Friday, October 24, 2008

Chess, Celts & the Sacred.

I've been mulling connections, elusive and evanescent, willful or weird, between how a game can reveal mystery and how we try to enter the mystic. In learning chess rudiments, I sense fleetingly the beauty of the nearly inexhaustible contest. They say Buddhists may have encouraged its early development as an alternative to war, one that fought the battles that our psyche seems to crave by manipulating pieces on a board rather than by the shedding of blood.

As the final endnote of a battered 1974 book I discovered in the library today, Alexander Cockburn's "Idle Passion," about psychoanalysis (sigh, he likes Freud, I like Jung) and chess, I noted his last entry enumerated proscribed games, a litany of eighteen forbidden ones, attributed to the Buddha: Buddha games list. While this iteration came too early for chess to be included, number one's "games on boards with 8 or 10 rows" and number two's "the same games played on imaginary boards." So, disappointingly if logically, such imaginative occupations are seen, if this document from "The Dialogues of the Buddha" proves legitimate, as distractions. It'd still be preferable, I muse, to those engaged in by most youths today. As the two in my care.

Watching my sons play "Medal of Honor" as they wipe out Nazi snipers with their Wii, I relive my own childhood. Despite very conservative parents, I was forbidden any toy weaponry, so I imagined my baseball bat, tucked under my arm, instead, and I too tried to fry the grim greyish Germans with magnifying glasses, concentrating the sun's fires upon their tiny plastic bodies. Chess men may look more elegant in their Staunton sculptures, but grown-ups still play--or fight-- to the king's death.

The author of two books, both reviewed here and on Amazon, J.C. Hallman, has sent me thoughtful e-mails in response to my critiques of "The Chess Artist" and, a while back, "The Devil Is a Gentleman." For both of them, I add, I have since revised slightly my earlier reviews as I understand better, after reflecting upon his explanations, what he's tried to capture on paper about what flickers within the mind. Whether manifested as black vs. white, or as a variety of invented religious experience that attempts to re-bind (the root of the word "religion") us, we seek an attenuated or nearly severed energy that created us.

I marvelled over his analogy (transcribed in my "Chess Artist" review) comparing religious awe with that felt on the chessboard. He's on the trail of profundity, although like many such hunts, perhaps this quarry may outrun our chase to trap it in rational nets. Hallman, as one who's spent years immersed first in the world of chess players and then new American religious movements, studying them as what anthropologists might call a "participant observer"-- or what his fellow journalists might call simply getting to know one's subjects by accompanying them as they do what drives themselves-- immerses himself in his subjects. Chess and religion: simpler than a Balinese cockfight? I figured, as one of the few people on earth with a documented interest in both avocations and maybe the only book-length author on both, Hallman'd be able to decipher such coded messages from the ineffable.

I responded to his e-mail about my comments on "The Chess Artist," asking him if he'd followed up links between chess and belief. He seemed to indicate that when he'd finished the book on chess, he'd left chess behind. I wished he hadn't. But, I understand well the relief after an arduous task. It's been nearly fourteen years since I finished my dissertation, and for a long stint after, I've turned little to the side of my study that fills with medieval literature and history. Instead, the other half of my library, stacked with Irish culture and lore, has occupied most of my attention since my Ph.D. was granted. It does take time to decompress, even decades, after such an plunge into the pressurized realm of intense investigation.

Now, perhaps freed of the doctoral bends, knowing I have the ability to float wherever I wish in my own mental journey, I can voyage now and then to the Middle Ages. Also, I try to connect my antiquarian with my Celtic interests. I let them take me in spirals, not points of the compass. How chess fits with Buddhism may never gain much elucidation, nor will the Druidic foundations supposedly found by earlier wistful investigators trying to tie the ancient Irish game of wood-wisdom, "fidchell," to Tara or divination. [Overview: Keith Watt: Fidchell. Scholarship, if excised of its Old Irish sources: Eoin MacWhite, "Early Irish Board Games" Eigse 5 (1946): 25-35.] Still, in such medievalist reveries and academic fumblings, we gain a seductive glimmer of what may have impelled our ancestors to seek, on boards, what they sensed beyond them.

Last night, I moseyed on-line nosing about for "irish literature chess references" and "fidchell" and "irish chess history." When one finds your own blog coming up twice in Google's results, one feels, as "Fionnchú" on Blogtrotter, in a self-referential position. Borges, Beckett, Carroll, Kafka, and Nabokov come to mind, not always encouragingly. And, I note, many of them played chess well.

