On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

On telepathy and the battle for narrative control.

After William Burroughs experienced how pitifully he could be held in thrall by a small molecule, he developed a lifelong interest in telepathy and mind control. 

His own brain had been upended.  Suddenly, he found himself devoting the vast majority of his time and money toward a single cause: obtaining a day’s ration of opiate.  If he was delinquent in this task, he grew sick.  Agony would keep him focused.

If that drug was capable of re-sculpting a human personality, might there be other ways?  In Queer, the protagonist speculates:

“I know telepathy to be a fact, since I have experienced it myself.  I have no interest to prove it, or, in fact, to prove anything to anybody.  What interests me is, how can I use it?

“In South America at the headwaters of the Amazon grows a plant called Yage that is supposed to increase telepathic sensitivity.  Medicine men use it in their work.  A Colombian scientist, whose name escapes me, isolated from Yage a drug he called Telepathine.  I read all this in a magazine article.

“Later I see another article: the Russians are using Yage in experiments on slave labor.  It seems they want to induce states of automatic obedience and ultimately, of course, ‘thought control.’  The basic con.  No buildup, no spiel, no routine, just move in on someone’s psyche and give orders.

“I have a theory that the Mayan priests developed a form of one-way telepathy to con the peasants into doing all the work.  The deal is certain to backfire eventually, because telepathy is not of its nature a one-way setup, nor a setup of sender and receiver at all.”

As it happens, psychedelic drugs are quite poor tools for potentiating mind control.  But there are other ways.  A precisely-localized magnetic pulse can cause prompt, unnoticeable alterations in a person’s behavior – researchers were able to change how their human study subjects responded to unfairness, all without those subjects realizing that they were acting differently from usual.

Because repeated behaviors give rise to our personality, it stands to reason that repeated transcranial magnetic stimulation could rewire a person’s identity.  Invisibly, and, with the right interference patterns, at a distance. 

You could be made other.

The more common form of mind control practiced in the United States is much less technologically advanced.  Rather than using a magnetic pulse to stimulate or suppress particular regions of the brain, we employ narrative control.

Here’s a simple story: a bell rings, then dinner is served.  If this story is integrated inside the brain as universally true, then the sound of the bell will trigger salivation.  This is the basic principle behind Pavlovian conditioning.  You can train a dog to associate dinnertime to the sound of a bell, or to have an aversion to a particular smell.

Humans can be similarly conditioned.  Companies like Facebook and Apple have incorporated a variety of sensory experiences into their designs, all intended to engender a sense of urgency about checking your telephone.  The alerts, the updates, the little pings – these are pushed to the forefront of the design because they compel engagement.  Likewise the little jingles of dropped loot in online fantasy games.

In a perfect world, corporations would not make their users’ brains worse in order to increase their own profits.  If those companies’ designs were less malicious, the makers wouldn’t need to be so vigilant about making sure that their own children don’t engage with their creations.

But those are little stories.  A few stray details added to the narrative of your day: if you see the dot, click to see the update!  More threatening is the prospect of mind control that totally rewrites an internalized narrative.  Take a person’s memories and supplant them.

In Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, the doctor Benway describes his interrogation techniques:

“While in general I avoid the use of torture – torture locates the opponent and mobilizes resistance – the threat of torture is useful to induce in the subject the appropriate feeling of helplessness and gratitude to the interrogator for withholding it.  And torture can be employed to advantage as a penalty when the subject is far enough along with the treatment to accept punishment as deserved.”

In an excellent article for Science magazine, journalist Douglas Starr describes research into false confessions, situations when people are subjected to such extreme narrative control that they temporarily lose grasp of their personal memories and accept instead an interrogator’s version of reality. 

A variety of techniques are employed – the threat of torture, as above; a questioning regime that is in itself torturous, giving the subject an incentive to play along just to make it stop; sleep deprivation to muddle the brain; ardently repeated falsehoods to supplant the subject’s own stories; deceitful cajoling to persuade the subject that there would be minimal consequences to accepting an alternate version of reality (by saying things like “Anyone would have done the same thing”).

