The only thing I remember about turning 15 is that I loved a girl, Lenora, and she didn’t love me. She was in love with Tim, who was in love with Amy. I went to bed with Amy in part because she was pretty and she liked me, but mainly to hurt Tim. To hurt everyone, really, everyone I knew and a lot of people I had never met. It didn’t work. God knows what the kids are doing in bed by the time they’re 15 these days.
The mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan had a talent for appreciating numbers. He once said, of 1729, that “it is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of 2 cubes in 2 different ways.” Is the number 15 interesting?
My friend Cook thought the number 138 was the answer to everything. His first mistake was believing that everything is a question. I feel sure he picked up 138 from his favorite Misfits song, “We Are 138,” and, having got hold of it, he twisted it every which way to make it do the work he wanted. 138 is 23 times 2 times 3. It turns out that plenty of people are cuckoo for 23. Should I have been relieved or alarmed in 2007 to discover a horror film called The Number 23? Alarmed to find that my friend was part of a mass movement, relieved to think of him as partly exonerated because he’d been caught up unaware in something larger than himself. Our selves are tiny.
Sample dialogue: “So what is 23?”
“There are 23 axioms to Euclid’s geometry. The human body consists of 46 chromosomes, 23 from each parent. 2 divided by 3 equals .666, the number of the Devil.”
You don’t say. Not the same Devil on the 15th Tarot card? (—“I’m pretty sure there are only 5 Euclidian axioms.” —“But 5 is 2 plus 3, dude. 2 and 3. That’s 23.”)
These are but the trappings and the suits of thought. No actual thought need apply. “Every visit to the cinema,” said Adorno, “leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse.” I don’t know, I thought Antonioni’s The Passenger was pretty good.
2. An epidemiologist and biostatistician at Harvard, after I had explained to him what numerology is, said, “Let me see if I understand. 15 is 1 and 5, and it’s the sum of the first five numbers. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 adds up to 15. So it is the smallest number that names itself as its sum. 15, first five. Is that numerology?” I told him we ought to have someone from the physics department send him back in time to the Renaissance, in order that he might dethrone the magus Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa.
Renaissance numerology held that when God revealed the Law, He indicated that it had an additional interior meaning discoverable only by recondite methods: for example, by transformations of numerical values in the Hebrew alphabet.
A scholar of classical Hebrew literature at Penn explained to me, over a slice of chocolate cake and a tableful of spilled Scrabble tiles, that gematria is such a system of alphanumeric equivalences. (Many readers will be familiar with the notion that 666, the Number of the Beast in the Book of Revelation, can be read as an encoding of the name of the Roman emperor Nero, alleged persecutor of John of Patmos, that book’s alleged author.)
My attempt to investigate the number 15 in gematria elicited a scowl of disapproval. I learned that it is not permitted to write 15 with 10, yodh, and 5, heh, these being equivalent to one of the names of God—see Yah-weh, or hallelu-jah. In order to avoid this taking-of-the-Lord’s-name, 15 is written not as 10 and 5, but as 9 and 6.
I tried to pursue this line of inquiry further, and the professor adjusted his eyepatch and smiled as he dismissed me. “Don’t be a fool,” he said. “Gematria has destroyed greater minds than yours.”
This is how it destroyed them: I was born in Kentucky, the 15th state to join the Union, on the 15th day of November. The Devil is the 15th card of the Tarot. And so on.
3. Raven’s Progressive Matrices is a popular intelligence test. The subject’s task is to recognize significance in complexity, and to perceive and predict the next step suggested by the underlying order.
That’s pattern recognition, an important attribute of intelligence. Whereas apophenia is a disturbance of intelligence: pattern projection. You know what an aporia is, an uncertainty. And you know what a phenomenon is, a perceptible thing. Apophenia is uncertain-thing-ism. It’s a problematic definition. Who says the pattern isn’t there? Galileo says the pattern is there, the Inquisition says it isn’t. Statistics calls this the type II error, failure to recognize an existing pattern. Type I is “recognition” of a pattern that does not exist.
