The Number 32

by Matthew MacFadzean


Written for the second-ever Trampoline Hall and performed there, January 2002, The Cameron House, Toronto




When Sheila first asked me to do this I waited a very long time to decide what I’d like to lecture on. There are a number of issues that concern me, too many things that interest me, and I would have loved to have used this opportunity to research something I really care about, and several other etceteras to add to this list of excuses why I couldn’t come up with a topic. Then we went for a drink and clumsily put together a list of options, all of which were banal and I thought a-ha, maybe this is it. Research something that doesn’t interest me or anyone else at all. How interesting. Welcome The Number 32. I don’t care about 32, I’m not 32 years old, I don’t hold it in any esteem, it has never been a number I have really considered at all. Not quite Christ’s death, and a little more than Baskin Robbins, 32 sits apathetically in a land of non-significance: a pairing of the first two prime numbers in reverse order. How do we feel about 32, if anything? Why do we feel it? Is it something about it’s numerology? Any historical significance? Religious significance? And at the end of it all, will it just have been some lost chapter from a Douglas Adams novel? At the end of it all, will we care? Probably not. But the date was approaching. And so I set out to crack 32, to discover it’s character and somehow place significance on the complete randomness of the whole idea of giving a lecture on 32 here tonight. You who are 32 will share a connection tonight, and maybe the rest of us can learn to care about 32. But where to start this utterly bizarre voyage? Where to set sail? Perhaps, from a poem.

            “If you happen to own an igloo,
            Keep below Fahrenheit 32.
            That’s the point at which ice
            melts and it is not nice
            to be sitting in watery goo!”
                                                - A. Stanton

Indeed. No one likes sitting in watery goo. In some primitive cultures, 32 is an anchor in the temperature scale called Fahrenheit. It is the point at which water freezes, and not zero as in our centigrade scale for the simple reason that Daniel Fahrenheit used an ice/salt/water mixture as opposed to pure water in constructing his measure. He called the freezing point of his mixture 0 degrees as this was the lowest temperature he could attain in his lab. 32 became where water freezes, our body temperature 96. Is there anything here to mine? As we first meet 32, in it’s most familiar incarnation, we discover that according to the Fahrenheit scale, 32 could be said to be a marker of a shifting of states, the solidification of water into ice. 32 is then the number we commonly agree to attribute to one of the earth’s natural processes. 32 is a veritable cornerstone of reference, albeit a dying one as centigrade continues to evolve as it has. This is all fine. But we are hardly ready to impose character on this fifth power of two. I searched for other common occurrences. And for some reason, people write a lot of poems about numbers.

           “Each night she does it.
            It stills the mind
            and calms the spirit
            Yes, just for a few minutes
            See-Far Woman sits beside
            a white candle and stares -
            at 32 figures casting beautiful
            shadows on 64 squares.
            Even though she can’t play chess
            It gives her a good night’s rest.”
                                                - Grace Nichols

16 white pieces and 16 black pieces that together comprise 32 pieces in an ancient game of war involving much patience, strategy and intellect. Move builds upon move upon move in the attempt to outwit your opponent by using your 16 pieces to mount an offense and take down his sixteen pieces, with the ultimate goal of checkmating his king. Now. I don’t mean to spend this time belaboring the obvious, I don’t claim to be teaching anything in telling you that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit or that there are 32 pieces on a chess board, what I am doing is merely searching for re-occurring adjectives or themes that might point us towards the heart of what is 32. Chess and freezing water. Still nothing. Let’s carry on.

When I first sat down to write for this evening, I thought it apt to listen to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” as played by Glenn Gould, whose life was immortalized in the now Canadian Classic, “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould,” named so because the Goldberg Variations which haunted him so are written in 32 movements. (The Goldberg Variations are played over the remaining lecture). A great deal has been written about this recording, about its vitality and verve, about Gould’s refusal to play legato and reluctance to use the sustaining pedal. But this is perhaps fitting in a work of such calculation, that demands such precision, a work that Bach apparently first titled “Keyboard Practice.” The variations are an exercise that Bach wrote for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a student of Bach’s in Germany who said that “he should like to have some clavier/keyboard pieces which should be of such a soothing and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights.” Bach felt he could best fulfill this wish in variations around the constant sameness of a fundamental harmony. There are doubts that this was truly written for Goldberg however, as the variations would likely prove extremely difficult for a fourteen year old, although Gould, born in 1932, was only twenty-two when he mastered what we’re listening to now. The Goldberg Variations open with an Aria, which is then varied and used for 30 pieces and then closed again with another aria. The “aria” is a sarabande, a binary dance movement with repeats, consisting of two parts of equal length of sixteen bars each, or 32 bars as a whole. This symmetrical structure is a prevailing feature in all the variations, with all 32 pieces built upon the same 32 note ground bass line. The concept of symmetry is also reflected in the overall shape of the work, as the 32 pieces are grouped into two parts, strategically playing off each other like opposing pieces on a chess board. And we start to see some flavour coming into 32. And that flavour tastes like “structure.” Whether that be the strategy of plotting one’s chess pieces to create a structure for successful war, or water meeting 32 degrees Fahrenheit enabling it to solidify, or 32 technical musical movements, intricate in their structure. So far, 32 seems to be about calculating, precision, about laying bricks, it is about building, about gaining strength, I almost want to use the word “Germanic” but that might be pushing it at this preliminary stage. I only hope I can find a better way to describe what I’m trying to talk about before I finish this lecture.

