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When Numbers Get Serious

Updated: Mar 30

The world at sixes and sevens as The Magic Mountain turns 100

Earl Fowler

Maybe because the novel is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, I noticed something about The Magic Mountain my second time through that had escaped my ever capricious attention when I read Thomas Mann’s great masterpiece back in the Seventies.

Seven things, really.

To wit: the many whimsical ways he insinuated the number seven into both the text and the structure of this peerless classic of German literature, which was partly inspired by his wife’s stay at a Swiss sanatorium while suffering from a respiratory disease back in 1912.

Seven has long been thought by superstitious types to have magical qualities, so it’s not surprising that a book with “Magic” in the title would be divided into seven chapters.

I twigged to the fact that something more might be going on when it occurred to me that Hans Castorp, the courteous, curious, mediocre everyman around whom the story unfolds, winds up spending seven years in the Berghof, a luxurious sanatorium in the Alps, after journeying to visit his tubercular cousin, Joachim Ziemmsen, and being diagnosed with the disease himself.

Castorp (count the letters in his surname) was seven when his parents died. There are seven tables in the institution’s dining hall. The digits of the bedroom to which Castorp is assigned (No. 34) add up to, well, you do the math.

The loosely married Clavdia Chauchat — with whom Castorp falls hopelessly in love after homoerotically conflating her with a Polish boy who had lent him a cherished pencil back in elementary school — is initially assigned to room 7. Joachim’s room, 28, is a multiple of seven. (And re. that precious pencil, as anyone who has read his 1912 novella Death in Venice would know, Mann himself had Humbert Humbert-level issues when it came to yearning for adolescent boys. Always thought Mann II Boyz would be a crackerjack name for a German queercore punk band.)

One of The Magic Mountain’s leading characters is Lodovico Settembrini, an Italian humanist, encyclopedist and windbag, who delivers prolix lectures to the cousins on positive ideals of the Enlightenment and democracy, tolerance and human rights. Settembrini is the rival and foil of Jewish Jesuit Leo Naphta, a proponent of communism and totalitarianism, as they struggle for Castorp’s soul. The “sette” in Settembrini means seven in Italian. Ciao, baby!

The two intellectual bookends are ultimately upstaged by the wealthy, self-assured and charismatic Mynheer Peeperkorn, a dying Dionysian Dutchman who wins Madame Chauchat’s affections before ending his life in a strangely mundane suicide that he telegraphs in advance before a group of seven (not a Canadian landscape painter among them).

Peeperkorn is an old man, so his death is not as tragic or moving as young Joachim’s. As an incarnation of the duty-obsessed, turn-of-the-century German military type, Joachim punctiliously keeps thermometers in his mouth as instructed for the prescribed seven minutes, unwisely leaves the Berghof after 490 days (7x70) with the goal of serving his country and inevitably, fatally ill, returns right on schedule to die at precisely seven o’clock.

Anyone who really applied themselves to the novel likely could find seven more seven-centred leitmotifs and then some, but you must get the Venn diagram by now. The magic is in the mathematical mythology.

In her Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling followed Mann in tapping into the number seven’s ancient reputation for unleashing supernatural possibilities among would-be wizards and warlocks. Young Harry spends seven years at the Hogwarts boarding school, where the seven core classes are potions, charms, herbology, magic history, astronomy, transfiguration and the defences against the Dark Arts that will lead him to victory over the villainous Voldemort. Was there ever any doubt?

There are seven players on each team in Quidditch (the perilous sport played by witches and warlocks on broomsticks), seven books (though eight movies) in the fantasy series … and again, I’m confident the Potterheads among my fellow Muggles could come up with seven other examples. As the seventh son of the seventh son on the seventh day, I hereby retire from the quest like the seven sleepers of Ephesus under the seven heavens. Wasting away in Harry Potterville, searching for my last shaker of Snitch ...

So anyway. If it hasn’t already been done, there’s an enthralling PhD thesis out there waiting to be written by anyone willing to methodically tease out seven links between Potterville and The Magic Mountain. You could call it Synclastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. (Possible section headings: Seven Wives for Seven Slide Rules. Seven Years in Subset (starring Brad Pi). Seven Spanish Angles at the Altar of the Sun, and like that.)

