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The 23 Phenomenon
Robert Anton Wilson

Author: Robert Anton Wilson

With the release of movie The Number 23 earlier this year we paid tribute to the late, much lamented Robert Anton Wilson by reprinting this 1977 article from (you guessed it) Fortean Times 23...

I first heard of the 23 enigma from William S Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, Nova Express, etc. According to Burroughs, he had known a certain Captain Clark, around 1960 in Tangier, who once bragged that he had been sailing 23 years without an accident. That very day, Clark’s ship had an accident that killed him and everybody else aboard. Furthermore, while Burroughs was thinking about this crude example of the irony of the gods that evening, a bulletin on the radio announced the crash of an airliner in Florida, USA. The pilot was another captain Clark and the flight was Flight 23.

Burroughs began collecting odd 23s after this gruesome synchronicity, and after 1965 I also began collecting them. Many of my weird 23s were incorporated into the trilogy Illuminatus! which I wrote in collaboration with Robert J Shea in 1969–1971. I will mention only a few of them here, to give a flavour to those benighted souls who haven’t read Illuminatus! yet:

In conception, Mom and Dad each contribute 23 chromosomes to the fœtus. DNA, the carrier of the genetic information, has bonding irregularities every 23rd Angstrom. Aleister Crowley, in his Cabalistic Dictionary, defines 23 as the number of “life” or “a thread”, hauntingly suggestive of the DNA life-script. On the other hand, 23 has many links with termination: in telegraphers’ code, 23 means “bust” or “break the line”, and Hexagram 23 in I Ching means “breaking apart”. Sidney Carton is the 23rd man guillotined in the old stage productions of A Tale of Two Cities. (A few lexicographers believe this is the origin of the mysterious slang expression “23 Skiddoo!”.)

Some people are clusters of bloody synchronicities in 23. Burroughs discovered that the bootlegger “Dutch Schultz” (real name: Arthur Flegenheimer) had Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll assassinated on 23rd Street in New York when Coll was 23 years old. Schultz himself was assassinated on 23 October. Looking further into the Dutch Schultz case, I found that Charlie Workman, the man convicted of shooting Schultz, served 23 years of a life sentence and was then paroled.

Prof. Hans Seisel of the University of Chicago passed the following along to Arthur Koestler, who published it in The Challenge of Chance. Seisel’s grandparents had a 23 in their address, his mother had 23 both as a street number and apartment number, Seisel himself once had 23 as both his home address and his law office address, etc. While visiting Monte Carlo, Seisel’s mother read a novel, Die Liebe der Jeannie Ney, in which the heroine wins a great deal by betting on 23 at roulette. Mother tried betting on 23 and it came up on the second try.

Adolf Hitler was initiated into the Vril Society (which many consider a front for the Illuminati) in 1923. The Morgan Bank (which is regarded as the financial backer of the Illuminati by the John Birch Society) is at 23 Wall Street in Manhattan. When Illuminatus! was turned into a play, it premiered in Liverpool on 23 November (which is also Harpo Marx’s birthday). Ken Campbell, producer of Illuminatus!, later found, on page 223 of Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, a weird dream about Liverpool, which Campbell says describes the street intersection of the theatre where Illuminatus! opened (Jung, of course, was the first psychologist to study weird coincidences of this sort and to name them synchronicities). Campbell also claims that Hitler lived briefly in Liverpool when he was 23 years old, but I haven’t found the reference for that.

Recently, I was invited to join an expedition to the Bermuda Triangle. I declined because of other commitments, but “the crew that never rests” (Sir Walter Scott’s name for the Intelligence – or idiocies – who keep pestering us with this kind of phenomenon) refused to let me off the hook that easily. A few days after the expedition left, I turned on the television and caught an advertisement for the new film, Airport 77. The advertisement began with an actor shouting “Flight 23 is down in the Bermuda Triangle!”

A week later, Charles Berlitz, author of The Bermuda Triangle, claimed he had found a submerged pyramid “twice the size of the pyramids of Cheops” in the waters down there. You will find that monstrous edifice described in Illuminatus!, and it is specifically said to be “twice the size of the pyramid of Cheops” – but Shea and I thought we were writing fiction when we composed that passage in 1971. In 1977, Berlitz claims it is real.

I now have almost as many weird 23s in my files as Fort once had records of rains of fish, and people are always sending me new ones.

Euclid’s Geometry begins with 23 axioms.

As soon as I became seriously intrigued by collecting weird 23s, one of my best friends died – on 23 December.

My two oldest daughters were born on 23 August and 23 February respectively.

According to Omar Garrison’s Tantra: The Yoga of Sex, in addition to the well-known 28-day female sex cycle, there is also a male sex cycle of 23 days.

Burroughs, who tends to look at the dark side of things, sees 23 chiefly as the death number. In this connection, it is interesting that the 23rd Psalm is standard reading at funerals.

Heathcote Williams, editor of The Fanatic, met Burroughs when he (Williams) was 23 years old and living at an address with a 23 in it. When Burroughs told him, gloomily, “23 is the death number”, Williams was impressed; but he was more impressed when he discovered for the first time that the building across the street from his house was a morgue.

