Garçons dançando o "meme do caixão" servem clientes em Gramado, RS.
Uma reportagem exibida pela GloboNews ontem (17/05/2020) se coloca a pergunta: "por que algumas pessoas desafiam e até debocham da pandemia do coronavírus"? Entre os exemplos ultrajantes estão as festas de arromba em bairros nobres de Florianópolis em plena quarentena; uma brincadeira de muito mau gosto num restaurante, inspirada no meme dos animadores de enterro de Gana; um cliente que entra em conflito com funcionários de uma farmácia por se recusar a usar máscara como proteção ao contágio. Por fim o arrombado até aceita pôr a máscara, mas no topo da cabeça, alegando que não havia nenhuma especificação no decreto obrigando o uso da proteção que indicasse que ela deveria ser colocada no rosto. 😒
Uma neurocientista propõe a hipótese de que negar a gravidade da pandemia seria um mecanismo de defesa pras pessoas que não conseguem enfrentar a realidade dos fatos. Outra hipótese, aventada pelo autor da matéria, é a de que a empatia humana estaria em baixa. Obviamente, trata-se de um clichê tentador quando se lamenta a ausência de padrões mínimos de respeito pela dor alheia. No entanto, a empatia humana continua onde sempre esteve: voltada pra aqueles com quem nos identificamos.
A tirada atribuída a Josef Stalin já é clássica: "uma morte é uma tragédia, mil mortes são uma estatística". É impossível não captar a dose de realismo cínico contida na frase: nos compadecemos com pessoas e não com números. O psicólogo Paul Bloom, no seu manifesto Against empathy: the case for rational compassion ("Contra a empatia: em defesa da compaixão racional", ainda sem tradução pro português, infelizmente), fornece exemplos tragicômicos em que excessos de boa vontade motivados por empatia irrefletida acabam, em termos objetivos, mais atrapalhando do que ajudando na resolução dos problemas. Como no massacre da escola primária Sandy Hook, na cidadezinha de Newtown, Connecticut, em 2012, mais um dos horrivelmente tradicionais assassinatos em massa perpetrados por atiradores nos EUA. Tais eventos bombásticos e estarrecedores causam grande comoção nacional, mas são uma nulidade estatística em relação à taxa anual de homicídios no país, a qual persiste como um ruído de fundo na atenção popular. Bloom relata como a infinidade de presentes enviados por americanos solidários às famílias de Newtown, longe de ajudar, acabou acarretando um problema logístico pra cidade. Equipes tiveram que ser mobilizadas pra remanejar as lembrancinhas pra outros lugares e, mesmo depois de as autoridades locais terem desincentivado o envio de presentes, as pessoas não pararam de os enviar.
Desmistificada diante de consequências concretas, a capacidade empática deixa de ser uma panaceia pra resolução de problemas sociais complexos. Mas mesmo sem recorrer ao remédio pouco eficaz de nos colocarmos na posição dos "outros" (a verdade é que são muitos outros, distantes e difusos, pra que possamos nos identificar com todos), a questão da reportagem permanece: como explicar o comportamento estúpido e insensível de tanta gente em meio à pandemia? Uma pista fundamental está num pilar da síntese evolutiva moderna proposta mais popularmente pelo etologista (biólogo que estuda comportamento animal) Richard Dawkins. Em seu livro de 1976, O gene egoísta, o britânico defende a centralidade da perpetuação dos genes, não das espécies, no motor da evolução. Afinal, o que é passado adiante são os genes de alguns indivíduos, não todo o pool genético de uma espécie. O próprio Dawkins admite que não há contradição em tomar o indivíduo, em vez do gene, como unidade da seleção natural, sendo mais uma questão de ênfase em níveis diferentes.
Pois bem, percebamos que os comportamentos selecionados na longa história natural da nossa espécie devem ter favorecido o sucesso de alguns indivíduos, não da comunidade humana global. Quem se sacrificava muito pelos companheiros mais egoístas teve menos chances de deixar descendentes pra mudar essa história. É importante notar que a premissa da psicologia evolucionista (de que estou fazendo uso muito grosseiro aqui) é que comportamentos instintivos que herdamos e que podem causar muitos problemas hoje (o exemplo clássico é a compulsão por consumir alimentos altamente calóricos) foram bem-sucedidos num período crítico da nossa história natural, muito antes de cultivarmos comida, domesticarmos animais e construirmos centros urbanos. Nessa época longínqua, os humanos eram poucos e estavam à merce da sua capacidade de encontrar alimento e de se defender de predatores naturais e de tribos inimigas. Faz todo sentido que tenhamos desenvolvido estratégias de cooperação, reunidas sob a rubrica "altruísmo", com outros membros próximos com quem formamos grupos, tribos, comunidades.
