Le Jeu: An Essay

Writers must be gamers, of a sort, but are poetry and gaming diametrically opposed? From Baudelaire to Antonioni, Frank Guan looks at gaming as an art form.

Writers—younger writers now, at least—love to game. I don’t think this is because gaming is close to writing, though; it’s because it couldn’t be further from it. True, writing can be playful. Everything productive contains an element of play. Yet the play involved in writing is not the “play” referred to when we say “play” a game. Suppose that we define play, generally and loosely, as the free arrangement of material. What is the material? For writing, it’s perceptions stirred and shifted into some semblance of syntactic order; for gaming, projections onto a complex of logical protocols and numerical indices. Expression, of course, is possible through both, but expressions are limited by their medium: there’s a difference between getting with the program and becoming one. The game is outside; the gamer tries to get in. If you don’t subscribe to the objectives it imposes, there’s no way to play, much less express. On the other side, the word is within; the writer attempts to coax it out. There are no given objectives, but rather a subject whose being is nothing more or less than its own expression.

The poet desires playfulness; the modern demands industry.

Writing usually isn’t as autonomous as we’ve just made it out to be. Most of the time, writers write with an external objective in mind. To some greater or lesser degree, they write for economic gain, for social recognition, or for political reasons, and to that extent writers really are playing a game in the same way that a gamer does, which is to say with discrete intentions, deploying the word as a means to an end beyond language rather than bearing the word into the mysterious awareness of its own life—what we refer to, in other words, as poetry. Most writers aren’t poets. Even those who are poets aren’t poets all the time, though some recognize its necessity. Sois toujours poète, même en prose, Charles Baudelaire wrote in his diary. Always be a poet, even in prose. Yet he succeeded in writing no more than 170 poems over some twenty-five years as an active poet—less than seven a year, on average. The man generally acknowledged as the first modern poet (and first modern art critic) was the first to discover how deeply opposed modernity could be to poetic creation.

The poet desires playfulness; the modern demands industry. The poet is allied to nature; the modern renders nature unnatural. The poet is an aristocrat, even if only in spirit; the modern is democratic, even if only in rhetoric. Baudelaire never dreamed that he could turn away from the world he lived in. He was too perceptive (and too ironic) to imagine that he would find, gazing into bygone ages, real relief from the traumas of the present. Rather he fixed his eyes on worlds to come, on the new and unknown, what he names the familiar empire of future darkness, l’empire familier des tenèbres futures. For him, the future was always dark: dark as in uncertain, charged with possibility, but also dark as in grim, doomed, deathly. Yet only by peering into darkness can one become familiar with it, allow it to come into definition, write it down for others to see. There are flashes and illuminations across those one hundred seventy poems, but for the most part reading Baudelaire—and translating him especially—is a process as slow and hard to trace as developing night vision. His is a poetry of suggestions, hazards, constellations that reveal themselves to the patient; to focus only on great stars and striking images is to lose the deep pattern.

Take “Le Jeu,” for instance: not a Baudelaire poem that often sees the spotlight, but by no means a poem without insight. Le jeu literally means “the game,” but it’s also how one says “gambling.” Ultimately the difference is negligible; whether it’s gaming or gambling, the players project their selves onto a complex of logical protocols and numerical indices. Speaking from personal experience, there’s a straight line running from the gambling den of Baudelaire’s Paris to today’s gaming centers. I’ve been a regular visitor to arcades since coming to New York, and though the equipment and personnel have changed (instead of card tables, machines with screens; instead of old women, young men) the ambience of sterile electricity and silent strain felt identical to the poem’s.

I would have to become another person entirely to stop gaming, which is the opposite of writing.

Identical, too, was the observer’s envy. As the poem implies, writers tend to be cold watchers even of their own dreams, their own incarnations of desire. I wouldn’t trade my life or past for any other, but there have been times when I’ve wanted to swap the writing life and the frigid self-consciousness it compels for the gamer’s wordless, virtually animal striving and satisfaction. I game often. I would have to become another person entirely to stop gaming, which is the opposite of writing. What this poem holds out is the hope that this conundrum can itself become a source of literature, that writers can reveal the words that do justice to the tension between writing and the modern condition that gaming encapsulates. Writers, insofar as they are modern, must be gamers, but pure literature (pure art in general) can never be a game; in performing the ambivalence between its constitutive terms, modern literature discovers itself.

In this regard as in others, many would walk after Baudelaire. A decade after the 1857 publication of “Le Jeu,” Baudelaire’s exact Russian contemporary Fyodor Dostoevsky would publish The Gambler. Narrated by a young man torn by his attraction to the gaming tables at a German resort frequented by European elites and con artists and his love for a young Russian woman, the story dramatizes the tug-of-war in Russian culture between Western commerce and native tradition, with the casino denizens serving as a microcosm of European society.

A parallel symbolism prevails in Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1962 film L’Eclisse, where the cacophonous chaos of the Roman stock exchange incarnates American capitalist values. The main character is a translator. After breaking with her fiancé, a literary intellectual of the Left, she drifts, slowly, into a romance with a young stock broker. Actress Monica Vitti’s character Vittoria strikes a figure of ambivalent beauty. She’s rooted in language, appreciates culture, disdains obsession, especially greed. All the same, she feels the attraction of the modern, the frenzies, silences, and cacophony that preclude all nuance and psychology. “What the hell are you doing?” a partner asks Piero, the broker, at the stock exchange. “Gambling,” he answers; then resumes gaming the system.

Piero comes from people of refinement: his parents’ apartment is as thick with paintings and sculptures as Vittoria’s former fiancé’s. But whatever taste he might have had has been subsumed by the animal passion for numbers and logic his workplace demands. Disillusioned by culture and socialism while retaining some sense of ideals, Vittoria seeks out the new and unknown in their antitheses. If she likes Piero, it’s for his simplicity, his blindness to all things beyond supply and demand.

She teaches him to play with her; he stops playing the market. The writer and gamer, united in love! It can’t last; it doesn’t. But they see each other, just a bit, before the end. ♦

(Image credit: attributed to Johannes van Wijckersloot, The Card Game on the Cradle: Allegory, 1643–1683, Rijksmuseum. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.)

About Frank Guan

Frank Guan, music columnist at Vulture, is interested in the experience and economics of video games. His work has been published in New York Magazine, The New Republic, and n+1. Guan is also a poet and the founding editor of the poetry magazine Prelude.