03 December 2013
The core of Stefan Zweig’s magnificent story Chess is summarised in the observation, ‘the more a man restricts himself the closer he is, conversely, to infinity’. This is said of Mirko Czentovic, a grandmaster who knows nothing but chess; he can barely communicate and has no social skills, he inhabits the game and the world is, to him, just the place where it is played. Nothing can lie beyond chess, it is, therefore, infinity.
Published in 1942, the year of Zweig’s death, it seems to echo Vladimir Nabokov’s Zashchita Luzhina (The Defence) published in 1930. The hero, Grandmaster Luzhin, also inhabits the game but has a more lively awareness of the outside world, until, that is, he becomes convinced, with tragic consequences, that the world is, in fact, a chess game.
The last work in this Eastern Europe triad is Franz Kafka’s The Burrow (published posthumously in 1931), which is not about chess. It is an unfinished story told in the first person by a mole or, possibly, a badger. This creature is desperately maintaining its systems of tunnels as a defence against the possibility of attack by some beast or other.
All three are about being locked in a world which, to outside observers, is plainly narrow and limited, but which, to the protagonist, is the whole of existence. The point is, of course, that we all live in such constricted worlds, we delude ourselves when we think otherwise. Travel may convince us we know a wider world, but we take out little minds with us wherever we go and return always to our burrows/games.
Shakespeare, as ever, got there first. He has Hamlet say, ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.’ Hamlet, the supremely conscious man, cannot delude himself about the scope of his world; he has ‘bad dreams’ that tell him there is more. The modernist heroes are less conscious than Hamlet (isn’t everybody?): Czentovic who does not dream, Luzhin whose dreams are nightmares of chess and Kafka’s creature, preserving its world against the possibility of an outside.
(In taking photographs, incidentally, I always regard myself as being inside a sphere, capturing the shapes that move on its surface. This is a modernist posture, not the renaissance one of Shakespeare. It is hard to imagine a renaissance photographer.)
Twitter, Facebook and the like want to make barely conscious, modernist heroes of us all, locking us in bubbles, translucent spheres, walled gardens that only look like the world. It is a more comfortable place than the mind of Hamlet, though it leads to psyhopathic callousness (Czentovic), to madness (Luzhin) and to neurosis and paranoia (The Burrow). Which, I suppose, means that blogging is a slightly less risky activity than tweeting, but only slightly.