É aí que entra a importância fundamental da empatia pro nosso sucesso como espécie. A empatia recíproca nos permite consolidar laços de amizade e pertencimento ao grupo em que convivemos. É nesse ponto que o que é bom pro grupo também é bom pro indivíduo, porque foi vivendo em comunidades que pudemos frutificar e nos multiplicar muito melhor do que jamais conseguiríamos isoladamente. De fato, somente uma parte muito pequena do número total de espécies animais são espécies chamadas sociais, mas elas certamente representam muito mais da metade da biomassa animal do mundo (formigas, cupins, ratos, gado, humanos). Contudo, nossa vida social definiu o que seria um dilema perene na nossa história individual: o interesse coletivo X o interesse individual. E também é bom notar que o grupo natural humano, em que conseguimos nos identificar e sentir empatia pelos demais membros, é bem menor do que os estados-nação modernos.
Tudo isso posto, fica óbvio que não precisamos evocar nenhum mistério metafísico sobre a origem e natureza do mal pra explicar por que tantas pessoas agem como canalhas sem nenhuma empatia pelos sentimentos dos que moram a quilômetros de distância, ou mesmo ali do lado no bairro mas sem nenhuma conexão afetiva importante pras suas vidas individuais. Pode ser muito mais custoso psicologicamente, e com consequências sociais muito mais concretas pro indivíduo, ter de recusar um convite de amigos e abrir mão do bem-estar imediato do que incorrer numa improvável ofensa à memória de alguém que nem sequer conhecíamos, que não pode nos afetar e que provavelmente nem tomará conhecimento dessa nossa hýbris. É bom lembrar que não temos razão ainda pra supor que o vírus tenha infectado muito mais do que 5% da população brasileira (não por razões naturais mas justamente graças ao isolomento a que muitos se impõem), logo as chances de se contaminar no próximo encontro ainda são relativamente pequenas, e que a taxa de letalidade da COVID-19 gira em torno de 1%, sendo muito menor pra pessoas jovens sem comorbidades. O que as pessoas estão fazendo nesse caso é tomar decisões racionais, não sem certo cálculo de risco, que colocam seu bem-estar imediato à frente do interesse coletivo, que é conter o espalhamento do vírus. Este seria um enorme ganho coletivo futuro, mas que custa uma renúncia bem concreta hoje pro indivíduo.
Por fim, antes que me acusem de justificar o comportamento deplorável dos que furam quarentena pra curtir a vida, é bom deixar claro que uma explicação das causas não deve ser confundida com uma justificativa das consequências. Ter um olho na evolução humana permite enxergar com clareza as propensões que favorecem esses comportamentos egoístas e não estranhar que eles existam. Felizmente, tais comportamentos não representam um destino inescapável pra nós. Nosso cérebro também é dotado de um córtex pré-frontal que nos permite agir de maneira compassiva e racional e não sucumbir fatalmente a esses instintos mais básicos. O que uma perspectiva científica nos possibilita é compreender melhor o que de fato acontece no mundo. As implicações morais ficam à cargo da ética. Se me perguntassem pessoalmente o que acho desses tipos aí, eu não titubearia: pau no c* desses filha-da-p***! Cabe à sociedade desaprovar esses comportamentos e às autoridades públicas puni-los.
