Four in the Morning

Here is a talk about coincidence. The coincidence of four in the morning, given by an American poet who seems to go by only one name, Rives (like a Brazilian footballer).

We are good at spotting coincidences. Even though they are just noise in the data, they leap out at us as evidence of eye-catching pattern. We like pattern and we tend to invest it with meaning when we see it.

Only this is not a coincidence, not a revelation of deep patterns revolving around us in the Cosmos. It is a loop, what they would call in Star Trek a temporal paradox: the end of the loop is also its beginning, evidence in this case of the singular persistence – and the approximative workings – of memory.

We do not remember, it seems, in a like-for-like series of correspondences of memory to past event. Rather, we approximate, forget detail, store narrativised versions of events, and so on. And yet, Rives’ experience reminds us, the raw data persists at some level. Rives is struck by the 4am poem because he has seen it before, where it formed a minor role in someone else’s story, so to speak. Now it is foregrounded, and all that is left is a sensation of familiarity, later confirmed.

In short, he does not remember it: he recognises it. Recognition is not the same as knowing something. It is knowing it when we see it. The pathways of retrieval have been eroded, but the island the pathway led to is still there, flickering dimly like an invisible star.

The odd sensation of recognition plays into fantasies we all have of total recall: that one day we might be able to access this vast repository of experience in all its raw immediacy. But that, I am afraid, remains a fantasy, just as the ignis fatuus of coincidence is a fantasy. Even so, I recommend you spend a little time in the Museum of Four in the Morning, here. And fantasise about powers of total recall.

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