Coincidence is the smile of luck, but it is also the laughter of misfortune. A smile is singular, rather like tears; it appears meaningful insofar as it seems to have a precipitant cause. Laughter, by contrast, is repetitive and mechanical; automatons may laugh, but they can scarcely be imagined smiling. Thus, hysterical laughter is common enough, while collective laughter—from kindergarten to the circus and the cinema—is the mother’s milk of a commercial civilization, which raises taxes and sells tickets to make it flow. A smile may be forced or feigned, but it is always the product of an individual consciousness.
Something similar is observable in the workings of fate. When all is well, and one is feeling lucky, one tends to believe in the existence of a single benevolent influence over one’s life, whose unseen, though deeply reasoned, volition stacks the deck in one’s favor and produces the right card at just the right moment. Then a Dickens character runs smack into another Dickens character. Then the woman in Stendhal drops her glove, or the man with prickly whiskers picks up the handkerchief. Then the idiot beloved of Dostoyevsky inherits a million rubles.
But when fortune turns, deus withdraws into the machina. At once, one feels oneself at the mercy of a vast chord of influences, varying in pitch from indifferent to malefic, and the ensuing cacophonous din has something of primitive polytheism about it. The gods are against you, or at least not for you, collectively, like a film audience that has turned on the guy in the brown hat for no apparent reason whatsoever. One feels one is being lynched by a posse of square-jawed deities to derisive shouts of encouragement from an invisible mob of drunken townspeople. Then the scene is straight out of Dürrenmatt. Then the ambience is the horrors of The Iliad, veined through with barbarous laughter known as Homeric. Then the idiot does not inherit, the lover looks away just as the glove falls to the floor, and the right card comes too late in the game to be of any use to the gambler.
To be sure, individuals with a decidedly poetic, as well as fantastic, cast of mind are particularly sensitive to the sea change, and not only because such people tend to have ample time on their idle hands. The nausea of superstition takes hold of them sooner, and keeps them in its grip longer, than it does their unexceptional fellows. For superstition—which is to say the lacerating awareness of the multitude of abstract deities and quotidian details, of heavenly omens and earthly signs—is akin to metaphor, in that both are compulsively deductive. Both compare effects and juxtapose causes while thrusting one man’s consciousness into the center of the universe with an alacrity that the average person would think maniacal. The average person does not believe that the cosmos is addressing him in the voice of spring rain, or that tonight of all nights the stars are shining solely for the pleasure of his beloved. In the most extreme case, the poet’s mind—in this, as in so much else, like the idiot’s, the lover’s, or the gambler’s mind—evolves into a kind of giant parabolic mirror, focusing these projections into a death ray trained on itself, as in the early Soviet science-fiction classic Engineer Garin’s Hyperboloid. The ensuing fusion of the visionary and the victim is a commonplace of Romantic literature.
There is another psychological tendency, besides a particular person’s hypersensitivity to coincidence, that brings superstition to the fore, and this one is almost universally human. It is that the consequences of our choices, which we remark with the passing of days, months, and even years, are rarely other than complex, ambiguous, and incomplete—so much so that, little by little, alone with our thoughts in the black-velvet bag that is the fullness of time, we come to disremember that the choices in question were our own to begin with, that they were quite specific and often premeditated, and that the enormous ball of tangled thread in the bag once had a beginning. In this, sadly, life is unlike a game of hazard, for, in a hand of poker or in a spin of the wheel, the consequences of a decision are revealed promptly and unequivocally.
All this is fertile ground for superstition, as life itself seems intent on uncoupling obscured causes from tangled effects with the crocheting hook of memory. Unable to follow the thread back to the beginning, one is eager to grasp at signs and omens, which are plentiful and of the moment. A similar tendency is at work in the collective consciousness of nations, whose evasive or inconsequent chronicle is called history. It is not until the disastrous results of a nation’s policy—say, Chamberlain’s in the 1930’s—become apparent that the tide of public opinion turns against it, despite the fact that the policy in question is universally understood to have been formulated with the fullest consent of the people. Then a nation grasps at fresh auguries—such as the dynamism of Churchill’s voice over the wireless, or the paternal in Stalin’s physiognomy—and bundles up new contradictions with existing ones, often with consequences just as disastrous in the long term. For who, in retrospect, can say with conviction that, in the war between two totalitarian villains then in the offing, Western democracies acted responsibly in allying themselves with the stronger and shrewder against the weaker and noisier? Or that their eventual bet on red was not ultimately a random choice, the product of a haphazard decision, an accident of so many parts that nobody to this day knows the full truth about it?
Like the macrocosm of our shared history, every one of us is a confused lifelong dream of half-suppressed, half-evaded contradictions, which memory, far from confronting or resolving, uses everything in its power to tangle up all the more, giving shape or substance to whatever had none by means of one intricate fallacy and leveling what there was by means of another. Mnemosyne is the muse of botched treatment, leaving every patient she nurses a mass of open sores and suppurating wounds, and no sooner do old ones begin to heal at her touch than new ones start festering.