Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Twenty-Three Enigma

In my investigations here and elsewhere I have sometimes addressed special numbers, such as the Biblical 40 and 666.

A more mysterious number is 23. As far as I can tell, this preoccupation stems mainly from the eccentric Berlin physician Wilhelm Fliess (1858-1928), who for a time exercised an important influence on Sigmund Freud.

Fliess developed several idiosyncratic theories, such as reflex nasal neuroses, postulating a connection between the nose and the genitals. This is in fact an older idea, as illustrated in the folk belief that one can determine the size of man’s penis by checking out the nose.

This theory played a notorious role in the case of Emma Eckstein, a patient referred to Fliess by Freud in 1895. Fliess sought to cure her of a tendency to premenstrual depression by anesthetizing her nasal mucosa with cocaine, followed by nasal surgery. The treatment turned into disaster because in concluding the operation the doctor neglected to remove some surgical gauze, causing chronic bleeding. Nonetheless Freud chose to back up his colleague, ignoring Eckstein’s complaints.

Together with the Viennese writer Otto Weininger, Fliess ranks as an early advocate of universal bisexuality.

Fliess was also a believer in vital periodicity, the forerunner of the today’s popular concepts of biorhythms. By tracing illnesses, the outbreak of fevers, and deaths back to birth. Fliess became convinced that two rhythms, one of 23 days and the other of 28 days, were fundamental. The latter number, which tends to be connected with the female gender, clearly stems from the menstrual cycle. It is not clear where the postulate of the 23-day (masculine) periodicity came from, though Fliess was interested in astrology together with some abstruse mathematical theories. In keeping with the theory of bisexuality, both cycles figure importantly in the life of every human being.

Adding the two figures together, Fliess also predicted Freud's death in or around the age of 51. Somewhat shaken by this prognosis, Freud nonetheless lived to be 83 years old. While Fliess’s life-cycle theories enjoy some popularity today, it seems that there is no independent evidence to support the 23-day cycle. Yet it remains mysteriously popular.

Evidently unaware of Fliess’s work, the science-fiction writer Robert Anton Wilson held that William S. Burroughs was the first person to focus on the number 23. In an article in Fortean Times, Wilson related the following story: “I first heard of the 23 enigma from William S Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, Nova Express, etc. According to Burroughs, he had known a certain Captain Clark, around 1960 in Tangier, who once bragged that he had been sailing 23 years without an accident. That very day, Clark’s ship had an accident that killed him and everybody else aboard. Furthermore, while Burroughs was pondering this crude example of the irony of the gods that evening, a bulletin on the radio announced the crash of an airliner in Florida. The pilot was another captain Clark and the flight was Flight 23."

During the 1930s Burroughs was briefly a medical student in Vienna. There he could have picked up Fliess's speculation, forgetting the source when he later recycled the enigmatic number.

At all events, in 1967 Burroughs published a short story entitled "23 Skidoo." In fact the expression "23 skidoo" goes back to the early 1920s, when it meant "it's time to leave while the getting is good." It has been traced in newspapers as early as 1906.

The number figures prominently in The Illuminatus Trilogy by Wilson and Robert Shea. In his book Challenge of Chance, Arthur Koestler also devoted some attention to it.

Skeptics suggest that, as with most numerological claims, the enigma can be viewed as an example of apophenia (the tendency to detect meaningful patterns in random data), selection bias, and confirmation bias. In interviews, Wilson acknowledged the self-fulfilling nature of the enigma, noting that when one start looking for something one tends to find it--provided that “sufficient cleverness” is deployed.

As poetic justice would have it, the preoccupation with the number 23 has returned to the apparent land of its birth. The 1998 German film "23," starring August Diehl as the hacker Karl Koch, portrays the real-life story of computer hackers inspired by Wilson's Illuminatus Trilogy. In addition, the German band Welle: Erdball referenced the 23 enigma in their song "C=64/23."

The 2007 American film "The Number 23," starring Jim Carrey, tells the story of a man who becomes obsessed with the number 23 as a result of reading a book of the same title that seems to be about his own life. The industrial music group Throbbing Gristle recounted the meeting of Burroughs and Clark, together with the significance of the number 23, in the ballad "The Old Man Smiled."

NOTE. If memory serves, there were originally 23 monumental statues of the Old Kingdom Egyptian pharaoh Khafra (builder of the second pyramid at Giza) in his funerary temple there. Only one of these survives (it is now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo), but the existence of the others is attested by the bases, which subsist. Sometimes it is surmised that there was a 24th element, perhaps an altar, to fill out the sequence in accordance with the hours of the day. However, it may be that the number 23 had a special significance for the ancient Egyptians that has eluded us so far.



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12:24 PM  

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