essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Is coincidence a means of drawing our attention to significant causes? As Bob Dylan put it:
The highway is for gamblers,
Better use your sense;
Take what you have gathered
(Bob Dylan – “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. Bringing It All Back Home 1965).
This thought came to me when reading something about two favourite comedians/social commentators/satirists (we don’t have a term we’re comfortable about): George Carlin and Dave Allen.
Carlin and Allen are both pioneers of so called ‘alternative’ stand up comedy, which uses devices such as anger and obscenity to shock audiences into considering the points the performer wants to make about social behaviour or society. This method of presentation is as old as that of Juvenal, at the end of the first century AD, who stood before a live audience and used anger and obscenity to get their attention on the behaviour he was excoriating. Juvenal, Carlin and Allen are all great satirists.
Satirists are a bit like secular preachers I think.
Here’s some coincidences about Allen and Carlin:
• The men were almost exact contemporaries. Allen (real name O’Mahony) was born in Dublin 1936, 10 months before Carlin, who was born in New York.
• Allen was born to an Irish father and an English mother, Carlin to an Irish father and an American mother; both fathers were prominent journalists.
• Allen’s father died when he was 12, Carlin’s when he was eight: both Allen and Carlin were deeply influenced by their mothers.
• Allen and Carlin both went to Catholic schools and remained deeply embittered by the treatment they received there for the rest of their lives.
• Both men were agnostic and highly critical of organised religion.
• Both Allen and Carlin came of age during the first rock and roll revolution 1955-1959, saw it crushed, and were themselves part of the second revolution 1962-1969, that included the careers of the Beatles and the US Civil Rights Movement.
• Carlin’s career began on TV in the mid sixties, Allen began on Australian TV in 1963, both as comedians on variety shows.
• Carlin was arrested in 1972 at Milwaukee’s Summerfest for obscenity; Allen’s show was banned by the Irish government in 1977 for sacrilege.
• Both men had award winning alternative careers as actors.
• Carlin was also a best selling author, Allen a documentary film maker of note (including a 1969 documentary on New York), and a highly esteemed amateur painter.
• Allen worked till 1998, a 35 year career; Carlin till 2008, a 43 year career.
• Allen compiled a series of six anthologies of the best of his work, and Carlin completed 12 HBO Specials 1977-2008 containing his best work.
There was very little stand up comedy (at least as we know it) performed till Lenny Bruce and Shelley Berman came along in the late 50s. Allen evolved a stand up routine that involved sitting on a bar stool and drinking ersatz whiskey, and interspersed this with comedy sketches reminiscent of Paul Hogan’s or Benny Hill’s shows. Carlin created characters like Al Sleet, but eventually integrated them into the stand up routine.
The important thing about both Carlin and Allen is that, miraculously, they survived as satirists (unlike Lenny Bruce). They both made devastating criticisms of their society and the people in it. Allen survived by creating the character of the loveable bar room drunk with a fund of silly stories, then the irritated consumer at odds with consumerism. Carlin created the intolerant ranter full of contempt for whole sections of the community. It helped that both men were also great entertainers, and very funny.
Were these mere coincidences in these men’s lives, or significant ones?
Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace were the two men who, independently of one another, presented a persuasive scientific argument for the theory of evolution, an idea widely discussed by scientists in 19th century England. Discoveries in geology in the 18th and 19th centuries had revealed that ideas about human biology and anthropology contained in the Bible’s book of Genesis, themselves derived from older Middle Eastern cultures, were primitive and inaccurate. The Industrial Revolution had radically changed the landscape and the society of the country, and encouraged many to think about what caused such changes, resulting in the studies of Robert Owen, Thomas Malthus, and Darwin and Wallace themselves. By arguing for a mechanism that enabled evolution to occur, which they called natural selection, Wallace and Darwin changed scientific thinking on these matters, and created a model for scientific reasoning that has been influential ever since.
Here are some coincidences about Darwin and Wallace.
• They were both born to families in neighbouring counties, Shropshire and Herefordshire, both on the Welsh border, Wallace in Wales itself where his family lived for a short period.
• They were both children of professional men, Wallace’s father a lawyer, Darwin’s a doctor. Both fathers were also financial speculators, Darwin’s successfully, Wallace’s not.
• Both were influenced by a reading of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, an 1844 best seller by Scottish journalist Robert Chambers, which aroused considerable controversy. It advanced the idea of evolution in stellar, geological and biological contexts.
• Both men were avid collectors of beetles, a craze of the time.
• Both were explorers. Between 1831-6 Darwin travelled to Brazil on the Beagle, then, famously, almost circumnavigating South America, spent time at Galapagos before going on to Hobart, Mauritius, Cape Verde, the Azores and back to England. Between 1848 and 1852 Wallace explored the Rio Negro in Brazil. Then, between 1854 and 1862 he travelled in the Malay Archipelago. From there he wrote to Darwin suggesting the idea of natural selection as the mechanism driving evolution, substantially the same argument that Darwin was then preparing for publication from his own studies.
