Abstract

The New York Times has an article on Bobby Fischer and the lessons we are supposed to learn from his life.

There may be only three human activities in which miraculous accomplishment is possible before adulthood: mathematics, music and chess. These are abstract, almost invented realms, closed systems bounded by rules of custom or principle. Here, the child learns, is how elements combine and transform; here are the laws that govern their interactions; and here are the possibilities that emerge as you play with signs, symbols, sounds or pieces. Nothing else need be known or understood — at least at first. A child’s gifts in such realms can seem otherworldly, the achievements effortlessly magical. But as Bobby Fischer’s death on Thursday might remind us, even abstract gifts can exact a terrible price.

(As an aside, notice the condescending assumption that children don’t have actual experiences, that they don’t “know or understand” the real world.)

The point of this opening paragraph is to stake out the refuge to which the writer will return to explain Fischer’s demented personality: his complete paranoia, his anti-Semitism, his irrational fear of communist conspiracies, his celebration of 9/11 as “wonderful news.” After raising only to dismiss the idea that Fischer’s paranoia may have resulted from his being used by the State Department as a Cold War tool, the Times assures us that it his “craziness is closely connected with the essential nature of chess.” So

Perhaps we should be grateful that such gifts are so rare, for if they were not, how many of us would prefer to remain cocooned in these glass-bead games? At least in mathematics and music, we may be grateful too that ultimately, with the coming of maturity, the world starts to put constraints on abstract play.

Again with the “abstract.” But not abstraction, which is astutely avoided. Which is to say, in Times world one can talk of the abstract — in games, or life, or thought — but not of the real abstractions of commodity exchange, of money, and of nation-states. Avoiding such real abstractions of course leads the Times to an even larger abstraction: that of separating a subject from its milieu, of assuming that individuals can be described outside of their social and historical specificity.

Fischer’s mistake — and here perhaps is where his “childishness” comes into play — was not to remain trapped in abstraction but the opposite: He took the Cold War literally. Since the official U.S. ideology was that the commies were out to destroy America, to “get us,” Fischer took steps to make sure this didn’t happen by having his fillings removed and making sure he carried around enough pills to kill himself before the commies did. If paranoia and fear were the primary Cold War affects, Fischer embodied them completely. His was a deadly serious anticommunism.

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