Chess and the Circle
by Mikola Mandelstahm
(b.1634, d.1681). What we know of it is only due to the archaeology
of 20th century French historian Jean-Patrice Lenoir
, who worked for many years under the famous Annales
historian Lucien Febvre
. Lenoir's historical methodology
often borrowed from Febvre's emphasis on blending economic
history as well Michel Foucault
history, not always linear
, sensitive to institutions consolidating power
, and questioning of conceptual assumptions
that might drive the 'normal' (to borrow a Kuhnian
term) practice of history.
In his research on Mandelstahm, Lenoir wrote an essay entitled "Livre Détruit Par Mikola Mandelstahm" ("Mikola Mandelstahm's Lost Book") in which he mentions this lost treatise on chess and God. Lenoir tells us that the book consisted of 4 signatures
of 36 pages each, 144 pages in total. The book (if we can call it that) is hardly bound together, but each sown signature is attached to the next with additional threading. There is no spine
, but the frontpage gives the title and the author, in a form similar to bookcovers of the day. The entire text was written by hand. No copies remain of it today. The frontpage is adorned, as are many pages inside, with a diagram of a chess position
. The illustration on page 37 displays a position from Mandelstahm's historic game against Grigorii Kotoshikhin
, just before Mandelstahm was able to force a smothered mate
. The text is written in black ink, and the illustrations are given in many colors, which Lenoir remarks, "have been sorely faded with the passage of time". We are told that the book gives an appearance of being far older than it could have been.
The book was certainly written sometime after 1664; we know this because Mandelstahm only seriously studied chess after this date. The date of its writing is bordered on the other end by Mandelstahm's death in 1681. Lenoir remarks that it was probably authored sometime in the 1670's, when Mandelstahm was most obsessed with applying the theological notions described in his Codex Dei Omnibus
to other aspects of life. Chess, a hobby of Mandelstahm's, was a natural choice for one such enterprise.
Lenoir tells us that the book is not a manual of chess
. Such manuals are, in any event, certainly modern
conceptions--what we consider a manual of chess was probably first written by the master Wilhelm Steinitz
in the late 19th century. Earlier texts by Lucena
and Ruy Lopez
present the game, certainly, in a different light. Chess and the Circle
is, as suggesetd, an application of Mandelstahm's notion of the 'all-encompassing circular orbit
returning' (Dei Omnibus) to the game of chess. Although the rules of the game are given, and certain techniques for capturing pieces and mating the king are discussed in the book, they are most often put to the service of Mandelstahm's belief in the infinite
, and the eternal recurrence
(or replication) of every moment.
The book includes a number of chess problems
developed by Mandelstahm in which the repeatability of the position is emphasized. One position, Lenoir writes, shows a peculiar form of stalemate
in which a number of pieces remain on the board, but none can make a legal move. Lenoir tell us that Mandelstahm found this a particularly amusing form of stasis
on the board, revealing again the infinitude of the divine: "Absolute
rest implies absolute movement; the position as totally at rest is also thereby pure motion because if no piece can move, all pieces can thereby move as one; as, Mandelstahm speculated, we are simultaneous with God".
Lenoir also tells us that Mandelstahm is fascinated with Euler
's problem of the Knight's Tour
: the Knight
must travel to every square on the board without entering any square more than once while moving as it normally would in a game of chess. As there are 64 squares, the knight will move 64 times. There are many solutions to the problem. Mandelstahm
speculated that perhaps the number of solutions was infinite. Mathematicians
have disputed this, but Lenoir tells us that Mandelstahm did not understand infinite according to modern conceptions, but thought of it more along the lines of superlative
to human understanding, therefore requiring, and demonstrating, faith
in the divine.
Curiously, Mandelstahm expresses frustration at the Bishop
, for it is the only piece that can never, in a legal game, touch every square on the board. Even pawns, once promoted
, can thereby tour each square on the board, representing
in their motion the 'Dei Omnibus'. For this reason, Mandelstahm compared the Bishop to human beings
, who live their entire lives often experiencing only a portion of the reality in which they are immersed. Mandelstahm made the suggestion of eliminating bishops from the game, replacing them with some other piece with different rules of motion. Lenoir quotes the obscure words of Mandelstahm:
"The bishop is imperfect. Like most men, their experience is as monotone, it is partial. Those devoted to the study of faith, to the recitation of Scripture, to holy incantations, experience a multiplicity in life, approaching the circular movement of God as they tend to repeat, with perfection, the fact of their Being."
An enterprise that certainly evades contemporary sensibilities, Mandelstahm's attempt to study God through chess is certainly a fascinating work in faith, if it does not also serve as an introduction to one form of interdisciplinary