Accident: A Philosophical and Literary History

When, in 1924, the Armenian guru/magus/impresario George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff wrapped his Citro?n around a tree at 90 miles an hour (he drove his car, according to one observer, “like a man riding a horse”), there were certain consequences. Medical consequences, first — rather serious ones — but later philosophical consequences. How was it possible, his disciples wondered, for a person of such supernatural attainments to be so victimized by the crude physics of speed, direction, impact, etc.? Might he have engineered the smash-up himself, in one of his unpredictable metaphysical demonstrations? Others spoke darkly of cut wires and loosened bolts. And, in a development right out of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, a turncoat ex-acolyte named Mouravieff adduced the episode as a primal flaw in the Gurdjieffian system — proof (as he wrote in his three-volume work Gnosis) that the Master was “not outside the Law of Accident.”

Gurdjieff and his crumpled Citro?n do not make it into Ross Hamilton’s Accident: A Philosophical and Literary History — surprisingly, because almost everybody else does. From St. Augustine to Buster Keaton, through Tristram Shandy and Alien, Hamilton follows his own radical line of inquiry into the nature and meaning of accident, almost creating in the process an entire new philosophical discipline. I say “almost” only because his definition of the accidental is so broad and fecund as to slightly boggle the untrained mind. Hamilton begins with Aristotle’s distinction between “substance” (ousia) and “accident” (sumbebekos) — between what is essential and unchanging, that is, and what is mutable and contingent — and basically spreads out from there, scanning centuries of theology, philosophy, and literature for the most interesting points of categorical collision.

Some of these collisions are physical. Knocked down by a car in the middle of Paris, the sculptor Giacometti is unaccountably elated; Montaigne’s horse is rear-ended by another, much larger horse, and the great essayist is shocked clean out of his body (Hamilton calls this “the first literary accident”). Others are not physical at all: the Eucharist, for example, was for St. Thomas Aquinas the paradigmatic interpenetration of substance and accident, with its essence of unchangeable divinity persisting through “all the accidents of the bread and wine.” Between these two poles lie the great visionary smitings of Saul on the road to Damascus and Rousseau on the road to Vincennes — irruptions from beyond, moments at which, in Rousseau’s words, “I saw another universe and I became another man.” Less dramatically, Wordsworth’s “spots of time” — soft breakthroughs of the infinite, held in memory — quietly preserve us from the accidental realm of “trivial occupations and the round / Of ordinary intercourse…”

Hamilton is an academic — an associate professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University, to be precise — and he is not ashamed to write like one. He has a bit of a thing for the word “pedagogical” and also the word “topos.” His writing can produce that paradoxical effect often encountered in densely intellectual prose, wherein the energy of multiplying ideas is harnessed to language that refuses, barnacle-like, to lift off the page. “What Sterne attempted to teach — and we recognize the persistently pedagogic purpose in his work — was not precisely analogous to the act of judgment that formed such an essential part of Fielding’s pedagogical goal but an art of communication that acknowledged the dangers of inordinate reliance on the formation of judgments alongside the possibilities inherent in the process of association.” Munching your way through a sentence like that, you may find yourself longing for some small accident of your own — a short power outage, perhaps, or a low-intensity earthquake.

Hamilton also, as if absentmindedly, neglects from time to time to tell us what is actually going on with his subjects. Giacometti’s accident on the Place des Pyramides both opens and closes the book, but in neither case do we get any details of the incident itself. (A somewhat unsatisfactory footnote informs us that, according to Sartre, the flattened sculptor felt a queer kind of joy as “the menacing order of causes” was revealed to him.) Comparisons with Jennifer Michael Hecht’s delightfully readable Doubt: A History — a similar kind of project, on the face of it — are not altogether flattering.

But don’t be put off. Hamilton is the pioneer here, thrashing across his rough terra nova of the accidental, and we cannot expect him to be completely graceful. Distracting luminescences surround him. Over here is Freud, carefully distinguishing between “chance events” — falling pianos and so on — and those “psychic accidents” that are the projection of our interior life. Over there is Darwin, contemplating evolution as it recedes into a godless and chance-determined prehistory, and feeling sad: “I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world.” Themes of accident pervade Hamlet, we discover, with the black-clad prince poised like a doubtful angel over the lower realm of matter and motion, unsure whether to risk descent. And the “great stone face” of Buster Keaton expresses both imperturbability and complete bewilderment as the world gives way beneath him only to bear him up again. “The principal impression his films convey,” writes Hamilton, “is of the character’s extraordinary good luck.” Good old Buster, planted with flat feet at the exact intersection of accident and providence. A history of luck — now, there’s an idea…

James Parker is the author of
Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins (Cooper Square Press). He is a staff writer for the Boston Phoenix.