The Human Stain

I just finished reading The Human StainĀ by Philip Roth. Two years before the millennium, sex scandals rocked President Clinton’s White House as, closer to home, Coleman Silk’s academic career suffered from the withering attack of morality pundits. Now, if you remmeber life in 1998 New England you weren’t really there; it was then like it is (nearly) always, puritanical to a fault.

Prudes and hedonists launched very public broadsides against one another. Public classrooms, like my 11th grade English group, erupted into spontaneous shouting about morality, immorality, and indifference. This was unlike anything in my direct experience. People didn’t talk about sex candidly in New England. Cotton Mather still kept a house down by Cape Cod for Pete’s sake; yet, the colorful presidential drama had students excited about their world in a way that no other personal drama could.

I didn’t think about chess in the turgid excitement of my youth, knew how the pieces moved but not much else, but looking back I wonder if the sex scandals, as we experienced them, in a frame of mind both provincial and immature, can teach us something about the game we enjoy today.

With human longing, dropping all pretense for a moment, being a prime motivator, how does chess play, and perhaps chess study, fit into our lives? As I’ve mentioned before, a pair of us are preparing for a large tournament being held some distance away. It will not be cheap and it will not be easy. It’s instructive to think on what takes a person, in this case a pair of working adults, to travel far away to do something which they’ll later recall as stressful and excruciating. It is the everyman’s solo Amazon trek, the fat man’s swim of the English Channel. It’s like those things but you’re sitting for long periods. Afterwards your brow won’t stop furrowing and you sleep for days. True story. So why?

1) A competitive nature? I don’t have it and I don’t want it. The best day of your life is the day your fire mellows out a bit. I watch the warm glow and I see safety in its gentle licking.

2) Money? The prize is nice, but I do alright. You don’t go to a tournament like this unless you can afford to lose; failure to place is the probable result of a given chess outing. I’m comfortable and happy with being down the entry free and gas.

3) Something to prove? Am I revisiting a moment in the past – it is clear as a sunny day to me, as I can still explore its stinging particulars in my mind – in which I failed to accomplish what I desired? A young man in a moment too large, I can answer to the affirmative. This is in me.

4) Just to do it. It’s not 1998 anymore. I get laughed at when I pull out my license to try and buy liquor; put that thing away you old geyser comes back the grin of an acne-packed cashier. I think my youth went to the same place that old Throwing Copper disc did when it finally expired. Then I had nothing, no one, and was a flat broke fifteen year old. He doesn’t have much in common with the man I am today; I’m comfortable in my professional life, carefully choose those with whom I interact, and have double the years.

Still, I see both people as stained somehow. I’m not talking about an atavistic thing that impels us to stupidity, but about the ineluctable drive to reach the summit of your powers, though that potential may be dynamic, and not to say trending upward. So I’m psyching myself up for this tourney, pretending to stir up some real care for something I know has no consequence, and I want you to do the same facing whatever peak you face next. It’s a magician’s ruse; keep pulling stuff out of the hat even when you think its empty.



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