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Tuesday, 6 December 2011

A Game of Placid Beauty

This was how one chess grandmaster described game 6 of Bobby Fischer’s eventual win over Boris Spassky in 1972. Overshadowing any discussion of this tournament, which has now passed into legend, preserved only on grainy film images, is the knowledge that Fischer, who outwardly played a chess game of such reverent grace was inwardly pursued by a thousand demons; demons of genius, turmoil, narcissism and his own sense of hopeless fate. These were demons that were eventually to overtake his mind, forming a forward guard to the degenerative renal failure that killed him.

Watching Liz Garbus’ superb documentary on Fischer recently, I was reminded of Victorian studies of Dunnocks which, when published, shocked the naturalist establishment because they revealed nature not as a bucolic paradise, but as a place of savage struggles. What’s more, they were presented with a bloody struggle for survival that took nature beyond the imaginative limits of what they once thought possible as they gazed on the outward grace of birds on the wing.

Without wanting to sound to glum, it is the most natural thing in the world to die. Staying alive requires hard-won resources and a battling instinct. The truly awe inspiring fact is that the fight to stop ourselves falling into this permanent state is what makes life on earth infinite in its variety and wonder. Every animal and plant adaptation we count and codify is there for the reasons of being able to patrticpate in the struggle to simply not die.

This is a prosaic outlook but also provides a foothold into understanding what our relationship is with the wildlife that surrounds us: To know that the nictating eyelid of the gannet is a flourish of nature, put there to garnish the wealth of adaptations necessary to furnish his plunge-diving lifestyle as he searches for food; to dive into the desalinisation plant contained in the head of the arctic tern that means that the liquid he needs to live can be gained from an environment that would mean death to you and I. These and more are testament to why nature is not a game of placid beauty. It is bustle, purpose, fight, reach, stretch and death.

But, like the observation of any master perfectly discharging his craft with the knowledge that all is raging inwardly, these testimonies of nature’s bloody truth are not, and should never be, barriers to the appreciation of the beauty with which those truths are executed.