Antônio Gonçalves Dias is traditionally portrayed as Brazil’s national poet par excellence (ALENCAR, 2016, p. 275; GUDIN, 2006). Certainly the fame and wide circulation of his most celebrated poem, Canção do Exílio ("Song of Exile", 1843), greatly contribute to this status. Alongside José de Alencar, he features as the great exponent of Indianism in Brazilian literature. Both writers found the greatest expression of the commended national values in an idealized Brazilian native that combined both the chivalry lauded by the Romantics and the innocence and purity of a noble savage. Traditional literary criticism is unanimous in considering him the greatest poet of the first Romantic period in Brazilian literature, which was characterized, in general, by a strong sense of nationalism, and the elevation of the figure of the native, especially of those preceding or opposing colonization by the Europeans, as the nation’s highest symbol. Scholastic practice seems automatic in attributing those selfsame values to the poetic production of Gonçalves Dias (AMARAL, 2010, p. 61; NICOLA, 2000, p. 138). At the same time, while Dias indeed projects the model for a great Brazilian nation in an idealized representation of some of the peoples of the Pre-columbian Brazilian lands, aside from the Song of Exile, the reading of some of his production, not only poetic but also ethnographic, does not clearly point to a nationalism so affirmative as we may expect given the criticism that is often delivered to us regarding this author.
In fact, a discussion of a lesser known work by Dias, Meditação ("Meditation", 1850), in which what stands out is a dismal portrait of a country plagued by slavery and corrupt elites, could contribute to a fairer appreciation of an intellectual who has sometimes been accused of complying with the national projects of the country’s elites (GRIZOSTE, 2013, p. 372). Reassessing the Indianism of Gonçalves Dias in the light of the poet of Meditação, this project intends to argue that his nationalism, inasmuch as it is founded on the pride of Brazil’s pre-colonial past, cannot reconcile its inherent contradictions, since Brazil is in fact an outcome of the colonization process, so that his effort of forging out a national identity constitute, rather, an example of – using Roberto Schwarz concept – yet another "misplaced idea".
Since its appearance in 1846, the poetry of Gonçalves Dias has gone through important changes in its appreciation by the critics. The general trend of its first critics did not go much beyond praising its national character and the beauty of the verses (MATOS, 1988, p. 9) . Eventually, Antonio Candido, in Formação da Literatura Brasileira (first published in 1959), will advance a dialectical analysis that highlights opposing directions in the poet that "consolidated Romanticism" among us. He identifies a fundamental tension in Gonçalves Dias: Neoclassical harmony vs. the pathos characteristic of Romanticism (CANDIDO, 1971, p. 81). Candido’s biggest innovation resided in shifting the critic’s eyes to the interplay of movement and tension that pervades the poetry of our first Romantic. Consequently, instead of just lauding the verses of "eternal beauty", the critic demonstrated the analytic gain of visualizing a poet located in time and space, and having to deal with the constraints of the time.
Moving forward to the second half of the 20th century, we find Alfredo Bosi pointing out an altogether different set of conflicts in Gonçalves Dias. Although Poesias Americanas (a section of so-called American poems present in all three books of poetry by Gonçalves Dias) is generally taken as the core of his project of creating a national identity, it contains poems, such as O Canto do Piaga ("The Chant of the Shaman") and Deprecação ("Invocation"), that carry a dreadful foreboding of the doom in store for the peoples of the time. In hindsight, colonization is foreseen as the coming of Apocalypse, the annihilation of America’s native peoples (BOSI, 1986, p. 184). Now, there is a flagrant contradiction in that so-called national project: it is founded on the pride for Brazil’s "glorious" natives peoples of the past; yet those are precisely the same peoples that would fell victim to the massacre of indigenous peoples upon which this historic construct called Brazil would come to be.
Meditação is a lesser known work by Gonçalves Dias. A part of it, with removed bits, was published in the Guanabara magazine in 1859 (MARQUES, 2013, p. 97; GRIZOSTE, 2013, p. 372). However, given its denunciatory character, it was promptly censored, and only published wholly in 1868, after the author’s death. It was written in the form of some messianic Romanticism fashionable at the time. It is the account of a young man who confronts an elder who is capable of showing him the past and present of their nation. The young man represents Brazilians aspirations of a great future, while the old man’s role is to show the infeasibility of this nation given its vices, inherited from the colonizers. The originality of Meditação lies in the author’s acute perception and denunciation, unique at the time, of the socioeconomic problems of Brazil: an economy dependent on slavery and ruled by a corrupt political class resultant from the accord of landowning elites.
