Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A logical explanation

Poets do not go mad; but chess players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers - but creative artists very seldom. I am not attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.
Thus spake GK Chesterton. Was he on to something? It seems to me that there is some strength to what he says, even if it is not logic as such that's to blame, but its applicability to chess and its inadequacy in the face of chess. It's the capacity of chess both to be reducible to logic in principle and to be beyond it in principle: part of the obsessive, addictive quality of chess is in the contrast between the near-infinity of variations, on the one hand, and their simplicity, their closeness, on the other.


Everything is there. Nothing is hidden. The pieces are small in number, and extremely limited in their powers. These are exactly defined and completely understood. Nothing is hidden - potentially, everything can be found. Yet not everything can be calculated, not because it is out of reach but because it is out of human reach.

The more one reaches, the more it is out of reach: and the greater one's reach, the more this is true. The more you know, the closer you get, but the more you know, the more you realise you don't know. A little learning is a dangerous thing, but not, perhaps, quite so dangerous as a lifetime's.

If it were simply about imagination, creativity, the problem wouldn't arise: the boundaries would be non-existent, the possibilities limitless. It's precisely because the chessboard is so small and the pieces so circumscribed, that there is a problem. The logician grasps the problem and the method: and being a logician, they know that a solution, logically, is there. But as they have no way of arriving at it, it's a sequence with a beginning but no end. That's the trap: that's what brings on obsession. And obsession brings on madness.

Do enjoy the festive season.

6 comments:

Tom Chivers said...

This reminds me of a nice Bill Harston quote: "chess doesn't drive people mad, it keeps mad people sane." -!

Michelle said...

quite a few creative artists were, in fact, notably, "mad", i'd say.

ejh said...

chess doesn't drive people mad, it keeps mad people sane

Funnily enough, I had that line in my original draft...

Anonymous said...

I think the flaw in the quote lies in the line

"... creative artists very seldom"

It seems to me that this compromise with the theory being proposed allows one to reverse the subjects of the quote without changing its validity.

Richard

Jonathan B said...

Alternatively, it is possible that people disposed to madness, however you wish to define that, are attracted to chess rather than chess/logic being the cause of madness.

On the otherhand, I also have known a few arty types (broadly speaking rather than poets) and a fair few of them have indeed been quite bonkers.

ejh said...

Alternatively, it is possible that people disposed to madness, however you wish to define that, are attracted to chess rather than chess/logic being the cause of madness.

I think in principle this is true, but I do think that there's an element by which chess channels and intensifies obsessiveness as well as keeping the lid on it by giving it something to do.