The Well-Connected Game

A colleague of mine pointed me towards this insightful piece by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy. In his 1929 short story, Chains (Láncszemek, but here translated as Chain-Links), Karinthy’s narrator describes the “well-connected game” he has been playing.

A fascinating game grew out of this discussion. One of us suggested performing the following experiment to prove that the population of the Earth is closer together now than they have ever been before. We should select any person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of Earth—anyone, anywhere at all. He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquantance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances. {1}

This idea has relevance for discussions of social networks and interpersonal connections, but I was drawn to the final part of the story.

I am embarrassed to admit—since it would look foolish—that I often catch myself playing our well-connected game not only with human beings, but with objects as well. I have become very good at it. It’s a useless game, of course, but I think I’m addicted to it, like a gambler who, having lost all of his money, plays for dried beans without any hope of real gain—just to see the four colors of the cards. The strange mind-game that clatters in me all the time goes like this: how can I link, with three, four, or at most five links of the chain, trivial everyday things of life. How can I link one phenomenon to another? How can I join the relative and the ephemeral with steady, permanent things—how can I tie up the part with the whole? It would be nice to just live, have fun, and take notice /only/ of the utility of things: how much pleasure or pain they cause me. Alas, it’s not possible. I hope that this game will help me find the fifth link—it cannot happen again that someone should dare distrub me when I am at play, when I set free the phantoms of my imagination, when I think!

It is exactly in such a way that the spectral materiality of things brings together the multitude of worlds they inhabit. Karinthy, like others before him, finds the disjunctural presentation of these linkages to create phantasmal images of the imagination. The haunted nature of the thing becomes something larger than itself, calling forth the remains of the phenomenon that constituted it. What is most noticeable here is Karinthy’s quite unusual belief (by which he distances himself from Marx) that, once they have been revealed, we cannot unsee the connections that have been made in the imagination.

Copied here from The Structure and Dynamics of Networks, the text has been translated from Hungarian by Adam Makkai and edited by Enikö Jankó.