Category Archives: Anecdotes

Synchronicity: Elijah, the prophets of Baal, and Pascal

This afternoon I had lunch with the local Mormon missionaries, and we chatted about various things. The discussion turned to some of the more shocking religious practices in Taiwan, and I told them about a ceremony I had witnessed a year or two ago, in which a man had danced around beating and cutting himself with a variety of nasty-looking implements, his goal being to obtain permission from God A to let God B (of whose temple he was a representative) pay a social visit to God A’s temple; some 20 minutes later, by which time the man was completely covered with blood, God A finally relented and granted permission.

I mentioned that this had reminded me of the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. (The prophets, as you will recall, “cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them,” hoping thereby to get Baal’s attention.) The elders didn’t seem to know that story very well, so I told it to them in some detail.

Later in our conversation, they asked what I was doing these days in terms of religion, and I told them that at the moment my religious activity was pretty much limited to reading and pondering a large number of religious books. I showed them the one I was working on at the moment — Krailsheimer’s translation of Pascal’s Pensées — and we discussed Pascal and his ideas a bit.

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After we’d finished eating, the elders went back to proselyting, and I went back to the college. I still had half an hour or so before my next class, so I pulled out the aforementioned Pascal book; I was on page 281. After a few minutes of reading, I came to page 287 — and the first line on the page read simply: “I Kings XVIII: Elijah with the prophets of Baal.”

So just minutes after discussing both the Baal story and the Pascal book, I find a reference to the Baal story in the Pascal book. (I need scarcely mention that I ordinarily go for years at a stretch without speaking, reading, or thinking about the prophets of Baal.)

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Update: More synchronicity! Immediately after posting this, I went to Bruce Charlton’s blog and found he had posted an excerpt from a Blake Ostler interview — and essentially everything Ostler says in that excerpt was also said in the course of my conversation with the elders.

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Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity, Old Testament, Taiwan

A likely story

In my morning English class I was teaching the correct use of the adjective likely. It had been raining on and off for a few weeks  but had not rained so far that day, so I decided to use that situation to elicit an example. “For example,” I said, “it isn’t raining now, but I think there’s a high probability of rain later today. How could I say that using the word likely?” One of my students said, “It is likely to rain later today” — and then immediately, I mean literally less than one second after that sentence was out of her mouth, it suddenly started pouring down rain, making a terrific noise.

“Now you’ve done it!” said one of the other students (in Chinese). “Why’d you have to choose that example?” Everyone laughed.

“Don’t worry,” I said, going along with the joke. “Everyone repeat after me: The rain is likely to stop in a few seconds.” They did so, and sure enough, about 20 seconds later the rain stopped completely and the sun came out.

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I know these are not particularly impressive coincidences — I was, after all, predicting events which were likely — but still, the timing seemed uncanny.

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Two Clouds of Unknowing

Several months ago I picked up a Modern English translation of The Cloud of Unknowing (an anonymous Middle English work of Christian mysticism) at a used bookstore in Taichung. It sat on my shelf for some time unread, and then suddenly I felt moved to read it. I finished in on April 19.

On May 4 — just fifteen days later — I went to the same used bookstore, and near the checkout counter there was a stack of fliers advertising an upcoming exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum called — Cloud of Unknowing. (This latter Cloud is being promoted on the museum website as “a themed exhibition on the subject of urban spatiality and issues pertaining to space” in commemoration of the 130th anniversary of the founding of Taipei, so the choice of the that particular name would be a bit of a mystery if we didn’t know the synchronicity fairies were behind it.)

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Incidentally, much is lost in Clifton Wolters’s translation of The Cloud of Unknowing. I’ve never read the original, but I was tipped off to its poetic superiority by a page header in the translation.

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Where the original had “a beam of ghostly light” (or, rather, “a beme of goostly liʒt”), Wolters replaces the gentle moonlight of “beam” with the more martial connotations of “shaft” — and then nixes the eerie, numinous “ghostly” in favor of the namby-pamby New-Agey “spiritual.”

