Coubertin and Huizinga


Huizinga’s critique of sport is one of the most comprehensive approaches of the bourgeois philosophy of play to sport. Huizinga:  “Ever since the last quarter of the 19th century play, in the guise of sport, have been taken more and more seriously. The rules have become increasingly strict and elaborate. Records are established at a higher, or faster, or longer level than was ever conceivable before. (….) Now, with the increasing systematization and regimentation of sport, something of the pure play-quality is inevitably lost. We see this very clearly in the official distinction between amateurs and professionals (or “gentlemen and players” as used pointedly to be said). It means that the play-group marks out those for whom playing is no longer play, ranking them inferior to the true players in standing but superior in capacity. The spirit of the professional is no longer the true play-spirit; it is lacking in spontaneity and carelessness. This affects the amateur too, who begins to suffer from an inferiority complex. Between them they push sport further and further away from the play-sphere proper until it becomes a thing sui generis: neither play nor earnest. In modern social life sport occupies a place alongside and apart from the cultural process. The great competitions in archaic cultures had always formed part of the sacred festivals and were indispensable as health and happiness-bringing activities. The ritual tie has now been completely severed; sport has become profane, “unholy” in every way and has no organic connection whatever with the structure of society, least of all when prescribed by the government. The ability of modern social techniques to stage mass demonstrations with the maximum of outward show in the field of athletics does not alter the fact that neither the Olympiads nor the organized sports of American Universities nor the loudly trumpeted international contests have, in the smallest degree, raised sport to the level of a culture-creating activity. However important it may be for the players or spectators, it remains sterile. The old play-factor has undergone almost complete atrophy. This view will probably run counter to the popular feeling of to-day, according to which sport is the apotheosis of the play-element in our civilization. Nevertheless popular feeling is wrong. By way of emphasizing the fatal shift towards over-seriousness we would point out that it has also infected the non-athletic games where calculation is everything, such as chess and some card-games.”(27)

The main Huizinga’s objection to modern sport is that “sport has become profane”. “The great competitions in archaic cultures had always formed part of the sacred festivals”, says Huizinga. “They were indispensable as health and happiness-bringing activities. The ritual tie has now been completely severed”. Huizinga insists on competition as a form in which the divine spirit appears in man. A “sacred” competition, which means ritual expression of obedience to the deities, is conditio sine qua non of sport as play. Huizinga has a critical detachment to the games which have become “overserious” and, due to commercialization, have lost their “holy” character, which means that they have fused into everyday life and thus do not enable man a spiritual escape from the existing life and a “cultural” upbringing. When Huizinga speaks of sport as a “serious” activity, he wants to say that sport has turned into work, which means that it has become part of everyday gloominess. However, Huizinga’s critique of sport does not refer to the nature of sport and its rules, but to the position that participants have in it and their relation to the game. The present games, as the incarnation of the divine spirit, are the ideal of life which should be sought for and therefore cannot be questioned. Hence play is not dominated by a strict form which has a liturgical character. It is interesting that Huizinga dispels the illusion that sport is a festivity dedicated to the highest cultural values, and at the same time, like the bourgeois theorists of sport, creates the illusion about chivalrous fights. More precisely, Huizinga deals with an illusory world which does not correspond to his (cultural) model, in order to offer his world of illusions as the only “real” cultural challenge. Huizinga had good reasons to attack sport so sharply. We should bear in mind that, according to Huizinga, man’s need for illusion, which could enable his spiritual escape from a hopelessly non-cultural world, is the only value created in capitalist society. By accepting sport as a refuge the need for (Huizinga’s) world of illusions disappears and, consequently, the need for culture. Trying to stick to his ideological concept, Huizinga does not give sport the character of a deception but of a mistaken belief. Anyway, it is definitely something false: the form of play becomes a way of giving to a non-playing content the legitimacy of the playing. Here Huizinga is not at odds only with sport as the appearance of play, but with his own conception on which homo ludens is based and according to which the form of play is the only criterion for determining its truthfulness. However, Huizinga pointed out the crucial thing: sport lies beyond the field of culture. It is precisely the basic point of Coubertin’s doctrine: to deprive man of his cultural heritage and eliminate all that restrains the development of the bourgeois’ “will to power”. It is logical that culture was the first to bear the brunt: without cultural self-conscious there is no human dignity and freedom. For Huizinga play is a way of being in culture and creating culture; for Coubertin, sport is a way of being in life and dealing with culture – and thus is the ideal of positive life. At the same time, Huizinga tries to indicate the true nature of modern Olympic spectacle overlooking the fact that it is not “social technique” as a phenomenon sui generis which has a decisive influence on sport, but the capitalist order which uses technique as a means for “raising” – “the outward effect of mass demonstrations” to “perfection”.

