Stefan Zweig’s 1942 novella, Chess Story, set on a steamer headed from New York to Buenos Aires, recounts the tale of a Viennese lawyer, Dr. B., who had been imprisoned by Nazis and subjected to an extreme form of mental violence. Held in a hotel room in total isolation for one year, with nothing to distract himself—no pens, paper, cigarettes or even a wristwatch to mark the days—he was thrust into “a completely timeless and dimensionless void.” It was a punishment meant to break a man as surely as the rack, yet Dr. B. managed to preserve his sanity, he explains one night to an intrigued passenger, by pilfering a book of nothing more than 150 master-level chess games. There were no accompanying illustrations, but he nonetheless proceeded to lose himself in the notations of these concluded matches, memorizing the variations and replaying them on his checkered bedspread, until one day he found he no longer needed the book or the squares and could simply shut his eyes and visualize the pieces on the board, separating his mind into opposing armies of black and white, ferociously attempting to mate himself even as he deftly avoided being mated. He stopped sleeping and focused all his energy on searching for the right move. The psychological toll of this “chess sickness,” as he later calls it, had caused Dr. B. to suffer a breakdown. When he recovered and was finally freed, he didn’t dare go near a chessboard again, until it came to his attention that the reigning world champion, an idiot savant named Czentovic, was onboard the same ocean liner. Dr. B. sits down and defeats him, before making a fatal error in the rematch and slipping back into madness.
Marveling at the thought of such single-minded obsessives, the narrator of the story, himself an amateur, reflects:
The more I now sought to form an impression of such a temperament, the more unimaginable appeared to me a mind absorbed for a lifetime in a domain of sixty-four black and white squares. From my own experience I was well aware of the mysterious attraction of the “royal game,” which, alone among the games devised by man, regally eschews the tyranny of chance and awards its palms of victory only to the intellect, or rather to a certain type of intellectual gift. But is it not already an insult to call chess anything so narrow as a game?
In real life, perhaps no figure in recent memory so exemplified the idea of “chess sickness”—that insatiable need to find the right move at the cost of everything else—as the pioneering French artist Marcel Duchamp. The father of Dada and inspiration to the Surrealists, Duchamp was, by the end of his life in the late 1960s, widely considered one of the finest, most original minds in twentieth-century art, alongside Picasso and a handful of others. He achieved immense renown (and even infamy) for for his 1913 painting Nude Descending a Staircase, the practically unclassifiable The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), and the groundbreaking readymade sculptures that for better or worse provided a preview for so much contemporary art. Nonetheless, he essentially turned his back on painting, complaining that “after ten years … I was bored with it. … From 1912 on I decided to stop being a painter in the professional sense.” Instead, he tried “to look for another personal way.” “Of course,” he acknowledged, “I couldn’t expect anyone to be interested in what I was doing.”
By the 1920s, when he was in his early thirties, Duchamp seems to have found this more personal way forward. A large part of what was so frustrating and uninteresting about modern painting, in his view, was its overly aesthetic, “retinal” nature: the inherent superficiality of visual representation. Duchamp was foremost an ideas man, for whom a work of art needed to accomplish significantly more than to please the eye. According to his biographer Calvin Tomkins, he was increasingly driven to “make visible a ‘nonperceptible’ experience”—in other words, to render states of mind manifest. Two paintings he completed during a short stint in Munich, with their emphasis on inside jokes and what he preposterously referred to as “eroticism,” were a turning point. And it was while working on these nonrepresentational but not quite abstract—and still meticulously painted—canvases that he began to conceive his enigmatic masterpiece The Large Glass. Constructed from two large panes of glass with various materials inserted between them, it is less a painting than a humorous, pseudoscientific gesture at the hidden psychological forces and urges that animate our libidos. At least that is one take on this “picture,” which in no way resembles the wedding party invoked by its title, and which required Duchamp to concoct a new physics and mathematics to convey its inner “laws.” (His copious notes, published as The Green Box, only further complicate the work’s meaning.)