Sunday, May 12, 2013

heart vs. character

Lawrence Lipking is one of those few academic literary critics who one can read for enjoyment. I’ve been thinking lately about an essay he wrote a decade ago on literary criticism and chess. I commented upon it in LI at the time, and I just returned to it. It is still a well wrought thing.  Lipking writes a lot about chess, since he is a grand master as well as a surviving  member of what used to be the upper echelon of the lit crit establishment. The essay, Chess Minds and Critical Moves, mixes the field of literary criticism and chess, using Lipking’s own experience in playing William Wimsatt as an example.

“Nevertheless, a great gulf separated the two of us: 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.  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. “
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. This attracted me to philosophy, even to the rather disastrous decision to spend years  in a graduate school in philosophy. Philosophy in the anglosphere is usually divided under the old Cold War categories of analytic and Continental, but Lipking’s division seems more pertinent. There were analytics and Continentals who looked for the ingenius move, and viewed the solution to a problem as an irritant, a sort of bell signaling the end of recess. And there were members of the same two groups that viewed the problems as pests, and were all about solutions. For the analytics, this ultimately meant computer science, and for the Continentals, it meant religion or politics.   

In my heart, I want to remain on the playground, but since the age of 35, I have slowly come to understand my character better – and my character is not an extension of my heart. My character is a limited thing, and it wants a limited number of moves to a certain end. My character is a player.
Still, I am not an unmixed player. Oh heart, oh problem seeking  heart, tied to me as cans to a dog’s tail  – to get all Yeatsian about it. The limits of the player’s world are not only defined by a strategic end but, at least in my case, by boredom. Boredom is the revenge of my repressed problem heart. It undermines my projects, to an extent.

Back to Lipking: “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 - 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. “

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