Musings / The Last Hurrah

As a chronic sufferer from acute nostalgia, I find, as the years roll by, that I am drawn increasingly to the obituary section

Complaining in 1941 of a "mean, cagey little obituary" of James Joyce in The Times and the paper's subsequent refusal to publish T.S. Eliot's letter of protest, George Orwell commented on the "grand old English tradition" that the dead must always be flattered unless they happen to be artists. That has all gone by the board now. Obituarists have ceased to be respecters of persons and, an action for libel being unavailable to a corpse, are robustly ready to defame anyone so long as he is dead.

If you needed proof that the maxim "de mortuis nil nisi bonum" (roughly - don't speak ill of the dead) was itself dead and buried, a look at the obituaries for the recently deceased Bobby Fischer would convince you. Fischer was arguably the greatest chess player that ever lived; as a human being, however, he was a total mess. So, with rare unanimity, said every obituary that I read. I do not know that he did much harm, but his mindless ravings - against Russians, Americans and Jews (though he himself was both American and Jewish) - did not add to peace on earth and good will among men.

In writing about Salvador Dali, Orwell referred to the latitude that we grant to artists who write, paint or compose well but behave badly. He called it "benefit of clergy." We should abhor their amorality, thought Orwell, but their genius was a baby that should not be thrown out with the bathwater. I am not sure how he would have viewed proficiency at chess.

As an activity, chess is hard to pigeonhole. Because the skill required to excel at the game is mental rather than physical, we relate to prowess at chess differently than we do to mere athletic excellence. But it is still only a game. The cerebral ability required to excel at chess could well be as great as that required for theoretical physics, yet we tend to believe that a lifetime devoted to contemplating the infinite number of permutations of moving 16 pieces of wood on a board with 64 squares is less valuable than one that makes giant strides in quantum mechanics.

What is hard to fathom is that the almost-superhuman thought process that goes into making one a chess champion is frequently not duplicated in any mental field outside the moves on that board. Fischer, for instance, was not only a probably certifiable crackpot; he was also a near-moron with a mind far more banal than any you would encounter in the least enlightening pub argument. Yet, when it came to chess, his genius was beyond dispute. Bobby was 13 when I first came across his name. Time Magazine announced the arrival of an American chess prodigy and, by way of corroboration, published in chess notation the game - later known as "the Game of the Century" - in which the young Fischer trounced the Master Donald Byrne. I have just replayed the game. It is simply a thing of beauty, a joy forever. But Bobby grew up to be not only a world champion, but a grade-A sociopath.

If you were to conclude from this that chess sets should, like cigarette packets, contain a warning that chess is bad for your health, you would not be entirely off the mark. There have been champions who were also upstanding citizens, but the history of chess is studded with the names of great players who were mentally ill or exhibited extraordinary personality traits. Morphy, Steinitz, Pillsbury and Rubinstein all went mad; the alcoholic Alekhine, one of the greatest of all champions, could out-Fischer Fischer in antisocial behavior. Fischer, after all, never urinated on the floor during a game.

Live dog, dead lion

Bobby got the obituaries he deserved, and I read several. As a chronic sufferer from acute nostalgia, I find, as the years roll by, that I am drawn increasingly to the obituary section. And with the advent of the Internet, the obituary addict can gorge himself with any number each morning. You do not need to recognize the name of the deceased; the true aficionado will read the appreciations indiscriminately. War heroes, jazz drummers, bishops, vaguely recalled starlets, endocrinologists, minor politicians - the lives of all are there to be enjoyed.

You would be mistaken, I think, in believing that what attracts the elderly to the eager perusal of the obituary columns is a kind of Schadenfreude, the note of satisfaction voiced by the author of the book of Ecclesiastes that it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion. There is nothing morbid in savoring obituaries. It is a genuine interest in the lives of others. A far from marginal pleasure for the compulsive reader of obituaries is to rediscover personalities who had not enjoyed the limelight for half a century and then, temporarily brought back to life by death, have reclaimed our attention in the obituary pages.

Before their deaths, we rarely ask "Where are they now?" But it is an interesting question all the same. I remember watching a BBC television program in the 1960s on this very subject. There were two fascinating interviews. The first guest was a mild-mannered professor of political science from St. Louis, Missouri. Some 30 years previously, as the federal chancellor of Austria, Kurt Schuschnigg, having already made the mistake of seeking to appease the Nazi juggernaut, had vainly tried to stop the Anschluss, the Nazi takeover of Austria. It was intriguing to see that he was still around, but Schuschnigg was only of mild historical importance. There was, after all, little that he could do. The citizens of Austria were more than willing to be raped by the Wehrmacht. But the appearance on our screen of the frail old man who came on next was, to any student of modern history, a sensation.

Alexander Kerensky was also an American university teacher. At the time of the interview, he must have been well into his 80s, because he was born in 1881. To this day there are historians who will assert that had Kerensky, the liberal prime minister of Russia at the time of the October Revolution in 1917, acted differently, he could have prevented the takeover by the Bolsheviks and thus changed history. And here he was, in person, live on our television screens 50 years later. Both Schuschnigg and Kerensky died within the decade that followed and, of course, were duly obituarized. In their cases, I have no doubt that their obituaries were ready to be whipped out of each paper's morgue. The New York Times is said to have no fewer than 1,200 unpublished obituaries on file.

The danger with the rush to print is that of the premature obituary. If the obituary is wholly favorable - as happened when the then speaker of the Knesset Avram Burg, some eight years ago, mistakenly eulogized Amnon Rubinstein, who is happily still with us - the only casualty would be the egg on the face of the eulogist. But what, for instance, if Bobby Fischer had survived his obituaries? In light of what was written about him, Bobby, of all people, is unlikely to have satisfied himself with the witty reaction of Mark Twain, another victim of a premature obituary: "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."