In the beginning of “Homo ludens” Huizinga questions his basic intention, namely, to examine play as a “culture phenomenon”: “Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing. We can safely assert, even, that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play. Animals play just like men. We have only to watch young dogs to see that all the essentials of human play are present in their merry gambols.” (28) Huizinga reduces play to the given which is independent of people. Hence the playing of animals is the prototype of the playing world: the established norms should have in society the same power that natural laws have in the animal world – to be unconditional and eternal. Huizinga: “All play has its rules. They determine what ‘holds’ in the temporary world circumscribed by play. The rules of a game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt.” (29) Huizinga creates from play a separate world, the space of play being in a mystical way circumscribed by play: play determines its own rules within a temporary world, which is, again, separated by play. Huizinga uses such tautological constructions to create an illusion of social unconditionality, and thus the eternity of the existing plays. Play, as a repressive normative mould which is the incarnation of the ruling relations, becomes the source of the playing and play. In this way man is not only closed by play within the existing world, but is deprived of his authentic humanity. In the alleged world of “freedom” and “illusion” the basic values of the existing world from which Huizinga offers people an escape are realized in a disguised form. Play is not a way of liberating man and developing his human powers, but is the bars of a cage that should keep the “banal” man under control and thus maintain the ruling (class) order. By cultivating man it raises him from his everyday gloominess: play becomes a peculiar religious ritual by which man overcomes his “banal” nature and becomes one with the divine. The stability of its rules confirms the perseverance of the “divine” in man without which he is left to his “banality” and doomed to fall into barbarism. Huizinga identifies the form of play with its rules, and not with the forms of aesthetic expression. The basic purpose of play is not the development of spirituality, but the expression of loyalty to the ruling order: a man who is not ready to accept the existing world cannot be a participant in play. As far as aesthetics is concerned, it is an instrument for creating an illusory world which is an idealized incarnation of the ruling values of the existing world. Huizinga’s homo ludens can “dream” only about that which does not question the ruling order and the image of the “banal” man – to which Huizinga reduced the human being.

By his critique of sport Huizinga creates criteria which can establish the difference between culture and non-culture, which means between the human and non-human. He insists on the rules which involve mutual understanding and agreement of wills that should prevent the tyranny of the strong and, at the same time, stop the fight for changing the existing world. Play becomes a spider’s web which should conserve the existing world and give it the legitimacy of being cultural. Hence the unconditional “observance of rules”, which are independent of people, is conditio sine qua non of play. Coubertin is against the norms that unconditionally apply to all. He rejects the “hairsplitting rules” that stop the “new man” in his endeavours to conquer the world. Unlike Nietzsche, whose “will to power” springs from the overflowing life force of man, which is the expression of a free action of his affective nature, the dominant spirit in Coubertin is that of a greedy bourgeois who relies on the expansionist and productivistic power of capitalist monopolies that is not restricted by any norms. In that context, there is no compatibility of wills: the rules are imposed by the one who is stronger and who is not guided by universal principles which have a transcendental character, but follows the logic of life dictated by the fatal course of “progress” – which is based on a merciless struggle for survival. The purpose of sport is not the development of the normative conscious, but the elimination of the normative firmament of civil society and the integration of people, by way of a mindless (bodily) agonal activism, into the spiritual orbit of capitalism. In Coubertin, there is no duality between being (Sein) and ought (Sollen): the existing world is the realization of everything man can and should strive for. The analysis of the relation between Huizinga’s and Coubertin’s conceptions of sport indicates that Coubertin, in spite of absolutizing the “factual”, created a normative model of sport (the Olympic Games) which offers a possibility of criticizing the Olympic reality. However, Coubertin, a “realist”, constantly adapted his conception to the sports (social) reality in an attempt to preserve the original purpose of Olympism as the cult of the existing world. By the end of his life, in spite of his long fanatical fight for preserving the “pureness” of sport from the fatal influence of money, this made him show readiness to accept professionals, those, according to him, “circus gladiators”, and raise them to the level which was reserved for sports amateurs.

