Following on from my previous post, here’s a bit of musical support from another old idealist. All together now …
The delightful word serendipity, meaning ‘the occurrence of events by chance in a beneficial way’, was invented by the writer and politician Horace Walpole before or at the beginning of 1754, from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka. Walpole was a prolific letter writer, and he explained to one of his main correspondents that he had based the word on the title of a fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, the heroes of which ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’.
I’ve seen it suggested that the OED‘s definition of the word – “the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident” – is at variance with Walpole’s original meaning. However ‘faculty’ suggests a natural ability which could be called ‘sagacity’. Another name for it might be ‘common sense’.
My question would be, are such discoveries just happy accidents or has our successful evolution left us stronger instincts to recognise connections than we sometimes realise? My answer would consider the huge popularity of the detective story, where scattered clues tell a hidden story …
Misfortune befalls The Three Princes of Serendip when a camel driver stops them on the road and asks them if they have seen one of his camels. Although they have not, they have noticed signs that suggest a camel has passed along the road. Ever ready to dazzle with their wit and sagacity, the princes mystify the camel driver by asking him if the lost camel is blind in one eye, missing a tooth and lame. The camel, they say, carried a load of butter on one side and honey on the other, and was ridden by a pregnant woman. Concluding that the princes have stolen the camel, the driver has them imprisoned. It is only after the driver’s neighbour finds the camel that they are released.
The princes are brought before the Emperor, who asks them how they could give such an accurate description of a camel they had never seen. It is clear from the princes’ reply that they had brilliantly interpreted the scant evidence observed along the road.
As the grass had been eaten on one side of the road where it was less verdant, the princes deduced that the camel was blind to the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road the size of a camel’s tooth, presumably they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was clear because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.
The deduction regarding the pregnant rider is more complicated than the rest and is somewhat lewd, so those of a sensitive nature may wish to skip this passage.
“I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman,” said the second brother, “because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. Because some urine was near by, I wet my fingers (in it) and as a reaction to its odour I felt a sort of carnal concupiscence, which convinced me that the imprint was of a woman’s foot.”
“I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said the third, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands while urinating.”
It’s all rather far-fetched, of course, but there’s something fascinating about the scientific method used here. There is also an element of teamwork involved, as with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson who remind us that teams work best when they are free to disagree. (Many marriages, my own included, offer plentiful evidence of this!) Several great scientific discoveries were made by two people, where one alone might not have put the serendipitous two and two together. And most people know how apparently unrelated events, when discussed, can lead to fresh insights.
Here’s a humble example. A few days ago I read three WordPress posts back-to-back whose mutual connections set my head spinning. The first called for sustainability to become the new religion, dedicated to our offspring, where blasphemy would be conspicuous consumption and the failure to recycle. The second described how university scientists have determined the best technology to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and try to reverse global warming. It turns out to be trees. The third spoke of a spirit of inquiry which forgets previous knowledge, questions without agenda, listens with openness and curiosity … and suggested tree-climbing as an example of natural investigation teeming with insight and revelation.
Compassion. Learning. Realisation. Only Connect and you can achieve Enlightenment!
Or so I’m told. I do know that time is short. Perhaps we serve (and save) time best by indulging our natural love of serendipity. Language in its widest sense has roots in history and enables us to bring the disparate world together. But things being various, let our legacy be to keep them that way …
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;
My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.
The novelist Henry James once said, “Tell a dream and lose a reader.” Perhaps he’d have sold more books if he’d ignored his own advice, to judge from the success of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. And think of the impact Martin Luther King made with I had a dream …
For what it’s worth, then, here’s one I dreamed last night. I was taking a class of Year 8 youngsters on a country ramble – something I used to do in reality when the school where I taught had an outward-bound centre in the Peak District. There’s nothing like a long walk for getting to know the kids in your tutor set and my dream was completely faithful to life in that respect.
We end up on a railway station platform. It’s dusk and the lights are coming on – ornate, old-fashioned Victorian lamps – while trains with brightly-lit carriages lumber slowly past us on either side in both directions. I ask the class to get into groups of 3,4 or 5. They disperse into waiting rooms and other nooks and crannies. I go in search and find they’re all in groups apart from 3 kids – 2 who want to work together and 1 nobody else wants. After some gentle diplomacy, I fit these into other groups and bring the class together to explain the task – not easy above the racket of trains and station announcements.
