Living with Numbers

John P. Sisk

Copyright (c) 1995 First Things 54 (June/July 1995): 34-37.

After suffering through elementary arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and trigonometry it is easy to believe with the Pythagoreans that everything is number, or with St. Matthew that "the very hairs of your head are numbered." Inclined as they were to be mystic about their numbers, the Pythagoreans would have found Matthew as easy to adapt to their ontology as the announcement of Psalm 147 that the Lord not only "telleth the number of the stars" but "calleth them by name." We are as immersed in our intricately numbered cosmos as is a fish in its water. The fish, of course, does not have to suffer the awareness of the alienating disjunction between itself and its cosmos, which would be the case if it had the capacity to do grade school arithmetic.

The Pythagoreans had no way of determining the number of hairs on one's head, to say nothing of one's blood pressure, but they surely would have agreed with Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984 that "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four." They had that faith in the wonderfully ordered multiplicity of the cosmos that we find in those poets who have not yet succumbed to a more relativistic mathematics. Thus Wordsworth in "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" sees beside a lake ten thousand golden daffodils and compares them to "the stars that shine / And twinkle on the milky way."

But then we might expect the poet to be at home with numbers if we remember the traditional association of the art of poetry with numbers in the sense of the structured and melodious flow of stressed and unstressed syllables. When poetry was referred to as numbers it was still easy for poets and their readers to believe that the grand model for the successful poem was the universe itself. When Wordsworth associates the fluttering and dancing of ten thousand daffodils with the twinkling of implied thousands of stars in the milky way, one set of numbers repeats and reinforces the other. The important thing is not the accuracy of the count but the fact that daffodils and stars are countably there in a cosmos that supports the poet's perception of a true relationship between them, and his expectation that when the conditions are right the experience will recur. In Wordsworth's poem there is no threat in the big numbers, as in another context there might very well be. This is because this reference is less to sheer numbers than to admirable variety.

I suspect that the number-minded Pythagoreans could have accommodated themselves to Wordsworth's phenomenology but not to that of their fellow Greek, Diogenes. The latter had been run out of his native Sinope because as a devaluator of the currency he had shown a lack of respect for the economic numbering system upon which a community depends for its social and economic well-being. Established in his tub at Athens, he brought together in his life and writings the cynic and skeptic attitudes that subsequently made him a hero for many of those who experience life not as a pleasant and purposefully ordered variety but as sheer numbers in a world that is too much with them. He was a true minimalist for whom the cosmos was afflicted by too much of everything, especially people; indeed, he anticipated Sartre's definition of hell as other people.

Diogenes also anticipated those holy reductionists about whom Helen Waddell writes so memorably in The Desert Fathers. "These men, by the exaggeration of their lives," she says of the North African ascetics, "stamped infinity on the imagination of the West." They devaluated the clock time of the abstractly numbered cosmos by contrasting it with the unity and simplicity of eternity. Paradoxically, Waddell says, they ended up giving time unplumbed depths. One might say too that they helped to preserve an episteme in which centuries later William Blake in his "Auguries of Innocence" could aspire

To see a world in a grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour.
Nevertheless, the Fathers also helped to institutionalize that uneasiness in the presence of the abundant variety of God's universe that has always nagged at the Christian West. If they had learned to see heaven in a wild flower (the best of them could) they would have been less likely to fall (as a few of them did) into the hands of the Gnostics for whom all grains of sand and all wild flowers were part of the numbers racket of the evil Demiurge.

But even for Wordsworth the wonderfully various world of the golden daffodils that was so compatible with the magic of poetic numbers had its menacing and defining contrast: the City with its hordes of other people becoming ever more dependent on and alienated by nature-abusing technology, attention-distracting media, and freak-show entertainment. Progressively throughout the speeded-up nineteenth century the need to feel meaningfully at home in the cosmos is threatened by the sheer numbers that have resulted from the effort to understand that cosmos and exploit its energies. In The Prelude Wordsworth has not lost his connections with the ten thousand golden daffodils, but his encounter in Book Seven with Bartholomew Fair at Smithfield gives him a grimly countering image of the blank confusion that "the mighty City is herself, / To thousands upon thousands of her sons." There are moments when he sounds as certain as any Desert Father that the world, as he puts it in one of his best sonnets, "is too much with us."

A bit later in "Dover Beach" Matthew Arnold has not given up hope that literature would do for him the ordering work that religious faith had once done. For Arnold the world which seems "To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new," is actually "swept with alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night." He could be speaking for us a century later when, thanks to advances in physics, geology, astronomy, biology, and transportation, Wordsworth's ten thousand is no longer a very big number-whether we are thinking about the milky way, our genetic makeup, the 95,000 miles of fiber-optic cable laid along the information superhighway, or the national debt.

