by Vincent Guy
The Rocks at Stivari
I’m swimming in the beautiful Bay of Stivari on the Greek isle of Andros. My companion, Kalliopi, has just climbed out of the water onto the rocks and having a little trouble with her bikini strap. Another woman is nearby; Kalliopi asks her to help. They get chatting and find that both speak English and Greek. The woman says she’s just been enjoying some wonderful English poetry on the Internet, a performance of Philhellenes by some guy, or was it perhaps a man called Guy? Kalliopi nearly falls back into the sea with surprise. “But that guy is right there in the water: Vincent Guy!” The “Guy” in question emerges from the water and we all have a great conversation about languages, poetry, films, the Internet, the magic of the ancient and modern worlds. The woman’s name is Penelope. So of course we point out that we have just made a film, set right here among these Stivari rocks and waters, illustrating a poem about Odysseus that ends on the name “Penelope”. Oh, I almost forgot to mention: this modern Penelope is a nurse trained in London at – where else? – Guy’s Hospital.
Yesterday, cleaning up my photo archive I came across three shots of Intersections, a fine Islamic artwork by Anila Quayyum Agha, that I’d taken some years ago at a provincial art festival in the U.S.. I deleted two and kept the best. Feeling well-sorted I then went for a walk across the golf course, and dumped some bits of rubbish in a waste bin. In the bin I spied a copy of The Scotsman newspaper. Keen to catch up on the current alleged shenanigans in the Scottish National Party, I pulled it out of the bin and began reading. On page 5 was a photo of Agha’s Intersections, the work I’d been looking at just 20 minutes ago. It’s currently on show at a gallery in London.
Anila Quayyum Agha
A while back in the dentist’s waiting room some 30 miles from home, I’m leafing through a copy of the National Geographic. I’m halfway through an interesting article about the Andes when the dentist calls me in and does what dentists do. Then, suppressing pangs of guilt, I slip out with the magazine hidden about my person, vowing to return it on my next visit. Walking away towards a leafy square to finish the article I notice an unposted postcard on the pavement with the unfranked stamps attached. Waste not, want not, I pick it up. As I sit on a bench turning the pages of the Geographic, I come across a striking, wide-angle shot of seabirds nesting on a rocky promontory. It reminds me of the Bass Rock which dominates the view from the front of my house in Scotland. I think “Well, I suppose any rock with nesting seabirds will look rather similar”. Looking closer I see a minute image of my house. The panorama is indeed the Bass Rock. On the train home I pull the stamps out of my pocket. They’re attached to a postcard. When I turn the card over, I hardly need to tell you what landmark was shown in the picture:
A regular feature of my childhood Sunday mornings was Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America on the BBC Home Service. One that sticks in my mind was about the strange links between presidents Kennedy and Lincoln. JFK’s assassin shot him from a storehouse and ran into a theatre; Lincoln’s killer shot him in a theatre, taking refuge in a storehouse. Lincoln entered Congress in 1846; John F. Kennedy was elected in 1946. Abraham Lincoln became President in 1860; Kennedy in 1960. You’ll find another dozen or so listed at this website:
Time Magazine calls the list a "compendium of curious coincidences”. Most are factual, some are spurious, but what does it all mean? Does it confirm that JFK was done in by a lone-wolf gunman, or a trained Soviet activist, or the Mafia, or by one of his military guards accidentally pulling a trigger? Or, as many Greeks like to believe, was it all arranged by Onassis who had decided, at the Kennedy wedding, that he was going to marry Jackie Bouvier himself? Or, as some people assert, was Jack Kennedy a reincarnation of Honest Abe?
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung took a strong interest in this coming together of events. He called it Synchronicity, in German Synchronizität. It seems a pity he chose to coin a five-syllable neologism to replace the neat everyday German word, Zufall. At one point he thought that to take coincidences seriously was an early sign of schizophrenic disorder; elsewhere he suggests coincidence could be something more solid:"a hypothetical factor equal in rank to causality as a principle of explanation". In my twenties I got quite deeply into reading Jung, which led me on to exploring the Chinese Book of Changes, The I Ching, a way of divining the future by casting sticks or coins. At one point I asked the book if its wisdom was going to be important to me; it gave a strong affirmative. This made me decide to include it in my luggage when I left England for a long-term teaching assignment in Iran. The book somehow went missing on my journey, which I took as its final message to me: “I, The I Ching, have nothing more to say to you”.
Even the quietest human life is so packed with incidents and images, of tragedy and trivia, once in a while, things are bound to overlap. In a murmuration of a million starlings, here and there wing-tip must surely touch wing-tip.
Coincidences, great and small, rain down on us all the time, if we but notice them. Taking a break from writing this for a cup of coffee, I pick up the book I’m currently reading, a biography of Mozart. Switching on the radio, the announcer’s voice comes on: “We shall now hear the Vienna Philharmonic playing Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart”.
The reader may be looking for some deep analysis or convincing conclusions, in which case I have to disappoint you. Though I am always interested to hear them, I tend to be sceptical about most conclusions reached, whether by amateurs or specialists, on matters of the human condition. This covers sociology, psychology, politics and more. Is it Socrates: “I know that I know nothing”? Not quite. Rather, I conclude that I can draw no conclusions. This has some similarities to what is called the phenomenological method of inquiry, which gives weight to stories and experiences rather than to experiments, theories and statistics. The phrase “lived experience”, now in common use, comes from this tradition.
To go deeper, look into writing by or about Edmund Husserl and Wilhelm Dilthey.)
I empathise with the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who chose to live in a barrel on the public square. When Alexander the Great approached him saying“I am Alexander, ruler of the known world. Do you have anything of importance to say to me?” Diogenes replied “Yes, get out of my sunlight.”
In other words, my inclination is not towards analysing patterns, passing judgement, or making prophecies, rather towards appreciating the vividness of things, the sense of hidden patterns, the variety of human quirks and achievements.