On Homo Laborans and Homo Ludens

“The Poet and the City” by WH Auden elaborates on the occupational hazard of being a poet in the 20th Century. Career for Auden is not just a means of livelihood; it extends to the whole perception of lifeworld of a person. It defines the social status, income, capacity to control one’s own life and finally, the usefulness of the role that one plays in society. Auden believes that in the 20th century, the perception of social utility of a profession defines how society would look at its practitioner. In that sense, he believes that calling himself a ‘Medieval Historian’ is socially more acceptable than calling himself a ‘Poet’.

The text deals with a dichotomy. In the sense of a career, there are two characteristics that have been dealt with in the essay. First is the mechanization of professions in industry wherein the human involvement has become secondary to machines. This has created the sociological species of Homo Laborans. Second is the organicity within professions that deal with the interplay of ‘gratuity’ and ‘utility’ everyday. This has created the sociological species of Homo Ludens. Auden primarily focuses on poetry to elicit the second characteristic. The term Homo Ludens has been borrowed from Johan Huizinga who wrote a book with the same title in 1938 where he argues that play is primary to, and is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture. The term means ‘Man the Player’, alternatively, ‘Playing Man.’

Huizinga’s take on poetry is that “[Poetry], in fact, is a play-function. It proceeds within the play-ground of the mind, in a world of its own which the mind creates for it. There things have a different physiognomy from the one they wear in ‘ordinary life’, and are bound by ties other than those of logic and causality.” For Auden, poetry is quintessentially play in the Huizingan sense and he laments the lack of opportunities for this play with the advent of modernity. He captures four aspects of our Weltanschauung (worldview) that has made artistic vocation more difficult than it used to be.

  • The loss of belief in the eternity of the physical universe. With an eschatological view, every art form loses its timelessness.
  • The loss of belief in the significance and reality of sensory phenomena. If senses are subjective, the traditional conception of art as mimesis loses its meaning.
  • The loss of belief in a norm of human nature which will always require the same kind of man-fabricated world to be at home in. If the world changes so rapidly that one cannot perceive the cultural and social situation for the next generation, an artist would yearn for immediate success. On a similar note, “originality, no longer means a slight modification in the style of one’s immediate predecessors (tradition); it means a capacity to find in any work of any date or place a clue to finding one’s authentic voice.“
  • The disappearance of the Public Realm as the sphere of revelatory personal deeds. The reversal in the notion of public life from ‘sphere of freedom’ to ‘the place where a man fulfills his social function’ has resulted in the loss of the traditional principal human subject, ‘the man of action’, ‘the doer of good deeds’, for arts, especially literature.
  • With this Weltanschauung, the only profession where Auden finds ‘men of action’ is science. There is a certain sense of inferiority complex that Auden exhibits when he compares science as a profession to poetry. He says, “When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.” This sentence could elicit an Auden worldview of the modern 20th century wherein the scientist is a ‘duke’ and a poet is a ‘shabby curate.’ He attributes most of the shifts in the aforementioned Weltanschauung to the advent of scientific thought. In that sense, artistic vocation has been overpowered by science and modernity that it brings with it.

    Auden feels that science as a profession cannot be talked about in poetry because scientists “are concerned with things, not persons, and are, therefore, speechless.” Poetry deals with “singular persons”. Here it is important to note, as Auden tries to elaborate on this tension between science and poetry, he proceeds immediately to a new notion of the crowd, which is The Public.

    He borrows the Kierkegaardian definition of The Public, but it seems that the notion of public is also a result of the modernist scientific worldview, as the rationale for practicing science is the common good of the public. A poet cannot address The Public, whereas a scientist does. The Public is the scientific take on a crowd. It strips down a crowd into a thing that a scientist can deal with. In this sense, The Public can only be entertained by mass media and an artist is left to look out for his connoisseurs.

    Ultimately, Auden’s take on poetry as a profession in the modern 20th century, is revealed as he says, “Every age is one-sided in its political and social preoccupation and in seeking to realize the particular value it esteems most highly, it neglects and even sacrifices other values.” In this sense, “every artist feels himself at odds with modern civilization.” But, despite the advent of modernity, Homo Ludens do exist and “among the half dozen or so things for which a [Home Luden] should be prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least.”

    Posted by: Ranjit Singh | I6005471


    Huizinga, Johan (1955). Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

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