Before Arnold's century was over, Darwin showed that within the apparently hit-and-miss abundance of life a purposeful structural force was at work. To some this was a benign force rich with the expectation that in due time science might relieve humans of the burden of sheer numbers. Secular optimists were quick to see a grand unifying theory in the conjunction of Marx and Darwin. Marx, in fact, would have dedicated the first volume of Capital to Darwin if the latter had permitted him to. Tennyson, however, was one of those for whom Darwin had revealed not the sweet and ordered variety of nature but its wasteful profusion. So in "In Memoriam" he is appalled at a nature that is "So careful of the type" and yet "So careless of the single life . . . that of fifty seeds / She often brings but one to bear." The irony (and perhaps it was some comfort to him) is that he was able to contrast the disorder of evolution with the neat quatrains of his poetic numbers. John Stuart Mill, who credited Wordsworth's poetry with reclaiming him from a world of sheer numbers, might have appreciated that irony.

The fifty-to-one odds against the single life that appalled Tennyson can seem generous enough now. Suppose he had to live with the knowledge that the sperm that impregnates the ovum is the lone survivor among the 400 million that were ejaculated with it. Biologists have good reason to believe that the wasteful disproportion between the winner and the losers is a life-fostering one. When we factor in the knowledge that the existence of the winner's parents was determined by the same statistics, the odds against any particular single life's appearance in the cosmos are as astronomic as the prevention of its appearance by abortion is appalling.

God, speaking to Moses from the burning bush, can identify Himself as "I am who am." All Moses and the mortal rest of us can say is: "Thanks to You, I am only by the skin of my teeth." Even Nietzsche, whose habit before madness claimed him was to speak as if from a burning bush, had to become what he was, whereas God is beyond becoming. No doubt it is this sense of the utter precariousness of the single life that prompts us to celebrate the miracle of its improbable appearance. But at the same time our sense of the improbability of its appearance can only reinforce our creaturely apprehension that in the lottery of life the odds are enormously against us. Perhaps his hypersensitivity to the hazards of existence was an important factor in Calvin's doctrine of salvation through unearned and irresistible grace. What better way to counter the despair of the single life's sense of powerless anonymity?

Those among its eleven million users who have not already found in Prozac a relief from the pains of being mere numbers in the cosmos might find a more spectacular anodyne where Walt Whitman found it. In "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" the poet, becoming sick and tired of the scientist's charts and diagrams, "wander'd off by myself, In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time, / Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars." The stars did for him what they did for Kant, who claimed to be moved to inexpressible awe by two things: the starry sky above and the moral law within. At these moments Whitman and Kant are on the side of the astrologer, who assures his or her believers that the single life is a matter of benevolent concern to the apparently inscrutable heavens. Even the most obdurate ascetic minimalist is not likely to complain about the number and remoteness of the stars when their dazzling presence aloft makes him forget that there is no safety in numbers.

Still there are those for whom such cosmic optimism does not begin to alleviate the cosmic anxieties aroused by the overawing big numbers with which the Hubble telescope is involved. Built at a cost of $1.5 billion (its repairs cost another $690 million), it was expected to see galaxies beginning to form ten billion light years away and gather information about quasars, black holes, and the swirling storms of Jupiter. Perhaps in time it will even locate the astral abode of those pagan Goddesses who have lately been reported to be doing more for their devotees than Christian Guardian Angels ever did.

Michael Foucault would have been less interested in the possibility that the Hubble might someday locate heaven out there in the wide blue yonder than in the fact that it was a cosmic panopticon. The panopticon he would have had in mind, to judge from his Discipline and Punish, was the one planned by the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, whose positivist hopes for a better world were grounded on the conviction that the true measure of human happiness was the greatest good for the greatest number. Bentham expected to achieve this condition (no computers being available) by way of a "felicific calculus" that would balance pains with pleasures. His panopticon, a necessary but never-realized part of his plans for prison reform, would have made it possible for a single but invisible observer, using a series of reflectors, to keep all prisoners under surveillance at all times for the good of themselves and society.

The totalitarian state, being panoptic in its bones, is threatened by nothing more than the single life's impulse to privacy. This is the threat that impels Orwell's Big Brother to imprison Ingsoc within a censoring virtual reality and control it from his panoptic perspective. At the same time he has to be an atheist lest his autonomy be preempted by God's panoptic view. No doubt it was the same fear that made it necessary for Nietzsche to kill off God. How could he ever be everything he could be in the Hubble-like surveillance of that eye in the sky?

Unfortunately there remains the Hubble effect: the more he can see, the greater the epistemological burden for the controller and the greater the odds for the controlled single life that the sweet variety of the cosmos will become sheer and undifferentiated numbers.

