Essay/
Meaning and the good life

Photo by Carmen Jiménez/EyeEm/Getty

On serendipity

A decades-long conversation between friends about books, photography and life, exploring what it is to know, to look, to see

Sven Birkerts & Christopher Benfey

Photo by Carmen Jiménez/EyeEm/Getty

Sven Birkerts

is the former director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. He is the author of The Gutenberg Elegies, and, more recently, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (2015) and The Other Walk: Essays (2011). 

Christopher Benfey

is the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. His latest book is The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years (2019). He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

4,600 words

Edited by Sam Dresser

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Since we first met some 20 years ago, my friend the writer Christopher Benfey and I have had innumerable long conversations, many of which revolved around the topics of chance, coincidence and serendipity. These conversations were themselves serendipitous, often moving from one shared associative convergence to another. At some point, we remarked on this fact, but it was some time before we hit on the idea of a written conversation. We decided to try; we wanted to see if a regular to-and-fro would leave an interesting trail.

What started as a casual private exchange between friends soon enough gathered momentum. Not surprisingly, Benfey and I found ourselves taking up all sorts of topics – writing, photography, important mentors, getting older – but inevitably we would come circling back to those keyword themes. All in all, we had 100 exchanges (we agreed to that number as a cap), though when we ‘finished’, we saw how arbitrary that limit really was. We could have kept on writing, widening the search and pushing deeper on all of our topics. What follows are several excerpts from the middle part of our dialogue.

Sven Birkerts: I want to take a look at the process of our exchanges. We’ve been chasing this question of serendipity – and a hundred related matters – pretty much daily, you going one day, me the next. I’m interested to think about how this back-and-forth might also bring us closer to understanding the way our thoughts move.

My way of proceeding here established itself fairly quickly, after about two exchanges. I realised I didn’t like proceeding in my usual more organised manner, that I wanted to honour the spirit of the enterprise. So I don’t plan – or I plan very little. I will read your letter as soon as I get it, but then right away I’ll close the file. The first reading is really a scan, a once-over. Then, late in the evening, before I hit the lights, I go back and read carefully – several times. I plant what I see as the keywords like little seeds and try to get to sleep.

There was a book I went back to often when I was in college and nurturing my dreams of becoming a ‘writer’ – remember those dreams? It was called The Creative Process (1985), edited by Brewster Ghiselin. The book was packed with personal accounts by writers, artists and scientists of their creative ‘Aha!’ moments. The one I remember best was by – or maybe about – the German chemist August Kekulé. He had been working to determine the structure of benzene and had reached a point of intense frustration. The story – very Jungian this – is that he daydreamed of coiling snakes, and when he woke he had it – what became known in chemistry as the ‘benzene ring’.

Well, I don’t feel that frustration, and I also don’t dream anything relating to these letters, but I do wake up and find, nearly always, that something has germinated in the night. I have the direction of that day’s contribution. I can lie there and muse on it, moving ideas around to find the best sequence. Soon enough I start getting phrases, things I feel I should quickly note down before I lose them. Then it’s just a matter of getting myself into my chair.

It makes literal what we know about reading: it’s never a linear march from word to word, sentence to sentence

There is a movie that I’ve seen a number of times: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). Though it was based on Julio Cortázar’s 1959 story, Antonioni goes on to create a whole complex narrative from the core premise. His version begins with a photographer (played by David Hemmings) wandering London’s Maryon Park and taking various arbitrary-seeming shots of the landscape. Later we see him in the dark room, developing the day’s negatives. There are a few moments, as I remember, when we get to see the image coming slowly into focus in the developing tray. I find that emergence hugely evocative.

The photographer then pins his enlarged prints to the wall, but he gives them little regard. The scene is now set for the thrill – our thrill – of recognition. It comes when he passes by the wall and stops. Some little anomaly in one of the prints has caught his attention. He leans in to look closer. The anomaly appears to be a limb protruding from the faraway bushes.

The tension builds. For of course he goes back to the negative and starts blowing up parts of the image – until he discerns what he thinks is a body. With that, he is pulled into a mystery, a trail of crazy circumstance that he then tries to follow. He is, we see, a rank amateur at this kind of tracking. His search gets more and more sinister – until, quite abruptly, he decides that the matter does not concern him, that his discovery was an accident, and that he will step away. The final shot of the film is that resonant emblem of absurdity: white-faced clowns on a tennis court pretending to play a set of tennis – only without a ball.