The perfection of that one phrase, “a beam of ghostly light,” led me to look up the original text online. It opens with:

Ghostly friend in God, thou shalt well understand that I find, in my boisterous beholding,…

versus Wolters’s

My friend in God, it seems to me, in my rough and ready way,…

Really? “In my rough and ready way”? (“Boisterous beholding,” on the other hand, is so perfect that I decided to appropriate it as a new name for this blog.) And what happened to “ghostly” and “thou shalt well understand”? This is a pretty Zeppo-Marx approach to translation! (“Now, eh, you said a lot of things here that I didn’t think were important, so I just omitted them.”)

While the first word of the book is “just omitted,” elsewhere Wolters generally replaces every instance of ghostly with spiritual. While this is probably a perfectly defensible choice, given the way the meaning of ghostly has changed over time, I find that it annoys me to no end and seriously detracts from the quality of the book.

The truth is that neither ghostly nor spiritual is really an adequate rendition of the Middle English goostly. The Modern English ghostly has acquired unwanted connotations, having become too exclusively associated with apparitions of the dead, as opposed to spirits more generally. But spiritual, too, has suffered; it most often means simply “figurative” these days, or else “half-assedly non-religious.” Spiritual light sounds pedestrian, not at all supernatural, and leaves the reader blasé. Ghostly light has more the ring of authentic revelation, the sort of thing that “often times maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest.” It carries the connotation that every angel is terrible (and yet, alas, I invoke you, almost-deadly birds of the soul).* Neither is perfect; each adds or detracts something from the original; but I think ghostly is much to be preferred and comes closer to the spirit in which the Cloud was written. The 21st century is awash in spirituality (I, alas, am no exception), and a strong injection of medieval ghostliness is much wanted.

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*Joseph Smith and Rilke, respectively

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Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity, Language, Translation

A beast with many eyes

On Friday night (actually, very early Saturday morning), I dreamed that I was watching TV and saw an image of what I interpreted as being a whale with many eyes, though I only saw its face. It was blue in color, with a row of eyes on the left and a row of eyes on the right — perhaps eight eyes in all. It also had feelers on the sides of its mouth like a catfish. I dreamed that, after seeing this, I got on Wikipedia to do some research, trying to find out if whales with many eyes actually existed. I found information about a particular gene (with a Latin-sounding name which I no longer remember), rare but not unheard of (comparable to albinism), which manifests sometimes in whales and other animals and causes them to have several pairs of eyes. Now that I knew the name of the gene, I ran a Google image search on it and found several pictures of animals with it — several blue whales, killer whales, and other cetaceans, as well as a couple of tigers. As I did this online research, I had the feeling that I had learned about this gene once before but had forgotten about it. My reaction was, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. That gene.”

So much for the dream.

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On Saturday evening, I watched the DVD of the film “47 Ronin” — a fantasified version of the Japanese historical incident, with monsters, demons, a fox-spirit “witch,” and Keanu Reeves thrown in.

In an early scene in the movie, Reeves and a group of samurai are chasing down some sort of giant beast — think qilin-meets-gigantelope. For most of the sequence we don’t get a clear view of its face, but then it stops, turns to face Reeves, and opens its eyes — of which we now discover for the first time that it has six. Here is a screenshot:

47ronin-beast

This image jolted me with a shock of recognition. Aside from the fur, horns, and nostrils, it looks exactly like the many-eyed “whale” I saw in my dream.

This is one of the clearest instances of apparent dream-precognition I’ve experienced yet. The dream even correctly portrayed the beast as being something I saw on TV. And after watching the movie, I did go online (using Wikipedia and Google image search, among other resources) to try to find out whether the beast was based on some actual Japanese legend — but that’s something I chose to do after experiencing both the dream and the movie and recognizing the connection between them, so it can’t really be counted as a “fulfillment” of the dream.

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I enjoyed “47 Ronin,” by the way, despite the uniformly negative reviews it has been getting from critics. It undeniably has its awful aspects, the most obvious of which is the concept itself. Imagine if a Chinese studio made a King Arthur movie in which Lancelot had some made-up Chinese sidekick who was actually Guinevere’s true love and the greatest knight of them all — and in which the rest of the cast, all British, had to speak their lines in Chinese — and you’ll get some idea of how ridiculous and even insulting this movie must seem to the Japanese. (Also, the 47 ronin actually lived in the 18th century — more Queen Anne than King Arthur — far too recent for monsters, demons, and other fantasy elements to be appropriate.) I also admit to groaning when the fox-spirit unaccountably transformed into a dragon — which looked like the seraphic Chinese/Japanese variety but behaved like the evil fire-breathing Western version.

