Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Autumnal Convergence


continuance in some crinkled primrose leaves...

I have often pondered, and on occasions even tried to write about, the mysteries of synchronicity—“synchronicity” being the semi-scientific word now often used to denote what I grew up calling “coincidence”.  I step out of my apartment in Paris to buy a pineapple.  In the fifteen meters between my front door and that of the fruiterer I literally bump into one of my favorite Princeton students of a decade past,  now a lawyer in a small city in North Carolina.  A man can go in search of a pineapple at most daylight hours, but thirty seconds earlier or later we would not have met.  Nor would I have learned from her parents, who were with her, that in North Carolina they lived a street away from, and slightly knew,  the parents of my elder son’s girlfriend in Brooklyn.

            I believe it was the famous Swiss psychologist Karl Jung who popularized the idea of “synchronicity”—coincident events or situations without discernible causal linkages.  Perhaps I should italicize discernible.  I am after all a disciple of Boethius, who teaches that there is no such thing as chance, if by chance we mean an effect without a cause.   Jung brilliantly attempts a field theory of human mental experience in terms of poetry and myth.  In a quite difficult book called The Roots of Coincidence another of my gurus, Arthur Koestler, tries to transpose the matter from the key of myth to that of science.  I find both men fascinating, but neither fully satisfying.  I can but confess with the Psalmist an incapacity  to “exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.”

            The apparent mundane inconsequence of so much “synchronic” experience is at odds with the disturbing abnormality of synchronicity itself.  In two recent sequential blog posts I touched briefly on two unrelated topics: (1) visiting my wife’s cousin, Margaret Richards, in her sensational house (converted stables) in Whitekirk near Edinburgh; and (2) planting daffodils on a beautiful autumn day in central New Jersey.  I did not mention that during our time in Whitekirk I had the leisure to do quite a bit of reading.  Margaret and her late husband John, an eminent Scottish architect, collected an extensive library.  One of John’s special interests was the history of the Great War (alias WW I), to which he devoted a large shelf.  I read several volumes from that shelf, the most memorable of which were Niall Ferguson’s hefty The Pity of War and The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook.  On the first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) the British suffered sixty thousand casualties.

            The next stop on our itinerary was Oxford, where I didn’t do very much except walk about, visit a couple of libraries, and seek out what remains of the once-thriving second-hand book trade in the city.  (Thornton’s, once with Blackwell’s one of the twin jewels of the Broad, no longer exists there, having decamped to a nearby village and the spirit-world of e-commerce.) Two once good little places in the Turl are also gone; but there is a sizable OXFAM bookshop there, and I poked my nose in.  Only folly urges me to acquire more books, as I ought to be in serious downsizing mode; but that is rather like saying that only hunger urges me to eat.

            There was in this shop an excellent copy of Siegfried Sassoon’s Complete Memoirs of George Shertson (1937; Reprint Society, 1940).  These memoirs comprise a thinly fictionalized autobiography of Sassoon himself, the first two parts of which (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer) are generally considered to be among the major literary monuments to the Great War.  A 656-page book was perhaps not what my supposedly light luggage required, but I bought the book and spent several hours of the return flight reading it.  Sassoon’s grim take on the Great War invaded my mind and occupied it long after touch-down..

            But what, you might ask, has become of synchronicity?  For that we needed the daffodil planting.  My younger readers will one day know the autumnal experience of their elders.  The fall of the year has always had for me a certain somber cast, especially after the passing of the last Indian summer day of October.  But as I have aged the death of the year has become ever more personal.  How else could it be?  As the nights grow longer, the Night itself moves closer.

            There was perhaps more of this autumnal gloom in my passage on daffodil planting than I had intended, for a friend was moved to write to cheer me up.  I am lucky to have this lovely lady and deep thinker among my regular readers.  She forwarded to me a consolatory poem.  It is called “Another Spring,” and it makes the point, obvious enough once one stops to think of it, that there is natural rebirth just as there is natural death.  Jesus, indeed, seems to make the former contingent on the latter: “verily I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”   Such religious musings are not invited by the poem; its consolation is entirely secular.  Though the poet would die many years later as a Roman Catholic convert, he was at the time of writing this poem a man adrift, still struggling with his war-ravaged psyche, with his homosexuality, with unfulfilled literary aspiration—in short with the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.  The poet was Siegfried Sassoon.
 "Another Spring"

Aged self, disposed to lose his hold on life,
Looks down at winter's ending, and perceives
Continuance in some crinkled primrose leaves.
A noise of nesting rooks in tangled trees.
Stillness- inbreathed, expectant. Shadows that bring
Cloud-castles thoughts from downloaded distances.
Eyes, ears are old.  But not the sense of Spring.

Look, listen, live, some inward watcher warns.
Absorb this moment's meaning: and be wise
With hearts whom the first primrose purifies.