We are made for patterns. Our brains are wired for them. We argue about the utility of the humanities and the sciences, but deep down the study of The Canterbury Tales and the study of a galaxy are the same. They are both the study of structure, and through structure function, and through function, meaning. The structures and functions of our studies are different, but the meaning is the same. We search for meaning, even when that meaning is that there is no meaning.
That search for patterns can throw us off. We’ll find them even when they’re not there. It is easy to fall for this stuff. We all do every day. Satan isn’t hiding dinosaur bones in the ground to fool us into disbelief (perhaps the ultimate conspiracy theory), but the universe often generates patterns that seem to have meaning, patterns that seem to portend Fate or Destiny or Doom for us, because we must be special and the Word or World must be speaking to us, when really it’s just a coincidence, a cosmic joke on us generated at random by an apathetic universe.
I stumbled across one of these myself recently. It is a slight thing, a quote from a line in Andrew Marvell’s famous poem “To His Coy Mistress.” Yet the pattern is so striking that I cannot shake it.
Marvell’s poem is famous for the beauty of its structure in contrast to the rather dirty function. The point of the poem is basically, “if we had all the time in the world, I’d make love to you slowly over millions of years, but life is short, so let’s go ahead and just bone, okay?” It’s most famous line is the first, “Had we but world enough, and time,” but it’s a second quote: “My vegetable love should grow/vaster than empires, and more slow” that haunts me, that weaves a pattern I can neither decode nor put aside.
In the past month, I have bought two books. Both are collections of fantastical short stories (“speculative fiction” if you must) by preeminent female authors of similar age who have achieved nigh-legendary status in their respective literary fields (sci-fi/fantasy and literary fiction). The first is The Wind’s Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. LeGuin, the second is The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Faerie Stories by A.S. Byatt.
I bought both at labyrinthine used book stores, one in Lincoln, Nebraska, the other at Myopic Books in Wicker Park. I bought both after long wanderings in the store, searching for a book to read next. Both caught my eye since both are short story collections (which I find easier to commit to than novels) and both are by renowned authors I’d meaning to read more of.
The quote from Marvell appears in both. In the LeGuin, it is the title of a science fiction story about the exploration of a remote planet where there is only botanic life, but that botanic life constitutes one massive, planet-sized collective being (James Cameron ripped off this concept in Avatar). The title evokes both the growth of epic scope of interstellar exploration, and also the planet itself, a vegetable consciousness that is vaster than any empire and must have taken billions of years to develop. Like Marvell’s poem, one of the meanings in the structure and function of this story is the meagerness of humanity in the vastness of time and space. We are small and fleeting, and “before us lie, deserts of vast eternity.”
In the Byatt, it is remembered by a middle-aged English professor as she makes love to a djinn (a genie) that she has accidentally released in her Istanbul hotel room. Byatt’s invocation of the line is more straightforward and more ironic, since the djinn is immortal and is capable of loving on the scale Marvell’s poem desires, but his lovers are all mortal and so have only as much world and time as Marvell and his coy mistress. Indeed, he carries the love of Queen of Sheba and a Turkish concubine with him through the ages, and so, too, will he always love the English professor.
When I came across “vaster than empires, and more slow” in the Byatt, I had to put the book down. It was a weird moment. It felt serendipitous and calamitous. What did it mean that this quote showed up in both these similar books bought and under similar circumstances?
Nothing, really. The appearance of the poem’s line is a pattern with no structure or function, and no meaning same the one I chose to give it. It’s just a coincidence. But I can’t get it out of my head. It feels like a gift, a secret left for me to find and decode, like the scientists trying to solve the mystery of the organism-planet in LeGuin’s story, or the English professor deconstructing literary narratives in Byatt’s. Like I’m supposed to do something, or learn something, from Marvell’s poem. I might have forgotten the line had I read it once, but its mysterious reappearance has burned it into my brain.
It feels like a gift, and maybe that makes it one. It gave me Marvell’s poem again, which I had loved when we studied it in high school, but had since forgotten. I’m grateful for that. This pattern an accidental gift, given to me at random by nothing at all, other than sheer dumb, petty chance. But sometimes that’s enough.