Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Serendipity

In a blog on serendipity, nothing can strictly be off topic, if the blog is to be true to its title. Thus, let us begin with something seemingly off-topic, though really not, but at the very least thoroughly recherché, the term “serendipity” itself. That word enjoys an etymology owed, it seems, to a single person, the fourth Earl of Orford, architect/author Horace Walpole, known perhaps more for his literary production (the towering The Castle of Otranto, the outdated On Modern Gardening, and the puzzling Hieroglyphic Tales) than the ripest fruit of his architectural achievements, Strawberry Hill.

Horace Walpole, 1717–1797
Horace Walpole, 1717–1797
Castle at Strawberry Hill
Castle at Strawberry Hill

That selfsame Walpole famously said, “The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel” and, at some point between Otranto and Gardening, he chanced to write a letter to Horace Mann, in which he coined serendipity as a new word based on a Persian tale he had read entitled, “The Three Princes of Serendip.”

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

In that work, the protagonists journey through life, ever coming upon more than they have bargained for or are seeking in their quixotic wanderings. Their origin was of Sri Lanka, whose archaic name is recorded in the tale as Serendip (a name that itself is a corruption of a Sanskrit word meaning “Lion’s Island”).[1]

Serendipity seems to me rather like luck or fortune. The former is derived from a Germanic root (cf. German Glück), while the latter comes from an Italic root (cf. Latin fortuna). The Germanic tribes did not seem to have a deity exclusively for fortune or luck—as close as they would seem to have come was Woden, whose chance contribution to our culture shows up only on Wednesdays—but the Romans did: they had Fortuna, “Lady Luck” herself. And those who worshiped her above all, no doubt wanted luck on their side, the way that a modern-day gambler does. DiceAs it is not uncommon to find a restaurant called “Serendipity,”[2] (it obviously would seem to have chiefly positive connotations in English), one does not often find a restaurant called “Luck” or “Lucky Food” (though it is possible).[3]

And as for “fortune,” that word is quite often associated with fortune tellers, whose job description is a discursive construct since the very notion of predicting luck seems impossible when one thinks hard about it; but I’m probably overthinking it now—even if it did, in fact, occur to me when I was being raised as a lad by Elaine Jakes. Elaine did not often consult a fortune teller—though she enjoyed the occasional séance and adored a certain card reader/teller of fortunes, Leni Fontaine, the remarkable artist to whom an entire chapter of the Curious Autobiography is dedicated—but she was just as curious about her own future as the next person. Yet she knew, in the end, that such predictions were rather unreliable.

The Rabbi, oil on canvas by Leni Fontaine
“The Rabbi,” oil on canvas by Leni Fontaine

So what about “chance” then? Well, I don’t pretend to have the final word on that and would enjoy hearing from my readers about it, along with its especially enjoyable cousin, serendipity. Now, while chance may seem contrary to there being a purpose and plan for life—witness the recent tragedy in Tianjin, whither our prayers go—serendipity perhaps is something we can agree on, for it is that kind of chance that, as we said in a previous blog,[4] can make life quite delightful.

I’ll close with an example: a few years ago my dear pastor’s wife, Karen, prayed a prayer I wish she had not—that I would have a good conversation on an airplane about things that matter. I told her I like to write on airplanes, and that I did not want to be disturbed. Yet her prayer somehow produced the serendipity of me sitting next to an effusive, slightly overweight, partially open-shirted (hirsute, with beard and chest bearing prandial vestiges), and well-blinged practitioner of a modern age religion that will remain nameless.Dragon necklace

The serendipitous conversation was tragic, in a way, yet also a bit hilarious—at least for the couple behind us. My seatmate began the conversation by telling me that his dragon—a metal dragon figurine dangled from a necklace about his neck—liked me very much. He pulled its chain toward me and made the dragon kiss my shoulder. I told him that was nice, but I liked to write on airplanes. Undaunted, no doubt because of Karen’s prayers, he went on to tell me that in the practice of his new religion he was permitted, even encouraged, to meet via the internet women of the same religious order and arrange a rendezvous with them in another city in order to effect a sexual encounter. This, he told me with great delight, was in fact ritually a part of his religion, and that he could barely wait to get to Atlanta to for that tryst. It was sanctioned, he told me, or at least tolerated for religious reasons, also by his wife, who, though she did not avail herself of the possibility, was permitted freely to do the same thing with other men.

