November 22, 2010
I live in Madison, Wisconsin. Everyday I walk from my condo to Science Hall, where I have an office. Over a period of twenty-five years I notice many changes along the way: tall apartment buildings and multi-storied shops rise up to block my view where once stood isolated stores and parking lots. All these changes are predictable, and I, a geographer, am trained to notice them. What I see but haven't taken in are the swarms of students who, in their own way, also block my view. Students are my daily ambience. They don't raise questions in my mind until, one day, out of the blue came the thought that practically none of them were born when I arrived to teach in 1984. A demographer could have predicted their overall number but not the individual membersnot this young man pushing a mountain bike, or that young woman chatting with her friend. Why, their parents might not even have met! And then there is the statistical improbability that the mating of the parents produced the individual I now see in 2010. Each existence is a miracle of chance. Aldous Huxley wondered about his own existence when he wrote jovially that out of a million million spermatozoa only one can hope to survive,
What role does chance play in my life, in anyone's lifeand, for that matter, in history? Do people ponder this question? Do they say to themselves in the course of a day or week, "I could have been killed by that reckless driver" or "What happy chance that I said just the right thing at the right moment?" Unlikely, I would say, and least likely among successful people, for they are precisely the ones most prone to attribute their life path to their own intention, foresight and plans. History is mostly about successful people. Historians, writing about them, will not want to interrupt their narrative with the plays of chance. So imagine my pleasure when, by chance, I came across Daniel J. Boorstin's book with the title Cleopatra's Nose. Boorstin begins with Pascal's famous speculation that "Cleopatra's nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed." Surely I was justified in expecting to find more examples of this kind in Boorstin's book. But no. The book is far more about foresight, imagination, planning, and hard work, than about the role of chancea seemingly inconsequential image or metaphor, for examplein initiating a new and more fruitful line of thought. Could Galileo have arrived at his ideas of motion without the image of a galloping horse? Could F.A. von Kekulé have suddenly understood the structure of organic molecules without the image of the snake eating its own tail? Or S. E. Luria have understood a particular problem in bacterial mutation without seeing an analogy in the slot machine? What made these discoveries seem accidental, a chance event, was the absence of any connection between two worlds, one of science with its causal rigor and the other of free-floating fantasy. If the biologist Luria had stayed in his own worldthe laboratoryrather than played the slot machine, would he have found the answer to bacterial mutation?
A historian loses respectability is he introduces chance too often. He prefers to say that this or that happens because of what happened earlier, that it wasn't just a fluke. A novelist, by contrast, creates a story that is quite untrue, yet, even more than history, it has to project an air of truthfulness and inevitability with acutely-observed details, including states of mind unavailable to the historian. Accidents are, therefore, not acceptable in a realistic novel. When E. M. Forster killed off his hero with a falling bookshelf in Howards End, his readers objected to the facile disposal as a cop-out. Forster's response was that accidents do happen and that in real life even more unlikely ones occur. How did Tolstoy get away with it when, in Anna Karenina, he changed Varenka's life course with a single, unpremeditated remark of Koznyshev's? The two were strolling in the woods. Koznyshev was going to propose marriage but, instead, he popped the question, "What's the difference between a white and a birch mushroom?" Varenka gave an answer and knew, there and then, that the moment had passed and that the proposal would never be made. Readers admire Tolstoy for an incident, minor yet with large consequence, that seems so true to life. But why? Suppose Tolstoy made a bird crap on Koznyshev at the critical moment and so he failed to propose, won't readers be outraged? Why should a falling bookshelf or a defecating bird be objectionable when a word or phrase is not? Can it be that the power of words to change life and even the course of history is too common to dismiss as implausible? If so, why isn't it brought more often to our attention in biographies and histories?
In personal life, we are aware of how something said to us can leave a mark, affecting momentarily the way we see the world. The mark is deeper and more lasting if the speaker has real power. Real power of one individual over another was both more common and more often exercised in the past, and for that reason alone, the life of the humble bore a degree of uncertainty that we can now barely imagine. Potentates, unlike us, are largely unconstrained by circumstance. What they say or do, even if it is reasonable in retrospect, can still seem arbitrarya whim--at the time it is delivered. Here are two examples, one from the world of art, the other from the world of politics.
