Thursday, September 25, 2008



It is an axiom of all teachers of arcane wisdom, many proponents of conspiracy theories, some semioticians, and the mysterious stranger who is unaccountably eager to guide you on your quest, that there are no coincidences. I am almost sorry to say that I think there really are coincidences, but I also think that if some cabal were secretly ruling the world things would be done more efficiently. Not better than they are now, and probably far worse, just more efficiently: things as they go on now look exactly as I'd expect from the normal muddle of human beings going about their business without much effective direction.
Now just before you go off on your quest without me, I should point out that my position is not to deny all concidences or to claim that it’s all coincidence. Rather, I find coincidence just one more sign of how truly amazing the world is. My position is like the saying of a twentieth-century Archnishop of Canterbury that it was odd; when people start praying, coincidences start happening.
All that said, there is one class of coincidence that makes me wonder. It is what I call the Jeopardy Coincidence. I first heard of this from my Mother and younger brother: they noticed that a name or topic will come up in conversation, and within a matter of days it will also be the subject of a question on Jeopardy. I experience it infrequently, since I usually only watch Jeopardy when I am with my Mother — it is somehow more fun that way. It happened to me today, in what I thought was a striking combination of coincidence.

Last Wednesday I was in the college library before Evensong looking for something to read. I happened upon a book I have been meaning to read for the past few decades, but never got around to, The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins. I took it out and read it over the week end, enjoying it very much. I should probably add that I mentioned to my Mother in my weekly ‘phone call that I was reading The Moonstone.
This evening, just before dinner, I looked at the television listings to see what might be on. I have watched very little television in recent months and never turn the machine on unless I know there’s something I want to watch. I discovered not only that the CBC was to air at 9 p.m. a documentary on Champlain , but that they were now showing Jeopardy. Realizing that I hadn’t seen Jeopardy in six months, if not longer, I decided to watch it tonight. One of the categories of questions was Writers’ Middle Names, and in it one of the “answers” was the middle name of William Collins, the author of The Moonstone. The contestant got it right, I believe (though it might be objected that since Collins is usually known by his middle name, the question wasn’t very hard).

That is a chain of coincidences: within a week of my reading a novel I have been putting off for perhaps thirty years, a question about its author comes up on an episode of Jeopardy, on an evening when I have decided to watch that programme for the first time in many months, after weeks when I have not watched any television at all. That is the Jeopardy Coincidence!

I am sure it is just a coincidence, and has no particlar meaning. To think otherwise would be to think that the writers on Jeopardy not only keep track of my reading habits but forecast my television watching. And that would be silly: even if they could know those things, why should they bother? And if they had that kind of power and wasted on contriving trite coincidences I might get angry. I didn't think any of that at the time, I just thought the coincidence was pretty neat.

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