The Queen’s Gambit, Batman, and the Fantasy of the Human Instrument

The Netflix show, The Queen’s Gambit, at least in the first couple of episodes, seems to me to be a bit like Batman. An orphan is lost and alone and finds meaning in the wholehearted dedication to a single purpose. Whether it’s fighting crime or playing chess, both seem to be a dramatic illustration of Viktor Frankl’s principle “one who has a why to life can endure any how”.

Frankl’s proposition seems particularly compelling in environments where a person is deprived of “everything else” (a bit of a stretch for Bruce Wayne, I know). It is their total deprivation that allows them to become an instrument, in the sense of having a single purpose.

I don’t know where the show is going. For example, I don’t know whether the single purpose will be a jumping board from which the protagonist will grow into a well-rounded person. It could be. But it seems to me now that other interests, namely boys, are portrayed mainly as a threat.

In any case, it seems to me that these heroes are essentially embodiment of modernity’s ideal of specialization and the rationalization of labour. We all occupy a spectrum from generalist (having many moral commitments and needs requiring a more or less wide variety of knowledge, skills, judgment, and sensitivities to meet) to specialists (excelling in some particular thing that contributes to the larger whole of society in a way which relieves others of requiring any knowledge in the matter).

The people we look to as heroes are generally people who sacrificed a great deal in most of their moral commitments in order to do something exceptional in some one area. I don’t know if there are any films or television shows made about the “great generalists”. Indeed, the people who spend their lives rejecting the specialized nature of modern society (e.g. homesteaders) have themselves really just become just another kind of specialist. This is evidenced by the fact that to accomplish the ideal of self-sufficiency one necessarily has to extricate oneself from the tangled morally compromised web of moral commitments one is born into in society.

What would a film or show about a truly great generalist look like? How can a society produce what is it not even capable of portraying fictionally?

Dewey’s idea of liberal education gets us some way there. (I wish somebody would make a film about his life!) But that remains a masculine generalism of privileged irresponsibillity. Perhaps a film like Mamele might be the answer, except it’s entirely personal in its politics.