Culture and Civilisations

Jorge Luis Borges and the heresiarchs of the 64 squares

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Jorge Luis Borges and the heresiarchs of the 64 squares

Jorge Luis Borges, Italy, 1980 (Alamy)

The heresies we should fear are those which can be confused with orthodoxy” 

From  The Theologians  by Jorge Luis Borges (1899 –1986). 

The most famous chess clash of all time remains the Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky World Championship at Reykjavik 1972. Fischer’s second in that match was Grandmaster Reverend William Lombardy, not only an expert chess player, but also a Catholic priest. 

Three years later I encountered Lombardy at a tournament in Orense, Spain. The hot question on my lips was not the latest inside info on Bobby Fischer (I had foreseen years beforehand that if he ever won the World Title he would abandon chess) but, what was the news on combatting heresy? Lombardy replied that there was not much use for anti-heretical arts nowadays. Little did he know that his erstwhile master from Reykjavik would one day assume the mantle of Heresiarch-in-Chief. 

Lombardy himself was immortalised on screen by the 2014 Hollywood movie Pawn Sacrifice, where the mercurial Fischer himself was played by Tobey (Spider-Man) Maguire, with Peter Sarsgard as the faithful and long-suffering analyst Rev William Lombardy. 

Bobby Fischer duly defaulted his title in 1975, leaving the field of honour to the golden boy of Soviet Orthodoxy, Anatoly Karpov and that arch-defector, the most implacable foe of the Kremlin and all its works, Viktor Korchnoi, otherwise known as the Leningrad Lip or Viktor the Terrible. 

Three years later, I visited the great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges in his flat in Maipu Street, Buenos Aires, to discuss the recently concluded Anatoly Karpov vs Viktor Korchnoi World Chess Championship match (where I had acted as Korchnoi’s second). Borges told me that all the stories in his Universal History of Infamy were genuine accounts of true events, bar one. I hazarded a guess that it was the short story: The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv, from which, later in this column, I present an extract, demonstrating the dramatic despatch of an Islamic Heresiarch. Borges duly autographed that story for me, in my copy of his book, which I had brought for the occasion. This act I regarded as confirmation of my hypothesis.

Borges was, in my estimation, the most significant writer in the Spanish tongue of the 20th century. Yet the Nobel Prize Committee established a laughable annual tradition of not awarding him the prize for literature. Borges studied in Argentina, Geneva and Cambridge and was bilingual in English and Spanish – his stories read equally fluently in both languages. With great self-deprecation, he used to assert that his English translators had improved on his original Spanish. In later life he became a blind seer, in the tradition of Homer, Milton or Tiresias with overtones of Dante’s evocation of the sighted Virgil in the Inferno and Purgatorio.

Borges’ plots centre around the exercise of intelligence in a vast universe. Indeed, two of his stories, Funes the Memorious and The Circular Ruins, are panegyrics to the power of memory. In Funes, after a riding accident, the hero is crippled in body, but his imagination is jolted so that his perception and memory become “infallible”. Whereas others might simply observe three wine glasses on a table, “Funes saw all the shoots, clusters and grapes of the vine”.

The Borges Labyrinth, Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore (Alamy)

As I learned from my readings of Borges, combined with the time spent with him in Buenos Aires, Borgesian themes explore the vast complexity of the universe and of eternity, but without that fear of the eternal and the infinite which pervades the works of the German-speaking Czech Franz Kafka (1883–1924). Borges found this vastness and complexity, the immensity of both space and time, inspiring and exhilarating  – whereas Kafka found it terrifying. Indeed, one could see Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings as symbolic of his desire to explore and penetrate the uttermost reaches of the imagination and of mythology. With the Roman writer Lucretius (99–55BC) in De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), Borges could say: “Omne immensum peragravit, mente animoque” (“he traversed the vast universe in mind and spirit”), lines adopted as a motto by my late friend, educational expert, inventor of Mind Maps, fellow admirer of Borges, founder of the World Memory Championship and chess enthusiast, Tony Buzan

A devotee of mind games, and of chess in particular, Borges even tried to follow chess moves after he had lost his sight. He loved to explore roots and meanings. For instance, he traced the word “bungalow” back to a type of single-storey dwelling that was common in Bengal. He explained to me that Acton (where I lived at the time) meant Oak Farm and that the common suffix “by” (as in Whitby, Grimsby and Ashby) signified a town. In fact, in England there are 210 of these regions that were once under Viking control.

