Sunday, 29 May 2016

#11: Chess pieces

Recently I have been playing chess, against both human and digital opponents. I enjoy it, plus it has the powerful negative virtue of making you forget everything else while you are playing.

But does chess help you develop any skills useful for life? In his early 16th century book The Courtier, which discusses how a renaissance man of the court should act and live, Castiglione thinks it a waste of time to spend too much time it, since at the end you will know ‘no more but a game’. ‘A noble science’ is much more worthwhile:

‘Who ever will be excellent in the playe of chestes, I beleave he must beestowe much tyme about it, and applie it with so much study, that a man may assoone learne some noble scyence, or compase any other matter of importaunce, and yet in the ende in beestowing all that laboure, he knoweth no more but a game. Therfore in this I beleave there happeneth a very rare thing, namely, that the meane is more commendable, then the excellency.’

Judit Polgar, who became a grandmaster in 1991 at the age of 15, disagrees:

‘Playing chess has many aspects that can be useful in everyday situations like planning, concentration and combinations. You learn to win but also to lose and to be creative.’

I am not so sure about this. Chess requires concentration and planning, but I don’t know how far these are transferable beyond the chessboard. People don’t play by such strict rules in life, love or war.

The 19th century scientist and essayist T H Huxley went further, saying it was ‘an elementary truth’ that life is like a game of chess, but ‘infinitely more difficult and complicated’:

‘The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance.’ (A Liberal Education, 1868).

Education, for Huxley, consisted in learning the rules of this game. I am not sure who his hidden player is – perhaps this is a nod to God, or to those who believed in one. But as the essay goes on the hidden player disappears and Nature takes over, sounding anything but fair: ‘Nature’s discipline is not even a word and a blow, and the blow first; but the blow without the word.’ This is more in tune with Darwin’s discoveries about ruthless competition among organisms, which of course Huxley championed (although he was not fully convinced about natural selection). He leaves the chessboard metaphor behind.

But I do like it when the rules of chess are played around with – as in Alice in Wonderland, with its snoozing king and racing queen. I would also think of A S Byatt’s Possession, in which Victorian wife Ellen Ash regularly plays chess with the visiting vicar. One night she has a suffocating dream in which her queen can only move one square at a time, like a king, while her opponent’s queen can move freely. We are left to make our own links with her life as an intelligent, capable woman whose main role, partly self-imposed, is to create a comfortable home and be an amanuensis and adviser to her poet husband. She has learned to play by the rules, as Huxley advises, but at some cost.

Friday, 20 May 2016

#10: Mariana

This is the only Pre-Raphaelite picture that I like, really. It shows Mariana, still in love with Angelo, deputy to the Duke of Vienna, who rejected her when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck. The story is from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and was originally exhibited at the Royal Academy with these lines from Tennyson’s Mariana:

She only said, 'My life is dreary,
He cometh not,' she said;
She said, 'I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!'

The life of this woman is made up of surfaces and representations. She is working on a piece of sewing showing flowers and leaves, with leaves scattered around which presumably she has been copying. When she stands up from her work, she can only see the outside world through stained glass. Behind her the wall itself is patterned, and there is a desk with religious images to contemplate (perhaps for kneeling at, since there is no chair).

She stands up to stretch her back like someone who has sat at a computer too long, (also in a virtual world). It is this that I like, I think – the naturalness and motion in her posture. If you wanted to you could take this as a critique of Pre-Raphaelite art itself – a rejection of the poses, the symbolism, the intricately ornamented surfaces.

And yet I’m drawn to such interiors too – they speak also of a peaceful contemplative existence. I would pair it with a picture like this, by William Ratcliffe, one of the ‘Camden Town’ group of early 20th century artists. He often painted artists’ rooms and houses; this is called ‘cottage interior’. A cup of tea on the table, a vase of flowers, everyday greenery outside – ordinary pleasures.

Picture sources:

Monday, 16 May 2016

#9: Mayan bloodletting carving

A lintel is a horizontal support over a door or arch. They are sometimes decorated and this lintel carving, on display in the British Museum’s Mexico Gallery, is the most disturbing object I know in the museum. It seems to show some kind of consensual masochism. An elaborately dressed woman kneels in front of a man, who holds a flaming torch over her head. A spiked rope coils down from her mouth to a container below. Both are lavishly and intricately attired with headdresses and jewels, and seem entirely accepting of this ritual and to know what it is for. The label is determinedly factual: ‘Lady Xoc pulls a thorn-lined rope through her tongue. The rope falls onto a woven basket holding blood-soaked strips of paper cloth.’ 

These are the Mayan rulers Lord Shield Jaguar and his consort Lady Xoc, in the city of Yaxchilan. Lord Shield Jaguar had a long reign – from AD 681 to AD 742. The lintels were part of one of the buildings he put up to celebrate 60 years in power. They were probably for a temple dedicated to his wife, and would be seen by only a few people. 

The Mayan civilisation covered present-day Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and southern Mexico. It lasted from 500 BC, when the first cities were built, to about 900 AD, and Mayan cities could have many thousands of inhabitants. 

By letting blood and inflicting pain on herself, Lady Xoc could go into a trance to induce a vision of the spirits of her husband’s ancestors. And indeed, the next lintel shows a sacred serpent rising from a bowl of blood, the image of an ancestor appearing from the serpent’s mouth. Rulers based some of their power on this process. In another carving in the same room Lord Shield Jaguar is about to let blood by piercing his penis.  

‘Horribly disconcerting’ is how ex-director of the BM Neil McGregor describes the sculptures in the 2010 radio series A History of the World in 100 Objects. Psychiatrist and writer Susie Orbach contributed a specifically female perspective to that broadcast: ‘if we examine the practices that we are involved in, they are often practices that if they were examined from outer space, they’d say ‘why would women be involved in these practices?’ It’s that women experience their sense of self by doing these things, by enacting them. They give them the sense of their own identity, and I’m sure that was true for her.’ Orbach also suggests that if one creates great pain in oneself and survives it, it gives you a sense that ‘you can do something rather special’.

The sculptures’ current home is Room 27 in the British Museum, where they are arranged neatly along a wall with a line on the floor to stand behind when you look at them and alarms which sound when you get too close. Nearby is a dolls house-sized reconstruction of the building they would have been part of, known as ‘Structure 23’ by the museum. The labels explain how it was aligned with the summer and winter solstice so that rays of the sun fell on particular sculptures at certain times of year. 

Strangely enough, I feel this bare and objective environment, with minimal interpretation, is one way of paying respect to the carvings; that too much research or contextualisation can neutralise the essential weirdness of this practice. And yet I want to understand it. The British Museum’s mission under Neil McGregor has been to show customs and artefacts of many cultures as different facets of what it means to be human, and indeed the History of the World broadcast includes the screams of a present-day Filipino man inflicting pain on himself as Lady Xoc did. But such a sympathetic treatment can, if not done sensitively, induce a kind of homogenisation of cultures which neutralises differences. And I would like this difference to remain.