A recent book by Wilton José Marques, Gonçalves Dias: o poeta na contramão: literatura e escravidão no romantismo brasileiro ("Gonçalves Dias: the poet in the wrong lane: literature and slavery in the Brazilian Romanticism") (2013), is dedicated to analyzing Meditação and its historic context, and calls attention to the impossibility of publishing such a work at the time. Marques’ starting point is an affirmation by Roberto Schwarz from his well-known essay As ideias fora de lugar: "the favor, mediator of social relations, led Romantic writers to avoid dealing with the subject of slavery more overtly, disguising, in their interpretations of Brazil, the violence that has always governed the sphere of production" (MARQUES, p. 26). Dependent on the favors of a big shot as they were, Brazil’s middle class intellectuals were not supposed to voice their discontent about the social order in such a blatant tone.
Let us now shift our focus to another formulation by Schwarz: the "nationality by subtraction". In another essay, he argues that Brazilians recognize themselves as so, first and foremost, because they are nothing else, their ideological motivations are but passing fancies imported from time to time, but not given time to mature in national ground (SCHWARZ, 2014, p. 81-83). Going further in this line of thought, one could pose the question: Would not Gonçalves Dias nationalism in and of itself also be a misplaced idea? Transplanted from Europe, the strong national feeling that marked Romantic ideals had been a culmination of an internal process arising from the consolidation of the modern nation-states of which the colonies were just a byproduct. Therefore, we could suppose that the so-called nationalism of Brazil’s poet laureate is just an ersatz version of what was going on in Europe. The passage from the Middle Ages to Modernity in Europe was the result of an internal, organic process of expansion, whereas colonization in the Americas, and especially in Latin America, meant violence, conquer and plundering from outside. How can one manage to reconcile, in an artistic project, the pride for Brazil’s great indigenous population of yore with the phantom of their destruction, by which Brazil was born? At the end, how to reconcile civilization and barbarism? There is a clear need for literature to address these questions. Meditação solves this dilemma by attributing the origins of our sins to the Portuguese (DIAS, 1868, pp.80-81). However, such a response is far from being satisfactory, since the country was already independent politically, and therefore, needed to walk by its own.
Schwarz argues that artistic merit lies in the artist’s ability to give an aesthetic form to his or her work so as to retain the sociohistorical tensions that motivated it:
Following Schwarz vision, the great formula of the Indianism of Gonçalves Dias would lie precisely in not having assuaged Brazil’s ever-rampant violence. His poetic output reaches its best when it takes into account the contradictions inherent to a process of national formation founded on the genocide of indigenous populations and the horror of slavery, that is, on exclusion and expatriation. It was on this key that the poetry of Gonçalves Dias reached its highest power and amplitude, and produced its most remarkable fruits: it is vigorous when it depicts the inevitable clash between natives and colonizers in the Poesias Americanas, but is also moving when it presents the romantic tragedy of a Mestizo Indian woman rejected by the men of her tribe (Marabá), or of a slave separated forever from her lover in Africa (A Escrava).
My work will also focus to a great extent on an appreciation of Meditação, but using it as a necessary first step toward a reassessment of Gonçalves Dias nationalistic poetry, especially the Indianist poems. Schwarz will also be of instrumental value, but on a different key: the very concept of “misplaced idea” will guide my investigation of the poetry Gonçalves Dias. I shall investigate to what extent his so-called literary nationalism is consistent with his literary output and, more specifically, with his Indianist poems. In order to do that I intend:
ALENCAR, José de. Carta. In: Iracema. Ateliê, 2016, pp. 273-280.
AMARAL, Emília et al. Novas palavras: manual do professor. Vol. 2. FTD, 2010.
BOSI, Alfredo. Dialética da colonização. Companhia das Letras, 1992.
CANDIDO, Antonio. Formação da literatura brasileira (momentos decisivos). Vol. 2. 4ed. Martins, 1971.
DIAS, Antônio Gonçalves. Meditação. In: Obras póstumas de A. Gonçalves Dias: precedidas de uma notícia da sua vida e obras pelo dr. Antonio Henriques Leal. Vol. 3. 1868, pp. 3-84.
GRIZOSTE, Weberson Fernandes. Gonçalves Dias e a procura da identidade nacional brasileira. In: Brasiliana – Journal for Brazilian Studies. Vol. 2, n.2, Nov. 2013, pp. 371-400.
GUIDIN, Márcia Lígia. Gonçalves Dias: poeta do Brasil. In: Gonçalves Dias: poesia lírica e indianista. Ática, 2006, pp. 7-24.