So far, not a lot of search-engineered inspiration. Cathair Mór who died 153 CE left a will with two "chess tables." But, any use of this term in translation's not exact. I understand now how "fidchell" has been reconstructed, and why it's not really "Irish chess," despite the Gaelic language's understandable use of the circular board game (adapted in "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone") as the etymological, if cognitive, cognate of a squarer sport that entered Europe only in the twelfth century. Beckett in "Murphy" has a game with Dr. Endon that may recall, J. C. C. Mays avers, a twist on the older games-- such as Fergus Mac Roich or Cú Chullain played.

Before the battle of Clontarf, when Brian Boru beat the Danes, "chess" according to Keating's "History of Ireland," weighed to foreshadow that martial contest:
"And it happened next day that Murrough son of Brian and Conaing son of Donn Chuan were playing chess next day-- or according to some, it was the Abbot of Glendalough who was playing with Murrough. Maol Mórdha began to advise Murrough in his play and advised one move that lost him the game."
Murrough compares this counsel ruefully to advice that beat the Danes at Glen Mama; Maol Mórdha sneers that if he gave the Vikings such advice then, he'd turn the tables now and tell them what could "make them defeat you another day." Murrough jeers, Maol Mórdha's furious, and he takes off next morning without taking leave of Brian. Now, this skedaddling by the King of Leinster leads to Brian trying to make amends; when Brian's servant catches up with the King, Murrough whacks him thrice and nearly murders him.

This leads, naturally, to a breach between Brian and Murrough. At Clontarf, in 1014, the Irish would win. Actually, begrudging Leinstermen opposed their fellow Hibernians. Losses were massive: about 6,000 out of 8,000 Dublin Danes, Leinstermen, and Orkneymen; 4,000 Irish. Factional fighting returned as Ireland lost its ruler. Both kings would die in the battle.

An additional quirk that I have not yet straightened out: precisely which game do those bickering Irish argue about? "Fidchell" or chess? Reason being, by the 11-12c, the Vikings brought chess from the Arab polity via Russia back into Northern Europe. (Alexander of Neckham in "De naturis rerum" included "de scacchis," about chess, 1180 being the first mention in Britain, but he may have learned of it in Italy. The elephant piece, "al-Phil," due to its unfamiliarity to Europeans, evolved into the "fou", the jester's cap in French, and, thanks to the groove that originally styled the tusks, transformed slowly into the dented mitre of the episcopate.)

I wonder how long it took before magnificent pieces such as the "Lewis Chessmen". Found ca. 1831 at the Bay of Uig on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, these carved Romanesque walrus tusks and whale's teeth represent one of the earliest extant sets. Wikipedia paraphrases the summary by the British Museum: "Some historians believe that the Lewis chessmen were hidden (or lost) after some mishap occurred during their transportation from Norway to wealthy Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland."

It figures, whether in Yeats' stylized 1907 poem-play "Deirdre" where she and Naisi as fated lovers carry out their game-- the same played by Lugaidh Redstripe and his wife the night of their death-- while awaiting doom by the hand of King Conchubar, or in the full game incorporated into Beckett's novel "Murphy," or in Brian O'Nolan's boasts: that the Irish have long loved combining braggadacio with insults, pugnacity, and a sense of devilish one-upsmanship. Stanford Lee Cooper, who interviewed for Time magazine August 23, 1943 this Man of Mystery, Flann O'Brien/ Myles na gCopaleen/ Brian Ó Nualláin, published with a straight face:
One of the few things O’Nolan takes seriously is chess. He is equipped with a pocket chessboard, plays promiscuously with chance acquaintances. He has informally beaten World Champion Alekhine.

Beckett, for his part-- and I wish he and Flann could have collaborated, but Sam was occupied in his efforts for the French Resistance at the time that O'Nolan regaled the Yank reporter with his tall tale-- excelled at chess. At Trinity, he served as treasurer of the chess club; during the war, he played against Marcel Duchamp (who abandoned, as David Shenk emphasizes in "The Immortal Game," his artistic career to turn to chess totally); he told Deirdre Bair that the game and music "had the same intellectual beauty." Beckett mentioned chess in "Watt," "Assumption," "Dream of Fair to Middling Women," and "Eleutheria." Not only in "Endgame" if more by allusion, but in "Murphy": as a fully annotated game between the protagonist and Mr Endon. (s.v. "Chess" in "The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett," C. J. Ackerley and S. E. Gontarski, NY: Grove, 2004: 94-96.)

J.C.C. Mays wondered if that fictional game suggested the ancient contests that riled up our Irish heroes. Supposedly, their pieces in "fidchell" would levitate, as they do in Harry Potter. This invites, even if it does not reward, speculation. Did the Celts try to use the board to channel otherworldly forces? Given how little we know about my forebears, it's perhaps tempting but futile to try to answer this question. Even the most famous "real" chess player from the island, Belfast-born Alexander McDonnell, remains nearly a total mystery until he suddenly emerges to London fame, only to die there at 37 in 1835. James O'Fee has tried to unearth what can be found out about McDonnell from the archives. A heroic recuperation?

