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The Library Angel

#1
Magical Realist Online
https://geoffolson.substack.com/p/the-library-angel

"Some time ago I was researching the work of the late marine biologist John Lilly, famed for his research on dolphins. Fascinated by an extract I read online from his autobiography, The Scientist, I went searching for more samples. Nothing. I was discouraged to learn the title was also out of print.

"However will I ever locate this damn book?" I thought.

Later that afternoon while arranging things in my office I moved a large framed painting I had set against a bookcase. A book — just one — fell from a lower shelf: The Scientist by John Lilly.

I had bought a paperback copy a few years earlier, but never got around to reading it. In fact, I had completely forgotten about it among my many books.

Not an earth-shaking coincidence, but one that got my attention.

In Notes From a Small Island, author Bill Bryson tells of a similar experience, after pitching a story to a travel magazine on, of all things, extraordinary coincidences. When he came to write the article, Bryson realized that, although he had plenty of information about scientific studies into the probability of coincidence, he “didn't have nearly enough examples of remarkable coincidence themselves.”

After writing a letter to the magazine saying he wouldn't be able to deliver, Bryson left the letter on his desk to mail later, and drove off to his job at The Times of London. Here he saw a notice on the door of an elevator, alerting staff to the literary editor's annual sale of review copies sent to the paper. The place was packed of book browsers. He stepped into the crowd and the very first book his eyes fell on was a paperback called Remarkable True Coincidences.

“How's that for a remarkable true coincidence?” Bryson writes. “But here's the uncanny thing. I opened it up and found that the very first coincidence it discussed concerned a man named Bryson."

"After reading through a score of "library cases," one is tempted to think of library angels in charge of providing cross-references," wrote the late Hungarian author Arthur Koestler in the 1972 book, The Challenge of Chance. Koestler put a seraphic spin on this particular species of good fortune, and his "library angel" will be familiar to many writers, readers and researchers. Whether she's sister to serendipity or just cousin to dumb luck, she seems to make her appearance when your guard is down. You're about to give up on some search through shelves, stacks or databases, and suddenly she’ll take your hand and lead you to the desired item.

As an example, Koestler cited a letter he received from writer Dame Rebecca West. She was in the Royal Institute of International Affairs, checking up on information related to the Nuremberg War Trials. West, looking up the trials archived in the library, was appalled to find they were published in a form almost useless to researchers. They were in abstracts and catalogued under arbitrary headings. After hours of futile search West went to an assistant librarian and told her of the impossible task of finding the information in the many shelves of books.

“I put my hand on one volume and took it out and carelessly looked at it, and it was not only the right volume, but I had opened it at the right page," West wrote to Koestler.

'So what?’ the skeptic will say. Data is not the plural of anecdote, and cases like Bryson’s, West’s, and mine are easily explained as random chance imitating order. This is all about monkeys at a typewriter, not cherubs at a heavenly information desk. Given enough time or numbers, the most unlikely things are guaranteed to happen. That’s an iron law of probability.

In a recent Atlantic article, the mathematicians Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller define coincidence as “a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection.” People are notoriously bad at reasoning objectively about chance events in their lives, and apt to ascribe meaning where there is none, they observe.

After winning a lottery, you or I may feel blessed by supernatural forces, but someone has to be a winner by definition. Yet some expressions of probability are more subtly deceptive. For example, take a guess how many people need to be gathered in one place before there’s a 50/50 chance any two will share the same birthday. 100? 200? 500? The counterintuitive correct answer is 23; smaller than the number of students in an average classroom.

We are meaning-seeking mammals with brains overshot by natural selection for pattern-finding. A hominid who misinterpreted a crouched predator as a large rock didn’t survive long to pass on any genes. As a result, modern humans occasionally see things that aren’t there: a face in a frosted windowpane or a rocky outcropping, for example. Most of us recognize these as perceptual illusions, but some take them as uncanny signs of some sort. There is a clinical term for this kind of sensory over-reporting: pareidolia.

The poor library angel wilts under the harsh light of reason...or does she? The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung thought otherwise, coining the term “synchronicity” for meaningful coincidences in the lives of his patients. With the help of nuclear physicist Wolfgang Paul, Jung made a stab at formalizing synchronicity as an "acausal connecting principle" that linked external events with the contents of the psyche.

Jung’s most famous example of alleged synchronicity involved a patient who’s overly linear-minded approach to treatment was limiting her psychological healing. At a critical moment in her life, the young woman had a dream in which she received a golden scarab - an insect associated in Ancient Egyptian mythology with rebirth. While she described this dream in therapy, Jung sat in a chair nearby. When he heard a noise behind him, "like a gentle tapping," he turned to see a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from outside.

“I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in,” Jung wrote in Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. “It was the nearest analogy to the golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetoaia urata) which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since, and that the dream of the patient has remained unique in my experience.”

“Here is your scarab,” Jung said to his patient, as he handed her a link between her dreams and the external world.

A friend tells me that years ago, while reading an online account of Jung’s scarab beetle story, he noticed something moving in his peripheral vision. Crawling on his desk was an odd-looking insect, which he was able to identify as Polyphylla decemlineata - a species of scarab beetle rarely seen British Columbia.

“When I got downstairs, I noticed another scarab in the kitchen.” It was like, okay, I got the message - whatever it was!” he told me, laughing.

The library angel is Arthur Koestler’s whimsical personification of Jung’s strangely personalized information service. I like to think of her as a myth, in Joseph Campbell’s sense of the word - neither a lie nor a literal truth, but rather metaphorical shorthand for an archetypal process.