Borges inspired me to read Beowulf in the original Old English, he was a great admirer of Shakespeare and an enthusiast for Christopher Marlowe’s work – especially his play Doctor Faustus. Among Borges’ most distinctive works are LabyrinthsThe Book of Imaginary BeingsDream Tigers and The Book of Sand. Hewas fascinated by geometric plots and scenarios which involved the use of a double, or impinged somehow on infinity. In one story he devised a book that was endless – one could never open it at the same page twice. Doubtless he saw in this a mirror of the infinite possibilities of creation.

As a young man he spurned all advancement in Argentine society through his opposition to the government of the dictator Peron (lesser known spouse of the somewhat more famous Evita). Refusing to compromise his principles by supporting a regime of which he disapproved, he remained a self-effacing librarian.

As we have seen, Borges was fascinated by three things: chess, infinity and memory. He was also entranced by complicated versions of Heresy, which crop up in more than one story and embrace more than one faith. As noted above, The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv relates the way in which a supposed Islamic heretic might have been eliminated. 

The Masked Dyer was set in the year 163 of the Hegira (the Prophet ’s Flight from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD and the fifth year of the Heresy of the Shining Face). Hakim, the leader of that Heresy, which supplanted the Prophet in the people’s devotion with the supposedly shining, but ever masked or veiled face of Hakim himself, was besieged at the town of Sanam by the Caliph’s army. 

“There was no lack of provisions or martyrs, and the arrival of a host of golden angels was imminent. It was at this point that an alarming rumour made its way through the fortress. An adulteress in the harem, as she was strangled by the eunuchs, had cried out that the ring finger of Hakim’s right hand was missing and that all his other fingers lacked nails. This rumour spread among the faithful. From the top of a terrace, in the midst of his people, Hakim was praying to the Lord for a victory or for a special sign. Two captains, their heads bowed down, slavish – as if beating into a driving rain – tore away the Veil. 

At first, there was a shudder. The Apostle‘s promised face, the face that had been to the heavens, was indeed white – but with that whiteness peculiar to spotted leprosy. It was so bloated and unbelievable that to the mass of onlookers it seemed a mask. There were no brows; the lower lid of the right eye hung over the shrivelled cheek; a heavy cluster of tubercules ate away the lips; the flattened, inhuman nose was like a lion‘ s.

Hakim‘s voice attempted one final stratagem. ‘Your unforgivable sins do not allow you to see my splendour –‘ it began to say. Paying no heed, the captains ran him through with spears.”

From  The Masked Dyer, Hakim of Merv

Borges is especially fascinated by Christian heresy. In Three Versions of Judas, he conjures up the ingenious figure of Scandinavian Heresiarch Nils Runeberg, who posits the theory that for a saviour to undergo the ultimate degradation, thus co-experiencing the worst calamities that can afflict humankind, it was the fate of Judas, not that of Christ, which stood out. 

“God made Himself totally a man but a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of reprobation and the abyss. To save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which make up the complex web of history; He could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus; He chose the vilest destiny of all; He was Judas.” 

And then, in a curious echo of Nietzsche’s parable of the madman with the lantern, from  Die Fr ö hliche Wissenschaft  (Joyous Wisdom, 1882), who pronounces that God is dead…

“What infinite punishment would be his for having discovered and divulged the horrible name of God? Drunk with insomnia and vertiginous dialectic, Nils Runeberg wandered through the streets of Malmö, begging at the top of his voice that he be granted the grace of joining his Redeemer in Hell. 

He died of a ruptured aneurysm on the first of March, 1912. The heresiologists will perhaps remember him; to the concept of the Son, which seemed exhausted, he added the complexities of evil and misfortune.”

Borges from Three Versions of Judas in Labyrinths

And next, but by no means finally, an account of the emergence of a sect practising a heresy ( The Histriones ) which postulated a celestial double for everyone. The double becomes more free and enlightened in proportion to the oppression of the counterpart in our physical world. This heresy was accidentally endorsed by the respected theologian John of Pannonia, with lamentable consequences. 

“‘What the heresiarchs now bark in confusion of the faith was said in our realm by a most learned man, with more frivolity than guilt.’ Then the dreaded, hoped-for, inevitable thing happened. Aurelian had to declare who the man was; John of Pannonia was accused of professing heretical opinions.

