Coincidence vs. Synchronicity – in life & in fiction

What happens when we don’t have a word for a phenomenon (whether because the word’s fallen into disuse or doesn’t yet exist)? The phenomenon is still communicable (if it weren’t, unnamed diseases couldn’t make us sick), but the more words needed to refer to it, the less likely the concept will circulate. In a culture skewed increasingly towards minimal forms like texting and tweeting, the most communicable phenomena tend to be tangible, like brand names.

The Macquarie Dictionary: Fourth Edition defines coincidence as: 1. the condition or fact of coinciding. 2. a striking occurrence of two or more events at one time apparently by mere chance. 3. exact agreement in nature, character, etc.

While def. #2 would seem to hinge on the meaning of ‘mere’ if not ‘chance’, or hint at deeper meaning with the qualifier ‘apparently’, it’s a definition with which we’re all familiar. That’s why it rates a place in Australia’s premier dictionary (along with, ironically enough, a host of corporate/brand names like Coca-Cola Amatil Ltd and Commonwealth Bank of Australia as well as its acronym, CBA). However, my dictionary contains no definition of synchronicity – only of synchrony and synchronism, also synonyms of coincidence. The difference is, synchronicity refers to what Carl Jung called ‘meaningful coincidence’ or ‘an acausal connecting principle’. And perhaps its omission (along with acausal) from the official Oz language is acausally linked to the relative exclusion of Jungian thought from the humanities at Oz unis, most tutors in which remain fixated on Freud and his derivatives (i.e., less radical students). Why has Jung’s word been omitted from our national vocabulary?*

Coined in the 1920s, the term’s been in circulation for decades, yet it’s never caught on with most Oz academics because its implications aren’t politically correct. (Of course, this goes for the US too, if less so, as our dominant cultural role model.) What are these un-PC implications? If events can occur that aren’t causally related – e.g., at the same time in separate locations – one could be forgiven for sensing the presence of an encompassing framework (Jung pioneered in modern times the idea of a collective unconscious). And a language does exist that’s intrinsically geared to describe synchronicity; a language of symbols that’s been debased beyond recognition: astrology.

Our cultural climate is characterised by ideological conflict between monotheists and atheists, with belief on both sides driving the debate. In such a climate it’s small wonder that the idea of all-encompassment tends to suggest religion and the unreason that can come with it. How ironic that astrology has been confused with religion – something to believe in or not – and misused as little more than a tool for matchmaking or divining the future; a disposable source of amusement at the back of some periodicals. Yet this is consistent with the reduction of mainstream psychology (soul knowledge) to a study of the mind and its putative origins in the body (ergo consciousness dies when it does – the most basic myth on which capitalism hinges).

While relatively rare in life (for which we can thank our conditioned perceptual filters), coincidence abounds in fiction. And yet all sorts of prohibitions apply. See, for instance, the conventional wisdom of Alan Wall (Collins need to know? Writing Fiction, 2007): ‘Coincidence is unavoidable in fiction, but an excess of it will soon provoke incredulity. It must be treated with caution… (p. 134)’ Or of Jerome Stern (Making Shapely Fiction, 1991): ‘If coincidence is meant to play a part in your story you can forestall criticism by building the coincidence into the premise of the fiction (p. 105).’ Or of screenwriting guru Robert McKee in his bible (Story, 1998):

Story creates meaning. Coincidence, then, would seem our enemy, for it is the random, absurd collisions of things in the universe and is, by definition, meaningless. And yet coincidence is a part of life […]. The solution, therefore, is not to avoid coincidence, but to dramatize how it may enter life meaninglessly, but in time gain meaning… (p. 356).’

Extreme coincidence was good enough for theatregoers two+ millennia ago (e.g. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex) and fiction readers as recently as the nineteenth century (e.g. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre). So why are we now so suspicious of it? Is it that our tastes have grown more sophisticated? That’s the popular notion. Or is it that, due to shortened attention spans symptomatic of neural overload thanks to our frenzied quest for connectivity, we’re too distracted to register coincidence (for which we’d need to recall sometimes subtle constituent details)?

If synchronicity exists in realist fiction, its use tends to be ironic – e.g., parallel narratives where coinciding elements serve to set off disconnection or difference (at times to make an implicit political statement). Synchronicity as phenomenon is commonly confined to such genres as fantasy, speculative, horror or some combination thereof, along with paranormal powers, vampires, doppelgangers and so on.

Yet, the works of modernist James Joyce and postmodernist Paul Auster, both realists in varying degrees, evince an obsession with coincidence, in life as in their fiction. The preoccupation in Joyce’s case is typically minimised (as is Isaac Newton’s use of astrological concepts; even geniuses’ aberrations are at best tolerated). For a mind-expanding exception, see Robert Anton Wilson’s four essays on Joyce in Coincidance (New Falcon Publications, 1988). Auster has documented many real-life instances from his own and others’ experience, but critics take issue with less bizarre coincidences in his novels. His title essay and ‘Why Write?’ in The Red Notebook (1995) offer reminders that realism is relative, as do his words in a 1989–90 interview with Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory (p. 117):

I don’t know what reality these people have been living in, but it certainly isn’t my reality. In some perverse way, I believe they’ve spent too much time reading books. They’re so immersed in the conventions of so-called realistic fiction that their sense of reality has been distorted. Everything’s been smoothed out in these novels, robbed of its singularity, boxed into a predictable world of cause and effect. Anyone with the wit to get his nose out of his book and study what’s actually in front of him will understand that this realism is a complete sham. To put it another way: truth is stranger than fiction. What I am after, I suppose, is to write fiction as strange as the world I live in.

* Oz is a nation of chronic gamblers, of folk who believe in chance. Is that why we’ve been so slow to get our heads around global warming’s reality – as the so-called Lucky Country, we hope it won’t extend to us?

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