MATOS, Cláudia Neiva. Gentis guerreiros: o indianismo de Gonçalves Dias. Atual, 1988.
MARQUES, Wilton José Marques. Gonçalves Dias: o poeta na contramão: literatura e escravidão no romantismo brasileiro. EdUFSCar, 2010.
NICOLA, José de. Literatura Brasileira: das origens aos nossos dias. Scipione, 2000.
SCHWARZ, Roberto. As ideias fora do lugar. In: As ideias fora do lugar: ensaios selecionados. Companhia das Letras, 2014, pp. 47-64.
_______________ Nacional por subtração. In: As ideias fora do lugar: ensaios selecionados. Companhia das Letras, 2014, pp. 81-102.
DIAS, Antônio Gonçalves. Obras poéticas de A. Gonçalves Dias. Companhia Editora Nacional, 1944. 2v.
FRANCO, Maria Sylvia de Carvalho. Homens livres na ordem escravocrata. UNESP, 1997.
ROMERO, Sílvio. História da Literatura Brasileira. 5ed. José Olympio, 1953. 5vs.
"World peace" sounds like a beautiful thing, doesn't it? Imagine all humankind living and working together to ensure that differences are respected, and that the benefits from such a global cooperation are fairly distributed among the denizens of the world. But that's just looking at it from one's own cultural perspective. The image of all peoples holding hands and singing "We Are the World" translates much more into an ideal of a world united under my civilizational values than any real alternative to make the world a less bloody place. For many a Muslim, world peace certainly means worldwide submission to Allah; matter of fact, that's the core value underlying Islam (the word itself means "submission"), the so-called religion of peace.
Now, a conscientious fellow human having read this last sentence might raise his or her brow and think: "Wait a minute, I know where this guy is going. He’s probably just another one of those Islamophobic warmongers supporting the extinction of anything that is not Western, capitalistic and supposedly modern. Or maybe even worse!" Quite the contrary. What I’m trying to say here is that, even if you are a strong adherent (as I myself am!) of such dear values as the invaluable nature of life, human rights, liberty and respect to each other’s differences and equality under the rule of law, that doesn’t mean you’re more right (or "righter"?)– least of all more righteous – than those who don’t share the same values. Nor does it mean that differently-minded people (ah, the Gentiles!) will harken to these sacred commandments. In actuality, the key to understanding others and having a realistic problem-solving approach about the ever-rampant violence in our world is, first of all, recognizing our own political stances in relation to those who think differently, which is historically constructed and not derivative of an ethereal order of Truth and Goodness. As a consequence, any Utopia of a world free of conflicts is but an ethnocentric construct in which somebody's version of world peace has won.
Words carry history: how tracing the name “chess” illuminated the game’s spread across world cultures
By the end of the 19th century, chess, with its current rules and pieces, was known throughout the world. European traders and settlers had taken it along to the New World and to those parts of the Old World where similar board games could be found. In its European variety, this ancient, transnational game had become a global phenomenon. It had been widely played back in the Middle Ages, and appears in numerous paintings and manuscripts from the period. So, it was quite clear that chess was old, but how old exactly? Some historians had sought to establish the origins of chess, but their findings were far from conclusive. Europe had to wait until an aficionado of this most traditional board game decided to solve the puzzle.
Harold James Ruthven Murray (1868-1955) received his degree in mathematics from Oxford’s Balliol College before becoming a schoolmaster at preparatory schools in England. He was the eldest son of the Scottish James Murray, the first lexicographer of the Oxford English Dictionary, and had helped his father with the immense task of providing the definitions and etymologies for all the entries in the most celebrated English language dictionary, contributing with impressive 27,000 quotations for the first edition. As a consequence, Harold received solid philological training since youth.
Throughout the 19th century, the new discipline of comparative philology had thrived with many scholars demonstrating the unexpected relationships between languages widely distanced through time and land. Its method consisted primarily of the comparison of the grammar of two or more languages in order to determine their degree of proximity, as well as their proper affiliation to a parent, or proto-, language. Evolving into the more advanced discipline of historical linguistics, comparative philology was one of the chief pursuits of men of letters of this epoch.
