If you step back from the endless flow of social media and the internet more generally, and sit down with a book from the past that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the affairs of the moment, something curious and rather wonderful can happen. Unexpectedly and randomly — stochastically — you begin to perceive resonances with your own moment, with the concerns that you may have turned to the past in order to escape.
In an interview, Sven Birkerts talks about how serendipity guides his reading:
Any good book will, in the manner of a pool-table bumper, send you angling off to another, and that to another, on and on. The trails are not predictable, they really are serendipitous, but not in the manner of Pandora (“If you liked …”). It’s much stranger than Pandora. Mention of a name in John Berger sends you to some art critic who sends you to the letters of so-and-so, who you find out was mesmerized by X. … You do this for years and it creates this referential network. …
And it never stops, because you really are never done with any worthy writer, you can’t cross him or her off the list. How many times has some writer sent me back to the same essay by, say, Emerson. Each time it’s like “I’ve never read this before.”
Discovery is half the fun of reading. So many books, movies, albums, apps, whatever, I’ve encountered because some other book or tweet or interview or review mentioned something that piqued my interest and sent me pinballing somewhere else.
How often do you listen to honest-to-goodness radio anymore? Usually I go to it only if I’m not in the mood for podcasts, audiobooks, or my own music collection. I’ll spin through my station presets to see if I get lucky, though most often I get bad songs and ads.
But not the other day. I was feeling especially jovial after work and wanted to stay in that high, and this lineup (between three different stations) was what started when I turned on the car and ended when I arrived at home:
My speakers were cranked. I don’t think I’ve ever hit such a solid streak on the radio before. Not one of these songs are in my own collection, yet they perfectly matched the moment. I could generate a list of six completely different songs that would be just as great and fitting, but that’s the nice thing about radio: call in requests all you want, but you can’t engineer musical serendipity, especially across stations. You just have to get lucky.
I recently watched Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents, a new film set in post-WWII Poland focused on Mathilde, a young French Red Cross nurse compelled to help a convent of Polish nuns with a dark secret. I watched it while in the midst of Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder, which is also told from the perspective of a nurse, Lib Wright, a Florence Nightingale apprentice in nineteenth-century rural Ireland who is sent to observe and care for a girl purported to have survived without food for months, only on “manna from heaven.”
Both Mathilde and Lib are reluctant recruits to their missions. Mathilde is beseeched by a desperate nun; Lib is in it for the paycheck and the desire to debunk the farce of the “miracle girl” with ruthless scientific empiricism. They allow their biases and prejudices—Mathilde’s annoyance with the sisters’ rigid piety and Lib’s anti-Irish condescension—to color their encounters with their patients, which creates tension initially but also allows for surprising connections.
I encourage you to seek both of these works out not only because they are worth the experience, but because both are stories about women, made by women. They each do have interesting male supporting characters (the journalist Bryne in The Wonder and the Jewish doctor Samuel in The Innocents have what could be considered a conflict of interest in helping Mathilde and Lib, respectively, which is what makes their involvement so compelling), but they are above all focused on the lives of women, without calling attention to this focus. They are simply great stories deftly told.
The theme that has defined my 2014, I only now realize, is synchronicity. That Jungian concept (“the occurrence of two or more events that appear to be meaningfully related but not causally related”) bubbled up several times this year, especially in what I was reading, watching, or listening to concurrently. For instance:
Seeing Interstellar as I worked my way through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein;
and seeing the Dorothy Day in Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Ownpop up in the bombastic yet beautifully rendered Noah
To name only the ones I blogged about. But I’d like to add one last synchronous moment to this list, which arrived courtesy of John Wilkes Booth and an avalanche.
In Force Majeure, the new film from Ruben Östlund, a Swedish family vacationing at a French ski resort eats lunch in an outdoor restaurant flanking the majestic, snow-laden mountains. The resort performs routine controlled avalanches to regulate the snow’s movement and safeguard against a truly deadly avalanche, and the lunchgoers witness one while they eat. Except this one careens right toward them. The father, initially wowed by the view, suddenly senses danger and ditches his wife and two children for cover (after making sure to take his phone). Turns out it was just the snow-dust that crashed into them, not the avalanche itself, so everyone returns to their tables, including Tomas, the father who just abandoned his post—literally and figuratively. The rest of the film documents the unraveling from this moment, which each character remembers differently yet causes shared emotional upheaval and provokes a deep and unsettling reconsideration of masculinity, human nature, and the incumbent expectations of gender.
I watched this movie while in the midst of James Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer. It’s a gripping if a bit overheated retelling of the Lincoln assassination and aftermath, which indeed is stranger than any fiction. The moment of synchronicity here occurred during the assassination itself, when Booth shot Lincoln in the Ford’s Theatre presidential box and leapt onto the stage. Harry Hawk was the lone actor on stage at that moment and got an up-close view of Booth’s famous cry “Sic semper tyrannis!” and “The South is avenged!” Then, the key moment, recounted by Hawk himself in a letter to his parents written soon after:
[Booth] ran toward me, and I, seeing the knife, thought I was the one he was after, ran off the stage and up a flight of stairs. He made his escape out of a door, directly in the rear of the theatre, mounted a horse and rode off. The above all occurred in the space of a quarter of a minute, and at the time I did not know that the President was shot; although, if I had tried to stop him, he would have stabbed me.
In Manhunt, Swanson subtly criticizes Hawk for turning and running, linking his supposed moment of cowardice to one at the end of the chase for Booth, when John Garrett, owner of the barn that housed an armed Booth in a standoff with the cavalry, fled from the barn after thinking Booth was going to shoot him.
All of these moments might provoke some knee-jerk judgments but beg the same question: What are you prepared to do? Harry Hawk was not prepared to fight an armed assassin after the shock of that moment. But should he have anyway? Other times in Manhunt, men show courage in moments of terror and some pay the price for it in blood. Tomas in Force Majeure had time to take his family to shelter or at least shield them. But why didn’t he? He pays the price later on: not in blood like the people in Manhunt, but in self-esteem and dignity.
It’s easy as a viewer or future observer to question the decisions these men made or didn’t make. It’s not so easy to make them ourselves in real life, man or woman. What are you prepared to do? What cost are you willing to pay?