Embrace Chance?

In a collection of art essays by Roger Kimball titled Art’s Prospect (Ivan R. Dee 2003) is an essay on a Matisse exhibit in which Kimball writes the following (151):

[Matisse] arrived [in Morocco in 1912] in the rainy season, and his correspondence is filled with despondent reports on the unending rain. “Shall we ever see the sun in Morocco?” he plaintively asked Gertrude Stein in a postcard. “Since Monday at three, when we arrived, until today, Saturday, it has rained continuously. . . . It’s impossible to leave our room.” We owe a substantial debt to that Moroccan rain, however. For while it corralled a Matisse impatient for the fabled glories of the Moroccan sun, it was the occasion of Le Vase d’iris (1912), which was purchased by [Sergei I.] Shchukin and is now at the Hermitage.

Here’s the painting to which Kimball refers:


Le Vase d’iris is the first painting Matisse did in Morocco. For want of the sun, a different kind of star burst forth from his imagination.

Kimball calls Le Vase d’iris “uncharacteristically somber” and claims that “weeks of rain seem also to have concentrated Matisse’s powers. When the sun finally broke through, he enjoyed a tremendous burst of productivity” (152). Here’s one of the paintings he produced when the sun was out (Porte de la Casbah):


And here’s the Casbah Gate Matisse was representing (photo by R. Dukelow):


And here’s another of Matisse’s Moroccan paintings:


Matisse’s experience with the weather in Morocco recalls for me what Freud, at the end of his little book Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, wrote about the centrality of contingencies in the formation of our lives. Leonardo’s artistic directions (choice of subjects, obsessions, etc.), in Freud’s reading of them, were greatly influenced by facts surrounding his birth and childhood (such as that he was a bastard and “his first stepmother Donna Albiera” was barren). These are the types of things for which Leonardo had zero control over, and yet they contributed to his fate. And so Freud writes the following:

If one considers chance to be unworthy of determining our fate, it is simply a relapse into the pious view of the Universe […] We naturally feel hurt that a just God and a kindly providence do not protect us better from such influences during the most defenseless period of our lives. At the same time we are all too ready to forget that in fact everything to do with life is chance, from our origin out the meeting of spermatozoon and ovum onwards–chance which […] merely lacks any connection with our wishes and illusions.”

In other words, we have to choose what connections we will make between our chance experiences and “our wishes and illusions” (and therefore the connections we make between chance and our creative projects generally). The connections do not come ready-made, linking up in the ways we might think are convenient for us or that we especially desire. Sometimes it rains and we spend the day painting a picture of a desk in a gloomy hotel room (or writing a poem about it).

So what will we make of the cards we are daily dealt? Can we embrace them as the worthy springboards from which our imaginations leap and our lives unfold? Or are we resentful, wishing better luck had come our way? Here’s Freud again, this time quoting Leonardo himself (from chapter 1 of his Leonardo book):

One has no right to love or hate anything if one has not acquired a thorough knowledge of its nature.

And what is the nature of this thing, this cosmos, we’re embedded in? Answer: flux and contingency. The author of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible perhaps boiled it down most eloquently: “Time and chance happeneth to all.”

So what’s to hate here, once you’ve discerned the cosmos’s true nature? (Obviously, a lot. Too much suffering, for one.)

Yet here’s Freud one more time (again from chapter 1 of his Leonardo book):

A man who has begun to have an inkling of the grandeur of the universe with all its complexities and its laws readily forgets his own insignificant self. Lost in admiration and filled with true humility, he all too easily forgets that he himself is a part of those active forces and that in accordance with the scale of his personal strength the way is open for him to try to alter a small portion of the destined course of the world–a world in which the small is still no less wonderful and significant than the great.

What I take from this Freud quote is the butterfly effect. A vast wind of determinate and chance forces are at your back in every moment, and yet you can still flap your wings, moving this way and that, your energy and imagination part of the Great Reverberation.

Still, it’s a bad situation. So little is in our control. And maybe we don’t have free will after all. So embrace chance? What else can we do? But then how can we be anything other than ironic about our commitments?

Maybe cognitive dissonance is the answer. Keep smiling and move right along. As Neal Cassady says (ironically) about our existential situation in the below clip, “Enjoy it!”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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