Thursday, May 19, 2005

Chess with Jorge Luis Borges

The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) wrote prolifically across the realms of fiction, poetry, philosophy, and literary criticism (and some of his work, such as the piece on Shakespeare cited below, is so complex and teasing that it is not easy to tell which genre it belongs to). Borges can sometimes be difficult and puzzling - he read vastly across the literature of different cultures, and his work is full of allusions and references to these works - but he also has a great gift for compressed, powerful expression, evoking an entire world of thought or feeling in a few beguiling lines of verse or a two-page short story (perhaps this is why he never felt the need to write a novel).

Consider the gorgeous adjectives with which he breathes life into chess pieces in this, the second part of his poem "Chess", and then the way in which the thought of the poem begins to slowly uncoil after the scene has been set by the relatively conventional opening stanza:


Faint-hearted king, sly bishop, ruthless queen,
Straightforward castle, and deceitful pawn -
Over the checkered black and white terrain
They seek out and begin their armed campaign.

They do not know it is the player’s hand
That dominates and guides their destiny.
They do not know an adamantine fate
Controls their will and lays the battle plan.

The player too is captive of caprice
(The words are Omar’s) on another ground
Where black nights alternate with whiter days.

God moves the players, he in turn the piece.
But what god beyond God begins the round
Of dust and time and sleep and agonies?

It might be interesting to compare the idea of God in the last lines of this poem with that found in the passage from the Rig Veda I quoted in my previous post. The hymn from the Rig Veda speaks of the almighty, but instead of ascribing absolute omniscience to him it ends with the phrase 'only he knows - or perhaps he does not know'. Borges, moving from a different direction, suggests that both chess pieces and men are not aware that a higher power is controlling them, and leads step by step to the searching question 'what god beyond God'? And to this question one could legitimately give the answer: 'Only he knows - or perhaps he does not know'.

Chess makes a fleeting appearance once again in this beautiful Borges poem, "The Just", which moves, like a butterfly taking wing from flower to flower (or like God musing one morning about those things about human beings that please him the most), over those affairs of men that Borges considers most broad-spirited, large-hearted, true to the spirit in which life must be lived (and hence 'just').

A man who cultivates his garden, as Voltaire wished.
He who is grateful for the existence of music.
He who takes pleasure in tracing an etymology.
Two workmen playing, in a cafe in the South,
a silent game of chess.
The potter, contemplating a color and a form.
The typographer who sets this page well
though it may not please him.
A woman and a man, who read the last tercets
of a certain canto.
He who strokes a sleeping animal.
He who justifies, or wishes to, a wrong done him.
He who is grateful for the existence of
He who prefers others to be right.
These people, unaware, are saving the world.

(translated by Alastair Reid)

Borges's life contained a great tragedy: passionately fond of reading like most writers, he found in middle age that a congenital eye defect that ran in his father's side of the family was beginning to take his toll on his eyesight, and by his fifties he was almost completely blind. In 1955, the year he was appointed to the directorship of the National Library of Argentina, he noted God's splendid irony "in granting me at once 800,000 books and darkness." But he kept his twinkling wit going well into old age. In this interview from 1971 with the New York Times writer Israel Shenker, Borges begins to talk about death and finishes with the observation: "Sometimes I think, 'Why on earth should I die, since I have never done it? Why should I start a new habit at my age?'"

More poems by Borges can be found here and here. His marvellous three-paragraph story about the life of Shakespeare, "Everything and Nothing", (the story begins "There was no one in him...") can be found here. And in this piece, also featuring Borges's poem among other things, the writer Steven Poole asks what is it that draws so many artists to chess.


Space Bar said...

The poem Chess (II) brings to mind Escher’s lithograph, Drawing Hands; what is incomprehensibly circular becomes clearer when you allow for what Hofstadter calls ‘tangled hierarchies’. (this drawing and phrase has become linked in my head with ‘The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ for reasons that are too complex to relate here!).

Perhaps a more accurate comparison would be Flatland, where to postulate another dimension is blasphemy. That also points to the same issues of spirituality and mathematics that Chess (II) raises, though of course, in very different ways.

Anonymous said...

Omar of the poem is of course Omar Khayyam and the verse Borges refers to is # 76 (or 74 or 69, depending on the version) in FitzGerald's translation or #270 in Whinfield's.
FitzGerald's translation:

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.


We are but chessmen, destined, it is plain,
That great chess-player, Heaven, to entertain;
It moves us on life's chess-board to and fro,
And then in death's dark box shuts up again.

Steven Poole's idea[1] that 'Borges trumps the commonplace idea of people as pawns in his characteristically vertiginous final stanza, with the infinite recursion implied by "god behind God"' is fascinating but brings up the question of the precise meaning of free will. Borges certainly did not think that a person would be effortlessly capable of acting in a manner that would give free will any real meaning, but that he needs help to "know his own self and the world, in other words to know his real role in the economy of the world. Borges emphasizes the need to identify oneself with the collective destiny and to give up the merely individual one. [..]

Borges' writings are designed to produce certain impacts on the reader. By bringing him face to face with transcendental problems he tries to confuse him, to get him out of thinking in rigid patterns, to destroy his primitive beliefs to make him doubt his own mental powers and to face him constantly with a world full of irrational elements and aspects of reality that can be intuitively known but which cannot be explained. He tries to destroy his faith in his reasoning and make him admit the possibility of a reality that cannot be rationally explained"[2]

The poem brings to mind also Jalaluddin Rumi, whose work Borges also knew:

Like a pen in the directing hand of the writer.
He who sees not the hand which effects the writing
Fancies the effect proceeds from the motion of the pen.[3]

Masnavi features also one Omar, Khalifa 'Omar who reconciles God's agency with man's free will:

Whosoever is bewildered by wavering will,
In his ear hath God whispered His riddle,
That He may bind him on the horns of dilemma;
For he says, 'shall I do this or the reverse?'[4]

[2] Jorge Luis Borges: Sources and Illumination by Giovanna de Garayalde
[3] The Masnavi, Book I, Story II
[4] The Masnavi, Book I, Story VI