NABOKV-L post 0021909, Sat, 6 Aug 2011 07:37:18 -0400

Re: [NABOKOV-L] An armless painter and coincidences
Dear Jansy,

Your comment is spot on. Thanks for offering it. Nabokov's view of
coincidence, mimicry and purpose is very complicated and, in the end,
probably not articulated quite as well as it might have been. But all
the pieces are there and I think his readers know that his position is
much richer than the Discovery Institute, e.g., makes it out to be, as
you noted in one of your earlier posts.

I want to bring your attention to the "red balloon" coincidence that's
gotten some attention from the press and from science. A young girl
named Laura Buxton wrote her name on a red helium-filled balloon and
released it. It traveled 140 miles across England to be found by
another little girl, also named Laura Buxton. The two girls arranged
to meet and found they had lots of things in common. You can find the
story here

It's interesting to note that, in this case, the scientists argue
using probability theory that such coincidences are to be expected to
occur every so often, and it is just a coincidence, remarkable though
it may seem and no other explanation is necessary. NeoDarwinists, in
contrast to these scientists who do appreciate the jokes that chance
plays on us, believe that the coincidence that one butterfly might
look like another needs an explanation. (This is not very remarkable,
since all butterflies share a common wing "groundplan" that can only
be altered within limits.) NeoDarwinists suppose that predators
gradually (more or less) select for more similar forms and so "create"
the mimicry.

While butterfly prey may select for a similar form once it is in
existence, natural selection is not needed to explain how it arose in
the first place. It arises by a fairly likely chance.

I hope you enjoy the red ballon coincidence story and the rest of that
program. It's quite interesting how we overvalue coincidence supposing
it means something or needs another explanation and also how we
undervalue the humor and the beauty of coincidence when we look for
some other cause. Coincidences are really a lot of fun, if you let
them be coincidences. Take another look at Nabokov's writings on
mimicry with this in mind and he'll make you laugh. It's hysterical,
really, the jokes that nature can play on us. Nabokov got the joke!

Very best,
Tori Alexander

On Aug 3, 2011, at 8:27 PM, Jansy wrote:

> While reading Roberto Bolaño's thick novel "2666" I found a series
> of lines about coincidences, narrated while three scholars (working
> on a physically elusive German writer named Benno von Archimboldo)
> visit a Swiss mental-asylum to meet Edwin Johns, a British painter.
> Johns had cut-off one of his hands and had it treated by a
> taxidermist to turn it into the spiralling center of his most
> successful painting. At a certain point of their interview, Johns
> notes that the pains which accumulate from the daily routine of
> fighting for survival are the opposite of coincidence. He sees
> coincidences as an expression of liberty and contrary to law and
> order. For him, they are another face of human destiny.
> “Coincidence, if you’ll permit me the simile, is like the
> manifestation of God at every moment on our planet. A senseless God
> making senseless gestures at his senseless creatures. In that
> hurricane, in that osseous implosion, we find communion. The
> communion of coincidence and effect and the communion of effect with
> us.”
> In her article about "Neutral Evolution and Aesthetics: Vladimir
> Nabokov and Insect Mimicry" ( ) we read:
> "Though most of the following is concerned with recent advances in
> evolutionary biology... and how they are related to Nabokov's
> interests in accidental functionality, coincidental patterns, and
> mimicry, I would like to begin by offering a brief introduction to
> the literary complement of these same interests. One of the
> hallmarks of Nabokov's style is his use of coincidences to structure
> narrative events in such a way as to suggest intentionality, i.e.,
> teleological organization...Science is only interested in meaningful
> patterns (why do a number of galaxies form spiral shapes?) not
> meaningless coincidences (why is there a "big dipper" and a "little
> dipper" in the stars?). If one insists on seeing coincidences as
> meaningful, then one is forced to look for a hidden cause, some
> inherent guiding principle, purpose, or an intentional being behind
> the events.//In Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, the protagonist, John
> Shade...declares..."It dawned on me that this Was the real point,
> the contrapuntal theme; Just this: not text, but texture; not the
> dream But topsy-turvical coincidence, Not flimsy nonsense, but a web
> of sense." Some thing or someone seemed to be making "plexed
> artistry" or "ornaments/of accidents and possibilities." Apparently,
> whether or not there truly is a God or an afterlife is not as
> interesting to Nabokov as the fact that it is suggestive
> coincidences that give the impression life is like a novel with an
> omniscient and somewhat playful author."
> I'm intrigued by Victoria Alexander's conclusion that Nabokov's use
> of coincidences constitutes one of the hallmarks of his style, or
> their relation to the novel's apparent teleological organization
> ( "narrative teleology")*. In "Strong Opinions" Nabokov considers
> how coincidences appear forced when they take place in a novel and
> how natural their visitation to the living seems to be whereas, some
> time later, in the novel "Ada" (p.283), he introduces what I see as
> a paradox: "Some law of logic should fix the number of
> coincidences, in a given domain, after which they cease to be
> coincidences, and form, instead, the living organism of a new
> truth", unless we understand that any new truth must remain limited
> to mankind's apprehension of the natural world and man's place in
> the universe.
> Alexander's point is more explicitly presented when she writes that
> Nabokov was not as interested in ascertaining that God or an
> afterlife exist, as he was in putting coincidences to work for him -
> by having them suggest that "life is like a novel." It seems to me
> that such an intention would imply in a wish on Nabokov's part to
> dupe the reader, instead of playing games with some of them. Here
> is another little story told by Nabokov:: "A certain man once lost a
> diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea and twenty years later, on
> the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish – but
> there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about
> coincidence." (the exactness of the date is informative of the man's
> alert wish to control events, something which I doubt Nabokov had
> been unaware of when he constructed this exemplary and ironic nano-
> fairytale).
> ........................................................................................................
> * - Quoting Alexander: "Nabokov had a profound respect for
> coincidences as coincidences. One of his favorite examples of a
> selectively neutral instance of "mimicry" was a butterfly wing
> marking that looked like a drop of dew with a glint of light
> reflected in it. As he described it, a line along the wing edge
> running through the "dewdrop" was shifted in a perfect imitation of
> refraction – masterfully rendered, but still a coincidence. It is
> difficult to imagine what function or advantage could be ascribed to
> an imitation of a dewdrop on, say, a Blue's wing. It must be
> admitted, then, that some forms of "mimicry" may be imposed by the
> lepidopterist's powers of interpretation. Since such cases of false
> mimicry conferred no reproductive advantage – it merely amused –
> Nabokov notes that it "seemed to have been invented by some waggish
> artists precisely for the intelligent eyes of man." [...] "Cosmic
> teleology concerns the suggestion of intention in the natural world.
> I use the term narrative teleology to designate the suggestion of
> intention in fictional worlds. Nabokov wrote of both cosmic and
> narrative telos as emergent phenomena. We can find examples of
> emergent telos or intentionality in Nabokov's The Real Life of
> Sebastian Knight..."
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