What Wills Will Not: Randomness As Muse
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/25/03
The other day
I was in a bookstore, thumbing through yet another of the endless books on how
to get rich quickly, & I was struck by the notion that the real impetus to
foist these sorts of scams upon people was not only about trying to rip people
off, but to try to assuage people that ‘luck’ or ‘randomness’ is not as
pervasive as we all know it to be in our lives. I believe this is also 1 of the
pillars of religious nonsense, but the urge to deny or diminish randomness is
spread across the whole of modern life.
This book had the typical advice to eschew hard work & indulge in hedonism, do not get out of debt, but in debt. Now, this will not be an essay on economics, but any financially intelligent person knows that these schemes are just that. Most rich people are rich by happenstance, not through any real ‘accomplishment’ of their own. Bill Gates stole computer code from rivals, then crushed his competition- has he really contributed anything to the world that will outlast his lifetime? No. Oprah Winfrey- for whatever reason- cored in to a tv niche & stuck- is this evidence that she’s a particularly insightful interviewer? No. Pro athletes make it out of pure luck? Think Michael Jordan was the best basketball player on the planet? No. He was lucky enough to avoid major injuries, be in the right spot when scouts came a-calling, & be drafted by a team in a major market. If any of those things had not been his net worth would more likely be about $200, not $200 million. Think of all the Infomercial & online scam artists who try to sell you things or ways to improve your life. Do you think Julia Roberts is the best actress or prettiest woman on the planet? No. Are there not actresses better than her in 1 or both categories? Sure. But circumstances simply got in the way.
We all know people for whom little goes wrong, & when the wrong stuff hits they easily turn it into something good, anyway. My best friend Joe is 1 of these people- be it in his profession, marriage, or personal life, little ever seems to slow him down- even though the man (& I love him) has the motivation of a ground sloth. I, on the contrary, am full of drive, & need it merely to tread water. This has been true in my love life (pre-marriage), my working life, & certainly so in the arts- despite manifest excellence I live just skimming above life’s hardships, while poetasters like a James Tate, Adrienne Rich, or Maya Angelou make 6 figure incomes from teaching, granting by friends, & paid lecturing. Is this envy? No. Just a recognition of the truth.
We obviously know life is not fair. Most of us would settle for it not being malicious. But most of you reading this are not in either boat occupied by me or my pal Joe. The ratio of failure/success to your own personal habits is fairly consistent. Where it really starts to frustrate is when you deal with people who seek to have ‘influence’ in life. For most homo sapiens this is accomplished merely by breeding. We’ll hope our kids or grandkids do something noteworthy. But political leaders, scientists, thinkers, & artists, are that breed for which (amongst the best) there awaits a posthumous fate. The innovations made, & barriers forced outward become examples that inspire future generations of innovators & rebels who slowly help lug the rest of society’s useless weight along with them. But, to a degree, randomness infects even this realm of person & activity. I’m a great poet & writer, & it’s usual for those people great at certain things to eschew praise by modestly stating it was hard work that helped achieve those things. This is not entirely true. For example, as of this writing I’ve been to well over 1200 or so poetry events, encountered 5-6000 poets, heard 3-4 times as many poems, & from all that can state there were probably only 3 or 4 dozen people who I think had as much or more raw talent than I did as a poet. Of that, none has come close to me, & only a few have ever maximized their potential. I’d like to say, or think, that the others’ failures were solely based upon their lack of will &/or initiative, for it would portray me as not only superior in making, but also in intangibles. Yet, I know that things happen that can distract. The very reason I’m a great poet rests on many factors, 1st off deciding on trying poetry to woo a high school heart throb of mine, then discovering Walt Whitman’s poetry & knowing I could do better. My blasé love life also played a part. Had I married when young & reproduced I probably would not have the time to practice my art. Had I been a little better off, financially, I may have gone to college & never pursued writing, etc. All of these myriad things which have nothing to do with skill or will had to have happened for me to achieve my current status. But, I do realize that without the will I would not have gotten great either. But that will is merely another dependent & contingent part of life. By itself it is not enough to guarantee success- no more than Oprah’s ability to fake concern, or Bill Gates’ anti-worker abuses, would be to guarantee their successes.
