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Poetic Thinking 2016 | February 28, 2020

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Chess, Imagination, and Fear in 1957

Chess, Imagination, and Fear in 1957
  • On March 9, 2016

Bobby Fischer was at the height of his powers in 1957. At 14 years old, he was rising to his position as world champion, a title which he would win in 1958. In the Cold War year’s of Bobby Fischer’s international competitiveness, Americans were completely riveted by chess and invested a great deal of emotion and interest in the game — especially during international competitions, in which international standing was at stake.

The Seventh Seal is contemporaneous with the rise of Bobby Fischer and, reading them through each other, I am wondering again about futility. The knight in the film is ultimately powerless in his struggle for knowledge and against death. Fisher, himself a kind of pawn of American power on the world stage, famously fell from grace and grew increasingly paranoid and out of touch with reality. He died in Iceland. It makes me wonder about futility in international relations, in the battle with one’s own mind, and the “games” we all must play in order to get along. Pamela Lee’s book New Games also comes to mind in relation to this phenonmenon of chess in the Cold War, in which she takes seriously the question of the “game” in postwar american and its relationship to postmodernism and contemporary art.


  1. Andrew McLeod

    Thanks for this post, Yinshi. In highlighting the extent to which Americans were invested in Bobby Fischer as a representative of America on the international stage, you bring to mind an interesting question: to what extent do these types of events (which bring out national pride, yet have little to no relevance in the daily lives of anyone other than the competitors) gain their significance by virtue of capturing the public’s poetic imagination? Although I took us to be primarily (but not exclusively) considering Poetic Thinking at the level of individuals in our class discussions, there is clearly more we might explore with respect to Poetic Thinking at the level of the collective consciousness of society. I’m not sure whether or not this helps us better understand the role of such games in ameliorating the futility you identify in international relations, but it’s at least one avenue that could be explored. (I also haven’t read Pamela Lee’s book, so I don’t know how this idea might interact with her analysis.)

  2. Hmm… yes your notion of collective poetic thinking is really interesting to me and has me thinking. While it seems like it could be a good idea in theory, collective poetic thinking seems–at least in the context of Fischer and the Cold War–to be incredibly nationalistic, verging on fascism. Nationalism and nativism, and certainly fascism, are certainly based in a kind of “mythic” collective consciousness. This is something that the Frankfurt school (Adorno and Horkheimer) were acutely aware of and thus skeptical of mass culture. Walter Benjamin would also potentially be worried about “collective poetic thinking” as a move toward the overly “mythic” and politically nefarious.

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