Or how Uncle Tom great uncle, Dr. But, as I was saying, Daddy did a silly thing that Christmas.
When all the presents were opened, the great pile of wrappings incinerated up the chimney of our big fireplace, and all of us starving and talking about how big the turkey was, Dad called from the kitchen for us to sit down. Terrell and I were on each side down the table, all watching the door for Judge Malcolm B. And in he came, platter raised high, and set it before us.
Only problem was, that instead of the turkey Dad had placed a little, tiny Cornish hen he had cooked at the same time, on the great platter where the big turkey should be. Out in the kitchen, there were some words between Mom and Dad that were not fit for this Christmas remembrance, but in short order the biggest turkey in Lumberton appeared on the platter carried by a chastened jurist. Pearl could not believe what had happened to the little hen; then she realized her beloved Malcolm had played a stupid Christmas joke.
But one thing Pearl never learned in her loving, simple life was being judgmental. And sure enough, red eyes and all, Dad returned to serve us all the best turkey I ever ate. The Wares moved out in the spring of You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously. Seeing this beautiful play in its native environment was pure joy. But the constellation of ideas that played out before and after the experience was simply extraordinary. The play is a theatrical presentation of serendipity — of coincidence and the magic of human entanglements.
My Oxford sabbatical, now sadly coming to an end, has itself been a lived, serendipitous wonder. Somehow all of this became dramatically obvious while watching Arcadia. This is a layered story, both Arcadia and my own experiences surrounding the drama. One of the great anticipations of coming to Oxford this year was the opportunity to attend the John Locke Lectures in Philosophy — arguably the most prestigious venue for philosophy and ethics in the world. His five lectures were deeply disappointing to me.
The most disappointing part was how inaccessible Professor Scanlon made his presentation.
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Reading his pages and without even occasional eye contact with his audience, without as well, metaphor, illustration, narrative or any humanizing reference, he was truly talking to himself. Well, reading to himself, out loud. Leaving the final lecture I talked with a friend — Linda McFadden, herself a theologian and author —who had on my invitation come up to Oxford to attend the lecture, about the importance of ethics having a narrative character, no matter the school or approach of the ethicist.
Scanlon is a contractarian in the distinguished tradition of Hobbes, Kant and John Rawls. But whereas each of those members of the ethical pantheon are famous for their use of metaphor and narrative to explicate their often-difficult ideas, Scanlon, at least upon this occasion, demurred. She had noticed the volume on a bookshelf in the loo of the flat she is borrowing in London. I had previously downloaded the Audible.
Two weeks later Linda and I were part of a packed house to hear Coetzee read from his fictional biography, Summertime Coetzee is a shy and pensive presence. To his obvious embarrassment, he was too elaborately introduced by the chairperson of the English Department of Oxford University.
Like Scanlon, Coetzee read his presentation, seldom looking up or making eye contact with the standing room only audience. But there all similarity ends. Summertime is a richly human story, intimate, self deprecating, moving. Then, we the audience further embarrassed the great author by excessive, standing applause. I was there. One of my three purchases was The Lives of Animals.
And bingo! The parallels between the Locke Lectures and the Tanner Lectures is more than a little coincidental. But what Coetzee did at Princeton in was extraordinary:. A story within a lecture within a story of a lecture, on ethics! Read it. You will not feel lectured to, but you will be engulfed and engaged in one of the thorniest ethical issues we human beings face. I am an outrageous omnivore, inclined toward the carnivorous aspects thereof.
Mostly I think Vegans, as their appellation suggests, should have their own planet. In The Lives of Animals , Coetzee engulfed me in an ethical disequilibrium I would have thought impossible.
In Hobbes had commissioned a hand written, vellum paged copy of his great work as a present for Charles II whom Hobbes had tutored in mathematics while both he and the King in exile were in Paris during the Cromwell Interregnum. My little side venture had actually taken a great deal of advance work.
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So in I went to London, admonished by a number of friends and family to avoid red phone kiosks as I crossed once more the same busy streets as on the day, a month before, of my cerebral encounter with the Leviathan of all phone boxes. Arnold Hunt was so gracious.
The Presentation Copy of Leviathan is his favorite book in all the rare documents section of the British Library. He literally handled it with kid gloves. It is still a stupid use of the word.
It turned up in a private collection in the 19 th Century and was thence acquired by the British Library. But more significant to this little tale of mine is the infatuation of Thomas Hobbes with mathematics, particularly geometry, and all the trouble he got into in trying to solve a difficult theorem, The Squaring of the Circle. Frankly, Hobbes was not much of a mathematician, though he did tutor the King in exile in maths, and probably thereby saved his own life.
A story we shall not go into I know the reader is thankful here. My day in London ended with Linda who already had seen the play three times before!
And here is the amazing twist. Arcadia is a story within a story enacted as a play.
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It is also about chaos theory and patterns of coincidence and how time is of one piece, past and present woven in a single fabric of reality. I cannot begin to do the play justice in this short essay. Stoppard has set his play within a mansion in rural England Sidley Park , in a single grand room that looks out upon a large landscaped garden behind the great house.
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Within this space two different times — the early 19 th Century and the present — exist in tandem. One is within the Newtonian world of mechanical objectivity; the other in a Quantum world, relative to its core. Two extended families of characters move in and out of the room and garden beyond. Lord Byron a house guest who never appears haunts both past and present. Thomasina Coverly is a young girl 13 in Act One to17 in Act Two who is a wonder of imagination and curiosity. The theorem is named for Pierre de Fermat, who was in the circle of mathematicians, scientists and philosophers The so called Mersenne Circle or Salon with whom Thomas Hobbes frequented during his exile in Paris to Hobbes, as noted above, was engaged in solving another mathematical quandary, the squaring of a circle, and made a mess of the proof, giving both Descartes and Wallis plenty of ammunition to attack not just his mathematics, but his creditability as a philosopher.
In Arcadia Soppard implies that Thomasina made a similar advance to that of Germain in the quest for solving the most famous math problem of all time. Arcadia also touched my own academic research in a second aspect. One of the fascinating questions in the play is whether the poet Byron, while a guest in the Coverly mansion in , murdered one of the other guests. There has been much speculation over the years as to why Lord Byron so abruptly left England for Greece in In full academic zeal, Professor Nightingale, leaps to this astounding conclusion, only to be proven wrong and publically humiliated.
It would make the coincidence of the play and my visit to the British Library tie together so wonderfully! Loving coincidence as I do, the temptation to jump to conclusions lurks. How could they not have met?