Nostalgia in Paris

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

In Woody Allen’s recent movie Midnight in Paris (2011), a young Hollywood writer named Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson) is brought back to Paris of the 1920’s. There, to his delight, he meets his heroes Hemmingway and Fitzgerald as well as artists such as Picasso, Dali and Man Ray. For chess players, the movie has just one flaw: Marcel Duchamp isn’t in it.

Gil, a romantic of the intellectual type who’s writing a novel about a nostalgia shop, tries to convince his fiancé (Rachel McAdams) that it would have been so much cooler to live in Paris in the 1920’s. She, however, prefers listing to a friend of theirs, a professor at the Sorbonne University, who doesn’t buy Gil’s ideas, calling it a form of denial:

Nostalgia is denial - denial of the painful present... the name for this denial is golden age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.

At first, Woody Allen seems to be on Gil’s side, portraying 1920s Paris in all its jazzy beauty and splendor. But a typical Woody Allen-twist at the end changes the whole picture, questioning our motives for longing for the past instead of enjoying the present.

Marcel Duchamp founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 together with Man Ray (played by Tom Cordier in Allen’s movie). In the same period, he participated in several chess tournaments in Paris. In 1925, Duchamp almost became champion of France. There is even a movie in which Duchamp can be seen playing chess with Man Ray: Entr’acte, shot in Paris in 1924. (Watch it here.) One can only wonder whether Woody Allen has seen it.

Watching Midnight in Paris reminded me of a period early in my own chess career, when I liked to play old-fashioned openings in the style of the old masters. I used to think I was pretty unique in doing this, but I soon learned that there are countless players who devote their chess lives to playing the Muzio Gambit or studying games from the classical tournaments played in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Many chess players are nostalgic for an age long gone, where computer engines didn’t exist and World Championship matches lasted for months instead of weeks. According to many, the 1920’s weren’t only the ‘golden age’ of literature and art, but also of chess. Ah, the time when Nimzowitsch and Lasker and Capablanca and Alekhine were still around! Wasn’t it a much more interesting time to live in for chess players?

A game between Alekhine and Bogoljubow, with Lasker watching

What if you could be in Paris in the 1920s and not only meet Cole Porter and Henri Matisse, as Gil does, but also Alexander Alekhine, who entered the Sorbonne University as a law student  in 1925 and participated in several tournaments in Paris around that time?

One of the lessons Gil learns is that it’s pointless to crave for the past because there’s always a past that is even further away. When he confesses to Picasso’s mistress Adriana, whom he has passionately fallen in love with himself, that he’s actually from 2010 but likes her time so much better, she tells him:

I'm from the '20s, and I'm telling you the golden age is la Belle Epoque.

Likewise, soon after I started studying 19th century chess openings (la Belle Epoque indeed!) I realized how much more mysterious and interesting the 18th century actually was, and I switched my attention to that. In the mean time, my fellow competitors studied modern middle games and contemporary rook endings and easily beat me in the next junior tournament. Once I caught up with their way of studying chess, it was already too late.

In the end, Gil realizes that losing one’s romantic notions about a particular subject doesn’t have to mean the end of the world - or even the end of being a romantic in the first place. There are other ways of being romantic than just longing for an age long gone. Interestingly, Marcel Duchamp, too, was a man capable of applying his romantic passion for the game of chess to other creative activities and excel in it.

I like to think this is a lesson I have learned myself as well. No more Philidor gambits for me! It’s one thing to acknowledge the importance of the ‘golden age’ (or ages) of chess, but too much nostalgia and wallowing in the past is a form of denial that won’t make you win back your club championship title. Or your fiancé.

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