I was in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., standing in front of one of my oldest friends, Mary, Queen of Heaven, by the Master of the Saint Lucy Legend, melting in the presence of the colors and textures that that anonymous artist was able to pour like cake frosting over the surface, when who should show up but my old friend Stuart.
“What a coincidence,” I said, “to find you here today. I didn’t know you were here in D.C.”
“Been here for a few days,” he said. “I’m on my way back to Portland.”
Stuart currently lives in Maine, not Oregon.
“I may be an old hippie, but I’ve aged out of Portlandia,” he told me. “I’m more Whole Earth Catalog than I am fair-trade coffee.”
He said he is now living with a viola player who teaches and plays part-time with the Portland Symphony. “I’m learning to listen to the middle of the music,” he said. “I’m ignoring the tunes and the bass and hearing the filler. It’s hard. Have you ever tried to listen to a viola part in a symphony? It takes great ears.”
Stuart has a long history of serial monogamy, and the prognosis for this relationship is no better than 50-50.
“It’s strange how often you find yourself in a city and meet someone you know,” I said. “You’re the last person I would have thought to run across in the art museum.”
“It’s interesting you should notice the coincidence,” Stuart said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about coincidences lately. I don’t really believe in them.”
We took a moment to bask in the glory of the painting and decided to meet later for lunch.
That’s when Stuart unloaded his latest theory.
“I was reading Tom Jones and couldn’t help notice all the coincidences needed to keep the plot flowing. When I read several essays about the book — which I just loved, by the way — several people held up the coincidences as a flaw, that such coincidences just weren’t believable.
“Of course, several Postmodern critics mention the same coincidences as proof of the author’s knowingness, that he is tipping us off that he knows that we know that he knows, etc., that this is fiction, that this is a piece of art and not reportage. A wink and a nod.
“But I take issue with both groups. I’ve given a lot of thought to coincidences and realized that coincidences are not the rare thing we usually think they are, but rather the most common occurrences in life. Essentially, everything that happens is a coincidence. When I go to the doctor’s office and an old woman comes in the door behind me, that’s a coincidence. When I drive down the road and there is a red car in the next lane, that is a coincidence. After all, what are the chances that that car will be red, or that we both arrive at the same stoplight at the same time. The chances are astronomically against it. When I go the the deli and order a pastrami sandwich and the guy behind the counter tells me that the customer just in front of me got the last one and he is currently out of pastrami: Well, that’s a coincidence, too.
“So, I have no problem with Tom Jones being filled with coincidences. The difference between some coincidences and others — those we pay attention to and those that pass without our notice — is not the coincidence part, but the significance part. When we invest a coincidence with meaning, then it seems to rise to the level of notice, and to the level we give it some sort of magic significance. It is the significance and not the coincidence that is notable.
“And where does that significance come from? Not the event itself, but from our brains. We invest the thing with significance, but understand it as if the event itself possessed the significance we have tagged it with. We’ve got it all backwards.
“And it is the way we build a narrative structure, connecting some coincidences together into a net, that gives us a sense that the world has meaning — and when it’s a work of fiction and we notice the network of significance, we think, that could never happen in the real world, but it does, it happens every day, even every minute.
“It’s like you and me meeting today. My Brownian motion has set me on one course, yours on another; they cross and it seems as if fate has lent a hand, but it isn’t so. Purely accident. But because we know each other, the crossing seems almost miraculous.
“This first hit me, I think, after seeing the Kieslowski ‘Three Colors Trilogy.’ The three films — Red, White and Blue — are loaded with coincidences, too many to mention. But most notably, at the end of the third film, there has been a ship sinking and there are seven survivors, and they turn out to be the three couples, each from one of the three films, and a random seventh person. At first, it seems miraculous that just those three couples, which we have been watching over the three films, should coincidentally be the lone survivors of a disaster. Too much coincidence to be true, you say. Kieslowski is playing with us.
“But look at it from the other end: A ship sinks, and Kieslowski takes six of the seven survivors and gives us their prequels. You can do this for any disaster. Take the survivors and write down their stories and miraculously, no matter how random the choice, the fact that they survive at the end seems unbelievable coincidence. But it isn’t: It’s the Bridge of San Luis Rey effect.”
Stuart had been talking so much, he’d barely touched his game hen, while I — providing the accepting ear — had managed to get on to dessert already.
“So, it’s all a question of significance,” he continued after a quick bite of chicken.
“The issue of coincidence is a red herring. They are everywhere all the time. But we cast a net of meaning out over the world and those coincidences we notice, and that fit our narrative, we decide mean something. The rest evaporate in unknowingness and oblivion.
“After all, what is the human mind if not a great machine for pattern recognition? If you take a bowl of marbles and drop them on the floor, when they stop rolling around, you will be able to discover in their distribution a pattern. It’s pure pareidolia, but it feels real.
“It’s the Big Dipper over and over. The night sky is really just a bowl of marbles spilled into the empyrean, but we have found patterns there. Everyone recognizes the Big Dipper, even if they call it the Plough, or call it the Seven Sages, or the Great Bear — oddly, with a long tail — or Charlemagne’s Wagon, or in Finland, a salmon weir. Same stars, different asterisms.
“Or the Virgin Mary seen in a tortilla. Or the million conspiracy theories that people get arrested by.
“Really, it’s a Rorschach universe. Meaning is cast out upon the waters and it drags in what it will. Meaning is not found, it is generated.
“And that is how we view coincidence: It is something we notice and if it fits a pattern we are projecting out into the world, it seems important, meaningful, significant. But the coincidence itself couldn’t be more pedestrian, quotidian, bland and ordinary.”
At some point, Stuart usually empties the balloon of all its air and there is a sequent quietening of his enthusiasm, as if now that he’s made his point, there is no point left to existence. Enthusiasm is followed by passivity. He’s worn himself out.
We walked out of the Garden Cafe and back into the galleries. Stuart walked out the door, off to his violist, and I went back to my Mary, Queen of Heaven.
And it is no coincidence that I picked up the check. Again.