The Chess Bum and the violinist
One the things that those of who are cursed with the gift of petite genius can do if we are writers is move our internal narrative focus around on both a diachronic and synchronic mode across the interior landscapes of our memories that represent the events of our lives. This is important if you are cursed with the gift and a need to answer questions of a lifetime. If you know what I am talking about you may want to continue reading. If not you can follow the exit sign back to the cat photos you were looking at on Facebook.
If anybody is still reading we are going to ramp up my diachronic time machine and go back nearly fifty years to take a little look at my personal hell about an hour before bar time in Madison Wisconsin April 16, 1968. I am at the Kollege Klub Bar on State Street which is almost an annex to the University Library. I am incoherently drunk out of money and the woman I was trying to hook up with is about to leave with another guy. I can still hear her saying that she was not in the mood for an act of mercy. Followed by, “You what? You live with your mother?”
I guess my invitation to go watch the late night submarine races on Bascom Hill from the back seat of my 1957 Buick Century borrowed from my mother lost some of its luster the second time around.
But as they say it was a dark and stormy night and I remembered that one of my math professor chess player buddies told me that they were having a reception at his apartment for a famous violinist in-residence professor at UW Madison, and refreshments would be served. Since I was broke, hungry, dry and just been shot down by a woman who sounded like she got her dialogue from a Eugene O’Neill play, that looked like the best offer I had on the table. Actually, it was starting to look like God had put the ghosts of Eugene 0’ Neill and Franz Kafka in charge of writing my life script. So I determined that a little refreshment might be in order.
When I turned up at the reception they actually let me in the door, rather than give the typical Irish welcome of turning the dogs on me. I was surprised how welcoming everybody was and before I could make a B line for the beer and sandwiches someone introduced me to the guest of honor, who had history written large all over his face, as I will later get to as I my mind moves around on its retrograde Chronojector. Maybe he saw the tombstones reflected in my eyes, since he was a Jew who was forced to flee the Third Reich; maybe he understood that I too had left my country in a spiritual sense, since not so long before that several of my best friends, former students in my Madison East High School wrestling team had been killed in Vietnam, so in the words of Camus I was having a little trouble loving my country and loving justice simultaneously. Though I was involved in a number of Vietnam protest, and yes I did have bayonets in my face, the fact remains that at six feet one and three hundred sixty pounds I was too short to get drafted. The doctor at my induction physical told me according to my weight I had to be at least seven feet four inches to get in the army, or about the size of Shaquille O’Neal, who bore a more of a resemblance to his great uncle the playwright than you might expect.
Professor Kollish was not strong player but he seemed to enjoy playing chess against me. The host of the party interrupted us. Our host a math professor who last I knew he was still teaching, nearly fifty years later. (Actually after my life was redeemed by quitting drinking and deciding to live, he used to pay me to guest lecture his math course on the history of chess, but when he took me out for dinner and I ordered the beef tenderloin for two and asked him what he was having, the lecture invitations sort petered out.)
In order to explain how the next few minutes played out I need to get a little Freudian and explain what my friend the professor said and why I still remember it. It will also explain how and why the parking lot at Hibbard Hall at UW Eau Claire is full of large and often highly decorated trucks which serve no useful function, especially if you are a professor living in a condo, or a grad student in an apartment. Actually a wonderful woman lawyer friend of mine named Sue Johnson said it this way, when my friend bought a new 1963 Chevrolet Stingray. “Some guys are born with one; some guys have to buy a Corvette”
My buddy bought a very pricey stereophonic sound system with woofers and tweeters all in the right places, and he had it playing a Johann Sebastian Bach clavichord medley in the background. I remember what transpired in the next few instances as if I was still a part of the conversation, actually in a synchronic sense it is still going on.
My friend, our host, was listing the specification of his of top of the line pricey stereophonic sound system like it was an INDY 500 race car and he was the driver, and then he said to our honored guest, “I have tried to keep the volume at a low level; I hope it is not a distraction?”
An expression came over our guest’s like face like that of a badger cornered by a pack of angry dachshunds as he said to our host. “Dummkopf. If your idiot box is not distracting me it’s just noise.”
