Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Away with the Numbers

The eclipse suffered by the ideas of Carl Jung can be attributed to the toxic endorsement they received in the album "Synchronicity" by rock albatross Sting and his chums The Police.

Like all youths of the time, I knew someone who had heard the album and decided that it spoke to them in a new and urgent way. In the case of Andy Summer's Psycho tribute "Mother", this was true. Otherwise it was simply Singa-Longa-Steppenwolf.

This pained me, as I'd been introduced to Jung by an avid female practitioner from Argentina. Her husband was a German dwarf called Klaus, with whom I sang bass-baritone in an amateur Swansea choir.

Klaus had a crisply deprecating manner about others and a robust attitude to questions of social and political order that enlivened our post-practice collegial chats, rather as if a wolverine had been released at a Quaker meeting.

"I will send our son Reinhardt to military school!" he barked thoughtfully after a bumpy run through "Beata Viscera".

"We don't really have them here, except for the Sandhurst prep school," I ventured after a common-room silence.

"The results on the British society of this omission are evident!" Klaus added.

"Letting military men teach toddlers hasn't done Argentina much good, though, has it? I mean, the Dirty War and all that," countered our choirmaster.

"The Dirty War? I salute the Dirty War!" Klaus sprang to his feet and bumped his head on the coffee table, bringing the evening to an end.

Klaus was a man of disarming candour and principle. Despite his itchy politics, he had a droll and trusting manner.

Mrs Klaus was a slut. Once her husband had left for a long day countering Communism at the local cattle-feed plant, dropping Young Reinhardt at a glumly pacific playgroup en route, she would shake out her edible underwear and await gentleman callers on the couch.

Like Klaus she was of unavoidable German extraction, but her mitteleuropäisch malady was not militarism but The Mind. I had a liaison with her that verged on the Platonic, in that we exchanged snatches of philosophical intercourse between raw bouts of hog-eyed rutting.

"So, do you find Jung's calibration of the Erotic over-schematic or compelling in its teleological drive?" she exhaled one dusty morning.

"Dunno," I replied. "I'm a student in early 1980s Britain, so in terms of politics I'm either going to be a Bolshevik booster or a date-rapist in a 'Hang Nelson Mandela!' t-shirt. Either way I'm not going to have much of an opinion about some Chinaman. Now, can we get any more mileage out of this corset?"

Mrs Thatcher's retrieval of the Falkland Islands soon toppled the Argentine junta and ushered in a government committed to electrifying the popular imagination rather than trade unionists' sphincters, so it was only a matter of time before the Man from Interpol came calling for the Klauses.

Mrs Klaus (we were never close) left me a PO box number in Asunción and a copy of "Das Gesetz der Serie" by Paul Kammerer. This slender volume formed her second and more successful attempt to turn me on to Jung.

The hapless Hapsburgian Herr Dr Kammerer is known for an experiment on salamanders that suggested the theory of natural selection was missing a link of two. Although lionised by the Lamarckian opponents of Darwinism, he took his own life when it looked like the salamanders had been interfered with - albeit not in the 1950s News of The World sense.

There is still debate as to whether he forged his results, some Nazis tampered with them to embarrass the Communist Kammerer, or he simply drew the wrong conclusions. My own view as an arts graduate and lover of the Gothic is that no good ever comes from meddling with toads, as panfuls of Lancastrian witches' ashes might testify.

Kammerer's work on coincidence in "The Law of the Series" is more interesting, dealing as it does with chin-stroking strangeness and charming anecdote rather than rubbing newts against your trousers, if that is indeed what he did.

Non-Teutons can read all about Kammerer in "The Case of the Midwife Toad" by fellow Danubian oddball Arthur Koestler, as "Das Gesetz" has never been translated. But its gist is that coincidences tend to bunch together, and may be manifestations of some as-yet-undefined series of phenomena.

Koestler provides a neat selection of Herr Doktor's notes and some of his own - he said he was subjected to a "meteor shower" of coincidences while writing the book - and Jung drew on it for his own book "Synchronicity".

I thought little more about it until we went on holiday to Sardinia last autumn. Over dinner at a local Gastronomia I recounted MR James's "Number 13" to our daughter Arianrhod. This ghost story concerns a spectral room in a Danish inn and its alarming inhabitants, who disturb the repose of a pernickety English antiquarian.