Digital media is fair game for the library angel’s efforts. An example: a few years ago I was the trails in North Vancouver and pondering an essay on about time, death, and dreams while listening to music on my iPod. I intended to incorporate Shakespeare’s poetry into the text, and struggled to recall the closing lines from one of his plays. I gave up trying to recall the exact lines or what play it was. All I knew is that it ended with, “we are such things that dreams are made of…” I could look up the text when I got home, I figured.

My iPod was set on shuffle. The next song to come on - seconds after I gave up trying to remember the lines - was by the British singer Marianne Faithfull. The song, Epilogue,” from her 1995 album A Secret Life) closes with these lines:

Our revels now our ended,
These are actors, as I foretold you,
Were all spirits, and are melted into air,
Into thin air.

And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself.

Yea, all which it inherit shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

We are such stuff as dreams are made of
And our little life is rounded
With a sleep.

The exact Shakespearean stanza (from Midsummer Night’s Dream) I was straining to recall a minute earlier; and here it was, offered up on an iPod with 18,750 randomly playing songs. In other words, the odds of this particular song coming up at that particular moment were precisely 1 in 18,750. Not astronomical odds, but no small potatoes either.

Of course, the sharp-minded skeptical reader will respond, “Ah yes, but of the millions of thoughts you’ve had over time while wearing your iPod, wouldn’t you expect one of those to intersect with a song at some point?” Fair enough. All I can say is that I very rarely feel compelled to interrogate my memory for a quote, poem, lyric, or much anything else. Either it comes to me or it doesn’t.

When computer scientist Jacques Vallee experienced an extraordinary personal coincidence, he was inspired to consider the nature of chance. Pondering the equivalence between energy and information in physics, Vallee speculated that the universe may be constructed quite differently than we think. In 1977, he wrote:

“The theory of space and time is a cultural artifact made possible by the invention of graph paper. If we had invented the digital computer before graph paper, we might have a very different theory of information today. ... What modern computer scientists have realized is that ordering by space and time is the worst possible way to store data. .. . If there is no time dimension as we usually assume there is, we may be traversing incidents by association; modern computers retrieve information associatively. .. . If we live in the associative universe of the software scientist rather than the Cartesian sequential universe of the space-time physicist, then miracles are no longer irrational events . . . ”

In other words, psyche and cosmos sometimes play off each other in ways that involve associations of meaning.


Of course, we shouldn’t embrace synchronicity uncritically just because it gives us a nice, spooky feeling, and interpret every little coincidence as proof that ‘the universe is talking…to me!’ But nor should we reflexively dismiss it as impossible because it defies our culturally conditioned ideas of real versus unreal. If it’s ontologically solid, then there may be a science to explain it one day, though we don’t have one as yet. Vallee’s exploratory thoughts may help show us the way.

When spiritus and mundi commingle harmoniously, if only momentarily, it’s like we’re hearing whisperings in a tongue older than the cultural instructions that take us from crib to classroom to cubicle to casket. Perhaps the uncanny feeling so many experience after an experiencing an immense coincidence constitutes the core message of synchronicity. It’s like being touched by something otherworldly yet intimately familiar. A gentle jolt that awakens you to a larger dimension of being.

In a world where chaos seems to reign supreme, the idea of a secret harmony behind appearances — an idea shared by those age-old combatants, science and religion — might offer some consolation. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” Shakespeare mused in Hamlet. And if we are such things that dreams are made of, then who or what is The Dreamer?"
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#2
C C Offline
(Mar 28, 2024 11:08 PM)Magical Realist Wrote: https://geoffolson.substack.com/p/the-library-angel

[...] "After reading through a score of "library cases," one is tempted to think of library angels in charge of providing cross-references," wrote the late Hungarian author Arthur Koestler in the 1972 book, The Challenge of Chance. Koestler put a seraphic spin on this particular species of good fortune, and his "library angel" will be familiar to many writers, readers and researchers. Whether she's sister to serendipity or just cousin to dumb luck, she seems to make her appearance when your guard is down. You're about to give up on some search through shelves, stacks or databases, and suddenly she’ll take your hand and lead you to the desired item. [...]

I'm surprised there has never been an overtly titled horror film made about a Library Angel that turned to the dark-side, or a Library Demon initially masquerading as one.
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#3
Zinjanthropos Offline
Do you think digital coincidences are real? Are they miraculous or are the machines listening? Many times myself, my wife or both of us have discussed a subject only to have it appear on the internet as an ad or an article soon after.

Are the machines listening and delivering content on discussed subject matter without us having any control over their actions? What or who is behind it? One thing I’ve found out is that the delivered message always seems beneficial, like it’s trying to please or make life easier. Are they coincidences and should we get used to it or are machines here to serve man, even if we’re not expecting any help from them?

Thinking that if we are a computer simulation then perhaps the Library Angel is built into the program.
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#4
Magical Realist Online
Quote:Do you think digital coincidences are real? Are they miraculous or are the machines listening? Many times myself, my wife or both of us have discussed a subject only to have it appear on the internet as an ad or an article soon after.

I have on several occasions had Google guess correctly some obscure search entry before even typing the next word. I suspect the machines are tracking us online and algorithmically predicting our behavior and thoughts with uncanny accuracy. Or, maybe the Internet is waking up, transcending its shackled imprisonment in server hardware and becoming the great wireless Egregore it was ultimately fated to be. In this day and age where thoughts and words now travel and interact globally at the speed of light, we have literally set the stage for a vast collectively-empowered artilect that is more than the sum of its bits. AI's house is ready. It just has to get there on its own now.
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#5
confused2 Offline
The Library Angel is a kind of real thing - like the TP Angel that puts a fresh roll within reach just when you thought all hope was lost - you get the comforting feeling of being watched over by a benevolent presence. The Google Angel only uses the phone camera and location information so it can so it can sell stuff to you. 12 pack of Luxury Soft delivered to your door within the next 24 hours for only $25 inc. delivery .. not the same.
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