The art historian Kenneth Clark asked: Would there be the glories of the Sistine Chapel if Pope Julius II had not decided to take Michelangelo off his labors on the tomb, which was to have forty marble figures larger than life-size, and would have taken Michelangelo twenty years to complete? Michelangelo himself favored sculpturing to painting, and it is known that he did not want to shift to another line of work. In fact, he blamed the machinations of his rivals, Bramante and Raphael, for the change. Why the Pope decided as he did, thus unwittingly altering the course of Western painting, we will never know.
Can the substitution of one monosyllable for another change the course of history? Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Oxford historian, believes that it can. As example, he offers the "no" that General Franco gave Hitler at Hendaye on 23 October 1940. Had Franco said "si,"our world would be very different: the present, the future, and the past would all have been changed. "No" to what? "No" to Hitler's request that he be allowed to assault Gibraltar from Spain. An affirmative from Franco would have made sense. After all, he was a sort of Fascist and he certainly didn't want the British on his Rock. The assault from Spain would almost certainly have succeeded, and with the fall of the British naval base on Gibraltar, the whole of the Mediterranean would have come under Hitler's sway.
Franco's "no" may be called a happy chance. I can imagine Trevor-Roper calling it a happy chance. Were the consequence disastrous, we would probably call it an accident. Accidents imply something unplanned and bad. Those narrow misses from heedlessly rushing cars, or even the slight stumble when our foot misses a sidewalk curb, are daily reminders. Still, in an ordered society such as the one I live in, I expect the course of my life to run smoothly from week to week. No such equanimity was possible in an earlier age. Take the life of a clergyman-farmer Ralph Josselin, who lived in England in the seventeenth century. He had three sources of incomehis living as vicar, profits from farming, and fees from teaching at a school. We might expect him to have lived his life with a degree of confidence. But nonot if we judge from a diary he kept for some forty years. In the diary, he frequently referred to weather that threatened his crops, failure of which would have led to shortage of food, fuel, and the money to buy the necessities for his children. He worried about fire that might not only kill his children but make him a pauper overnight, for, of course, fire insurance did not exist then; and, given the primitive state of medical science, he had reason to worry over the smallest mishap, such as pricking the thumb with a thistle, which could lead to gangrene and a painful death.
How do historians narrate lives like that of Josselin or of lives even more humble? Well, they don't, or seldom do. Lack of data is one reason, but there are others as well, the most important of which is that the lives of the humble show little self-initiated progression. The humble submit rather than initiate. They submit to the harsh routines of work and to their episodic disruptions caused by the whims of nature and of people in command. Neither categorythe cyclical or the accidental--lends itself to a sustained story line. Understandably, the historian turns to lives that do show progressionto individuals and groups that have long-range projects and are able to carry them out. All the historian needs to do, then, is to delineate the stages of a project as it moved forward, and add to them his own interpolations and interpretations. Chance events happen, of course, even to the mighty. A sudden flood, an attack of flu that dispirits the general in command, a dictator saying "no" when he could have said "yes," can change the outcome of the best-laid plans. How do historians cope with the unforeseen and the unforeseeable? Not very well, according to Tolstoy. In their eagerness to shape a narrative, they all too easily overlook Napoleon's cold.
Accidents were more a feature of human life in the past and they are today, and I have used Ralph Josselin's anxieties as an illustration. I now turn to travel as another illustration. I do so to highlight the unnaturalness of predictability. In the eighteenth century, young aristocrats considered it necessary to go on a Grand Tour to cement social networks and enhance their reputation for worldliness. As they set out, they must know that surprisesmostly unpleasantawaited them. Roads were deplorable. After heavy rain, they could turn into thick mud or be washed out altogether. Moreover, the travelers had no assurance that bandits didn't await them at the next copse. Now, consider a Wisconsin family making plans to visit Disney World. They leave home, expecting everything to go smoothly. And this turns out to be correct. Nothing untoward happens. A good time is had by all on the road, at the rest stops, and at the destination. They return home, safe and sound. Then a strange feeling surfacesone of dissatisfaction, of being letdownas though they half-hoped for a mishap, such as a flat tire or a lost suitcase, to occur so that they can feel that they have actually made the trip.
