This post is for Ray, who is working independently on all the stuff I've been thinking about. (And if he hasn't been reading my stuff, I simply don't know what this is supposed to be about.) What follows is some stuff that was originally supposed to go in my long philosophical dialogue (PDF), but didn't make the cut. Clearly it needs it's own home, but it isn't quite ready to live on its own. The end is a mess, but the Nabokov quotes are nice. I've been tinkering with it, and it fits so well with what Ray says ...
A combination composed of a sacrifice has more immediate effect upon the person playing over the game in which it occurs than another combination, because the apparent senselessness of the sacrifice is convincing proof of the design of the player offering it. Hence it comes that the risk of material, and the victory of the weaker material over the stronger material, gives the impression of a symbol of the mastery of mind over matter. Now we see wherein lies the pleasure to be derived from a chess combination. It lies in the feeling that a human mind is behind the game dominating the inanimate pieces with which the game is carried on, and giving them the breath of life.
– R. Reti, Modern Ideas in Chess
Luzhin, preparing an attack for which it was first necessary to explore a maze of variations, where his every step aroused a perilous echo, began a long meditation: he needed, it seemed, to make one last prodigious effort and he would find the secret move leading to victory. Suddenly, something occurred outside his being, a scorching pain - and he let out a loud cry, shaking his hand stung by the flame of a match, which he had lit and forgotten to apply to his cigarette. The pain immediately passed, but in the fiery gap he had seen something unbearably awesome, the full horror of the abysmal depths of chess. He glanced at the chessboard and his brain wilted from hitherto unprecedented weariness. But the chessmen were pitiless, they held and absorbed him. There was horror in this, but in this also was the sole harmony, for what else exists in the world besides chess?
- V. Nabokov, The DefensePhil: A chessboard? And the game underway, to judge by ruined towers, fallen soldiery, clergy, royalty – though you, Socrates, sit characteristically alone, as though above the fray.
Socrates: In my life I am very like a pawn, plodding a step at a time, frequently blocked until the opportunity arises to attack, when I shift diagonally. Like all pawns, I dream of becoming something better than I am.
P: Enough with games, then. How about some philosophy?
S: A famous physicist – Heisenberg, I believe it was – remarked that chess is not a game at all but a mathematical problem to which no solution has been discovered.
P: If it looks like a game, and walks like a game, and quacks like a game, I think it must be a game.
S: Perhaps Heisenberg was just indulging in a little question-begging thought-experimentation. Perhaps another account of chess – due to Boris Spassky – will be more to your liking: “Chess, with all its philosophical depth, its aesthetic appeal, is first of all a game in the best sense of the word, a game in which are revealed your intellect, your character, your will.”
P: I like that better.
S: But Heisenberg is right that tomorrow a mathematical discovery could take a lot of the fun out of it.
P: So it is a mathematical problem, to which no solution has been discovered, in which are revealed your intellect, your character, your will?
S: Ah, romantic poetry! Allow me to recite for you some famous romantic poetry. This particular poem is supposed to be sung as a call-and-response duet, but I will take both voices myself, like so. Ahem:
(1) e4 e5
(2) f4 exf4
(3) Bc4 Qh4+
(4) Kf1 b5
(5) Bxb5 Nf6
(6) Nf3 Qh6
(7) d3 Nh5
(8) Nh4 Qg5
(9) Nf5 c6
(10) g4 Nf6
(11) Rg1 cxb5
(12) h4 Qg6
(13) h5 Qg5
(14) Qf3 Ng8
(15) Bxf4 Qf6
(16) Nc3 Bc5
(17) Nd5 Qxb2
(18) Bd6 Qxa1
(19) Ke2 Bxg1
(20) e5 Na6
(21) Nxg7+ Kd8
(22) Qf6+ Nxf6
P: That didn’t sound romantic to me.
S: The poem is ‘The Immortal Game’ – or simply, ‘The Immortal’ – of Anderssen-Kieseritzky. Anderssen is the master artist who gets the aesthetic credit.