At a more obvious level, how is it that someone like heiress/vapid blond/tramp Paris Hilton has such an easy life while millions of far more worthy human beings duke it out every day with the real world? It’s luck- pure & simple. There is no reason to things. Life just is- the key is to keep moving. If you only have a 1% chance of success, better to do the shark thing, keep moving, & increase the odds of getting there. But that increase is only a shot, just as raw talent only increases your odds in life’s crapshoot, just like being born with physical beauty increases the odds on happiness- but it’s no guarantee. But, let me return to the idea of ‘influence’. This is what most people who can think (a small but debatable %) desire in their life. Let’s also look at the nubile Miss Hilton- reportedly worth in excess of $300 million dollars. Since she has little real world experience the chances of that $ ever doing any good is negligible. Give me 3% of that & I’ll change the poetry world forever. I believe my verse & influence will do so in the long run, anyway, but big $ could speed things up by decades- + allow me to introduce more great writers into the culture. But, what happens? $100 million is thrown down the crapper in a grant to a magazine that has not published anything of worth for nearly 40 years- Poetry!
So why not attempt to get rich, so I can change poetry anyway? Well, virtually all rags-to-riches tales involve inordinate amounts of time spent to the $-making process. When would I have time, in my prime years, to do the best art I could? There is the rub. Add in the fact that most businesses go belly up. The reason is not, however, that the majority of flops are less industrious, less visionary, etc., but that they simply did not have the luck the ‘success’ did. If you read the bio of almost any financial titan you will see that the person either had some fortuitous once-in-a-lifetime circumstance that guaranteed victory, or they had a friend or connection or inside tip that removed randomness from the equation. This is true of Bill Gates, Andrew Carnegie, Howard Hughes, the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, etc. The common threads throughout all of these lives is not perseverance, or talent, but luck. The average person truly has little better shot at getting rich via industriousness than they do playing the state lottery. The truth is that ‘winners’ in life are freaks. In the world of poetry I am a freak- simply by virtue of my artistic success. But, so is an Adrienne Rich or Maya Angelou- it’s just that their freak status comes from making huge sums of money off of poetry.
Last year there was a great little film that came out that dealt with the subject of randomness better than any film since Woody Allen’s ‘Crimes And Misdemeanors’. The film was Jill Sprecher’s 13 Conversations About One Thing. The title refers to a small set of characters coming to grip with that 1 thing- randomness. Most reviewers mistakenly took the 1 thing to be happiness, but it’s not. Few of the characters seek happiness, but all are struck by randomness, & all the characters deal with the fallout of that imp.
For example, in the film a college physics professor named Walker (John Turturro) is a life study in opposition to randomness. He constantly strives for order. But, chaos theory is not his pet. 1 day he is mugged, & he embraces randomness as a lover (along with a colleague he begins an adulterous affair with). In 1 hilarious scene he thanks his new lover for helping him embrace randomness & destroy order, then promptly schedules their next tryst for the following Thursday, same time.
His midlife crisis has him move out on his wife & buy a sports car. The fellow he buys it from is a guilt-stricken rising young star in the Manhattan DA’s office. Troy (Matthew McConaughey) is selling the car as penance for hit & running a woman he left for dead, despite prior bravado over a need for law & order. He begins a masochistic assault on his own body & mind to punish himself. In a world where the rich & powerful can get away with a crime (like he does) there needs to be punition. & if the cosmos lacks a punitive, or justice, agent, then he figures he might as well assume the role, to stem chaos & ensure that randomness is not free to infect all. Yet, randomness works positively, too. Troy, late in the film, finds out his victim has survived, & the desire to make amends forestalls his soon-to-be-suicide.
The woman he hit, Beatrice (Clea Duvall), however, likewise has to deal with the random nature of things. Why was she hit? Why did a shirt blow out of her hand & precipitate her running into the street in the 1st place? Before the accident she had been upbeat & always looking ahead, for things change. She had survived a near drowning as a child & saw it as a ‘sign’ of her special nature, not just a series of random events- 1 bad, 1 good. But no good can be seen from this latest accident. He body is broken, she is reduced to moving back in with her mother, her job is gone for she has been wrongfully accused of theft, her co-worker & best friend have drifted apart. Like Troy, she is near suicide, & wanting to end it all, until 1 day, while ready to cross a street, at a traffic light she is planning to jump in front of a car, she sees a very happy man across the way, whose smile buoys her in to believing that not all is dark & forlorn.