Ironically for a symbolic struggle perpetuated for millennia between implacable foes over another small field of battle, perhaps, chess gains less renown in the thirty-two counties themselves. Instead, we hear its power more sustained as "fidchell"-- if then rendered imperfectly as "chess"-- within the printed pages that capture storytelling new and old, and that again a faint cry from the Ulster Cycle's superheroes. But, if my dissertation entered the idea of purgatory in medieval literature, I suppose such aracane topics deserve as much consideration. Even if we dimly glimpse what thousands of years ago may have been much clearer, we must try to peer backwards.

What we may find, as I found on a linked article from "Chessquest," one of four sub-sections alone on "Historical Chess" within an enormous site, GoddessChess, may bring us full circle. None other than J. C. Hallman's "The Sacred Game." This pithy essay addresses exactly what I'd been trying clumsily to ask the author last week. After finishing his comparison of William James' pioneering investigations into religious understanding with contemporary American varieties invented during the intervening century, Hallman reflects briefly what draws his earlier quest closer to his more recent study.

The full article, enhanced perhaps by its brevity in that Hallman opens up neatly space for nearly limitless contemplation, tells better than I can summarize what an author who's spent years thinking about chess and religion has to tell us about the small, mysterious intersection where these two fields of human endeavor overlap, and where they may nod towards the infinite. It'd be great if this became his next book!

Here, sub-titled "Revelations," Hallman's essay's typically eloquent conclusion:
“Chess is not friendly to prose,” wrote Louis Menand, another Pulitzer winner, in a review of a chess book that was not mine. “Chess is, after all, a sport, but there is almost no way to convey what’s exciting about it to people who are not themselves deep students of the game.”

Beyond having set precisely this goal for myself when I wrote The Chess Artist, I’d have to disagree that there is no way to convey the feeling of the game. The trick, I’d say, is in indulging that side of the game that echoes the sacred, that faint twinge of community that comes along when you first sit across the board from a friend or an antagonist, the Yin to your Yang.

I’m not suggesting that chess is the paraphernalia of mystics. That would be an even odder hypothesis. But what’s clear from all this leftover research, perhaps—and what was already clear to anyone who’s ever played a serious game of chess—is that while chess is not an out-of-body experience in any way, it is precisely an in-body experience.

It can offer, in the depth of study, a faint sense of otherness. The actual experience of a game hints at the hypothesis that all these scholars and critics orbit without being able to describe. Here it is: maybe chess is still a ritual tool of some kind—a tool that triggers some special corner of the mind, where our finite organ, locked in the prison of the skull, nevertheless touches the infinity of the game and of the possible.

And perhaps in this way it is not combat at all. Perhaps in this way it reassures.

Photos: 1) Ballinderry Game Board, found 1932 in a crannog in Co. Westmeath. Perhaps "fidchell" or related "brandubh," descended from what the Vikings called "(Hnefa)tafl" table games, first recorded in 400 CE. This pegged board's 7" x 7"; the game has been reconstructed: Fidchell Rules. Recreation as re-creation: Nigel Suckling's "Celtic Chess."

2a) British Museum Set of Isle of Lewis Chessmen . 1150-1200 CE.

2b.1) Geoff Chandler demolishes this origin myth as a forgery; it's another "tafl" set: "Not Even From Lewis, Mate". Blame the bishop: he charges medievals crafted none until the 15th c.

2b.2) Alexander of Neckham called in 1180 what we know as the bishop "senex," (old man) rather than the customary "calvus/ comes/ curvus." [Marilyn Yalom, "Birth of the Chess Queen," NY: HarperCollins, 2004: 96.]

2c) I note Sam Sloan's essay-- articulating a Chinese rather than Indian starting point-- on "The Origins of Chess". His thesis may be indirectly integrated into Chandler's assertion. Sloan elaborates:
We know from the writings of Lucena (of "Lucena position" fame) that the modern form of chess was invented or at least codified in Italy during the period from 1475 to 1497 A.D. and spread like wildfire across Europe. This game brought together three features which medieval chess did not have: the modern queen, the modern bishop and en passant pawn capturing[. . . .] No doubt, the modern bishop and the modern queen were first thought of long before 1497. However, it was not until approximately that date that all of these elements were combined into the same game at the same time.

2d) British Museum may "check" Chandler's charge: Bishop Chess Piece, British, 12c. Walrus ivory, if far less abstract than Lewis; caption notes Vikings "probably" brought chess to Britain 10c; cites popularity with kings from 1100 (Henry I) onwards.

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