When I am lying in bed staring at the inside of my eyelids, waiting for sleep to set in, I start to visualise numbers, one after another, first from 10 moving slowly down to 1, then back again from 1 to 10. Similar techniques are used in various forms of meditation. I usually find that the concentration this task requires pulls me into the first revolutions of a sleepy state, that place where you just about let go of the waking world and flashes of dreams start to play. After 2-3 revolutions I start dipping gently in and out of consciousness. At 4-5 revolutions it is a pretty sure thing that I will drop into a nice deep sleep. It’s not counting sheep, it’s something deeper than that, its counting numbers, connecting with their forms, being with them, almost touching my soul with theirs as they coax me gently into the dream world.
This is perhaps the most intimate relationship i have with numbers on a conscious plane, the first one that jumps to mind, but during this month’s exploration into numbers I have come to realise that I have many other daily relationships with numbers that are occurring below the field of conscious behaviour, namely through art.
By engaging in creative acts we interact with numbers in a way that comes so naturally and runs so fluidly (sometimes) to us that we barely recognise it as having anything to do with numbers at all. We are working with speed, angles, proportion, space and time, all the time, and all at once in nearly everything we do, but in art we focus in on those to bring something of the internal into the external, this, it could be said, is what numbers themselves do, acting as the gateway between seen and unseen.
For example, when I play guitar I am not aware of the corresponding numbers involved with each note I play, the volume I am playing, the sequence of the notes that are played with each chord and the sequence of chords within the piece. When they are correct, when they are all in harmony and sitting in a pleasing balance, when there is a harmonious numerical correspondence between all of these things, the little buzzer in my head sounds to let me know that an aesthetic coherence has arrived.
This seems to be the same in visual art; if a picture is mathematically harmonious it sings on the canvas, vibrates with it’s perfect proportions and measurements, its contrasts exude something magical, which can be described by numbers.
Art that sits closest to the patterns, sequences and proportions that appear in nature speak to us at a level beyond the conscious, something archetypal is recognised, the same as when we step into a building like The Wells Cathedral whose Nave is built on golden section measurements, we are overcome by an indescribable awe, we experience something larger than us. When we are surrounded by mathematical precision, we feel close to God because the space is created from the sequences and measurements that appear out of the universe and from proportions and calculations that match our own bodily measurements. We recognise mathematical coherence in art, architecture, and in our human bodies.
Art that is created in line with the numbers and sequences that appear in nature connect more definitely and more pleasingly with the consciousness of the creator and the viewer. This pleasure is recognised by the human mind as it sees within the creation something of itself, its own proportions.
The signals are received and processed and understood through a language that the mind understands, that the psyche recognises as a part of itself and that the soul connects with on a deep level.
There is something about numbers to be felt, rather than understood. There is something primal and mythical about them, they are an ordering force in our societies and they reach into our inner worlds to order us internally too.
Numbers as a means to count were invented by man, the symbols that represent the numbers too, but the concept of numerous things is something that lies deeper than human invention. Everything can be reduced to amounts and equations can be used to describe them. This hints at numbers as a point of exchange, perhaps the language with which things become things, moving from unseen to seen, from unbeing to being, from internal to external if that differentiation can be made.
On the first day God did not create numbers, numbers already existed, otherwise God wouldn’t have been able to count the days! This is Said with tongue in cheek, however this omission of the creation of numbers within the creation story provided by genesis, may hint at us that underneath all that is created, even beyond God, lies numbers, or perhaps sequence, or time, along with words. Maybe my thinking is rudimentary or completely misdirected here, but it’s a thought that nonetheless has helped on my way to grasping a little more what numbers are, and the depth at which they exist.
We use numbers to manage our societies, they bring order to what would otherwise be chaos. In some cases numbers can set us free, but they also cage us. We are surrounded by great pillars of numbers, vast monuments dedicated to accumulation, and we are driven to accumulate as a response. We are conditioned to count the imaginary ones that sit in our bank accounts, these abstract collections that sadly tend to govern our worth in modern society too.
We are enslaved by numbers through the monetary system, but If we didn’t have money we would still be enslaved by numbers: the amount of potatoes we have for the winter, the number of days or months before we can plant more crops, our Earth’s circumambulation of the sun or the beads on our rosaries. But at least these would be more organic concerns.
There is an interplay between us, humans and numbers, that we cannot step out of and look at objectively. Like the fish in the ocean who can’t imagine life without water, we can’t imagine a world without numbers and more to the point a world as we know it is not possible without numbers.
I say more about numbers in my Introduction at the end of this edition.