self.
Next week, as I’m feeling all theoretical, I think I’ll post about the critical ideas around the gothic in fiction – some thoughts about ghosts and monsters and why it is we get pleasure from being scared. Just as a little accompaniment to the R.I.P. challenge.