And then my search hit on endless useless data about 32 such as the fact that Russian Pole Vaulter Sergey Nazarovich Bubka, who achieved the world’s first 6 metre vault, broke the world record on 32 different occasions. That doesn’t help the battle at all. But other random finds did. In no particular order: Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas (also a German, like Bach), there are 32 counties in Ireland, 32 boroughs in Greater London (including London), a squash court is 32 feet long, and roughly 32 million Brazilians suffer from chronic malnutrition. The number 32 appears in the Bible six times, but never with any significance, only that so and so was 32 when he became king or that another king travelled with 32 lords. Nothing enlightening. There are 32 bridges across the river to Paris which Alexander the Great could have used to conquer had he gotten that far east and not died from malaria at age 32. If my cat hears me eating he is using the 32 muscles in each of his ears to listen to the 32 muscles it takes me to swallow. As I chew my food I use in each side of the jaw 1 canine, 2 incisors, 2 pre-molars, and 3 molars... times four is 32 teeth in your mouth. And while these are random occurrences, it remains interesting that “Structure” again seems to safely encapsulate much of them: bridges, teeth, muscles, cartography, all related to words like “arrangement,” “network,” “construction,” “composition,” “order,” etc.

Then I got to a point where I realized that in trying to move this already weak thesis forwards, I had to fess up to a bit of personal business: that numbers have always eluded me, that I dropped calculus back in high school because I hated the rigidity of it all, and that I haven’t looked back since. I became a writer and an actor for christ’s sake and numbers are not our strong point. So I wondered if an “image” might help make 32 more tangible. If I could get a picture of 32 in my artist’s mind, some representation of the number 32, I might be able to get inside it a little more. The water freezing into ice image sticks out, likely because of it’s simplicity and also it’s rigidity. And then I discovered that there are 32 theoretically possible classes of crystal and this image made even more sense: that of a clear, transparent, icelike mineral; a growing, jagged, structure. Feeling a little bit of clarity with this crystal in my head, I went to the periodic table and was stymied by a couple of coincidences. (The notion of coincidence is something that plays majorly in the land of numerology and something we’ll get to later.)

Atomic Number 32. Germanium. The element is a gray-white metalloid, and in it’s pure state is crystalline and brittle. Well hello thesis. Something is going on here finally: a character is being formed. It seems that our assumptions have been correct. 32 is German. We must be on the right track. Germanium is mostly used as a semiconductor and for phosphor in fluorescent lamps. Germanium and germanium oxide are transparent to the infrared and are used in infrared spectroscopes and other optical equipment, including extremely sensitive infrared detectors as well as in wide-angle camera lenses and microscopes. It is said to stimulate the metabolism although this is unproven and there are no natural occurrences of Germanium in the human body although our daily diet may contain as much as 1 milligram Germanium. It is found in coal which ensures a reserve of Germanium for many years. Strangely enough, it was 32 years ago, in Number 130 of “Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olson,” that Jimmy Olson has a dream in which he is compelled to buy Germanium and a number of other “ingredients” that put together will no doubt see the demise of Superman. 32 years ago Diana Ross and the Supremes performed their last concert together, at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. A little more than 32 years ago, we landed on the moon.

            (Turn to Jacques and Piper, sitting next to me on stage. First to Jacques:)

M. Hi. How old are you?
Jacques. 31.
M.        Oh.
            (Then to Piper:)
M.        Hi. How old are you?
Piper.   33.
M. Oh.
            (Then to the audience:)
            Is anybody here turning 32 today? Or know anyone who is 32 today? Who here is thirty-two? You know what, let me ask that again, and when I ask if anybody here is thirty-two, everyone raise their hands and say “I am 32.” Okay? I’ll ask these guys again and then ask you.

M.      Hi. How old are you?
Jacques. 31.
M.        Oh. Hi. How old are you?
Piper. 33.

Oh. (then, to the audience:) Is there anybody here who’s 32?