Remember to show your work.

Me, I’m more interested in the multitudinous ways authors use recurring numbers in unnumbered novels, TV shows and movies.

If you read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, you’ll know the ultimate answer to everything is 42. The question is what is the question.

The number 19 keeps popping up in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. In Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah, we learn that June 19, 1999, was the day Stephen King was hit by a van near Lovell, Maine. In  Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower, we learn that was also the day Stephen King (as a fictionalized character) helped save the author Stephen King’s life. Or is it the other way around? Dudes, it’s, like, multiverse complicated.

Notations of “4, 8, 16, 16, 23, 42” — winning lottery numbers that seem only to bring notoriously bad luck — recur in the 18th episode of the first season of the sci-fi adventure drama series Lost.

I’d be willing to bet that the hypnotic, calming, almost soporific effect of series of numbers like these is part of what keeps people throwing away money on lottery draws they know perfectly well they have only the most infinitesimal chance of winning. Only trouble is, gee whiz, they’re draining their funds away.

Some authors love to adorn their titles with numbers, which may or may not prove significant in the story: Slaughterhouse-Five, Fahrenheit 451, Catch-22 and so on. George Orwell’s use of the title 1984 speaks for itself, and the novel’s Room 101 at 200 Oxford Street — the basement torture chamber in the Ministry of Love— was based on a cramped mail-sorting room for the BBC, where Orwell spent “two wasted years” labouring for the Beeb’s Indian Section during the Second World War.

Moreover, rare indeed (non-existent, perhaps?) is the major religion that isn’t permeated by the preternatural significance of select integers for sharp-eyed congregants schooled in reading the number signs. Wikipedia:

The practice of gematria, assigning numerical values to words and names and imputing those values with religious meaning, dates back to antiquity. An Assyrian inscription from the 8th century BCE, commissioned by Sargon II, declares “the king built the wall of Khorsabad 16,283 cubits long to correspond with the numerical value of his name.”

A cubit is about a foot and a half — and were those ancient Assyrian mud bricklayers ever happy that Sargon’s name wasn’t Rumpelstiltskin!

So go ahead. Pick a number. Any number.

Is that a “twelve” that I hear? I’m nobody’s biblical scholar, but right off the top of my head I can think of the 12 tribes of Israel. Is it a coincidence that Jesus had 12 disciples? Or that our calendar observes 12 months in a year? Or that there are 12 astrological signs in the zodiac?

Forty. The rain of the Great Deluge that Noah and his critter cargo navigated in his ark lasted 40 days and nights. David and Solomon each ruled ancient Israel for 40 years. David killed Goliath 40 days after the giant challenged the Israelites. Moses was 40 when booted from Egypt. Forty years later, he returned to lead the Hebrews out of captivity. He spent 40 days atop Mount Sinai receiving the Law, and 40 years wandering the desert with a half-crazed Hebrew rabble after fleeing Egypt. According to Exodus, the life-sustaining manna rained down on the Israelites for 40 years. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, spurning Satan’s temptations, and remained in Jerusalem and Galilee 40 days after his resurrection before his ascension to heaven. Lent lasts 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, excluding Sundays. So this is 40.

Seven. Jesus fed the multitude with seven loaves and an indeterminate number of fish. There are seven days of creation (counting the well-deserved day of R&R), seven days in a week, seven lamps on the Temple Menorah, seven hills of Rome to represent the Gentiles, seven deadly sins, seven spirits of God listed in the Book of Revelations … all very big deals, with not a single seven-day wonder loafing about.

Books on numerology — the belief in an occult or divine relationship between numbers or numerical patterns and our personalities, fates or events in the real world — have been booming since the counterculture of the Sixties.

Here’s a quick random sample of three such works from that modern magus, Dr. Google: Master Numbers 11, 22, and 33, a 2018 paperback by Felicia Bender; Numerology and the Divine Triangle, a 1997 paperback by Faith Javane and Dusty Bunker; Project 369: The Key to the Universe, a 2020 paperback by David Kasneci.

