Synchronicity and an Umbrella

magritte's galconde

I bought a book this week called Hopscotch. A strange sequence of events surrounded purchasing the book, an experience that is not foreign to me, and that has kept me up many nights thinking about the nature of the universe and reality.

I first encountered this book in a coffee shop. It stood out, and I had an intuition about it. This is detailed somewhat in my previous post. I decided to purchase the book, and later that day set out to The Strand book store. The clerk was oddly excited about the book, and came over to talk about the writer after she had directed me towards the correct section. Afterwards, I walked out into a ferocious thunder storm, probably the best of the summer. Lightning was firing off in the distance every five seconds or so.

As I neared Astor Place it suddenly began to really pour, the kind of rain that soaks you completely in one minute. Some people started screaming as they ran for cover. I saw an umbrella on sidewalk in front of me. I ran a few steps forward and grabbed it. It was half-broken, but provided enough protection for me to seek refuge in an office building lobby.  I remember thinking how it odd it was that the moment it started raining, I found a half-broken umbrella one step in front of me. It felt a little like a scene from a movie.

A few days later, I finally got around to reading Hopscotch. I was surprised to see this on page two.

Oh, Maga, whenever I saw a woman who looked like you a clear, sharp pause would close in like a deafening silence, collapsing like a wet umbrella being closed. An umbrella, precisely. Maybe you remember, Maga, that old umbrella we sacrificed in a gully in Montsouris Park one sunset on a cold March day. We threw it away because you had found it half-broken in the Place de la Concorde and you had got a lot of use from it, especially for digging into people’s ribs on the Metro or on a bus as you lethargically thought about the design the flies on the ceiling made.

Odd. Jung wrote about this, a phenomenon which he dubbed synchronicity. Jung, explorer of dreams and intuition, knew that there was something special about these coincidences. When one reads his piece on the subject, it’s clear that he’s struggling to establish some sort of clinical/scientific basis. He knows it’s important, but can’t get people to see past it’s appearance as magical thinking.

Jung was inspired by the work of a more obscure academic named Paul Kammerer. Kammerer mainly studied toads, but he also studied synchronicity, or what he called seriality. Coincidentally, while reading about Kammerer yesterday, the umbrella surfaced again. This is one of the only notes on his studies from Wikipedia.

Kammerer was known to, for example, make notes in public parks of what numbers of people were passing by, how many carried umbrellas etc.

Kammerer would observe that the time interval between observations of people with umbrellas would increase and decrease in waves, which formed the basis for his idea of seriality. Both Einstein and Jung praised his work. Sadly, Kammerer committed suicide at the early age of 46.

Despite being backed by a heavyweight like Einstein, when Jung took Kammerer’s theory and expounded on it, he was met with criticism and resistance. Critics attacked Jung’s theory on the grounds that it was magical/supernatural thinking. They pointed to, among other things, confirmation bias and illusory correlations.

Let me say here that I have no problem with this criticism and a rigorous scientific questioning of any new hypothesis, particularly those that appear “magical.” Without this tendency, we would be still be running around burning witches and believing that illnesses are caused by evil spirits.*

But actually  I do have a problem with this criticism of Jung’s theory. It feels, again intuitively, to be the kind of scientific dismissal that is made because we can’t yet understand or describe the meaning behind a phenomenon. I wish I knew more about physics, cosmology, and advanced math. Then I might have the ability to articulate my feelings as facts, or at least unknown areas of science.

Something is going on with synchronicity that is non-linear, that deals with symbols, the ‘real’ objects that represent, language, and metaphor. I’m also reminded of chaos theory and massive information systems, possible recursive functions. Just throwing some things out there. I do feel that something is behind it, but I am too stupid to understand the complexities, or perhaps if I did understand the complexities and math, there would be nothing behind it but statistics and probability. Maybe it’s something that ultimately cannot be approached through rationality.

Hopscotch is a unique novel in that it’s completely non-linear. It can be read front to (almost) back, but also can be read without numerical order, the reader “hopping” back and forth between chapters, forming a new narrative, or at least a slightly different version. I feel like there’s significance there, that my umbrella experience is pointing at the book and it’s structure.

There’s of course another writer that comes to my mind when I think of non-linear narrative: David Foster Wallace. I’m 99% certain that, late one night, I read a quote by DFW that spoke about strange events, or possibly he said coincidences, that have meaning to the individual who experiences them but may also have larger meaning. I Googled and Googled today for that quote, but I couldn’t find it any where. DFW–another genius who left us at the early age of 46. I’ll never forget the day I heard the news.


* No doubt if one explores Shamanic practices, particularly those that have produced the beginnings of pharmaceutical breakthroughs (the profits from which, of course, never made it back to the Amazonian communities), it’s clear that perhaps the evil spirits thing has some grounding, and that indigenous communities have paradigms that are just as worthy of respect as modern science.

  1. Really enjoyed this. I, too, have experienced several moments in my life that have seemed too coincidental to be perchance. Confirmation bias is always a factor, but some phenomena seem too bizarrely synchronous to simply attribute them to that.

    Unfortunately I found this blog post in the most mundane (and seemingly least “synchronous”, or meaningful connecting, of ways)–I was Googling “magritte umbrella” because the Roots Manuva album art for “Dub Come Save Me” vaguely reminded me of this interesting piece of artwork.

    Anyway, a total random find for me, but I really enjoyed reading this experience. Life *is* weird, huh?

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