• Both men wrote books that were among the most influential and popular scientific works of the 19th century and both still read today: Darwin’s Origin of Species of 1859, and Wallace’s Malay Archipelago of 1869.
Like a social earthquake, the Industrial Revolution changed the way of life and thought of millions of people, and disrupted the traditional acceptance of previous explanations of why things were. Creating havoc and conferring benefits in equal measure, the Industrial Revolution spawned changes that invited explanation, and many rose to the challenge. What distinguished Darwin and Wallace was their knowledge of bio diversity, and their determination to account for it in a more general theory. Emotional generalisations that satisfied others were not enough for these two men, and both Darwin and Wallace reasoned from an encyclopaedic examination of the particular few others were capable of.
It was not a question of proof, nor one of religion, but one of reasoning method. Most of the available evidence for and against the working of natural selection had vanished forever. Both Darwin and Wallace wanted the matter debated in an open and reasonable manner, with contention backed up by example and when possible evidence. This approach is what has made both men’s work so influential.
Were the coincidences in these men’s lives a determining factor in their approach, or irrelevant?
Probably two of the greatest cultural icons in America, perhaps in the world, are Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. How did this happen? Was there any coincidental factors in both stars’ lives?
Here are a few coincidences about Elvis and Marilyn
• Marilyn’s mother was Gladys Baker, and Gladys’ best friend Grace McKee helped raise her. Elvis’ mother was named Gladys, and his home was called Graceland.
• Marilyn was a brunette who became famous as a blonde. Elvis was born blonde, had fair hair, and dyed it black. Both stars are known for their hair style.
• Marilyn had a dysfunctional sexual life marred by prostitution, casting couch sex, frequent affairs, and several marriages. Elvis, though given equal opportunity to act this way, was said to have a low sex drive, to be extremely shy, and more interested in play than seduction with women he knew.
• Marilyn and Elvis were both addicted to prescription drugs. Their behaviour towards the end of their lives was aberrant because of their dependance on these drugs. Marilyn’s death could have been caused by the administration of an enema of chloral hydrate ordered by her doctor Ralph Greenson which had an adverse reaction with other drugs authorised by other doctors, drugs which Greenson should have known about. Elvis’ doctor George Nichopoulos had overprescribed drugs for Elvis for ten years before the combined effect of the mixture finally killed him. Nichepoulos lost his license but was exonerated of malpractice. In a sense both stars were murdered by their success and the determination of others to share in their wealth.
Is there any connection between early years in a dysfunctional family and the need to seek approval in show business? Is appearance more important than talent for many stars? Does the fear of losing star status result in drug addiction? Is an early death a component in a star’s status as an icon?
Sirhan Sirhan and Lee Harvey Oswald were two of the most influential people of the 20th century, assassins who stopped a reforming President and Attorney General from carrying out wide ranging changes that might have averted a world recession. Or were they just nonentities?
What could these coincidences about Sirhan and Oswald mean?
• Sirhan was said to be a pro Palestinian activist, though there are little traces of such activism. Oswald was allegedly pro Castro, though again the evidence is scanty.
• Sirhan is alleged to have fired nine shots with an eight-shot Iver Johnson .22 caliber Cadet 55-A revolver, wounding five people, and killing Robert Kennedy with three shots and missing with a fourth, while security forces remained inactive. Oswald is alleged to have shot President Kennedy and wounded Texas Governor John Connally with one bullet from a rifle, shot the President with a second bullet, wounded a bystander with a third, yet to have been seen by fellow employees seconds after the shots on a different floor of the building where he worked to that from which the shots were fired. Security forces were inactive during the shooting of the President.
• Sirhan left convenient evidence he was intending to shoot RFK, in the form of a diary found in his apartment, and in remarks he made to neighbours, and seems a most inept assassin. As was Oswald, leaving lots of (conflicting) evidence of his political views, and of his ownership of a rifle that might have killed the President.
• The killing of JFK, and of RFK, doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with the political opinions of these men. Both killings appear essentially motiveless. Both men claimed to have been framed.
Would the two murders have taken place anyway without these assassin’s presence on the scene? Do the coincidences suggest the same method of covering up a political crime, used on each occasion? Why were the security forces so inept, as much so as airport security prior to the September 11 2001 attacks?
There are many more instances where parallel careers invite speculation about coincidences that may have been the cause. Freud and Jung, for example, Kyd and Marlowe. The job is to separate the trivial coincidences from the formative ones, complicated by changing contexts. Hair colour and anything to do with appearance is important for an icon for instance, but not for a scientist, whose method of assimilating experience is the important factor.
So, getting back to Bob Dylan, we can ramble down the highway and take a gamble, or we can examine what we come across and find it’s a curious old world we live in.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.