The Dialectic of Chess Story

New York, New York | USA

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig is the perfect Christmas gift. It’s short enough to read in one sitting and its prose is practically see-through. Every year, I’m tempted to give my copy to a friend, adorned with a handwritten note on the inside flap. But I never will. It’s too misleading, it’s not worth the risk. There’s mortal danger in such a perfect little book.

The blurb on the back of the NYRB Classics edition claims that in Chess Story, “quietly but unmistakably, the death knell of the Enlightenment is sounded.” I buy it, but in a completely symptomatic and roundabout way. For although Zweig interrogates the dialectic of enlightenment, and does so rather elegantly, he suffers the fate that befalls all bona fide intellectual dilettantes: the retreat into reaction. The bell tolls, but nothing comes of it. There is no emancipatory moment. If Chess Story has a moral, it’s that self-reflection is a slippery slope to madness, and that the only way to survive is to give up thinking altogether and go back to the monotony of everyday life. That’s exactly what Dr. B, the true subject (but conspicuously not the narrator) of Chess Story, ends up doing. After quitting Chess for good, “he bow[s] and depart[s] as unassumingly and mysteriously as he had first appeared.”

We’ll never know where Dr. B went off to. On the other hand, we know that a year after writing Chess Story, Zweig took his own life in Brazil. Who knows why. He left a note, but you can’t trust those—the note never explains anything. So rather than dwell on the particulars of Zweig’s life and its end, I’d like to take the notion of the unconscious seriously, as he did in his time (he was a correspondent of Freud’s and an outspoken fan of his work), and consider the connection between his most famous novella and the philosophical question of suicide, à la Camus: Why go on?

Let’s take the blurb and the question seriously. Let’s say the game of chess is life. Zweig gives us three options:

  1. Play like Czentovic, Dr. B’s opponent.
  2. Play like Dr. B himself.
  3. Don’t play at all.

Czentovic is an unthinking chess monster. He’s presented to us as a brute with no real intellectual abilities. Yet, he’s the world’s best chess player. It’s inexplicable; he plays well and always wins, but he doesn’t care about the meaning behind it. He approaches it instrumentally, as just another way of making a living. Naturally, he’s materially well off, and in the context of the game he’s powerful, but his life is devoid of purpose. He is the enlightened subject once enlightenment has imploded into positivism—or, as Adorno may have put it, he is the authoritarian personality.

Contra Czentovic, Dr. B is obsessed with the infinite configurations of the pieces on the board. Throughout the game, he reflects on its potentiality, all the moves that could be made and their merits, the matrix of meaning inscribed in every square. We know that his analysis isn’t paralyzing because he always makes his next move in a timely manner. And it works: he wins the first game.

Dr. B could have continued winning games against Czentovic indefinitely, but instead he quit playing chess altogether. Supposedly, the game threatened to take over his life, because if he kept playing, he would have been engulfed in doubt. Since the structure of the game precludes the construction of a totalizing system to determine the right move in any given case, he would have to keep questioning everything, forever. Instead, Dr. B (with some help from the narrator) decides to go back to his everyday existence as a lawyer and member of the upper-middle class. In the story proper, Dr. B chooses life. However, by refusing to play, Dr. B refuses life. And there’s no contradiction here; after his fateful decision, Dr. B may still be alive in a technical sense, but he’s given up the most vital part of himself: his capacity for self-reflection and doubt. He may lead a comfortable life, but he may as well be dead. He’s an enlightened subject once enlightenment has revealed itself as a promise that can never be fulfilled.

Zweig does everything but hold our hand as he brings us to the conclusion that it’s healthier, and better in the end for everybody, to give up on life, dead or alive. But there’s a way out: Dr. B could have chosen to keep on playing despite himself. Yes, it would have been hard. He would have been seen as an eccentric. People may have given him funny looks. But he’d still be playing the most important game, the only game that really matters: the game of life. And yes, the bell would still have tolled, but it would have meant something: the death and rebirth of enlightenment. The dialectic ad infinitum.

Now, I know that this is a rather arbitrary and incomplete reading. You may be wondering, as I am, what the narrator represents, or how to interpret the ocean liner that the chess games take place on, or what all the other minor characters mean. Instead of an apology, I’ll make an excuse: my system was prejudiced from the beginning. I sat down at my desk and started writing this because I wanted to explain one thing: why it would be dangerous for me to give my copy of Chess Story to a friend. And here’s the reason: because the person I give it to might get the wrong idea, and, like Dr. B, decide to stop playing altogether. I simply can’t have that on my conscience. ~


  • Thomas Hobohm

    Thomas Hobohm is the Web Editor at The Adroit Journal. Their criticism has appeared in The Drift and Screen Slate.

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