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Room: The Cosmographic Chambers

The Cosmographic Chambers

Matthijs van Boxsel, The Cosmographic Chambers (text), The Palace of Typographic Masonry - a guided tour, 210 x 297 mm (364 pages), 2018

Urges to discover and depict symbolic orders of the universe are seemingly irresistible. Here in The Cosmographic Chambers one can wonder and marvel at a wide variety of worldviews rendered into visual languages. You are courteously invited into the vestibule, where historian Matthijs Boxsel is willing to provide a tour through its palatial chambers.

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Vestibule of Catastrophe and Creation

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?
(Job 38)

The catastrophe

It is generally assumed that the universe was born from an explosion. We live on one of the meandering pieces of debris, a squashed planet, revolving unsurely around its axis. This planet is inhabited by DNA mutants. Is it any wonder that human history is dominated by deviations?

According to aleatory materialism the cosmos came into existence by a chance deflection of falling atoms–Clinamen (Lucretius De rerum natura ii.217- 224). The existence of the universe attests a catastrophe: something came of nothing through an imbalance. The ubiquity of sheer coincidence is inextricably linked to the term idiocy (in its initial Greek definition of uniqueness). Everything that exists is unique in time and space and therefore inconceivable. The world is idiotic, stupid, without purpose or cause, inexplicable, illogical, intangible. The result is intellectual agitation.

Philosophers assert that all knowledge begins with utter astonishment at the idiocy of existence. Guided by the principle of insufficient reality we fall prey to transcendental temptations. Because idiotic objects have nothing to offer, desire focuses on that which doesn't exist. In their attempt to rationalize the world, metaphysicians apply principles alien to the world, such as the Idea, the Spirit or the World Soul. The alternate reality, whose precise coordinates are jealously kept secret, provides what is said to be lacking here and now.

The world is seen as a defective reflection of some other world. Thanks to this duplication, existence ceases tot be gratuitous and becomes open to interpretation. Worldly existence is seen as a flawed counterpart of an ideal, loftier world.

As a result of degeneration (decline) or fall (instantaneous), man has become mortal. The gradual eradication of the source (God or the idea) by increasingly feeble facsimiles implies an ontological devaluation as well as an intellectual and ethical deterioration. The world is full of stupidity, crime and misery due to the decline of divine qualities.

The duplication offers an excuse for avoiding coming to terms with harsh reality. The world disappears behind the paradigm of what it could or should have been. Art and morality rebel not against banality and evil but against the idiocy of existence, which is experienced as disgraceful and unreliable.

Science, too, began with wild speculation about the construction of the universe.


Cosmogony, cosmology and cosmography are interlocked. In trying to unravel the origin of the world, poets resort to genealogies in which Oceanus and Tethys, saltwater and freshwater rivers, are wed. They give birth to Heaven and Earth who, in turn, give birth to the Titans and so on. The seemingly limitless breeding invariably ends with a quarrel; no conflict–no creation. The separation of light and darkness, heaven and earth, water and land, day and night, flora and fauna, result in the separation of the worldly and divine realms.

Little by little, poetry develops into a speculative science. The gods are seen as allegories for natural phenomena and endure in the names of the planets and the elements.

As opposed to poets indulging in cosmogony, who evoke an invisible protohistory, the myth of the past, the pre-Socratic cosmologists attempt to delineate the active principles behind perceptible reality, the manifestation of the essences in all that exists.

Mirror of the world, Utriusque cosmi ... historia, Robert Fludd, 1621

Chamber One: The Demiurge

'Tis delectable poetry, lifting up nature's chaste robe, seeking her forms, considering her measurements, fondling her figure. Penetrating the womb of truth. Behold; the voluptuousness of geometry!' (Multatuli, letter to Max Rooses, Aug. 1867)

In Plato's Timaeus, the divine craftsman, the demiurge observes an Eternal Model of the cosmos. From this 'paradigm' he creates a tangible imitation, 'a round, in the shape of a sphere, equidistant in all directions from the center to the extremities.' Platonists believe the sphere is the embodiment of perfection; Beauty, Truth and Virtue come together. The Model's (or Scheme's) perfect proportions are founded on a mathematical ratio. The demiurge is the ultimate architect and poet, but above all, a mathematician. All the elements; the motion of the stars; the recurring seasons; the shape of flowers; the state of the world; all are derived from the Model. Even in failure, creation gives a sense of order.

