Friday, April 30, 2021

the last book I ever read (Chess Story by Stefan Zweig, excerpt five)

from Chess Story by Stefan Zwieg:

“All of this seems senseless, and in fact this kind of artificial schizophrenia or divided consciousness, with its admixture of dangerous excitation, would be inconceivable in a normal person under normal circumstances. But don’t forget that I had been forcibly wrenched out of any sort of normal life, I was a prisoner, unjustly held in captivity, exquisitely tortured with solitude for months, I had long wanted something upon which to vent my accumulated fury. And since I had nothing but this nonsensical playing against myself, my fury, my desire for vengeance was fanatically channeled into this game. Something in me wanted to come out on top, and yet all here was for me to fight was this other me in me; so as I played I worked myself up into a state of almost manic excitement. At the beginning my thinking was calm and considered, I took breaks between one game and the next in order to recover from my agitation; but gradually my frayed nerves refused to let me wait. My white self had no sooner made a move than my black self feverishly pushed forward; a game was no sooner over than I challenged myself to another, for one of the two chess selves was beaten by the other every time and demanded a rematch. I couldn’t even begin to say how many games this mad insatiability made me play against myself during these last month—a thousand, perhaps, maybe more. It was an obsession which I could not resist; from morning till night I thought of nothing but bishop and pawns and rook and king and a and b and c and mate and castling; my entire being and all my feeling were immersed in the checkered board. My pleasure in playing became a desire to play, the desire to play became a compulsion to play, a mania, a frenzy, which permeated not only my waking hours but gradually my sleep too. Chess was all I could think about, chess moves, chess problems were the only form my thoughts could take; sometimes I awoke with a sweaty and understood that I must have unconsciously gone on playing even while I slept, and if I dreamt of people, all they did was move like the bishop or the rook, or hopscotch like the knight. Even when I was summoned to an interrogation, I could no longer think coherently about my responsibilities; I have a feeling that during the final interrogations I must have expressed myself pretty confusedly, for the interrogators looked at each other with surprise. But while they asked questions and consulted with one another, all I was waiting for in my wretched craving was to be taken back to my cell so that I could go on with my playing, my insane playing, a new game and then another and another. Any interruption disturbed me; even the quarter of an hour while the guard cleaned the cell, the two minutes when he brought me my food, was a torment to me in my feverish impatience; sometimes the bowl containing my meal was still untouched in the evening; wrapped up in my playing, I had forgotten to eat. My only physical sensation was a terrible thirst; it must have been the fever of this constant thinking and playing; I drained the bottle in two gulps and pestered the guard for more, and yet my tongue was dry in my mouth a moment later. Finally my excitement while playing—and I did nothing else from morning till night—reached such a pitch that I could no longer sit still for a second; I walked up and down constantly while I thought about the games, faster and faster and faster, up and down, up and down, and more and more excitedly as a game’s critical point approached; my eagerness to win, to dominate, to beat myself, gradually became a kind of frenzy, I trembled with impatience, for one chess-self always found the other too slow. One urged the other on; as ridiculous as it may seem to you, I began to berate myself—‘Faster, faster!’ or ‘Go on, go on!’—when one me wasn’t quick enough with a countermove. Today, of course, it’s entirely clear to me that this state of mine was a thoroughly pathological form of mental overstimulation, for which I have found no name but one heretofore unknown to medicine: chess sickness. Ultimately this monomaniacal obsession began to attack my body as well as my mind. I lost weight, my sleep was troubled and fitful, when I woke up it always took special effort to force my leaden eyelids open; sometimes I felt so weak that when I held a glass it was all I could do to bring it to my lips, my hands were trembling so much; but as soon as I began to play, a furious energy came over me: I walked up and down with fists clenched, and I sometimes heard, as though through a red fog, my own voice addressing me with hoarse and ill-tempered exclamations of ‘Check!’ or ‘Mate!’

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