Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Numbers everywhere

Everybody’s got some kind of weirdness, right? So here’s mine: I’ve got a thing about numbers. Lots of people do, apparently. For me, it takes a variety of forms. I like things to add up, for example. And I don’t mean that I like for things to make sense; I mean that I like for things to literally add up. When I see a group of numbers, I have a compulsive need to turn them into an equation of some kind. License plates are the worst for me. I spend an hour on the freeway every day adding up the numbers on every license plate of every car in front of me. Some are easy, of course. 521 NLB can easily be rendered as 5*2=10 (with the zero implied). Some are more challenging. 237 1EF can, with a little work, become 2^3=7+1. The letters, strangely enough, don't interest me at all. The really weird part, however, occurs when there isn't a clear equation to be made from the numbers at hand. At that point, I fall back on my other numerical compulsion: finding nines. I have no idea why nine interests me. In fact, it doesn't interest me at all, at least not in the traditional sense. But it's somehow a special number in my whacked-out head. So if I can make the numbers equal nine somehow, I will. In the examples above, 521 would be 5*2-1 (which equals nine). The second example would take some creativity. I would probably work 237 1EF out in the following way: I would multiply the 2 and the 7, which would give me fourteen. I would then add the digits of 14 together to get 5, which would be added with the remaining numbers (3 and 1) to get to nine.

I know, it's completely nuts.

[NOTE: I only recently explained this compulsion to my wife of 15 years, not because I was keeping it secret, but more because it usually lurks just beneath the threshold of my consciousness. In other words, I don't really notice when I do these number tricks. It's just a part of my mental makeup that I've come to take almost completely for granted. Needless to say, my wife, whom I'll be referring to on this blog as Miss Goddess, was a little bit freaked. Now she finds it vaguely charming, which works to my advantage.]

But the place that numbers hold in my consciousness is deeper than is represented by these compulsions. Many numbers resonate in my mind for emotional or memorial reasons. I was just reminded of this fact last night, when I passed a clock that read 10:37. Immediately, and without any volition on my part, I thought about the house where I lived until I was about six years old, the street address of which was 1037. Now I've lived in many, many places since then, and, in fact, I can't even remember much about that house, aside from the address. And I see the numerical combination 10:37 twice almost every day. It just struck me as bizarre that this number, which played a relatively small role in my early life (after all, you don't even know your street address until you're four or five years old) continues to be important enough to some part of my mind, more than thirty years later, to trigger this association. Weird.

Because I'm an Anglo-Saxonist, this coincidence made me think about Beowulf. There's been a discussion on ANSAX-L in the last few days about numerological (for lack of a better word) interpretations of Beowulf. The basic point of contention has to do with certain theories which argue that some of the structural divisions in the poem (the arrangements of the fitts, for example, or even the total number of lines in the poem) are based on obscure numerical patterns. Did the author of the poem structure it in such a way as to reflect (with lots of obscure calculations) the number of hexameters in the Aeneid? Is the number of lines in the poem (3182) somehow related to the figure pi (it's awfully close to 3.141, after all, and medieval folks may have rendered pi with a figure even closer to 3.182)? These arguments are not new on ANSAX-L (David Howlett's prolific arguments in this arena in the 90s spring to mind), and I've generally discounted them all as examples of scholars finding what they set out to look for, as all too much Da Vinci Code. If you decide that the number nine is important, in other words, you'll find ways to get to the nines in any set of data. Trust me.

But that moment last night, when the number 10:37 suddenly gained great significance for me, made me think about these theories in a different light. Though to anyone else, the number 1037 (which, I can't help but point out, is also 10=3-7) lacks any inherent significance, it apparently resonates loudly in my own consciousness. Is it possible that our distance from the medieval period keeps us from seeing the significance of numbers that would have been immediately apparent to at least some proportion of the poem's audience? I'm reminded of D.W. Robertson, who claimed (at least this is what I was told in grad school) that every garden in every work of medieval literature would have been symbolic of the Garden of Eden, simply because it would have been virtually impossible for a medieval reader to encounter a garden in a text without the association to Eden emerging. Maybe numbers work the same way. I've read a fair amount of medieval computistical texts, for example, and I wonder whether monks who were immersed in the computus would have seen immediate significance in any use of numbers like 19, 84, or 532 (all key figures in Easter cycles). If such a monk, reading Beowulf in the eleventh century, say, noticed that certain kinds of words appeared in lines 19, 38, and 57 of the poem (let's say eafera/son in l. 19, gegyrwan/clothed in l. 38, and heah/high in l. 57), might not that monk associate those words with the 19-year Easter cycle and come up with an interpretation that hinged on the idea of Christ (the son) being "clothed" (with the new garment of life, perhaps) on high as a result of the Resurrection? Sounds very far-fetched to us, sure, but so would my association of a random time on a random clock with a house where I lived as a child, especially to someone who had never experienced house numbers or digital clocks.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that we know that numbers meant something to medieval people. There are just too many works about numbers that survive to argue otherwise. [NOTE: if you really want to have a good time, try reading Bede's De Temporum Ratione, or, better yet, Alexander de Villa Dei's Massa Compoti. Those guys were paaartay animals.] What we don't know is what specific numbers would have meant to, for example, readers of Beowulf, or whether the general concern for numbers would have bubbled over into something like poetry at all.

I, for one, am going to keep an open mind. The tag on my keychain, which originally hung on an old hotel key, and which I chose because of the engraved "32" (3^2=9, of course) pretty much dictates that I do so.


Anonymous said...

Being on a devotional text kick lately myself, I really do have to point out that I would of course have to point out that 3 is the number of the trinity and that 9 is the perfect trinitarian number 3*3=9 or 3+3+3=9.

Of course the bible is full of 'magic' numbers: 3, 7, 12.

In Welsh lore, the number of a retinue in a battle is always 300 or 333. Of course, the welsh triads are groups of 3 (and there are Irish triads also). There are many triads found in Bede's History (such as Aidan of Lindisfarne's 3 miracles worthy of remembrance) even if Anglo-Saxonists don't usually recognize them as such.

Prof. de Breeze said...

Good point, Michelle, though I don't think that my personal fixation on the number nine has anything to do with trinitarian doctrine. :)

By the way, OE prayers do make use of triads at times. The most prevalent is the "thought, word, and deed" motif, but I've also found what appear to be alliterating triads (of anatomical features, interestingly) in at least one OE prayer.

What I didn't get into in the post is my insistence that the number three be written with a flat top, as opposed to a curved one. That's a whole different neurosis.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Heh, I do something very similar, but my math skills being limited, I stick to addition. And my obsession is with 4/8/16/32, but mostly working things out in 4s. (I realize that this comment adds nothing to the scholarly point of your post!)

Prof. de Breeze said...

Fours, huh? You freak. :)

[And don't worry about contributing to the "scholarly point." I just wanted an excuse to blog about nines.]

Rif said...

1037 also adds up to 11, and if you google "1111", you will get some very interesting pages to read.