Saturday, February 16, 2008

Why We Aren't Searching for Bobby Fischer

Last week I discussed Herschel Walker as a potential gauge for assessing how our culture regards mental illness. It occurs to me that another figure can be an interesting case study. The other person I speak of has, like Walker, been profiled in the pages of Sports Illustrated. Unlike Walker, his sport is of a more cerebral nature. I speak of former chess great Bobby Fischer.

Having been born after Fischer's initial rise and fall, I became aware of him in the early 1990s when there was publicity surrounding his comeback. When I first saw news of his death a month ago as a scroll on ESPN, I expected another, final round of publicity for the one-time icon. It never came. Granted, stories with a strong Cold War subtext don't necessarily make for compelling drama anymore, but the memories of Cold War rivalry seem to linger longer when recounting athletic (or otherwise competitive) contests. Since the Cold War never became a hot war, the sites that Americans and Soviets engaged in symbolic combat take on added cultural significance. Witness the somewhat random 2004 release of the movie Miracle. One would think that Fischer's victories against the Soviets on the chessboard would guarantee the same continued fascination that the 1980 hockey team continues to enjoy (or, for all I know, the 1972 Soviet basketball team may enjoy over on the other side of the world). Why is it that movies with Bobby Fischer's name in the title aren't even about Bobby Fischer? Of course, there is a big difference between Fischer and Herb Brooks or Mike Eurozione.

Or rather, there are three big differences. The first is that Fischer was likely mentally ill. I'm not a professional, and even if I were, diagnosing someone through third-hand accounts wouldn't be standard protocol, but I think it's fairly obvious that Fischer's paranoia wasn't compatible with a rational mind. So given the lack of attention to his death, we are confronted with the possible hypotheses that he wasn't acknowledged because we are uncomfortable with confronting the power that mental illness has in taking a national hero and turning him into a disgrace. The problem with this hypothesis is that as a culture, we are fascinated with the archetype of the mad genius. In fact, google the term "mad genius" and you do get at least one account of Fischer's death in the first page of hits. You also get a mention of Poe, one of the progenitors of this archetype in modern literature. A crazy chess genius who beats evil Communists along the way before falling into an abyss of his own making is the stuff of modern myth, and there must be something more than the "craziness" itself to warrant a suppression of the myth.

This leads to an exploration of the second major difference between Fischer and the 1980 hockey players. Fischer was a racist. We are a culture that is intolerant of intolerance, and rather than reward Fischer's anti-Semitic rants, it seems the most mature response would have been to ignore them, and in the process ignore Fischer altogether. And while I would agree with the assertion that some things are not worth dignifying, I don't think this is what led to Fischer's obscurity. Just ask Michael Richards or Don Imus if offensive racial or ethnic statements tend to be ignored.

So my conclusion is that it must be yet another difference that set Fischer apart and removed him from the pantheon of fallen legends. We might pity (or even glamorize) the mentally ill, we might punish and rebuke the intolerant, but we reserve a special punishment--oblivion--for the turncoat. While Benedict Arnold's name lives in infamy, no one knows the particulars of his biography. When he renounced his country and his citizenship, Fischer also renounced his right to become a myth.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your superficial analyis does not account for Google

'Bobby Fischer' 6,910,000
'Britney Spears' 6,040,000
'John Mccain' 1,320,000

The fact is not everyone agrees that Bobby was mentally ill, a racist or a traitor. Bobby was a enigma and the Internet interest has not yet peaked.

9:11 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

Hey anon,

Though I don't deny that my analysis is superficial, you must be using a different google than the one most people know about. I've got:

"Bobby Fischer" 980K
"Britney Spears" 80.8M
"John McCain" 6.84M

Even if you are talking google news, the results are consistent. And given that Fischer died a month ago, I'd be shocked if interest hasn't peaked.

11:43 PM  

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