It's happened before to me, to everyone. The ''chance'' remark that leads to a major discovery - and I never cease to be amazed that such things happen, and to be not a little bit disarmed. For we celebrate the rational life, the pursuit of conscious acts and deliberate behavior. We study how to order our thoughts, plan our thinking - some of us even use formal outlines. But the more we know, the more we seem to know by what seemsm like ''accident.'' As we think about what we want to say, to write about, to do, other forces are at work: not just those dark Dionysian energies we learned informed our selves along with Apollonian light, but what, for want of a better word, might be called the Unexpected. The finer tones we often seek come from unbidden melodies.
We ''just happen'' to be speaking to a certain person one day who ''just happens'' to make an incidental remark. We ''just happen'' to follow it that day (other times, just as easily not). The remark has no hold on us; we don't need it for our thoughts, but for some reason, just that day, we may decide to look into it further - if the means to do so are at hand. ''Chance'' suggests the casual life: nothing ventured, nothing gained, but nothing lost, either. And so, this one day, we decide to pursue the offhand reference. And then, Oh terrifying then: the offhand remark, the stray association, turns out to lead to important things. Themes go topsy-turvy; ideas take off anew; the imagination has never felt so powerful. But . . . it could all have turned out differently.
My friend Joe, a mathematician, has always been ''on call'' for me, though my writing has usually been for a general audience. And so, when I call recently to ask a technical question, he gives me a brief explanation, but suggests I don't really need the information for the article I'm doing. We agree, but discuss the information anyway for a while, then chat about general matters, his year-old baby gurgling in the wings. Then Benjamin's gurgling becomes more persistent and Joe leaves the phone to get more cereal. It is a matter of a moment or two. When he returns, he says he has just thought of something that might interest me - a magazine piece on that ''technical'' point. Was it in Timem? He can't remember, though he does recall the year, 1982. But the point is dropped; the matter after all is technical and minor, and Benjamin's appetite reminds me it's time for me to start dinner for my own family.
One hour later, as I am basting chicken, Joe calls. Incredibly, Benjamin wants more food, but Joe has taken a minute to tell me that the piece he was thinking of was not in Timem, but Newsweekm, and he's got the date. What led him to think of the piece in the first place, he volunteers, he does not know. Nor why, ''in mediasm cereal,'' he recalled the correct placement. I thank him for the news, but put it on the back burner, so to speak: on the front is dinner and besides, the ''technical'' information, while no longer limited to a specialized audience, still seems secondary to my theme. Maybe I'll check on the article in the morning, maybe not. It will depend if I go to school, if I go to the library , if the microfilm machine is available, if . . . I'm in the mood. I mean, what if - when I had called earlier in the day - Joe was not at home? I would have gone ahead without the clarification.
The next day, the die is cast by another ''chance.'' The elevator in my college has a mind of its own, and though I press the button for ''three,'' my office floor, where I will work on my final copy, the elevator inexplicably stops on ''two,'' where the library is, and I have just enough time to see that at midsemester, it's almost empty. I have the date of the Newsweek piece anyway, and it will take me but a few minutes to review.
I read the piece with interest: it makes the technical information timely and suggests that original material in Scientific Americanm is worth looking at, though the writer gives no date or volume. Should I bother? Have I time? At that moment, it ''just happens'' that Alice appears, an extremely helpful librarian, who wants to know why I look so distracted. I ''just happen'' to mention I was thinking about a piece in Scientific Americanm, but don't know when it came out. Alice insists she take a ''few seconds'' to check the annual index, which she does. And then, it ''just happens'' that that issue, 1980, is almost at hand, which causes her to make a copy for me and send me off to my rightful floor.
I read the piece with amazement: it confirms that the technical information is timely and significant. It also suggests that original material is in the Journal of Recreational Mathematicsm, which our library also ''happens'' to have readily available. Alice also ''just happens'' not to be pressed for time. Within ten minutes, a copy of the Journalm piece arrives at my office.
I read the piece with fascination and fear. Fascination that the technical information has now radically changed my original thesis and given it substance and a certain style. Fear that all ''this'' has come upon me quite by chance. Nothing in my preliminary research had led me in this direction. What if Benjamin had not required cereal and Joe had not been home?
The rational life, most keenly felt as scientific method, with tentative hypotheses tested by observation and experiment and findings subject to the ''rules'' of replication and the ability to predict - it is, despite our disciplines, what we all aspire to if we want to make statements that have validity and wide interest. We study to approximate this life and when we are professional, and think we have most of its procedures down. But what prepares us to acknowledge the irrational life, the times when thought moves on its own volition, when unbidden reveries visit us ''on inconstant wing''? I catch this Shelleyan allusion and it puts me in mind of the Romantic poets who appreciated such ''thinking'' - Keats, who sometimes slept with writing materials near his bed table, and, more to the point, Wordsworth, who lay back in ''wise passiveness.''
Joe's wife is a Freudian. She would have another interpretation, perhaps, of this ''twilight zone'' kind of association. But that's all right. It's not interpretation that matters. It's the openness to the experience. Wordsworth knew that in our most free associations we were bound in natural piety to primal things, to those parts of ourselves our ''meddling intellect'' tended to ignore. Aimless chatter, the purposeless visit, sometimes are the long way, but sometimes the best and only way home.