Bonnie and Clyde, the most popular bank-robbers of the 1930s, lived out most American underground myths quite consciously, and were shot to death by the Texas Rangers on 23 May, 1934. Their initials, B and C, have the Cabalistic values of 2–3.

W, the 23rd letter of the English alphabet, pops up continually in these matters. The physicist who collaborated with Carl Jung on the theory of synchronicity was Wolfgang Pauli. William Burroughs first called the 23 mystery to my attention. Dutch Schultz’s assassin was Charlie Workman. Adam Weishaupt and / or George Washington, the two (or one) chief source of 18th-century Illuminism, also come to mind. Will Shakespeare was born and died on 23 April.

(I have found some interesting 46s – 46 is 2 x 23 – but mostly regard them as irrelevant. Nonetheless, the 46th Psalm has a most peculiar structure. The 46th word from the beginning is shake and the 46th word from the end, counting back, is spear.)

Through various leads, I have become increasingly interested in Sir Francis Bacon as a possibly ringleader of the 17th-century Illuminati (Some evidence for this can be found in Francis Yates’s excellent The Rosicrucian Enlightenment). Bacon, in accord with custom, was allowed to pick the day for his own elevation to knighthood by Elizabeth I. He picked 23 July.

Dr John Lilly refers to “the crew that never rests” as Cosmic Coincidence Control Center and warns that they pay special attention to those who pay attention to them. I conclude this account with the most mind-boggling 23s to have intersected my own life.

On 23 July 1973, I had the impression that I was being contacted by some sort of advanced intellect from the system of the double star Sirius. I have had odd psychic experiences of that sort for many years, and I always record them carefully, but refuse to take any of them literally, until or unless supporting evidence of an objective nature turns up. This particular experience, however, was especially staggering, both intellectually and emotionally, so I spent the rest of the day at the nearest large library researching Sirius. I found, among other things, that 23 July is very closely associated with that star.

On 23 July, ancient Egyptian priests began a series of rituals to Sirius, continuing until 8 September. Since Sirius is known as the “Dog Star”, being in the constellation Canis Major, the period 23 July – 8 September became known as “the dog days”.

My psychic “Contact” experience continued, off and on, for nearly two years, until October 1974, after which I forcibly terminated it by sheer stubborn willpower (I was getting tired of wondering whether I was specially selected for a Great Mission of interstellar import, or was just going crazy).

After two years of philosophic mulling on the subject (late 1974 – early 1976), I finally decided to tune in one more time to the Sirius–Earth transmissions, and try to produce something objective. On 23 July 1976, using a battery of yogic and shamanic techniques, I opened myself to another blast of Cosmic Wisdom and told the Transmitters that I wanted something objective this time around.

The next week, Time magazine published a full-page review of Robert KG Temple’s The Sirius Mystery, which claims that contact between Earth and Sirius occurred around 4500 BC in the Near East. The 23 July festivals in Egypt were part of Temple’s evidence, but I was more amused and impressed by his middle initials, K.G., since Kallisti Gold is the brand of very expensive marijuana smoked by the hero of Illuminatus!.

The same week as that issue of Time, i.e. still one week after my 23rd experiment, Rolling Stone published a full-page advertisement for a German Rock group called Ramses. One of the group was named Winifred, which is the name of one of the four German Rock musicians in Illuminatus!, and the advertisement included a large pyramid with an eye atop it, the symbol of the Illuminati.

Coincidence? Synchronicity? Higher Intelligence? Higher Idiocy?

Of course, the eye on the pyramid was a favourite symbol of Aleister Crowley, who called himself Epopt of the Illuminati, and subtitled his magazine, The Equinox, “A Review of Scientific Illuminism”. And 2/3 equals .66666666 etc. – Crowley’s magick number repeated endlessly. Readers of this piece might find it amusing to skim through The Magical Revival and Aleister Crowley and the Hidden God, two books by Kenneth Grant, a former student of Crowley’s (and note the initials K.G. again!). You will find numerous references, cloudy and occult, linking Crowley in some unspecified way with Sirius.

The actor who played Padre Pederastia in the National Theatre production of Illuminatus! informed me that he once met Crowley on a train. “Mere coincidence”, if you prefer. But the second night of the National Theatre run, the actors cajoled me into doing a walk-on as an extra in the Black Mass scene. And, dear brothers and sisters, that is how I found myself, stark naked, on the stage of the National Theatre, bawling Crowley’s slogan “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”, under the patronage of Her Majesty the Queen.

As a fortean, I am, of course, an ontological agnostic and I never believe anything literally. But I will never cease to wonder how much of this was programmed by Uncle Aleister before I was ever born, and I’m sure that last bit, my one moment on the stage of the National Theatre, was entirely Crowley’s work.

If you look up Crowley’s Confessions, you’ll find that he began the study of magick in 1898, at the age of 23.

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Robert Anton Wilson
Robert Anton Wilson. Image: Infinity Academy/James Nye
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