            (“I AM 32" severally)            

Well that’s uncanny. There is absolutely no one famous who is exactly 32 years old today, January 14th, 1970, the closest that I found was Jason Bateman born on this date in ‘69, the same year you were born, Piper, if my math serves me correctly. According to birth date numerology, if you are 32 today, “you are always on the move, you need your freedom to explore the world around you. Routine is your enemy; you prefer the unexpected. You feel you always have to be involved in something; though exactly what that is is always subject to change at a moment’s notice. Just remember not to leave others behind whenever you move on to something new! Now’s the time to finish off any projects that you’ve been dealing with for awhile. It’s a good time to take stock of everything in your life and discard what is no longer useful. Get ready to put the past behind you and start moving forward again soon.” While I don’t put too much stock into horoscopes of this nature, it provides a necessary bridge to looking at the number itself. Now that we’ve set up some basic concepts of 32's character and occurrences, we must now take the time to look at the number as a figure and see if the traits we have built up will withstand analysis from a different angle. Or, will doing this, chuck our German 32 in the trash?

There are many different systems of numerology. African, Arabic, Hebrew, and Japanese systems of numbers. The most commonly used systems are the Pythagorean and Chaldean methods. The Chaldean system of numerology has it’s roots in Ancient Babylon and has as it’s premise that every letter of the alphabet has a unique vibration. Numbers are assigned to letters based on their vibrational value. This system has largely been replaced by the Pythagorean system, the most popular system of numerology in the west and the one we will use today. In the Pythagorean model, letters are assigned numeric values from 1 to 9. This is the point at which someone keener than I would have supplied overheads to reference but as it is... Imagine the numbers 1 to 9 written left to right and underneath them left to right are the letters of the alphabet, in rows. So the first row under 1 to 9 is A to I, the second row is J to R, etc. Or in other words, under the number 1 are the letters A, J, and S. In addition to these there are two master numbers, 11 and 22. Each of these numbers, 1 to 9, and 11 and 22 have specific traits and characteristics which people then use to tell fortunes, judge market tendencies, relationship success and all things mystic. Using this system, you convert your name for instance into numbers and then check how it all seems to Pythagoras. You can also analyze birthdays. You take the numerical form of your birthday, add the digits of the month together plus the digits of the day added together plus the digits of the year added together, add everything up until you get a single digit. So, if you are 32 today, January 14th, 1970 becomes 1 + (1+4) + (1+9+7+0) which equals 1 + 5 + 17 which equals 1 + 5 + 8 which equals 14 which added together equals 5. Coincidence again rears it’s wacky head because 32 added together also equals 5. It’s like 32 knew we were coming. Some kind of crazy alignment in the heavens no doubt. Anyhow, what does 5 tell us about 32. 5's talents and strengths include being bold, daring and persuasive. Enjoys the finer things. Areas of concern include restlessness to the point of boredom, easily side-tracked. 5s are often found as public figures, in the media, or developing new ideas for small business. This goes completely against what we’ve set up to be characteristic of 32. 32 seems more custom-built to suit the traits of number 4: “works hard, practical, rigid, developing order out of chaos.” There’s our Germanic 32. And it was about then that I passed judgment and decided that I fucking hate 32. Like an errant lover, you think you know 32 and then she turns around and diddles you. Well, we’re diddled folks. Our path is blocked. Oh elusive trickster you, what shall we make of 32?

Since the Greeks weren’t supporting our thesis, I went over to China. In the practice of Feng Shui, numerology is based on homophonic principles. If a number sounds like a similar word that means something good, it is considered to be a good number. Numbers are either yin (even) or yang (odd). Yang numbers are considered more fortunate, and an address that contains both yin and yang keeps balance in the home. So 32 is an ideal and lucky number according to Chinese numerology, for it contains both yin and yang. Maybe I shouldn’t dismiss 32 so fast. According to Chinese numerology, the character for “three” sounds like the word for “growth” or “alive” while the character for “two” sounds similar to “sure.” Two stands for “doubling” (as “doubling one’s happiness”) and for symmetry. So all we have learned from numerology is that according to the Pythagorean and Chaldean models, 32 has taste, good instinct and is curious, while the Chinese model shows us 32 as lucky and balanced, growing, and even. They’re not far off our construct. But all these models of numerology seem to neglect that readings for the number “32" would be exactly the same for the number 23, the inverse of 32. Does that mean that 23 and 32 are remarkably similar in character? Or are they oppositional as I want to presume?