Huizinga, like Coubertin, deals with modern man and reduces him to God’s servant. Consequently, Huizinga does not refer to people as a (“banal”) man, but as a superior being and in this he is close to the “divine baron” Pierre de Coubertin. He departs from Plato’s words that “Though human affairs are not worthy of great seriousness it is yet necessary to be serious; happiness is another thing” (…) “God alone is worthy of supreme seriousness, but man is made God‘s  plaything, and that is the best part of him.” (…) “Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win in the contest” (…) “Thus “men will live according to Nature since in most respects they are puppets, yet having a small part in truth”…. (30) Stating that Plato said those words under the impression of “turning his eyes on God”, Huizinga concludes: “The human mind can only disengage itself from the magic circle of play by turning towards the ultimate. Logical thinking does not go far enough. Surveying all the treasures of the mind and all the splendors of its achievements we shall still find, at the bottom of every serious judgment, something problematical left. In our heart of hearts we know that none of our pronouncements is absolutely conclusive. At that point, where our judgment begins to waver, the feeling that the world is serious after all wavers with it. Instead of the old saw: ‘All is vanity’, the more positive conclusion forces itself upon us that ‘all is play’. A cheap metaphor, no doubt, mere impotence of the mind; yet it is the wisdom Plato arrived at when he called man the plaything of the gods.” (31) Huizinga moves within the Christian conception of the world. The ability of the living beings to play is not a product of evolution nor is it a historical product and thus a cultural phenomenon, but is the gift of “nature” (God) and is thus the given. Like Plato’s man, Huizinga’s homo ludens is not a man-player, but is a man-plaything of “superhuman” powers. At the same time, he, like Coubertin’s “new man”, is deprived of doubt, critical reasoning, the creative; he is not released from responsibility and sin, like Nietzsche’s “overman” and Coubertin’s “new man”, but responds to the Christian model of man, with the addition of having the right to kill: war and knight tournaments are the highest form of play. However, if man is “God’s plaything”, and this is the “best part in him”, then play cannot lie “beyond good and evil”, nor can it be “beyond truth and falsehood”, and “have no moral function” – so that “the valuations of vice and virtue do not apply here.” (32) Play “in itself”, as the gift of God, is indeed the highest good, and Huizinga himself departs from that trying to give play the legitimacy of something indisputable and eternal. Play becomes the insemination of the living beings with the divine spirit, and as far as man is concerned, the revelation of the divine. Huizinga’s homo ludens is a puppet deprived of human contents and is thus a shadow of the divine light, while his play is the play of human shadows. Huizinga introduces “the spirit” only to deal with man’s creative being and his genuine spirituality. He places “the human” and “the noble” beyond the reach of man who seeks to change the existing world. Huizinga deals with the emancipatory heritage of civil society and deprives man of the possibility of and the right to create the world at his own measure as a free personality. Play is not a way of expressing the authentic man’s playing abilities, but is a way of controlling the “evil” human nature and of establishing a spiritual patronage over man. Huizinga’s theory is par excellence antilibertarian and conservative and could be (conditionally) called the Christian theory of play.

Huizinga glorifies the “play” of animals which always proceeds in the same way. Practically, man is below the level of animals, which completely behave in accordance with the internal playing demands which are incorporated in them on the part of God, since their “banal” nature can become independent of play and thus question the existing world. Huizinga claims that even “animals compete”, but according to him there is no direct connection between an animal and man, that is to say, man did not inherit his playing nature from animals: both animals and man received their ability to play from God. The behavior of animals which Huizinga calls “play” is their direct existential activity by which they acquire skill and develop the body in a way that should insure their survival. Their play is always the same and is determined by the nature of their kind. By playing, a child develops his individuality and becomes a man, unlike the young of animals who through play develop the peculiar features of the species they belong to. In addition, animals do not choose their play with their free will; it is a necessary consequence of the development of the qualities contained in their genetics. Huizinga also “forgets” to tell us that animals “play” together regardless of their gender (while “love play” that precedes mating has special significance), and that people from their childhood, precisely on the basis of the existing games, which Huizinga proclaims the indisputable criterion for determining the notion of play, divide in playing communities according to their gender (as well as according to their races and classes). Coubertin brings things to the end: the woman is deprived of the right to engage publicly in sport and take part in the Olympic Games, and physical exercises should serve to help her develop her maternal dispositions and become a national (racial) incubator.

Huizinga takes from the animal world everything he can use to prove the playing nature of homo ludens. He departs from the behavior of some animals which resembles the behavior of people and thus draws a general conclusion on the competitive (“playing”) nature of animals. Thus, according to him, even crows, similarly to man, “compete”. Not only is man outside the process of evolution, but the evolution of animal species is discarded as well. Using the same method, Huizinga could have easily realized that a great majority of animals do not “compete” and could have drawn the conclusion that competition is not in the nature of animals. How can God be mother to some animals and step-mother to others?  If we have in mind the essence of Huizinga’s conception, such questions are meaningless since Huizinga, an aesthetician, does not use the causal-explicative method and does not try to offer arguments, but tries to invent a “nice story” using the details from the animal and human worlds with which he can incite an aesthetic reaction and thus win man over. However, what Huizinga considers the play of animals was obtained on the basis of a certain ideological model of play. Huizinga’s relation to the play of animals is the result of his relation to man – which is reduced to a combat with man’s creative-libertarian being. Play is not the highest form of man’s self-realization and of society as the community of emancipated individuals, but is an expression of spirit which “nature” (God) “bestowed” on the living beings. Buytendijk also opens a possibility for a critique of Huizinga when he claims that “sport bases its value and estimation precisely on the strivings to one special ideal behavior” which involves norms as “obligatory rules”. “Pure play does not have this normative demand and belongs to a completely different life sphere. Animals play; only in people exists sport, which without norms, which means without the ‘spirit’ – is not possible.” (33) Coubertin departs from the assertion that man is by his nature an animal, but he does not depart, like Huizinga, from the playing characteristics of animals and he reduces the animal to a bloodthirsty beast. For Coubertin, the animal world is not a symbol of tolerance and pacifism; it is the realization of the principle “might is right” as well as the principle of natural selection and thus is the model for human community. Unlike those bourgeois anthropologists who regard sport as a means for pacifying man’s “aggressive (animal) nature”, Coubertin regards sport as a means for developing his combatant will, since man is by his nature a “lazy beast”. Sport is based on the principle of “greater effort” and is not “in the nature of man”, (34) but is in the nature of the capitalist order: a sportsman is a capitalistically mutated beast.

