Arithmantic Poetics

I recently re-watched the Stanley Kubrick movie The Shining, and afterwards went to Wikipedia to find out what changes Kubrick had made to the Stephen King original. When I did so, I was struck by one change in particular: the number of the haunted room was 217 in the book and 237 in the movie.

Why would Kubrick bother to change this? What difference does it make either way? It doesn’t matter for the overall plot; but then, being true to the original number doesn’t either. It’s a throwaway detail, and thus should be selected to add to the texture of the whole. The room is haunted, and ought to fill the audience with a sense of dread; my theory is that Kubrick thought “237” sounded scarier than “217”.

Don’t laugh at the idea of numbers having a certain feel. I’ve already talked about how one- or two- digit numbers usually function as symbols for specific ideas. I believe three- or four- digit numbers function differently in art; while too indefinite to have specific symbolic meaning, they can convey vague associations of significance, thus giving the thing numbered a numinous quality.

How does this work? I believe we instinctively three- or four- digit numbers as sequences, and thus attempt to impose order on them by finding in them mathematical patterns. But simultaneously, they are too short to determine whether or not the patterns we find really hold. This seems to work best with increasing sequences; I suspect this is why Kubrick changed “217” to “237”. The former just feels like a basically random number, while the latter gives the impression of an increasing sequence, but we can’t quite place what it is (no interesting mathematical pattern that I know of begins 2-3-7). Thus it has resonances of the numinous.

There are, in fact, a lot of fun three- or four- digit patterns, and the best place to find them is on a digital clock. These are those times when, if I happen to glance at the clock during that minute, I get a vague feeling of significance that I know is false, but which I find sublime nonetheless. This can apply to the date as well; for example, I’m not sure why, but two days ago was March 5th, and though I know of nothing important that happened on 3-5, it nevertheless felt somehow meaningful. Perhaps it was because 3-15 is something (Ides of March) and 3-25 is something (Annunciation).

Finally, though it runs somewhat counter to the point of this post, I’ll list some times of day that are interesting because they follow identifiable patterns:

  • 11:23 (Fibonacci time)
  • 12:34 (arithmetic time)
  • 12:48 (geometric time)
  • 1:36 (triangular time)

And here are some that are meaningful through association with other numerical sequences, not through their own merit:

  • 12:25 (Christmas time)
  • 3:14 (Pi time)

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