The bizarre poetry of random encounters
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, February 27, 2001)

Leon Trotsky, one of the two leaders of the Russian revolution, was murdered in a suburb of Mexico City, in 1940, by an assassin sent by his enemy, Joseph Stalin. The next morning, two young Americans arrived in town, hoping to meet Trotsky, and instead learned of his death. They went to the morgue where his body had been taken. The police, perhaps thinking they were American journalists, let them in. They saw Trotsky lying in an open coffin, his cheeks and beard streaked with blood, while photographers stood on ladders taking pictures.

The point of the story, for me, is that one of the Americans was Saul Bellow, the future novelist. The assassination, and this intimate glimpse of its effect, left him with an acute sense of how easy it is for despots to kill, and how slight a hold most us have on our own lives.

Decades later, when I read of Bellow's experience, it seemed to me that this eccentric confluence of historic personalities held an oblique kind of meaning. Since then, I've been idly collecting similar footnotes to history. Others collect matchbooks, Renaissance drawings or exotic swords. I collect random encounters between artists and thinkers.

To qualify for my collection, those involved needn't be famous at the time of the meeting (Bellow was unknown in 1940), nor need they be aware that the event took place (Trotsky was in no position to notice Bellow). What makes a footnote worth collecting is that the encounter is unpredictable, startling and vaguely mysterious.

My collection might be titled No Degrees of Separation, or Accidental Collisions of Monuments. That second phrase comes from the late Northrop Frye, the great star of the University of Toronto English department, who spoke in 1987 at the memorial service for C.B. Macpherson, the university's renowned political scientist. Frye said that after they both became leaders in their different fields, meetings between them resembled collisions of monuments.

In 1838, when Hans Christian Andersen was 33 and the author of romantic novels for adults but not yet a famous fairy-tale writer, he was the subject of a short book, From the Papers of One Still Living. It attacked him as a sentimental mediocrity, and left him wounded. That was the first book written by an unknown 25-year-old, Søren Kierkegaard, who later became one of the great philosophers and the only other world-famous Dane produced by the 19th century. In reprisal, Andersen satirized him as a parrot in a story called Galoshes of Fortune.

In 1906, George Bernard Shaw's wife, Charlotte, decided that her husband's image required more dignity, more gravitas. She concluded that a marble bust by Auguste Rodin would help. So she dragged Shaw to Paris for a couple of weeks of sittings in the great man's studio.

As it turned out, someone else was present: Rainer Maria Rilke, the greatest lyric poet of modern Germany, who was then Rodin's secretary. As writers, they shared little, but Rilke had kind words for the Irish playwright. Shaw, he wrote, is proud of his work, but without pretension, "rather like a dog that is proud of its master."

When the Amsterdam-to-Vienna train stopped briefly at Frankfurt one night in 1957, Leopold Stokowski, the renowned conductor, got out to stretch his legs. A young man approached him and spoke some highly unwelcome words: "Excuse me, but isn't it Mr. Stokowski?"

The great man winced, fearing intrusion by a journalist or an autograph hound. He looked away, mumbling evasively, "It is."

The young man ploughed ahead anyway: "Permit me to introduce myself, sir. I am Glenn Gould."

Stokowski smiled, and instantly turned into a benevolent grandfather. The two men, both of them ingenious but entirely different Bach interpreters, went to Gould's compartment. There, as the train chugged through the German night, they exchanged views of Russia. Stokowski had been there three decades before, and Gould just weeks before. Stokowski wanted to know whether they still served wonderful tea and terrible coffee. The answer was yes in both cases. They became friends and Gould, much later, wrote a superb article about Stokowski.

In 1933, after making his film Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin sought a period of rest and isolation with his companion, Paulette Goddard, on the SS Coolidge's cruise to Hong Kong. He was among the most famous people in the world, but he knew his privacy would be respected on a luxury liner. They were barely out of port, however, when Chaplin discovered he wasn't the only remarkable artist on board. Jean Cocteau, the French poet, painter and filmmaker, was travelling around the world.

When they learned of each other's presence, Chaplin and Cocteau immediately arranged a meeting, lavishly expressed their mutual regard, sat down to talk through a translator -- and in one conversation exhausted everything they had to say to each other. Then (as Chaplin told it) they somehow had to get through three painful months, across the Pacific and back, with many stops. It was a nightmare, and Chaplin made it into a brilliant comic sketch in his memoirs, picturing two certified celebrities skulking around the ship, desperate to avoid each other's boring conversation.

But Cocteau saw it differently. He wrote in My Voyage Round the World that meeting Chaplin was "the miracle of this voyage." In fact, he said, they became such fast friends that it was difficult for them to part when finally the ship docked in San Francisco.

Perhaps the incidents I collect provide nothing more than a quirky pleasure, but to me they also illustrate the sweetness of unexpected human conjunctions, and the oblique light that one sharply defined personality can throw briefly on another.

Perhaps they also enact the belief of Peter Mark Roget, the endlessly curious English doctor who spent the first half of the 19th century preparing his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. Roget concluded that his studies had taught him something of the human condition. "The world," he declared, "is a web of connections and affinities."

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