Serendipity: A Conversation Between Sven Birkerts and Christopher Benfey

February 18, 2019   •   By Sven Birkerts, Christopher Benfey

MY FRIEND the writer Christopher Benfey and I have for many years had conversations about serendipity. Last summer, we decided to correspond about the theme. What started as a casual, private back-and-forth soon enough found momentum and led to 100 exchanges (we agreed to that number as a cap). What follows are several excerpts from the opening volleys, focusing mainly on our shared interest in photography.


SVEN BIRKERTS: Let me start this off with the origin of the word. What I find is this:

The word was supposedly coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, its root derived from The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of an English adaptation of a Persian fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

I went to look up more of the story, and what a surprise! To judge from one account, which I’m not going to reproduce here, serendipity is not so much the appearance of the inexplicable, the fortuitous, but the very opposite: the application of the most acute ratiocination (à la Sherlock Holmes, à la Poe’s Dupin) … There is a story of a missing camel, one that the three princes are able to describe perfectly by reading the most unlikely traces of evidence and putting them together into a picture. Perfect logic. Everything fits, had we but the eyes to see the relevant clues.

This has never been my sense of the serendipity — that it follows logic in that rigorous way. I still think of it as somehow kindred to the concept of synchronicity, which was defined — by Jung, I think — as “an acausal connecting principle.” Sherlock Holmes is the apotheosis of causal thinking. My sense of serendipity, meanwhile, is more about the recognition of a parallel meaning, a non-causal relation, a harmonic. It does not mean, necessarily, but it suggests that there is at least intermittent patterning to events, and this suggestion is enough to keep me gnawing on the bone of meaning.

You quoted your photographer friend Neal Rantoul saying: “My series work is often serendipitous, in that various elements come together to form something special from mundane circumstances.” Now that I’ve become a dabbler with the lens, I find myself thinking about these very things all the time. You can’t be taking pictures for very long without developing some notion of the propitious moment — best angle, best light, best shot — and once you have that going, all sorts of superstitions can attach. Like, for me, that you can’t look for or stage a shot, that it has to announce itself, and you have to be ready. The former approach gives you what Barthes called the “stadium” — the basic supposition of the photo — but only the latter can give you the punctum, the anomaly, the unstudied flash of the real.

CHRISTOPHER BENFEY: A few years ago, several of the men in my family — my father, my two brothers, a nephew, and my older son, Tommy — made our zigzag ways to the small town of Hardenberg, in the Hanover region of Germany. We checked into our very posh country inn — an old estate, really, with hunting grounds attached. There was a dressage ring right below our rooms, with a stately horse and rider performing diagonals and circles, and an extensive horse-breeding operation on the adjacent land. Wild boar prosciutto was served at breakfast.

But we weren’t there for any of this, not really. A childhood friend of my father’s, a distinguished professor of surgery at the Göttingen medical school named Hans-Jürgen Pieper, had tracked him down after 70 years without contact. In 1935, when it became known at their Berlin school that my father was leaving for England, where he would live with a foster family and continue his education, it dawned on his fellow students that he embodied the menace Hitler had warned Germans about. My father was chased home by a gaggle of classmates screaming, “Jude, Jude!” Hans-Jürgen, alone among the kids, accompanied my father, protecting him, and went all the way home with him. Now, we were all in Hardenberg to reunite with Hans-Jürgen, to get those two 11-year-olds back together after 70 years.

But we had another destination nearby. For right next to the Hardenberg estate, cheek by jowl, lay the little hamlet of Nörten, where, in centuries past, the laborers of the estate had been lodged, in shabby boarding houses and hovels. Lowest among them were the Jews, including a cattle-dealer and rabbi named Solomon Benfey. These Jews, three or four families in all, lived in cramped quarters above the local brewery. Solomon’s oldest son was called Theodor, and he had a preternatural gift for languages. This Theodor became the leading Sanskrit scholar of his day. He compiled the standard dictionary of Sanskrit and taught Near Eastern languages at Göttingen, where he was a friend and colleague of the Brothers Grimm.

He also established and edited, for the first time, the Persian text of “The Three Princes of Serendip.” The edition may be Benfey’s best-known work.

I go into these matters in my Red Brick book, where I dig into the Walpole connection. I do think Walpole realized there was a gap (a pretty big gap) between the tale and his little concept. “Now do you understand serendipity?” he asked a friend, after that slightly wifty explanation you quoted. I think he loved the exotic sound of the word he’d invented, serendipity, and so do we. But the word has come to mean many things: a phenomenon (the happy discovery of something you didn’t know you were looking for); a mood (an openness to happenstance); and a theory or philosophy of existence (that coincidence is meaningful).

I think of Frost’s great description of how a poem comes into being, where he links the poet’s mood with a happy run of accidents and then the triumphant arrival, like a happy-sad drinking song. “It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood — and indeed from the very mood.” Predestined though unforeseen: something there in our ideas of meaningful coincidence, Jung’s synchronicity.

SB: Your family story is the very essence of what we’re talking about!

