I've been pondering the strange phenomenon of the quasi-post-pandemic, and it's made me think of Stefan Zweig's fascinating "Schachnovelle." If you haven't read it, it's about exiles from the Nazis on a ship to Argentina. It turns out that the world chess champion is on board. But what ends up being even more remarkable is that there is an unknown refugee on board inexplicably able to defeat the world master.
Letter from the Chair
The bulk of the novella involves this unknown person recounting his story to the narrator. It's a survival story of an aristocratic prisoner being held in isolation in a hotel by the Gestapo. He succeeds in stealing a book of master chess games and to maintain his sanity, plays through them, memorizin g every move, and even eventually splits himself in two, as it were, to play variations on the games against himself. While the exertion brings him to a nervous breakdown, his focus is what keeps him sane until he's eventually lead out of the Gestapo's clutches. I've always wondered about the takeaway of that novella. Is it that there's something about the human spirit, maybe its resilience, which allows it to turn cruel confinement into ennobling achievement? That would actually be a depressing takeaway. Of course, the novella is rich enough that another implication might well be to reflect on the madness—the distortion wrought on a spirit pushed to the extreme—that is the flip side of the genius necessary to escape the mental anguish of forced isolation. In either case, the novel made me wonder how we might expect ourselves to come away from our own, in most cases, quite a bit lesser anguish and exertion living through the pandemic. Are we supposed to be "resilient," as in the theme for this College's Fall Themester? There's a lot of invocation of resilience around here, and surely resilience is a good thing in many ways. But what depresses me about its invocation is that it also reminds me how vastly adaptable we are, even when adaption is the last thing we should want, but instead to call things out, to make them new and different. We need a standpoint outside of our own tendency to accommodate, but what would that be? And what would keep such a standpoint from being just arbitrary and a potential source of madness in the face of what needs to be?
Via Stefan Zweig, I've come to my chair's theme for the newsletter and it is not the College's theme of resilience, but that of being unreconciled to the strange lay of the land these days; of greeting the world revealed by the pandemic, if not with indignation, then with a kind of skeptical wonderment at how askew it lies. For example, I find it remarkable, even powerful, that so many people are staying out of the labor force. Perhaps they are holding out for something better or different—but how are they doing it? In my thinking there is something, albeit only a whiff, of a general strike about it. The labor shortages lead me to thumb through my dog-eared Rosa Luxemburg on the mass strike… or Georges Sorel on the mythic violence of work withheld. Has the pandemic made syndicalists or socialists of the masses? That's certainly going too far, but it has apparently made many people question their status quo and conclude that there is nothing inevitable about it. At its best, our situation doesn't call forth resilience so much as … critique or reflective judgment in which we find ourselves unexpectedly wondering what new laws we need to invent in order to subsume the strange particularities of our moment.