22 January 2008

Bobby Fischer: God or Beast?

I thought of Aristotle's famous remark:

δὲ μὴ δυνάμενος κοινωνεῖν μηδὲν δεόμενος δι' αὐτάρκειαν οὐθὲν μέρος πόλεως, ὥστε θηρίον θεός.
"Anyone who cannot belong to a community, or has no need to do so in view of his self-sufficiency, is not part of political society. One can only conclude that he is a beast -- or a god."
--when I read a stunningly good reflection today in the WSJ on Bobby Fischer, "Victim of his own Success" by Brian Carney.

We perhaps take Aristotle's saying to apply only to our embeddedness political society. But note that δυνάμενος κοινωνεῖν seems in the first instance general, and one's occupying a role in political society is presented as a consequence of this.

Now one finds that Aristotle's maxim is confirmed exactly in the life of Bobby Fischer. He was not δυνάμενος κοινωνεῖν because he "had no equal" (precisely because, curiously, he did not lose) and could not tolerate the possibility that he could have an equal (so that he later would not allow himself to lose, and gave up chess).

He began his public career perhaps as a self-sufficient 'god' of chess, who held himself aloof from society from others by choice, but as a consequence he had removed himself from the polis, and accordingly he became just as much a 'beast'.

His belief in himself at the chess board and his suspicion of others away from it may have been related. Mig Greengard, a chess columnist, recounted to me what he called his favorite Bobby Fischer quote. In 1960, in a tournament in Buenos Aires in which he uncharacteristically finished 13th, Fischer was emerging from the tournament hall after a win. One of the assembled admirers offered him a standard compliment: "Great game, Bobby." Fischer snapped back, "How would you know?"

In Fischer's view, there was almost no one in the world, besides him, who understood what he was doing at the chess board. Few people were even competent to compliment him, never mind offer criticism. But if he felt that way about the area of endeavor to which he devoted his life, it's not hard to see how he could blunder into feeling that way about most everything else.

The French philosopher Alexander Kojeve once wrote that the only defense against madness is the accord of your peers. That is, if you can convince no one that your beliefs are well-founded, then it's probably you who are crazy, and not the herd. Fischer's problem was that he had no peers, at least not in chess, so he had no one to check his worst tendencies. The world championship he won in 1972 validated his view of himself as a chess player, but it also insulated him from the humanizing influences of the world around him. He descended into what can only be considered a kind of madness.

Carney's analysis is much superior to that of Gary Kasparov (also in the WSJ) who it seems here thinks primarily of skill and talent, not relationship to persons.


Tim Lacy said...

Thanks for the quotes from Aristotle and Alexander Kojeve. Very useful---aside from being intriguing philosophically. - TL