Sunday, August 18, 2013

So It Goes ...

I've begun reading Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, another of those classics I've put off for decades.  I read a few of his later books during the 1970s, and liked them, but for some reason I didn't get to this one.  I'm only a few chapters in now, but something got my attention.

The novel is about the collapse of an Andean bridge in 1714 that killed five people, and the friar who decides to find out why God chose to kill them, by collecting information on their lives.  At the close of the first chapter, the narrator (whom I don't take to be Wilder himself) addresses rhetorically the question of why the disaster happened:
Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.
"On the contrary" threw me.  There are no contraries here: both of those cliches -- the first from King Lear, Act IV Scene 1, the second from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 10 verse 29 -- say essentially the same thing: all suffering is the result of divine action.  Shakespeare's Gloucester is more negative about the idea, Matthew's Jesus means to be reassuring, but both assume that gods are behind everything that happens.  Wilder's narrator disavows any conclusion, but the way the "contraries" are framed seems to me to load the dice somewhat.