The 23 Enigma

“In Tangier in 1960 the Beat writer William Burroughs met a sea captain called Captain Clark, who boasted to him that he had never had an accident in twenty-three years; later that day Clark’s boat sank, killing him and everyone on board. Burroughs was reflecting on this, that same evening, when he heard a radio report about a plane crash in Florida: the pilot was another Captain Clark and the plane was Flight 23. From then on Burroughs began noting down incidents of the number 23, and wrote a short story, 23 Skidoo.

Burroughs’ friends Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea adopted the ’23 Enigma’ as a guiding principle in their conspiratorial Illuminatis! Trilogy. Twenty-threes come thick and fast: babies get 23 chromosomes from each parent; 23 in the I-Ching means ‘breaking apart’; 23 is the psalm of choice at funerals; and so on. All nice examples of selective perception or, as Wilson put it, ‘When you start looking for something you tend to find it.’ The composer Alban Berg was also obsessed with the number, which appears repeatedly in his opera Lulu and in his violin concertos.”

Excerpted from: Rogerson, Barnaby. Rogerson’s Book of Numbers: The Culture of Numbers–from 1,001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World. New York: Picador, 2013.

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