And it works.  Innocent people can be made to believe that they’ve done horrible things.  With a variety of laboratory experiments, psychologist Saul Kassin has shown that these techniques can induce almost anyone to confess to things they haven’t done.

Your stories can be wrested from you.

Indeed, our entire legal system is a battleground for narrative control.  Two sides compete to determine what story will enter the legal record: this is typically set up as a test of wits between a well-trained, well-funded prosecutor and an indigent, incarcerated individual who might or might not receive a brief consultation with an overscheduled public defender.

Predictably, the prosecutor often wins.  Because prosecutors have absolute, unchecked power to determine what charges to levy against a defendant, they can threaten people with the risk of outlandish punishment … and they can force a defendant to suffer in jail simply by delaying trials.  So, eventually, when a prosecutor offers an alternative story that would allow the defendant’s torture to end, most people will renounce their own memories.  They plead guilty.  After all, you might spend another year in jail waiting for a trial, or you could just let the prosecutor re-write history and walk out today.

Of course, you might not walk out today.  Even if you were told that you would.  In this battle for narrative control, one side – the defendant – is required to be honest.  The other is not.

And so people lose their stories, the very narratives that make us who we are.

Featured image: neural pathways in the brain taken using diffusion tensor. Image by Thomas Schultz.

On psychedelic drugs as medicine.

On psychedelic drugs as medicine.

We are creatures of habit.

learning_to_walk_by_pushing_wheeled_toyLife would be excruciating if we were not.  Can you imagine: consciously remembering to breathe every few seconds?  Concentrating with the intensity of a toddler each time you stand and walk across a room?  Carefully considering the rules of grammar and conjugation when you stop to ask someone for directions?

Our brains zip through so much unconsciously.  Most of us can drift into reverie while driving and still go through all the motions correctly, stopping at red lights, making the appropriate turns, our mind set on autopilot.

We live, and we learn, and our brains constantly change – neurons reach out to form synaptic connections to one another.  Other connections wilt away.  The resultant network determines who we are.  More precisely, the pattern of connections determines which thoughts we are good at having.  Thoughts we’ve thunk before come easily.

But our propensity for habit can hijack our lives.  In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, viewers of the highly-addictive titular film are unable to think of anything but watching it again.  One taste and you’re hooked!

otto_wegener_vers_1895_2Or, in an example closer to most humans’ experience, Marcel Proust writes of the way our shared experience with a lost love causes the brain to ache each time a similar experience must be forded alone.  Over and over we hurt: going to sleep alongside her was a habit.  Chatting in the evening was a habit.  Walking to the store hand in hand was a habit.  The brain is still wired such that it could effortlessly zip through these tasks, but… she is gone.

In an example that is – unfortunately! – increasingly relevant today, William Burroughs writes that powerful opiates do not hook users right away.  It takes many recurrent episodes to rewire the brain.  In his (overly cavelier) words:

4306771895_1eda6d6e9d_z
Painting by Christiaan Tonnis.

The question is frequently asked: Why does a man become a drug addict?

The answer is that he usually does not intend to become an addict.  You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict.  It takes at least three months’ shooting twice a day to get any habit at all.  And you don’t really know that junk sickness is until you have had several habits.  It took me almost six months to get my first habit, and then the withdrawal symptoms were mild.  I think it no exaggeration to say it takes about a year and several hundred injections to make an addict.

. . .

You don’t decide to be an addict.  One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict.

And then, depression.  To perceive the world a shade darker than it ought to be comes easily… to someone who is depressed.  A depressed person’s brain has been rewired through perhaps a lifetime of rumination and pain.  Suicidal ideation gets easier and easier and easier… unless it goes too far, and then it becomes impossible.  Dead matter doesn’t think.

thenightmare
The Nightmare by John Henry Fuseli.

