Tag Archives: serendipity

“Let no thought pass incognito”

As a relative newcomer to blogging, I count myself fortunate in my readership.  Though my stats are nothing to write home about, I have something much more important (to me at least):  a handful of readers apparently willing to think with me.  I was reminded of this by a comment left on a recent post about Walter Benjamin’s writing on newspapers, one that began (auspiciously) by quoting me quoting Benjamin:

“Work itself has its turn to speak.” I am letting that line echo a bit in my mind….

As Benjamin also predicts, again, what was old has become new again. Thank you for turning this up.

For me, this succinct comment resonates like crazy.  The re-citing of Benjamin’s language (in translation, of course) – “Work itself has its turn to speak” – redirects us to a formulation that appears deceptively brief, almost pithy, and yet is anything but.  “I am letting that line echo a bit in my mind” attests that such distilled and difficult thought takes time to unfold, if it is not to vanish irretrievably – succumbing to the threat of disappearance that for Benjamin haunts the dialectical image (a threat that, for blogger and micro-blogger , is part and parcel of reverse chronology).  Indeed, it recalls another passage from Benjamin’s writing, one I cited in a post written at the end of 2009 (http://wp.me/pLpwg-19 ).  “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses,” part of the volume One-Way Street, lists the following under number 5:  “Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.”  My gentle reader is precisely not letting this thought – “Work itself has its turn to speak” – pass unrecognized.  (And no one on any side of any border I can think of will miss the stringency of Benjamin’s analogy regarding his notebook-keeping practices.)
The final part of the comment is for me likewise galvanizing:  “Thank you for turning this up.”  My assumption (and I of course stand ready to be corrected) is that the “turning up” involved is not so much a cranking of the volume as a given track is played, but rather akin to an archaeologist’s (or, more prosaically still, a researcher’s) practice when it meets with some success.
But as I have written here before, this blog’s project is very much one of “turning up” writing from the proximate or more distant past that might help us to take stock of our own present, particularly when it comes to the unpredictably unfolding trajectories of media, journalism and historiography.  My own working term and concept for this has been curation, and, for better or worse, this blog is unabashedly curatorial, whether serendipitously or by design.
It goes without saying that I am not the only one who is thinking in terms of curation these days.  To borrow once again from an earlier post ( http://wp.me/pLpwg-Fy ), let me cite Mashable‘s Pete Cashmore:  “For those adrift in a sea of content, good news:  A ‘curation’ economy is beginning to take shape….” [“Twitter lists and real-time journalism,” http://www.cnn.com/2009/tech/11/04/twitter.lists/index.html ]  Whether its inception is late-breaking or old news, there is little doubt that the curation economy is the site of important work, where it may even transpire that “work itself has its turn to speak.”

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“the history and derivation of the word ‘serendipity'”

[Richard Boyle, in continuation]

It was in 1980 at a London library that I first accessed Horace Walpole’s Correspondence in order to delve into the history and derivation of the word serendipity.  The Index gave two references.  Number one was to the letter in which Walpole made first written usage of the word, for Walpole infers that he coined it beforehand.  It is necessary to quote this letter almost in its entirely to provide the precise context of the word’s usage. 

[What follows is Boyle quoting Walpole.]

“The head,” Walpole writes of the portrait, “is painted equal to Titian, and though done, I suppose, after the clock had struck five and thirty, yet she retains a great share of beauty.  I have bespoken a frame for her, with the grand ducal coronet on top, her story on a label at the bottom, which Gray is to compose in Latin as short and expressive as Tacitus (one is lucky when one can bespeak and have executed such an inscription!) the Medici arms on one side, and the Capello’s on the other.  I must tell you a critical discovery of mine a propos:  in an old book of Venetian arms, there are two coats of Capello, who from their name bear a hat, on one of them is added a flower-de-luce on a blue ball, which I am persuaded was given to the family by the Great Duke, in consideration of this alliance; the Medicis you know bore a badge at the top of their arms; this discovery I made by a talisman, which Mr Chute calls the sortes Walpolianae, by which I find everything I want a point nomme wherever I dip for it.

This discovery indeed is almost of that kind which I call serendipity, a very expressive word, which as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you:  you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition.  I once read a silly fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip:  as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of:  for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right – now do you understand serendipity?   One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon’s, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.

Having cited the account in Walpoles’s Correspondences, Boyle abruptly takes his precursor to task:

On reading Walpole’s description of the process of serendipity – “They were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of” – it becomes evident that the example cited is not suited to the coiner’s definition.  The ineptness of this example, and the further one that Walpole cites with reference to Lord Shaftsbury, fail to illustrate the grand concept of serendipity.

Not to mention the fact that he substitutes a donkey for a camel in the silly fairy tale in question.  Boyle is, to my mind, absolutely right about inept examples:  they are hard to forgive (if easy to forget).

Up next:  Boyle finds a second reference to ‘serendipity’ in Walpole – you’ll never guess where.


