It is frightening to consider how much brute luck, rather than hallowed free will, determines life's trajectory. For how many achievements or failures are you entitled to claim are justified by your own choices? Never a fan of the doctrine of free will, and fascinated by the role luck plays in life, I'm inclined to agree with the philosopher Galen Strawson who said that 'luck swallows everything'. A point which is encapsulated perfectly by Rick Blaine: of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
As for the role of luck in history, which can change the course of world events, the opening line from Ian Kershaw's seminal work on Hitler is worth recalling: the first of many strokes of good luck for Adolf 'took place 13 years before he was born when his father changed his name from Alois Schickelgruber to Alois Hitler'.
This week produced a new, if more prosaic case study, of luck engulfing all. Nigel Warburton tweeted that Novak Djokovic 'accidentally provides philosophers with a new example of moral luck'. Djokovic was the overwhelming favourite to win the US Open men's singles title but was thrown out of the tournament for hitting a ball in disgust after losing a game. As luck would have it, the ball struck a line judge in the throat. Djokovic's expression indicated his own shock, and he ran immediately to the line judge – who was understandably distressed – to apologise. Following a lengthy discussion with the umpire, Novak was disqualified for 'reckless and dangerous action'.
Djokovic didn't hit the ball very hard by his standards, and clearly not intended to injure the line judge. It was an unfortunate accident. He left the tournament under a cloud without saying a word to the press, although he subsequently released an apology on Instagram.
The whole palaver was indeed an example of 'moral luck', a theme in moral philosophy brought to prominence by Bernard Williams. Moral luck occurs when factors beyond a person's control affect how much praise or blame a person deserves for their actions, even though chance played the crucial role.
Fortuitous outcomes occur too, as in the famous example of an injury sustained in a terrorist's attack. Discovered by the medical team treating the victim, a previously unsuspected tumour received timely, unplanned treatment. If the victim hadn't been attacked (which he survived) the cancer would not have been discovered (in which case, he wouldn't have survived).
Oliphant in the room
High expectations dashed are disappointing. Given the widespread excellent reviews, with much anticipation, the first of Ali Smith's seasonal novels, appropriately entitled Autumn
, arrived at last. But after reading 12 pages, I gave up. Smith is obviously a brilliant writer and my philistinism is entirely to blame. A childish reader, I need contemporary fiction to have a good story to tell, preferably a murder or such like. If good writing gets in the way of the story, or heaven forbid is remotely didactic, I become frustrated and – dare I say it – bored.
Turning to another Scottish writer, I picked up a book that had been lying around for a while, the debut novel of Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
. Oh my goodness, this page-turner has everything: the best and worst of human behaviour, darkly hilarious, sad yet uplifting, beautifully drawn characters from Glasgow life and a brilliant ending. It even has a murder of sorts. It is outstanding writing and an unforgettable story. Again, the main character, the ordinary but extraordinary Eleanor Oliphant, reminded me of the role luck plays in our lives.
Ancient Greek philosophers were agitated by the observation that the attainment of a good life depends heavily on factors beyond our control. Eleanor, with an undergraduate degree in classics, would appreciate the observation. No matter how much we try to adopt an optimistic 'can do' attitude, no matter how much we believe we can be anything we want to be if only we put our minds to it, luck is our constant fellow-traveller. It is one of the tragic features of the human predicament. In Eleanor's case – in the end – it could be said that of all the dingy offices in all the towns in all the world, thank God he walks into mine.
It dawned on me last week, walking back from a hospital appointment, that I will probably be 'shielding' for the rest of my life. Bad luck, indeed. Processing this gloomy thought for a few days, I've now come to terms with the restrictions of co-morbidities, including neutropenia, which puts all sufferers at high risk from infection. Receding from the outside world, however, especially during autumn and winter, has its pleasures.
Finally summoning the energy to paint the last boring cream wall a dark red, finding a richly-coloured Afghan rug from Thessaloniki for the front of our open fireplace and a jaunty lampshade from Etsy, the living room is ready to glow once the coal turns up. Satisfaction from these luxurious purchases is better and more long-lasting than a holiday abroad – and a damn-sight cheaper. Guilt is postponed.
Continuing with sybaritic home pleasures, we now buy meat and fish from the free-range butcher Donald Russell in Aberdeenshire, fresh fruit, veg and bread from our lovely local greengrocers, Zucchini, and decent wine from that mighty cooperative, The Wine Society. Remarking guiltily that we spend too much on food and drink, my thoroughly guilt-free, middle-class husband responded that it was an investment – in my health and everyone else's pleasure. And anyway, how else can you be creative stuck at home for most of your life?
So, during these vexed times, go easy with annoying DIYers, IKEA obsessives and the self-indulgent tipplers. Because it is bad luck that we find ourselves flailing around in the 'new normal', good luck that we have the financial resources to improve it.