Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Satanic, Miss Rand, and Caissa

Why do I play chess? A deeper question, though, is: why do I keep coming back to it, after long periods of abstinence following a burnout? What profound human need does it satisfy for me? I think the answer lies in a combination of the following two ideas:

1) In Satanism, the way to immortality is through ego fulfillment. And what is a chess game, if not the battle of two egos trying to crush the life out of one another? (This idea, of immortality through ego fulfillment, can also be found in The Fountainhead.) In the Satanic Bible, Anton LaVey writes:

“If a person has been vital throughout his life and has fought to the end for his earthly existence, it is this ego which will refuse to die, even after the expiration of the flesh which housed it. Young children are to be admired for their driving enthusiasm for life. This is exemplified by the small child who refuses to go to bed when there is something exciting going on, and when once put to bed, will sneak down the stairs to peek through the curtain and watch. It is this childlike vitality that will allow the Satanist to peek through the curtain of darkness and death and remain earthbound.” (94)

2) In Ayn Rand’s “Open Letter to Boris Spassky,” she argues that chess, when practiced as an obsession rather than simple recreation, is an escape used by men who cannot deal with the difficulties of the real world:

“You, the chess professionals, live in a special world—a safe, protected, orderly world, in which all the great, fundamental principles of existence are so firmly established and obeyed that you do not even have to e aware of them.”

“The process of thinking is man’s basic means of survival. The pleasure of performing this process successfully—of experiencing the efficacy of one’s own mind—is the most profound pleasure possible to men, and it is their deepest need, on any level of intelligence, great or small. So one can understand what attracts you to chess: you believe that you have found a world in which all irrelevant obstacles have been eliminated, and nothing matters, but the pure, triumphant exercise of your mind’s powers.”

“Unlike algebra, chess does not represent the abstraction—the basic pattern—of mental effort; it represents the opposite: it focuses mental effort on a set of concretes, and demands such complex calculations that a mind has no room for anything else. By creating an illusion of action and struggle, chess reduces the professional player’s mind to an uncritical, unvaluing passivity toward life. Chess removes the motor of intellectual effort—the question ‘What for?’—and leaves a somewhat frightening phenomenon: intellectual effort devoid of purpose.”

“If—for any number of reasons, psychological or existential—a man comes to believe that the living world is closed to him, that he has nothing to seek or to achieve, that no action is possible, then chess becomes his antidote, the means of drugging his own rebellious mind that refuses fully to believe it and to stand still.” (Philosophy: Who Needs It?, 55-6.)

In spite of Ayn Rand’s moralizing tone (which certainly isn’t going to stop me from playing and studying chess as much as I want), I think she has an interesting point. To use myself as an example, I have always felt a sense of alienation from physical reality: I don’t much like to “get my hands dirty”, and the thought of applying my love of mathematics and the sciences to being an engineer doesn’t really excite me (though I do have great respect for those in this profession.) Perhaps I could aspire to be a theoretical physicist; however, these days that largely entails heavy-duty mathematics, and I don’t think that would really satisfy my ego in the same way chess does.

Alright, then: so the world of chess and the world of mathematics/theoretical physics each represent a sort of “closed system”, in which one may find joy and fulfillment independently from the physical world. The latter has the advantage of being more productive, generally applicable, and eternal, while the former has the advantage of directly satisfying the ego and providing the successful individual with a more tangible sense of accomplishment and recognition from his peers.

What to do?

I’ve wrestled with this question on and off for years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot discover the answer by pure thought and introspection. Instead, I have to just, um, try things out. What I would currently like to do (but have little idea how to begin) is to find a method of approach to mathematics/physics by which I will have no fear that my efforts will go to waste, unnoticed, and whatever aspect of my soul that needed chess will be sated.