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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dangerous Moves

In the French movie Dangerous Moves, two soviet era Russian chess masters, one a young expatriate and one an old man, play for the world championship in Geneva.  The deeply insightful ending contains the real and perhaps not fully intended meaning of the film.  The old man is dieing from a failing heart muscle.  The young man, with whom he has a long and very complex competitive relationship comes to see him in hospital.  They exchange no greeting and no wishes seemingly appropriate to the moment.  The old man’s wife is ushered out of the room and the two, one seated and one on the bed, begin. The old man, “You Start.” The young man, “K4.” (White, king’s pawn to king’s 4).

This is an intersection of realities: Life and death. Love and cynicism. Companionship and isolation.  Experience and habit.  Responsibility and self-indulgence.

In the history of the human species certain occasions standout as significantly more real than others.  Many of them have to do with staying alive and with passing on one’s genetic material; passing on one’s skills, intellectual attainments and aspirations have become important to us also.  Underlying these expectations are the assumptions – unspoken and unspeakable – that allow a wolf to chew off its own foot to escape a trap or send a man who cannot swim into a raging torrent to try to pull his child to safety.

It has been, for most of the time humanity has been evolved into something like our present form, these kinds of events that anchored our existence [1]. There is nothing like the perspective of walking among a pride of lions, dodging a charging bison or needing to dive in shark-thick waters to gather one’s food to focus the mind.  These define a relationship with living in the world unattainable in the typical course of life in economically “developed” societies, and account for the surprise and incapacity to act appropriately when some part of serious Reality finds us [2].

We talk with some certainty, and glibly, about how the pressures of the modern world are just another form of survival like the past, perhaps even more demanding, challenging and “manly” than the “easy” troubles of life in the immediate.  I say, hogwash.  It is the difference between a video game and a real sword-wielding madman; “defeating” him and moving on to find the secret ring would be the last thing on your mind.

The Real of reality eventually comes to all of us – or almost all of us, it is possible to never have a real experience and then be taken unawares from behind by a speeding bus – but most of us have few brushes with reality in our bubble-lives of ease and safety; we seldom get wet in the rain, travel any considerable distance on the power of our own legs or know the motivating lash of hunger.

For most of us the Real of reality comes only in overwhelming and ‘unavoidable’ moments; birth, death and the traumas of life, injuries and accidents of fate, that are supposed to visit others, yet sometimes find us.  This form of relationship with Reality is distorting beyond all understanding: living in the mini-reality of economic activity, only occasionally intruded upon by the vast machinery of the biophysical Reality that is the underlying truth and finally dominating presence of this earth.

This is not to say that what happens to us is not real to us. Making the mortgage payment, finding well-compensating employment, buying the car that is just the right amount more desirable than the neighbor’s, winning the chess tournament: these are all real to us.  But they are so completely abstracted and distant from the forces that organize and allow life to exist on the earth that our being cloistered in them, these human constructions seemingly larger than Reality itself, is a madness exploded into the firmament.

As the old man’s heart muscle is tearing itself to pieces, he answers back, “B3.” (and the younger man’s only and deepest response is to calculate the next move!)

[1] Disclosure: I have been in two absolutely life threatening situations while mountaineering.  Both of which had to be worked out over some time, with considerable effort and an unwillingness to die.  Also once I spent a delightful 30 or so minutes with a mountain lion following me: I alone and on foot, in perfect ambush country, many miles from any form of shelter; it trying to decide how much work I would be to invite to lunch, and me explaining with my every motion that I was way too much trouble to take on.

[2] Like the danger of ecosystem collapse, for example.  A people living in touch with Reality would be adapting to it even before they see it coming.  We, on the other hand, have so organized our ways of gathering experience and our systems of power that we don’t even realize that our food comes from the soil or that a high quality life is different from being devoted to fending off death by any means necessary.