The four elements

The cosmos is made up of two right-angled triangles (an isosceles and a scalene) from which the demiurge can construct five regular polyhedrons: cubes, tetrahedrons, octahedrons, icosahedrons and dodecahedrons. These stereometric forms are known as 'Platonic solids.'

Using these Platonic solids, the demiurge then constructs from matter (mother substance–derived from mater, 'mother') the four elements out of which all sublunary phenomena are made: the cube constitutes earth, the tetrahedron constitutes fire, the octahedron constitutes air and the icosahedron constitutes water.

The twelve-faceted polyhedron: the dodecahedron

According to Aristotle, the dodecahedron corresponds with a translunary substance, the ether, of which the heavens and the stars are made. Plato called the dodecahedron a 'heavenly shape' because it approaches the sphere's perfection. The cosmos' scheme is inherent in the dodecahedron: just like the year and the zodiac, it consists of twelve parts which in turn are subdivided into thirty–the thirty days of the month and the 30 celestial longitudinal degrees of each sign. Due to the dodecahedron, the cosmos comes to life.

But the sphere's faceting leaves much to be desired because the cosmos is a feeble reflection of the Model and man's soul is trapped in a body whose senses can only offer an incomplete image of the material world.

In Phaedo, Socrates, while in jail, speculates about the appearance of earth from beyond the 'atmosphere.' Seen from heaven, earth would look like 'a ball made of twelve strips of leather and bright colors, of which our colors, the ones used by our painters, are only a reflection.' The uni-verse is literally that which revolves as a unit. The world is a soccer ball. (Phaedo 110b)

The World Soul

The demiurge transforms the ideal Model into a tangible body, the cosmos. He then develops the world soul, which mediates between the two worlds. This gives rise to the three levels of creation, which correlate to the cube: our world is enclosed in three dimensions, expressed by the Platonic lambda, 'a perfect model of the universe.' (Robert Fludd).

But the number three is not the only holy one; the number four is it too. The number 1 is a point, the number 2 is a line (the shortest distance between two points), the number 3 is a triangular plane and the number 4 is a pyramidal volume. Planimetry shapes the world. This argument plays a role in solving a second paradox, the reconciliation of opposites.

The four qualities: the tetrade

The four 'primary' elements were divided into two opposing pairs: earth opposite air, fire opposite water. How do you reconcile the opposites?

To temper the mutual tension and bond, the demiurge introduced four qualities: wet and dry, cold and hot.

The archgeometrician began creation with fire and earth: fire to make the world visible, earth to give it a tangible form. 'Thus it was that in the midst between fire and earth God set water and air. [...] air being to water as fire to air, and water being to earth as air to water.' (Timaeus 32b)

In their mutual contact, the qualities produce the elements: heat and moisture produce air, moisture and cold produce water, cold and dryness earth, heat and dryness fire. This also clarifies the transmutations on earth. Fire can exist in air due to heat; air can exist in water due to moisture. As such, each element can change into its opposite. But since the tetrade is a closed system each element's share remains constant despite the transformations.

Clashing of the elements leads to deterioration in nature. But since adjacent elements share a quality, reconciliation always transpires, a primordial love that leads to growth. 'The four elements move, as if they all had hands with which they hold each other, as in a round dance.' (Pierre de la Primaudaye (1546–1619)) The alternation of love and hate determines the cycle of life and death.

The Timaeus dialog was inspired by Pythagorean sect theories and laid the foundation of all Western cosmologies until Newton.

The quadrature of man

The tetrade is the Model for the macrocosm and for the many microcosms that are minute reproductions of the whole [i.e. the macrocosm]. Between the different levels of creation there is an elaborate network of correspondences. The universe is an enormous machine of interconnected tetrades repeating each other to scale.