But that is not the end of the story. The phrase he used was like a like a lordly gift of a sliver farthing to me. It was a statement which said he would rather play chess with me than listen to the idiot prattle of conspicuous consumption, and perhaps foretold for me that if the burned out bulb in the exit light of my personal hell was replaced, and I didn’t abandon all hope, I might yet escaped.
My lifetime question relating to those events, now forty six years in the past, has something to do with my avocational career as a writer, critic and literary theorist. It has to do with the application of something called the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and its proponents.
This website gives an adequate explanation of the Frankfurt School. It would not be a misnomer to say that The Frankfort School of Critical Theory considered the mass production of nearly all material and cultural products under Capitalism to have mind numbing and consciousness alienating attributes and affects which perpetuated the replication of the power relationships in multinational global hegemonic Capitalism, and the soulless blood suckers who live off it. One of its core value is to think of everyone who is not a capitalist as only a consumer, and a worker as soulless organic capital. That is to say only soulless organic capital to be paid survival wages, like the instructors in any academic department hired with limited term contracts with no intention to renew, who have to grovel for benefits and security, who function as a cost effective way to avoid creating tenured positions.
Part of the Frankfurt School method of consciousness rising which might destabilize this oppressive system is though artistic production, particularly by artists like the Austrian musician Arnold Schoenberg (13 September 1874 – 13 July 1951). This idea was featured in the book _Dialectic of Enlightenment_ , a work of philosophy and social criticism written by Frankfurt School philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorn and first published in 1944. How did this work, the reader might ask. I can say this is not because of the didactic or problematical aspect of the music. Rather it was more like the thorn functioned in Wordsworth’s 1797 poem “The Thorn.”
I have often thought about my interaction with the famous violist even in the pre-critical stage of my life, and if nothing else it makes a very interesting story. Later when I returned to wander in the academic world like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, to tell my story to all who needed it, I noticed that the tale and I were changing and I started to use the Frankfurt School epistemology in a number of academic articles, book chapters and some works in progress. I still have some reservations about its condescending attitude to popular culture and particularly popular song and Jazz. ***Adorno’s Dictum the idea of Poetry after Auschwitz was Barbaric. I feel that Auschwitz demands the necessity of art which is the only thing that can give human face to the horror of it.***
Then a while ago I watched a Youtube version of the 1949 TV interview of Arnold Schoenberg, perhaps by Edward R. Morrow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fd61jRM6Chw as part of the preparation for a philosophy paper I was writing. In the interview he names Rudolf Kolisch (July 20, 1896 – August 1, 1978). He was a Viennese violinist and leader of string quartets, including the Kolisch Quartet and the Pro Arte Quartet: https://www.google.com/#q=Rudolf+Kolisch&spell=1. He was Arnold Schoenberg’s last student, brother in law, and he was almost certainly the guy that had talked to my friend with the Stereophonic penis substitute.
Well I can say with some certitude on that dark and stormy night in Madison Wisconsin April 16, 1968, that comment affected me like the opening move in the game of survival. One last thing if you’re giving that puzzled look that my wife gives me which says, so what? I suggest you go look at some of the nice Facebook cat pictures.
What I have done with this little exercise or homework assignment is apply New Historicism to myself and season it with a little Frankfurt School of Critical Theory to my final version of my paper.
April 18, 2014 last night I saw this special on Wisconsin Public Television by accident,
The Pro Arte Quartet: A Century of Music.
Its history is a part of mine and it confirmed violinist Peter Kollish was in fact the guy who had played chess that dark and stormy and in the process of his generosity made the first installment in the ransoming my soul out of the personal hell me life was then. This did not all take places at once. However if anybody is still reading I will write part two Sobering up with Spinoza but that would be my next installment.
I want close with little article of faith in my own words. God is to synchronicity as string theory is to physics. What I mean is exceedingly powerful as an explanatory tool dealing with my unexplainable existence and survival , yet not provable by conventional methods because of the requirement of faith.
9:52 Wednesday December 3rd 2014