Cognitive behavioral therapy attempts to use the brain’s own habit-forming capabilities to battle depression.  Because today’s depressed thoughts enable tomorrow’s depression, a conscious effort to find joy and beauty today could ease tomorrow’s struggle.  Phrases like “virtuous cycle” are bandied about.

My wife, each evening, asks me to list four good things that happened during the day; if we forget the ritual through a harried week or two, it’s difficult to start again.  I lay in bed, pondering, “What was good about the day?”  Which should always be easy.  I have two loving children whom I am graced to spend time with.  I am not in jail.  I have a warm, safe place to sleep.  I have enough to eat.  I live near phenomenal libraries.

But the habit of depression digs the mind into a rut.

lsd-clinical-trial-bottleWhich has caused several researchers to wonder, “Would cognitive behavioral therapy work better if a patient could be jolted out of the rut first, then trained in a new virtuous cycle?”  We have access to several potent chemicals that wrest the brain out of its routines.  Psychedelic drugs like lysergic acid diethyl amide, dimethyl tryptamine, and psilocin are powerful beasts.

Which is not to say that, if you’re feeling sad, you should go find that raver dude you know and ask what he’s holding.  For one thing, most psychedelics are illegal in the United States.  This contributes to the dearth of high-quality clinical information about their uses – obtaining permission to run clinical trials with Schedule I compounds is difficult, and drugs can’t be downgraded from Schedule I status without reams of data from clinical trials.  Nonsensical bureaucracy at its best!

Plus, high-quality clinical trials must control for the placebo effect – neither patients nor doctors should know whether an individual is receiving the treatment or a control.  But I’m guessing most recipients recognize the difference between an injection of DMT or saline.  Did your visual field suddenly fragment into geometric patterns?  Did you feel an out-of-body sensation akin to alien abduction?  Did your memories begin to unfold like interlocking matryoshka-doll puzzle boxes?  Those are sensations I rarely experience from salt water.

LauretaAnd the sheer power of psychedelic drugs also makes them dangerous.  Dr. Lauretta Bender, whose least harmful contribution to science was the idea that emotional disturbances could be diagnosed by asking a child to reproduce pictures of geometric shapes, assumed that LSD would cure autism.  If she’d been right, this sort of baseless cognitive leap would’ve been heralded as brilliance.  She injected large doses into the muscles of children as young as five.  Daily.  When that “cure” proved insufficient, she combined it with electroconvulsive therapy: high currents to overwhelm their little brains.

Enforced acid trips in nightmarish environs of total control can ruin lives.

Especially since Dr. Bender was diagnosing autism in routinely-abused orphans based on symptoms like “avoids eye contacts” and “difficulty forming trusting relationships.”

5009548522_6701801dcb_oAcid trips can end lives, too.  At least one involuntary research subject ensnared in the CIA’s efforts to use LSD as mind-control reagent committed suicide.  And there are innumerable horror stories of murders committed by people mired in psychedelic trips.  Then again, most murders are committed by people who haven’t taken psychedelics.  In Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication he writes that:

Many bad trips are a function of personality; not everybody is a good subject for a mind-altering experience.  And even experienced users can have a bad day.  … Harold, a veteran of one thousand LSD trips, wanted to volunteer to be a psychonaut but he had a history of violence, both on and off the drug.  “Ever since I was small,” confessed Harold, “I go ape when I’m bothered.”

.. [a grim description of Harold murdering two hikers outside Santa Barbara in 1984 follows.  Yes, Harold had “drank some beer, smoked a little marijuana, and swallowed a few amphetamine tablets along with a full dose of LSD.”  But he’d also “been bothered by financial problems.  He was passing bad checks and had failed to make child-support payments to his ex-wife.”  So I’m not sure the drugs were at the root of his malaise.]