Trying to deal with the idea of future and man’s struggle to create the world in his human image, both Coubertin and Huizinga refer to the past. Unlike Coubertin, who in an idealized antiquity finds the highest point in the development of humankind, Huizinga finds in a romanticized picture of the Middle Ages an unattainable model. It is an endeavour to create a parallel world in people’s heads, in which everything man should and can strive for has already been realized. It becomes the ideal of a “perfect world”, similarly to the Christian “paradise”, which appears as a way of closing man in the established world by means of a repressive normative pattern, which is an idealized projection of the ruling social relations. Huizinga clearly sees that the world’s imperfection is the basic presupposition of its openness to the future and human aspirations. If the existing world is to be preserved, the sets on the scene creating illusions should be preserved first: Coubertin’s principle of “control in heads” is the basis of Huizinga’s philosophy. Illusion should destroy the hope of a better world and prevent a critical-changing confrontation with the existing world of misery. Instead of striving for a just world, man should strive for a “more beautiful” world. Play, which according to Huizinga is essentially “irrational”, should achieve a certain psychological effect which, ultimately, is intended to show the ruling values of the existing world in a holy (divine) form, under the aureole of “rhythm and harmony”, “the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things”. (35) Coubertin’s words: “harmony is the sister of order” indicate the true meaning of this conception. Just like Coubertin, Huizinga tries to create an appearance of the cultural by aestheticizing play (harmony, proportion, rhythm). It is an instrumentalized aesthetics, but Coubertin argues for a dynamic balance and against the normative which represents a restraint to the “will to power” of the ruling class. Unlike Huizinga-s conception, where there is a hint of the ancient principle of kalokagathia, which means that the ethical and the aesthetical are given in unity, in Coubertin, the aesthetical, as the idealized picture of order, becomes a way of providing a “cultural” legitimacy to the Social Darwinist and progressistic nature of capitalism. “Beauty” becomes a combat with freedom and novum.

Huizinga, like Nietzsche and Coubertin, discards the categories of “evil” and “good”, “unjust” and “just”, “freedom” and “tyranny”… The relation to the world is mediated by the aesthetical criteria of “ugly” and “beautiful”. The main task of art is not to deify the existing world, as is the case in Coubertin, but to create an illusory world (“a dream”) which will be incorporated into man’s head in order to preserve “the human” and enable it to endure everyday life. In his picture of the Middle Ages Huizinga does not show a man who suffers, but uses the misery of the oppressed to depict a life similar to the Christian world, in which man, with the obedience of a slave, accepts his humiliating social position. Trying to destroy human dignity, Huizinga, with pathological lustfulness, depicts the scenes of execution and of poor people in mud under the gallows. He condemns the modern man’s becoming independent of the divine authority, which means his alienation from his playing nature, and wants to restore the sphere which is above man, which is independent of him and to which he is hopelessly submitted. Man should “return” to the illusory world of the Middle Ages, which is the incarnation of the fullness of the playing, and thus reach again his divine being. A romanticized picture of the Middle Ages becomes a mirror in which man is to meet his lost humanity, and in that sense it serves to fill in the cultural emptiness left after a hectic rush after money and a merciless struggle for power. According to Huizinga, the modern world is doomed to “gloominess”, while man, renouncing the divine patronage, has become a “banal” being. The only truly valuable thing created in modern society is a need for an illusory world which appears in the form of a “dream” about the Middle Ages. Unlike Huizinga’s picture of the Middle Ages, Coubertin’s picture of the ancient world does not present misery and suffering. It is a picture of a (hopelessly) “happy world”, which appears as an indisputable and unattainable challenge to the Modern Age. Instead of the yelling of slaves, from his mythological world come the clattering of arms and cries of the victors. At the same time, Coubertin seeks to destroy man’s need for dreaming. His positive bourgeois, guided by his insatiable lust and fear of the working “masses”, is constantly awake. Instead of offering a “dream” about the Middle Ages, which is reached through an aesthetic inspiration, Coubertin offers a ruthless fight on the sports field, which is the reincarnation of the “immortal spirit of antiquity” and is thus a light in the gloominess of everyday life dominated by a “futile effort” (Coubertin).