“The greatest thing by far,” wrote Aristotle in his Poetics, “is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learned from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an eye for resemblance.” But you can be too much of a genius for your own good, crippled by a hypertrophied organ of metaphor. Obsessed with razzle-dazzle theories of unification, such a person can’t tolerate that things remain simultaneously separate. Life is a dream, and everybody’s everything, and everything is happening at the same time, and everything is everything else.
Everything is happening at the same time, you know, but that’s not the whole story.
4. I once asked the science-fiction novelist William Gibson about his pattern recognizer Cayce Pollard, the protagonist of one of his novels, embarrassing the man seated next to me.
“It’s not ‘pattern recognizer.’ The title of his book is Pattern Recognition,” Voodoo George said.
“And the one who recognizes the recognition is the recognizer. You might call that pattern conjugation,” I said.
Gibson was not interested in either of us, and indeed there was no point talking to Voodoo George, or to anyone who, like me, was foolish enough to go around with him.
What an old hairball George was. His apartment looked like a compost heap. He was the second-meanest pacifist I have ever met, as mean as a snake. He believed solar energy was the answer to everything, and it is certainly the answer to some things. It is the answer to the question, “What did Voodoo George think was the answer to everything?”
15. The best movie I saw in 2013 was Room 237. It was, in part, about why a certain kind of person should not go to the movies. A man who does not understand movies, who has nothing to say about movies, sits at my desk and writes this article about a movie he needed to see, a film about unhappy people searching for meaning in their lives, people who want more meaning from life than life has to give. Their normal hunger for meaning has become a greed for meaning, an excessive appetite which calls for an excess of meaning. But there isn’t much meaning available, so they have to trick it up out of whatever happens to be lying around. “All of this must be happening for a reason.” Not only is it not happening for a reason, it is not happening.
Room 237. There’s 23 again, this time with a 7. But 7 is 6 plus 1 plus 0—that’s 610, the 15th Fibonacci number. And 2 plus 3 is 5, and 3 plus 7 is 10; and 5 plus 10 is 15. Numerology is not difficult. You just have to stay motivated.
Room 237 is about unhinged Stanley Kubrick fanatics and their collective struggle to install apophenic hinges on the wide-swinging doors of their perceptions. Each of them thinks The Shining is a coded message. One participant believes The Shining is Kubrick’s confession that he helped NASA fake the Apollo 11 moon landing. Have you seen The Shining? It’s about an axe murderer. It’s about 145 minutes long.
Another character in Room 237 believes that the Overlook Hotel in The Shining is the labyrinth built by Daedalus to contain the Minotaur. She points out a poster of a skier that she insists is a Minotaur. She can see it’s a skier, but come on, you guys, it still looks kind of like a Minotaur to her, all the same. She’s got a Minotaur stuck in her eye. If you look around the card table and you can’t tell who the sucker is, you’re the sucker. What if you’re lost in the labyrinth and you can’t find the Minotaur?
Whatever else they may be, the lost souls of Room 237 are creative. They are Aristotelian “geniuses” of recognizing, or inventing, similarities. But interpretation is intrinsically a second-order act: commentary is not revelation, the Talmud is not the Tanakh. The characters of Room 237 are creative consumers.
Better than wringing false meaning out of a Kubrick movie, far better than treating Kubrick as an all-intending creator-God and ringing him with curlicues of labored analysis, would be slaying their divine monster and making some freestanding meaning for themselves.
A magazine, for instance. A first issue, because everything has to begin somewhere. 15 years of issues. More.
23. Ramanujan is dead. Adorno is dead. Antonioni is dead. Agrippa is dead. Nero and John of Patmos are dead. Galileo is dead. Aristotle is dead. Stanley Kubrick is dead. And now Cook is dead. He was my age. I would like to live at least another 38 years—23 plus 15. More.