Cases like Harold’s tend to confuse the issue of intoxication and violence.  Violent people are often intoxicated but the violence is usually rooted in the personality, not the drug.  . . . What seems difficult for us to understand is that despite overt behaviors, the subjective experience can still be fun.  In other words, one’s inner feelings and sensations can be under the influence but such influence may not extend to outside acts in the real world that remain chillingly sober.  This is most difficult to accept if users are obviously intoxicated when they commit criminal acts.  The subjective intoxication can remain an enjoyable experience, despite our desire to blame the fires inside for the destruction outside.

Used incorrectly, psychedelic drugs are awful.  They disrupt habits, seeming to dissolve the mental filters that allow humans to function despite constant bombardment by thoughts and memories and myriad sensations from the world.  This newfound wonderment & reset can help, of course, but for someone in a bad place, it can be horrible.

mdma1Then again, for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder, the world might be horrible already – even if the chance that psychedelics could help were low, they’d be worth investigating.  Thankfully, the FDA finally granted permission for a trial to be run on the use of methylene dioxy methamphetamine (ecstasy – when I was a TA for undergraduate organic chemistry at Stanford, I wrote most of the quizes.  After they learned about acetal protection of ketones, all 200 or so pre-meds wrote out a partial synthesis for MDMA.  The reactants and products were unnamed, so I don’t think the students or the other TAs noticed) to treat PTSD .

In other experiments, LSD and psilocin seem to help terminal cancer patients overcome depression.  Ayahuasca is also being tested as a treatment for depression and those seeking to quit substance abuse (peyote has long been used for the latter), although these studies are far from the FDA clinical ideal.

Many people, as they live, drift into routine and no longer consider the implications of their actions.  I’m well aware that drugs can wreck lives, but sometimes we need a jolt.  I wish people weren’t shunted to jail for drug addiction – and obviously the dudes in there wish they were almost anywhere else – but a surprising number are grateful that something interrupted their habits.  Junkies don’t want to look back on a wasted life, either.

pills-750x400I’m not super keen on the rich & entitled using psychedelics for fun & games, and psychedelics certainly should not be used often.  But these molecules, treated respectfully, can heal damaged lives.

Even in the ostensibly healthy, psychedelics can do good.  Does the way you choose to spend your time benefit the world?

On pain.

On pain.

Recently I heard a man read a beautiful poem.  The first half of his poem was a slangy narration of an evening out.  Then the piece turned, brutally, into a crystal clear description of his lover’s death by overdose.  Though he was not a user, he’d taken some of her shot, worried she might overdo it.  His fraction was enough to put him under, but not enough to save her.  He woke beside her body, cold.

When he finished reading, everyone in the room was still.  He was asked to read his poem again – it’s difficult for me to follow a poem aloud the first time I hear it, and I assume this is hard for other people, too – at which point he opened his mouth to speak.  Several seconds passed.  No sound came out.  Tears rolled down his face.  He shook his head.

No, he could not read the poem again.  He handed it to me and I read it aloud a second time for our class.

It was difficult for me to read.  My voice is squeaky and might well crack at the best of times.  And I’ve lost an uncle to overdose; nearly my namesake, too.  But I’ve lost less than the men in jail.

When I finished, several more were crying.

Habitual drug use ruins lives.  But the War on Drugs ends them.

Our culture rarely celebrates the endurance of pain.  There are exceptions, of course – professional sports dominates our media, with traffic in many cities tangling for hours on game days, and no one can argue that athletes do not suffer – but for the masses we promote convenience and ease.  Such are the advertisements that flicker seductively on our ubiquitous gargantuan TVs.

There’s fast food for whenever you feel hungry.  Programmers work round the clock to develop new ways for any interstitial time – stint in a waiting room, stop at a red light, lull in dinnertime conversation – to be filled with pleasurable distraction.  Nurses trained near the turn of the century were taught to eliminate pain amongst their wards, since the newest opiates were presumed to be much less addictive than their precursors.

