Apophenia is a word relating to the tendency that we have to connect unrelated things by the very action of seeking that connection. There’s a lot of it about at the moment.
On the 23rd May 2017, I was asked by email to come to a theatre in London and play the writer and thinker William S Burroughs for Daisy Campbell’s Cosmic Trigger. In a certain light we might be related, Burroughs and I. I was 23 when he died, but was aware of his work. This extremely mischievous and beautiful piece of theatre frequently had a different guest actor in to play him, with no rehearsal. I love doing that sort of thing, of course. I ended up doing it a few times and hell yeah it was an incredible and eye-opening piece of work to be involved in. Here’s my first speech – on page 23 of the script.
“In the early 60s in Tangier I knew a certain Captain Clark who ran a ferry from Tangier to Spain. One day, Clark said to me that he’d been running the ferry for 23 years without an accident. That very day the ferry sank killing Clark and everybody aboard. That evening I was thinking about this when
I turned on the radio. The first newscast told me about a crash of an Eastern Airlines plane on the New York-Miami
route. The pilot was also called Captain Clark and the flight was listed as Flight 23.”
This coincidence – recorded and repeated by Burroughs – is thought to be the beginning of what is now called “The 23 Enigma”. Burroughs and his friends began to record unusual coincidences they came across and found them littered with the number 23. They were looking for it. And so they found it. But would it have been the same for a different number? Or for Captains called Clark? Or anything else? Maybe. Maybe not. You never know until you look.
The joy of it is the mischief of it. If you look for it, you find it. It’s a thought experiment. It has great power, like any good thought experiment. Maybe there’s something in it. Maybe there isn’t. But it exists and once you’ve been exposed to it, it starts to crop up more often.
It’s March 23rd. The day both of my parents died, many years apart. Just a coincidence. A long time ago now – maybe 23 years since dad died. A double wham but at least then it’s over for another year.
Dad had read Burroughs and enjoyed the mischief. We once played roulette at the casino in The Isle of Man when I was a very young man. “Put your chip on 23. It comes up more often than any other number,” he told me with his usual twinkle. My memory has it that it did come in. Our memory lies outrageously to us. It tells us stories we want to hear. But maybe it did. I’d like it to be what happened. And magically, that’s enough to make it something that happened. I can never prove or disprove it to myself or to anybody else. It happened and didn’t simultaneously forever.
Today has frequently been hard for me with the double anniversary. Have I got the dates wrong? I don’t think so. I went and checked a few years ago.
I think of the forks in the road. I think of what my parents wanted from me versus what I’ve ended up making of myself. Dad would be fine with me having fun but he would definitely have preferred me to be making more money and being more obviously successful in my field. Mum wanted me to be safer than I’m comfortable being, and probably living in a country pile with an annex for her, rather than a London flat full of other people’s pets.
Perhaps it’s okay that suddenly March 23rd has become “British lockdown anniversary”. Maybe that’s why Boris delayed it so long – is he a disciple of Burroughs wanting to make another significant 23? No! He’s an oaf!
But it means I’m able to split my focus on this day. They say we should hold a torch vigil this evening in memory but won’t we get arrested? The 23rd March. Lockdown Day. Where future generations will think it’s cool to dress down in the evening and join great big “Tiger King” watch parties and then cry lots, put on a fat suit and arrest each other.
It’s worth looking into Burroughs and the other boys if you haven’t by the way. A lot of words, but you can dip in and out. Robert Anton Wilson. Timmy Leary. Powerful playful modern philosophers, breaking patterns to find patterns. Fractals and interconnectedness and fucking with the laws of nature through psychedelics and belief and maybe even actual magic. Never too self important though. Never. In terms of their application to confirmation bias and pattern matching it’s so much less tedious and ego driven than the latest crop of proto-mysticism we’re dealing with where talking heads on YouTube behave like they’ve just invented thinking. Back then the thinking was about releasing potential and opening the doors to playfulness and connection. Sure they wanted to make a living and be loved too, but that didn’t seem to be their prime mover. I dunno maybe I’m getting old but I’m mighty bored of a lot of the fundamentalism and smugness around accepted outlets for alternative thinking. I like a bit of muck with my weirdness. It’s all too self-important.
It’s 18.23 and I’m about 23 minutes drive away from where I need to be to help my friend do three self tapes. She’s got tons to do, although disappointingly it’s only 19 pages. I want four more. Still, her brain is exploding and it’s gonna take hours as it is. Happy 23rd.
By the time you read this it won’t be the 23rd anymore – but keep an eye out – 23 shows up all the time.