Too many things in modern life (e.g., the fridge, the electric clock, the Honda Civic, air-conditioning, pizza delivery, UPS, and the court system) work well. That, says philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, is what makes modern life feel unnaturala little unreal. We humans are not used to things working well, that is to say, predictably. Nature itself has always seemed fickle to us. The ancient Mayans could not even trust the sun to rise. As for society, it too could seem fickle and wayward: conflicts from tiffs to wars arose and subsided for no particular reason. Throughout history, much human effort was directed at making both society and nature run on a more even keel.
In that effort, however, we have all too often overshot the mark. Trying to make society stable, we have made it rigid. Dictatorships emerged such that only the dictator and his minions had a sense of control, the rest of the population being exposed more than ever to uncertainty. Dictatorships seldom endured. They collapsed, and did so suddenly. We also try to control nature, and there we are more successfulso successful that we may be said to live in a "second nature." This "second nature," by now almost wholly a world of our own making, runs for the most part smoothly, predictably. The Wisconsin family's car, for example, conquered distanceone of nature's basic dimensions. If the family had flown, it would have known this conquest at an even more exalted level: it would have been able to read magazines, play cross-word puzzles, eat pretzels, and doze at 30,000 feet and arrive at its destination much sooner. The modern passenger jet's remarkable safety record shows how far we can push nature' limits. But we don't rest content. We have experts who are able to push further. They have come up with something called the Lockheed Martin. Is it safe? The production team must have wondered, for to ensure that nothing bad happens to the test pilot on his maiden flight, he carries with him all the wallets and keys of the production team. And so, ironically, technology at its most sophisticated is backed by a ritual that the production team knows to be pure superstition.
Almost a century after the event, Titantic's sinking continues to fascinate. Why? Because no other event quite so vividly illustrates that the best plans, the most ingenious technologies, can be terminated by an accident, or rather, in the case of the Titanic, by a succession of accidents. Yet all was well on the night of April 13, 1912, twenty-four hours before collision with the iceberg. I can imagine first-class passengers puffing on their after-dinner cigar, and between sips of an excellent port, relate to one another the magnificent story of their ship. What triumph of civilization that an archetypal symbol of chaosthe ocean--is made to carry a glittering jewel of human creation. I can also imagine the ship's owners and managers graciously admitting that both technical and managerial difficulties slowed down the construction, but were in the end overcome by the march of progress. Worth noting, however, is that society at large was less sanguine. Prayers were, after all, offered at the launching, as was also the quaint ritual of smashing a bottle of champagne against the ship' brow.
What conclusions do I draw? One is that chance/accident is a more frequent and more important player than we are willing to admit. This is my message, and yet I have to qualify it, for it isn't quite true that we fail to acknowledge adequately the role of chance. We do acknowledge chance, even frequently, but, as if ashamed, we do so in indirect and rather devious ways. One such indirect acknowledgment is the bizarre retention of a superstitious practice in undertakings of the highest technical sophistication. Another is the retention of popular lore to explain some of our greatest scientific achievements. How did Newton come up with his laws of motion and gravitation? Well, a number of circumstances and influences can be shown to have guided Newton to his discoveries, but also, to judge by popular lore, a chance action--his loafing under an apple tree, and a chance event--an apple just happens to drop on his head.
The second conclusion is that unpredictability can add zest to life and so may actually be welcomed. People are known to deliberately embark on ventures that promise to spring surprises. Nevertheless, welcomed are not the surprises or, rather, not only them but also the opportunities to overcome and benefit from them. Seen under this light, surprises, even if they initially discombobulate, are considered a good thing. But surprises can be wholly good. We call them, variously, an inspiration, a bolt out of the blue, an infusion of Grace. Scientists highly value predictability and control, yet shout "Eureka" when something good happens that is beyond their control. We may all say we want life to be orderly and predictable, and yet feel deprived if no intrusions occur to give life an extra fillip.
I end as I began, on a personal note. Out of a million million spermatozoa only one can hope to survive, and that one might be "Shakespeare, another Newton, or a new Donne." But it is not any one of them as I look about me at Starbucks; rather it is the student with curly hair and tattooed arms, sitting across my table and reading a book by Kafka. His existence was not something I would have viewed with awe before I thought about the role of chance. I now do so view him. It may be just quirkiness on my part, but seeing him as a concatenation of myriad events, many accidental and unpredictable, far from diminishing him, makes him absolutely uniquea miracle.