Four months later, a blacksmith of Aventinus, deluded by the Histriones’ deceptions, placed a huge iron sphere on the shoulders of his small son, so that his double might fly. The boy died.”

Borges The Theologians in his Anthology: Labyrinths

And now to heresy in chess, to call the abomination by name: shuffle chess, chess 960, Chess 9XL or Fischerrandom. I must confess to feeling that common resentment, doubtless experienced by the 300 or so orthodox bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, when confronted with the heresy of the Alexandrian Presbyter Arius (256–336 AD) who claimed that God the son was subordinate to God the Father.

Bobby Fischer 1971, (Alamy)

Shuffle chess was popularised by that quintessential demon, Heresiarch and obliterator of his fans’ expectations and desecrator of their loyalty, Bobby Fischer. In my opinion, players being permitted to arrange their pieces at random at the start of the game represents a feeble echo of the harmony, beauty and balance of the orthodox initial chess array.  It is fuelled by a disinclination to master opening theory and bolstered by the endorsement conferred through Fischer. Respectable status, encouraging it to become confused with real thing, has been further acquired by means of the lure of “all corrupting gold” as Shakespeare puts it in  Richard III . Players of the calibre of Grandmaster Wesley So and even the reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen have been tempted to dignify it with their presence, in tournaments where the abomination prevails. One such was the 9XL event in St. Louis, held in the second week of September, where a monetary fund of $150,000 was at stake, with Leinier Dominguez winning first prize and $37,500, ahead of an illustrious field, which included Garry Kasparov, Fabiano Caruana and Lev Aronian. 

What can be the justification for shuffle chess, when the possible permutations of chess proper are so enormous (ten to the power of 120, as I pointed out in my column Dr Siegbert Tarrasch and his search for meaning )? If one is bored with chess, then why not venture some of the entrancing oriental alternatives, such as Xiangqi (Chinese Chess), or Shogi (Japanese Chess), where excitement is intensified by the fact that all pieces, even when captured, can re-enter the fray, but for the opposing side.

Once one heresy takes root, the pestilence spreads. In Dortmund, the former scene of many a fine clash of classical chess, a match was staged in July between two ex-World Champions, Viswanathan Anand and Vladimir Kramnik, where castling was prohibited! One might as well enfeeble the game of cricket by abolishing the ability to hit a ball for six. If these ex-Champions desired to challenge their minds in a different game, might they not have reverted to the authentic game of Shatranj , that pre-Renaissance, pre-castling ancestor of chess, which has its own immense subtleties, as revealed in the games and puzzles, from the cultured Baghdad Caliphate, of As Suli (880–946 AD), Al Lajlaj (900–970 AD), and Al Adli (circa 840 AD) who was the original Aliyat or Grandmaster. 

I n any case, the resources of conventional chess are far from drained, as can be seen from these remarkable games, all played in the recently concluded Norway Tournament, won by Carlsen, well ahead of Firouzja, Rapport, Nepomniachtchi, Karjakin and Tari (Stavanger 7th–17th September).

In the first example,  between Ian Nepomniachtchi vs Alireza Firouzja in 2021 , we see the new Challenger for the World Title in action, proving that even the resources of the venerable King’s Gambit have not yet been exhausted. 

  Next, the reigning World Champion is embroiled in unexpected and unfathomable complications by a sudden sacrifice of rook for bishop:  Sergey Karjakin vs Magnus Carlsen in the same tournament.  

Finally a quasi-miraculous win by Carlsen against Alireza Firouzja in an endgame where a casual observer, after move 40 might even consider that it is Black who is playing for a win. See position below.  

In a separate aside and in a surprising move, it has been announced that former Women’s World Champion Nona Gaprindashvili from Tbilisi in Georgia is suing Netflix over her depiction in the wildly popular Queens Gambit series. It is alleged that the series portrayed her as avoiding male competition. This is patently untrue, as I can testify from my own experience. On one terrifying occasion I played against her in her hometown and every time she made a move the audience loudly cheered. Gaprindashvili is said to be claiming $5 million for damage to her reputation. Netflix (who won an astonishing 11 Emmy Awards last week for the show) can doubtless raise well in excess of this sum, from sales based on renewed interest in the series, as a result of the court case. This could be litigation made in heaven! 

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from  Amazon , and  Blackwells .

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 97%
  • Interesting points: 97%
  • Agree with arguments: 94%
46 ratings - view all

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