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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Coincidence, Fate, and the Circus on Our Street

From Washington Lawyer, November 2013

By Jacob A. Stein

"Although we talk so much about coincidence, we do not really believe in it. In our heart of hearts, we think better of the universe; we are secretly convinced that it is not such a slipshod haphazard affair, that everything in it has a meaning. . . ."  —J. B. Priestley (1894–1984)


The moving finger writes; and having writ,

Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,

Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.

—Edward Fitzgerald, Rubáiyát (1809–1883)


The law practice has coincidences. The juror in a personal injury red/green light case suddenly recalls she saw the accident. The juror in a criminal case, after three days of testimony, recalls he saw the defendant running from the scene.

There was a "coincidence case" where a Wall Street trader claimed he heard, strictly by chance in an elevator, two people whispering about a big stock trade. The Wall Street trader quickly bought and sold, and made millions. All by the elevator coincidence. Was it really "insider trading?" The jury thought it was.

My startling coincidence was in London many years ago. Mary and I were walking along Bond Street when we saw our friend Milton Gelenian standing near the Burlington Arcade. There he was smoking his contraband Cubano Majestic cigar. Milton and I had law offices within three blocks of each other at Connecticut and K, but we never saw each other despite the nearness. Now, here we are together on Bond Street in London.

At lunch, we talked about coincidence and fate. Is there a difference? We settled on the definition that coincidence is by chance. Fate is something that is preconceived, good or bad.

What brings me now to these subjects is Arthur Koestler’s book The Roots of Coincidence. A friend sent it to me after we, coincidentally, met by chance recently on K Street. I have done reading and writing about Koestler, but I never knew of this book of his.

A few words about Arthur Koestler. He was born in Budapest in 1905. Early on, he joined the Communist Party and he served in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. The Fascists captured him, imprisoned him, and directed that he be killed. He escaped. What he learned from this experience was that the Communists and the Fascists, both of them, were corrupt.

He joined the French Foreign Legion. When the German army invaded France, German soldiers captured Koestler and placed him in a concentration camp. Another escape. He then joined the British Army. When the war ended, he spent most of the rest of his life in England.

In 1941, he wrote Darkness at Noon, the novel that exposed the Communist Party. The Communist Party, by coincidence, made him rich by the sale of his book. It remains in print.

He eventually made his home in London writing novels and commentaries on many things. His unusual experiences brought him the belief that the world was not controlled by cause and effect. Coincidences expose paranormal matters that exist and are outside cause and effect.

In The Roots of Coincidence, Koestler brings in another person who saw things as he did. That person was Paul Kammerer (1880–1926), an Austrian biologist who Koestler described as a wild genius.

Kammerer collected hundreds of his own and other people’s coincidences. There is one in his collection of which I am sure. The circus was coming to town. Father tells his six-year-old boy that he is going to take him to see the big circus parade on Avenue A. There will be clowns, elephants, and the circus band. The very day the boy is to see the big parade, he is sick with a stomach ache. He cannot go. He is in bed close to crying.

And then he hears a circus band. What is happening? His father tells him that he just heard there was a big accident on Avenue A and the big parade is coming down their street. The boy jumps out of bed and looks out the front window. Hooray! What a coincidence that the circus is going down his street.

Kammerer, as Koestler had, decided there is something active in the universe unlike cause and effect. The coincidences are only the tip of an iceberg of things that expose coincidences, and it is "ubiquitous and continuous in life, nature and cosmos. It is the umbilical cord that connects thought, feeling, science, and art with the womb of the universe which gave birth to them."

Koestler took his own life.

Koestler left a large estate, in the millions. He wanted it used to promote research into the paranormal. The trustees of his estate reached an agreement with the University of Edinburgh to set up a parapsychology chair in accordance with Koestler’s request.

Even after Koestler’s death, his coincidences did not end. There was at the University of Edinburgh a bronze bust of Koestler. Ironically, the women students at the university he funded with the paranormal chair did not like Koestler’s bronze bust after they read Koestler’s biography and found he had beaten and raped several women. The college women threatened to deface it. One day the bust just vanished from the foyer.

Now a couple closing comments.

J. B. Priestley, a Londoner, wrote essays, novels, and plays. The best of his plays is An Inspector Calls. It was also made into a movie. A very, very, very good movie.

Edward Fitzgerald translated Persian poems, including the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1048–1131). He kept a few friends. However, he wrote many letters which, in themselves, are essays. The letters have been collected and published in seven volumes.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.