I’m finding convergences everywhere these days. This past weekend my old bookstore friend Tom came to visit and to stay for a few nights. We got into all kinds of conversations, of course, and one of them — I forget which meander it was — had me run upstairs to find a photo book he needed to look at. A Palpable Elysium, which features Black Mountain poet and publisher Jonathan Williams’s photographs of various artists and writers he had known.

We were sitting in the living room, me doing a crossword and Tom studying the photos, when he suddenly looked up and said, “I have to write this down.” He then reads me part of a page-long note accompanying a photograph of Frederick Sommer, a photographer I don’t know. The passage quotes Sommer’s own words:

I have five pebbles, not too different in size and weight, yet a randomness about them. If I drop them on the carpet they will scatter. Now we could run an experiment and we would find that we cannot not put these pebbles in shapes that would be as elegant and as nicely related and with as great a variety as every time they fall. It is better than anything we could do. I have a great respect for the way I find things. Every time something falls I look. I cannot believe the relationships. The intricacy. You hear a noise and you say “What is that?” Respect for the affirmation of the unexpected.

These concurrences we’ve been talking about — I sometimes think of them as being akin to harmonics in music, or as sympathetic vibrations — it’s so tempting just to keep itemizing them, especially now that we agree that they seem to be everywhere.

I like the idea of the harmonic vibration. What do these resonances mean? Well, looking through every lens of common sense: nothing. They remain essentially empty coincidences. And yet, I remark them — their possibility — with a certain wonder, and that I do tells me something. Not about the world, maybe, but about my own avidness for resonances and suggestions not available in a more commonsensical construction of the world.

I’m not much interested in any art that doesn’t agitate those kinds of unverifiable suppositions. But thankfully so much art does.

Trying to line up photography and serendipity, I come up against my great reluctance, until quite recently, to pursue picture-taking — this in spite of the fact that my grandfather, who was a painter, had also been a photographer in his younger years; in spite of my long-term interest in other peoples’ images. I always said it was the complicated fussing with equipment and chemicals that kept me from taking it up. But I realize now it was something else, too. It was the notion that to be a good photographer you had to use a light meter to calculate the optimum exposure. I could not abide the idea of such a rationalized imposition. It was like being told I had to learn scales when all I wanted to do was improvise.

Which I do, now. Three years into to my iPhone ownership, I am free as a gypsy, stalking my moments, utterly heedless of technical considerations. But aware, also, that any real photographer would scoff to see me at it.

Serendipity is glimpsed in its various little occasions, but for me the point is feeling the subtle and changeful current that enables them. That current gets active, I think, when there is heightened attention, whether having to do with the affections, or else making and creating — the efforts of the imagination. Is it that I unexpectedly find what I need when I am writing, or does my raised energy reveal the relevance of what I am already looking at? To bring it back to photography — again — I do have the experience, often, where I’ll be staring at something right in front of me, something I’ve looked at a thousand times, and suddenly I see it. At which point, because of the seeing, through the seeing, that familiar thing becomes picture-worthy. I reach for my phone.

CB: I’m superstitious on a small scale. I think you are, too. When I’m walking the dog in the back meadow and my eye alights on a four-leaf clover, I feel like I’m in tune with the world. But — and this is important — I don’t really believe in the supernatural power of four-leaf clovers. I do believe in the power of finding them, seeing them. I suspect your found pennies serve a similar function — a sign that you’re seeing things, that your eyes and your mind are attuned to your surroundings. I feel the same way about dreams. Remembering a dream, even a terrible dream, is a sign that I’m on, that I’m in touch.

I suspect that photography has wormed its way into our lives — yours and mine — as, at least in part, a strategy for this kind of attunement. It’s a kind of visual tuning fork. Carry a camera around and the world assembles itself to your eyes in fresh ways. It’s as though the world had been lying in wait, hushed, until you came along.

Preparing for Penland, where I was to teach with Neal Rantoul, I assigned myself shooting exercises in managing depth of field, shifting light, indoors and out, close-ups. My field of operation was our house and its immediate surroundings: the patio, the doorways, the birdfeeder. But as I was putting myself through these small drills, I was also discovering where I lived. I was tuning myself, my eyes. Now I notice that odd fragment of birch by the birdbath.

Attunement is another word for mood, or mode. The linkage is clearer in German, one of those Heideggerian thickets in which the Thinker from the Black Forest wallows, like danken and denken, thinking and thanking. The common German word for mood is Stimmung, a word that also suggests the tuning of a violin. A related word, Einstimmung, is German for attunement. Stanley Cavell used to go to town (or to tune) with this run of words, always relating it to Emerson on moods.

There’s a paradox (at least one!) here. If we’re alert to possible patterns, as Gombrich says, we’re far more likely to register them. Our aperture is open, our light sensor on. But if we are too keyed on particular patterns, too demanding that the world meets our expectations, we’re likely to miss other patterns — patterns that might mean more to us at a particular moment. I tried to get at this in the opening of a piece I wrote recently:

Fortune favors those who notice patterns. Hence, the belief in four-leaf clovers.

I used to find four-leaf clovers everywhere. Then I read somewhere that one in 10,000 clovers has four leaves. Now I never find them. Fortune favors the uninformed.

