Nimzowitsch' esthetic credo

"Beautiful is neither the accumulation of minute advantages, nor the game played on text-book lines, beautiful is any-and everything which links up the heterogeneous chess happenings with the laws of nature, thus revealing how kindly and beautifully Dame Nature discharges her duties. We have been quoting just now from our dissertation on "What is beautiful?" which appeared in Kagans Neueste Nachrichten 1926, page 484, and we cull therefrom the following description of a struggle, which, to us, represents a shining example of the new aesthetics in chess. "Through careless play Black gets on a downward path. By dint of a tremendous exertion of will-power, he finds a move which only just holds the position. An end is put to the downward trend. And then there comes the advance, contrary to all positional probabilities, and the game is an easy draw. Why then does the second player win? Well, because the dissolution, which was brought to a stop by a violent effort of will, was bound to unleash the latent power in Black's position, which then surprisingly bursts forth. The lung specialist well knows the symptoms. Once the growth of the disease is suspended, there comes unfailingly an upward tendency, then - the cure."
(from: "Chess Praxis", pp. 354-355, Dover 1962
There's also the German original Read that if you only slightly can, Nimzowitsch's German is sexier than all these weak English translations)

In chess we are dealing with the idea of 'struggle' on two different levels. First, chess is a symbolic struggle in it's definition of aim, means and rules. A struggle between black and white. On the second level playing the game is a practical struggle between two humans. When talking about chess it is often clarifying to give account to which of these two levels the used concepts relate. The definition of beauty used by Nimzowitsch is interesting for a number of reasons. When talking about the beauty of chess, in general people mean the formal logical beauty of chess such as found on level one in combination or strategy. Lasker evolved a philosphy of struggle on the basis of Steinitz' ideas, but a close reading of these theories learns they relate only to level one, the formal logical development within a chess game. Only in scattered remarks by Lasker, such as his aphorism that it is preferable to stand a little bit worse than a little bit better, he contributes to the development of a theory about level two. Of course in chess literature there can be found many random remarks of practical nature, but I believe a systematic approach is lacking. For that reason it is still epoch-making that Nimzowitsch embarks upon formulating an esthetics with allowance for level two, the human factor. He compares a chess game with life itself and the model he chooses is that of the course of a disease. In view of Nimzowitsch' own illness this must have been an obvious model, but the idea to leave the formal view and to look for a more life-injected approach is also comtemporary and can be compared to the ideas of Stanislavsky on acting where a purely formal technical training -as was usual until that time- is rejected in favor of a utilization of emotions stemming from personal experiences.
A different aspect that is remarkable is Nimzowitsch' choice for an esthetic model. Lasker was a philosopher who developed his theories in philosophical terms, in the end those of science. These days we're not used to such things any more. Chess has found it's place in sports. Practical trainers develop their methods for level two, but a reflection on chess in philosophical or cultural terms is lacking. Where is post-modernism in chess? Must the absence of reflection and the reliance on concrete analysis be seen as specifically post-modernistic? I think that the ideas of Nimzowitsch are still pioneering in their reflective properties.

In their esthetic contents I would like to contrast Nimzowitsch' ideas with those of the protagonist of Joyce's 'Portrait of the artist as a young man' as in the next famous passage:

"The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic, like that of material creation, is accomplished. The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." ('A portrait of the artist as a young man', Penguin edition, page 214.)
In this way Nimzowitsch' view is a page in the book of the discussion known in the Netherlands as 'Form or Fellow', Nimzowitsch making a clear choice for 'Fellow', Stephen Daedalus' quote embodying pure 'Form'.


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All text and graphics: W.J. Nijenhuis 1996-2000