Schiller and Play

The famous line from Friedrich Schiller on play: “…man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays..” This statement comes from the fifteenth letter of “On the Aesthetic Education of Man.” Play is the principal expression of the human spirit. It reconciles the divisions which civilization has carved into the mind. Schiller divides the creative impulse into three sense drives: desire for sense, desire for form and desire for play. He names play (Spieltrieb) the salvation of the other two. It unites reason and sensation and synthesizes from their correspondence absolute essence and spirit:

“The sense-drive demands that there shall be change and that time shall have a content; the form-drive demands that time shall be annulled and that there shall be no change. That drive, therefore, in which both the others work in concert (permit me for the time being, until I have justified the term, to call it the play-drive), the play-drive, therefore, would be directed towards annulling time within time, reconciling becoming with absolute being and change with identity.” (On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letter 14)

Schiller’s description of the creative impulse corroborates a previous post I have written on the matter. I divide creativity by intellect, sensation and spontaneity, and cite the classical totems for these faculties: the laurel branch, the myrtle bough and the ivy vine. For Schiller, the creative subject thinks, feels and plays. The typical and arduous labor of the mind in workaday life and stolid social interactions activate only one of these faculties at a time. We seek freedom from dreary obligation in play. Play reconstitutes our potential and human strengths into the vigorous gesture, the triumphal transgression.

I’ve considered these qualities that Schiller describes myself at great length, before having ever encountered these ideas in “On the Aesthetic Education of Man,” and I’ve viewed the situation differently, perhaps it is no more or less correct. I find all of the impulses to be equally at odds with each other and that each one is just as capable as the others at wedding them together into creative synthesis. Play is wild and heedless whereas sensuality is tender and quite. The intellect in its strength can tame play and encourage sensuality to assert itself more externally. Thought and play have a competitive relationship: one can work or one can play. Sensitivity assuages the antipathy that exists between the two. It makes each aware of its own fallibility.

Would that all it took to produce great artists is a penchant for play. The different formulae of interaction between the three great muses are endlessly vacillating and complex.

The Laurel, The Myrtle, and Winding Ivy

While it remained common for classical poets to open longer works with an invocation to the muses, it was understood that these muses were simply agents of creative inspiration. The masters of generative force, as with all forces in life, were the gods. It was rare for writers to address the olympians directly, as they would a muse, but they could be certain it was gods who were behind their thoughts and visions, and it was the gods to whom they were grateful for those gifts.

John Milton had no reservations about entreating the gods of antiquity directly. They were nothing but allegory to him. In his elegy “Lycidas,” Milton recites the gods’ emblematic wreaths:

Yet once more, o ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Mytles brown, with Ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.

The Laurels to which Milton refers represent Apollo. The myrtle bough is sacred to Aphrodite: it grows in abundance on Cythera where she was born. And the ivy is Dionysus’s vine. Of course, Milton’s address of these gods is figurative; these were puritanical times in England, after all. He is trying to focus his strengths on each of the artistic faculties that they are supposed to symbolize. Apollo commands the sun and gives light to the world so that the mind might comprehend it. His inclusion in this litany is meant to signify the intellect. Aphrodite is the goddess of love and romantic desire. She fortifies the artist’s heart and imbues him with sensitivity. Dionysus is the god of animal passions and spontaneity. He excites the artist’s imagination and compels him forward. Together these godheads and the faculties they govern are what compose artistic genius:

mind, heart and imagination;

intellect, sensitivity and spontaneity.

From spontaneity the artist derives passion and the will engage in the creative enterprise. Out of imagination springs the raw material from which the work will be hewn. Sensitivity acts is the artist’s guide into the unknown realms of the new. Without it he is blind and prone to inelegance and error. In the invocation, Milton sees the ivy vine winding around the myrtle tree. This is because passion and sensitivity are intertwined. In one respect they are divergent because passion is brash while sensitivity is calm and gentle, but they both issue from the same place: the dark regions of the human soul. Intellect, on the other hand, is a thing that resides in plain sight. It is the highest expression of human consciousness. We use it to put order to things, to analyses and understand.

I have found that most good works of art will make good use of at least two of the trinity. A yeoman artist might be able to make do with a healthy strength in just one, but such work is never of lasting value. The great works are products of all three. It is a rare and beautiful thing when that happens: a work that is sentimental, imaginative and smart all at the same time. To experience an expression of all of them makes keenly aware of what it is to be human. It would be a summation of all mortal capability. Even the best artists are usually deficient in at least one area, and these we still esteem to be masters of their craft.