Culture and Civilisations

The touchstone of intellect

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The touchstone of intellect

In past columns I have speculated on the relationship between chess and Leonardo da Vinci, chess and William Shakespeare… Hieronymus Bosch, Napoleon Bonaparte, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, Hermann Hesse, Stefan Zweig, Thomas Mann, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Hindemith and Jorge Luis Borges. I have also dwelt upon the appearance of chess in such epics as Dante’s Divine ComedyThe Mabinogion and in T. S. Eliot’s mini epic, The Waste Land, where one Canto is even named after chess.

This week comes the turn of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (pictured above), poet, playwright, polymath and politician. Also the author of Napoleon’s favourite book, The Sorrows of Young Werther, a Romantic novel so heart-wrenching that it was responsible for a contagion of European suicides by young men who had been rejected in love. Since publication of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers in 1774 the term “Werther Effect” has been used in the technical literature to designate a series of copycat suicides.

Apart from unintentionally encouraging the lovelorn male youth of Europe to self immolate, Goethe also produced what is probably the most encouraging sentence about chess ever to appear in world literature, describing the game as: “the touchstone of the intellect.”

“Voilà un homme,” (What a man!) is how the Emperor Napoleon enthused about Goethe at their meeting at Erfurt in 1808. Goethe reciprocated by recognising an irresistible daemonic force in The Emperor. Napoleon had already read The Sorrows of Young Werther seven times and kept it under his pillow on campaign, much as Alexander the Great did with Homer’s inspirational Iliad.

Goethe’s achievements are multifarious. He has been described as “the prince of the mind” and also as the holder of the highest IQ and the largest vocabulary in history. I once visited the Goethe Haus in Frankfurt and saw the great man’s enormous top hat. If cranial capacity were an indication of intellectual pre-eminence, then Goethe’s hat was powerful surviving evidence.

He was a poet, man of action, dramatist, bon vivant, a scientist who was fascinated by plants, minerals and optics (his “Theory of Colour” had the temerity to disagree with Newton) a statesman, who rose to become Prime Minister of the then independent Principality of Weimar, sage, novelist and theatrical producer. In 1784 he discovered a bone in the human body, hitherto unknown to science — the intermaxillary bone in the jaw. For decades Goethe was European Literature.

Contemporary sources often provide the most eloquent descriptions. In 1807, a court official wrote of Goethe:

“He is tall of stature and gives an impression of slimness. The colour of his face is dark, almost like night. There is a certain hardness in his features, which are, however, very alive. His eyes retain a hidden beam of light, shining the moment he smiles. I have seen him glow with warmth and heard the seething of the riches within. I have recognised the lion by his claws.”

His patron, the Duke of Weimar, said famously of him: “Goethe could drink terribly, he could match the best.”

A colossal figure indeed, in his appearance, his conspicuous consumption and in his creative work. In fact, it was Goethe’s essays on nature which inspired Sigmund Freud to take up the study of medicine.

Goethe’s output in his early years was imbued with a spirit of revolt against the political censorship and emotional constraints of the day. His Werther novel, with the death of the young hero, frustrated in love, swept Europe. Here for the first time in German literature, profound emotion and deep inner passion were exposed for all to see. This was the Sturm und Drang culmination of the Romantic Movement, which was to engage the full enthusiasm of the young, in a way that the straight-laced writings of the moribund late classical school could no longer achieve.

Riding this crest, Goethe’s play Egmont (1788), continuing the Romantic theme, is a stirring tale of the liberation of the Netherlands from the autocratic Spanish Empire. The plot, centring on the freedom of individual expression, inspired Beethoven to compose his own Egmont overture, a hymn of praise to liberation. The action of Egmont follows chronologically on from that of Schiller’s play Don Carlos and one day, I hope, an enterprising theatre director will fuse them together as a double bill. The convenient thematic link would be the sinister Grand Duke of Alba, the deadly opponent of Don Carlos in Schiller’s play and the executioner of Count Egmont in Goethe’s counterpart.

Goethe’s oeuvre reinforced the sense of national identity which Germany began to experience with Luther’s translation of the Bible (1520-1530) and which accelerated towards the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, with works such as Götz von Berlichingen (1771). This was the play where Goethe described chess as the mind game “par excellence”, the “touchstone of the intellect” or “Probierstein des Gehirns.”

