The 23 Enigma

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Have you noticed the number 23 anywhere lately? After reading this post, you might. You might start seeing it EVERYWHERE—so be warned!

I. WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS AND THE LAST VOYAGE OF CAPTAIN CLARK

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William S. Burroughs, the author of such books as Naked Lunch, knew a Captain Clark back in the early 1960s, in Tangier. Captain Clark ran a ferry, and one day he boasted to Burroughs that he had been running the ferry for 23 years without accident.

That day—that very day Captain Clark proudly recited his safety record—his ferry sank. Clark and everybody on board perished.

This tragic occurrence remained on Burroughs’ mind that evening, as he turned on the radio to perhaps distract himself. The first news item on the program? An Eastern Airlines plane crash, piloted by a one Captain Clark.

And the flight number? 23.

And so William S. Burroughs was like: ohhhhh shit, the Universe has some stuff it wants to him to pay attention to! And so Burroughs begins to record strange coincidences revolving around the number 23 in a scrapbook, and uses some of the material in his books.

II. THE 23 ENIGMA AND ROBERT ANTON WILSON

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Thus begins what has been dubbed The 23 Enigma: the belief that all incidents and events—if one tries hard enough—eventually are connected to the number 23 (or some permeation of said number).

Robert Anton Wilson discusses the 23 Enigma at length in his book Cosmic Trigger, attributing its discovery to Burroughs and then providing some 23 coincidences of his own:

“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 (some lexicographers believe this is the origin of the inscrutable slang expression “23 Skiddoo!”); 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…”

An important point about the 23 Enigma, that I sort of glossed over before in that definition: the part about one trying hard enough. It was the belief of Wilson, and others, that a crucial part of the enigma was the fixation of focus by the percipient on the number itself. The idea that with belief comes manifestation of the elements of belief…one sees 23 “everywhere” because one comes to expect seeing 23 everywhere. Perhaps in the case of Captain Clark, that first crucial synchronicity was the universe’s “freebie” to Burroughs—the author being free to ignore or pursue it.

Both Wilson and Burroughs chose to pursue the synchronicity, and thus more and more 23s found their way to them.

III. KARL KOCH

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Another person quite taken with the 23 Enigma was young German hacker Karl Koch, who encountered it while reading the science-fiction trilogy written by Wilson and Robert Shea, Illuminatus! Koch was so obsessed with Illuminatus! that he borrowed his hacker name, “hagbard,” after the trilogy’s protagonist Hagbard Celine.

Further inspired by revolutionary ideas within Illuminatus!, the talented and precocious Koch decided that “information must be free”—and so, in the 1980s, he set about hacking United States military databases, and then selling the information to the KGB. (Obviously, this is just the super-condensed Reader’s Digest version of the story. A movie based on his life, 23, was made in 1998; Robert Anton Wilson played himself).

Karl Koch was found burned to death in a forest in Germany on May 23, 1989. It was officially ruled a suicide, but there were many elements concerning the grim scene in the forest that have led to suspicions of foul play.

And how old was Koch when he died?

23.

IV. WHAT IS “TODAY’S” 23?

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So here’s a question. Does the number 23 still have the same “power” it once had decades ago? Was it all a fad? Does it all go in cycles (or, re-cycles)? Are there other numbers—other symbols—that have that same sort of hypnotic hold today?

Does it take one person, famous or not, bringing a certain number—or meme—to prominence for the sort of mass hysteria to take hold?

Perhaps a topic for a future post…