Does witnessing something bring with it a responsibility? Seemingly not, Antonioni would say. And in his way he’s getting to that much-debated (Susan Sontag, John Berger, Teju Cole) issue of the war photographer taking images of suffering and death without stepping into the fray. Regarding the pain of others, is it immoral to stand at a distance? In Blow-Up it’s made especially vivid by the contrast. On the one side, the photographer’s intensifying absorption in what he has caught on film – the intensity is registered visually. On the other, the absurdist outcome, the collapse of his involvement, the clowns playing an utterly meaningless game.

Christopher Benfey: I lost my sunglasses this morning. (‘So many things seem filled with the intent to be lost…,’ as [the poet and author] Elizabeth Bishop wrote.) This was my favourite pair, my only real pair, the weathered Ray-Bans with the matte-blue frames. I was so attached to them, but they clearly weren’t all that attached to me. I looked in the obvious places. Perhaps they were hiding in plain sight, as [Edgar Allan Poe’s character C Auguste] Dupin would say. But no. I realised that I must have lost them on the long morning dog-walk. So, I retraced my steps. How odd to be walking the same route without the dog, with my eyes, dog-like, glued to the ground.

I looked and looked. And then (naturally!), at the very moment that I’d given up hope, when I was already thinking of needles in haystacks and how I really could buy another pair of sunglasses, thinking that it really was a beautiful morning and how nice it was to be out, a second time … BAM! There were my beloved matte-blue sunglasses, carefully folded, lying in the grass by the side of the trail, where they had silently loosed themselves from where they had hung on my partially unbuttoned shirt. By such haphazard paths, looking for our lost hound, our bay horse, our turtle dove (‘and I am still on their trail,’ Henry David Thoreau says), we sleepwalk through our lives.

Cortázar! I’d forgotten his tie-in with Blow-Up. And doesn’t Cortázar, his name and his books open up a whole new field in serendipity, namely, serendipitous reading? I was entranced, enamoured, enchanted, seduced by his novel Hopscotch (1963), the fact of it, the invitation to read it every which way, haphazardly, serendipitously. I can’t remember a word of it, a sentence of it. A whiff of Paris, of young people, of jazz. But I remember it. I took my copy in Spanish, Rayuela, to Mexico, back in 1973, where I wandered, carefully selected books in my backpack (Pablo Neruda and César Vallejo, Federico García Lorca, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886), something by Níkos Kazantzákis), trusting in serendipity, trusting in fate, wandering all over the country.

As we get older, don’t we want to become better lookers (in the active sense), better seers?

But didn’t Hopscotch, with its explicit invitation to read the chapters out of order, just make literal something we all already know about reading, that it’s never straightforward, never a linear march from word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, page to page, chapter to chapter? No, there’s always a large measure of serendipity in the mix. Where are you reading? When? What time of day, or night? Who is with you? What are you drinking? Most importantly, what are you thinking, what are you going through? Why are you reading? And even as you say the written words to yourself, there’s that other freight train of words and images and thoughts on a parallel track, chugging along, belching smoke, grinding and rattling on the rails.

Even now, I am hopscotching through James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), taking my lead from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s admiration of the book during his sojourn in Exeter. Even now, I am hopscotching through Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), for no particular reason, or at least no reason known to me. I’m looking for something, like I looked for those lost sunglasses, except now I don’t know what it is.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I pulled down from the bookshelf above my father’s desk his old paperback copy of The Creative Process, and I was surprised to find in it – among the remembered Albert Einstein and Kekulé selections – a chapter from Rudyard Kipling’s autobiography, about the working tools of a writer’s life. I’d read it before, of course, but I read it again, in this new setting: among my father’s old books, among the other essays in The Creative Process.

My father’s big turning point as a scientist was his transition from research chemist to historian of science, and specifically historian of chemistry, and within that subset organic chemistry. And his first big step in that direction was a volume he edited called Kekulé Centennial (1966). So Kekulé and his famous dream has been an absolutely dominant story in my life for decades and decades, the dream in my life.

Sven Birkerts: It’s interesting to me to consider how new themes keep coming forward to claim the stage. Recently we’ve had a lot to say on looking and seeing. How did we get to this, having taken up, among other things, coincidence, the ‘search’, hiding and finding, earliness, or…? I do trust that all these things connect through a subterranean root system. For me the impulse to the associative leap and the digression confirm that there is a link to be found, though it is not always a ‘logical’ one.

I do have a bit more to say on looking and seeing, and how we distinguish between the two. Looking, I would say, is the action that makes seeing possible. Looking is more neutral – ‘I’m looking for my key’ or ‘Look over there!’ – whereas seeing suggests a more focused and engaged apprehension. ‘Yes, I see him – that one’ or ‘I do see what you mean.’

