Gathered From Coincidence

“Take what you have gathered from coincidence,” Bob Dylan sang. Sometimes I’m not sure what to take, and what to leave behind.

Two mathematically improbable coincidences haunted me this Saturday, both related to current events and to this website, Literary Kicks. First, I woke up early Saturday morning and spent a calm hour sipping coffee, eating blueberry Special K and browsing through my complete Plato, intent on finding a kick-ass philosophical quote to put up as the day’s blog post. I finally picked a choice snatch of dialogue from the Meno, an old favorite.

Just as this blog post was going up, a brainy, deluded and possibly schizophrenic 22-year-old creep from Tuscon, Arizona named Jared Lee Loughner was shooting six people in a shopping center. Later that day an online list of Loughner’s favorite books was revealed. I was shocked to see on the list, along with titles like The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, an excellent novel by Ken Kesey and two by Plato: the Republic and … you guessed it, the Meno.

This is particularly strange because the Meno is not one of Plato’s better-known dialogues. The Republic is more well known, and so is the Apology, Crito, Phaedo and The Symposium. The Meno is a specialist’s favorite, indicating (along with two similar dialogues, Protagoras and Gorgias) an interest in morality and ethics. How a person who is interested in morality and ethics can shoot a 9-year-old child is more than I’ll ever be able to understand.

It bothers me that somebody might think I posted this Litkicks piece after hearing of Loughner’s reading list, or might surmise that I was trying to suggest some kind of literary or philosophical agreement with Loughner’s act of violence. If I had known of the connotation, I would never have posted this piece. This weird coincidence also strikes a chord because, as I recently wrote, Plato has something of a bad name among modern critics of philosophy for a perceived advocacy of rigid, theocratic social theories. I think this is a bad misjudgement. I am sure that Plato was not a closet totalitarian, and I think his idealistic but humane beliefs hold a place alongside those of Jesus, Buddha, Thoreau and Gandhi.

But it doesn’t help my case one bit when a rabid assassin commits a horrific act of violence while citing him as an influence. Not the Meno’s best hour.

Meanwhile, earlier that same morning I was puzzling over a different odd coincidence. I read several heated articles about a protest by an Icelandic woman named Birgitta Jonsdottir, an associate of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who had been notified by Twitter that USA investigators were requesting access to her private communications in order to build a case against Assange. Jonsdottir took to the airwaves to protest this violation of her privacy — a deft move, I think — and I hope the case ends well for her and other similarly targeted individuals.

But I also have a different angle on this story, because even though I don’t know many people from Iceland, I do know exactly one person from Iceland, and that person is Birgitta Jonsdottir. In 1999 I put on a big literary event called the Literary Kicks Summer Poetry Happening at the Bitter End in New York City. One of my guests was the esteemed Kentucky poet Ron Whitehead, and when Ron told me he was travelling with another intrepid poet from Iceland, a close friend of his named Birgitta Jonsdottir, I was happy to put her on the bill with him. She showed up in an antique wide skirt (see photo above) and read several charming poems along with Ron.

This 1999 event was an insane circus (I wrote about the evening here) and I barely got a chance to talk to Birgitta, but she appeared to be a very decent person, and I believe she has a sensitive ear for poetry (along with some obvious skills in geopolitical journalism). Literary Kicks wishes Birgitta Jonsdottir the best of luck in her legal battles to come.

6 Responses

  1. It makes me especially sad
    It makes me especially sad that the little girl who was killed, Christina Green, was there because of her interest in government. It’s heartbreaking.

  2. Coincidence is a strange
    Coincidence is a strange thing. A couple of years ago, John Perry Barlow suggested that Iceland could become to digital information what Switzerland is to bank accounts – basically, a safe haven. I had visions of writing a novel of intrigue set in Iceland, revolving around the internet. I also wanted to somehow tie in the dual theme suggested by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, that one one hand, a motherless, supposedly soulless, creature (the internet, not Julian Assange) would seek refuge in the frigid, desolate North, but juxtapose that with the sea captain’s quote in the preface to Shelley’s novel, “I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is for ever visible. . .” (also the internet).

    Then, I was trying to think of a name to publish books under, and considered spelling “Ectric” backwards, which would be “Cirtce” but I didn’t know if people would know how to pronounce it, so I re-spelled is, “Surtsey.” Of course, I looked up “surtsey” to see if it was a real word, and found out that Surtsey is a volcanic island near Iceland. This got me excited for a while, but now it seems like my idea for the Iceland novel is not nearly as original as I thought. So I probably won’t write it.

  3. Before Dylan commented on
    Before Dylan commented on coincidence, he said,”The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense.”

    What do you make of that? And especially how it relates to Zizek’s question of the hour (punctuated without a question mark):

    “…how does reality redouble itself and start to appear to itself ’.” Zizek in p. 416, The Specualtive Turn available for free at

  4. I wouldn’t worry in the
    I wouldn’t worry in the slightest about the Arizona coincidence. People like the psychopath with the gun reach and grab for anything at hand and call it inspiration. He could just as easily have cited a Mack Bolan novel as the Meno. It’s also possible that he simply enjoyed the book at a time in his life when he may have been a little bit less insane.

    The problem with people like that guy, aside from killing people, is that they simply ruin everything for everyone everywhere they go. They are walking death.

    A person like that cannot distinguish between a Hitler and a Plato. He might as well be reading blank pages.

    These are my assumptions, of course. But they are basically my way of saying that you should not compare yourself or any of your thought processes to those of an insane person. Hitler liked to draw charming little country scenes. That does not lead to doubt about landscape art.

  5. Personally, I’ve taken
    Personally, I’ve taken Dylan’s lines: “The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense, take what you have gathered from coincidence” as an admonition for someone tempted to take to the road but perhaps better advised to sit at home and write, “Baby Blue,” being a confrontational ‘self’ at the door.

    There’s been a lot of coincidence in my life, some of it quite powerful, but it seems to me it can only be taken for what it is. However, it can be a powerful tool for the artist. Rather like gathering dots to connect into a creative work.

    However it may appear as a bright light flashing within and cause one to think there is some connection to external events and one’s ‘coincendental facor’, it has seemed to me the healthiest route is not to take it personally. I think it happens to everyone, perhaps to varying degrees, or perhaps it has to do with individual levels of awareness.

    A mathmatician could no doubt have a field day predicting the possibilities of coincidences considering the instant information in the age in which we live.

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