Oops.

4534284126_66c7a877c9_z.jpg

In a culture that celebrates immediate gratification & constant ease – and, moreover, does not teach people how to gracefully suffer – painkiller use can easily spiral out of control.  Opiates ameliorate both physical and psychological pain; for many who’ve felt perpetually beleaguered by the world, a script after surgery might bring the first flush of mental relief in years.

I am not saying, after all, that Americans do not suffer.  Poverty hurts.  Through a cascade of cortisol, stress causes physical harm.  But our pain & forbearance is rarely celebrated.

Instead, we turn on the TV and see another ad for the latest pharmaceutical.

symptoms-muscle-painBut there’s a hook.  Painkillers do not remove pain, certainly not when the pain is psychological, stemming from structural disconnects between our desires and the world.  Painkillers simply act to make pain temporarily bearable.  Over time, painkillers aggravate pain.

This was demonstrated with a recent experiment asking opiate users to put their hands in cold water.  Pain is necessary – some people are born with unusually high pain tolerance, and these people are exceptionally prone to injury because they fail to extricate themselves from circumstances that ought to hurt.  Luckily, most people’s brains are looking out for them.  When people take painkillers, their bodies will produce fewer endogenous opiates and the signals reporting pain will scream louder, attempting to be heard over the muffling cloak of chemical numbing.

If a person uses painkillers too long then tries to quit, the body’s efforts to re-sensitize to pain will make every moment agony.  Dip a hand into chilly water and it’ll feel unbearable.  Our skin is a huge surface, and nerve endings grope throughout our body: when quitting, all scream hurt!

According to William Burroughs, “No one will stand still for junk sickness unless he is in jail or otherwise cut off from junk.  The reason it is practically impossible to stop using and cure yourself is that the sickness lasts five to eight days.  Twelve hours of it would be easy, twenty-four possible, but five to eight days is too long.”

The sickness can drag on interminably.  The agony.  Worse, the mind knows all the while that there is a way to make it stop.  Another pill.  Or, if you can’t afford a pill, then…

409px-bayer_heroin_bottlePainkillers are known entities, with precisely calibrated dosage, but they are expensive.  Even for those with money, they require a prescription.  Many switch to heroin, which might be ten-fold cheaper, but the War on Drugs ensures that heroin users face mystery dosage.  The product is gravely unstandardized.  Here in the Midwest, where the cartels sometimes experiment with new blends, new compounds to cut their product with, no one can anticipate the effects.

Hearts slow, lips turn blue.  By forcing everything underground – unregulated, uncontrolled – the War on Drugs prevents users from learning their limits.  A safe dose from one batch might kill you from another.  Users are well away from medical care.

But there are intimations that, as more and more wealthy, “respectable” people get hooked, the world might change.  In Vancouver, Canada, users are provided with a space safe to inject, and one consequence has been a drop in the rate of addiction.  It’s easier to quit when you’re not cut off from the world by the stigma of being considered a criminal.  And decriminalization would allow addicts to choose safer alternatives – my namesake, who didn’t die, was able to obtain standardized pills.

speaker_at_the_2010_annual_rally_against_the_war_on_drugs_at_u-c-_berkeleyIf it were legal, marijuana could supplant some opiate use.  Pot isn’t harmless, but one of the worse side-effects is that it makes people insufferably boring.  This seems preferable to making them dead.

Within the depths of addiction, the world looks awful.  Many users want to quit.  But quitting means suffering through the spell when the body screams, and the mind feels nary better … and we’ve criminalized help.

On Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian.’

More women than men are vegetarian — if you consider the word “vegetarian” to mean someone who eats no meat, milk, or eggs & wears no leather, as in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, something like 4 out of 5 vegetarians in the U.S. are female.

