The Roark Attack

Howard Roark was a chess genius. He had known this, utterly securely, since his sixth birthday, when he had discovered the chess set in his attic and immediately known how to play. Sitting on pile of magazines which contained the dreary, identical thoughts of the chess ancients, he had there and then created his own unique and devastating attack. He knew that any any honest chess player could not beat it.

Growing up, Roark was a strapping but silent child. He was deeply unpopular at school, but when his fellows came to pound on him, he simply straightened up and a strange, cold light would come into his eyes. Deeply impressed, they would slink off, and would later whisper amongst themselves about how great they really thought he was. Their biggest fear was only that he would one day find this out.

Roark was bothered through his whole childhood by inferior adults wanting to play him at chess. He didn’t feel sorry for them – no, rather he felt embarrassed for them and thought how they weren’t proper people, when you get down to it. His floozy of an Aunt was the first, barely interested in the game as she made eyes at his father. Amazingly, his father played even worse then her, and Roark knew this man had no talent. Roark did not feel regret the man was his father – rather he knew his talent came only from him, and he had no influences of any sort. The doctor clearly just wanted some vicarious thrill of seeing the young play so well, and his enthusiasm was sickening to see. When he brought Roark some old books and articles on chess, Roark handed them back to him in silence, and told him he did not mind the insult.

After his father died, Roark made an honest and good living from playing chess in all the great towns of Europe. A lesser man would have tried to impress others, like our readers, with this, but he would never talk about his experiences with anyone. One day, some silly flighty woman handed him back something she thought he had dropped – of course, Roark never made mistakes like that, and simply handed her back the handkerchief. When he saw how she was kind and perceptive, he lost interest completely, and advised her to find a more suitable man and station in life.

Roark played against opponents as little as possible – he preferred to play thousands of games against himself, lost in his own brilliance. Roark was very selfish. Sometimes, he would have to play in tournaments, which he only did to bring money in because he knew they were all corrupt and meaningless. One player, the suave and calculating Turati, would follow Roark around and try to play him whenever he could – cared only for what people thought of him, and made sure he was always photographed, looking suave, while Roark sat next to him stiff as a board with a neutral expression.

Turati approached him before the tournament began. He smiled and extended his hand – Turati knew that this made him look affable – and started talking of the many great players at the tournament, and the mechanics of his new defence.
“Bongiourno, grandmaster Roark! I am so pleased to see you here. I am a great admirer of your – what do you call – relentless, homogeneous attack. It has something of the late Luzhin about it – but more direct, I think. But I have been thinking long and hard about how to beat it – I often spend most of my time thinking about others, I try to be selfless in that way! But not to blow my own trumpet!”. Turati smiled, suavely.
“Yes”, said Roark
“Anyway, now we must start the game. I think there my opponent is just over there. May the best man win, grandmaster Roark” oozed Turati
“Yes”, said Roark
“Please give my regard to your charming wife” … for a moment Turati looked puzzled, and then smiled warmly again .. “ah no, I must be thinking of someone else. Anyway, my apologies, and good luck again”.
Roark looked at him flatly – turned – and walked away.

Roark obviously beat every player in the ladder, like a machine. He played the same way every time, and looked with disgust on the dishonest and self-deceiving ways some of the players tried to manipulate the game. Eventually he had to play Turati in the final round.

Turati was panicking. He could see Roark’s essential brilliance, and knew he could not honestly win against it. He had tried to charm Roark with his suaveness, and now over the gleaming golden chessboard he tried every trick that had made him an European grandmaster.
“Grandmaster – do you want to look at these erotic photographs of my many mistresses? They are extremely erotic,” he simpered
“Grandmaster – I think I have dropped my money down there. What a shame it would be if another grandmaster might – accidentally – pick it up,” he cajoled
“Grandmaster – don’t you feel terribly sorry for me? Why don’t you just let me win. I might cry otherwise,” he intoned
“Don’t – call me grandmaster” – was all that Roark said.

Nevertheless, Turati’s sneekiness and dishonesty was somehow burying Roark. He simply would not play decently in response to the attack, and even seemed to be anticipating Roark’s beautiful, pure, decent, individualistic moves – and playing them back at him mockingly. Roark just couldn’t win in four or five minutes as he usually did. He could see he would maybe only get a draw.

Suddenly, he was at the other side of the chessboard. The spectators saw him in a violent motion shoving a pawn up Turati’s nose. Then he spoke, flatly and calmly:
“Chess is a game of structure, and reflects a man’s soul. Only a man of pure and honest soul can play chess well. To win in a way that uses combinations dishonestly reveals the corruption of your mind. Never think of your opponent, never worry about what’s in his mind. I have never worried. Let the pure chess expression, which you will know even if you never use it to play chess against anyone else, define you. Chess is a game of individuals – and we must never let this individuality be compromised, ever. This is the most important thing, second only to that which is most obvious, free-market economics. People are always trying to make me forget this. I don’t care about them. I don’t care much about other people. I care about chess. And I also care about free-market economics, and individualism. Individualism is…”.