The tetrade is situated in a series of concentric circles, with in its center, at the crossroads of all tensions, man, the conceiver of the scheme. Cosmic perfection is mirrored in man. Because Adam was formed to the image of a divine source, and because we are all his descendants, the microcosm of the human body reflects the diversity of creation: our flesh is like mud, our veins like rivers, our bones like stones, our hair like grass. As in the universe, our bodies' components are arranged in a system which is subordinate to a single will. We embody a small version of the divine principle of the universe as a whole.

The human body is positioned within circles and quadrants with the arms stretched to show the different principles of symmetry and harmony in God's masterpiece. All humans are mortal but as an element of divine creation we are eternal. In a sort of psychosomatic math, our temperaments, fluids and organs react to the four periods of the day, the four seasons and the four stages of life.

This idea was accepted until the seventeenth century.

The zodiac man

All the 'zodiac man's' body parts correspond to a planet in order to determine astrologically whether to revert to bleeding. The Sun controls the heart, Venus the ears, the Moon the head, Mercury the lungs, and so on. There is a jester at his feet who derides the body's mortality. The quadrature of the circle always leaves a residue, a flaw–the stupidity that keeps the system going.

The second Adam

According to the medieval humoral theory, God proportioned the four elements to perfection in Adam. However, the Fall caused the elements to be scattered among humans–an imbalance that explains the existence of choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic and melancholy dispositions, which, in turn, mean man is prone to sin. Microcosms and macrocosms are no longer in harmony.

The coming of Christ restored the 'elemental integrity.' The Second Adam was characterized by a perfectly balanced complexion, evidenced also in his perfectly proportioned body and behavior.

In time the quaternary division was complemented with four cardinal points, four evangelists, four winds that blow from the corners of the diagram, and so on.

According to Johann Peyligk's Philosophiae naturalis compendium (Leipzig 1499):

> Fire is the fruit of heat and dryness; it corresponds with cholera (yellow bile) in the microcosm of heavenly humors (which leads to a short temper and disease of the liver), with the summer in the microcosm of the seasons, with Aries, Leo and Sagittarius in astrology, with the planet Mars in astronomy, with youth in the microcosm of the stages of life, and with the east wind in the microcosm of the cardinal winds (Subsolanus is depicted as a skull because this hot, moist wind is thought to have spread the plague).

> Air is the fruit of heat and moisture; it corresponds with sanguinity (enthusiasm), blood, spring, Gemini, Libra and Aquarius, Jupiter, adolescence and the south wind (Auster).

> Earth is the fruit of cold and dryness; it corresponds with melancholy (black bile), depression, fall, Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn, Saturn, middle age and the north wind (Boreas).

> Water is the fruit of moisture and cold; it corresponds with phlegm (apathy), the brain, winter, Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces, Venus, old age and the west wind (Favonius).

From the edges of the cosmos up to the human being, the world is divided into four. The network of correspondences is a machine of metaphors that makes the transfer of meaning from one level to the next possible. Everything has to do with everything. The metaphors have no bearing on our sensual experience: summer is a metaphor for zodiac signs that are situated symmetrically around a circle, not for summer constellations. This is based on a network of ideal connections that are assumed to be active in our three-dimensional universe.

Note that the metaphors are not seen as literature or as components of a simple memory system, but as scientific facts based on which the world was created. In order to live in harmony and honor the creator, buildings, cities and social systems were designed that complied with the quadrant.

The theory of the four elements prevailed until the 18th century; the classification was, of course, arbitrary. Brahmanism distinguishes five elements: earth, fire, water, wind and void (akasa). The Chinese distinguish five elements: earth, fire, water, wood and metal. The periodic table has, by now, 118 elements.


Not only the elements within the cosmos, but also the greater cosmos, the macrocosm, was shaped after the ideal heavenly bodies. Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon are embedded in seven crystal orbs that rotate within the celestial sphere and its fixed stars. Earth is static and at the center of the cosmos.

In a sense, the theory of the harmony of the spheres was invalidated by one of its most fanatic adherents, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who strove to unify religion and science. Astronomy was a theology using other means. He expected to find perfect forms everywhere but was continuously disappointed with the results his instruments provided.