23 is long-considered an extremely powerful number, noted as the “synchronicity number” by many new ages mystics. Coincidence. The scholars of synchronicity suggest that “randomness is nothing more than a pattern of deeply imbedded complexity of order” or if “randomness:order,” then “23:32.” Indeed the often heard phrase “That was just a coincidence” is itself an acknowledgement that we have just discerned a pattern, but because there is no immediately obvious path of mechanistic causation behind it, we consciously choose to dismiss this data. But if we note these coincidences, the pattern may become so overwhelming that we cannot ignore it, and must attempt to formulate some new models of the nature of reality. It is essentially the same idea as “listen to the universe and it will tell you which way to go.” Although apparently dating back to the Persians, the 23 Enigma is often attributed to Alistair Crowley, extremist psychedelic and new age guru. Crowley suggested that 23 is a frequently occurring number, and against mathematical principles, that it occurs more frequently than other numbers, giving it cosmic like powers. 23, in telegrapher’s code means “bust” or “break the line,” while Hexagram 23 in the I Ching means “break apart.” 23 exudes randomness and chaos, unlike the number 32, which we have found means “building, sticking together.” Our parents each contribute 23 chromosomes to the fertilized egg, etc. Interestingly enough, I would agree that there is something to be said for 23 and synchronicity. When I first discovered this theory I was 23 and it was the 23rd of the month. You say “It’s all random!” Probably. But apparently, when people are asked to name the first number that comes into their mind, statistically they most often say 23. I think this might be bullshit. It’s not important that we agree or disagree with this thinking, it is only important that we consider the mythology around the inverse of 32 and god love it, the characteristics match up.

Numerology has been the only disappointment really. All the other things we have examined have contributed nicely to our image of 32. What do we make of cultural numerology and how shittily that contributed to our thesis? Do we discount it because it isn’t of Germanic origin (although Bach was apparently hugely interested in numerology and may have used it in composing what we’re listening to here tonight)? Yes. Yes we do. Of course, every culture has a different meaning for 32 for any number of reasons, so while 32 may not have a universal meaning, 32 does exist universally.

So says Chapter 32 of the Tao-Te Ching. It concerns sagely virtue, and says that the Tao remains forever unchanging, has no name. Heaven and Earth unite together and send down the sweet dew, which, without the help of men, reaches equally everywhere as of its own accord. The relation of the Tao to all the world is like that of the great rivers and seas to the streams and rivulets, in smallness it covers all. Chapter 32 tells us that wisdom comes in forgetting the need to name things, that there is only one name and that is the Tao. Once we let go to the Tao, we are free. Should I take as a sign from this that my best course is to stop trying to define 32, and to just let 32 be, as I let all other things around me be, existence being like a river to the sea, for us simply to co-exist with 32 and get off it’s back once and for all? Should I dive into the miasma that is identity-less number and allow myself to be swept away in it’s current of non-committal, devoid of category, of name, as the ancients vow was best? No. No I say. Onwards to a couple of last points.

Does 32 have any actual mystical significance? Other than stuff I’m attempting to pass off as interesting.? Abraham devoted his life to living with God. Due to his great devotion and self-sacrifice, God revealed to him many deep secrets of creation, including the 32 paths of wisdom that are all operative in the process of creation. The 32 paths are comprised of 10 Divine Lights, which act as creative and conscious channels of creation, and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. These 32 paths are the basic building blocks, called the vessels, and include all the combinations and permutations with which God creates the world with words. Each of the 32 paths describe some kind of Intelligence: the Admirable Intelligence, the Illuminating Intelligence, the Sanctifying Intelligence, all the way down to path number 32: The Assisting Intelligence, which directs all the operation of the seven planets, all their similarities and differences. 32 was present at the birth of Judaism.

32 is also at the root of Buddhism, on two occasions. The first are the 32 marks of a great man, Buddha being the only one who contains all 32. Pliant hands and feet, remaining soft and open as a result of the Buddha’s willingness to take all his belongings and give them to poor or unfortunate beings. Saliva that improves the taste of all food, resulted from the Buddha’s commitment forever to be available to help others in their sickness or misfortune. Etcetera, 32 remains about structure, about charting, about building the whole. And so it goes. 32, like any number, has an inherent character that reveals itself in various forms and shapes. In the freezing of water, a game of chess, listening to music or learning the Torah, 32 is present in all things structural, it is a well-balanced, lucky number that, by way of it’s oppositional number 23, contains some element of the random, which may well explain how we all came to be here tonight listening to a lecture on the number 32.

I will leave you with the other occurrence of 32 in Buddhism. It is in the Khuddakapatha, forgive my asinine pronunciation, and is a series of passages designed as a primer for novice monks and nuns. This passage is meant for preliminary guidance in the contemplation of the body, a meditation exercise designed to overcome lust by charting out the 32 parts of the body, the 32 parts that together structure the landscape that is each of us.

“In this body there is:
hair of the head,
hair of the body,
bone marrow,
large intestines,
small intestines,
oil in the joints,