I’ve been feeling a bit down the past few days and so I did a bit of light and heavy reading. On the somewhat heavier side is Montaigne. Montaigne’s essays make for enjoyable reading and his voice speaks directly to me all the way from 16th century France. Then, suddenly, he attacks the game of chess. I really didn’t see this coming, but in his disparagement of chess he makes a strong statement about men of honor that set me thinking.
Please bear with me as the quote is a bit longish for those looking for quick amusement. The emphasis in the quote is mine.
“What passion does not excite us in this game: anger, vexation, hatred, impatience, and a vehement ambition to win in a thing in which ambition to be beaten would be more excusable. For rare and extraordinary excellence in frivolous things is unbecoming a man of honor. What I say of this example may be said of all others: each particle, each occupation, of a man betrays him and reveals him just as well as any other.”
Is the study and attempt to uncover the meaning of life a more honorable pursuit than the world’s expert studying rock paper scissors? In my heart, I feel it must be so. But, as I consider it more deeply, what of the artist who portrays beauty? Is that frivolous? Is a doctor or a priest on the same level as the man who becomes an expert at rolling play-doh snakes?
A little more than a year ago, I went to Per Se in Manhattan. It was one of my most memorable meals and an early course had an egg in which the top of the shell was perfectly sliced away. I can’t recall what was inside, but it was amazing and I don’t even like eggs.
After the meal I discovered that making the egg in exactly this way took a tremendous amount of skill and quite a bit of training by the apprentice chefs. This egg was one of the best parts of my meal and the beauty of the presentation was perfect. I consider the course a work of art. Yet I would found sustenance more easily (and cheaply) if they had just fried it up and put it on some toast. It is a reach for me to find the egg course anything less than frivolous.
In Chess, there is no luck beyond the question of who plays first, and even that rotates back and forth in a tournament. Some games and moves were so brilliant they have become famous. The gold coin game had such a shocking and insightful move at the end that it is rumored the spectators showered the board with gold coins. Regardless of what happens during the match, all that has physically occurred is moving a few plastic or wooden pieces around and then putting them in a box at the end. There isn’t even a tear in the AstroTurf or a stray fly ball for a fan to grab.
Unless the category of things defined as frivolous is narrow indeed, I maintain Montaigne is in error. Extraordinary excellence in anything becomes indistinguishable from art. In this author’s strong opinion, making art is not unbecoming an honorable man. In fact, art is one of the greatest impacts a civilization makes upon the world, long after it has crumbled to dust. Extraordinary excellence is linked to eternal truths
Author’s note: When I gluttonously scarfed down the egg and wished I could have another, I was unbecoming for even polite company, much less honor. Om nom nom nom nom.
By way of thanks for getting to the end of this long post, here’s a Faberge Egg.