Let’s talk about chess.
Sixty-four squares, half white, half black; thirty-two pieces, half white, half black; two players, half playing as white, half playing as black.
Of course, Stefan Zweig put it better in his novella Chess (translation from the German by Anthea Bell), often also titled The Royal Game in English.
Quote: Is [chess] not also a science and an art, hovering between those categories as Muhammad’s coffin hovered between heaven and earth, a unique link between pairs of opposites: ancient yet eternally new; mechanical in structure, yet made effective only by the imagination; limited to a geometrically fixed space, yet with unlimited combinations; constantly developing, yet sterile; thought that leads nowhere; mathematics calculating nothing; art without works of art; architecture without substance – but nonetheless shown to be more durable in its entity and existence than all books and works of art; the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, although no one knows what god brought it down to earth to vanquish boredom, sharpen the senses and stretch the mind.
That’s a single sweeping sentence, so richly deep, that you could dive into it repeatedly and come up each time with a new pearl.
What makes the Quote (and the whole novella) quiver?
Dichotomy and duality.
The Quote illustrates the intricacies and impact of chess by listing combinations of opposing qualities. Such paradoxical blending exemplifies the leitmotif of the novella.
I first came across an excerpt from Chess years ago. Time passed, I forgot the author and the title, but the leitmotif remained in the form of an image from the book: a man playing chess with crumbs on a small table pushed against the window. The window looked out on a wall.
Afterwards, every so often, when I came across claustrophobia or loneliness, this image would rear up and give me hope. Even if all you had was a view of a wall, you could bootstrap yourself out of boredom. Imagination meant entertainment.
While I’m at it, let me thank another literary character for his ingenuity and vividness of character. Baron Münchhausen got himself and his horse stuck in a quagmire with no help at hand. He then devised the ingenious solution of pulling himself out (and his horse) by his pigtail.
(Although, the word bootstrap has corrupted the picture, and sometimes I imagine Münchhausen tugging on leather rather than hair.)
Münchhausen is my symbol of optimistic absurd that converts to absurd optimism, and we all know that’s precisely the kind you need in order to face what everyone else says is impossible.
The impossible is what Zweig uses to hook the reader.
The novella begins by describing the current, unbeatable world champion (an imaginary character) with all his foibles, and in particular, his rustic, unintellectual abilities beyond the chessboard. The build up, one senses, is there to make his fall all the greater.
Or is it? (Read to find out.)
Without giving much away, but with duality in mind, it turns out the other protagonist of the novella is the champion’s exact opposite in character and play style. Between the two opposing forces is the writer-narrator with his insatiable curiosity. He’s the kibitzer, if you like.
But both chess and play style are external dualities; the internal duality is the one that matters and the one for which you need breadcrumbs and a window facing the wall. It involves a split of consciousness that the protagonist of Chess says feels like jumping over your own shadow. It’s also a delicious starting point for a thought experiment. However, taken too far, it becomes a matter of mental health, so if you read the book, read it as a warning, a study, a message. The game of chess is the perfect parable.
What is at the core of the Quote?
In general, all figures of speech are based on duality. If we take a figure of speech to be any artful variation from common usage, the two opposites are: figure and common usage. As long as there is a norm there will be artful variations of it, and likewise to have artful variations you need a norm.
In particular, some figures expose duality of meaning.
An antithesis is a deliberate juxtaposition of opposing ideas for the purposes of contrast (He is blind to his own problems, but sees everyone else’s).
An oxymoron is a compressed paradox (The blind seer).
And synœciosis is a figure by which contrasted or heterogeneous things are associated or coupled, e.g. contrary qualities attributed to the same subject. (He can see, even though he’s blind.) In short: if antithesis and oxymoron had a child it would probably be synœciosis.
Some sources conflate oxymoron and synœciosis, but I’ll try to keep them separate for the duration of this post at least: oxymoron is a sharp, head-on collision of contradictory elements, synœciosis is softer.
Here’s the breakdown of the Quote.
The figures in the parentheses are what I think the author intended them to be, rather than what they are objectively. For example, you may consider a thought that leads nowhere to be quite possible, but I suspect the author intended it paradoxically.
- Is it not also a science and an art, (synœciosis)
- hovering between those categories as Muhammad’s coffin hovered between heaven and earth, (simile)
- a unique link between pairs of opposites: (a central thesis of the novella)
- ancient yet eternally new; (synœciosis)
- mechanical in structure, yet made effective only by the imagination; (synœciosis)
- limited to a geometrically fixed space, yet with unlimited combinations; (synœciosis)
- constantly developing, yet sterile; (synœciosis)
- thought that leads nowhere; (oxymoron)
- mathematics calculating nothing; (oxymoron)
- art without works of art; (oxymoron)
- architecture without substance (oxymoron)
- but nonetheless shown to be more durable in its entity and existence than all books and works of art; (fact)
- the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, (fact)
- although no one knows what god brought it down to earth to vanquish boredom, sharpen the senses and stretch the mind. (Personification of origins, and reaching the climax of this auxesis, or climactic ordering, by bringing in a god.)
And there you have it: an impressive list of miniature contrasts. The novella unfolds duality on a larger scale.
- Chess, Stefan Zweig.
- Banville’s review of another book by Zweig for The Guardian. Also contains anecdotes and biographical data.
- The Crucible of Consciousness : An Integrated Theory of Mind and Brain, Zoltan Torey. A challenging, but interesting read.