There Are No Coincidences
– Don Juan, in Carlos Castenada’s The Teachings of Don Juan
No coincidence, no story - an ancient Chinese saying.
Two mutually exclusive statements, best beloved. However, Don Juan was talking about real life, and the ancient Chinese, about story or fiction.
Let’s tease this out.
Essentially, coincidence is the coming together of two events. ... Coincidence is often what gives fiction its chance to mean something. When two things come together, improbably or not, a spark is struck. Making those things happen simultaneously suggests that meaning is just beyond the surface—meaning and/or causality.
“Coincidences always seem contrived, and more than one or two in a story will make the whole plot seem contrived. Now, the whole story is contrived – that’s what fiction is – but if your reader becomes aware of that as he or she is reading, you’ve got a “yeah, right” waiting to happen. The Willing Suspension of Disbelief is what we call the aura that’s cast around a story while the reader is immersed in it. It doesn’t merely seem to be true, it seems to be happening, right there, in front of his or her eyes. We break this aura at our peril.”
With apologies to Don Juan, here’s a possible real-life coincidence. Let’s say two people are in love, and both talk about how great it would be to someday live in Hartford Connecticut. (?) They lose touch; ten years later they meet each other in…wait for it…Hartford Connecticut, where they’re both living. What a coincidence! they say. Unbelievable! It must be fate that has brought us together. But the truth is they both chose to move there; they have similar tastes in restaurants, entertainment, etc. It was inevitable that they’d meet.
A famous fictional example: In Casablanca, Rick and Ilsa meet in Rick’s bar after a separation of several years, and Rick utters the famous line, “Of all the gin joints, etc.” suggesting a coincidence. But it makes sense that they’d both be in Casablanca and at Rick’s. Everybody, after all, goes to Rick’s, and Ilsa is married to a famous Resistance fighter who must escape the Nazis and leave Europe. Casablanca is the way out so it’s no shocker that she turns up there. And there’s those mysterious letters of transit that bring them together. And Rick—actually I don’t know how Rick wound up in Casablanca—but my point is that it’s really not much of a coincidence that they meet, more of an inevitability, just like with our real-life friends in Hartford, Connecticut.
What about in Steppenwolf? you ask. Aren’t ya supposed to be writing about Steppenwolf? Indeed, coincidence abounds in this novel. It’s no coincidence that there’s coincidence. But here it’s a different beastie than in Casablanca—there’s no rationale that can be easily seen, and Harry spotting the Magic Theater sign seems more like divine interference—or interference from the implied author. There’s a long tradition of this sort of thing, connecting with ancient Greek drama, where the gods “play” with mortals. Think of Oedipus and his mom.
The implied author doesn’t show Harry being particularly surprised when he “happens” upon these meaningful events. Harry “happens” upon the Magic Theater sign, “happens” upon the man who gives him the Steppenwolf Treatise, “happens” again on this man who tells him to go to the Black Eagle Tavern, where Harry “happens” upon a young woman named Hermine who will change his life.
There is a long literary tradition of characters meeting seemingly by coincidence who are, in fact, related. Charles Dickens is full of such devices. Why do I mention this? Because as Steppenwolf develops, Harry comes to accept that Hermine is his sister, even—his double. Even—himself!
Yet, there is no mention of any divine or otherwise outside provocation. At the Black Eagle, Harry sees one a seat at a table and sits down next to an attractive young woman.
(explosive laughter from the audience, a loud voice calls, Yeah, right).
No, really. “I soon found myself near the bar, wedged against a table at which sat a pale and pretty girl against the wall…She gave me a friendly and observant look as I came up and with a smile moved to one side to make room for me.
“May I?” I asked and sat down beside her.”
Please, I’m not trying to be funny. Does this seem like too great a coincidence? I can see many of you are nodding. Well, this is actually a stylistic issue—hey, settle down! I’m trying to make an important point here if you’ll all please listen. Steppenwolf is a story of someone in despair who is brought back to life by mysterious and mystical means. By coincidence? Not if we define coincidence as random. If we return to our original definition of coincidence—which does not mention randomness—we can see that in each case, there are two incidences that meet.
One: Harry goes for a stroll at night.
Two: A sign appears on a wall reading “Magic Theater.”
Harry “happens” on this sign—no one tells him to go to it—and this sets off a chain of events that runs throughout the rest of the book, leading him to a mysterious woman who seems to be his younger self.
At a later point, the young woman tells Harry: “Think of that evening when you came broken from your despair and loneliness to cross my path and be my comrade. Why was it, do you think, I was able to recognize and understand you?”
It's worth considering that coincidence is what makes the plot of Steppenwolf. Without it, Harry might be trapped in his miserable and meaningless existence. With it, his life changes and has meaning.
Whether or not anyone else sees the sign is outside of the scope of this book, which is about Harry, who does. Although it masquerades as one, this is not a realist novel that attempts to show “life as it really is.” Steppenwolf is a story of supernatural events. The encounters seem at times to be coincidental, but they are planned by the implied author who desires to tell a story of a character being taught a lesson about life. Instead of the ancient Greek idea of the gods creating apparent coincidences to change characters, we have the implied author doing the manipulation.
Maybe Don Juan was right—there are no coincidences.
Till next time.