P: I will be sure to forward it to him when it arrives. Can you hasten its arrival?
S: I am a midwife, not a postman. You perceive that this poem is composed in standard, algebraic chess notation? I am reminded of Nabokov’s description of Luzhin, protagonist of The Defense, learning to read such stuff.
At first he learned to replay the immortal games that remained from former tournaments – he would rapidly glance over the notes of chess and silently move the pieces on his board. Now and then this or that move, provided in the texts with an exclamation or a question mark (depending upon whether it had been beautifully or wretchedly played), would be followed by several series of moves in parentheses, since that remarkable move branched out like a river and every branch had to be traced to its conclusion before one returned to the main channel. These possible continuations that explained the essence of a blunder or foresight Luzhin gradually ceased to reconstruct actually on the board and contented himself with perceiving their melody mentally through the sequence of symbols and signs.
In my performance I omitted all such question marks and exclamation points. Consideration of the pragmatics of such scholia might confuse matters.
P: I think it would be less confusing if you were so kind as to add such things to your own remarks, so the audience could know when the trap was laid. But on I blunder. Why do you call a chess game – for that is evidently what it is – a ‘poem’?
S: It is a beautiful linguistic object. What else is a poem?
P: But as per the Nabokov passage, would it not be more accurate to say that the game was beautiful, or beautifully played? It is not the algebraic symbols that are beautiful, but what they signify. One must be able to see through to the game – as I confess I cannot – in order to see the beauty, such as it may be.
S: Yes, it is only when this witch – caissa – truly ‘makes herself into air, and vanishes into it’ before Luzhin’s very eyes that her beauty is disrobed. He is now a chess master, capable of playing ‘blind chess’ against numerous opponents:
He found therein deep enjoyment: one did not have to deal with visible, audible, palpable pieces whose quaint shape and wooden materiality always disturbed him and always seemed to him but the crude, mortal shell of exquisite, invisible chess forces. When playing blind he was able to sense these diverse forces in their original purity. He saw then neither the Knight’s carved mane nor the glossy heads of the Pawns – but he felt quite clearly this or that imaginary square was occupied by a definite, concentrated force, so that he envisioned the movement of a piece as a discharge, a shock, a stroke of lightning – and the whole chess field quivered with tension, and over this tension he was sovereign, here gather in and there releasing electric power.
This is just what poems are like. It is rare for the sounds and squiggles themselves to be exclusive sources of aesthetic gratification. If you can’t read English, you can’t appreciate English poetry.
P: True enough, but you can have a chess game without an algebraic denotation of it. You cannot have a poem without words.
S: Yet often what makes a poem beautiful are non-linguistic features. In the poem Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, it is very beautiful that Banquo dies but Fleance lives to become king hereafter. For, as it is written: “Verily, unless a seed fall to the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” It is also beautiful that Macbeth, who deceives those around him, is in the end paltered with by life itself. This seems to be the significance of the fact that he is undone by equivocal technicalities. The play is about sacrificing and losing, only to win all in the end. Conversely, it is about greedily seizing on things – like kingship and the promises of weird women in the night – only to have them turn out to be empty tokens.
P: So you think Macbeth is good not because of the language but because it teaches the meaning of life, or lack thereof, or at any rate has an improving moral? The play teaches the audience to hate this equivocal old world and love the next, or something similarly utilitarian?