This evaluation of chess has become one of the standard-bearers of chess proselytism, proclaiming the value of the game to the world. Indeed, modern psychiatry confirms a definite link between chess prowess and a very high IQ.

In terms of an epic writer strengthening national awareness, Firdausi’s Shahnameh (circa 977 AD) which contains one of the earliest mentions of a game which could verifiably be identified as chess, was the prime engine of regeneration of the Persian language and the assertion of Persian national identity in the face of Arabic conquest. It could also be said of Dante’s Divine Comedy, that it introduced Italian as the appropriate language for mediaeval Italy, replacing Latin, which only the ruling classes had mastered. Thus Dante fostered an incipient sense of the rebirth of Italy as a concept, rather than a fragmented jigsaw of isolated city states.

Shakespeare himself created the crucible of a specifically English consciousness. His history cycle from Richard II, via Henry IV, V and VI, through to Richard III is increasingly recognised as the national epic for England, our very own Iliad, our Odyssey, our Aeneid, which set this nation on the path to linguistic consistency, national awareness and ultimately the impetus towards global aspiration. Milton’s Paradise Lost is often identified as the English national epic, wrongly in my opinion. Impressive though it is, Paradise Lost flaunts a perennially Latinate construction. Shakespeare’s history cycle, on the other hand, is far more accessible and far more English.

Yet Shakespeare, though the brightest, was not the sole luminary in the pantheon of the literary genius of Elizabethan England. His chief rival for the laurels was Christopher Marlowe, whose work was marked out by immense themes, giant characters and powerful blank verse. One such character was the oriental conqueror, Tamburlaine. (In fact Tamburlaine the Great Part Two, contains my single favourite line in the whole of English literature: “Egregious viceroys of these Eastern parts!”)

Tamburlaine was, incidentally, famed as a chess devotee, though, as befits a megalomaniac world conqueror, he preferred to play on a much enlarged board (11×10 squares) with extra pieces, such as “camels” and “giraffes”. It is said that his son, Shah Rukh, was so named, because Tamburlaine was moving a rook at the moment of his birth.

A second archetypal Marlovian anti-hero was Dr. Faustus, an aged professor, a seeker after knowledge from the depths of German myth, who bartered his soul to the Devil for twenty five years of guaranteed life and the fulfillment of all his earthly desires. It was a powerful story that took its theme from the roots of western beliefs. It stretched back to the original challenge to God from the Garden of Eden, with its twin forbidden trees with their equally forbidden fruits of Knowledge and Possession of Immortal Life.

Goethe’s most ambitious project was to reclaim the Faust story from the English, who had appropriated one of Germany’s most potent myths, and re-forge it as a harbinger of German identity and for a German audience. Even the sing-song earthy verse form Goethe chose for his new epic of a man’s life, of a German Odyssey for a contemporary German audience, harked back to the simple language of former times — in this case to the poetry of the shoemaker cum poet Hans Sachs, with its vigorous expression and humorous themes. Sachs was a source who also attracted another German icon, Richard Wagner, in his Meistersinger. Goethe, de facto, whether he was consciously aware, or not, when he set out to write Faust, ultimately contributed  to the unification of Germany through poetry!

“Decide, and do it now, your action’s clear as day.
When you advance, then others flock your way.
Without resolve, a million projects fail.
Commit right now, and let’s blaze history’s trail.”

This was a gigantic task, and in the Prologue to his Faust epic, from which the above words are taken, Goethe not only encourages himself, but the whole incipient German nation, to get on with that task, a task which was rendered that much more imperative by Napoleon himself. With the French Emperor parcelling out and repackaging Germany as he saw fit, and with England having purloined the natural material for a German national epic, the time had come for German nationalism to sweep to the fore. Within 39 years of the completion of Faust, Prussia and the remaining minor Germanic kingdoms had ceased to exist as disparate formal nation or city states and had been replaced by the homogenous German Empire.

Nowadays, even in Germany, Goethe’s original Faust is largely confined to schools and universities, perhaps because of its extreme length, and appears to have been written on dry, academic, official paper, as desiccated as anything in Faust’s own library. It is so easy to overlook the dynamic role Faust played in the creation of a new nation.

Faust Part One consists of 4,612 lines; Faust Part Two is 7,498 lines, while both parts combined total 12,110 lines. In comparison, Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannos is 1,500 lines, the Anglo-Saxon heroic epic, Beowulf is just over 3,182 lines, while Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play, is 4,042. Marlowe’s Faustus is 2,197.