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Research in motion: more from my “serendipity” notebook

Tempted as I am (on a desultory Monday morning following a night of insomnia) to tell myself that playing for a few hours on “The Random Guardian” will tell me all I need to know about serendipity and the future of journalism, I’ve instead conjured the scholar in me and begun to look a bit further into the history of the elusive tale known in English as The Three Princes of Serendip (keeping in reserve the alluring prospect of playing journalistic chatroulette in my off-hours).  Since I was googling with purpose this time around, it didn’t take long to turn up a 2-part tract dedicated to “the fabled story that inspired Horace Walpole to coin the word serendipity,” published online in 2000 by its author, Richard Boyle.  http://livingheritage.org/three_princes.htm

A quick check on Boyle’s credentials yielded a review of the Sri Lankan historian’s new book at http://www.ondaatje.com/reviews/KnoxWords.htm   According to Christopher Ondaatje, “Richard Boyle, who lives in Sri Lanka, has devoted the greater part of the past two decades to researching the cultural aspects of the British colonial period in Ceylon after the expulsion of the Dutch in 1796 and the takeover of Kandy in 1815.  Four years ago he began to assist the Oxford English Dictionary in the revision of entries for words of Sri Lankan origin or association contained in the OED‘s second edition.”  So the guy is likely to be a reasonably reliable source on these matters, one that I will quote at length by way of background to this interrogation of serendipity (NB:  I will be quoting Boyle, as well as Boyle quoting Walpole, so heads up).  The citations appear in italics and will carry over into my next post.

On the morning of January 28, 1754, an exceptional Englishman sat down at his desk in the library of his gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill, to attend to his correspondence.  It was a daily ritual, for the man in question was probably the greatest letter writer of his era, or of any other for that matter.  On that winter’s morning in Twickenham, London, he composed a letter in which he committed to paper for the first time a word that has contributed much to the English language.  As a consequence, he resurrected a strange Oriental tale that would otherwise have been condemned to obscurity.

The man in question was Horace Walpole (1717-97), fourth Earl of Orford, son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, connoisseur, antiquarian and author of the famous gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (London, 1765).  The word he invented was, of course, serendipity.  And the tale he rescued from literary oblivion was The Three Princes of Serendip.  The letter – to Horace Mann, an envoy in the service of King George II stationed in Florence – was written to acknowledge the safe arrival of a portrait of Bianco Capello, a 16th century beauty and Duchess of Tuscany.  This letter is contained among the 31 volumes of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence (New Haven, 1937), edited by Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis.

Trust me.  It gets better.


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Research in motion: from my “serendipity” notebook



[mass noun]  the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way:  a fortunate stroke of serendipity

[count noun]  a series of small serendipities

These definitions, plucked from the Oxford English Dictionary’s online edition, are accompanied in characteristic OED fashion by an account of the word’s “origin”:  “coined by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things that they were not in quest of.””  http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_gb0756730#m_en_gb0756730

Already, then, my interrogation of the significance of “serendipity” exemplifies serendipity, offers itself as an example of what the word, from its putative “origin,” means to say.  I certainly was not in quest of a fairy tale that, in more years than I care to count as a student and teacher of comparative literature, I had never read, in any language (could this in any way be connected to the fact that I still have outstanding student loans?).  How peculiar, then, to be prompted (no doubt in part by my recent reading of Clay Shirky, a great champion of the cognitive surplus behind Wikipedia), to find myself clicking from the OED entry on “serendipity” to the free encyclopedia’s account of The Three Princes of Serendip.  Allow me to recount some of what I learned.

The Three Princes of Serendip is the English version of the Peregrinaggio di tre figluoli del re di Serendippo published by Michelle Tramezzino in Venice in 1557.  Tramezzino claimed to have heard the story from one Christophero Armeno who had translated the Persian fairy tale into Italian adapting Book One of Amir Khusrau’s Hasht Bihisht of 1302.  The story first came to English via a French translation, and now exists in several out-of-print translations.  Serendip is the Persian name for Sri Lanka.

I am riveted as I go on to read that

The story has become known in the English speaking world as the source of the word serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the “silly fairy tale” where the three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Princes_of_Serendip

So, what do a lost camel and the future of journalism have in common?  Stay tuned.

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My “epistemology of media lag argument,” part 1

This post is, among other things, an example of the intervention of serendipity into the workings of this weblog.  I had planned to take as today’s provisional point of departure a blog post from guardian.co.uk that I had archived for future reference.  Then, pretty much out of the blue, I opened my inbox last night to find an email from a dear friend, with the tantalizing subject heading “Here’s today’s version of your epistemology of media lag argument.”  I clicked on the link with the sense of opening a gift, to discover another post (this one from the New York Times “Media Decoder”) that I found even more compelling than the Guardian candidate.  I may (and I stress may) have found a way to align these two reference points, all unexpectedly, within the framework of this blog’s project (and much of the decades’ worth of research and writing that preceded it).  The effort will require, at a minimum, a short series, beginning (barring the hand of serendipity) with my next post.

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The serendipity factor

Here I write with reference to my earlier post on “Chris Brogan’s throwdown,” which cited his challenge to his readers and fellow bloggers:  What is the focus and purpose of your blog? 

I’ve been mulling this question off and on ever since, testing various formulations against current posts and my triple archive (Makurrah’s Blog, fledgling, and makurrah’s posterous).  But when I returned to my “About” page and re-read the brief lines there, I realized that they constitute an answer to CB’s question.

Pages from the notebooks and archives of a practitioner and critic of blogging in all its manifestations, who is attentive to media, new and old, and their relations to journalism and to historiography.

However, I have run across a few tweets and links that have brought into focus an important aspect of this blog, and an ongoing impetus for me to continue working in the medium.  I refer here to the possibilities, afforded by blogging in particular, for serendipity.

For the moment I will limit myself to providing a few links that got me thinking about this concept and its implications for the practice of blogging in all its manifestations. 

– Inside guardian.co.uk blog, March 26, 2010:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/help/insideguardian/2010/mar/26/random-guardian

– jaggeree blog, March 26, 2010:  http://blog.jaggeree.com/post/475027012/newspapers-as-serendipity-bundles-and-chatroulette-for

– Matthew Ingram at gigaom, March 29, 2010:  http://gigaom.com/2010/03/29/forget-paywalls-how-about-more-serendipity/  

I’ll have more to say on the serendipity factor as time allows.


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