Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ups and Downs: They're Life. Both.

Michael has responded to this morning's blogging with a story he heard from his father, who survived Buchenwald:
Otto had been a chess champion (won the Belgian title in 1936), and his chess hero had always been a Russian named Alekhine. One day in Buchenwald, in the latrine, Otto came upon what he thought was a miracle of sorts: there on the ground was a page from a recent German chess magazine, undoubtedly discarded by an SS guard, with an article by, of all people, Alekhine. So Otto's heart skipped and his mood soared. Until he began reading. Then he discovered, for the first time, that Alekhine had become a rabid antisemite sympathizer with the Nazi cause, and the article was all about the evils of "Jewish chess..." And Otto then sank into an especially low depression. But then there was another uplift, because it occurred to him that if he was still capable of experiencing both joy and depression it must mean that his humanity had not been destroyed, even by the Nazis. And this awareness, that he was still human, gave him hope and the will to continue.


Sergio said...

Dear Yacov,

This brings up a fact which we (or at least I) have difficulty to digest: that talent/intelligence is not necessarily without intersection with extreme bigotry/stupidity. Richard Wagner is a
case in point; I recently discovered that Gottlob Frege, an influential german logician, was an anti-semite (a nazi in fact). Another outstanding logician, G. Gentzen, though probably not an "ideological" nazi, was a party

Recall also the support the nazis had from german university students and
the medical establishment (!!) And many of the leaders of the einsatzgruppen had doctorate degrees (By the way there's a new book about it, "The Uncompromising generation", by Michael Wildt; is it good?)

When we stop to think about it, we realize that there seems to be no
necessary link of intelligence with character, and they probably work in different parts of the brain (psycopaths are usually very smart). However, our (naive?) education seems to impinge the connection on us.


NormanF said...

Morality and intelligence seldom correlate. Many of the top Nazis were highly educated and the more highly educated a Nazi, the more intense their anti-Semitism. Superior knowledge doesn't necessarily produce a more ethical human being or make him more empathetic to the suffering of those around him.

Anonymous said...

As to Otto finding out that his "hero" was his enemy in that surrounding creates the image of a night-mare and admiration for his ingenuity to create another view-point and so deal with this betrayal.

In partial defence of the "intelligentsia" as whose subaltern/assistant I have earned my living I must say that they are just like us "simple" ones. Some are humane and some are arrogant know-betters always on the look-out for somebody to put down.

As to Richard Wagner somewhere I have kept a quote to the effect that he was also in a strange way obsessed with siring (super)SONS.
But he knew how to write enticing seducing tunes (often too pompous for my taste but which for example an always quite sober seeming guy like Shimon Stein claims to care for very much)

- So how is one to deal with these people who on the one hand were great talents and had something to say and to give and on the other were highly despicable, callous and ruthless endoursers of thuggery and worse.

For a start I would feel better about them, if they weren't fed to me always accompanied by the demand to revere them, to accept their santified status.
Let's take Martin Luther by whom I read a mind-blowingly horrible anti-Jewish rant but who also translated the bible including the 10 commandments and thus gave us, so I am told, the basics for a country-wide German. And that this rant by Luther existed I found out only by chance peripateting the internet.

Minnie said...

Thank you, Yaacov, for this fascinating story. It illustrates perfectly what Bruno Bettelheim said (in 'The Informed Heart', 1960) about how survivors who went on to thrive were all of the kind who'd been able to hold onto their individuality, by remaining conscious of their own feelings/views/thoughts - their 'freedom to choose autonomously one's attitude to extreme conditions, even when they seemed totally beyond one's abiiity to influence them.'
And the idea of brilliance necessarily entailing decency? Ha! Every hero has feet of clay - or, more properly speaking, prejudices or blind spots. That's human nature, I'm afraid. At the same time, if there were no prejudices there'd be no opinions to be formulated, explored and then examined closely by others.

Minnie said...

PS Arrived here via the excellent normblog - and glad to have done so.

Sergio said...

I think that as intelligence/talent is (still) highly valued in the West, our education somehow transmits the following (unwarranted) scheme: as knowlegde/talent is good, ergo knowledgable/talented people are good.

When we grow up and find glaring and numerous counterexamples we experience cognitive dissonance: for instance, when I learned that Reinhard Heydrich played the violin and was fond of Schubert. As I happen to like Schubert too, the thought that I have some esthetic common ground with "the butcher of Prague" was quite disturbing.

In any case, I agree with a previous comment that talent/intelligent should not be revered and we should realized they aren't endowed with special moral/ethical wisdom.



Anonymous said...

granted every hero and every one of us has dark corners but saying that lets the real bad apples get quite a free ride because it doesn't answer the question on where to draw the line and where is the point where "elders" in a society should be obliged to stop presenting somebody like Luther like a saint?

David Brooks recently had a comment at the NYTimes saying that not only the bankers were to blame but everyone overextending their credit. Sounds kind of plausible until one asks: wait a minute, one is a professional and one is an amateur, should they really be judged with the same harshness or leniency? If one gives the same compassion to professional and amateurs one provides a pretty good cover for the thugs to vanish behind.


TheBigHenry said...

Surely, you must be aware that Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess champion of all, whose mother was Jewish (thereby making him Jewish by tradition) was also a rabid anti-Semite.