The return of the 23 enigma
After last Friday’s record Mega Millions lottery drawing, instead of dreaming about all the things I’d buy if I had $640 million—like the full edition of The Plan of St. Gall, for instance—I found myself fixating on the number 23. As the more paranoid among us have long understood, the number 23 recurs at particularly significant moments in history. This lottery, with the attention of so many millions focused on the outcome, seemed like a particularly appropriate time for the number to appear, and it didn’t disappoint. The winning numbers were 2, 4, 23, 38, 46, and Mega Ball 23. Numerologically inclined observers noted the two 23s at once, and a few even made reference to a certain Jim Carrey movie. But there’s even more here than meets the eye. 46 divided by 2 is 23. So is (38/2) plus 4. And I’m not going to even try to get into the significance of the fact that the drawing was held on 3/30/2012.
The 23 enigma was first publicized by one of my intellectual heroes, the author and skeptic Robert Anton Wilson. Wilson, in turn, had heard about the phenomenon from William S. Burroughs, and he wrote about it at length with Robert Shea in The Illuminatus Trilogy. Since then, the 23 enigma has become widely known, with countless discussion threads devoted to exposing its uncanny recurrence in all of our lives. And the secret of the number 23, of course, is that there is no secret: given sufficient cleverness, as Wilson puts it, you can find an arbitrary number anywhere, as long as you’re looking for it in the first place. As such, it’s a particularly evocative example of how we impose meaning on the world around us, which, as regular readers know, is my favorite subject as an author. (The enigma even makes an appearance in The Icon Thief, in the form of April 23, 1916, which was the date of one of Duchamp’s earliest readymades, the Easter Rising in Ireland, and the three hundredth anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. April 23 is also my brother’s birthday.)
Wilson is a fascinating character. A former associate editor for Playboy, a close friend of Timothy Leary, and later a fixture of the Berkeley region, he remains, along with Montaigne, one of my favorite exemplars of agnosticism as a way of life. I’ve written at length about why I think a kind of permanent agnosticism is the most pragmatic intellectual position for a working writer, and Wilson took this position to its extreme. He was a skeptic, or more accurately a zetetic, who took great delight in puncturing the claims of New Age fraudsters, pseudoscientists, and conspiracy theorists, but also took equal glee in pointing out the more dogmatic forms of scientific materialism, and he remained open to rather farfetched ideas, like the possibility that he might be receiving transmissions from an intelligent entity on Sirius. To my eyes, Wilson was the best sort of agnostic, which is what you often get when an atheist takes a lot of psychedelic drugs.
In fact, Wilson was a bit like another one of my skeptical heroes, Marcel Duchamp, in that it’s often hard to tell the difference between his serious work and his practical jokes—and that some of his most important and influential insights often began as a sort of prank. The difference between Wilson and Duchamp is that Wilson was genuinely funny. (Duchamp often claimed that he was trying to be funny, and referred to The Large Glass as a “hilarious” picture, but he’s more in the tradition of slightly frigid, labored French jokes that put the rest of us to sleep.) And it’s Wilson’s sense of humor that I find more inspiring as time goes on, if only because I can’t dream of matching it. The Icon Thief will never approach the humor of The Illuminatus Trilogy—although note the symmetry of their titles!—but I hope it captures some of the same sense of how we impose meaning on the world, and on our own lives. As I was writing this, I just got a call from my agent. And as I was hanging up, I couldn’t help but notice that the first three digits of his phone number were 223…