Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Dame Fortune

It is not difficult to be wise occasionally and by chance,
but it is difficult to be wise assiduously and by choice.

—Joseph Joubert

You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.
__Cormac McCarthy

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins posts the odds on the chance encounter and then fertile union of sperm and egg in my mother’s womb at a number outnumbering the sand grains of Arabia. Long odds, but longer still because “the lottery starts before we are conceived. Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own.” Work back the thread of lucky breaks through all the antecedents animal, vegetable, and mineral that are the sum of mankind’s time on earth, and wherefrom consciousness and pulse if not at the hand of the bountiful blind woman, Dame Fortune?

The incalculable run of luck I’m unable to comprehend as a number; I hear it as a sound. Thirty-five years ago in a labor room at New York Hospital, the sonogram of my wife’s belly picking up the heartbeat of my youngest child on final approach to the light of the sun. He’d come a long way. Atoms wandering in the abyss, then in the womb for the nine months during which a human embryo ascends through a sequence touching on over 3 billion years of evolutionary change, up from the shore of a prehistoric sea, traveling as amphibian, fish, bird, reptile, lettuce leaf, and mammal to a room with a view of the Queensboro Bridge. I heard the sound then, hear it now, as the chance at a lifetime shaped from the dust of a star.

Albert Einstein didn’t wish to believe that God “plays dice with the world,” but the equations posted on the blackboards of twentieth-century physics—among them Einstein’s own proof of wave-particle duality, Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Max Planck’s quantum mechanics—suggest that chance is a force of nature as fundamental as gravity. So does the consensus of opinion in this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. Except for sixteenth-century theologian John Calvin, who believed there is no such thing as fortune and chance, that “all events are governed by the secret counsel of God,” the witnesses called to testify on the pages that follow regard Dame Fortune as a presence to be reckoned with, visible to the eye of history, glimpsed across the bridges of memory and metaphor in the words of the occasionally wise.

Heisenberg conceived of all facts as momentary perceptions of probability; so did Titus Lucretius Carus, the Roman poet who in the first century BC composed the 7,400 lines of lyric but unrhymed verse On the Nature of Things infused with the thought of Greek philosopher Epicurus, who in the third century BC taught that the universe consists of atoms and void and nothing else. No afterlife, no divine retribution or reward, nothing other than a vast turmoil of creation and destruction, the elementary particles of matter (“the celestial seeds of things”) constantly in motion, colliding and combining in the inexhaustible wonder of everything that exists—sun and moon, the wind and the rain, “bright wheat and lush trees, and the human race, and the species of beasts.” (...)

At the age of eighty-one I still can’t say whether the vessel of my life is on or off course, but I do know that its design was none of my own doing. Born in San Francisco of sound mind and body to loving parents in a neighborhood under the protection of money, I understood before I was ten that I’d been dealt favorable cards; I also knew that the playing of them was another game of chance. The realization I count as a stroke of fortune (the happiest of the lot) because when and if I can bear it in mind it allows me to live in the freedom of the present and hold at bay the fear of death.

Looking for a how or where or why I came up with the idea, I see my grandfather at a card table constituted as he was in 1943, a Falstaffian figure then in his sixties, white-haired, round-bellied, and boisterous, fond of quoting the wise fools in Shakespeare’s forests. A captain of infantry in World War I, Roger D. Lapham had gone missing in the battle of Ch√Ęteau-Thierry, after five days given up for lost and presumed dead, his family so notified and his personal effects shipped home to New York. Six weeks later he was found in a barn drinking calvados with the French peasant who had dragged him, unconscious and half-buried in mud, from the womb of a shell hole. Grandfather’s leg being broken, he was unable to walk, but he had emerged from the shadow of the valley of death believing it was better to be lucky than good. Before the war he conducted himself in the manner of a sober, self-denying Calvinist; he returned from France as a practicing pagan, reckless in pursuit of pleasure, ardent in his passion for gambling. At the bridge table he liked to bid his hand without looking at his cards, and between the ages of eight and ten I was often drawn into the game as his partner because nobody else in the family would play with him unless favorably situated as his opponent. His trusting to luck the family deemed immoral; I thought it deserved a medal.

by Lewis H. Lapham, Lapham's Quarterly |  Read more:
Image: The Finding of Moses, by Paolo Veronese