Huizinga’s doctrine does not contain the idea of progress, which represents the corner stone of Coubertin’s Olympic doctrine: he strives for a static and unchangeable world. In Huizinga, there is no “perfectioning” of man, which is based on Social Darwinism and the principle of performance, nor are there any other challenges which cross the borders of the aristocratic world. Huizinga: “He has won esteem, obtained honor; and this honor and esteem at once accrue to the benefit of the group to which the victor belongs. Here we have another very important characteristic of play: success won readily passes from the individual to the group. But the following feature is still more important: the competitive ‘instinct’ is not in the first place a desire for power or a will to dominate. The primary thing is the desire to excel others, to be the first and to be honored for that.” (36) Play becomes a fight for prestige between the aristocrats, and not a fight for domination (survival) and “progress”, as is the case in Coubertin. Huizinga is a representative of the aristocracy who acquired the monopoly over power “from God” and the static medieval order. A fight for victory is not the matter of survival, but of vanity, elitist status, as well as a form of the constant confirmation of a complete submission to the existing order. However, at knight tournaments and in war victory is achieved by beating the opponent, which means by his elimination from further fight, which involves killing. Huizinga speaks of “bloody ferocity” at the knight tournaments and glorifies war as the highest test of a man’s maturity. In that way Huizinga, under a different ideological veil, reached Coubertin’s position: the stronger survive, the weaker are destroyed. Huizinga should be credited with opposing the “criminal power” which, in the form of “total war” hung over Europe at the time of the Nazi fury. Unfortunately, even the monstrous Nazi atrocities did not make Huizinga cast away his loyal shield which he proudly carried all his life: instead of supporting those who fought against fascism, Huizinga addressed the Nazis asking them to respect certain norms in their genocidal conquests. His endeavours to give a “cultural” (playing) legitimacy to the criminal practice of the fascists came down to disclaiming cultural legitimacy of the libertarian struggle of the oppressed. According to Huizinga’s theory, the American, French and Russian Revolutions do not belong to the cultural heritage of mankind, but to “barbarism”, unlike wars and colonial conquests which drove to death hundreds of millions of people – with “respecting certain rules”. At the same time, Huizinga “forgets” that competition between people involves a certain level of civilizatory development, and that in the course of history competition has acquired new contents. The so called “primitive peoples” do not know of competition between individuals.  In ancient Greece competition was reduced to a ruthless struggle for victory. It is only in the Modern Age that the ideas of personal achievement, of comparing results and of record appear.

For Huizinga, just like for Coubertin, war between peoples is a necessary and welcome destiny of mankind. However, for Coubertin, war is the highest form of natural selection and thus is the basis of the “perfectioning” of mankind, while for Huizinga it is the highest form of play. In that sense, man’s readiness to kill is the most important human feature, while the skill of killing is the superb playing skill. If we add that, according to Huizinga, “pleasure” is the highest challenge for play, it is obvious that Huizinga proclaimed the pathological character prophile of the aristocracy the character prophile of his homo ludens. Huizinga’s hypocrisy is also seen in his speaking of a “chronical misery in war”, (37) while at the same time he sees in war the highest form of the fight of noblemen for “honor”. The true picture of war are not “magnificent military parades”, but hanged peasants, burned villages, raped girls, famine, plague, corpses of children rotting in mud… Huizinga’s “beauty” relies upon human misery and poverty. It is a cynical mocking at the working people who are left at the mercy of the aristocracy as the incarnation of a “fateful” power. “Law has invented horrible punishments” – claims Huizinga coldly, (38) forgetting to add that the punishments were inflicted by the aristocracy which he proclaimed the incarnation of “virtue”. Huizinga does not hide that horrible scenes of execution arouse in him the highest aesthetic exaltation. Bestial massacring of the poor – public taking out of the intestines, the cutting of limbs, burning, crucifixion on a wheel, cutting up of bodies by horse drawn carts and the like – all this acquires in Huizinga the character of rituals which serve to offer human sacrifices to the highest of deities and thus express complete submission to the ruling order. The same applies to wars and knight tournaments: to kill the “opponent” in a fight, respecting the established rules, is the highest form of play, and thus a cultural act. Huizinga departs from the same principle when he speaks of the suicidal fanaticism of samurai (harakiri). Glorifying “feudal heroism” in medieval Japan, Huizinga concludes that “The Japanese samurai held the view that what was serious for the common man was but a game for the valiant.” (39)  – overlooking the fact that the sword of a samurai symbolizes the ruling order to which man is hopelessly submitted. Play becomes the highest form of man’s devaluation.