I’m not Japanese, though, and have no particular attachment to the original story they were butchering, so I was able to enjoy the movie on its own terms. It was visually engaging, and I thought it did a good job of communicating the stern, stoical samurai spirit (or, at any rate, what this relatively uninformed Westerner imagines to have been the stern, stoical samurai spirit).

One of the most provocative aspects of the movie, to me, was the portrayal of the tengu — forest-dwelling bird-demons of Japanese folklore — as Buddhists.  Not as bird-demons who also happen to be Buddhists, mind you, but as Buddhists plain and simple. Although they do look very slightly different from humans (no ears, strange nostrils), their religion is their chief distinguishing characteristic. They’re still demons, to be sure — cold, cruel, nihilistic, and possessed of magical powers — but their demonic nature is portrayed as being part and parcel of their Buddhism. I thought it was a pretty gutsy move to literally demonize a major world religion other than Christianity, but oddly the filmmakers don’t seem to be getting any flak for it. Although Buddhism obviously has its good aspects like any other religion, it does certainly have a very strong current of inhuman/anti-human “demonic” nihilism running through it — something that becomes more obvious to me the more practicing Buddhists I meet — and I thought the portrayal of the tengu was brilliant and rang true. Since the samurai ethos can also seem superficially cold and inhuman, the tengu provided a very effective contrast which helped bring out the essentially human, noble nature of bushido.

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Filed under Anecdotes, Buddhism, Coincidence / Synchronicity, Dreams, Movies, Precognition / Prophecy

Minor precognitive dream

A couple of days ago, my morning alarm interrupted a very vivid dream in which I had taken a small bucket of water and splashed it out onto the dining room floor. Muddy cat footprints had appeared in the water, though no cats were visible.

Upon awakening from the dream, I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth and that sort of thing, and while I was in there I heard a loud clattering sound downstairs. When I went downstairs, I found that one of my cats had upset his water dish and spilled water all over the dining room floor. There were muddy pawprints, but the cats, presumably having been spooked by the sudden noise, were nowhere to be seen.

The noise made it clear that the water was spilled a few minutes after my dream, ruling out the explanation that the dream had been inspired by sounds I heard while sleeping. (I suppose it’s conceivable that cats knocked down the dish while I was sleeping and then later bumped it again and made another sound. However, I don’t think this is likely. The clatter I heard was very loud and was clearly the sound of the dish falling from its stand to the floor, not just moving around on the floor.)

I’ve been keeping cats for about four years now, but they’d never knocked over their water dish before.

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A precognition?

Last night I had just cleaned out the cats’ litter boxes and was walking out to the garbage bin with a bag of cat poop when I suddenly had a very vivid mental image of a man lying on his back with his mouth open, and someone stuffing the contents of the bag into his mouth and up his nose, packing it in tight so as to be able to stuff in even more. And I felt a surge of pure righteous hatred for the man being thus punished, as if I somehow knew he really deserved it.

The image and the feeling quickly passed, but they left me a bit disturbed and confused, since they had just come out of nowhere. Well, in a sense it was obvious what had inspired the image — I had just been stuffing cat poop into a bag — but what could have moved me to imagine it being stuffed into the orifices of a human face? And why the surge of hatred? It would have been more understandable if the face had belonged to some particular person I hated, but he was no one in particular — and I was a calm, cheerful, benevolent mood that evening (that one brief episode excepted) and was not conscious of hating anyone at all. All very strange.

Then the next morning I was checking a few blogs, and found a long eloquent rant by John C. Wright (qv) which included the following lines:

I spoke above of the Unreality Principle. Here is where it comes into play. The Unreality Principle is the moral imperative to ignore and deny reality at all costs, and remain loyal and faithful to the make-believe illusion-choked funhouse-mirror Wonderland of Liberal Bullshit. You must bathe in the bullshit, eat the bullshit, drink the bullshit, and stuff the bullshit up your nose as far as far can be, because from now own the offal will be feast and wine to you, and will be your baptism and your oxygen. It will feed and sustain you. [emphasis added]

The image of stuffing feces up someone’s nose (as far as far can be) is surely not a common one, and the way it came to me out of the blue shortly before I read about it makes it seem more like precognition than like common-or-garden synchronicity. (Or, as always, it could be a mere meaningless accident, since we have no way of calculating how often such things “ought to” occur by chance.) I keep noticing and documenting these oddities in the hope that some intelligible pattern will emerge. So far, “coincidence,” as unsatisfying as that is, is the best explanation I can manage.

