Josip Novakovich, reading with introduction by Victoria N. Alexander

First, let’s look at chance in Oedipus Rex. Oedipus meets his biological father at the crossroads and kills him. The crossroads are a conventional site for random events, as are train stations today. Crossroads allow the coincidental intersection of two distinct causal chains.
Especially fortunate or unfortunate coincidences that occur when mere randomness is what you should expect, seem to be due to fate, karma, whatever. Random meetings are the only occurrences in this world that one might suppose the supernatural can affect, since all else is strictly governed by the laws of physics.

Let me clarify that these divine coincidence aren’t miracles. Only in fantasies do the plots turn on miracles that defy physics. In a “story,” what I’m calling a story, the gods or spirits may seem to fiddle with the odds, but not with the laws of nature. I picked Oedipus Rex, rather than, say, Medea, to talk about myth. Sophocles was subtle about the way he merely hints at divine intervention through chance. Euripides, in contrasts, had a god in a chariot descend in the final act to resolve everything. One has to interpret Sophocles’ coincidence in order to see the hand of fate. In Euripides, the audience isn’t left to infer divine intention, they actually see it. Coincidences are interesting because they require interpretation. Inferred evidence is the only kind of evidence we have for supernatural. (So far as I know.) Exactly what it is that we infer? Purpose. Intentionality. Nothing else. Just this. No mechanisms. No causal chains. When we think we understand the meaning of coincidences we think we understand why it happened, not how.

Second, let’s look at chance in postmodernism. The 20th century was a time of confusion in the humanities as far as science was concerned. While classical determinism (the idea that everything is predetermined) had ended by the late 19th century, the next era of science, characterized mostly by work in nonlinear dynamics, took its time to establish itself. (It’s still fairly unknown in the humanities.) In the interim, postmodernism declared that there is no chance and everything is due to chance. There is no divine order in the world, and yet no one has any control over his or her world either. One couldn’t be sure what chance was, so one just put quotes around the term. Despite all the postmodern fuss about quantum mechanics and relativity upsetting our notions of the way things are, I’d like to point out that both discoveries are consistent with classical determinism over appropriate time scales. Early and mid 20th Century science still supposed the future is at least theoretically predictable and prespecified from the beginning of time.

Only the more recent scientific focus of nonlinear dynamics offers a theory of chance. This is why I think coincidence may come back in style in narrative. Chance is real. We now can suppose that the future is both unpredictable and malleable. Insofar as our actions are concerned, we can suppose that we can act freely and intentionally. How is this possible? According to nonlinear dynamics theorists, the way things function or interact together in a given context is often due to chance. These interactions are called “effective factors” and they influence the future behavior of systems making them unpredictable, unpredictable even if you know everything about the present velocity and position of very particle in the universe.

The classical determinists used to think that you could predict the future behavior of any thing in nature by analyzing its individual parts. Now we know that the way individual parts interact in time adds something more to the mix, you might say. This new area of science is called computational mechanics: it is a theory of the way nature computes or interprets information. (It’s not to be confused with information theory, which did not deal with meaning and interpretation.) Postmodernism may have claimed that there is no intentionality in nature. And while it’s true that there is no divine intentionality, there is what you might call a morally neutral aesthetic intentionality insofar as natural processes involve interpretive contexts and constructivist interactions. In other words: according to this new way of conceiving intentionality, Nature is creative and telic insofar as it can result in spontaneous increases in structural complexity and self-organizaton.Coincidences provide the space in which human interpretation can work, alter the course of events, and bestow upon the interpreter the gift of intentionality. Artfulness has been out of style for too many years now and for too many dubious reasons. I admire Novakovich for not being squeamish about using coincidences. Historically they have been associated with intentionality and looked on with suspicion.

The way we understand the laws of physics have changed since Sophocles’ time “Crismon” may be like Oedipus Rex structurally, but this structure has a different function in new environment. Meaningful coincidences don’t point to the designs of the gods anymore. (They don’t ironically point to the ultimate randomness and meaningless of reality either.) Coincidence points to the opportunity for humans to realize functions in a random environments, act on them and influence their own fates.

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