Thursday, November 27, 2008

Alexander Cockburn's "Idle Passion": Book Review.

These chapters, more like related essays, explore "chess and the dance of death." Cockburn asserts a Freudian interpretation; "in the world of games lie areas of darkness, of taboos, of cruel instincts and vile desires. For the time being, let us narrow our focus to the chess player face to face, as in so many medieval woodcuts, with Death." (13) Chess excludes chance and emphasizes skill; this relegates chance and accident to the margins-- away from where they fill history, science, and progress, and for Cockburn this ludic superficiality proves the game's idealist unproductivity.

Sections delve into Paul Morphy's fate; Nabokov's "The Defense," (reviewed by me here and on Amazon US); Stefan Zweig's novella "The Royal Game;" the social history of the game; miseries of its modern champions; its Soviet promotion and its Cold War symbolism (in the US: "we play poker, they play chess"); Bobby Fischer and Marcel Duchamp; and game theory. "Games become a strange parody of our existence, an ironic emblem of neurotic vanity." (95) Artists can sell their works; they produce tangible objects. Chess players do not, and even fewer masters than artists can make a living at their driven avocation. Why they devote their lives to a restless compulsion may not be answered in these pages, but they do spur Cockburn into his own treatment.

He relies upon Norman O. Brown's "Life Against Death," Johan Huizinga's "Homo Ludens," and especially Ernest Jones' "The Problem of Paul Morphy" to present cautionary case studies. He accepts that Freud can give rise to vapid speculation, but he relentlessly counters "the hostility of many chess players to psychoanalytical comment on the game," as "patients often fear that analysis will take their sublimations away by revealing their defensive function." (26)

Although unconvinced by Oedipal reductions of King-maters and Queen-pursuers, I followed patiently Cockburn's earnest efforts. He finds a lot of repetition, compulsion, repressed homosexuality, masturbatory fantasies, and morbid anxieties in the lives of a few grandmasters. Still, I am uncertain if this proves his point that chess if pursued at its highest levels can be equated with pathology.

However, his aside that this particular obsession rarely manifests itself in women "because they are happily without the psychological formations or drives that promote an expertise in the game in the first place" remains provocative. As J. C. Hallman's "The Chess Artist" and Paul Hoffman's "The King's Gambit" (also reviewed by me here and on Amazon US) more recently explore, the male-dominated world of chess professionals does invite psychological explanations. Cockburn contrasts this patriarchical realm with the reality that (until so recently that as of 1974 when this book first appeared the freedom may not yet have truly happened) "women have never been allowed the cultural space to foster that lethargic, yet zealous commitment to a useless pursuit that has fostered the bizarre careers of the great champions." (47)

Relating this insight to a lively summary of medieval chess, he shares Kenneth Colby's idea that the Queen's suddenly expanded force heightened aggression. "The innovator, argues Colby, was probably a weakling who identified with the weak King and desired to create a strong woman who would contend against the world for him." (121-22) (That the Bishop also found his reach extended always merits less attention!) Colby and Cockburn anticipate Marilyn Yalom's popularized, romanticized, if simplified argument a few decades later about the parallels between stronger female monarchs and-- around 1480-- the apparently much-delayed "birth of the chess queen." Yet, Cockburn counters with his own idea.

He reminds us that after the Middle Ages, women apparently played less often. He wonders if the Queen signifies "the degeneration of the feudal system" as "advanced technology" gives the advantage to attack rather than defense. He earlier investigates how two dozen legends exist as to why chess began; eight themes can be classified. Father murder-- chess exists as the "therapeutic agent"; war preparation; war substitute; diversion; intellectual contest; moral education; "the mater dolorosa" theme. (100) He seems on solid ground as he suggests that the medieval passion for chess may serve "as a device for sublimating political aspirations; the empty omnipotence exercised by his player over his pieces is consolation for lost power." (111) But, it will not help him regain land or command.

This supports his later studies of how chess became-- in early modern Europe-- the mark of a dispossessed gentleman of suspect and devouring leisure, as well as the trade of a con man. Or a villain (in perhaps its earlier meaning as well as its current one!): in films such sadists "often play chess. Heroes rarely do." (n. 6, 230) Cockburn's clever at distinguishing the rise of gambling and card sharps at this historical stage, as they displace the nobles who are caught between the bourgeoisie and the centralization of monarchical control.

In turn, this segues well into the Soviet exertions of what, in one of the best stretches, can be shown as a contradictory ambition of the USSR. Written at the peak of the Cold War, just after Fischer had beat Spassky, this perspective may be dated, but it's valuable for the tensions he dissects. This sentence from Pravda in 1936 typifies the Communist ethos: "Recently an All-Union Chess and draughts Congress of pig-breeders, dairymen and zoo-technicians met in the Stalin state farm, situated in the Moscow region twelve miles from the nearest railway station." (144) The problem, as Cockburn shows: chess could not be but "a perfect leisure activity: politically safe, sedate, and noncollective." (150)

He's a bit muddled on differentiating individual commitment to chess from its collective uses, and how his earlier thesis of its employment as a means to channel the frustrations of a group shut out from power aligns with the USSR's sponsorship, but he may after all mirror the inherent dialectic within the game! The Soviets tried to install chess as the ideal expression of dialectical materialism, but when it came to practically harnessing the efforts of so many pig-breeders-- or state-sinecured intellectuals-- away from their checkerboarded leisure back into the grueling construction of the "Worker's Monarchy," the synthesis eluded the commissars. "But what an irony for a socialist society to have achieved its greatest cultural triumphs in the arena of chess-- a parody of what the emancipation of the human personality can involve." (154)

That failure sums up Cockburn's reactions. The game imitated the orders of society in its ancient battle array and medieval ranked orders. But, with professionalization, the pursuit turned into work. Chess beckons with the promise of perfection, but humans cannot attain it given its receding horizon of a nearly infinite number of moves. The players "'know more rejection that any artist ever has.'" (Frank Brady on Fischer, qtd. 181, 195 & 216).

Thus, at the levels such writers as Hallman, Hoffman, and David Shenk (in another book reviewed by me here and on Amazon US, "The Immortal Game," which delves into the perfect example of Duchamp) later plumb, Cockburn trails after those who attain this rarified existence, playing a game that no longer's leisure. "The world of the expert player becomes an increasingly hermetic one, in which the repressed matter sublimated by the game may return with increasing vigor and malignancy." (215) As Zweig lamented: this pastime lures the unwary into "thought that leads to nothing," by "the ludicrous effort to corner a wooden king on a wooden board!" (qtd. 76 & 87).

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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