Thursday, February 19, 2009

a recollection deeply embedded in a discussion of a quotation about a game of chess

I ought to tackle Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation again, since I haven’t read it since the late Robert Detweiler’s senior seminar in literary criticism (Bob taught us to approach individual topics via the largest framework possible).

I have no idea whether there is any validity in Koestler’s half-century-old data on the various types of creativity and their physiological, psychological, and social bases. I’ve written somewhere recently, either on joculum or Counterforces, about Koestler’s ability to render his judgments suspect through his fascination with unfashionable topics.

But it is obvious that someone needs to update the blurry understanding of the interior transformation of abstract and concrete topics of fascination: the right arrangement of words is in many ways so different from the right arrangement of shapes and color, and the capacity to combine the two with the right kinds of abstract categorization is a skill that itself is utterly unrelated to the capacity to combine and rearrange numerical relations.

And possession of any of the foregoing does not guarantee any capacity to make practical use of any of it, or even to present it in public comprehensibly.

One might note George Steiner’s sneering aside in a lovely paragraph regarding chess, in an essay found both in his Extraterritorial and in Robert Boyers’ recent anthology George Steiner at the New Yorker:

“To a true chess player, the pushing about of thirty-two counters on 8x8 squares is an end in itself, a whole world next to which that of mere biological or political or social life seems messy, stale, and contingent.” [And hence, “…normal creatures otherwise engaged” such as Vladimir Lenin or George Steiner have pursued chess in “siren moments”:] “Not for gain, not for knowledge or renown, but in some autistic enchantment, pure as one of Bach’s inverted canons or Euler’s formula for polyhedra. There, surely, lies one of the real connections. For all their wealth of content, for all the sum of history and social institution vested in them, music, mathematics, and chess are resplendently useless (applied mathematics is just higher plumbing, a kind of music for the police band). They are metaphysically trivial, irresponsible. They refuse to relate outward, to take reality for arbiter. This is the source of their witchery. They tell us, as does a kindred but much later process, abstract art, of man’s capacity to ‘build against the world,’ to devise forms that are zany, totally useless, austerely frivolous. Such forms are irresponsible to reality, and therefore inviolate, as is nothing else, to the banal authority of death.”

Steiner’s September 1968 essay (and what a month in which to be writing such a paragraph!) misses the distinctions between types of abstract art, but Minimalism is indeed the chess of the art world, and it is unfortunate that Steiner seemed, like so many literary types of that moment, to be operating in total ignorance of what was going on in the galleries. (But then, the galleries were operating in blissful ignorance of what was going on in the streets, much less in the university classrooms.)

And Steiner knew less than nothing about pop music or about the serious types who combined art-school intellectualism with pop-music interests. (One knows “less than nothing” about a topic when the opinions one offers are not only ignorant, but ass-backwards.)

But this brief passage is one of the best summations of the post-WWII world’s problem and promise as it appeared circa 1968: for as the inheritors of Sartre and Camus and Gabriel Marcel would have observed, the only way to “keep it real” is precisely and always to acknowledge “the banal authority of death.” Horace’s antique “I shall not wholly die” seemed irrelevant for thinkers who were painfully aware of how easily the inheritance of a civilization could go up in collateral-damage flames and/or be subjected to systematic extermination. “More lasting than monuments of bronze”? Ha. The manuscripts of antiquity that contained such noble sentiments had barely made it to the Renaissance past the century of the great invasions, and the monastery-burnings of Europe’s wars of the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, such lessons could be forgotten in a single generation; despite the disparity of war in Asia, by 1968 the generation born in the wake of the world war was basking in unparalleled prosperity, and its most famous version of irresponsibility to reality was to throw money on the floor of the Stock Exchange, watch the brokers scramble to pick up the pittances, and point out that in an age of abundance it made more sense to automate the means of production and guarantee everyone fully paid unemployment. There was nothing “austere” about that performance-art “frivolity.”

The vision was completely ridiculous; but so was the pursuit of abstract counters for the sake of having the biggest quantity of abstract counters with which to do nothing except acquire still more abstract counters and occasionally trade in a few for the toys of status, with which the acquirers did not have time to play. (And yet that pointless pursuit would eventually destroy entire interlinked economies, and do so more than once.)

A mathematician relative of an artist friend once calculated how many dollar bills would have to be lying on the sidewalk to make it worth the while of one of the world’s richest entrepreneurs to bend down and pick them up. He calculated that the quantity that would justify the time engaged in scooping them up would be astonishingly huge…since only that amount would equal the amount of money the guy acquired by other means of effort.

“Only a mathematician would say that,” I answered. “The correct answer is, one dollar bill. Because that is a dollar that does not yet belong to this guy. And, well, that is just plain unsatisfactory, now isn’t it?”

I tried a few times in childhood and adolescence, but I never could memorize the rules for playing chess.

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