S: You ironic fellow! I have no idea whether Macbeth has saved a soul from “the common enemy of man”, whoever he may be. I’m thinking about how “The Immortal Game” is admired because, with move 17 – Nd5 – white is evidently already planning for a perfect minor checkmate. A very neat formal trick: in a pure checkmate, all the open squares around an enemy king are covered, but none more than once. In a pure minor checkmate, only minor pieces – in this case, a bishop and two knights – are required for complete coverage. A double economy of force, if you will. So the poem shines, as the best do, formally. But that is not all. In order to pull off the formal trick, white is called upon to sacrifice his queen, two rooks and a bishop. When checkmate is achieved, he is down a king’s ransom. And black, whose king is suddenly in need of ransoming, learns to his regret that the great pile of material he has amassed is just so many worthless tokens. “Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown/ And put a barren sceptre in my gripe.” All of black’s material is strewn, sterile but intact, to corners of the field. White’s fallen seeds have born fruit. In short, the game – like the play – is about sacrifice: about giving everything up, only to win all in the end. Thus, the game is essentially an object of formal beauty, but equally essentially an expression of intellect, character, and will. If either element were lacking – if the sacrifices and victory were formally crude, or the perfect minor checkmate came after a listlesss middle-game –
P: - You are straining this conceit to the breaking point. But I suppose there is nowhere to go but forward. Why call this game ‘romantic’? Merely because of the multiple deaths of white’s queen and companions at the hand of a man in black?
S: There is also a loose quality to the formal elegance of the game. The game is not a model of mathematical discipline by contemporary standards. The opening is most peculiar. Among other things, white and black chase each other around on horseback. Likewise, in modern fiction chases on horseback are passé. More generally, black does not defend himself brilliantly; nor does white take every care that his many sacrifices not be in vain. The linchpin – that maddening Nd5 – is reckless from a certain standpoint; d4 would be safer. So a chess technician might sniff at the romantic cult of “The Immortal”. “A win by an unsound combination, however showy, fills me with artistic horror,” declares the systematizer Steinitz. Likewise, Gide sniffs at the romantic cult of Shakespeare: ‘one can learn neither right reason nor correct style from this wild stuff,’ or words to that effect. More fundamentally, to quote the fine literary critic Denis Donoghue: ‘I hate chess.’ The response of many literary critics to a stretch of algebra on the altar of literary romanticism would be to hustle the unclean offering from the temple.
P: It may be that humanistic academic departments should bear inscriptions opposite in sense to the one that graced Plato’s academy. ‘Only those without mathematics may enter.’
S: Plato went head over heels for math and broke his crown, but how much more absurd to go overboard in the opposite direction and land flat on your ass? I have tried to show that this particular chess game has a little something in common with Macbeth.
P: But perhaps the anti-algebraic guardians of the temple have a point in this case?
S: The first line of temple defense will be to stipulate artificial, formal languages out of bounds, poetically. Formal languages will be said not to exhibit the right openness to significant verbal play that leads to openness to interpretation. As Dryden says, 'no text is every fully explicated.' But of course ‘the Immortal’ is not without its ludic aspect, nor has it yet been explicated to the satisfaction of its students. Yet it is denoted – completely – by means of simple algebra.
P: The intentionalist critic will point out that what makes the game interesting is its intentionality: Spassky’s intellect, character, and will.
S: Nevertheless the intentionalist is wrong to suppose we are driven to consider intentions by some consideration about the very nature of meaning, let alone symbolism. The reason we are interested in Anderssen’s ‘intentional horizons’ – to pick a likely candidate notion – is obviously not that we are obliged to consider them in order to understand sentences like ‘Nd5’. We know what that sentence means: knight to d5. The fact that this is a bold, strangely precise bit of recklessness, leading to ultimate glory, does not in any way inflate the modest semantic content of ‘Nd5’. The real reason we are bound to consider Anderssen’s intentionality, if we are, is that we are bound to consider what we find essential to the interest of the game.
P: Doesn’t the move, Nd5, turn out to be pregnant with meaning, hence also the sentence ‘Nd5’, which denotes the move, and, by extension, anything ‘inside’?