Roark spoke in this way for thirty or forty minutes. When he had finished, every member of the audience knew he was correct. Turati was weeping with joy at how right Roark was, and knew he could never be that right.

And at this Roark barged through the crowd, and out into the street, bellowing his own name. As he staggered through the streets of Berlin, a kind of righteous fury overwhelmed him – all the passers-by seemed to have his face, and he continued to shout his own name as he clinched his moral victory.



Let’s take some time to look in detail with how Rand executes the features we’ve identified. We can make the trouble with Rand’s writing stand out in bold relief when we compare Roark’s portrayal in The Fountainhead with Luzhin in The Defence in these terms.

Unskilled, and unaware of it

We all know somebody who makes a complex, daunting, or artful task seem effortless (if you don’t, maybe it’s not you). We might even know somebody who is truly exceptional at that task, in a way that seems qualitatively different from other people’s efforts – some sort of genius, perhaps. Let’s bracket for the moment the old chestnut of how much of this is nature, and how much acquired – whenever this gets raised, the debate is usually ended fairly quickly with well it’s both, just in varying degrees – and apart from anything, once something has become part of your nature, the significance of its origins becomes moot.

But – even if this person is entirely self-taught, or a savant – we know that the talents don’t just suddenly appear fully-formed. There is a process – even an entirely internal one – which has to be gone through, worked at, and refined. Internally, this process must essentially be self-reflective – for a start, you don’t get any better at something – anything – unless you are initially extremely self-critical, while having also the drive to continue in the face of doubt. If you’re going excel at something, and be original as well – surely just the first tiny steps to becoming a genius – then you have to be essentially dissatisfied, be needled into continuous refinement – at least until you reach the end of the process, and maybe that never occurs.

I’ve mentioned the wonderful Dunning-Kruger effect before – this is whereby individuals can lack the skills to be capable of identifying themselves as unskilled. To a neophyte, it might seem you can pick up everything about a broad topic from reading a wikipedia article – but when you begin to accrue some knowledge, the true scale of what you have yet to master is revealed. Self-satisfaction can drive this phenomenon – if you already think you have life sussed, why go to the trouble to learn a little more than you need? But so can isolation.

Contact with a community doing similar work to you can help to drive you out of the DK effect. Whether it’s low-level like technical points of comparison, or higher like debating the reasons for the activity, participating in – or even just resisting – a community of practice is vital. We see this all the time with programmers – “they start off original, and become good”. It’s not like the originality is not a virtue (though there are some who would like to eliminate it) – it’s that most self-taught programmers have no idea of the disciplines needed to create larger projects. And most look back after a year or so of professionalism – and gasp at the code they once thought elegant.

This isn’t some esoteric experience – all of us who have even dabbled with competency know it. And even if we know nothing of chess, the process of the transformation of Luzhin from a little boy who doesn’t even know what chess pieces are to seedy Grandmaster is so instantly recognisable as to seem almost effortless.

In the first chapter of the novel, little Luzhin runs away from the station where the train is due to take him to St Petersburg and the school he is dreading, and hides in the attic, where: “Besides books there was a shuttlecock with one feather, a large photograph (of a military band), a cracked chessboard, and some other not very interesting things.” We know Luzhin has a gift for combinatorial thinking – and defence – but before the initial point of contact a chessboard is just another piece of unloved clutter. We’ve already talked about how the timid Luzhin, hiding in a corner of his father’s room to escape the attentions of family friends at a concert, is first introduced to chess. He gains a compulsion to learn the game and cajoles his Aunt to show him the moves, and later fidgets while he watches his schoolmates play –

“But ‘tower’ turned out to be a synonym for ‘cannon.’. With gnawing envy and irritating frustration Luzhin watched the game, striving to perceive those harmonious patterns the musician had spoken of and feeling vaguely that in some way or other he understood the game better than these two, although he was completely ignorant of how it should be conducted, why this was good and that bad, and what one should do to penetrate the opposite King’s camp without losses.”

It’s later at his Aunt’s, while bunking off school, that one of her (unwanted) suitors begins to play against him seriously.

