Sunday, January 20, 2008

Bobby Fischer, RIP

Chess immortal and onetime child prodigy Bobby Fischer died two days ago. (NYT photo to left. Please don't sue me! I mean well!) Inevitably, much of the writing about his passing has acknowledged the existence of the elephant in the middle of the room: Fischer's long, long tenure as a screwloose crank. Scroll down this article by the excellent Edward Rothstein and you'll see that some of BF's public pronouncements about the Jews make those of Hitler (if you can forget everything else you know about Adolf) seem mild by comparison. And then there was his hailing the 9/11 attacks as "wonderful news." And calling for the assassination of G. W. Bush.

Rothstein raises an interesting question: does BF's amazing weirdness have anything to do with chess? He thinks it does. Chess, like music and mathematics, is a field in which one can excel at a very early age. But it is also unlike them in a crucial way, he says:
Great music attains its power not simply through manipulation and abstraction, but by creating analogies with experience; music is affected by life, not cut off from it. Mathematics also comes up against the demands of the world, as the field opens up to understanding; early insights are tested against the full scale of what has been already been done and what yet remains undone.

But chess, alone among this abstract triumvirate, is never tested or transformed. The only way expertise is ever tried is in victory or defeat. And if a player is as profoundly powerful as Mr. Fischer, defeat never creates a sense of limits. Seeing into a game and defeating an opponent — that defines the entire world.
I have my doubts about this, for two sorts of reasons:

Sort #1, Empirical: This would imply that the chess world contains more nut jobs than those of music or math. Does it? I certainly don't have any supporting evidence here. Chess has BF, and it had Paul Morphy (the genius who was the unofficial first world champion, and quit chess because it is "only a game" in order to become a mediocre lawyer). But music had Wagner. And Michael Jackson. And don't get me started on how many nutty mathematicians there have been.

Sort #2, A Priori: The argument seems to be that music and math include some kind of reality-check for your ideas, whereas chess does not, unless of course you lose. Which, generally, Fischer did not.

Do music and math involve checking your ideas against extramusical and extramathematical reality in the way required by this argument? I'm really not sure. If I develop a theorem that there is/is not a highest prime number, and my proof is fine according to the rules internal to the practice of math, what reality check am I ever going to get?

Also, insofar as there is an external check, it might not be the sort of thing that would influence the mind of the individual practitioner. Maybe the check is on the realm as a whole. I don't think music could exist if all would-be musicians were as emotionally stunted and out of touch as Michael Jackson. Take one look at him and you know: this guy has no idea how weird he seems to others. His ability to perceive other people's emotions is probably very poor. The sort of music that Jackson does is both simple (compare it to a string quartet, say) and structured by traditional rules and practices, so he can do very well indeed by getting around in that self-sufficient parallel universe: the world of music. He doesn't need to know much about how to get around in the emotional universe of actual, concrete human beings.

But Rothstein does have a point. As Aristotle pointed out long ago in the Nicomachean Ethics, there is a difference between the fields in which the young can excel, and those in which they cannot. The difference, he said, is that the former do not need the sort of wisdom that can only come with experience of life, and the latter do. That's a big difference. Very big.

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