S: One of those “Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie/Thy soul’s immensity”-type situations? I grant the premise, not the conclusion. The move is pregnant with meaning. Anderssen’s opponent failed to note it to his cost. Unlike Macbeth’s witches, poor farmer Kieseritsky evidently could not “look into the seeds of time/ And say which grain will grow and which will not.” But it does not at all follow that the sentence, ‘Nd5’, is pregnant with semantic threats of barrenness. Think of it this way. Almost every famous chess game is a well-wrought urn in Cleanth Brooks’ sense. For Brooks, a poem is a complex unity in disunity – an aesthetic monad riven by paradox. He says literary paradox is characterized by the logic of ‘both-and’ rather than that of ‘either-or’. “We are disciplined in the tradition of either-or, and lack the mental agility – to say nothing of the maturity of attitude – which would allow us to indulge in the finer distinctions and the more subtle reservations permitted by the tradition of both-and.” The fact that one cannot go in more than one direction, really, while being so directed by the poem, generates aesthetic satisfaction. If, in reading poetry, one were either too obtuse to note the occasional impossibility in one’s marching orders, or too acute not to countermand half those impossible orders on one’s own logical authority, one would be a bad reader. For example, pity cast in the unlikely role of “naked newborn babe/ Striding the blast.” How is this to be imagined? As Brooks inquires: “Is the babe natural or super-natural – an ordinary, helpless baby, who, as new-born, could not, of course, even toddle, much less stride the blast? Or is it some infant Hercules, quite capable of striding the blast, but, since it is powerful and not helpless, hardly the typical pitiable object?” The fact that poetry thrives on paradox likes this guarantees that poetic “unity is not a unity of the sort to be achieved by the reduction and simplification appropriate to an algebraic formula.” Which is what makes Nd5 such a perfect example of paradox, in Brooks’ sense. One’s mind is set oscillating furiously between notional poles of ludicrous weakness and impossible strength.
P: So a good illustration of how a poem cannot possibly be a piece of algebra might be a line from a poem composed entirely of algebra?
S: Brooks is obviously right that simple algebra cannot semantically encode paradox, in his sense. But the meaning of Nd5 is paradoxical. Therefore ‘Nd5’ does not mean the same as Nd5. Pace Dryden, this text, ‘Nd5’, can be completely explicated – knight to square d5 – though the thing the text means, Nd5, plausibly cannot be completely explicated. As the poet Gray might have put it, had he been vouchsafed an audience with that humble token, Anderssen’s d5 knight: “Ludic historian, who canst thus express/ A mathy tale more sweetly than our rhyme:/ What rule-fringed legend haunts about thy shape/ Of deities and mortals, or of –“
P: Do you have a logical argument from premises no one could deny to the irresistible conclusion that there is a sharp distinction the meaning of ‘Nd5’ and the meaning of Nd5?
S: Suppose I am teaching you chess notation. I test you on this sentence, ‘Nd5’. What is the criterion of your complete understanding of the sentence?
P: Confronted with the position, I must be able to place the right piece on the right square?
S: Suppose I now ask you what the meaning of Nd5 is: the move, not the sentence? Suppose you answer that you do not know?
P: It follows I am not good at chess, or have not studied this game; it does not follow that I do not understand chess notation. It is easy to learn to understand chess notation perfectly. It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand chess perfectly. But what does all this go to show?
S: It seems to me I hereby position myself to check a wide range of standard accounts of the nature of literature, of poetry in particular. I cannot possibly explore every variant development of this gambit here and now, however. Let me be brief. First, my line might be blocked with a denial that “Immortal” is any sort of poem. But deniers who then attempt to enumerate features that distinguish poems from non-poems may have trouble avoiding embarrassment when allegedly distinguishing poetical marks show up on the “Immortal”.
P: Suppose, for the sake of argument, the 'Immortal' is granted to be a poem.