Arianrhod was taken with the tale, sharing as she does the taste for the macabre that spices all good children's literature. On the way home, as lightning darted through the pines, she retold the story in her usual way, replacing the protagonists with her little chums and adding elaborate costume directions.

But there were some more novel alterations. She moved the scene to China, and the leprous room became Number Four. The telling took us all the way home to count the rooms carefully before retiring to bed.

The following afternoon I found a quiet half hour to relax on the roof terrace with a six-pack and a paperback, in this case Philip Kerr's "The Shot" - a pungent chunk of shamus Stilton about JFK, Castro and Da Mob. While leafing along I wondered why Arianrhod had chosen China and that particular number. She has a Chinese friend, it's true, but why Number Four?

Then I turned the page and read how the assassin had marked a copy of Time magazine bearing JFK's portrait with the character . This, it emerged, is the number four in Mandarin and Cantonese, and highly inauspicious too. Hotels and blocks of flats in China avoid allocating rooms that feature it, just like the number 13 over here.

The reason for its unfortunate associations is that it sounds rather like (), the character meaning "death". And so, to summarise:

  • I told my five-year-old daughter a story about a cursed room, number 13.
  • Without any knowledge of oriental numerology on either of our parts, she then retold the tale in a Chinese setting, replacing the number 13 with the Chinese number four.
  • The next day I picked up a thriller and almost immediately read that four in China is as unlucky as 13 in the West.
Arianrhod says she and her Chinese playmate never discuss such esoterica, being content with the mundanity of unicorns, fairies and minor royalty.

I read a little more about Chinese numbers when we returned home, and was startled to find that the number seven is often associated with ghosts. The Ghost Festival (鬼月) is held in the seventh month of the traditional calendar, for example.

One of the further oddities of Arianrhod's story had been that the room next to number four was neither five nor three, but specifically number seven.

I was going to make this my Christmas ghost story, but the tale of Prince Llywelyn and his premature ressurrection came first. I made a start before the New Year, and took it up again on returning home from work last night.

In the meantime a late greeting card had arrived with a Swansea post mark. Klaus is back.


Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

OMG your child has The Gift. Write a screenplay before Stephen King beats you to it.

No Good Boyo said...

Either that or she's already working for the Chinese. Either way, I'm keeping on her good side.

Jon said...

Could an exocism be called for?

Funny about the number 13. I worked in a building that had a floor 12 and a floor 14 but no floor 13. This struck me as slightly insane. I imagined that floor 13 was there but that is was accessable only by walking sideways. I walked into a lot of walls trying to find it.

Ian Plenderleith said...

If Klaus is back, did he bring Mrs Klaus? Never mind Chinese numbers, I'm eager for more tales of edible undies and "hog-eyed rutting".

No Good Boyo said...

Jon, I suspect you had wandered onto the set of "Being John Malkovich". Having said that, this avoiding No 13 seems a rarity today. My first room in my first student hostel was No 13, and I'm ok.

Sorry, Pop, no news on Frau Klaus, who must be entering the full bloom of femme d'un certain âge by now. Der Klaus is trying to launch Batistaschuhe - a line of built-up footwear for the shorter anti-Marxist.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Ever keen to solve the world's ongoing dilemmas, I suggest giving Herr and Mrs Klaus the Falkland Islands, letting them run them as a sheep-experimentation unit by day and a Weimar-style clip-joint by night. It could be the new 'in' holiday destination for all those bored with those Carribean swingers' resorts.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Ever keen to solve the world's ongoing dilemmas, I suggest giving Herr and Mrs Klaus the Falkland Islands, letting them run them as a sheep-experimentation unit by day and a Weimar-style clip-joint by night. It could be the new 'in' holiday destination for all those bored with those Carribean swingers' resorts.

No Good Boyo said...

A good idea is worth hearing twice, Gadj. I've often wondered how to make yet more money out of the Falklands, and this could be it. I suggest it could also serve as the setting for the Argentine version of Big Brother. And the British one, for that matter.

Happy New Year!

Gadjo Dilo said...

Has this idea been voiced before? Then it's synchronicity! Maybe Sting is right after all.

Happy New Year to you too!

(Oh I see now that I posted the same thing twice...)

No Good Boyo said...

Comic trombone:

Well-lighted Shadows said...

Argie psychologists, hardly a rare breed - I must relisten to that Police album, never got the Jung the way The Police is for me the number one worst name ever for a band.