BeingaBeastcover_0If I were planning to write an essay about the moral or philosophical virtues of eating vegetables, I might approach this statistic with claims like Charles Foster’s from Being a Beast:

Women have more theory of mind than men, which makes them nicer people — less prone to start wars or engage in egocentric monologues at the dinner table.

Foster goes on to say that in his experience, empathy, trying to imagine what life must be like for individuals of other species, changed his diet. He knows, of course, that humans evolved to be carnivorous. This evolutionary history is readily apparent in our minds and bodies. We experience the thrill of the hunt (not the fear of the hunted), our intestines are short, our cells can’t synthesize all the nutrients they need. Foster carries genes that “want” him to be a hunter, and he writes:

I’ve put down my guns and taken up my tofu, but there was a time when I crept heavily armed through the woods and over the mountains.

By hunting, he could more fully embrace what it meant to be born a Homo sapiens. And yet. Once he made a serious effort to understand what his choices meant for other creatures, once he’d lived as a badger, and concluded that badgers, too, must have their sorrows and joys, their own reasons for wanting to be alive, he could no longer support their murder. And if not badgers, why cows?

River_Otter_with_Fish_(5711531594)Later in his project, Foster writes of a moment — while he was trying to live as an otter, swimming underwater and hunting raw fish with his hands — when a fish swam into his mouth. In that moment of truth, he chose not to eat it:

A disoriented stickleback, no doubt taking my open mouth for a cave, swam inside. Its fluttering spines grazed my palate like the probe of a Parkinsonian dentist. I should have crushed it between my fillings and swallowed it. I couldn’t, any more than I could stamp on a mouse. My failure is illogical: I pay good money for other people to winch cows bellowing to their deaths so that we can serve up buttock muscle for Sunday lunch. My illogicality isn’t original, of course, which perhaps makes it worse, and certainly makes it less interesting. It’s about distance; about vicarious guilt being less intense; about the little physiological details of death that speak more intimately to our moral intuitions than any amount of argument; about the fact that physical proximity connotes relationship, even with a very basic animal, and that almost any sort of relationship makes it harder to kill.

As Foster’s empathy developed during the project, he felt that he had developed a meaningful relationship with all animals. Their minds are all similar to his own. He could not support their murder for his sake.

But — importantly — Foster does not impugn the otters. An otter would crush and swallow the fish. They do so ceaselessly; otters sleep some eighteen hours a day, but for their waking six they are frenetic killing machines.

Otters, like humans, are heterotrophs. We must eat to survive. And empathy is a consideration that the feelings of others, like our own, have value. You can’t properly value someone else’s life without valuing your own.

Maybe otters would rather give up the hunt, laze about during the day and take a twice-weekly trip to the grocery to buy tofu. But they don’t get that choice.

And so, if I wanted to claim that the decision to be vegetarian, for most people, springs from well-reasoned philosophical or moral beliefs, that is how I would explain the gender split. I would claim that women are more able to empathize with other species than men. Foster does. So does the Huffington Post article I pulled the numbers from.

But more likely, I feel, is that women are more pressured to consider the food they put into their bodies. In Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth she writes that

beautymythSome women’s magazines report that 60 percent of American women have serious trouble eating. The majority of middle-class women in the United States, it appears, suffer a version of anorexia or bulimia; but if anorexia is defined as a compulsive fear of and fixation upon food, perhaps most Western women can be called, twenty years into the backlash, mental anorexics.

Dieting is the essence of contemporary femininity. Denying oneself food is seen as good in a woman, bad in a man. Where the feminine woman of the Feminine Mystique denied herself gratification in the world, the current successful and “mature” model of femininity submits to a life of self-denial in her body.

To eschew meat is a form of self-denial, and self-denial (in many contexts, but especially at the dinner table) is praised in women. A good woman, it was believed, gives up her dreams of a career for the sake of her family. A good woman, it is often still believed, gives up her dessert for the sake of her figure.