Kepler coupled the notion of a harmony of spheres with Copernicus' heliocentricism. According to his Mysterium Cosmographicum (1596), the planets orbit the sun in circles. In an endeavour to clarify this, he attempted to reconcile Plato with Genesis. He too believed that geometry was the archtype of the cosmos, that the mathematical form preceded the creation of heaven and earth. All heavenly bodies moved along the edges of an orb, and these orbs were enclosed within each other as in a Russian matroyshka. He believed that five spatial regions existed between the spheres of the then six known planets and that these were defined by the five Platonic bodies. He placed an octahedron between Mercury and Venus, an icosahedron between Venus and Earth, a dodecahedron between Earth and Mars, a tetrahedron between Mars and Jupiter, and a cube between Jupiter and Saturn.

By coincidence the gaps between the planets according to his model were almost identical to those according to his calculations. This led him to mistakenly conclude that he had discovered the key to the universe.

But, interestingly, these wild speculations about the blueprint of the cosmos paved the way to his formulation of the laws which to this day are still seen as the correct definitions of the planetary orbits. From a metaphysic he developed physics. But this occurred only after he had become acquainted with the empirical experiments of Tycho Brahe (who had designed the gardens around his observatory based on the cosmic model of the tetrade). Kepler suddenly understood that the planets do not obey Platonic law: their paths were not perfect circles but elliptical. It was, in fact, his search for the formal source of the universe that made it possible for him to recognize the true structures.

In so doing, Kepler manifests the transition from mystical mathematics to science. Keppler laid the foundations for the mechanization of the world-view: 'The heavenly machine does not resemble a divine, living entity but a clock (whoever thinks a clock can have a soul, pays tribute to the product instead of to its creator); just as practically every movement can be reduced in some way to one very basic, magnetic-material force, all movements in a clock are caused by a basic weight.'

For a period, Kepler made a living by making horoscopes. But he defined himself as a 'Lutheran astrologist': examine everything and retain the good, as the bible prescribes. He said of astrology: 'a foolish daughter, but Dear Lord, where would her mother, our highly ingenious astronomy, be without this foolish daughter.' All science is born of rectified superstition.

Fludd's cosmic viol

Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon are embedded in seven crystal orbs that rotate within the celestial sphere and its fixed stars. The friction between the orbs creates the harmony of the spheres, a loud chord inaudible to all humans barring a handful of gifted musicians. (Plato, The Republic, book X)

The Scottish Rosicrucian Robert Fludd (1574-1637), Kepler's archenemy, took the metaphor literally. He portrayed the universe as a monochord, a musical instrument of one string that stretches between the highest and lowest entities of creation, from the angelic choirs to the silent stones. Three worlds can be seen on the monochord: the angelic, the etheric and the elementary worlds. There is harmony in and between each of the worlds. Above, a divine hand reaches out of a cloud to a tuning peg in order to tune the cosmos. Fludd delineates the proportions, the consonances and the intervals of creation. The Sun is situated at the G between two octaves. At the bottom, from Earth to the Sun, we see first the elementary world that is composed of the four elements: fire, earth, water and wind. Stretching out above that is the ethereal world existing of the spheres of the seven planets, with the Sun in the middle. Above that, the hierarchy of angels.

This plan is based on Pythagorean Harmonics, dominant in music since antiquity.

Cosmological Mandala with Mount Meru

Chamber Two: The Quadrature of the Circle


In efforts to represent the basic structure of the cosmos, the same shapes are used universally: the circle for Earth and the universe, the square for the arrangement of space and an axis as the center of Earth. In this center are the world tree, the world mountain, Paradise or a meteorite. Here emerges man, who must restore contact between heaven and earth and quadrate the circle.

Again, duplication is central: man preferably creates (ideal) scale models of the universe: bowls, mandalas, Greek coins, mosaics, Persian carpets. On the one hand this gives man the illusion of controlling the chaos, but, on the other hand, the sense that he lives in a model ruled by a higher power. Insight interweaves with veneration.

World Axis

Practically all traditional cultures recognize one or more holy axes connecting heaven and earth. Manifestations could be a world tree such as Norse cosmogony's Yggdrasill, or a square tower such as the Babylonian E-Temen-An-Ki, or Nimrod's round tower in Babel (perhaps this is the same tower).

