The miracles that follow me all day
Draw half their breath from my imagination.
E.g., these barren branches, witch-bone gray,
Claw wildly at the wind… Each rock formation
Discloses Lincoln. Clouds find Santa Claus.
And so on: marvels of the merely here.
And once you know them, dark and light, obtuse
And vivid, each way stunning, they appear
All miracle, all–why not?–lucky. (Hint:
Some days you have to tilt your head and squint.)
The art of accident, the accident of art. Serendipity. Synchronicity. Coincidence. Luck. A world in which “success” and “failure” coexist. Where what feels like choice, also feels like surrender. Finding patterns in wallpaper, a piece of toast, the relative positions of stars–how different is this from configuring a unified plot from my life’s for-all-I-know random moments? Writing a memoir (writing anything) is an exercise in what I want to call “the management of apophenia.” Apophenia: the innate human tendency to find patterns in randomness. Michael Shermer, who wrote The Believing Brain, calls it “patternicity.” (Note to self: maybe I should too?)
So, “managing apophenia.” As far as I can gather, it’s the same practice as what I’ve heard other people call “harnessing serendipity.” At any rate, as I write this book I watch myself collate, from what may well have been a haphazard life, only those moments that my apophenic mind has singled out as vital to my “story”–and meanwhile viewing a million other moments as extraneous, as ignorable white noise. And how many events have I forgotten entirely, or never truly experienced as they happened, because they didn’t fit my evolving, concocted self-narrative? What details have I left out of focus, in the blurry background of the photo? (And don’t get me started on all the things that might have happened to me but happened not to happen.)
Without knowing it, I’ve spent my life culling memories, leaving only those that befit my apophenic self-vision. It’s what we all do, I imagine. It’s how we remember and distinguish ourselves as selves instead of hapless, nameless waves in an indifferent ocean. This is how we make “sense” of it all. When we view the night sky we have two basic choices: to be dumbstruck by chaotic infinity, or to superimpose a mythology.
The trick of it all, it seems to me, is to recognize and manage our innate search for patterns. The first step must be to comprehend that the patterns are indeed self-created, and not (necessarily) objectively “real.” But reality, of course, is a bit overrated. Sometimes a useful fiction gets you farther than a useless truth. We were born to invent a world out of random flecks of residue. The trick, now, is to waken to the whole of it, to understand that background and foreground, importance and trivia, failure and success, are objectively meaningless, so you might as well train your eyes to locate patterns that might help you best explain your myth, metaphorize your story.
accident, apophenia, art, both, coincidence, freedom, illusion, James Lawley, Leonardo da Vinci, metaphor, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, pareidolia, quotation, randomness, serendipity, transience, wabi sabi, writing, zen
[Pareidolia is ‘a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant, a form of apophenia.’]
From wikipedia: In his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci wrote of pareidolia as a device for painters:
“If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms.”