As I was contemplating this distinction, I thought of the poem ‘Next Day’ (1969) by Randall Jarrell. It begins with an older woman in a grocery store, thinking on this and that, before a dark momentum takes her over. Looking and seeing are key themes, introduced early on as she tries to set herself apart from the other shoppers:

The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical
Food-gathering flocks
Are selves I overlook […]

Overlooking is a species of looking, wouldn’t you say? Next comes this profound afterthought:

[…] Wisdom, said William James,
Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise
If that is wisdom.

That is a nugget we’ll come back to. The emotional pitch of the poem intensifies as the woman gets her groceries bagged and taken to her car:

[…] Now that I’m old, my wish
Is womanish:
That the boy putting groceries in my car
See me. It bewilders me he doesn’t see me.
For so many years
I was good enough to eat: the world looked at me
And its mouth watered […]

And then, a few lines further, we get this:

[…] As I look at my life,
I am afraid
Only that it will change, as I am changing:
I am afraid, this morning, of my face.
It looks at me
From the rear-view mirror […]

I’m quoting at length just to make the no-doubt obvious point that it is seeing that we are after; seeing and being seen. The woman realises that the grocery boy does not take her in. He overlooks her, though whether this proves the boy’s wisdom is not clear. And when she later looks at her life, the verb there creates a cold, distant feel. But even more chilling is her observation that her own face looks at her. She does not see herself. This is the existential recognition.

I went ‘looking’ for the poem, I now think, because I was still brooding about the war photographer and the suffering of others. The moral question has to do with detachment versus involvement, whether one can stand apart from suffering and what it means if he can. I realised that I was on some level framing the issue in terms of looking and seeing. To do his or her job, the photographer needs to take a certain distance, needs to mainly look, because if she saw what she looked at she would be connected, and implicated.

‘Only connect,’ wrote E M Forster, and this might be what he meant.

Christopher Benfey: Does photography turn looking into seeing? I know roughly what mood I’m in as I wander the streets of a strange town, camera in hand. I’m looking, not seeing. When I like how something looks, I take a photograph. But the seeing comes later. In the old days, I would ‘develop’ the photograph. All that mysterious ritual of the darkroom – the enlarger, the developing liquids, the fixative, the photograph emerging in the wet tray – wasn’t that the transition from looking to seeing? There, in the tray, you see for the first time what you merely looked at through the viewfinder. There are many different versions online of [the American street photographer] Gary Winogrand’s renowned quote: ‘I photograph to see what things look like photographed.’ The opening words of the quote seem key: ‘I photograph to see’. Doesn’t Rainer Maria Rilke write towards the beginning of his only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), ‘I am learning to see’?

Now, we have to assume – don’t we? – that some of this process, this transition, is lost in digital photography. And yet, what you see in the camera’s little box – ‘Here’s the photograph you just took’ – isn’t the same as what you see in Photoshop or Lightroom, after downloading the pictures from the card in the camera. That’s when you see what things look like photographed, and see them even more clearly after you print the photographs. Those scenes we’ve been discussing, from Blow-Up and other camera-heavy films, seem to dramatise this process. Hemmings’s character [Thomas] develops the film he has shot in the park, notices that odd thing in the corner – what things look like photographed – and suddenly he sees.

The lines he landed on became the tea leaves, the Rorschach, the direction indicator of the future

Of course, I love your take on the Jarrell poem, the way it plays off the distinction between looking and seeing, overlooking and, well, not quite overseeing. (What strange nouns come out of such words: the oversight and the overlook.) I think the poem is really about Jarrell himself, his fear of losing his ‘looks’. He wrote a poem called ‘The Face’ in which the first line was originally something like ‘Not good anymore, not handsome.’ Then he recast the whole poem as spoken by the ageing Marschallin, from Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier. The first line was changed to: ‘Not good anymore, not beautiful – not even young.’ Okay for women to be vain about their looks; less okay for men.

As we get older, don’t we want to become better lookers (in the active sense), better seers? I think of another Rilke passage, from his most well-known poem, ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ (1918), in which he talks about how the eyeball ripened in the headless Apollo sculpture. Eyeball in German is Augapfel, literally ‘eye apple’, so the little pun of a ripening apple is lost in translation.

Now I find myself thinking of a few lines from W B Yeats’s poem ‘Among School Children’ (1928):

[…] – the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

It really is about maturing eyesight, maturing seeing. He explicitly rejects ‘blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil’. There again is the linkage of wisdom and proper seeing, proper overlooking. He embraces that ‘great rooted blossomer’, the mature chestnut tree, surely his own ideal selfie.

