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An essay by Robert Lynd

On Coincidences

Title:     On Coincidences
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

An amazing story of coincidences appears in the Westminster Gazette. During the Boer War four men met by chance for the first time on the eve of some big action, and the meeting was so agreeable that one of the men who had a bad two-shilling piece in his pocket divided it, and gave each of the others a quarter as a memento of the evening. Immediately afterwards they separated, and never saw or heard of each other again till a few evenings ago, when a dinner was given in honour of somebody or other in Birmingham. The four men were friends of the guest of the evening, and all of them turned up at the dinner, where they recognised each other easily, we are told, because each of them was wearing his quarter-florin on his watch-chain.

Life is, of course, a series of coincidences, but we never cease to be surprised as each new one happens, and nothing can destroy their recurring freshness. We may make mathematical calculations showing that there is a chance in a million that such and such a thing will happen, but, when it happens once in a million times, it seems to us as marvellous as a comet. We cannot get accustomed to the pattern of Nature, which repeats itself as daringly as the pattern in a wall-paper. Our fathers recognised this pattern, and saw in it the weird craftsmanship of destiny. We who believe in iron law, which surely implies a rigid pattern, are by a curious want of logic sceptics, and we treat each new emergence of the pattern as a strange exception to scientific rule. We cannot believe that Nature arranged howlings of dogs and disasters in the stars to accompany the death of a Caesar or a Napoleon. Everything that we can call dramatic in Nature we put down to chance and coincidence. Superstitious people confront us with instance upon instance of the succession of omen and event, but we label these exception No. 1, exception No. 2, and so forth, and go cheerfully on our way.

Believers in omens tell us that, some time before Laud's trial and execution, he found his portrait fallen on to the floor, and predicted disaster; and they ask us to admit that this was more than a coincidence, especially as there are a hundred similar stories. They relate how the stumble of a horse proved as fatal an omen for Mungo Park as did the fall of a picture for Laud. One day before he departed on his last expedition to Africa his horse stumbled, and Sir Walter Scott, who was with him, said: "I am afraid this is a bad omen." "Omens follow those who look to them," replied the explorer, and set forth on the expedition from which he never returned. Luckily we have examples which suggest that Park and not Scott was right. Everyone knows the story of William the Conqueror's fall as he landed on the shores of England, and how, in order to calm the superstitious alarm of his followers, he called on them to observe how he had taken possession of the country with both hands. In the very fact of doing so, of course, he merely substituted one interpretation of an omen for another. But if omens are capable in this way of opposite interpretations, we are on the direct road to scepticism about their significance, and so to a view that most events that appear to have been heralded by omens are simple coincidences.

One remarkable coincidence of this kind came to my ears the other day. A man I know was suddenly dismissed from his post with three months' salary in his pocket. I happened to be talking about superstitions with him the same afternoon, when he said: "It's all very well, but only last week, when I was in the country, some one was telling fortunes by tea-leaves in the house where I was stopping; and he turned to me and said: 'Old man, there's a big surprise in store for you, and I see some money in the bottom of the cup.' I shan't let them know this has happened," he added, "as it might encourage them to be superstitious." Certainly, when such a coincidence happens in our own lives, it is difficult to believe that it is not a deliberate act on the part of Nature. Nature, we can see, does concern herself with the minutest cell or atom of our being; why not with these premonitory shadows of our deeds and sufferings? Many coincidences, on the other hand, admit of a less fatalistic explanation. Everybody has noticed how one no sooner meets a new name in a book that one comes on the same name in real life also for the first time. I had not read Mr Forrest Reid's novel, The Bracknels, a week, when, on walking down a London avenue, the same name--"The Bracknels"--stared at me from a gate. It is not easy, however, to conceive that destiny deliberately leads one into a suburban avenue to enjoy the humour of one's surprise at so trivial a coincidence. It is a more natural conclusion that these names one begins to notice so livelily would still have remained unobserved, were it not that they had acquired a new significance for one's eyes owing to something one had read or heard. After all, one can ride down the Strand on the top of a 'bus for a month without consciously seeing a single name over a shop-window. But let any of these names become real to us as the result of some accident, and it leaps to one's eyes like a scene in a play. It is merely that one now selects this particular name for observation, and ignores the others. It is all due to the artistic craving for patterns. I am inclined at times to explain the evidence in favour of the Baconian theory of Shakespeare as pattern-mongering. Those cyphers, those coincidences of phrase and suggestion at such-and-such a line from the beginning or end of so many of the plays, those recurrences of hoggish pictures, are enough to shake the balance of anyone who cannot himself go forward with a study of the whole evidence. But, as we proceed with an examination of the coincidences, we find that many of them are coincidences only for the credulous. It seems a strange coincidence that Shakespeare and Bacon should so often make use of the same metaphors and words. But it seems strange only till we discover that plenty of other pre-Shakespearean and Elizabethan writers made use of them as well. Much of the Baconian theory, indeed, is built, not upon coincidence, but upon pseudo-coincidence. The fact that Shakespeare died on the same day of the month--or almost on the same day--as that on which he was born is really a more interesting coincidence than any that occurs within the field of Baconianism.