Thus, H. J. R. Murray was equipped with the knowledge and spirit of his time to investigate the origins and "trace the development of the modern European game from the first appearance of its ancestor" (Murray, 1913, p. 5) Nevertheless, the task at hand was not an easy one. Visiting all the lands and civilizations through which chess had passed was not a viable option. In his book The Immortal Game, David Shenk wrote:
Murray was smart enough, then, to take a shortcut. Besides the many European languages he already knew, he decided to learn Arabic and pored through medieval manuscripts that bore testimony to the presence of chess in the Muslim world. Thereby he found out that early Arabic and Persian traditions concurred in attributing the invention of chess to India, with its earliest mention in Indian literature dating from the beginnings of the 7th century CE (Murray, Id., p. 26). His thirteen years of research culminated in the formidable 900-page A History of Chess, published in 1913.
The bulk of Murray's work consisted of meticulously scouring old manuscripts in a dozen of languages. Ultimately, he was able to conclude confidently that chess entered western Europe no later than the 10th century.* A previous and readier step in the reconstruction of the game's migration involved its nomenclature. For its name in English, as well as in most European languages (French échecs, Italian scacchi, German Schach, Polish zsachy), pointed clearly to the Latin plural scaci (alternatively scachi, scacci). This was a Latin rendering (probably 9th century) of shah, the title of the Persian sovereign—since its inception in Europe, then, chess has been called the "game of kings" (ludus scaccorum). So, the name of the game in most modern European languages seems to have stemmed from a confusion with the name Arabs and Persians used to designate its most important piece. Shah, the piece, was promptly translated into the local word for king in the European languages. It was only in Spanish (ajedrez) and Portuguese (xadrez) that the Arabic name of the game (shatranj) was retained, possibly due to long-standing Muslim influence in the southern Iberian Peninsula. Shatranj was a borrowing from Persian chatrang, through regular sound changes, into Arabic. The Iranian name pointed further to the Sanskrit chaturanga, the game mentioned in documents from 7th century India. Chaturanga meant "the four members", an allusion to the game’s representation of the four divisions of the old Indian army: chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry.
The names of some of the other chessmen provide further evidence of the game’s ancestry. For example, "rook" is an odd name for a piece that nowadays resembles a castle. The reason for it being called so is that "rook" entered English through Norman-French roc, which in turn derives from Arabic rukhkh, coming ultimately from Persian rukh, which meant "chariot". Indeed, the corresponding piece in the Indian chaturanga represented this division of the old Indian army. Wherever the game travelled, it took on the cultural structures of the the particular societies that played it. A quintessential Medieval European development is the bishop. Before coming into the hands of Europeans, the game had never featured a member of the clergy, it was exclusively a war game. The ecclesiastical presence in the game is apparently an innovation from Northern Europe. The bishop was initially an elephant (Persian pil, Arabic alfil) and, since Islamic law prohibited lifelike artistic depictions, the oriental chess sets imported to Europe had a piece with protruding points on its top representing a pair of tusks. The name of this piece shows great variation across European languages; after all, elephants were foreign to Europe. The English interpreted the cleft as a bishop’s mitre, whereas the French, who call the piece fou (fool) seem to have recognized a jester’s hat in it. In addition, fou may be a corruption of (al)fil. Al- stands for the definite article in Arabic, and it was preserved in the Spanish word for the piece: alfil, a word also found in older Portuguese texts. The Italians made it alfiere (standard bearer). In other Germanic languages the piece is referred to by a word meaning courier or runner (German läufer, Dutch loper, Danish lober etc.).
The oriental versions of chess had no queens. The corresponding piece in chaturanga represented a counselor or general of the Indian rajah. The Arabs called it vizier, and one of renderings of the word in Middle French was fierge (alternatively vierge), which allowed some writers of the period to associate the piece with the cult of the Virgin Mary that was flourishing in Western Europe. Eventually, the vierge would become the queen, the most powerful piece in the modern game. Marilyn Yalom, in The Birth of Chess Queen, draws a relation between the queen's development in chess and the rising power of Europe’s female sovereigns in the Late Middle Ages.