Sven Birkerts: I want to loop back just a bit, jumping over your latest offering like a king jumping a checker on his way to something else. Of course, I’ll return to that latest soon, but I wanted to be sure not to lose that wonderful and suggestive paragraph on reading – where you brought up Cortázar’s Hopscotch (‘would I find La Maga…’) and turned his eponymous method into a larger questioning about the reading act. That has stuck with me these past few days. I was driving along this afternoon – I do some of my best ‘thinking’ in the car – and had the thought that our whole discussion of literature, at least in academia, is predicated on what might be called the ‘missionary position’ of reading. A book or text is engaged from its beginning and tracked through to conclusion, chapters being the mile-markers.

But most reading happens otherwise, as you say, and is influenced at every turn by variables in mood. Where are you inwardly stationed as you turn the pages? In my experience, especially now that we are fully enrolled in the digital way of things, most of the day’s reading is a grasshoppering from here to there, and sometimes back again. But even before the digital, long before, I knew that most of my reading was unstable. The beam of focus was moving all over – glancing ahead, winding back, rereading passages, etc. It’s worse now. Staying the course – taking in one sentence after another, from page one to the end – that’s the welcome anomaly, and when it happens I want to cry out some variant of ‘Look Ma, no hands!’

What I’m really interested in here, apropos our conversation, is that permeability between book and reader, the transactional nature of reading, at least the kind we tend to do. A book can powerfully influence the reader’s mindstate – mood – just as that reader’s mood is a kind of scrim through which the contents of the book pass, and which determines so much about the reception.

A mutuality, a passing back and forth of influence. This got me thinking about divination, what was called the Sortes Virgilianae back in the day. The person (Latin-speaker, of course) seeking guidance in some vital life-business, would open his Virgil blindly and point. The lines he landed on became the tea leaves, the Rorschach, the interpretable direction indicator of the future – along with practices like ‘reading’ the entrails of an animal, or the flight patterns of birds, or, I suppose, the crenellations formed when a melted lump of lead is thrust into cold water. Of course, it need not be Virgil. Many have used the Bible in just such a way.

The idea of chance – I imbibed it deeply, and I realise as we pursue these themes that the influence has stayed

Is this something you have ever done? I have a memory of being 20 years old and, besotted with Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer (1934), playing the game (half-seriously, as any game gets played) ‘What would Henry do?’ Finger would be plunked down on the randomly opened book. I venture to say that the finger was all but certain to land on some bit of erotic braggadocio, and I don’t think any of those prophecies were fulfilled. But the game absorbed me and I could almost imagine taking it up from time to time now, but with something more fitting to age and stage, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (1982), maybe. Or Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave (1944).

Since I started with Cortázar, I’ll come full circle and introduce his concept – and title – of one of his stranger books, Cronopios and Famas (1962). Utterly whimsical, but seen from a certain angle also playfully profound, if that’s not an oxymoron. Curious if there was an available characterisation of these two basic types, I looked and found the following from Wikipedia (there was actually an entry!):

In general, cronopios are depicted as naive and idealistic, disorganised, unconventional and sensitive creatures, who stand in contrast or opposition to famas (who are rigid, organised and judgmental if well-intentioned) and esperanzas (who are plain, indolent, unimaginative and dull).

Well, I don’t have to tell you which the great Hopscotcher himself fancied.

This was the pull of Cortázar for me, right from the first, the fact that he got the seriocomic vision of the cronopio on to the page. He wrote the great book of chance in Hopscotch, rivalled (maybe) only by André Breton’s Nadja (1928) and Georges Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual (1978). The idea of chance – I imbibed it deeply, and I realise as we pursue these various themes that the influence has stayed, and is possibly staging a return engagement for my later years. Certainly, as you wrote, Hopscotch was the model aleatory text, scored by John Cage and Charlie Parker, and a whole raft of other jazz musicians.

Jazz, in these later years, has become almost the only music I can listen to with reliable pleasure, and when I listen it’s less to the melody, and more for those wonderful moments when you can feel the improvisation kick in. If someone is in the car with me and I recognise the tune, by Cannonball Adderley, say, I will often make a chopping motion with the hand and say ‘Right here!’ as the saxophone line comes swooping in.

Christopher Benfey: Actually, I have experimented with the Sortes Virgilianae, and wrote about it back in 2013, during my divination craze (a craze, I should add, that is still very much with me). I led off my essay citing Megan Marshall’s [2013] book on Margaret Fuller, noting that Fuller had indulged in the Sortes Virgilianae. After her death, Thoreau joked about such whims of hers, but Ralph Waldo Emerson countered that their dead friend was ‘one of those persons whose experience warranted her attaching importance to such things’.

