In September 1982 I had made my way to Miami, Florida, and was staying for a while at the house of my friend Jim Bowery. Jim was somewhat of a minimalist when it came to furnishings. As I recall, his living room had no place to sit but the floor.
So I was sitting on the floor one afternoon, reading Robert Anton Wilson’s deeply strange and wide-ranging book, Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati. Specifically, I was reading a chapter titled “The 23 Enigma.” Here’s an excerpt:
William S. Burroughs introduced me to the 23 Enigma. In the early ’60s in Tangier, Burroughs knew a certain Captain Clark who ran a ferry from Tangier to Spain. One day, Clark said to Burroughs that he’d been running the ferry 23 years without an accident. That very day, the ferry sank, killing Clark and everybody aboard.
In the evening, Burroughs was thinking about this when he turned on the radio. The first newscast told about the crash of an Eastern Airlines plane on the New York-Miami route. The pilot was another Captain Clark and the flight was listed as Flight 23.
(I did a Google search for a plane crash involving an Eastern Airlines flight 23 and came up with nothing, which casts some doubt on this entire narrative. But let’s continue.)
Burroughs began keeping records of odd coincidences. To his astonishment, 23’s appeared in a lot of them. When he told me about this, I began keeping my own records – and 23’s appeared in many of them.
This, of course, illustrates Jano Watts’ concept of “The Net” – the lines of coincidence-synchronicity that connect everything-with-everything. It is also an analogy with what physicists call QUIP – the Quantum Inseparability Principle.
Here Wilson goes off on a tangent about quantum “non-local” models, how everything is connected to everything, Jungian synchronicity, and the I Ching, which I’m not bothering to quote. But getting back to the main point:
I accepted the 23 enigma as a signal that I should attempt to decipher.
After a while my passion for jotting down every significant 23 that came my way began to annoy my wife, Arlen. “It’s all in your mind,” she told me on several occasions. “You’re just noticing the 23’s and ignoring other numbers.”
Of course. But she was annoyed by being implicated in the 23 mystery even before she met me. Our two oldest daughters (by her previous marriage) were born on February 23 and August 23 respectively.
Once the Numerologist went to see the film “Charly” with a friend who was particularly dubious about this 23 obsession. The story concerns a low-grade moron who is transformed by neurosurgery into a superhuman genius. In the crucial operation scene, the number on the operating room is visible, and it is, of course, 23. The friend sat bolt upright.”
“Jesus H. Particular Christ,” the friend said hollowly, “How do you do it?”
Wilson then recounts more examples from one of his earlier books:
“Mad Dog” Coll was shot on 23rd Street when he was 23 years old; a year later, Dutch Schultz (who paid for the Coll assassination) was himself fatally shot on October 23, 1935. Marty Krompier, king of the Harlem numbers racket, was non-fatally shot on the same October 23, 1935. Shultz’s killer, Charlie Workman, served 23 years of a life sentence and was then paroled.
I soon noticed the 23 axioms that open Euclid’s Geometry; the fact that the mad bomber in the film Airport has seat 23; that in the old stage productions of A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton is the 23rd man guillotined in the gory climax; 23, in telegrapher’s code means “bust” or “break the line,” while Hexagram 23 in the I Ching means “Break Apart.” I was even thrilled by noting that in conception Mom and Dad each contribute 23 chromosomes to the fertilized egg, while within the DNA coil there are unexplained bonding irregularities every 23rd angstrom. Aleister Crowley’s Cabalistic Dictionary later excited weird speculations about 23 perhaps being somehow involved with reproduction by defining 23 as the number of “parting, removal, separation,” “joy,” “a thread,” and “life.”
Run the following, from Professor Hans Seisel of the University of Chicago, through your most skeptical filter:
My grandparents on my mother’s side lived in Gablonz, Mozartstrasse 23; we lived in Vienna at Rossaurelaende 23; our law office at Gonzagagasse 23; my mother at Alserstrasse 23, apartment 23, and so it went…
Professor Seisel’s mother, while visiting Monte Carlo, purchased a book, Ilya Ehrenburg’s Die Liebe der Jeannie Ney, in which the heroine wins a great deal betting on number 23 at roulette. She decided to experiment; 23 came up on the second try.
This is archetypical. We shall see, as we advance, that the peculiar entities in charge of Dr. John Lilly’s hypothetical Cosmic Coincidence Control Center pay special attention to those who pay attention to them.
Meanwhile the Numerologist had a new rationalization for his obsession: the famous story of how Dr. James Watson, coming down a spiral staircase at Oxford, suddenly flashed intuitively on the spiral shape of the DNA. All the micro-photographic evidence at the time seemed to contradict his theory, but Watson irrationally trusted his intuition and kept working on that model. Eventually he won the Nobel Prize for proving that DNA is a double helix (two spirals interwoven). 23 was my spiral staircase, my intuitive signal.
Here there’s a break in Wilson’s narrative, and he moves on to other topics. So at this point I looked up from the book.
Besides me and the book, the only other object in this empty living room was a large cardboard box. And now I noticed that on its side, in large, bold red digits, was stamped the number 23.
This is absolutely true. I was astonished. But does it mean anything?
I’ll leave it up to you to decide.