Serendipity

In addition to helping spawn the Gothic revival Horace Walpole captured one of my favorite experiences when he coined the word ‘serendipity’. It looks like it’s a word that didn’t really catch on until the latter half of the 20th century.

In a letter to his cousin he notes he has an unusual and particular kind of good luck finding just what he’s looking for.

“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 endeavor to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than 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 accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”

The OED defines serendipity: “The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery.”

Walpole’s attitude about serendipity reminds me of the Wilson/Dick coinage of metanoia as the irrational belief that the universe is out to help you, similar to Rob Brezsny’s use of pronoia as a fundamentally friendly universe giving you what you need when you need it. Wilson, Dick, and Brezsny are all looking for an opposite to paranoia.

I think this Walpolian mindset, the kind that can coin a word like serendipity and can start a novel with a giant helmet falling from the sky, was an important part of Otranto but was lost as the Gothic genre developed.

And I must say, I wasn’t expecting to broaden my understanding of the abderitic when I started this Gothic research, but I think I found an abderitic patron saint.

On a few occasions Walpole signed himself as Democritus in his letters, donning the cloak of the laughing philosopher. Democritus is another, perhaps the first, patron saint of the aberitic, actually being from Abdera. And, while the humorless Kant may have tut-tutted those who see the human experience as a comedy, Democritus saw the human experience as something to laugh about.

Why Gothic?

In the summer of 2023 I was fishing around for some substantive research project to sink myself into. I knew I wanted to write about myself but not wholly about myself. I wanted to intermingle some sort of research I could use as a lens for contemplating my own aging, mortality, existence, etc. 

I eventually arrived at Frankenstein.

Frankenstein is, among other things, all about life and death and the meaning of existence and the body as an object. I would, I decided, do a deep dive into Frankenstein (the book, the creature, the movies and other spin-offs and variations) and use that as a springboard for some more personal reflections. 

On July 31st my back collapsed (I ultimately discovered I have a bulging L1 disc) and that sealed my commitment to writing about Frankenstein.* I read the book, read bios of Mary Shelley, her mother, and watched many, many Frankenstein movies.

As I got deeper into the project I realized I wanted more context (which is my predictable response to most things in life). What works would Mary Shelley be familiar with when she wrote Frankenstein? How unique was her work? Was Frankenstein sui generis or just another drop in a sea of genre work? And so, my research expanded into the Gothic.

Ultimately this is still a research project about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the creature (and reflections about my own existence). The final result (if, indeed, there is ever a final result) will most likely be a self-published ebook. The blog will be notes and sketches taken along the way as I sort through the literary, artistic, philosophical, and biographical underpinnings of Mary Shelley’s world, and then follow the development of the creature over the next two centuries.

If you want to follow along you can subscribe (in the right-hand column there is a “subscribe to blog via email” box) or follow on your favorite RSS. I’ll also be re-posting on Tumblr (which is the extent of my social media presence these days).

*I’m better now, though very minor issues continue to linger. For example, I am meeting with a physical therapist on Monday to discuss ways of strengthening my back and my core, and improving my standing and sitting posture. I started yoga last spring and loved it, but I think some of the positions may have been exacerbating the issue.