The Cost of Obsession

Lately, I have found myself utterly fascinated with the period around the beginning of the 20th century. I have been feeding this fascination with meals of various form – from Mike Duncan’s podcast on the Russian Revolution over Rune Lykkkeberg’s well-written “Vesten mod Vesten” to Stefan Zweig’s classic memoir, “The World of Yesterday”, which is my current audiobook. I am drawn to this period because of the momentous societal change that took place then. I confess to a strong sense of naïve, selective nostalgia for a time with coffeehouse discussions, physical and political newspapers, secret revolutionary societies and frowning reactionaries. It all stands in contrast to something seemingly more materialistic, prosaic and mundane that I currently experience in the supposed capital of Europe, Brussels with its social media and sound bites and 24 hour news cycles (as I’ve blogged about before). It often fills me with emptiness and a longing for something more.

Luckily, we still have great writers, movie makers and other artists to take us away from the concerns over tedious jobs and more or less concrete career paths and into the realm of something more than rationality and goal-orientedness. The importance of culture and books seems much clearer to me than in my youth when I was more about good grades and fast progress. Those things seem somehow more hollow and unimportant without a greater and more visionary context. And I guess in this day and age, finding such a context is our own responsibility, so on to books and other sources of inspiration I go.

“Chess” – a short story

Today I was happy to stumble upon a tiny novella from 1941 of mere 83 pages that thrilled, chilled and surprised me all while provoking my thoughts and connecting dots from other literary pieces and things I’ve recently learnt about from the turn of the previous century.

That novella is Stefan Zweig’s short story “Chess” (or Schachnovelle in its original German).

This is the best short story I have read in a long time. It’s absolutely thrilling and captivating in its eloquent – but disturbing – description of psychological torture, mental obsession and both the beauty and dangers of possessing a vivid imagination. The notion of “the cost of obsession” made me think of one of my favourite movies, The Prestige (see the bottom of this post). Is it possible to be consumed by something so much – to get so good at it – that it eats one up inside and makes one fail in the end?

And yes, the actual game of chess gets a beautiful treatment too from the perspective of an admiring amateur, which is quite relatable for myself.

At its core, the short story takes place on a liner voyage from Europe to Argentina some (relatively short) time after Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia. On board is none other than the reigning world chess champion, Mirko Czentovic. A group of passengers end up challenging him to a game of chess. After a sound beating the first time around, the rematch takes an unexpected twist when a pale man intervenes on behalf of the amateur passengers. The rest of the story flows from there.

It is an entertaining narrative in its own right. But it is so rich in thematic ideas that – in the paragraphs below – I will simply let loose my own associations that came to me as I read this really well-written and evocative piece.

The beginning of the 20th century and rationality versus meaning

I’m currently listening to Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday (as an audio book) and it is impossible for me not to notice the sharp contrast of the single-minded, cold and rational effectiveness of the chess world champion, Czentovic, and the vivid, emotional and passionate approach of Dr. B. It’s quite a bit like the contrast between the iron rationality of Germany and the laid-back nature of the Viennese coffeehouse as described in the World of Yesterday. It’s the clash of ideas and movements that so shook the world at the turn of the century. Is the transition of chess from art to science (that is very much still ongoing!) a clever image of the societal transformation Zweig witnessed in his life? The dual nature of chess as described by the author is really well phrased:

“[…] a unique link between pairs of opposites: ancient yet eternally new; mechanical in structure, yet made effective only by imagination; limited to a geometrically fixed space, yet with unlimited combinations; constantly developing, yet sterile; thought that leads nowhere; mathematics calculating nothing; art without works of art; architecture without substance – but nonetheless more durable in its entity and existence than all books and works of art; the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras […]”

Stefan Zweig, Chess, page 13

I think that says a lot about the game of chess itself, which is very true and very well put. But I sense also allusions to the forces that were shaping western civilization and ultimately threatened to tear it apart around the turn of the previous century. Forces that still remain at large. Science as curer of diseases and bringer of death. Communication technology as tools of empowerment and of oppression. Finding the balance between rational goal-orientedness and a philosophical justification or purpose that can replace the religions of old.

Are there also sub-themes related to “centre versus periphery” and the “cosmopolitan elite versus the ‘simple’ people of the countryside”? It could possibly be my own over-interpretation but there is something interesting in the elite’s disdain for this thoroughly limited dyslexic farmer’s mind who nonetheless kicks all of their intellectual asses at the one game that eliminates luck from the equation. And another possible sub-theme of the blessing of being limited , which is captured by the following quote:

Isn’t it appalingly easy to think you’re a great man if you aren’t burdened by the faintest notion that Rembrandt, Beethoven, Dante or Napoleon ever lived?

Stefan Zweig, Chess, page 11

For sure, there is thematic richness in these relatively few pages that becomes naturally flavoured by my own thoughts. But that is the hallmark of a good book for me.

Nazism and psychological torture

Based on hearsay of the book, I had braced myself that the book’s true theme was Nazism. But that is an understatement since the short story contains so many themes in its short format. Yet the chilling treatment of Nazi torture still made a big impression upon me exactly because it is portrayed in an unusual way. I won’t spoil. Psychological thrillers have always had more of an impact on me than more traditional horror movies. So imagining what Dr. B went through was actually quite powerful. It does not quite compare to the chills I got from visiting Dachau and Auschwitz but exactly because it is different, it managed to both surprise, shock and thrill me. The story of Dr. B underlines the subtlety of oppression and how it is not always dependent on physical violence. The reader is left wondering if they themselves could stand having their mind tortured while the body is kept in relative comfort. Knowledge-seeking individuals possibly shiver even more at the thought.

The fox and the hedgehog

Another random association that sprang to my mind was the idea of broad versus narrow interests and which of the two really is best. The ultimate chess player? Or the renaissance man who is also a formidable (though perhaps not the absolute world champion) chess player? A fox that knows a little about everything or a hedgehog that knows everything about one thing? What is more admirable? Again, this is placed in the spotlight but in a less banal way than I thought at first. I often feel a bit like a fox – with many disparate interests but nothing I truly excel at. So I sometimes long for a more focused mind – a desire to excel at one thing and leave the rest be. But the character of Czentovic makes me wonder if I’d truly be happy with such a state. More to ponder, I suppose.

I really can say no more without spoiling some of the twists but I was thrilled, chilled, surprised and had my thoughts provoked well and truly by the end of these 83 small pages. Stefan Zweig knows his craft. The language is flowing and beautiful without being overloaded or unnecessarily descriptive. It all serves a purpose. And I will be thinking of this story again for some time to come – probably also when I continue my game of chess with my colleague, Christoffer, at work.

Speaking of Christophers, I would be remiss if I did not include one of my favourite movie dialogues of all time (from Christopher Nolan’s The Presitge; starts at 1:31 and ends at 2:20).

David Bowie as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006)

Chess. By Stefan Zweig (translated by Anthea Bell) (2017 [1942]). Penguin Modern Classics; 83 pages