CHESS: The Scars of Persecution and Exile

Chess (1941) by Stefan Zweig

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          We often read narratives of those who flee from persecution, or who suffer the physical violence of their captors, or who are ultimately killed by their tormentors. But what of the stories of those who survive? How does one even begin to describe the psychological toll taken on an individual who lives through the horror of an oppressive regime that takes the lives of so many others, and how do those survivors cope with their scars — physical, psychological, and emotional?

          Two books on my Inaugural List tackle these topics: Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and Zweig’s Chess. I might very well have included Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Grass’s The Tin Drum, which I might still write about in future blog posts. In the case of each novel, the protagonist is physically confined: asylum (Grass), sanitarium (Mann), hospital (Solzhenitsyn), and hotel room prison (Zweig). In each case, the protagonist experiences a distortion of some essential element of his life, leading to a functional abnormality — the physical manifestation of permanent psychological damage. For Mann, it’s a distortion of time; for Grass, a stunting of growth; for Solzhenitsyn, a sexual impotence; and for Zweig, a mental breakdown. These texts do not give us the comforting illusion that surviving political persecution makes one stronger. Quite the opposite. These works present a stark reality in which their protagonists are staggered, wounded, and scarred for life.

          But of all these examples of “survivor fiction,” one stands out as slightly different — not for what happens in the text, but for what happens in the life of the man who wrote it. Only one of these writers ultimately didn’t survive his persecution. Just after the publication of Chess in 1942, Stefan Zweig would succumb to the stress, depression, and sense of hopelessness he felt while fleeing from the Nazis and, along with his wife Lotte, would commit double-suicide in Brazil while living in exile.

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Stefan and Lotte Zweig

          Although Zweig composed a suicide note, I think that Chess might very well have served an equal purpose. The novel reveals how the psychological effects of persecution can divide one’s psyche, leading to mental breakdown, physical exhaustion, and self-destruction. The plot is straight-forward: on a ship from New York to Brazil, a prodigy chess champion is challenged by an amateur stranger with a stunning grasp of the game. We soon learn that this stranger, Dr. B., was held captive in isolation and psychologically tortured by the Nazis for months. His only solace was a book of chess strategy he happened to find and sneak into his room. For months, he drove himself to memorize every move of every classic match and all the strategies of the masters, playing against himself inside his own head as he spent long days in isolation. He would play both black and white sides at the same time, pushing each side of himself to the limit. Chess became what he lived and breathed, even more important to him than food. Ultimately, the game of chess that saved Dr. B. from isolation and boredom during his capture, psychological torture, and interrogation by the Gestapo would become the obsession that fractures his mind and destroys him. We see this play out on the ship in his matches against the grand champion.

          The novella is an allegory that challenges readers to make their own connections, as Zweig does not explicitly point out how we are supposed to understand each character and event. I can only offer my own interpretation, without any claim to a definitive reading:

          The game of chess is writing itself. (The title is often loosely translated as The Royal Game, which I like because, quite coincidentally, Royal was one of the major brands of typewriters at the time of the book’s publication.) Out of the nothingness and isolation of his imprisoned existence, Dr. B. latches onto the one activity that allows him to both relieve his anxiety and give vent to his intellectual confinement. He must invent games only with the limited tools of language at his disposal. The language of chess. What is often a battle between two minds (or among many more, as the chess champion on the ship often competes in multiple games simultaneously, or against multiple opponents working on the same team) becomes, in Dr. B.’s own words, an “impossible” task because he must take on the role of communicator and audience while in total isolation. Perfecting skills he can never use and unable to properly play the “game” that sustains him, he becomes an expert in a language he can never use — an exile within his own mind.


Now if Black and White together made up one and the same person, the result would be a nonsensical state of affairs in which one and the same mind simultaneously knew and did not know something, in which as White it could simply decide to forget what it had wished and intended to do as Black a moment earlier. In fact what is presupposed by this kind of duality of thought is total division of consciousness, an ability to turn the workings of the brain on or off at will, as though it were a machine; playing chess against oneself is thus as paradoxical as jumping over one’s own shadow. Well, to make a long story short, in my desperation I attempted this impossibility, this absurdity, for months. Illogical as it was, I had no other choice if I was not to lapse into absolute madness or total intellectual inanition. My awful situation was forcing me to at least try to divide myself into a Black Me and a White Me in order not to be crushed by the horrendous nothingness around me.”

–Stefan Zweig


          After his mental breakdown, he is released by the Gestapo, who determine him to be too damaged to be a threat. His encounter with the chess grand champion on the ship forces him into a world where his skill is now unbound. This total freedom — after being resigned to his own imprisonment and possible death — is too much for his brain to process. His breakdown is swift and brutal.

          Dr. B. ultimately survives, but only after realizing he can never play chess again. It’s a realization that was too stark for Zweig, who could not come to terms with practicing his craft — the one perfected skill that sustained him and defined his life — in anything less than “a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.” That line in his suicide note confirmed that, unlike Dr. B., Zweig could not live without the ability to freely practice his craft in his homeland. Chess became his final statement and, arguably, his greatest work. It stands as a testament to writing under the threat of political persecution as both a saving grace and an impossible plight: that which can restore and revive, or divide and destroy, with equal impunity.

 

THE CONFUSIONS OF YOUNG TÖRLESS: A Psychosexual Study of Fascism

The Confusions of Young Törless (1906) by Robert Musiltorless

          One of the complex issues the Left has been trying to understand in the last month is not why so many hate groups lined up in support of Donald Trump (that explanation is relatively straight-forward), but instead how it was possible for so many regular, law-abiding, “moral” Americans, who don’t appear on the surface to hold prejudicial views, to cast their ballots for a man who is not only the antithesis of ethical leadership, but who is also, admittedly even to some Trump voters, morally repulsive.

          Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törless gets to the crux of this question. It is a brilliant novel of ideas that examines the duality of man, the nature of authoritarianism, the connections between sexuality and aggression, and the psychological development of modern (post-Enlightenment) man. In short, Törless is a young boy at a military boarding school who faces his own inner struggle to understand man’s darker side, including his confused sexuality, while going along with the bullying, physical torture, psychological abuse, and sexual violence perpetrated by older classmates (Reiting and Beineberg) against a student named Basini, to whom all three are repulsed and sexually attracted in equal measure. Törless begins to take part in the abuse more and more, even as he begins to identify with Basini. (Indeed, precisely because he begins to identify with Basini, the abuse becomes a type of lashing out against the emerging feelings that Törless denies to accept within himself.) For these reasons, the novel is justly famous for its examination of the psychosexual causes behind the authoritarian mentality that gave rise to fascism in Europe decades after the novel’s publication.

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The Confusions of Young Törless (dir. Volker Schlöndorff, 1966)

          But on another level, Musil’s novel is about the unknown and unknowable spaces that constitute the connective tissues of our reality — from the struggle to understand our sexuality to the mystery of our dreamworld and subconscious desires. In one central section (which happens to occur exactly in the middle of the text) Törless ponders the impossible contradictions of imaginary numbers in mathematics. They don’t really exist, but simply by accepting the possibility that they might exist — and by going about our mathematical calculations as if they did — we can get useful results that impact real numbers and calculations. The metaphor Törless uses is that of two piers connected by an unknown empty space that we must somehow traverse. And this is the impossibility of existence: of knowing ourselves, our world, and each other, as well as how we integrate these unknowns into our daily lives. It is also the impossibility of communication, or even of literature. In each case, we must step into the void and assume that the impossible must exist if we to are function in the real world. The irony is that this knowledge neither comforts nor reassures Törless (or us), but only adds to the anxiety of his existence. Young Törless is about what happens when insecurity leads us to fill those empty spaces with fear, violence, and self-loathing, giving us a false sense of security that we can somehow safely traverse the void between perceptions that constitute our outer world and our unknown or unknowable inner world. And so what we accept as “reality” hangs in the balance between those two states. (As Dylan sings, “I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man / like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand….”)

          There are certainly parallels to what Jung would term (years later) the “Shadow” and man’s attempt at individuation, as well as a Freudian framework of reason/instinct; however, incredibly, Musil wrote this novel before reading any of Freud’s work (according to scholar Ritchie Robinson’s introduction to the Oxford edition). Adding to Törless’s own struggle to understand this duality is his realization that he actually enjoys witnessing Basini’s torture, even as it repulses him. Although he tells himself that his attraction is merely due to his own desire to study this dark side of his psyche, he knows that in studying it, he is necessarily feeding into it. Whereas Reiting gets his kicks from physically dominating Basini, and Beineberg rattles off some half-cocked (pardon the pun) plan to study Basini’s soul, it is Törless who becomes the worst torturer because he sees himself in Basini’s submission — and Basini knows it. As Törless’ “observes” the torture to understand the underlying why of it all, he acknowledges his own complicity, accepts that he (Törless) could just as easily be in Basini’s place, and realizes that all the boys go along with the torture because they are trapped in a psychological order of domination/submission that cannot be escaped — an order that exists beyond moral precepts, becoming manifest when the authoritarian lashes out at those with whom he most identifies.


So Törless stopped looking for words. Sensuality, which had stolen into him bit by bit from the separate moments of despair, now rose to its full height. It was lying naked beside him, covering his head with its soft black cloak. And it was whispering sweet words of resignation in his ear and with its warm fingers pushing away all questions and obligations as futile. And it was whispering: in solitude everything is allowed.

Only at that moment when he was swept away did he wake for a second and cling desperately to the one thought: “This isn’t me! … isn’t me!… Only in the morning will it be me again… in the morning…”

–Robert Musil


          By the end of the novel, neither religion nor science/philosophy (as represented by the two schoolmasters who teach those subjects to the boys) can help or understand Törless. And the headmaster is only concerned with what’s right for the school, not for the boys themselves. In a way, these three authority figures who sit in judgement of Törless are not unlike the three boys themselves who assert their authority over Basini. The cycle continues and, as Musil reveals near the end of the novel, Törless will end up becoming a civil, law-abiding, morally detached adult, repressing his own dark desires to dominate others while labeling the oppressed as “weak” and simultaneously condemning anyone who resists oppression rather than addressing that same weakness within himself.

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Robert Musil

          And so Musil, at the age of 25, charts the development of the amoral ascetic (Beineberg, who rejects all perceived moral flaws in himself by ruthlessly and obsessively studying and condemning them in others), the fascist (Reiting, who demands obedience and desires to lead his classmates to attack, torture, and punish their weaker peers), and, to borrow a concept from Adorno, the “authoritarian personality” (Törless, who recognizes these impulses in others, but nonetheless goes about his life in a type of moral detachment so as to live a civil life).

          By the end of the novel, Törless has developed a strictly-structured super-ego that will guide his detached morality for the rest of his life. And here, somewhere between Beineberg and Törless, we find the ideal subject for a dictatorial regime (an interpretation Musil himself advanced in the 1930s): average, law-abiding, “moral” citizens who join the local PTA, who ritualistically mow their lawns, and who, in the words of songwriter P.F Sloan, “hate (their) next door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace.”

          Musil’s novel is required reading not only for us to examine the defining social, psychological, and political structures of 20th century modernity, but also to get a glimpse into the gestation of 21st century American Trumpism and its acolytes who rationalize their own subjugation.