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Wednesday, November 12, 2003


LI�s prize for the best essay in an academic journal goes, in a unanimous decision, to the Lawrence Lipking�s Chess Minds and Critical Moves in the Winter 2003 New Literary History.

Seriously, go to a library, LI reader, and check out this essay. It is astonishing. Lipking, a professor at Northwestern, is a chess master. He�s also a member of the upper echelon of the lit crit establishment. These are two exclusive circles � and usually mutually exclusive ones, too. By way of an extended comparison between chess and literary criticism, Lipking does a lot in the essay: he sets up a memorial to(and carps a bit at) William Wimsatt, who was also a chess fanatic; he makes a distinction between problem setter and player that I have been waiting for all my life; he riffs on an extremely funny chess passage in Beckett�s Murphy; he considers what criticism does, and why it does it the way it does it now, and why it did it the way it did it when he became part of the �game;� he makes a tentative foray into the touchy question of genius, re the genius of certain chess players; and he asks, where have all the poet/critics gone?

Here�s the passage on problem creators vs. players:

�Nevertheless, a great gulf separated the two of us [Wimsatt and Lipking]: he was a problemist, I was a player. The distinction between these habits of mind is so fundamental that, like yin and yang, it can be used to divide the whole intellectual world into contrary pairs�for example, Plato the problemist and Aristotle the player, or Being and Becoming. The problemist seeks perfection of form and idea (or "theme"), and arranges the pieces artistically to realize that theme in the purest and most elegant way. The player seeks the excitement of a constantly shifting struggle against a recalcitrant foe, and subordinates considerations of beauty and style to the most efficient method of winning. A move is best, for the problemist, when most ingenious; for the player, when most advantageous. A problemist needs to be original; a player needs to be tough. 2 In practice, to be sure, the two habits of mind often mingle. Most problemists also play games, and most players sometimes solve problems. Yet Wimsatt was not at all a strong player, and difficult problems usually baffle me.
On one occasion he showed me a "slender Indian" he had composed, which "has cropped up again and again in my conversations with new chess friends and has worked as a kind of touchstone. No chess player who had an acquaintance with problems has ever failed to solve it almost upon inspection. No player who was largely uninitiated in problems has ever been able to solve it at all" (HC 15). [End Page 156]
By chance, since I recognized the signs of an "Indian," the solution leapt to my mind, and its clever logic was pleasing. 3 Yet the artificial world of the problem also annoyed me. In a game Black would have resigned long since, nor would anyone care if the mate took five moves rather than four. Players are prejudiced against such devices.�

For myself, this passage put a silver ball in motion. Bing bing bing, it touched all the lights. My early intellectual life, really up until around 35, was spent under the problemist spell. I actually considered myself a maker of formal structures, of interesting problems with multiple solutions. I loved that sentence of Novalis�s: God is a problem whose solution is another problem.

But I have been slowly realizing that I am not a great maker of problems. Usually we divide our lives between the head and the heart � but in my case, the division was between my head and my character. My character is a player. I find my current novel much more interesting than my previous novels because I am writing it to win. Not just to win money, although that is a major point, but to win in terms of a certain kind of novel. One that is exterior, and oriented towards what language indicates � character and action � rather than interior, and oriented towards what language is � the density of it, the matter of it. I used to be obsessed with the idea that the way a person spoke materially embodied a certain history � by accent, by phrases, by hesitations, one could tease out the whole layered geneology. The voice was literally, in this reading, the conscience. Whether that is true or not, however, I am much less concerned with that resonant realism in what I am writing right now.
If I still haven�t convinced you to read the Lipking, I�ll paste two more grafs here on the subject of winning, playing, art and criticism. Where Lipking uses criticism, I substitute the phrase, novel writing �

�To speak for myself, the deep pleasure of chess can rival the spell of great music. In the best games there comes a moment�the one that Satan and his Watch Fiends cannot find 11 �when the balance of tensions in a position reaches its climax and the mind is challenged to see through all the ramifications. This is a dangerous moment for a player like me, because time seems suspended while the analysis lasts, and the clock keeps ticking away. When I indulge this luxury too much, time pressure will finally ruin me. But the pleasure is usually worth it. Just as some critics gradually go to the heart of a poem, surrendering to the process for its own sake rather than any rewards that may follow, a chessplayer can savor a game whether winning or losing. Both as a player and critic, I prize these moments of incredibly focused attention. They do not last long in chess, unfortunately. Once the game is over, its aftereffects do not linger and spread as they sometimes do with poems and music. Chess draws on cognitive powers like those of the critic, but not on the other capacities that a critic requires, where all the senses and feelings come into play. Even a very good game does not tell us, like Rilke's Apollo, to change our lives. But subject to that limitation, the pleasure of chess is intense. Unlike Rilke's Apollo, it affirms unashamedly that the head is important.

"Yet chess and criticism are not always a pleasure. Professionals regard them as hard work, and amateurs tremble at the constant prospect of humiliation. An emphasis on the euphoria of playing the game, as if competitors were connoisseurs, neglects the harsh demands of practical play, when artistry often bows to sheer will power. Successful players cannot afford to aestheticize chess. The best move, like the best critical interpretation, often involves resisting a tempting, ingenious, or pretty idea and choosing a line that is ugly, brutal, and sound. Self-command scores over self-admiration. From this point of view my surrender to pleasure might be considered not only a weakness�a covert problemist undermining a player�but also a fundamental denial of the nature of chess, and perhaps of criticism as well. Chess, a skeptic might say, is by no means an art. It is a game, a contest between opposing sides; and someone who forgets about winning and losing might as well play with himself. And another skeptic might add that chess is also a science, a systematic pursuit of objectively optimal moves, while art consists of subjective illusions that veil or manipulate data. A similar point could be raised about the task of the critic. Despite Oscar Wilde's embrace of the critic as artist, in practice most critics seem more like policemen, or at least like debaters and judges�devoted to games and systems rather than art. The art of a critic arouses mistrust, as Wilde understood quite [End Page 165] well, because it represents a confusion of realms, as when a flashy referee gets tangled together with wrestlers. The pretensions of chess to be more than a game provoke the same misgivings. Such activities cross the line between work and play; apparently no one knows how to define them.�

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