What follows is a circuitous reflection on the thin line between significance and meaninglessness, between fateful conjunctions and complete coincidences, between public history and political “truths,” between personal histories and the burden of expectations
A Montana couple recently celebrated the birth of their child, born on November 12 at 2:15 in the afternoon. The birth gained some attention in the national media, not because the parents are in any way prominent, but because the child can be said to have been born on 11-12-13 at 14:15.
Last year, headlines asked, “What are you going to do on 10-11-12?”
We have just marked the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Here is a likely familiar list, provided by Wikipedia, of ostensibly eerie links between the two assassinations—a large number of which involve numbers:
Both presidents were elected to the House of Representatives in ’46.
Both presidents were elected to the presidency in ’60.
Lincoln defeated incumbent Vice President John C. Breckenridge for the presidency in 1860; Kennedy defeated incumbent Vice President Richard M. Nixon for the presidency in 1960.
Both their predecessors left office in their seventies and retired to Pennsylvania. James Buchanan, whom Lincoln succeeded, retired to Lancaster Township; Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom Kennedy succeeded, retired to Gettysburg.
Both their Vice Presidents and successors were Southern Democrats named Johnson (Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson) who were born in ’08.
Both presidents were concerned with the problems of black Americans and made their views strongly known in ’63. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, which became law in 1863. In 1963, Kennedy presented his reports to Congress on Civil Rights, and the same year was the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Both presidents were shot in the head.
Both presidents were shot on a Friday in the presence of their wives.
Both presidents were accompanied by another couple.
The male companion of the other couple was wounded by the assassin.
Both presidents had a son die during their presidency.
Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre; Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald in a Lincoln automobile, made by Ford.
Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy who told him not to go to the theatre; Kennedy had a secretary named Evelyn Lincoln who warned him not to go to Dallas.
Both presidents’ last names have 7 letters.
Both presidents have five syllables in their full name (which counts Kennedy’s middle initial).
There are 6 letters in each Johnson’s first name.
Booth ran from a theatre to a warehouse; Oswald ran from a warehouse to a theatre.
Both Johnsons were succeeded as President in ’69 by Republicans whose mothers were named Hannah.
I did not realize until I read the Wikipedia article that some of the items are simply not true. For instance, I had heard it so often that I had never thought to question it, but apparently Lincoln never had a secretary named Kennedy.
Given the conspiracy theories and the mix of half-truths and leaps in conjecture characteristic of many of those theories, perhaps I should not be surprised that this artifact of the popular culture should be similarly dubious, should be as much urban legend as credible history.
But, before some of you rush to share your deep convictions about who assassinated President Kennedy or who was responsible for that assassination, please permit me a brief digression.
I first attended the annual MLA Conference in 1989. Late in the first afternoon, there was a panel on the literature of the Spanish Civil War, perhaps purposely or perhaps coincidentally marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of that conflict. Most of the panelists were young, and I remember that the last presenter was a young woman who initially seemed quite anxious but who seemed to gain confidence as she worked her way through her paper. When she concluded, I remember thinking that it was a very good paper, perhaps the best of the bunch. After a pause, the chair allowed for questions.
A very old man unfolded himself from his seat and, without any prefatory comment whatsoever, bluntly denounced the young woman’s paper as a product of fascist propaganda. As other old men in the audience—and I gradually realized that at least half of the audience seemed to be octogenarians or older–grunted their approval or dissent, he catalogued the politically reprehensible assumptions that were evident in the young woman’s paper: that is, he was not attacking her literary analysis for its lack of coherence or even its validity; rather, he was attacking it because its political implications offended him.
When he finally sat down, a half-dozen other old men stood at once and competed to speak. If they had been younger, a brawl might have broken out, but most of them were having troubling simply standing, and the disjunction between the animated ferocity of their voices and their obvious physical frailty was very striking.
When I next looked again at the young woman, she had the look of someone walking away from a terrible auto accident, physically unscratched but, nonetheless, deeply traumatized. I felt that I had witnessed the sudden destruction of most of her most cherished illusions about a career in academia.
I have never experienced what that young woman experienced. In fact, the closest that I have come to her experience has probably been in the response to some of my posts to this blog. I would like to think that many of the most abusive comments have come from individuals outside of academia, but, unlike that young woman, I retain very few illusions that academic discourse is much different than the general public discourse.
And what cherished illusions that I still do have about academia I keep hidden away, shielded from the damage that vehemence, like coincidence, can do.
Moreover, I feel blessed that, unlike that baby in Montana, I have never needed to wonder whether my birth was a good or bad omen. I have never needed to grapple with the sense that the numerical accident in the timing of my birth may have overshadowed the significance of the whole of my subsequent life. That would seem a terrible burden.
But, then again, perhaps that baby may grow up to be President of the United States. In that case, the numerical accident of his or her birth will become the cause of much wonder and consternation–not to mention the topic of a Wikipedia article.