The happy man is a man the film has shown also is the victim of randomness, but whose boundless Pollyanna obviates any talk of such a topic. He has a great job as an office supply salesman, gotten by the guilt of the ex-boss who fired him- jealous over his happy nature. The happy man, Wade (played by William Wise), was fired by Gene (Alan Arkin) from his job as an insurance claims adjustor. Even when fired Wade sees the best side in things & people- never realizing the disgust & loathing Gene feels toward him. Nor does he reason out that it was a guilt-ridden Gene who got him his new job with his ex-wife’s husband’s office supply company. Randomness is not recognized in Wade’s world- his new job was just a providence he’s not even sure he deserved. But, Gene is not alone in his misery at the office- another adjustor, after years of abuse from Gene, up & quits when he hits the lottery (the actual defining metaphor for the film), only to come back, later, groveling after family, friends, & moochers leach him of every penny. Gene, too, is eventually down-sized after hopes of promotion to a vice-presidency vanish. At a bar, with his buddy, he runs in to Troy, whose sense of purposiveness has yet to be diminished by the hit & run. Gene regales Troy with tales of the utter chance nature of life, but realizes it is only those at the other end of the tunnel who will listen, & by then it’s too late.
As he leaves the bar, Gene is left pondering of what might have been in his failed marriage had just a few little things gone differently, of his drug addicted criminal son who has squandered all the material advantages Gene has slaved years for, & who rejects him. As he sits lonely on a subway he sees a despairing woman. The audience knows who she is (Patricia- actress Amy Irving), the cuckolded wife of Walker, despairing over her failed marriage- ended because of her husband’s mugging leading him to damn randomness, be unfaithful, & leave a clue to this in his belongings, that she finds. As he leaves the train all Gene can do is weakly grimace & pitifully wave to a woman he does not know, & will probably never see again. Her husband, meanwhile, has ended the affair because his lover realizes he does not love her- she was just an instrument in his newfound war on order. Meanwhile, a student of his who seeks order, is rebuked by Walker, then commits suicide.
The stories intertwine in a non-chronological fashion, but it all makes sense. What Beatrice says to a child who asks her why she was hit by the car serves as a de facto epigraph to those accustomed to the prow of fate, ‘I was in the way.’
Things happen with no rime nor reason- it’s only the human ability to go on which retroactively allows for anyone to even tentatively ascribe meaning to them. Why did I lose a job? Because some boss had a bad day, or did not like me? No matter how good & hard-working a person is it all comes down to chance, luck, randomness. Even the making of a movie like 13 Conversations is a hell-mell process. Its greatness could have been aborted before conception- at any juncture from a short-sighted ‘suit’, to a poor performance, a mediocre script, poor distribution, the pullout of funds. That I can reference the film is, itself, a manifestation of chance.
Rewind the 4.5 billion year history of earth & if any of the countless nanoseconds were just slightly off I might not exist, or the human race might not, or I might be a famous film star, or an aardvark! Director Jill Sprecher perfectly encapsulates that greatest of human fears- not DEATH, but CHANCE- into 1 incredibly poignant, cogent, & literate film which shows that all the algorithms in the world cannot guarantee that that butterfly which fluttered in Brazil 60 years ago was or was not the cause of the most recent disaster in your life, community, or world.
It is only by accepting that we have so little control over things that real happiness can come. The cosmos is indifferent & purposeless. Human beings are not. I will still continue to write as many great poems as I possibly can until death seizes me, not because it guarantees me influence, but because I am a better person for the effort. I will still seek to better myself in all respects, not out of vanity nor a Sisyphan urge, but because it increases the odds for all who might stumble across my existence to know they are not the only 1s, not the 1st, to soldier on. Randomness may be the rule, but nothing guarantees that conformity leads to success, either. No wonder scam artists don’t write books about that!
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