It is at this point that I must confess a personal interest. Having studied Goethe as my special paper at Trinity College, Cambridge, I set myself the ambition of one day translating Goethe’s Faust into English. I am, therefore, delighted to announce that I have just finished my translation into a version which I intend to be accessible for an English speaking audience.

The precedents for adapting and abridging Goethe’s Faust are already well attested and numerous across a number of artistic and cultural spheres. These include: early verse translations by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Gerard de Nerval, illustrations by Eugene Delacroix, as well as operas by Charles Gounod, Arrigo Boito, Hector Berlioz and a song cycle by Franz Schubert. It is interesting that the stellar attraction of a recent spring season at the English National Opera was a new production of Berlioz’s Faust, directed by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame. There are also symphonic interpretations by Franz Liszt, Gustav Mahler in his “Symphony of a Thousand”, and the largest symphony ever written, Havergal Brian’s “Gothic Symphony”. Additionally, there are F.W. Murnau’s 1926 Faust film and a Faust novel by Thomas Mann.

It is more than remarkable that of the four great choral symphonies, Beethoven’s 9th, The Liszt, Mahler’s 8th and Brian’s Gothic, no fewer than three were inspired by Goethe’s Faust, while The Beethoven was based originally on the Ode to Joy by Goethe’s friend and associate, Friedrich Schiller. It is worth noting that this famous choral passage should actually be The Ode to Freedom, not The Ode to Joy. Schiller originally wrote Freedom (Freiheit) but this was suppressed by the censors of the day, made nervous by the threat of popular revolution. Schiller, therefore, substituted Freude (joy) for Freiheit (Freedom). Both words begin with the letter “F” in German and contain two syllables. The subterfuge was, therefore, plausible. In recent times Leonard Bernstein used the proper version, with Freiheit, not Freude, to celebrate the collapse of the Berlin Wall with his performance of Beethoven’s 9th on its ruins.

The Faust legend stems from mediaeval Germany, specifically the town of Wittenberg, where Luther in 1517 had nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche. Shakespeare’s great rival, Christopher Marlowe, seized on the Faust story, this seeker after knowledge, who abjures his faith and strikes a pact with the Devil, signing away his soul in words of blood.

Marlowe’s Tragical History of Dr. Faustus is one of the stellar works of the western literary cannon. Goethe saw hidden depths in the narrative and was determined to weld an epic from it to equal those of Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton. Goethe achieved this, as Virgil did with his hero Aeneas, or Homer with Odysseus, by creating the totality of the life of a man and fleshing it out with multiple new dimensions. In contrast, Marlowe’s Faustus, as a man, is eloquent, defiant in his rejection of God, but ultimately a mere deceived and defeated conjuror, who is condemned to an eternity of perdition.

Similarly, when Augustus needed to unify and consolidate the Roman Empire, which he had partly inherited from Julius Caesar, but had also wrested from the grasp of the moribund Republic and the rival Triumvirs, it was to the poet Virgil he turned. Virgil’s epic The Aeneid, provided for Rome the political, military, moral and social justification, which bound the new Empire together and conferred on it common identity and language, whilst simultaneously reinforcing its traditions. Virgil was thought to possess vatic powers and was chosen also by Dante over a millennium later to be his spiritual guide in his journey from the Divine Comedy to the Inferno and the Purgatorio. And, as I pointed out in my column on Donner, it is in the celestial consummation, The Paradiso, that Dante refers to the infinite dimensions of the chessboard.

Last month BBC 4 screened How to Win at Chess, prominently featuring both your columnist and Grandmaster Danny King. In the programme I agreed to act the part of Danny’s losing opponent, in order to help demonstrate certain key tactics and strategies of chess. This week’s game is what happened when Danny and I faced off in real life.

As Goethe said in his Maxims and Reflections: “Daring ideas are like chessmen moving forward. They may be captured but they may be the route to victory.” And for the direct relevance of Goethe’s insight, see Black’s 27th and 34th moves in this game.

I give the last word to Firdausi’s Persian successor, Omar Khayyam:

“‘Tis all a chequer board of nights and days,
Where Destiny with men for pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.”

Member ratings
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  • Interesting points: 97%
  • Agree with arguments: 95%
61 ratings - view all

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