‘I thought I might follow Fuller’s lead,’ I wrote, ‘and greet the spring by serendipitously dipping into a trusted book for guidance … Instead of Virgil, I thought of consulting something equally inscrutable from the more recent past – [Emily] Dickinson’s complete poems, say, or [William] Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! [1936].’ You can see that I’m following your own thought process here – Henry Miller, say, for a divining rod.

But I decided I would stick with Virgil, in the Robert Fitzgerald translation (1992). One of my chance passages, and the message I drew from it, has stayed with me. On 22 March 2013, I drew the phrase ‘A slave woman who knew Minerva’s craft’:

… Glad for the rescued ship
And crew, Aeneas gave the promised gift:
A slave woman who knew Minerva’s craft,
The Cretan Pholoë, with nursing twins.

Those nursing twins interested me. Romulus and Remus were rescued on the banks of the Tiber by a she-wolf who suckled them. Livy pointed out that Lupa (she-wolf) is Roman slang for a prostitute, suggesting that the myth of the she-wolf might disguise an all-too-human story of abandonment. At which point I wrote:

This business of adoption – by wolves or humans – has been on my mind lately. After many years of sporadic contact, I have been happily back in touch with my sister, who was adopted by our family in 1963, when she was three years old. She had always been referred to in our family as a ‘Korean war orphan’, the daughter, supposedly, of a prostitute from Seoul and an American soldier.

It so happens that right now this business of adoption has lurched back to the centre of my preoccupations. I have been writing, sporadically, a sprawling account of three generations of adoption in my family. First, my father, spirited away from Nazi Germany, was placed with a foster-family in London. His foster-brother, also from a German family, was named ‘Wolf’, an odd tie-in with the Romulus and Remus myth. Second, our family adopted – the same week JFK was shot – my little sister, Karen, an explosion for us all – including Karen – back in the 1960s. And now, Karen’s daughter and her wife, both police officers, are planning to adopt a child, whom they plan to call Theodore. They both were surprised to learn that this is my father’s real name. ‘We always thought he was just called Ted,’ my niece said.

The point of poetry is, in a sense, to reveal the deep twining of language and meaning

I wanted to tug on one thread in your most recent message, your association of reading with music. When I think back on memorable books in my life, or rather memorable moments of reading, I can sometimes call up what I was listening to as well. The musical ambiance and the verbal ambiance are part of this same phenomenon we are exploring, what one might call (what someone like Roland Barthes probably does call somewhere) the phenomenology of reading.

I think back to the summer of 1971, when I had just returned from a difficult year in Japan, and was reconnecting with my girlfriend. Things were uneasy between us, an uneasiness I strongly associate with Carole King’s album Tapestry (1971), and with the song ‘It’s Too Late’ in particular. My girlfriend gave me a copy, that same summer, of Faulkner’s Light in August (1932). What sophisticated kids we were! The song and the novel are twinned in my mind, my memory, forever. I’ve never been able to reread Light in August even though, as a professor of American literature, I am presumed to know it like the back of my hand. Like the back of my hand?

I suddenly think of [the Russian-born poet Joseph] Brodsky and his insistence that his students learn hundreds of lines of poetry by heart. It occurs to me that we all know hundreds of song lyrics by heart, without even setting our minds to it. That’s almost certainly the right way to learn poetry, too, using the right (not as opposed to left, but as opposed to wrong) part of our brains to do so. It’s the same way we learn paintings by heart, learn photographs by heart, learn faces by heart (and eye).

Sven Birkerts: This learning is, I think, such a big part of what we’re brooding over in these letters. Memorising those 100 lines might sound like rote drill-work, but I believe Brodsky is getting at much more, that he’s really talking knowing. To merely read a set of stanzas is not enough.

Poets work the language with deep concentration. The point of poetry is, in a sense, to reveal the deep twining of language and meaning. At least it was for Brodsky (when I audited his poetry seminar in Ann Arbor). To really register this power takes time. You need to bring the language inside and let it do its work. There’s that great quote from T S Eliot where he says that the chief use of meaning in a poem is to keep the reader’s mind ‘diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work on him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog.’ The man did have a way with words.

Sven Birkerts

is the former director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. He is the author of The Gutenberg Elegies, and, more recently, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (2015) and The Other Walk: Essays (2011). 

Christopher Benfey

is the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. His latest book is The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years (2019). He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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