Usually the axis mundi is situated on a mountain as a prop for the heavens. Examples of holy mountains are the one in the Garden of Eden (Ezekiel 28:16), Mount Meru, Mount Tabor, Mount Zion and Golgotha where, some believe, Adam is buried under the cross.

The roots of the world tree on the Icelandic shaman's drum are in the underworld, while the tree grows through the inhabited earth to the divine spheres.


The oceans and continents are arranged in circles around the world mountain. In Sanskrit the cosmogram is called mandala, circle or disk. The mandala as a means to meditate on man's place in the universe is used not only in India but also by Buddhists. Monks make mandalas out of sand wherein each line and color has a specific meaning. Once completed, the mandala is erased.

In the famous mandala of the Nepalese Vasudhara the goddess is in the center of the celestial palace of the God of the Universe. Three circles and a square represent the universe. The square has four gates and is divided into four triangles that refer to the cosmic directions, the elements and the visible and invisible traits of the divinity in the center.

Mandalas are tools for meditation: mystical truths are depicted in geometrical forms; and, conversely, knowledge obtains a mystical value. They point to the four cardinal directions as well as to the inert center. In this way they express stillness and the passing of time.

Mount Meru

In the Tibetan Lamaism cosmogram the five elements rotate in a sea of fire, depicted by circles of light. These circles expand until they fill the interspace, after which the four continents and the subcontinents emerge out of the primordial sea. Meru, the world mountain, rises to heaven in five stages of increasing width; the unfolded diagram implies the third dimension.

The World Turtle

In prints from India we can see Mount Meru in the middle of the disk of Earth which rests on four elephants, themselves standing on a cosmic turtle. The World Turtle appears in Hindu, Buddhist and even Native American cosmologies. The elephants support Earth under the compass points. They cause earthquakes when they move.


Ziggurats in ancient Mesopotamia and the Borobudur in Indonesia also support the heavens. These temples are not only world axes (axis mundi) but also a scale model of the world (imago mundi); their seven stories refer to the world's seven heavens.


Arab and Japanese gardens are attempts to bring order into nature's chaos. The garden reflects the personal relationship between the individual, the community and the cosmos. Every garden, and even every garden carpet, rolled out on desert sand, can reflect paradise. (Conversely, heaven may be rolled up at the end time. Revelation 6:14)


In the cosmogram of the Mexican Aztecs the circle and the square are evident. A cross surrounded by the four perished worlds (destroyed in a catastrophe) and the present world in the center are occupied by the god Tezcatlipoca; he was celebrated in May and was associated with the night sky, storms, the north, the Earth, conflict, temptation, jaguars, sorcery, beauty, war and obsidian. The four ancient worlds are arranged around a world tree with two branches of two twigs each; a bird of heaven perches at its top, while the first humans stand right and left. The trees function as compass points with east at the top.

According to the Maya religion, the apocalypse exists of four phases. In the first, the world will be consumed by flames; in the second it will be ravaged by water; in the third by wind (hurricanes). But in the fourth it will be destroyed by jaguars (the stars in the sky take on the form of jaguars who pounce onto Earth and devour the human race).

The Vitruvian Man is a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci (around 1490), accompanied by notes based on the work of the architect Vitruvius.

Chamber Three: Man as Model


Essentially, any symmetrical shape can serve as a blueprint for the cosmos, including the human body: Icelandic shamans believe every human is a unique reflection of a primordial design, just as every snowflake is a unique variation of a hexagon. And again: each reflection and copy is less perfect than the intangible prototype that, alone, is constant.


According to Greek cosmology, man is a small world (microcosm) in which the organic structure of the greater world (macrocosm) is reflected.

The microcosm theory was developed during the Renaissance into a complex system of interactions between the human body and the world body.

'The ancients called man the world in miniature; an appropriate designation because, since man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, his body resembles that of the earth; just as man has bones, the supports and framework of his flesh, the world has its rocks that support the earth; just as man has a sea of blood in him in which the lungs expand and contract while breathing, the body of the earth has its ocean which likewise expands and contracts every six hours, as if the world is breathing; just as veins originate from that pool of blood and branch out to the body, the ocean fills the body of the earth with an infinite number of springs.'