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No ghost instinct

I recently had a discussion with a group of Taiwanese high school students about childhood fears. It turns out that roughly 100% of them had been afraid of the same thing: ghosts. One guy had a phobia of cats, but other than that it was ghosts all around.

When I was a little child, I was afraid of tigers. I slept on the top bunk, and I remember asking my mother how high my bed was and how tall a tiger was — trying to calculate whether or not a tiger would be able to climb up and get me while I slept. Leopards, too. One of my most vivid memories from early childhood is of sitting in the bathtub trying to decide whether I wanted the bathroom door to be closed (to keep leopards out) or open (so that I could see any leopards that might be out there). Later in childhood I was sometimes afraid to go into the woods alone, and when I tried to pin down exactly what I was afraid of, I found that it was the prospect of encountering a huge ugly beast which I could visualize clearly but which I only later learned (after seeing pictures in books) to call a Hyaenodon. I’ve been told that I also used to worry a lot about monkeys coming into my room when I was a toddler, but I have no clear memories of that. “Monsters” also featured in my early childhood fears — beasts corresponding to no specific animal, but sporting fangs and claws and fur clearly inspired by the big cats and other predators. Dinosaurs were also an occasional fear.

Until recently, I assumed that such fears were a pretty universal experience for children and that they were rooted in instincts which served our ancestors in the not-so-distant evolutionary past, when leopards and hyenas and such were among the leading causes of death. As silly as my fears were for a kid living in suburban New Hampshire, they would have been perfectly reasonable on the African savanna.

However, when I described my childhood fears to the high school students, they looked at me like I was from outer space. No one could relate — not even the ailurophobe, who feared only domestic cats and had never worried about lions or leopards. This was a bit of a shock to me. I was also surprised to find that they had never imagined “monsters” — the prevalence of which in popular culture (Monsters, Inc. and the like) had led me to believe that they were also pretty universal. They had feared ghosts, and pretty much only ghosts.

I, on the other hand, cannot remember ever experiencing even the tiniest hint of a fear of ghosts. I’ve been afraid of the dark from time to time, but that fear never took the form of worrying about ghosts. Walking through a graveyard at night would be no more scary than walking anywhere else at night. As a child I used to imagine that a leopard or a “monster” or Darth Vader was hiding in the dark corners of my bedroom, but it never occurred to me to imagine a ghost. I even thought I saw ghost-like apparitions a couple of times as a child (bright white human figures glimpsed out of the corner of my eye) but never thought to be afraid of them (or to think of them as “ghosts,” for that matter). As an adult, I lived alone for a year in a house which was supposed to be haunted (and which had very low rent as a result) without ever once feeling the slightest bit uncomfortable about it. I find the ghost movies that my wife loves to watch insufferably tedious because I simply do not respond to them at all on an emotional or visceral level.

This is not explained by the fact that I don’t believe in ghosts. For fears at this level, belief simply doesn’t enter into the equation. After all, I never really believed there were tigers in New Hampshire or Hyaenodonts in Ohio, either. I know plenty of people who “don’t believe in ghosts” but still feel a frisson of fear when passing a cemetery at night. It’s more likely that the causation runs the other way: I don’t believe in ghosts because I’m not afraid of them; the idea of ghosts can’t muster enough of an emotional response in me to make it a “live option” in Jamesian terms.

Nor is it explained by general fearlessness. In fact I’m quite easily spooked by things other than ghosts. I’ve been afraid of plenty of silly things over the course of my life, and even now stories about grey aliens can sometimes terrify me every bit as much as ghost movies terrify my wife.

One disadvantage of having lived in a foreign country for most of my adult life is that it’s hard to separate personal idiosyncrasies from racial or cultural differences. Am I personally unusual in having feared wild animals more than ghosts as a child? Or is it that Western children fear leopards and hyenas, and Chinese children fear ghosts? And either way, what accounts for the difference?

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Filed under Anecdotes, Psychology, Taiwan