“The old gentleman played divinely … this first time when after a few moves Luzhin’s ears were burning and there was nowhere to advance, it seemed to Luzhin he was playing a completely different game from the one his aunt had taught him. The board was bathed in fragrance. The old man called the Officer a Bishop and the Tower, a Rook, and whenever he made a move that was fatal for his opponent he would immediately take it back, and as if disclosing the mechanism of an expensive instrument he would show the way his opponent should have played in order to avert disaster. He won the first fifteen games without the slightest effort, not pondering his moves for a moment, but during the sixteenth game he suddenly began to think and won with difficulty”

Luzhin’s eventual draw against his teacher is described as like a sudden bursting through of light into his internal conception of the game:

“…on this last day, after a long exciting struggle during which the old man revealed a capacity for breathing hard through the nose – Luzhin perceived something, something was set free within him, something cleared up, and the mental myopia that had been painfully beclouding his chess vision disappeared. ‘Well, well, it’s a draw,’ said the old man. He moved his Queen back and forth a few times the way you move the lever of a broken machine … ‘You’ll go far,’ said the old man. ‘You’ll go far if you continue on the same lines. Tremendous progress!”

It doesn’t end there – after shyly revealing his new talent to his father, he plays against a stream of increasingly impressive opponents, including the country doctor (“a first-rate player … derived enormous pleasure from these incessant defeats”), his geography teacher (“a well-known amateur”), and “a grey haired Jew … a senile chess genius who had been victorious in all the cities of the world but now lived in idleness and poverty, purblind”. He studies chess compulsively: the “immortal games that remained from former tournaments …  Luzhin gradually ceased to reconstruct actually on the board and contented himself with perceiving their melody mentally through the sequence of symbols and signs”. The country doctor carefully nurtures his interest –

“He brought Luzhin a chess handbook … [and] spoke about the grand masters he had had the occasion to see, about a recent tournament … about the great Philidor … At times, grinning gloomily, he would bring what he termed ‘a sugarplum’ – an ingenious problem cut out of some periodical. Luzhin would pore over it a while, find finally the solution and with an extraordinary expression on his face and radiant bliss in his eyes would exclaim, burring his r’s: ‘How glorious, how glorious!’”

Nabokov does not spend chapters on this process – his rigorous structure for the book demands that he is economical – but in the space of the chapter we have a complete arc of the emergence of chess genius, from encounter, through frustration, competence, to mastery – completely believable and compellingly. This is clearly an intensive, continually evolving process, captured in microcosm by Luzhin repeatedly updating his names for the pieces: “cannon” becoming “tower” becoming “rook”.

We are both intimately party to Luzhin’s inner life during the most exciting time of his life, and can see him from the outside – as a fey, awkward child, with obvious talent, but just starting out. What must be a common childish experience: “gnawing envy” and a little arrogance at seeing others doing something we love better: Luzhin feels “vaguely … in some way or another” that his understanding is superior – is captured from both sides. Nabokov does not want to deny that the seeds of Luzhin’s brilliance are innate to him – and here we see simultaneously those responding, and Luzhin’s still childish response. Every adult that Luzhin plays kindly guides him, even as they see his brilliance emerge: “whenever he made a move that was fatal for his opponent he would immediately take it back“. But Luzhin is not an Athena, springing fully formed – he is beaten again and again by the divinely-playing suitor. Again, from the outside we know that the old man is doing ten year-old Luzhin a service by not patronising him and letting him win – and this deepens our joy when he finally forces a draw, and we experience something like the clarity that he must have gained.

Luzhin, withdrawn and unsociable to the point of pain, is now brought into constant contact with new opponents – and finds he can engage with them through the medium of chess. We see each one challenging and bringing a new aspect into his play, and introducing him to the wider chess world: we have never seen such an expression of joy from him as when he solves the doctor’s chess problem. He teaches himself as well from the “immortal games” republished in magazines, and we see he has become familiar with particular player’s chess theory: “At the very beginning of the fourth game Luzhin pushed back the piece moved by his father and with a shake of his head said in a confident unchildlike voice: ‘The worst reply. Chigorin suggests taking the Pawn.’”. Here, we see Luzhin through his father’s eyes – impressed, but thrown by his son’s sudden seriousness. Look at how finely balanced the writing is here: more clumsily it would sound out of character, but in fact it is characteristically childish to completely absorb the tone of something we have been studying (“the worst reply”), right down to the  passive voice (“Chigorin suggests”). We see the same blending of real chess mastery, and continuing childishness that so unnerves his father.

The sequence is also dramatic, and even though the passages are fairly brief and we know the outcome, there is something thrilling reading about Luzhin slowly realising his power.


Irony, Literature, Rhetoric, self-parody, Uncategorized

Goodies and badies

My favourite source (wikipedia) describes the process of the The Fountainhead as a series of interactions between Roark, the “author’s ideal man of independence and integrity” and a continuum of lesser personalities. While it’s certain that Roark is an flawless paragon for Rand, as I plowed through the first section it became very clear that Rand has no interest in providing us any nuanced characters. The Fountainhead is a novel where the characters are neatly split into badies and a vanishingly small number of goodies – it is never in any doubt which are the favoured creatures – and there is no prospect of complexity, heterogeneity of character, or redemption.

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