I’m just getting going when something bumps me sharply from the side and an eccentric figure runs past in Dickensian gear – top hat, cream-coloured coat and long leather boots. Just before disappearing round the corner of a station building, coat-tails flapping like the White Rabbit, he turns to me with a mischievous look and I see a face that resembles Robin Williams …
I’m awake. My wife has nudged me in the ribs. It’s 3.33 am. The cat is scratching at the bedroom door. I stumble downstairs to the kitchen and point the sleepy animal at the dried food still in his bowl. I go into the lounge and scribble down the main points of my dream.
Back in bed I lie awake, words of explanation to my dream class forming effortlessly in my mind. Turns out I want them to come up with creative responses to school life – they’re already experts on that subject, with more than 100 years of experience between them – working together to fashion poems, improvised drama, scripts, stories, letters, cartoons, research projects, you name it … and I fall asleep practising my speech in the hope that we are just about to meet up again.
There are many things I could say about dreams (and just as many about teaching) but I am curious to know what other people think. Do you have any observations to make? I would be very interested to read them.
Last night I dreamed a wonderful new word.
This morning I awoke and wrote it down.
I knew it had a power which, once heard,
Could bring an end to fighting in the town.
I sold my gun to buy a megaphone
And spread the word across the battlefield.
To my delight I saw their weapons thrown
Upon the ground. By evening peace was sealed.
They said I was a hero, set me high,
And drank my health a hundred thousand times.
But soon enough the drink made tempers fly –
I wake before old feuds beget new crimes.
I cannot sleep, hearing the town scream.
Waking up this morning was a dream.
I reckon being separated from people in life helps to prepare us for their absence in death. And when they die, their lives take on a new shape and significance. Where a life has been full and complete, we can only celebrate it. We express its value in the currency of contribution, influence, relationship. Where there has been pain and suffering, we view death as a release. Quality of life is valued over mere existence.
And wherever death is unexpected or premature, we value the human potential that has been lost. So often the prematurely bereaved become campaigners and even reformers, honouring the memory of their loved ones by seeking to save others from the same misfortune. Their lives … and deaths, we hear time and again, will not have been in vain.
Avoidable death is a constant spur to human progress. It challenges politics, economics, ethics – to my sceptical ear, diminutives with a sonic similarity to ‘antics’ and ‘frolics’ – by reminding us that within each word there beats a moral heart … respectively liberty, equality, fraternity. And no other human right outguns the right to life.
But whatever the circumstances, death can be the moment that life burns brightest. With our last breath we pass into the collective consciousness, an apotheosis far superior to any egoistic notion of individual transcendence. This is poignantly described in the second verse of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem For Doomed Youth (quoted below) where the dead can be said to pass into folk memory. Funeral elegies and fond memories held in common can bring us back to life where we really belong, in the hearts and minds of others.
What greater incentive could we have to slip the reins of ego and gallop free of death’s burdensome saddle? What greater reward for a good life could we hope for than to be recalled with a grateful smile? What else could have driven great artists through the present pain of creation but the knowledge that they might live on in their masterpieces?
And my prayer?
Let not humankind curse me for a destroyer but praise me for a creator.
“I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” – Terence
What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us time and time over. They are to be happy in: where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question brings the priest and the doctor in their long coats running over the fields.
What candles may be held to speed them all?Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyesShall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.Wilfred Owen
Click on the link below for a stimulating post from a sharp and thought-provoking WordPress blog. I love any attempt to come up with new thinking and this endeavours to break up the consensual log-jam. Its idealism reminds me of my first ever post, which I present below as a naïve introduction.
My voyage of exploration begins. I want to recapture the spirit of childhood, when we would set out from home with the deliberate aim of getting hopelessly lost. No point in going over old ground, after all.
There comes a point in every life online
When laughter dies. We sense the biting storm
That others feel beyond our virtual home.
The dispossessed cry O for such a voice
But we fall silent, waiting for their word.
The question, my friend, is trembling on their lips –
Our answer still blowing in the wind.
(with apologies to Bob Dylan and the multitudes even he failed)