Huizinga’s homo ludens is the picture of a “noble knight” who represents an idealized incarnation of the aristocracy and aristocratic values. Speaking of the medieval “sport”, Huizinga concludes: “The warlike sports of the Middle Ages differ from Greek and modern athletics by being far less simple and natural. Pride, honor, love and art give additional stimulus to the competition itself. Overloaded with pomp and decoration full of heroic fancy, they serve to express romantic needs too strong for mere literature to satisfy. The realities of court life or a military career offered too little opportunity for the fine make-belief of heroism and love, which filled the soul. So they had to be acted. The staging of the tournament, therefore, had to be that of romance; that is to say, the imaginary world of Arthur, where the fancy of a fairy-tale was enhanced by the sentimentality of courtly love.” (40) For Huizinga, the duel is a ritual form of expressing man’s complete submission to the established order. The same can be found in Coubertin: in a sports fair-play man’s right to life is subordinated to the right of order to survival. Nothing human can restrain the will to power of the bourgeois who seeks to conquer the world and abolish the emancipatory heritage of mankind. Life itself becomes a stake which proves the loyalty to the established order, while fight to life or death becomes the most authentic form of natural selection. Both theorists place ambition and love of power to the forefront and reject love of man and freedom. However, what “honour” is proved by killing a man? What is the nature of the erotic impulse achieved through “bloody fierceness”? What is beautiful in a cruel fight to life and death, in cutting throats and butchering, in taking out the intestines, in mutilated bodies drowned in mud? And all that only “to win the favor of court ladies”? Huizinga proclaimed the pathology of medieval society the source of the highest human ideals. As far as the woman is concerned, Huizinga reduced her to a part of the scene as a vaginal idiot who from time to time breathes “romantic sighs”. In Huizinga’s medieval picture she serves to enhance the “emotional impulse” and “erotic charm” of chivalrous fights, as well as the “colorfulness” of the tournaments. Certainly, it refers to noble ladies. Plebeian women, in their rags, belong to a place of misery, pain, despair – in the mud under the gallows. Most importantly, in Huizinga’s world of illusions man obediently endures his everyday misery. In his picture of the Middle Ages there are no angry eyes, or clenched fists symbolizing resistance to the “horrible world” (Huizinga) in which the tyranny of the aristocracy is established.

Huizinga is not a historian, but an aesthetician. He depicts the Middle Ages in idyllic colors and is not interested in how much his picture corresponds to reality, but how convincingly it represents the illusory world he offers to man as a way of escaping from the existing world. He seeks to avoid a “naive historical realism” in order to create the picture of the Middle Ages which will enable the (petty) bourgeois a “cultural” nourishment as opposed to the hopelessly non-cultural capitalist world. According to Huizinga, “At all times the vision of a sublime life has haunted the souls of men, and the gloomier the present is, the more strongly this aspiration will make itself felt. Three different paths, at all times, have seemed to lead to the ideal life. Firstly, that of forsaking the world.” (…) “The second path conducts to amelioration of the world itself, by consciously improving political, social, and moral institutions and conditions.” (41)  “For there is a third path to a world more beautiful, trodden in all ages and civilizations, the easiest and also the most fallacious of all, that of the dream. A promise to escape from the gloomy actual is held out to all; we have only to color life with fancy, to enter upon the quest of oblivion, sought in the delusion of ideal harmony. After the religious and the social solution we have the poetical. A simple tune suffices for the enrapturing fugue to develop itself; an outlook on the heroism, the virtue, or the happiness of an ideal past is all that is wanted. (…) But was it only a question of literature, this third path to the sublime life, this flight from harsh reality into illusion? Surely it has been more. History pays too little attention to the influence of these dreams of a sublime life on civilization itself and on the forms of social life. The content of the ideal is a desire to return to the perfection of an imaginary past.” (42) Huizinga is here again close to Christianity: the more miserable life is, the more intensive the need for an illusory world; the greatest the everyday gloominess, the more attractive the colorfulness of illusion… Huizinga himself clearly refers to that when he claims that “every age strives for a more beautiful world. The deeper the desperation and pain because of a confused present day, the stronger the craving”. (43) People should be blinded by a dazzling light, but Huizinga, instead of sports performances, offers a false picture of the Middle Ages, in which man looks insignificant in comparison to a mystical fateful power that emanates from that picture. Coubertin does not try to arouse in people a craving for a more beautiful world, but seeks to deify the existing world and turn it into the illusion of a “happy world”. The Olympic Games are analogous to Huizinga’s “dream”, which appears as an idealized picture of the Middle Ages. The Olympic spectacle becomes an “artificially beautified picture of pseudo reality”, which for the modern man has the same significance as, according to Fromm, “the shining glassy pearls” had for savages, who were prepared to give their country and their freedom for them. (44) Instead of a sports spectacle of the circus type, which is intended to marginalize the crucial and enforce the marginal as fateful, in Coubertin, the Olympic spectacle becomes the highest cultural ceremony at which man’s being is mystically inseminated with the spirit of capitalism. The same goes with Huizinga: in his “dream” the dominant values of the existing world appear in an idealized form, but he, departing from Plato, identifies play with a cult – through which play acquires “holiness”. In that context, Huizinga poses the question if the cult, as the “highest and holiest reality”, can also be play? That it is possible is confirmed by children’s games, as well as any other games which are “played with the utmost seriousness”. It includes the play of a sportsman for he plays with “the utmost seriousness and courage that spring from enthusiasm”. (45) Criticizing modern sport, Huizinga expresses hope that one day sport will restore the character of the medieval tournaments. Just like in Coubertin, “future” appears as the incarnation of the past. Speaking of Plato’s view of play and holiness, Huizinga says: “The Platonic identification of play and holiness does not defile the latter by calling it play; rather it exalts the concept of play to the highest regions of the spirit. We said at the beginning that play was anterior to culture; in a certain sense it is also superior to it or at least detached from it. In play we may move below the level of the serious, as the child does; but we can also move above it – in the realm of the beautiful and the sacred.” (46) By way of play Huizinga raises man’s spirit from the existing world; by way of sport, Coubertin nails it to the existing world. Olympism does not lead man to divinity, but seeks to deify the present world: it is the “cult of the present world” which should give an aureole of the eternal to the ruling order and cause a religious relation of people to it. Hence for Coubertin the Olympic Games are the “Church”, while a sports stadium is the temple of capitalism.