Thoreau, our own Desert Father, was no less bothered than Wordsworth by the Hubble effect in the post-Enlightenment world. In Walden, in, appropriately, the chapter on economy, he is fascinated by the "busk" as it is practiced by certain savage nations. A busking is an act of purification in which the old, the excessive, the worn out, and the discredited are piled up in a public square and burned in anticipation of a new and refreshed life. For Thoreau the busk is a ritual way of living with the threat of big numbers-those numbers he saw menacingly at work in the railroad, the telegraph and the cable. "I say," he advises, "let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen and keep your accounts on your thumb nail." His good luck was that he did not have to compete with the digital computer's thousand or so arithmetical operations per second. No doubt economic minimalists like Diogenes and St. Paul the Hermit would have agreed: life in the Egyptian desert or in an Athenian tub is itself a busking life committed to the paradox that less is more. Humans spend a great deal of time, energy, and money on such buskings as revolutions, insurrections, wars to end war, jihads, ethnic cleansings, and holocausts. Indeed, number-reducing buskers like Savonarola, Genghis Khan, Chairman Mao, Stalin, and Hitler might have contended that they were only imitating nature in its tough-minded willingness to sacrifice 400 million sperm in the interest of an authentic single life.

The extent to which such buskings are themselves contaminated by a hatred of life in all its various and burdensome abundance-not simply as it may be at a particular place and time but everywhere and all the time-is the theme of Hawthorne's story "Earth's Holocaust." Here aroused and perfectionist reformers, seeing the wide world "overburdened with an accumulation of worn-out trumpery . . . have determined to rid themselves of it by a general bonfire." This busking takes place on a broad western prairie where everything that for better or worse is involved with the ongoing business of civilization is thrown into the flames-everything, that is, except the human heart, which, as a sardonic observer notes, is quite capable of bringing back the old defective world. The joyous orgy suggests that the buskers are really motivated by a Gnostic desire to destroy the evil and number-infatuated Demiurge that created the obscene and cluttered mess of the world to begin with. Hawthorne observes this folly with the same irony that makes his later Blithedale Romance such a memorable depiction of American millennialism. And certainly his buskers deserve high marks for the Thoreauean simplicity of their procrustean program. As for Thoreau himself, one can well imagine how he might have reacted had he read Robert D. Kaplan's article "The Coming Anarchy" in the February 1994 Atlantic, with its prediction that in the next half century "the earth's population will soar from 5.5 billion to more than nine billion." Under such circumstances the celibate Thoreau, in whose ascetic arithmetic subtraction took priority over addition and multiplication, could expect about as much privacy at Walden as at the Superbowl.

Bentham too was an ardent busker. The felicific calculus by which he hoped to determine the greatest good for the greatest number would have to be purged of those fictitious entities of language known as poetry. "All poetry," he said, "is misrepresentation," which meant that it was a prime subject for epistemological economy in an already badly overcrowded universe. He needed to dispose of poetry for the same reason that Lenin needed to dispose of religion, there being no place for it in the Marxian felicific calculus.

Thanks to the time-bound nature of the human condition, theorizing and busking are complementary activities. If you are possessed by the theoretic worldview of the Abbot Paul, your despising of the world will in effect be a busking of it, just as your view of it will be restrictively panoptic. In fact, the desert in our culture has always been available as a powerful model of a busked state of affairs in contrast with fragmented city-based culture. In the minimalized utopia of the desert the simplest arithmetic is enough; there, you can keep your accounts on your thumbnail.

What Diogenes thought about poetry is not recorded but his combination of cynicism and skepticism makes it likely that he would have agreed with Bentham. Now we see the same reductive combination at work in some of our most absolutist postmodernists. If with their rhetorical sophistries they can induce enough people to believe that poems are only self-referential and rife with self-engendered paradoxes, that poetry- making selves are only fictions, then they will surely reduce the number of selves in the world-and God knows how much trouble is caused in the world by those who take themselves seriously as selves. If at the same time the postmodernists can induce us to moderate our passion for certainty, then much that we currently value as life-enhancing variety will be seen as disposable sideshow. The result could be a grand therapeutic busking that will save us from the embarrassments we are doomed to when we are tempted by our naive simplicities to go lusting after the stars.

We can see in Diogenes the always attractive image of the philosopher as a man whose panoptic and unifying view of past, present, and future makes him immune to the surprises that afflict the mortal rest of us. Surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, is the consequence of variety and contrast; without them there is only the sheer numerosity of being, the Hubble effect at its epistemological worst when unity is the result of a censoring that leaves one blind to all distinctions.

No doubt the need to believe in the possibility of invulnerability to surprise leads us to see such invulnerability where it does not exist-in Thoreau, for instance, whose encounter with the cosmos, for all his ascetic denials, turned out to be one surprising development after another.

In any event, the poet's way of knowing is surprise-dependent, and when the poet is beyond surprise, having perhaps through an atrophy of powers or a loss of nerve learned how to practice the comforts of self- repetition, he is poet no more. This is not the way it was with Wordsworth when in his lonely wandering he saw in a single glance those ten thousand golden daffodils in an ontological relationship with the twinkling stars of the milky way and knew instantly that the surprise of it would stand against those inevitable moments when the variety of his world, having shown itself as less than sweet, was only numbers without end.

John P. Sisk is Professor of English Emeritus at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and author, most recently, of Being Elsewhere (Eastern Washington University Press).