In conclusion, by contrasting the name of the game, its pieces and related terms across many European languages, besides learning Arabic in order to have access to medieval manuscripts from Muslim-dominated areas, Murray was able to retrace the path taken by chess in its westward march starting in India, being subsequently seized on by Sassanid Persia, then acquired by the Muslim conquerors, going all the way through Northern Africa, until finally penetrating Western Europe, carried along with the invading Moors by way of the Iberian Peninsula, and the Saracens through Italy. Although there is a minority of historians who claim that chess was handed down to India by the Chinese, Murray’s account of the spread of the game throughout the Old World remains the most accepted theory of where and when it first appeared. His quest for the origins of chess stands out as a vivid testimony of the rich historical treasure imprinted on these colorful day-to-day items we call words.
*The game was also diffused by other routes. The Byzantine world, for example, knew it through Persian caravans coming from the East.
Chess is commonly associated with nerds and smart people, at times a bit thick at the waist line, stooping over static configurations of smalls figurines on wooden checkered boards. Eventually, after a seemingly never-ending pondering on mysterious intricate combinations, one of the players will push forward this or that piece, while keeping monastic silence all along. Here and then, you may hear someone solemnly proclaim "check". That's when the game reaches its climax.
But enough of these popular misconceptions. Aside from such commonplace appearances in movies and novels, this peaceful warlike game can reveal us some interesting things. It has been around this earth for quite some time, so there’s definitely more to the picture than meets the eye. In fact, it is one of the most popular board games ever, has been present in all five continents ever since European explorers set foot on the New World, and can boast of having a recorded history that spans more than a thousand years. Not bad for an innocent pastime, eh? Here are five tidbits about the royal game that will have you never looking at your little chess set the same way.
#1. Chess was invented in India around the 7th century CE
Thanks to the formidable research undertaken by the Oxford scholar H. J. R. Murray, we can say confidently that modern chess is the continuation in time and space of a game played in 7th century India called chaturanga ("the four members", representing the four divisions of the old Indian army: chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry). By comparing the name of the game, its pieces and related terms across many European languages, besides learning Arabic in order to have access to medieval manuscripts from Muslim-dominated areas, Murray was able to retrace the path taken by chess in its westward march starting in India, being subsequently seized on by Sassanid Persia, then by its Muslim conquerors, going all the way through Northern Africa until finally penetrating Western Europe, being carried along with the invading Moors, by way of the Iberian Peninsula. Take, for example, the piece known as "rook". That's an odd name for a piece that looks like a castle. The reason for it being referred to like this is that "rook" entered English through Norman-French roc, which in turn derives from Arabic rukhkh, coming ultimately from Persian rukh, which meant "chariot". Indeed, the corresponding piece in the original chaturanga represented a chariot.
#2. There are more possible chess games than atoms in our universe
People tend to relate chess with math, but this? Yep. The American mathematician Claude Shannon was able to give an estimate of the number of possible different chess games as being no lower than 10^120 (ten to the one hundred and twentieth power). That means 1 followed by 120 zeros! As a comparison, the number of atoms in the observable universe would be around 10^80. That's quite decent for a game of 32 carved pieces on a 64-square board.
#3. Not even modern-day computers play perfect chess
As the Shannon number makes patent, the total possible outcomes in the game of chess are so unearthly mind-boggling that even the IBM-designed supercomputer Deep Blue, which was said to be capable of evaluating 200 million positions per second, would take, literally, an eternity to completely solve the game of chess. As a matter of fact, it took several decades for computers to be able to beat world-class chess players, until Deep Blue finally inaugurated the current era of supercomputer chess by defeating the then World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in an encounter of 6 games by the score of 3½–2½ (2 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss) in 1997.
#4. They built chess-playing automatons in the 18th and 19th centuries
Well, kind of. The most famous chess automaton was built in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen, an Hungarian inventor, who christened his machine "the Turk". It toured Europe at the time, being presented at the court of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, and is said to have played and checkmated Napoleon! The latter story is probably apocryphal, however. The Turk was actually a hoax, with a diminutive chess master concealed in its insides. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a chronicle trying to solve the enigma of "Maelzel's Chess Player" on occasion of its exhibition in Richmond in 1836. The automaton was then in possession of his subsequent owner, Johann Nepomuk Mäelzel. The incredible story of the mechanical Turk inspired a 2007 historical novel, The Chess Machine, by the German Robert Löhr.
