Category Archives: Coincidence / Synchronicity

More synchronicity: Rivers of Babylon

Just after posting the previous post, I had a bit of free time, so I played the musical free-association game: I choose a song to start with and play it, and when each song ends, I play whatever comes to mind next — which will generally be related in some way. Here’s what I played this time:

  • Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, “Walk Like A Man”
  • They Might Be Giants, “How Can I Sing Like A Girl?”
  • The Bee Gees, “Stayin’ Alive”
  • James Taylor, “Walking Man”
  • Leonard Cohen, “By The Rivers Dark”

After that, the next song that came to mind was Don McLean’s “Babylon” — which, like the Cohen song, is based on Psalm 137. I wasn’t really in the mood for Don McLean, though, so I stopped the association stuff and just put iTunes on random shuffle. The third or fourth song it selected on random shuffle was — wouldn’t you know it? — Don McLean’s “Babylon.”

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Less than an hour later, I picked up Krailsheimer’s Pascal again and found the following passage:

The rivers of Babylon flow, and fall, and carry away.

O holy Sion, where everything stands firm and nothing falls!

We must sit by these rivers, not under or in them, but above, not standing upright, but sitting down, so that we remain humble by sitting, and safe by remaining above, but we shall stand upright in the porches of Jerusalem.

Let us see if this pleasure is firm or transitory; if it passes away it is a river of Babylon.

A footnote explains, “This fragment is a paraphrase of a meditation on Ps. CXXVII [sic] by St Augustine.” All this happened just hours after I had written a post which quoted St. Augustine in connection with popular music (facetiously citing “noted Augustine scholar Sir Michael P. Jagger”).

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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

Dormouse / Dolbear

A couple of days ago it suddenly occurred to me — after how many years of reading Lewis Carroll? — why the Dormouse in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is always falling asleep. It’s a pun, reading dor-mouse as dorm-ouse. Carroll wrote for a generation of children who still studied Latin and would know that a “dormous” creature would be a sleepy one.

Out of curiosity, I looked up dormouse in an etymological dictionary to find out what the dor- part meant — and I found that Carroll’s “dormous” interpretation was not actually a pun but was literally correct. Although there is some uncertainty about the etymology of dormouse, the most likely theory is that it derives from French dormeuse (“sleeper,” feminine), and that the final syllable was later, erroneously, reinterpreted as “mouse.” The dormouse hibernates, hence the name. The association in English between dormice and sleeping is not original to Carroll, but appears in Shakespeare: “to awake your dormouse valour” (Twelfth Night).

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Just minutes after checking that etymology, I checked a few blogs I read, including Bruce Charlton’s Tolkien blog. This was the latest post:

What is the meaning (fanciful etymology) of Dolbear’s name?

I guess ‘bear’ means bear, because Dolbear is stereotypically bear like^ – while ‘Dol’ means pain, and is the medical ‘unit’ for pain – so maybe this is a pun on the fact that the real-life model for Dolbear – Havard – contributed an appendix to CS lewis’s book ‘The Problem of Pain’.

This Dolbear may mean ‘Pain (expert)-bear’.

^Tendency to fall asleep, gruffness, hairiness.

(Dolbear is a character in Tolkien’s The Notion Club Papers, the work with which Bruce’s blog is primarily concerned.)

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I find this to be quite a remarkable coincidence. Bruce, too, is exploring the “fanciful etymology” of the name of a fictional character which ends in an ordinary English animal name (mouse, bear) and begins with a partial Latin root (dor suggests dormiredoldolor). Both names begin with Do-. To top it all off, Bruce even mentions a “tendency to fall asleep.”

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Phil Collins’s “welcome to the jungle” song anticipated by They Might Be Giants

I recently discovered the relatively obscure They Might Be Giants song (not included on any of their studio albums) “Welcome To The Jungle.”

While it’s obviously a nod to the much more famous Guns N’ Roses song of the same name, it doesn’t have much in common with it musically.  I guess Their “ju-u-u-u-u-u-u-u-ungle” recalls Axl’s “kn-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-nees,” but that’s about it. The much more obvious musical allusion, I thought, was to Phil Collins’s soundtrack music for the Disney Tarzan film — particularly “Two Worlds,” which opens the film and serves as a “welcome to the jungle” for the infant Tarzan, his parents, and the viewer.

At around the 0:35 mark, “Welcome To The Jungle” suddenly changes styles and sounds an awful lot like the Phil Collins song — and at the same time the lyrics suddenly become decidedly more Phil-Collinsy (“Now you will be with me / put your hand in my hand …” — it could almost be a reference to one of his other songs for Tarzan). I figured this just had to be deliberate — and of course, a playful nod to Tarzan in a song called “Welcome To The Jungle” is just the sort of thing I would expect from Them.

However, “Welcome To The Jungle” was released in 1992, seven years before Tarzan came out. And while it would be completely natural for the Johns to allude to a popular Disney movie, the idea that a not-at-all-jokey Phil Collins song would secretly be an homage to an obscure TMBG track is a lot harder to swallow.

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I did a search for Phil Collins and TMBG to see if there was any indication that Phil might (inexplicably) be a fan of Theirs. All I found was this comment by TMBG’s John Linnell on “You’ll Be In My Heart” — also from Tarzan:

Defending the music of Mr. Collins can be a fruitless, time-wasting effort. In the simplest terms, throughout his career I’ve been silently praying that the earth would open up and swallow him and all his works. So the pleasure I took in this ballad from the Tarzan soundtrack took me completely off guard. Something about the third and fourth chords against the melody in the chorus seems to transcend the cheap sentimentality in his music that I have found so offensive in the past. Either he made some radical breakthrough in his songwriting or I’ve gone soft in the head. Or both.

So I take it they’re not exactly good friends.

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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