Not that dessert — or meat, for that matter — is a comparable sacrifice to a career. But all the abnegations add up. Women are routinely asked to do more with less. “Hunger hurts but starving works,” sings Fiona Apple.

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian speaks to the ways that a misogynistic society curtails the opportunities of women. The book uses the same structure as Knut Faldbakken’s Adam’s Diary: we examine a culture by observing the way three separate narrators relate to an unknowable woman. In The Vegetarian, the central woman has renounced meat as a step toward renouncing personhood. She reflects Yi Sang’s self-negating idea, “I believe that humans should be plants.”  She states that her decision was motivated by a nightmare, yet her dream closely mirrors a nightmare from William Burroughs’s Queer:

vegAnother dream I had a chlorophyll habit. Me and five other chlorophyll addicts are waiting to score. We turn green and we can’t kick the chlorophyll habit. One shot and you are hung for life. We are turning into plants.”

The central woman of Han’s The Vegetarian strives to become a tree. She experiences arousal only when her body is painted with flowers and leaves. She practices handstands and imagines how it would feel for her fingers to extend root-like into the soil, her legs the boughs of a tree. And she announces to her sister, who had brought her fruit to eat, “I don’t need this kind of food, sister. I need water.” Later, as she is dying of anorexia, she screams at the hospital staff, “I . . . don’t . . . like . . . eating!”

The story is less about a woman who wants to be vegetarian, than one who wants to be a vegetable. Which is perhaps a more important story to tell. We should not be proud of a culture in which people feel so trapped they no longer want to be human. Being alive should be a joy, and yet, as depicted in the final panels of Stuart McMillen’s Rat Park, we’ve created a world in which many feel their lives to be a cage.

On chess as a window to the soul.

On chess as a window to the soul.

chessI loved chess growing up, enough that I always felt a shiver of pleasure when games appeared in novels.  Like the pre-felo de se game in Love in the Time of Cholera, the grim filial sacrifice in Vonnegut’s “All the King’s Horses,” the entirety of The Defense ...

ompchessIf you also are a fan of chess in art, you’ll definitely want to watch Andrew Bujalski’s brilliant mockumentary Computer Chess.  The film manages to be incredibly entertaining and humorous while addressing big ideas about artificial intelligence, the treatment of women in science, power structures between underlings and their professional superiors, and the difficulty of bridging cognitive gaps between people with different value systems.  With that list of themes, and the film being shot in black & white by shaky handheld cameras, it could’ve so easily been dull and dry… but it’s a blast.

One reason why chess has appeared so often in artistic works is the claim that people reveal their personalities through their playing styles.  I never agreed with this.  Sure, you can play aggressively, you can play cautiously.  The biggest distinction, though, is between playing well or poorly.  And even then, only a small set of moves are available each turn.  With only twenty moves to choose from for the first turn, and hardly ever more than fifty, many of them strategically bad, how much of your personality can you reveal?

goThat’s why I was so excited when I discovered Go.  It’s a rough cultural equivalent to chess, but on any turn there are a much wider range of options that seem to be strategically reasonable (I say “seem to be,” because, unlike with chess, computers still can’t beat the best Go players, so we don’t have a clear algorithmic understanding to identify the best moves).

At the beginning of a game of Go, there are hundreds of options to choose from for each move.  And, unlike with chess, there’s no certainty that a slightly more aggressive move, or a slightly more timid one — setting a piece down very near an opponent’s, or father away — is better or worse than the other options.  Toward the beginning of the game, at least, your personality is less likely to be squelched by strategic constraints.

I figured that this abundance of choices meant games of Go would be more effective literary devices than chess games.  So far, though, I haven’t come across literary Go games that I’ve enjoyed as much as those chess matches cited above.  I’ve only read a few, though; maybe ones that’ll floor me are out there somewhere.