#5. Chess has been a central theme in world-famous novels
Long before seizing the pen of the great Allan Poe, chess was used as a moral allegory in the medieval Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium ac popularium super ludo scachorum (The Book of the Morals of Men and the Duties of Nobles and Commoners, on the Game of Chess) which managed to attain considerable popularity in the Late Middle Ages, being translated into several languages across Europe. Closer to our time, chess features prominently in Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game, and Vladimir Nabokov's The Defense. In both of these novels, the main characters are chess players who fall prey to the maddening complexities of chess, eventually being driven into a state of insanity by turning into chess-playing zombies.
Seneca, the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher, in his first moral letter to his pen-friend Lucilius, urged him to make the most out of his own time and not waste it by letting others take it away from him. There is no point in looking forward to making use of time at some point in the future, "for, as [the ancient Greeks] believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile". After a lifetime notorious for its extravagances, old Seneca's main concern was that his younger friend didn't give time its proper value. For the philosopher, a happy life was one in which time was well spent.
Time has always been a luxury, and how much more so in modern times! Time is money, they say. With that in mind, we could argue that happiness is a most sought out commodity nowadays, and since it is thought of as a commodity, many people strive to secure it through a lifetime of stressful work. I'd say that many mistake their theoretically fundamental right for the pursuit of happiness for a frenzied chase after money.
Let's imagine this scenario: you’ve worked really hard the whole year, but still wasn’t able to grab that raise you had set your mind to. Alas, so long for that renovation on your living room! So you take a hardworking approach and decide that a good remedy for not achieving your year's goal is toiling away during vacation time to earn extra! That way, you’ll be able to have the living room of your dreams.
Some of us might take such a fellow for a hopeless money-grubber, plugging away at every opportunity just because he simply doesn't know better. Don't be so quick in judging him, though. As a matter of fact, if you give a little thought to it, you'll realize many of us do take similar – albeit not so cartoonish – courses in our own lives. There are periods in life when we choose to devote most of our time to Mammon in order to fulfill some material needs. But then what? What do we do when we finally walk into our newly-revamped commodious living room, slouch on an ample, comfortable couch in front of a 50-plus-inch TV screen, and turn on our favorite sports team's game? We get bored. Okay, maybe not on the first day or week. But the truth is that after some time, all that comfort we struggled so hard to treat ourselves to ceases to be a source of self-satisfaction and we grow immune to it. We just take all that luxury for granted, and then turn our attention to what we've been missing out on our lives.
Psychology seems to support this very impression: as our life standard becomes higher, we tend to feel gradually less and less satisfied with all the stuff we have accumulated. I'd say we start to feel less and less assured whether it is a fair price we are paying in order to afford our lifestyle.
I'm not saying, however, that money is not important, fundamental even. Nelson Rodrigues is said to have declared, very cynically, that "money buys everything, even true love". I don't take that to mean that our species is invariably one of rapacious money-diggers. Rather, what our great tragic writer recognized was our inherent frailty as humans. We are fragile creatures who depend on certain material conditions so that we can give out the best in us.
Nevertheless, being wealthy is not the end of the story. Let's consider someone born with lots of money. Affluence alone doesn't translate into knowing how to put all that dough to good use. You may be dumping cash in all directions without a meaningful purpose. And I bet this can make anyone feel like a fool, as soon as the kick you get out of acquiring things on the nail dies out. I just gave this dull example to call your attention that it is self-evident that money by and of itself does not bring anyone an inch closer to happiness if he or she doesn't know how to spend it wisely. In fact, money that is poorly spent can bring a lot of frustration. Yet another point in the aforementioned epistle from Seneca is that the richness of a man should only be deemed by himself, otherwise he will never be happy since others’ expectations about us are inevitably fuzzy and fickle. Being rich is first and foremost being able to make good use of one’s own resources at the proper time.
Aside from that, a common mistake is to have our lives too much oriented toward targets which are ultimately external to us, so that we end up getting this feeling that we are being driven by external forces. Indeed, research suggests, quite surprisingly, that our brains are equipped to be happy regardless of the outcome. In other words: what we do is worth much more than what we get.
So, focusing on your own actions and efforts, rather than caring too much about succeeding in that job interview or getting a raise, can make you feel more like you're playing a leading role instead of being just an extra in your own life story.