There are dozens more vying for your inattention to reality, but the promotional blurbs used to market these paranormal potboilers can give you a pretty good feel for what’s on offer across the board.

In Master Numbers:

… Bender teaches you how to discern the core elements in your birth chart — your Life Path, Destiny or Expression, Soul Urge or Heart’s Desire, Personality, Birthday, Achievement, and Karmic numbers — as well as important cycles. Wherever a Master number shows up, she offers lighthearted suggestions for optimizing its power. The way she breaks down the characteristics of the individual numbers 1, 2, and 3, makes it clear how they are amplified when doubled. She also explains why a Master number can expose you to conflicting demands when reduced to its final essence of 2, 4, and 6.

Got that? It all adds up and it’s as copacetic as 1, 2, 3 except when a final essence of 2, 4 and 6 show up to crash the party. Who invited them? Two doesn’t seem to know whether it’s multiplying or dividing. Attention, Airplane! passengers. Karmic planes of existence are now arriving at Gate 10, Gate 11, Gate 12 … looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.

Numerology and the Divine Triangle promises:

… a pioneering approach to synthesizing numerology, astrology, and Tarot symbolism, presented here for the first time in book form. Each number is explained in terms of:

  • its personal number vibrations

  • temporary number vibrations

  • astrological correspondences

  • Tarot symbolism, with each of the Tarot cards illustrated to aid comprehension.

Dusty bunkum indeed. Dud vibrations? She’s giving me the excitations (oom bop bop).

Kasneci’s “evolved consciousness” doesn’t fool around:

Project 369 facilitates the creation of miracles. People are sharing passionately about how they have manifested millions of dollars, dream businesses, new jobs, dream homes, soulmates, marriages, profound fulfilment, mystical experiences, divine purpose, Oneness, deep healing, recovery from lifetime afflictions like alcoholism, depression, negative self-talk, and much more.

Mystical experiences and deep healing are consummations devoutly to be wished, of course, but it’s no accident that the manifestation of millions of dollars is accorded top billing because that’s what really, um, counts. Cosmic lovin’ gives me a thrill but cosmic lovin’ don’t pay my bills. One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go, magnificat, go!

Onomancy — a type of numerology — is the study of the numerical value, via an alphanumeric system, of the letters in words and names. Especially when tied into astrology or other means of divination, with equally vague descriptions of personal traits and prescriptions, this has proved to have a lasting appeal among impressionable people hoping to change their luck.

Alphanumeric systems — and there are more than a few out there, routinely inconsistent with one another — assign numerical values to letters of the alphabet. I have relatives who have changed the spelling of their surnames and added letters to their given names on the theory that the new numbers will improve their fortunes. Are their lives better now than they would have been if they hadn’t changed their names? Impossible to say, but it certainly complicates matters when applying for a credit check or crossing international borders.

Others believe that when you spot “angel numbers,” repeating digits such as 11:11 on a clock or change of $2.22 on a bar bill, you’re receiving a message from the universe that can — if, ahem, properly deciphered — provide valuable guidance on how to behave. (No word of a lie: After I wrote that sentence yesterday, our grocery bill came in at $222 and change — my latest reminder never to buy milk, bread and gruel at the same time — and we wound up stuck in front of a hulking SUV with the licence plate DJT 666. The obnoxious driver kept leaning on his horn. Horns. Resembled nothing so much as an Orange Julius Caesar.)

One source I consulted suggests using your birthdate to find your angel number. For example, if you were born on Sept. 9, 1989, that can be written as 09 09 1989, which translates to 0+9+0+9+1+9+8+9 = 45. 4+5 = 9, so self-evidently, if that’s your birthdate, nine is the number you should watch for in your daily life and the cheat sheet to finding your guardian angel. Ipso facto and Q.E.D.

Numerology spirals into ever more arcane, abstruse, recondite, hermeneutic, impenetrable, cryptic, occult, loopy reasoning … and if it sounds flipping nuts, that’s because it is. The idea of number values corresponding to letters was given traction and lent more credence than it ever deserved when some Etruscan-influenced genius in ancient Rome decided to write numbers with combinations of letters from the Latin alphabet way back in, I dunno, DCCCL BCE.