He also told me about his family life in some detail. He and his wife were having marital problems and were facing the possibility of bankruptcy; he had lost his job; his wife seemed strangely to have contracted an STD—though he did not have it, he assured me—even though she claimed that she was not sleeping with other men. His children were not doing well; his eldest, a son, had recently dropped out of community college, and simply remained at home with no job and no prospects. “Such are the times,” he quipped. In short, by his own admission, it seemed that his life was in shambles; yet, at least now he could live for pleasure’s sake and not have to suppress who “he really was,” which he said that he had been doing up until he joined the religious movement.

Each time I gingerly inquired of him about the details, the couple behind us cheered me on and did so more as the conversation proceeded. I asked him how long he had been in his religious group.

“Four years,” he said, “Four years of pure pleasure with arranged (yet random) sexual encounters.” Then he added, “Serendipity. I find my lovers serendipitously on the web.”

“How long have you been having financial problems?” I queried.

“Hmm, well, it started a few years back. I think about three and a half or four years.”

“How long has your son been having trouble in school?”

“Not just my son, but my daughter, too,” he added. “Like him, she’s doing drugs; Maryjane would be okay with me, but she’s using Molly.”

“How long has this been going on?” I asked, playing the role of psychiatrist/counselor as I added, “How old his your daughter now?”

“Let’s see,” well, she’s 16.” He said; then he added, “Well, I think, about three or four years.”

“She started using Molly at age 13? And what about your son?”

“No, I think she was 14. He’s two years older. He is into heroin. He dropped out of college. He lives at home.”

“Now, let’s review,” I said after an appropriately austere pause. “You’ve been in this religious order for four years?”

“Yes.”

“And your kids have been having trouble about three and a half years or so?” At this point, though my seatmate seemed oblivious to it, the cheering from the seat behind me erupted in full.

“And your marital and financial troubles started about then?”
“Yes,” he said. “I think my kids have been stealing from us to buy drugs. My wife and I only use weed.”

“Do you think all the airline tickets and the money you spend on marijuana, too, could be contributing to your financial problems?”

“Maybe. But it’s a part of our religion. And I love it.”

“Pity,” I said, “Because I know a way out, friend.”

“I know, it’s your morality, your social justice.”

“No, it’s not morality. Morality is simply a road map; it is not the stuff needed to make the human machine run,” I said, paraphrasing probably unfairly C. S. Lewis: “morality and social justice are good only as far as they go. The machine can go a few feet, but then it konks out. There is another way out, …”

At this point I began to try to embark on the difficult task of explaining my personal view of faith before he saved me the trouble—in any case, we were beginning our final descent—“I don’t want a way out,” he said. “Not for me at least.” (At this statement a stentorian chorus of boos arose from the seat behind, and possibly even from the seat behind that one, as well.)

The conversation ended with the ominous warning to ascertain that our seatbelts were buckled and to stow away all devices, etc. ending, I suppose, where it began with an assurance that even though I “found a higher moral purpose in life” and even though I “was a church-goer” (his words, not mine), his dragon still liked me.

And thus it was that he went on to his serendipitous rendezvous, and I to my own business. Yet I have never forgotten this, for it seemed to me that in this seemingly random meeting on the airplane there was a purpose. Perhaps one day this man will discover the stuff a human being needs to run on, the only safe way out of his “morality-free” lifestyle. Perhaps. And perhaps the couple behind me remembers this strange experience, and chuckles about it from time to time. I have derived my own lessons from that Walpolian moment, both tragic and comic at once, not the least of which is to be careful what I (or, in this case, my pastor’s wife) might wish for, for this experience alone would suggest to me that the prayer of a righteous woman is powerful and effective, able to arrange even a strange cheer-mustering, dragon-kissing moment of serendipity.

[1] Wendy Doniger, Hidus: An Alternative History (Oxford, 2010): 665.

[2] Or, at least, “Serendipity 3.”

[3] In Texas, of course, at least one such restaurant does exist: “Luck”; there is also a “Joy Luck,” though its website suggests otherwise, no doubt modeled on one of my favorite books, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.

[4] Last week’s blog, “Unexpected Surprises and Il Commune.”

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