Musical Analogies in The Defense
by Alexander Drescher
(page two of three)


The extensive musical references [Appendix] can be understood also as part of a system of analogies. Each analogy explores a continuum which relates the polar dichotomies: abstract isolation vs. worldly engagement.

The Musical Continuum

Starting at the interactive end, music may become so integrated in life as to disappear as an auditory event [street music barely attended, needing protection; the social background of a ball]. It may become a more self-conscious social attribute [the decorative piano, the romantic "artist" as a social role or source of parental pride, an evidence of 'Culture' as in the soirée musicale] . Near this pole, with slightly more connection to music itself, is Luzhin senior's attention to the visual rather than acoustical and his guilty enjoyment of the dramatic conflict and pageantry of La Traviata.

At the other pole, there is music confined to the mind. Luzhin senior admired his father-in-law's capacity to read music as one reads language [p. 56 "hear in his mind all the movements of the music"]. Luzhin's discovery that he can read chess without translation to the board is made in relation to his grandfather's silent attention to a score. He "gradually ceased to reconstruct....contented himself with perceiving their melody..." [p. 57]. Whereas Luzhin is described later as thinking of chess in terms of "forces" around "areas" [p. 92], neither Luzhin senior nor the narrator appear to consider that music could be similarly understood without recourse to internal audition, i.e. [be truly "assimilate[d] ... in its natural state" p. 56].

The abstract pole of music is further suggested by a series of other examples: the dreamy quality of melody [p. 33-34], the harmonious simplicity and [Mozartean] inevitability of magic [p. 36], the "inexplicable miracle" of parallel lines [suggesting a Bach fugue] [p. 36-37], and the polyphonic structure of the poozle, in which a piece has its own shape and place while still an element in a larger general harmonic structure [p.37].

Unlike that of Adrian Leverkühn at the abstract pole, the grandfather's music is near the mid-point of the spectrum. A performing violinist, his compositions are compromised by the "doubtful splendors of virtuosity," i.e. interactive needs and motives. The more balanced, Nabokovian mean is presented by the violinist who performs at the Luzhin's musical evening. Bushy-browed, but unbearded [we learn much later], he appreciates the internal tensions of chess and music [p. 43, "Combinations like melodies"] yet lives within a social context [plays and stops playing when he wishes, is carrying on an affair, presumably with Aunty].

Luzhin himself has no awareness of music. At best, trying to become child-like, he can sing a tune. In the central event of the novel, the match with Turati, the musical metaphors are those of melodrama, a passage from La Traviata. The game exhibits the unpredictability of combat and Luzhin's preparation can not produce "that exact and relentlessly unfolding pattern..... endowing logic with the glamour of a daydream" [p. 34]. As noted above, as he reaches his rondo variations of abstraction, the match is interrupted by, and thus must include, the unmanageable vicissitudes of mundane engagement.

Chess: Play and Problems

Parallel to the opposition of disembodied music and performance are the polar opposites of the chess Problem and Game. In the Problem, the composer establishes the conditions; neither the rules of chess nor of the challenge may be breached. The actuality of a meta-position [a defense against mate in 3 that the author overlooked] invalidates the Problem. The solver agrees to the conditions. Gratification in the solution depends on its elegance and creativity, a shared recognition between author and actor.

In Game play, the apparently confining rules of chess in fact allow extreme latitude of action. Each player seeks the meta-position that disrupts and destroys his enemy. In addition, nothing controls the negotiations preceding a match, borborygmi, facial ticks, research and espionage. The aim is mutual annihilation. As with Allen's Law of Love, Chess isn't lethal unless you do it right.

Luzhin has arranged, or had arranged, life as a chess problem which he can master. Up to a point. Unlike his creator, Luzhin and those around him try to synthesize isolated problem solving and that interactive conflict for which Luzhin, at least, is ultimately unprepared. As this synthesis extends to life itself, neither his wife nor some "mysterious, invisible manager" [p. 95], benign or otherwise, can guide a manageable course.

Like the violinist, Turati has found a balance between the poles, but Luzhin can exist only if he can transmute the hurly-burly of chess [or Life] as a Game into the predictable proportions of a Problem.

His wife is presented as apparently inhabiting the extreme opposite pole, totally involved with others, lacking the quality of self. She has approached Luzhin [as she does all others] as a life-game in which she must control him for his own sake as she sees it, just as Valentinov has controlled Luzhin, but in this case for Valentinov's use. Unlike Valentinov, she has no understanding of chess but quite like him she has no way and little interest in seeing him as he actually is. Her fanciful projection of "Luzhin" occludes her view. Her pressure to fit him to her fancy is extreme. Just because Luzhin is paranoid does not mean he is mistaken about her destructive force.

This distinction between Game and Problem controls how the end of the novel is to be understood. If the chess board of eternity is part of a Game, then suicide is unsuccessful as a defense. It is a defeat if Luzhin jumped into a malignant continuation of the life he wished to escape. There is a rub. Alternatively, if eternity is a Chess Problem, Luzhin enters into that abstract realm where he functions, can finally be at home, will enjoy the music of the spheres.

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