Much the same may be said of the coincidences discovered by those who have, at one time or another, counted up the numerical values of the letters in the names of Napoleon and Gladstone and other leaders of men, and found that they were equal to 666, the fatal number of the Antichrist. In nearly every case the name has been distorted in its transliteration into Greek in such a way as to make the coincidence no coincidence at all. On the other hand, there are some genuinely interesting coincidences in figures, which have been recorded by various writers on credulity and superstition. French history since the middle of the eighteenth century can almost be written as a series of figure-mongers' coincidences. It began with Louis XVI, who came to the throne in 1774. By adding the sum of the ciphers in this figure to the figure itself--1774 + 1 + 7 + 7 + 4--the arithmetical diviners point out that you get 1793, the year of the King's death. Similarly, the beginning of the French Revolution foretold the end of the Revolutionary period with Napoleon's fall, for if you add up 1789 + 1 + 7 + 8 + 9 you get 1814, the year of Elba. Louis Philippe's accession-date, 1830, gives scarcely less remarkable results. If you add to it the figures in 1773, the date of his birth--1830 + 1 + 7 + 7 + 3--you get 1848, the date of his fall and flight. It is the same if you add to his accession-date the figures in 1809, the date of his marriage. Here again 1830 + 1 + 8 + 0 + 9 results in 1848. And, if you turn to his Queen, you find that the figures in her birth-date, 1782, lead up to the same fatal message: 1830 + 1 + 7 + 8 + 2 once more mount to the ominous figure. The arithmeticians, whose ingenuities are recorded in Mr Sharper Knowlson's Origins of Popular Superstitions, have unearthed similar significances in the dates of Napoleon III. They add the figure 1852--the date of his inauguration as Emperor--to the ciphers of 1808, his birth-date--1852 + 1 + 8 + 0 + 8--and arrive at the fatal date, 1869, when the Empire came to an end. The Empress Eugenie was born in 1826 and married in 1853. Add the ciphers in these dates to 1852--1852 + 1 + 8 + 5 + 3 or + 1 + 8 + 2 + 6--and 1869 appears once more. But there is no need to go on with these quaint sums. I have quoted enough to suggest the intricate and subtle patterns which the ingenious can discover everywhere in Nature.

Nature, assuredly, has provided us with coincidences so lavishly that we may well go about in amazement. Even the fiction of Mr William Le Queux is not quite so abundant in strange coincidences as the life of the most ordinary man you could see reading a halfpenny newspaper. It is only in literature, indeed, that coincidences seem unnatural. Sophocles has been blamed for making a tragedy out of a man who unwittingly slew his father and afterwards unwittingly married his mother. It is incredible as fiction; but I imagine real life could give us as startling a coincidence even as that. Each of us is, to use Sir Thomas Browne's phrase, Africa and its prodigies. We tread a miraculous earth which is all mirrors and echoes, hints and symbols and correspondences. Each deed we do may, for all we know, be echoed and mirrored in Nature in a thousand places, even before we do it, and I can imagine it possible that the shape of a man's fate may be scattered over the palm of his hand. I am a sceptic on the subject, and I see what a door is opened to charlatanry if we admit the presence of too many meanings in the world about us. But I am not ready to deride the notion that there may be some undiscovered law underlying many of the coincidences which puzzle us. True, if someone contended that a mysterious sort of gravitation was working steadily through the years to bring those four soldiers together again at the Birmingham dinner, I should be anxious to hear his proofs. But I am willing to listen patiently to almost any theory on the subject. No theory could be more sensational than the facts.

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Robert Lynd's essay: On Coincidences