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The Genius of the Playful Mind - by Dr Mitchell Kalpakgian

The Genius of the Playful Mind

A person pictures play as children reveling at a playground, youngsters enjoying soccer, or skaters and dancers performing with agility and gracefulness.

Man’s play, however, is not limited to the nimbleness and poise of the body or to the realm of athletics or the Olympics. Man also plays with his mind through the power of the imagination.

Thinking is not mere problem-solving, memorizing, or the analyzing of data. The playful mind best demonstrates itself when it exercises “wit,” which in its older meaning means the ability to see resemblances, make comparisons, and form metaphors.

Old Truths, Fresh Images

In Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, the child shows this wit as he compares the kingdom of play to the wealth of a king: “The world is so full of a number of things, /I think we should all be as happy as kings.”

The world offers a boundless wealth of fun to a child in all the four seasons: “Sing a song of seasons! Something bright in all! /Flowers in the summer, /Fires in the fall.”

Robert Frost in “The Lesson for Today” compares the threadbare philosophies of pessimism and despair to ideas “As unoriginal as any rabbit.” The playful mind sees old truths in fresh images. As Blessed Cardinal Newman remarks, facts “are made new by the coloring of a poetical imagination.”

Multiple Meanings

Wit, of course, also means the ability to play on the multiple meanings of words, but even in this sense wit perceives striking analogies. George Herbert in his poem “The Collar” plays on the three different meanings of this word with the same pronunciation: collar, caller, and choler as he presents a choleric man protesting life’s injustice to God.

The angry man complains that God’s moral laws function as “collars” that limit pleasure and enjoyment. Later in the poem when God as a “caller” addresses him as “child” for throwing a tantrum and always expecting a bribe or reward for doing good, the imaginative intelligence of the poet gives fresh meaning to man’s relationship to God by playing on the multiple meanings of words.

Poetry also illustrates the mind playing with the arrangement of words on a page and the rhythms and sounds of words. Gerard Manley Hopkins captures the bold, daring movements of the falcon in “The Windhover” with this picture of the bird’s flight and the rapid, accelerating motion:

I caught this morning morning’s minion king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn
Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air,
High there . . . .

The alliteration of the lines (“morning morning’s minion” and “daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn falcon”) also captures the play of the mind by imitating the movements of the bird, by painting the picture of a kingly falcon in the glory of its majesty, and by illustrating the graceful sweeping and gliding of the “Brute beauty” of the bird that “rebuffed the big wind.”

Playing with Sounds

The poetic mind also plays with the various patterns of rhymes that especially delight the ears of children. In At the Back of the North Wind older brother Diamond discovers that baby brother revels in the music of words that always make him laugh and be merry. Diamond is constantly amusing him with rhymes that resemble a flowing, gurgling river: “baby baby babbing/ your father’s gone a cabbing/ to catch a shilling for its pence/ to make the baby babbing dance . . . .” Baby cannot contain his irrepressible laughter at the sound of those words.

Robert Frost’s “Departmental,” on the other hand, uses the beat and measure of monotonous lines to capture the perfunctory, insensitive movements of bureaucratic organizations whose inhuman idea of order and efficiency compare to the movements of an ant colony:

An ant on the tablecloth
Ran into a dormant moth
Of many times his size.
He showed not the least surprise.
His business wasn’t with such.
He gave it scarcely a touch,
And was off on his duty run.

Frost’s playful mind satirizes the deadly seriousness that worships efficiency and performs work with robotic rigidity that lacks all human touch.

A Silent, Good Deed

Playful, imaginative literature like fairy tales leads the mind to comprehend the paradoxical nature of moral truths that escape logical thinking. Hans Andersen’s “The Traveling Companion” portrays poor John performing a good deed as he takes shelter in a church during a rainy night.

Giving his last fifty dollars to two rogues determined to desecrate a man lying in a coffin who failed to pay his debt to them, John does a favor not only to total strangers but also to a dead man that cannot acknowledge his gratitude. Honoring the dead man in church awaiting burial the next day, John does good by stealth. In the secrecy of night in an obscure place in a quiet church a simple man performs a good deed for a stranger and forgets about it.

When John resumes his journey and finds himself joined by a fellow traveler, he discovers later that the companion is the dead man in the coffin—the one who answers riddles to help him win his bride and does John an even greater favor than John’s kindness of paying the debt. The man in the coffin who comes alive symbolizes a forgotten good deed that returns to bless the giver of the gift.

A good deed is like a buried seed that disappears and later bears abundant fruit. A good deed is never lost, dead, or fruitless but fertile and fecund. A good deed is a companion that follows a person wherever he goes. The playful imagination paints this mystery in the brightest of colors and images—the paradox of giving without expecting to receive yet receiving more than one gave.

A More Lively Legalism

Shakespeare also acknowledges the genius of the playful mind in his portrayal of Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

Because Antonio has not paid his debt to the moneylender Shylock on the due date and has accepted the terms of the loan with his signature—to repay the loan with interest or to pay with “a pound of flesh”—Shylock insists on the letter of the law and demands bloodshed as his revenge against his rival Antonio who lends money gratis and deprives Shylock of profit.

Disguising herself as the lawyer Balthazar to defend Antonio in court, Portia’s imaginative mind interprets the law with inventive genius: “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood” and “Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more/ But just pound of flesh.” Otherwise, Shylock will suffer the consequences of death. Portia’s lively mind can be even more literal than Shylock’s legalism.

The mark of a good education is an agile, spritely mind that enjoys playing with ideas, words, sounds, and images to make truth come alive and burst with freshness. The playful mind knows that the pursuit of knowledge is as poetic as it is scientific and as surprising as it is logical.

Without the playful mind old truths can grow stale, lifeless, and platitudinous.

With the poetical imagination old truths shine with color, wonder, and brilliance.

Header Image Copyright BBC

About Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian

The son of Armenian immigrants, Dr. Kalpakgian has taught at Simpson College, Christendom College and Wyoming Catholic College. He has authored several books and written for many Catholic publications. Meet Dr. Kalpakgian | See his Books
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