In his On the Ontological Mystery, Gabriel Marcel describes the experience of “an irresistible appeal which overturns the habitual perspectives just as a gust of wind might tumble down the panels of a stage set”. He is talking of a chance meeting with a stranger, but the image is a powerful one which characterises many episodes of what I think of as personal morphogenesis. Fateful moments, turning points and critical junctures often involve profound changes in the scenery of our lives. Things which we thought were solid fall apart. Suddenly what was fixed is revealed to be malleable. We realise that the background to our lives is not immutable, rather it was simply what had faded into the background. It is a sudden, dramatic and painful overturning of the strangely subtle process through which we ‘die a thousand deaths’, to use Roberto Unger’s phrase, as congealing layers of habit obscure our own agency.
I’m fascinated by these fateful moments because they are central to understanding agency. Their mysterious dynamics hold the secrets of our dual nature, free but always constrained, capable of choice but driven by automaticity. To adequately address the ontology of such fateful moments entails that we are careful about their epistemology. The mere fact of a moment being deemed fateful by a subject does not make it so. The poetics of ‘turning points’ often blind us to the mundane realities that preceded them, as the dramatic moment when the sense of our life ‘tumbles down like the panels of a stage set’ only came about because of many unnoticed gusts of wind that gradually eroded the foundations of this experienced order.
It might sound voluntaristic to be concerned with these sudden dizzying encounters with freedom, but it’s precisely in such moments when we can be face to face with the recalcitrance of reality. Best laid plans go awry, people and things resist our demands and the order we sought to impose on the world proves to be a hope, rather than a blue print. An adequate phenomenology of ‘fateful moments’ must be orientated to the past, as well as the future. What renders these moments fateful is being torn between the two, rather than habitually chugging along as past investments propel us through present circumstances and into an expected future.
Investigating fateful moments can help elucidate this strained character of agency, forever caught between past and future, blind to the full range of opportunities and constraints confronted in the present. But fateful moments aren’t reducible to agency. They are something relational, multifaceted and dynamic. For this reason, they can also be profoundly macro-sociological in origin. Reading Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful At the Existential Cafe, which incidentally introduced me to the Marcel text I opened this discussion with, offers a wonderful account of how the grand sweep of historical events can reshape the lives of those caught within them. At risk of stating the obvious, wars are amongst many other things a terrifying social machinery for generating fateful moments. A concern for fateful moments does not represent a personalist myopia, but rather an ambition to stitch together the tapestry of social explanation from the most intimate aspects of personal experience through to the most dramatic instances of systemic change.