March 15, 2007
The Two Eagons
— Jeremy Biles
We've all seen reports of religious likenesses cropping up in unexpected places: the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich or Ganesha's form manifested in a suggestively lumpy potato. Some of these images are revered as holy manifestations; others fetch hefty sums on eBay. However risible such phenomena are — and whether an entrepreneurial or a holy spirit is the active force behind them — one point is serious and indisputable: resemblances arouse our fascination.
What fortuitous resemblances are in space — in the dimension of images — coincidences are in time. Carl Jung famously elaborated a concept of "synchronicity" as "the parallelism of time and meaning between psychic and psychophysical events." Decades before Jung's essay, the surrealists were seeking imagistic resemblances and actively courting coincidences. André Breton, surrealism's founding father and most prominent theorist, developed a concept of meaningful coincidence that he called "objective chance." His novel Nadja is an autobiographical love story that evolves through objective chance — a marvelous encounter with the eponymous character.
Indeed, meaningful coincidences often form the basis of literature (Paul Auster's work comes to mind) and movies (like that masterpiece of the uncanny, Donnie Darko). Similarly, tales of chance meetings or compelling resemblances regularly become part of our personal repertoire of stories.
Why are we fascinated with coincidences and unexpected resemblances? Why are they so often at the root of our narratives? Because chance resemblances and fortuitous convergences solicit interpretation. That is, they call out to be treated not merely as random occurrences, but rather as symbols — and symbols, philosopher of religion Paul Ricoeur writes, "give rise to thought." But what precisely is religious about this fascination?
Some believe that seeing the Holy Mother in a stain on the wall is an instance of wish fulfillment; it confirms faith. But I think that another level of wish fulfillment is at work. Humans partake of a desire for what astonishes — the irruption of the heterogeneous into the monotonous, the transformation of the everyday into the extraordinary. Coincidences, resemblances, and repetitions respond to a wish for the paranormal, the supernatural. And this desire compels a religio-aesthetic interpretation of life that engages the imagination and invigorates the soul.
So when Jesus appears on tortilla, it is not — or not only — the sacred figure that makes the artifact "religious," for the religious visage is a second-order representation; it simply makes more literal the seemingly supernatural quality of the fortuitous likeness. It is the resemblance itself that is miraculous.
Coincidences and chance resemblances inject our lives with something beyond quotidian reality, making of everyday existence a metaphysical expedition, an ongoing adventure of interpretive engagement. And whether they are, in fact, signs written by a divine author or random occurrences, coincidences and resemblances become kernels of stories that enhance the meaning of our lives. They give rise to thought, they exercise our symbolic faculties, they arouse and focus our attention — and attention, it has been said, is the natural prayer of the soul.
Let me conclude with a narrative — and an interpretation — from my own life. This is the story of a double coincidence, in time and space, of a photograph and a post card. (Go here to view the images: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/sightings/archive_2007/eagonimages.shtml.)
One morning I came across this Polaroid of a kid apparently named Eagon. The picture was on a sidewalk in Chicago, in front of an elementary school where Eagon's teacher had no doubt snapped shots of his or her students for the class bulletin board. I was delighted by this chance find: what a great, expressive shot of a child — his mouth open in a laughing shout, Eagon appears full of life.
Later that same day, I ran into a friend of mine who had just returned from a trip to Mexico, where he picked up a post card for me. "La Momia Mas Pequeña Del Mundo," the sign above the figure's head reads: The Smallest Mummy in the World. The resemblance between this mummy and Eagon — the posture, the open mouths (not to mention that Eagon is sporting a Band-Aid on his forehead — an allusion to a stereotypical mummy's wrappings): all this was astonishing, and I immediately photocopied the Polaroid, snipped out the name, and attached it to the bottom of the post card, making of the mummy a second Eagon, a morbid twin.
How to interpret this uncanny resemblance? On the one hand, there's something sad, even tragic, about this pairing. It's as if the lively little child finds his — and everyone's — ultimate fate in the mirror image of the world's smallest mummy. (The clock that appears just over Eagon's shoulder reinforces this sense of tragedy, of time as destroyer.) But there's another kind of communication going on here, one that suggests that the desiccated little mummy enjoys new life, reincarnated in his spry counterpart, the kindergartener.
So, the two Eagons: tragedy, coincidence, repetition — and resurrection?
Jeremy Biles is the editor of Sightings and author of the forthcoming book Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University Press).
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism: Religious, Irreligious, and Areligious" by W. Clark Gilpin. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings welcomes submissions of 500 to 750 words in length that seek to illuminate and interpret the forces of faith in a pluralist society. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. The editor also encourages new approaches to issues related to religion and public life.
Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Please send all inquiries, comments, and submissions to Jeremy Biles, managing editor of Sightings, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe, unsubscribe, or manage your subscription at the Sightings subscription page.