October 12, 2004

Bobby Fischer, Thea Von Harbou and reconciling their personalities with their great works

Bobby Fischer is really something. I've been reviewing some of his games of late and am in simple awe of his ability. Over the last year or so, I've been relearning chess, attempting to pass my previous, pitiful rankings and have been doing an okay job of it. I don't expect to be an international or grand master, as I don't think I have to time to put into it nor the innate ability, but I've been getting steadily better.

With the study of chess comes the ability to parse and appreciate the genius behind some of the games played by the "greats" over the many years/decades/centuries of recorded games. You also start to accumulate anecdotes about the men and women behind these games. No one is more storied than Fischer.

There are a number of terrific pages about Fischer out on the web, so I won't bore you with many details about this man, who is likely the strongest player of his generation, but I will bore you with some of the salient details about his aberrant personality.


I drive more than I'd like, and rather than listen to hate speech that fades out everytime you go under a bridge on am or high fidelity commercials on the fm (with some exceptions, of course) I like to listen to audio books. I'm currently listening to "Bobby Fischer goes to war" Which talks about the life of Fischer and the times in which he grew up, specifically how his story was intimately connected with the cold war, specifically his chess rivalry with Boris Spassky.

A certifiable paranoid and noted anti-Semite, born of a Jewish mother natch, Bobby Fischer was notorious for alienating tournament organizers all over the globe with his particular demands about lighting, audience distance and other minutiae that would otherwise be acceptable if it weren't for his being convinced that the Jewish people were evil. I'll refer you to an article on the World Chess Network about him, in the event you need further examples of his repellent anti-semitism.

Thea Von Harbou was the writer who penned the novel Metropolis which one of histories greatest movies was made from. She was also a Nazi sympathizer who watched in apparent satisfaction when her husband, Metropolis Film Director Fritz Lang, was forced to flee Nazi Germany as he was Jewish. Imagine his position. His wife and collaborator stayed behind to develop films glorifying the Nazis while he fled for his life. How cold was this woman?

But, as I said, this isn't about them, but my conflict about them.

The first time I read Metropolis, I was moved. It was so well done that it was nearly impossible to read, as I found myself savoring its words, sentences and paragraphs. It was caviar and chocolate and oysters and wine by the palletload. It was too much.

This too is what it is like taking in many of the games of Fischer. Breathtaking and genius and smart and surprising and unorthodox and even funny at times.

But these two are in the case of Fischer and was in the case of Von Harbou, reprehensible human beings. Reprehensible human beings who are brilliant. And that's the problem, but celebrating the ideas and works of these two people do you give their ideas about Jews, or women (Fischer thought little of them) more credence, more power?

Perhaps. But in the meantime, should we as a society do away with the beauty and knowledge that reprehensible or evil people create? How much evil makes great works, well, ungreat? Does the fact that slave labor likely made the great wall of china, or the pyramids makes them any less grand? Does the reprehensible caste systems of the middle ages make Vienna any less of a beautiful city, or stephansplatz less fantastic?

I don't think so, but one might want to keep in mind the men, women and lives behind such works when considering them.

Chris DiBona
Location: My sisters place in San Jose.
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1 comment:

Daniel Kjellén said...

Very interesting post. I just found out that von Harbou was a nazi, and I have a few pages left in Metropolis.

I don't know how I'm supposed to finish it now, because it has gone from being a very good book, in my opinion, to nazi stuff I don't really want to read.

But I will try to finish it just to have read it, and not pay much more attention to it - other than the great work of her husband in the film.