In previous Saturday chess columns I have referred to Dante’s use of the game in his cosmological system, to describe the number of angels in the heavens. The formula is that of a piece of corn placed on a corner of the chessboard, and doubled on each square thereafter. This operation results in two to the power of 64 (minus one) pieces of corn, an unimaginably vast number.
Two chess terms are commonly misunderstood by those not fully familiar with the game. One is “stalemate” which means that one side cannot make any moves and that the game is irrevocably drawn. There is no such thing as a temporary stalemate. Thus the impasse on the western front of the First World War is often described as “stalemate”, but this is quite wrong, since the deadlock was eventually broken by a victorious Allied advance.
The other candidate for mis-use is checkmate. Boris Johnson has often been photographed seated at a chess board. I am not, though, aware that the fractious Tory MP Steve Baker plays or understands chess. In any case, he should be aware that checkmate terminates the game absolutely, with no possible comeback.
Hence it was instructive to see this perennially rebellious Tory MP — described by the BBC as “senior”, though he is only 50 and has represented Wycombe for just 12 years — describing the Prime Minister’s situation on Thursday as follows: “At the moment it does look like checkmate, but whether he can save himself, we’ll see.” Baker got headlines for using the word “checkmate”, but what he should have said was “in check”.
Even were the democratically elected Prime Minister to face the required minimum number of letters to the 1922 committee, and even then were he to face a no-confidence vote, checkmate for the Prime Minister still remains a somewhat distant prospect. Check for sure, but not checkmate, yet.
Of considerably more relevance to Steve Baker’s situation, not to mention that of the serendipitously named trans-party MP Christian Wakeford, is an earlier passage from Dante’s Divine Comedy, namely the Inferno, Canto 34. This depicts the final stage of Dante’s journey through Hell, accompanied by his guide, the Latin poet Virgil.
Travelling towards the centre of the Ninth Circle of Hell, Dante sees a huge shape in the distance, while beneath his feet, he observes the sinners of this Circle totally immersed in ice. They are the most depraved of all sinners: Traitors to their Benefactors. Their particular region of Hell, the Fourth Ring of the Ninth Circle, is named after the ultimate betrayal, Judas Iscariot, who was a traitor to none other than Jesus Christ Himself.
The giant figure in the distance is soon revealed as Lucifer, otherwise known as Satan or Dis. This hideous apparition has three equally horrible faces, and below each tripartite head, mocking The Holy Trinity, rises a set of wings, flapping back and forth. This action drives the icy winds which keep Cocytus, the frozen lake of the ultimate sinners, the betrayers, in its permanent condition of stasis.
Each of Lucifer’s mouths holds a sinner. According to Dante they are the three most heinous sinners of human history, all Traitors to a Benefactor. In the central maw hangs Judas Iscariot, while in the left and right jaws of Satan they see Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. Brutus and Cassius appear with their heads protruding, while Judas is pitched in headfirst; only his legs protrude, with all three mouths constantly masticating their victims, tearing the traitors in pieces, while never actually killing them.
I like to imagine that there is a region of Dante’s Ninth Circles, specially reserved for traitors, who not only betray their benefactors, but who also get their chess metaphors hopelessly wrong.
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