On Playful Seriousness

I remember my father reading to me. He made the stories into a spectacle of elaborate, silly voices. That spectacle became ingrained in me, and goes with me into the daylight spaces of my own adult life. This childlike play acting, the art of verbal exaggeration and caricature, has perhaps been my only salvation from an unbearably melancholy disposition. My father taught me many things, but the unintentional lessons have been the most cherished.

Being raised in a conservative, independent Baptist family, I inherited a predilection for earnestness. My parents, themselves, are evidence to the fact that earnestness need not choke out lightness or joy, but in me it grew like a cancer, threatening to smother out every other instinct. The explicit lessons on religion fed this cancer, like dry brush to a flame. Fortunately, however, these lessons were subverted by my parents’ other instincts. From my father came tales of the trouble he and my uncles got themselves into as boys. Rather than being told with the sobriety of a morality play, my father’s exploits were related with a bristling, nostalgic fondness. The voices my father used when reading stories came from a similar place–a certain wildness domesticated and made harmless for my consumption.

People can be just as earnest in their passions as in their morals. This earnestness-run-amok threatened to poison every aspect of my life. It is really a sort of dissolution, a passion for extremes, which can make of one either a hair-shirted zealot or a besotted hedonist. Perhaps there is something heroic about the passionate saint. I know I am often awed by the lives of extreme sanctity, and in my inspiration I find myself wanting to emulate them, to be extraordinary. Immediately, I turn on that word, “extraordinary,” and find myself staring into the burning eyes of a mad man, hungry, insatiably hungry, for adulation. Stone him. Beat him to death with irony. Kill him with farcical voices and the reading of children’s books. Act the fool so as to escape immolation by spontaneous self-righteous combustion. Laugh violently. Violence. Is that not what passionate extremes really are? Violence exists in the extremes and what is the alternative? A drab, tasteless morsel of balance, compromise, and composure? Somehow I think not. The alternative isn’t some mid-point between two extremities–I imagine it as some other plane altogether, and that plane is filled with silly voices. It is filled with childlike stories. But it consists of more than a romance of childhood, because it is not an escape into naiveté. It is a place of the most serious sort of play and the most playful sort of seriousness. It is a place where tears and laughter are mixed together in a cohesive unity. It is wholesomeness, where the constituent parts are not unnaturally abstracted and objectified into contradiction.

I was late in coming to value childlikeness. It was in my 20s that I began re-reading the Narnia books. When I had first come to them as a child, I found them dry, fusty, and childish. (I had a strong distaste for stories about children.) As an adult I began to see in them something of which I had missed out as a child bent on an early achievement of adult seriousness. Apparently I was finally old enough to start reading fairy tales again. The best sort of fairy tale maintains a deep sense of innocence while avoiding excessive sentimentality. As I was to learn from G.K. Chesterton, the fairy tale admits of monsters, but it also insists that the monsters can be slain. Innocence without naiveté–this, I found, led to a sense of wonder, and wonder is perhaps the greatest of all senses. Wonder is impossible where the mad man with the burning eyes is free to rave. He is the enemy of wonder. While Chesterton dealt in paradox and radical common sense, George MacDonald dealt in goodness–sincere, unapologetic goodness. There is a sense of earnestness to MacDonald, but it is free of heaviness and melancholy. His goodness delights. His goodness makes me wonder what attraction could ever have bound me to the mad man. Why would we not wish to be this good? Constant in MacDonald is the sense of play. Not the kind of play that is a shirking of responsibility–nothing dissolute–it is a happy playfulness which takes into its view all the meaning of the world.

If playfulness and seriousness need no longer be opposites, then studies may be undertaken not just with diligence, but with mirth. One of Robertson Davies’ characters said that “Rabelais was gloriously learned because learning amused him.” Montaigne, leading into his discussion of authors in his essay, “On Books,” wrote, “I can do nothing without gaiety,” briefly before offering Boccaccio, Rabelais, and Johannes Secundus as authors “affording plain delight.” He went on to discuss the delights of the Latin poets, and that category of books “which mixes a little more usefulness with the delight,” history. Sister Miriam Joseph comments in her Preface to Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, that Shakespeare “uses puns in the most serious contexts, a fact which surprises and even offends many modern readers.” I take from this quote two things: that Shakespeare playfully pursued seriousness, and that modern readers don’t know what to make of this. As a society we find ourselves dividing and separating light from dark, eliminating nuance, forcing dichotomies upon everything. But what if seriousness can be playful? What does this change? Everything?