S: First, the game’s poetic beauty and force cannot plausibly be explained with talk about ‘the complexity of language’, or ‘language-use’, or ‘language-games’, or ‘linguistic elements drawing attention to their own linguisticality’, or ‘free-play of signifiers’. Mostly this is because algebraic chess notation is simple, rigid and unplayful, although it denotes things that are complex, flexible and playful. Second, the poetic power of the “Immortal” is not plausibly a function of authorial intentionality, construed in any of the usual ways. This is true on two levels: ‘Nd5’ does not mean what it does in virtue of some intentional act by Andersson and/or his opponent. And Nd5 does not have the significance it does in virtue of Andersson’s ‘intentional horizon’, say. His intentionality is important, but not in the constitutive sense that a poet or author’s intentionality allegedly is, as per theorists like Hirsch, Fish, Knapp and Michaels, others. Third, the poetic power of the “Immortal” cannot easily be explained in terms of the audience’s reception of the game. This is complicated – as are the first two points. Mostly the trouble is that standard accounts of what makes receptions of poetry distinctive are loath to accommodate bloodlessly cerebral performances of the creative mind, however affectively intense. Consider this description – from Nabokov’s Speak, Memory – of the process of chess problem construction:
The chessboard before him is a magnetic field, a system of stresses and abysses, a starry firmament. The bishops move over it like searchlights. This or that knight is a lever adjusted and tried, and readjusted and tried again, till the problem is tuned up to the necessary level of beauty and surprise. How often have I struggled to bind the terrible force of White’s queen so as to avoid a dual solution! It should be understood that competition in chess problems is not really between White and Black but between the composer and the hypothetical solver (just as in a first-rate work of fiction the real clash is not between the characters but between the author and the world), so that a great part of a problem’s value is due to the number of “tries” – delusive opening moves, false scents, specious lines of play, astutely and lovingly prepared to lead the would-be solver astray. But whatever I can say about this matter of problem composing, I do not seem to convey sufficiently the ecstatic core of the process and its points of connection with various other, more overt and fruitful, operations of the creative mind, from the charting of dangerous seas to the writing of one of those incredible novels where the author, in a fit of lucid madness, has set himself certain unique rules that he observes, certain nightmare obstacles that he surmounts, with the zest of a deity building a love world from the most unlikely ingredients – rocks, and carbon, and blind throbbings.
P: I see the problem. We threaten to lose track of whatever is distinctive about poetry, if there is no way to tell the difference between bursts of poetic inspiration and rigorous mathematics exercises.
S: As Plato says, I want to know whether I am part rational being, part poetical monster. As Nietzsche writes, “Let us introduce the refinement and rigor of mathematics into all sciences as far as this is at all possible, not in the faith that this will lead us to know things but in order to determine our human relation to things. Mathematics is merely the means for general and ultimate knowledge of man.”
P: What does this have to do with the “Immortal”?
S: As Nabokov writes, of these demons that may be left when the mathematics is peeled back:
Themes in chess, it may be explained, are such devices as forelaying, withdrawing, pinning, unpinning and so forth; but it is only when they are combined in a certain way that a problem is satisfying. Deceit, to the point of diabolism, and originality, verging upon the grotesque, were my notions of strategy; and although in matters of construction I tried to conform, whenever possible, to classical rules, such as economy of force, unity, weeding out of loose ends, I was always ready to sacrifice purity of form to the exigencies of fantastic content, causing form to bulge and burst like a sponge-bag containing a small furious devil.
Upon rereading his own novel, The Defense, Nabokov writes that he is reminded of Anderssen’s immortal move 17, Nd5. The themes of the game and the themes of the novel are the same. On the other hand, he may be lying through his teeth.
P: Why would you think?
S: He is certainly lying a few lines down when he calls the critic’s attention, in advance, to certain scenes in the novel that illustrate this ‘chess theme’: for example, the scenes in which the black king, Luzhin, is preoccupied by patterns of tile on hotel bathroom floors, while he sits morosely on the throne.
P: How do you know Nabokov is lying about what these scenes signify? I can see how there could be chess allegory lurking in such a thing.
S: The scenes are not in the novel. Which just goes to show that it is a bad idea taking valuable material that poets appear to have left completely undefended without checking to see whether it is some sort of hideous trap.