But as with inert sugar pills, there’s a not-to-be-discounted placebo effect at work here. If it makes you feel better to believe that spotting a nine on a random stranger’s baseball cap is a nod from your guardian angel, you’ll feel better when you see one — as you’re pretty much bound to do several times in the course of a normal day.

Addition by distraction.

This isn’t just a Western thing, of course. The numbers 2, 3, 6 and 8 are generally considered to be lucky in Chinese culture. But ill-starred 4 has come to be regarded as unlucky because the way it’s pronounced in Cantonese is nearly homophonous to the word for death.

Just as some highrises skip straight (at least so far as the elevator and door numbers are concerned) from the 12th to the 14th floors because 13 is considered an unlucky number, it’s not uncommon to find buildings here on the West Coast where I live — with its large Asian population — that pretend to jump straight from the third to the fifth floor. Property developers in Vancouver regularly omitted mention of the fourth storey from new buildings until October 2015, when the city banned non-sequential numbering schemes.

Wikipedia again:

Where East Asian and Western cultures blend, such as in Hong Kong, it is possible in some buildings that the thirteenth floor, along with all the floors with fours, (will) be omitted. Thus a building whose top floor is numbered 100 would in fact have just 81 floors.

Nonsense and sensibilities.

Still. At the heart of all of this staggeringly superstitious lunacy stands a mind-blowing revelation often credited to ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras and his cult of devotees in the sixth century BCE.

As Pythagoras proclaimed, and as Albert Einstein would echo 2,500 years later, the most incredible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. Much of it, anyway. With no need to invoke supernatural mysteries, oracular prophecies or the whims of unseen, mercurial gods.

Pythagoras and his scholarly followers contended that mathematics is a potent guide to the truth about well nigh everything, a fundamental insight that has shaped Western science, philosophy and even the arts ever since.

(A bit of housekeeping before we go any further: You might remember the Pythagorean Theorem from your high school daze: “In a right-angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse side is equal to the sum of squares of the other two sides.” Historians of Mesopotamian mathematics have concluded that the formula was in use in Babylonia 1,000 years before the birth of Pythagoras, and it was also known in Egypt, India and China centuries before the founder of the obsessively secretive cult set up shop on the southern coast of Italy about 530 BCE. So Pythagoras doesn’t really deserve the credit for its invention, though the theorem might have been hit upon independently any number of times in human history.)

The esoteric school of Pythagoras was already shrouded in a cloud of nebulosity by the time of Plato in the fourth century BCE, but this much we do know, according to Kitty Ferguson in her 2008 book, Pythagoras: His Lives and the Legacy of a Rational Universe:

While experimenting with lyres and considering why some combinations of string lengths produced beautiful sounds and others did not, Pythagoras, or others who were encouraged and inspired by him, discovered that the connections between lyre string lengths and human ears are not arbitrary or accidental. The ratios that underlie musical harmony make sense in a remarkably simple way. In a flash of extraordinary clarity, the Pythagoreans found that there is a pattern and order hidden behind the apparent variety and confusion of nature, and that it is possible to understand it through numbers. Tradition has it that, literally and figuratively, they fell to their knees upon discovering that the universe is rational.

Eureka. Epiphany. Omega point. Ferguson then goes on to trace the influence of the notion of a discoverable, mathematical, universal harmony in the natural world on the development of science and the arts through the succeeding centuries. It galvanized William Shakespeare and John Milton no less than it did Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton, Bertrand Russell and Arthur Koestler just as much as it did Carl Linnaeus and William Wordsworth.

In astronomy, the interplay of numbers is the key to understanding the gravitational gavotte among the planets, the big bang, the expansion of the universe, the shape of space, cosmic evolution, the large-scale structure of the universe, the physics of time, quantum weirdness, the meaning of now — the whole shebang.

The deepest concepts of biology, chemistry, geology, archaeology, meteorology — pick a science, any science — are shored up by mathematical scafffolding and nurtured in intricate numeric trellises.

