Wednesday, April 15, 2020


     There’s a lot to talk about today – as usual at this time, mostly about the Wuhan virus and the reactions to it, both in the U.S. and around the world. However, quite a lot of commentators are talking about it. Rather than add my own fulminations to theirs, I’ll present a few links and exhort you to peruse the thoughts of my colleagues in the Commentariat:

     Because today I’m here to talk about concentration, obsession, and mental illness.

     Long time Gentle Readers will know that I’m a chess buff. I love the game, have for my entire life – I learned to play at age two — and I play it a bit better than average. No, not well enough to be widely known for it, but I’ve occasionally taken a competitively rated expert by surprise. I still study it in my free time. So when Frank Brady’s comprehensive biography of the late Robert James “Bobby” Fischer became available at only $5.99, I leaped to purchase it.

     Fischer is a study in dramatic clashes. There’s his intellect versus his lack of hard sense. There’s his religiosity – he was a devotee of Garner Ted Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God – versus his highly erratic personal conduct. While those are enough to make one wonder about the fineness of the boundary between genius and madness, most prominent is the clash between his behavior as he pursued his lifelong goal and what came after he had achieved it.

     Brady’s book delves deeply into all of it. Considering how greatly he loved and admired Fischer – they knew one another from very early in Fischer’s development – he does a remarkable job of not flinching from the darkest aspects of the great chess champion’s life and deeds. I can heartily recommend it as an example of the very best in biography, even to those uninterested in the game of chess.

     Fischer’s worshippers – and yes, he has quite a few – can’t bear to hear or read anything negative about their idol. Yet there is much about Fischer’s behavior to be deplored, especially in his later life. Considering how closely entwined with his chess career all of it seems, it should be taken seriously, studied as a warning about the ultimate consequences of obsession.

     A highly insightful observation about desire appears in a story that’s ultimately a humorous entertainment: Harlan Ellison and Robert Sheckley’s collaboration “I See a Man Sitting on a Chair, and the Chair Is Biting His Leg:”

     “The way it works is this,” the salesman said. “Fulfillment is no problem; the tough thing is desire, don’t you dig? Desires die of fulfillment and gotta be replaced by new, different desires.”

     Look sharp there, you in the back row with the drooping eyelids. This is an important, possibly critical observation that was buried and almost lost in a toss-off short story. In our day and age, for many millions of Americans and other First Worlders around the globe, fulfillment is no problem. Never before has a reasonably modest degree of health and wealth sufficed for the attainment of most persons’ individual desires. But as Oscar Wilde once observed, a fulfilled desire isn’t necessarily a delight to be savored. It can prove to be a cross laid upon one’s shoulders.

     In particular, it raises the question: “What now?” When one’s lifelong dream has been fulfilled – when the journey is over, the promised land has been reached, and Utopia attained – what does one do with the remainder of one’s life?

     I’d been pondering the problem of desire, whether discovered, admitted, pursued, or fulfilled, for some time when I wrote the stories in Priestesses. They explore various desire-related problems that occur among ordinary Americans. One of them, “The Gift Room,” has been multiply cited by relationship counselors and therapists. Another is uppermost in my thoughts at the moment: a tale about a woman who discovers a new desire, fulfills it with the aid of her semi-cooperative husband…and very nearly loses him in the sequel. Their problem is ultimately about a lack of knowledge, of self and other, on both their parts…but they would not have discovered it, nor the crack in what had seemed a faultless marriage, if they hadn’t “gone too far.”

     Bobby Fischer’s attainment of his lifelong desire – to be recognized as the best chess player in the world – left him adrift. Despite his genius-level intellect, he failed to grasp what his achievement had done to him. It left him empty, so completely so that he never again played competitive chess. The high point of the four decades after his triumph came twenty years later: a 1992 rematch against Boris Spassky, whom he’d defeated for the championship.

     Had Fischer painted his own portrait, it would have been monochrome: supremacy at chess and nothing else. Brady’s biography makes it plain. It’s the ultimate real-life tale of obsession and its consequences.

     Concentration is critical to attaining a goal. One must focus one’s attention and energies. Yet as with many other practices deemed beneficial within its context, it can be overdone, transformed into an obsession that makes one’s life essentially empty even before the attainment of the goal. In this I speak from experience, though I must withhold the details.

     Goals are important. I can’t imagine how anyone could live a satisfying life without one or more goals to pursue. But no goal, however ardently desired and pursued, should be allowed to displace all other considerations from one’s life. Suppose you get there. What then?

     Quite a lot of unhappy rich and / or famous people could tell you: It’s not easy to find a satisfactory new reason to live once your lifelong obsession has been fulfilled. Far better to have at least a few “goals” to pursue that cannot, because of their very nature, be conclusively “fulfilled.”

     How many colors will it take to paint your portrait?

     “It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” – Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

     Be well and happy.

1 comment:

Linda Fox said...

Glad I'm not a monomanic genius. Just a regular person, happy as a clam most days, just to wake up in a warm comfortable bed, and know that there is food available.

I'm so easily satisfied, it's scary.