Huizinga’s play involves an indisputable observance of the roles to which man is predestined on the basis of the class he belongs to. Play becomes the confirmation of his unchangeable social status and a way of “free” playing of the given role. Huizinga laments the fate of the “gentleman from earlier times, who, obviously, with his formal outfit demonstrated his status and his dignity.” (47) Above all, by his outfit a nobleman expressed his dominant social position, particularly the “superiority of his blueblood”, and it acquired its true “aesthetic” dimension only in opposition to the misery of the working “masses”. The way of dressing is not the expression of the aristocracy’s free will and spiritual wealth, but a demonstration of the wealth and power of the ruling class and thus its obligatory uniform. Huizinga is enthusiastic about the aristocracy’s foppishness (the aesthetics of rich people’s primitivism), seeing in it a dazzling power, which is of primary importance for the creation of his world of illusions intended to impress the oppressed. In addition, clothes are the most conspicuous form of “virtue” whose bearer, by the divine will, is the aristocracy. It is, thus, a holy robe by which the divine power should arouse admiration in ordinary mortals: the dazzling power of noble robes becomes a means for deifying the aristocratic order. Huizinga insists on the “art of life”, and not on a free artistic creation. That is why he attaches such importance to “fashion”: clothes are not the confirmation of human independence, but a class leveling shroud man is predestined to. It is quite logical that Huizinga gives priority to the “art of life” as opposed to art itself, for it, above all, involves “nicely stylized forms of life, which should raise the cruel reality to the sphere of noble harmony”. “The high art of life” (“fashion”) becomes the form in which a decorative aesthetics triumphs over art as a creative act. Speaking of the Middle Ages Huizinga says: “All these nicely stylized forms of life, which should raise the cruel reality to the sphere of noble harmony, were parts of a high art of life, and did not find a direct expression in art proper.” (48) Huizinga goes as far as to proclaim the apparent forms of the established relations “pure art”. By way of the “artistic” form Huizinga actually seeks to prevent at all cost the original human creativeness from crossing the normative firmament of his aesthetics and thus destroy the world of illusions and question the existing order. Man is not the creator of his own world, but is part of the sets on the scene of the present world.

Like Coubertin, Huizinga does not advocate a society “ruled by law”, but one ruled by privileges. Huizinga’s view of the structure of society is akin to the view of the structure of medieval society of the court historiographer of Philippe le Bon and Charles le Temeraire, Georges Chastellain: “God, he says, created the common people to till the earth and to procure by trade the commodities necessary for life; he created the clergy for the works of religion; the nobles that they should cultivate virtue and maintain justice, so that the deeds and the morals of these fine personages might be a pattern to others.” (49) In spite of critical overtones in his presentation of Chastellain’s work, Huizinga has not gone much further from this court historiographer. For him, also, the nobility, “based on virtue”, is predestined to be the bearer of a cultural mission and is thus the spiritual “elite” of mankind. Huizinga: “The nobility, which once only had to be brave and defend its honor, satisfying the ideal of virtue, now, if it still feels called, has to stick to its task, either by introducing higher ethical contents into the ideal of chivalry, which in practice always turns out bad, or by being satisfied, through luxury, glamour and court customs, with the outward splendor of the high class and unsullied honor, and it however now has kept only the character of play, which from the very beginning was its distinctive feature, but used to have a cultural function.” (50) Huizinga reduced culture to the aristocratic “culture of life”, and it means to the imitation of strict forms of court life, dressing, indulging in luxury… Aesthetic education is reduced to the imitation of the given pattern of behavior which is performed rhythmically and harmoniously: play acquires a ritual dimension. Culture does not appear as the development of man’s spiritual wealth and his universal creative powers, but as a constant rebuilding of sets on the scene of the world which is given by the divine (self) willedness. There is not a word on the development of art, philosophy, on the creation of new playing forms: culture becomes a manifestation of the aristocracy’s elitist status. By identifying the “higher culture”, which becomes the highest cultural level and thus a criterion for determining the (non)cultural, with the aristocratic medieval culture, Huizinga devalued the extraordinary richness of ethnic cultures (which have become the basis of modern art), as well as the ancient and Renaissance cultural heritage. In his determination of culture Huizinga does not rely on mankind’s emancipatory heritage, but on the aristocratic culture based on a belligerant and oppressive practice of the aristocracy which reached its highest “cultural” level in “chivalrous traditions”. Hence, according to Huizinga, the struggle between people for acquiring “honour”, including the tournaments and war, is the highest form of play. While Huizinga strives for cultural elitism, Coubertin seeks to destroy culture and turn society into a “civilized” menagerie.

