Tag Archives: literary oddities

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.


Illuminism: A pseudoscientific movement of mystics and visionaries in the 18th century which influenced literature in the 19th century. At first inspired by Christian doctrines, illuminists sought to live according to the Gospel and to regenerate their souls by direct contact with the divine. They also, however, believed in spiritism, magnetism, alchemy, and magic and professed to invoke the invisible and the arcane. Among the more famous illuminists were Swedenborg, who conversed with the dead; Lavater a believer in black magic , who thought to contact God by magnetism; Claude de Saint Martin (“the unknown philosopher”), who sought to hasten the coming of Christ by meditation and prayer; Mesmer (see MESMERISM); the Comte de Saint-Germain, who pretended to be several hundred years old and to possess the elixir of eternal life; Franz Joseph Gall, who founded the pseudoscience of phrenology, the study of the relationship of skull shape to character traits; and the famous “Count” Alessandro di Cagliostro, a charlatan who performed feats of magic and alchemy, founded a secret Masonic sect, and narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Inquisition. A reaction against 18-century rational philosophies, illuminism under many names (e.g. millenarianism, syncretism, neopaganism, pythagorism, theosophy, etc.) influenced some writers of the romantic period. It revived a sense of religious exaltation and created, or recreated, a need for the infinite merged with a sense of the inner life.”

Excerpted from: Murphy, Bruce, ed. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

The Algonquin Wits: Robert Benchley on Office Sharing

Benchley and Dorothy Parker shared a tiny $30-a-month office for a time in the Metropolitan Opera House studios. As Benchley described it, ‘One cubic foot of space less and it would have constituted adultery.’”

Excerpted from: Drennan, Robert E., ed. The Algonquin Wits. New York: Kensington, 1985.

The Doubter’s Companion: Hard Work

“Hard Work: The work ethic remains a popular explanation for the success of the West. This doubtful argument relies heavily on comparing humans to insects such as ants. Above all, the work ethic has a feel about it of low-level morality aimed at the poorer end of society.

There are lots of poor in the world who work all the time. On the other hand, large deposit banks, although non-productive, have been among the most profitable institutions over the last half-century. Their executives continue to work relatively short hours. The executives of large, publicly traded corporations work longer hours than the poor. And they compete with each other—not with other corporations—to work ever harder; by spending more of each day at their desks processing paper and developing relationships. This benefits their reputations and their careers. There is no proof that it has an effect on productivity or profits or the corporation.

Entrepreneurs are quite different. They usually have to work very hard in order to create their enterprise in order not to have to work hard later on in their lives. In other words, they create in order not to work.

To the extent that the west has succeeded, it is probably the result not of work but of innovation—not just technological, but social, intellectual, political, verbal, visual, acoustical, even emotional. In order to innovate some have spent a great deal of time thinking and experimenting, perhaps more than any other civilization in history.

Technological innovation in particular continues as if we were on an unstoppable roll. Yet our structures do not as a rule reward physical hard work. What they do favor is a narrowly defined type of intense labor that is best described as white-collar slogging.”

Excerpted from: Saul, John Ralston. The Doubter’s Companion. New York: The Free Press, 1994.

Write It Right: Connection

“Connection. ‘In this connection I should like to say a word or two.’ In connection with this matter.”

Excerpted from: Bierce, Ambrose. Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010.

56 Pillars

“In prehistoric Britain, fifty-six stone pillars stood in the outer circle of Stonehenge. In more recent times, the National War Memorial in Washington, erected after World War II, commemorates the dead with fifty-six pillars (also the number of signatures on the 1776 Declaration of Independence of the thirteen states). And in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic, fifty-six towering red columns were erected to represent the ‘equal, united and harmonious’ ethnic groups of China.”

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.


Suetonious: Latin Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (AD 69?—after 122) Roman biographer and antiquarian. Suetonius’ family was of the knightly class. His writings include De viris illustribus (“Concerning Illustrious Men”), short biographies of literary figures what were the ultimate source of nearly all that is known about the lives of eminent Roman authors. Lives of the Caesars, his other major work, is seasoned with bits of gossip and scandal related to the first 11 emperors; it is largely responsible for the vivid picture of Roman society and its decadent leaders that dominated historical thought until modified in modern times by the discovery of nonliterary evidence.

Excerpted/Adapted from: Stevens, Mark A., Ed. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, 2000.

The Algonquin Wits: Dorothy Parker Eavesdrops

“Sitting next a table of visiting Midwestern governors in a New York nightclub, Mrs. Parker summed up their conversation: ‘Sounds like over-written Sinclair Lewis.’”

Excerpted from: Drennan, Robert E., ed. The Algonquin Wits. New York: Kensington, 1985.

Write It Right: Complected

“Complected. Anticipatory past participle of the verb “to complect.” Let us wait for that.”

Excerpted from: Bierce, Ambrose. Write it Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2010.

The Devil’s Dictionary: Agrarian

“Agrarian, n. A politician who carries his real estate under his nails. A son of the soil who, like Aeneas, carries his father on his person.”

Excerpted from: Bierce, Ambrose. David E. Schultz and S.J. Joshi, eds. The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2000.