But, right, this essay is supposed to be about chess, not Go.  Because I eventually realized that chess does reveal the players’ personalities… as long as they’re not following the rules.  Consider this monologue from Burroughs’s Queer (a bit of context that might help explain the speaker’s casual racism: Queer is, in my opinion, the best novel about unrequited love.  The speaker is trying, and failing, to get the man he loves to pay attention to him.  His aggrieved petulance and insobriety lead him to tell increasingly vicious, mean-spirited stories):

Art by Christiaan Tonnis.
Art by Christiaan Tonnis.

“I was reading up on chess.  Arabs invented it, and I’m not surprised.  Nobody can sit like an Arab.  The classical Arab chess game was simply a sitting contest.  When both contestants starved to death it was a stalemate.”  Lee paused and took a long drink.

“During the Baroque period of chess the practice of harrying your opponent with some annoying mannerism came into general use.  Some players used dental floss, others cracked their joints or blew saliva bubbles.  The method was constantly developed.  In the 1917 match at Baghdad, the Arab Arachnid Khayam defeated the German master Kurt Schlemiel by humming ‘I’ll Be Around When You’re Gone’ forty-thousand times, and each time reaching his hand towards the board as if he intended to make a move.  Schlemiel went into convulsions finally.

“Did you ever have the good fortune to see the Italian master Tetrazzini perform?”  Lee lit Mary’s cigarette.  “I say ‘perform’ advisedly, because he was a great showman, and like all showmen, not above charlatanism and at times downright trickery.  Sometimes he used smoke screens to hide his maneuvers from the opposition — I mean literal smoke screens, of course.  He had a corps of trained idiots who would rush in at a given signal and eat all the pieces.  With defeat staring him in the face — as it often did, because actually he knew nothing of chess but the rules and wasn’t too sure of those — he would leap up yelling, ‘You cheap bastard!  I saw you palm that queen!’ and ram a broken teacup into his opponent’s face.  In 1922 he was rid out of Prague on a rail.  The next time I saw Tetrazzini was in the Upper Ubangi.  A complete wreck.  Peddling unlicensed condoms.  That was the year of the rinderpest, when everything died, even the hyenas.”

Chess played that way clearly reveals the players’ personalities.  They’re no longer shackled by strategic constraints — the apparent lawlessness of the game resembles Calvinball more than traditional chess.

maThe chess game in Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City has a similar emphasis on personality over rules.  The Other City is a beautiful novel, and I think this passage is fairly representative of what I love about it.  Dream logic that is far enough removed from traditional reality that we expect weirdness, but not so weird as to be incomprehensible.  A real attention to detail in describing the oft-impossible physical surroundings.  And pervasive horror; this passage is followed by one describing a once-beautiful poet scarred by long use of a typewriter that struck him with poisonous quills each time he pressed the keys.  Even the description of the chess game has real nightmarish properties.  The stakes are high, but the rules are unclear.  Oh, and, many thanks to Gerald Turner for the translation; all translation seems difficult, but recreating this sort of surrealism in another language must’ve been particularly arduous.

The Book of Deserted Gardens speaks of this on the page with the greasy stain from noodle soup left by a scribe of long ago, who took fright when across the sun-drenched page there fell the horned shadow of a monster as it passed through the sleepy and desolate lanes of the city after defeating the aging king at a game of chess on the parched ramparts.  It was played with chessmen of sparkling ice; all that could be heard in the silence was the soft rattle of red and purple gemstones falling in the hour-glass alongside the chessboard; it was the monster’s vengeance for a bygone defeat in a contest beneath the high stone walls of the fortress, on which broke the waves of the nocturnal sea.  The stories do not tell the entire truth — monsters always return: one day, a familiar monster will ring your doorbell too, bearing a chessboard under its arm; it will persuade you to join it in a game of chess and you will be obliged to include in the game the carved figure of a tiger-headed spearman, a piece that moves in irregular, furtive spirals and can stray quite far from the chessboard — even out of the apartment.