Huizinga finds in “rationalism and utilitarism” the cause of the miserable spiritual state of the western world: “The overestimation of domineering factors in society and in the human spirit was in a way a natural product of rationalism and utilitarism, which destroyed mystery and absolved man of guilt and sin. However, at the same time, they forgot to free him of stupidity and shortsightedness, and thus he seemed to be predestined to and capable of destroying the world only according to its own banality.” (51) Using the already tested method of bourgeois theorists, Huizinga proclaims the abstract “man” guilty of the catastrophic spiritual state created by capitalism, and reduces him to a “banal” being in order to destroy his self-respect. At the same time, Huizinga proclaims “technical development” an independent and cardinal power which becomes the subject of social development: “With remarkable technical developments from the steam engine to electricity, man more and more cherished the illusion that this development also meant cultural development.” (52) The banality of the capitalist world, in which everything is submitted to quantification and profit, becomes for Huizinga “man’s own banality”. Huizinga’s analysis of capitalist society shows that he had before himself such research methods which offered him a possibility of discovering the causes of spiritual misery. However, his theory was not intended to remove the causes of spiritual misery, but to protect the ruling order. Huizinga reduces man to a “banal” being in order to destroy his dignity as a libertarian and creative being and for ever pin him down to the existing world. What he finds unacceptable is man’s becoming independent of superhuman powers and acquiring the capability to create the world in his own image. Both Huizinga and Coubertin deal with man’s creative-libertarian nature and the idea of future.

Trying to deprive man of the capability to create a reasonable alternative to the world based on capitalist irrationalism, Huizinga claims: ”We, after all, are not as reasonable as the 18th century, in its naive optimism, was prone to believe.” (53) Thus, being no more capable of finding the causes of his misery and creating new roads of development, man was left to the mercy of the fatal effects of the irrational processes of the capitalist reproduction. Unlike the bourgeois theory which, by way of the “objectivistic” scientific mind, seeks to give the character of “being rational” to the irrational nature of the capitalist order, Huizinga, using the results of the modern mind, seeks to instrumentalize irrationalism in order to fanaticize man and enable him a spiritual escape from the existing world. The aestheticized model of play becomes a rationally projected space of the “irrational”. Huizinga’s irrationalism is not anti-rational, but anti-emancipatory. Like Coubertin, Huizinga does not refer to reason, but tries, by way of certain impressions, to penetrate the subconscious and control the human being from “within”. Hence such a plastic picture of the Middle Ages, his insisting on details and human destinies… Every part of the human being, which is not capable of finding a suitable expression in the existing world, should find itself in an illusionary world. Huizinga portrays the Middle Ages as a time in which pulsates all that is human: laughter and crying, birth and death, love and hatred, ornate luxury and gloomy misery… The richness of contrasts is opposed to the impersonality of the industrial age; a number of open emotional expressions are opposed to a “serious” world where there is no place for laughter and crying and in which everything is subordinated to labour and gain; the world of imagination is opposed to a world governed by a strict and spiritless ratio. The heading of his first chapter of “The Waning of the Middle Ages”: “The intensity of life” is quite indicative and it becomes a metaphor with which Huizinga mocks the capitalist world. However, Huizinga forgets that his ideals are founded on mankind’s cultural heritage and present one of the streams of thought in its recent development. And this is the result of the thinking activity of the “banal” man whom Huizinga addresses with contempt. Here we find Russell’s paradox of the liar: how can we believe the man Huizinga when he denies the right and ability of the (“banal”) man to make his own decisions? Obviously, Huizinga is not bothered by that problem. He sees himself as a link connecting man to the divine and thus as a modern “Messiah”.

Huizinga’s culturological critique of capitalist society could be fruitful if it were intended to eradicate the source of non-culture. Then his thesis – that technical development does not at the same time mean cultural development, would gain its true value. Unfortunately, Huizinga proclaimed capitalist society a hopelessly non-cultural world in order to deal with the aspirations to create a new world which would be a cultural community of free people. To make things even worse, capitalism becomes the foundation for creating a world of illusions, which becomes man’s highest cultural challenge. To prevent the struggle for a better world, Huizinga offers to the oppressed the illusion of a “beautiful” world in which, by an aesthetic hocus-pocus, the world of misery is deified. In that context, culture has the role to create “beautiful sights for the spirit” and to bring man, by way of play, to the divine. Just as Huizinga tries to defend the existing world by means of play, which is reduced to a “dream” of an ideal world (the Middle Ages), so Coubertin tries to defend it by means of sport, which, in the form of the Olympic Games, becomes the reincarnation of the “immortal spirit of antiquity”. Instead of a spiritual escape from the world, Coubertin argues for man’s complete integration into the existing world by way of a mindless agonal physical activism. To live the present life becomes the highest and most efficient way of its defense.

The true nature of Huizinga’s theory can be seen only if we bear in mind the destructive nature of capitalism. For here we deal not only with the “horror” from the Middle Ages, from which we should escape by creating “beautiful sights for the spirit”, but also with the horror of capitalism, which threatens to destroy mankind and from which there is no escape. Huizinga’s play, from which he tries to make a colorful cover which will cover the world, becomes a death shroud.

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