The snowshoe hare’s narrow escape from a pursuing silver fox, the drumming of downy woodpeckers for borers, the tiny mice sunning themselves at the openings to snow tunnels, the whelk coiling inside its swirling, tapered shell, the spiralling up and scrolling off into the soul of the night by echolocating bats, the complex rhyming songs of humpback whales swimming through moving galaxies of luminescent fish — they’re all part of a dance of incalculable elementary particles temporarily co-operating in fantastical structures of a capering, cavorting, quasi-conscious calculus.

Not to put too fine a decimal point on it, life is a math equation.

Why is baseball’s most flummoxing challenge to aerodynamics, the knuckleball, so unpredictable? Build a wind tunnel to study the speed at which the pitch is released and the angle of the release, the spin rate and the starting orientation of the stitches on the ball, the prevailing atmospheric conditions … and gradually the clouds will part. The ball’s chaotic trajectory and sudden, stochastic breaks will cease to be unfathomable conundrums. Three strikes and you’re in.

Math works. Numbers count. And it’s one, two, three, that’s what we’re fighting for.

What none of this confers, however, is a single iota of validity to humanity’s obdurate compulsion to read transcendental, pullulating, non-existent meaning into numerals — as the Pythagoreans appear to have done and as their modern descendants, from Theosophical Society co-founder Helena Blavatsky and occultist/magician/self-anointed prophet Aleister Crowley on down, certainly have.

In his 2023 book The Rigor of Angels: Borges, Heisenberg, Kant and the Ultimate Nature of Reality, literary critic and philosopher William Egginton quotes an apt line by the great Argentine short-story writer and essayist Jorge Luis Borges: “Enchanted by its rigour, humanity has forgotten, and continues to forget, that it is the rigour of chess masters, not of angels.”

In reviewing the The Rigor of Angels this month in The New York Review of Books, essayist Meghan O’Gieblyn recalled Ivan Karamazov’s parallel complaint in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov about “the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man.”

Baba deep, baba deep. baba deep, that’s all, folks! Humans can learn an awful lot of stuff via math and science, the arts and spirituality. If you want to get metaphysical about it, we might be the means through which the cosmos gradually grows conscious of itself. A noble calling indeed. But there is no key to a secret alchemical garden of universal understanding where lead is effortlessly spun into gold. We are chess masters with Euclidean minds, not angels.

After playfully rolling a bunch of sevens in his mind games on the magic mountain, Mann has a reinvigorated Hans Castorp, with his TB vanquished, his narrow world view overturned and a mind freshly bursting with knowledge, eagerly released into the inferno of the First World War as one conscript among millions. As expendable cannon fodder:

There is our friend, there is Hans Castorp! We recognize him at a distance, by the little beard he assumed while sitting at the “bad” Russian table. Like all the others, he is wet through and glowing. He is running, his feet heavy with mould, the bayonet swinging in his hand. Look! He treads on the hand of a fallen comrade; with his hobnailed boot he treads the hand deep into the slimy, branch-strewn ground.

A shell falls nearby. Two more youths are “scattered, commingled and gone.” Castorp rises, staggers on, limping on his earthbound feet, unconsciously singing:

“In its waving branches whispered

A message in my ear —”

“When numbers get serious,” as Paul Simon reminded us, “you see their shape everywhere.” When times are mysterious, serious numbers will always be heard. And so much for Clever Hans.

You don’t need an Archimedean viewpoint or God’s-eye perspective (sub specie aeternitatis, Spinoza called it) to recoil before the harrowing meaning of the ultimate irrational numbers: World War I: Forty million dead. World War II: Fifty to 85 million dead. World War III, to which we seem to be relentlessly lurching under the criminally heedless leadership of a remorseless race of venomous Voldemorts sitting on nuclear stockpiles: Who can count the dust of Jacob?

Ironic that after clearing away the cobwebs of ignorance and superstition, it was clear-eyed thinking and rational science that has brought us to the brink of Armageddon, wot?

Abracadabra, alakazam and it’s back to square one.

Einstein (him again): “As far as the propositions of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

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