Leonardo da Vinci (1509).

Man was created on the last day and placed in the center of Creation, as the central point in which the great chain of beings is mirrored and concentrated. In his De Natura Rerum, bishop Isidore of Seville asserts that the human body is an extract of the world.

Conversely, the cosmos is also regarded as human: In the Egyptian creation myths, Earth, as a man, lies on the ground while his wife Nut, the goddess of the sky, bows over him. The god of air, Shu, supports Nut and ensures that heaven and earth remain separated.

Anthropomorphic map

A classic way of coming to grips with the world is by projecting our body on to the earth. In anthropomorphic maps, unknown rivers, hills and plains are placed within a recognizable whole. Using his body as a model and a principle, man arranges land into a geography; he provides the world with an identity and a history. This 'cosmic automagnification' gives man an image of immense proportions. The sections of this area were named after our body parts. By personifying the world we establish a memorial in which human relations function as imaginary beacons. Geography literally means describing Mother Earth, Gea.

The world is constructed by tropes derived from the body: Golgotha, the place of the skulls; the axis mundi, the world's navel. Atlas, the Titan petrified into a mountain range: a mythical, anthropomorphic landscape after which the first vertebra was named. Thus, we travel through our body. The body functions as a map of the world and vice versa.

The world mountain

A Chinese cosmic map shows the universe's five world mountains, made of the limbs of the dwarf Pangu, who was born out of the cosmic egg. He was a sculptor who, having grown into a giant, created the world from his own body using a hammer and chisel. His hair became the rotating starry sky, his eyes became the Sun and Moon, his breath became the atmosphere, his body Earth, his limbs the five mountains, his blood the oceans, his fleas the animals on earth.

Odin slays the giant Ymir who threatens to cover the gods in shadow. Other giants drown in a flood of blood or are washed away to a hidden dimension of reality: Jötunheimr. Ymir's bones become mountains, his flesh becomes the earth, his teeth become the cliffs, his blood the sea and the rivers, his hair the plants, his blue skull the sky, his brain the clouds. His eyebrows are the walls which protect the world from the ice giants. (Prose Edda)

Marduk created Mesopotamia by bisecting the body of the mother goddess Tiamat: one half became heaven, the other earth. (Enûma Eliš)

The monster symbolizes the terrifying unfamiliarity of newly conquered and demarcated land. By killing and hacking the primordial monsters we stabilize creation. Sacrificing primordial entities (Ymir, Purusha, Pangu, Proto-Adam) gives structure to ultimate reality.


Polynesian fishermen see the god Maui as a great fisher who angled the islands out of the Pacific Ocean using his mother-in-law's jaw. He sailed in a banana peel to England where he has since been worshipped as Jehova.

A Game at Chess is a comic satirical play by Thomas Middleton, first staged in August 1624 by the King's Men at the Globe Theatre

In Closing


Actually, cosmograms can be recognized everywhere: in a marble, a cotton wad, a wart. It's a conjuring game, a fancy. 'I believe the universe isn't larger than a butterfly and that it never stops shrinking. It's shriveling, it is concentrated in one point in space and for me, that point is the train station in Perpignan.' Salvador Dalí

A game of chess

Two kings are playing chess. As soon as one king is checkmated, a horseman rides up the mountain to notify him his army has lost the battle. Man is playing and being played with. Man is a chess player whose actions change the world, as well as a pawn on the board of a higher chess player, who, in turn, is being played with by an even higher god, and so on. The god behind the god is an exercise in symmetry. Because it implies a hierarchy, a power structure, a gradation from good to evil, it is a blueprint for a intellectual, ethnic and political systems.

The World's Pedestal

The last step is to see the world as its own model and put it on a pedestal.

In an attempt to clarify the world, man resorts to science, esotericism, poetry, and - not to be forgotten - humor. Johan Huizinga maintains that all culture is born in a game on the line between jest and gravity. Without rules society lapses into anarchy, without play it degenerates into dictatorship. In a society in which play is no longer taken seriously, leeway disappears and rules fossilize into prescribed patterns, while play deteriorates into amusement in which nothing is at stake.

The objective is to celebrate and transcend the idiocy of existence in the ecstasy of play.