The 23 Enigma

Stimulus-Respond : The Magic Issue

Twenty three is the first primary number in which both digits are prime numbers and add up to prime numbers. According to the seventeenth century scholar Archbishop Ussher the world was created on October 23rd, 4004 BC. The end of the world, if we are to believe the Mayans, will be December 23rd, 2012. Julius Caesar was reportedly stabbed twenty three times by his assassins, which is the same amount of letters in the Latin alphabet and also the date in April on which our greatest literary canon, William Shakespeare, was born and died. If I was to tell you that it takes twenty three seconds for the blood to circulate around the body; that the axis of Planet Earth is 23.5 degrees and that computers communicate in 2³ bits (bytes) would you start to become a little suspicious? Maybe not. Some of you more illuminated readers will already have noticed that this article appears on page 23 of this magazine. Is this fate – the work of higher forces – or can it be simply explained away as the result of a particularly astute editorial team?

What these coincidences point at is the 23 enigma, a term first coined by the writer William S Burroughs. Whilst in Tangier in the 1960s, Burroughs befriended a ferry driver called Captain Clark. Clark bragged to Burroughs that he had been running the ferry for twenty three years without an accident. That night the ferry sank and Clark and his passengers perished. If this was not odd enough that very same night an Eastern Airlines plane crashed. It was Flight 23 and flown by another Captain Clark. Perplexed by the insanity of such seemingly interconnected events, Burroughs began to keep a scrapbook of 23 related coincidences which have been added to by enthusiasts ever since.

Burroughs’ account was recorded in Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger, a classic Discordian text which playfully dabbled in mysticism and conspiracy theory, giving an entertaining account of the vast plots shaping the course of history. These can be dated back to the 18th century when it was believed that the French Revolution had been secretly plotted behind the scenes by secret societies such as the Freemasons or the infamous Illuminati. Since then more rational explanations have been offered up for the world’s ills, of which neo-conservative governments are often positioned at the pinnacle.

From a cultural perspective the reason for this is relatively simple. The growth of electronic forms of communication has created an insatiable need for ‘news’ to fill the ever expanding information void. Naturally, this has led to a greater plurality of voices and opinions being heard which inevitably contradict traditionally reliable sources of information. It is argued that those marginalised tend to favour more elaborate explanations for their oppression, which although true to an extent tends to simplify the complexity of the media as an information source. For example, the internet has created instantaneous flows of information in the form of blogs and forums. As Andrew Keen (2007) has argued in ‘Cult of the Amateur’ these can be published without verification or regulation which often leads to hysterical reactions to often logically explainable events – as a quick google of 9/11 will testify. The fact that ‘conspiracy theory’ only entered the supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time in 1997 is testament to this growing ambiguity felt within late capitalism.

Although the internet has exposed the hypocrisy of the questionable ‘war on terror’ by offering up money, oil and imperialism as alternative explanations to that of political altruism and democratic reform, this is a particular form of conspiracy as the ‘meaningful coincidences’ are firmly grounded in rationality. The 23 enigma is quite a different matter – although it is annoyingly prophetic that the Iraq war did start in 2003…

The 23 enigma is fundamentally an example of synchronicity, a term first devised by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) to explain the ‘meaningful coincidences’ between the mind and phenomena, thereby offering an alternative explanation to the action-reaction theory of Newtonian physics. Jung was famous for breaking away from the Freudian school of psychoanalysis, sensing that there was more to the unconscious mind than repressed sexual trauma and aggression, instead seeing a more complex layering to the subconscious in the drive for individual completion.

Jung was particularly interested in more occultist religions, emphasising the symbolic role such shared meaning systems had in enabling communication. He was keen to stress that humanity possessed a collective unconscious of which certain archetypes were known and shared by all, a kind of psychic globalisation if you like. Given that we currently use under 10% of our brain it is hard to prove the validity of his argument but he has certainly caught the imagination of generation after generation, so why?

Ultimately what the 23 enigma points to is apophenia, the ability to see connections between seemingly unrelated objects and ideas when there is none. A good example of this came in the 1980s when numerous fathers were accused of sexually abusing their daughters thanks to some abstract theorising on the part of psychiatrists or alternatively when one explanation is used to fit all cases, such as the highly debateable ‘penis envy’ which sees everything from pens to cars assimilated into one discourse. The quite obvious danger in this is rather than enlightening people it only serves, in a Foucauldian sense, to reinforce a particular ideological outlook. Indeed, Jung himself could be accused of this when he declared that all patients over thirty five were suffering from a loss of religion, which typically, he had the power to resolve with his own brand of mysticism. This is not to trivialise his work but rather to point out the fundamental issue at the heart of this debate, the ability of the few to find magical resolutions where the majority can’t.

A person who can see mystical patterns or has perceived knowledge of a higher life form, be it Gods or aliens, is conferred the status of those observations. Apophenia could be interpreted then as a form of status anxiety, a coping mechanism which allows us to bring order to the unfathomable mystery which is life itself. From the beginning of time every culture across the globe has found meanings and shared values through powerful symbols.

These symbols are vested ultimate power, be it Jesus Christ, Allah or the Beckhams’. What this does at the level of culture is to create sado-masochist relationships whereby we are always communicating on unequal terms.

The quest for transcendental truth then is a form of self-deification which releases individuals from their self imposed chains. We have built cars, climbed mountains and flown to the moon. We have even cracked the DNA code, able to create artificial versions of life from featherless chickens to Dolly the sheep. This quest for self-deification then is perhaps nothing more complex than our own biology, a predetermined evolutionary drive which forces us to search forever for completion through perfection. The fact that we may be trying to run before we can walk is always a prudent afterthought as the more destructive elements of our creativity testifies.

Perhaps the most difficult knowledge for any of us to grasp is that of our own insignificance. We have a limited mortality which no amount of material possessions or fanciful theories can save us from. It is this undeniable truth, the one ‘meaningful coincidence’ which unites us all, which is conveniently put to one side in favour of hyperbole.

Death will always remain the one knowledge we experience individually. The fact that we are not able to share this means new enigmas of comfort will surface, all repetitions and variations on the same theme. It is for this reason that I no longer look out for 23 coincidences as I once did in my youth. Indeed, reading Cosmic Trigger again I sense a quite different author. Robert Anton Wilson isn’t bestowed with a secret knowledge. He is bestowed with great humour and intellect, a storyteller, a jester. He knows that life is ultimately unexplainable so he’s trying to keep us amused by showing how with ‘sufficient cleverness’ we can find patterns in anything. I don’t want to be God any more. I just want to enjoy my allotted time with open arms, instead finding dignity in humility, accepting my mortal coil with grace. What I do want though is the ‘sufficient cleverness’ to question the things I can change, such as my carbon footprint. What the 23 enigma teaches us is not a secret gateway to a higher form of consciousness but awareness that things can be perceived differently. The patterns you chose to see say more about your personality than that of the esoteric.


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