Your etymological excursion made me wonder about superstition, that old bogeyman of scientists. I remember my father getting into a spat, when he edited Chemistry magazine back in the 1960s, with Isaac Asimov. My father had made bold to suggest that maybe there was something to astrology. If you’re born in January, you’re going to be bundled up as a baby, the wind is cold on your face. You’ll have a different sense of the world than if you’re a Leo. It seemed a modest point. But Asimov went ballistic. If scientists let in one scintilla of ancient superstition, the whole game is lost. And so on.

Superstition comes from Latin words for standing over. Huh? One guess from etymologists is that we stand over certain things or events in awe. Like lost pennies or four-leaf clovers.

SB: Well, it seems we both walk with our eyes to the ground, missing most everything in creation, but finding pennies (heads/tails) and, in your case, a few four-leaf clovers. You say you believe in the power of finding, taking it as a sign “that your eyes and your mind are attuned to your surroundings.” Me too.

I am walking along on my way to work and I spot, brown on slightly darker brown, a penny in the dirt by the sidewalk. I bend to pick it up and as I do I register the slightest little ripple of the benign. If I am going to a meeting or getting ready for an important call, I dare to think — before touching figurative wood to counter the hubris — it might go well, that the day is on my side. Dr. Asimov would, of course, leave the room at this point.

Let me quickly clarify that this divination is for me a species of play. Necessary play, but play nonetheless. (Dictionary definition of play: “Amuse oneself by engaging in imaginative pretense.”) I do not buy lottery tickets or in any way alter my plans or actions on account of a penny. But I take note. Just as I take note when my glance finds the digital clock and I see that it reads 11:11. (I always say, “Aha!”) Just as I observe — I think I tried to explain this to you once — how the covers fall when I make the bed. These things are not about forecasting, but attunement. The alignment of self and world.

Your thoughts on finding got me to look back at an essay by Guy Davenport, called … “Finding.” It’s in his book The Geography of the Imagination, which was at one time quite important for me. Of course I’d misremembered much of what I’d once read, recasting it in memory as a more philosophical meditation on happenstance — “hap” — when really it’s more an anecdotal reminiscence of how when he was a boy he and his family would go on expeditions in search of arrowheads. But then, near the end, he does offer up a few bits of wisdom.

I especially liked this:

And I learned from a whole childhood of looking in fields how the purpose of things ought perhaps to remain invisible, no more than half known. People who know exactly what they are doing seem to me to miss the vital part of any doing.

A bit of a koan, that. The idea wants some pondering, especially in this age of supercomputing, where everything from our genes to galactic first causes is being mapped and measured, and knowability is taken as a kind of given. What does Davenport mean about these people, these knowers, missing “the vital part of any doing”? For me, it’s all about that relation of self and world — about whether we act with or without a presumption about who we are and what we know.

This going around noting clovers and pennies and shapes taken by immobilized bits of lead — is it not all a way of rejecting the presumption, the hubris, of rationalized living, of control?

The Davenport essay, so much about childhood, shifted my focus in that direction. How not? Growing up, I spent a huge amount of time roaming. Prowling woods and swamps and farms near our house, collecting and sifting. I was close to the ground and everything was interesting. I wanted to understand what was what — it was that basic. I was also reading mysteries — Hardy Boys mostly — and of course I wove that amped-up sense of evidence and clues into everything.

The difference between myself and a detective was that a detective works a case and the clues eventually disclose their causal/empirical relation — the mystery is banished as the case is solved. I had no case, but I was thrilled to be looking for clues.

Maybe this helps explain why I was so electrified years later, as a so-called “adult,” when I encountered this passage in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. The narrator, Binx Bolling, is remembering being a soldier in Korea, how he survived a mortar explosion:

I came to myself under a chindolea bush […] Six inches from my nose a dung beetle was scratching around under the leaves. As I watched there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something. I vowed that if I ever got out of this fix, I would pursue the search. Naturally, as soon as I recovered and got home, I forgot all about it. But this morning when I got up, I dressed as usual and began as usual to put my belongings into my pockets: wallet, notebook […] pencil, keys, handkerchief, pocket slide rule […] They looked both unfamiliar and at the same time full of clues. I stood in the center of the room and gazed at the little pile, sighting through a hole made by thumb and forefinger. What was unfamiliar about them was that I could see them. They might have belonged to someone else. A man can look at this little pile on his bureau for thirty years and never once see it. It is as invisible as his own hand. Once I saw it, however, the search became possible. I bathed, shaved, dressed carefully, and sat at my desk and poked through the little pile in search of a clue just as the detective on television pokes through the dead man’s possessions, using his pencil as a poker.

I read this as a parable about an adult regaining something of the child’s sense of the world — the feel of things before repetition has set its deadly stamp on everything. I also can’t help but connect it with what you wrote: “Carry a camera around and the world assembles itself to your eyes in fresh ways. It’s as though the world had been lying in wait, hushed, until you came along.”


Sven Birkerts most recently authored Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age.

Christopher Benfey is a literary critic and scholar of 19th- and 20th-cenury American and British literature. He is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, where he has taught since 1989.