Wednesday, February 15, 2012
“Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything,” Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
As I left for my dawn swim this morning, I still had no idea for a blog essay, but I knew that I could count on the exquisite boredom of natation to serve as midwife to some invention or another, however desperate; and as I made the turn at the end of my forty-first length it came to me in a flash. Forty-one is followed, almost immediately by forty-two; and according to Douglas Adams, forty-two is the meaning of everything. Of course Adams has no idea why, nor do any of his enthusiasts whom I have encountered. The reason is that forty-two is the biblical number of completion.
In Book 9, chapter 19, of War and Peace the novel’s hero, Pierre Bezukhov, arrives at the conclusion that the Emperor Napoleon is the Antichrist and that he, Bezukhov, has the sacred duty to assassinate him. The first conclusion is child’s play. First you must adapt the ancient conventions of kabbalistic gematria to the Latin alphabet in the manner favored by the mystical Freemasons of Lyon, as follows:
a b c d e f g h i k l m n o p q r s t
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100
u v w x y z
110 120 130 140 150 160
You then write out, in French, the title L[e] Empereur Napoléon, cheating ever so slightly by not eliding the e of the article. Now add it all up to get 666, the Number of the Beast (See Revelation 13: 18). More important from Pierre’s point of view is that in the fifth verse of that same chapter it is written that the beast will be given authority for a period “forty and two months.” Pierre, an erudite fellow, knows that when the Bible speaks of “days” or “months” it actually means years. He knows as well that the year is 1812, meaning that Napoleon, born in 1769, must in fact be forty-two years old.
Napoleon, alias Apollyon the Destroyer, alias 666
It takes Pierre a little while to figure out his numerological role in the great scheme of things, but he does so after a certain amount of orthographic jiggery-pokery, this time dropping an e that should be there. It turns out that the phrase L’ Russe Besuhof (roughly, duh Russian Bezukhov) is also a 666. So the Beast has come to the end of his allotted days. Forty-two is all you get. History buffs and readers of Tolstoy will know that things didn’t quite work out, but that was the theory.
L' Russe Besuhof
Yet that is only the beginning of the biblical forty-twos. Such chiliasts as Joachim of Fiore were particularly thrilled by what they found in Revelation 11:3, in which the seventh apocalyptic angel gives license to the “two witnesses” to prophesy for a period of “a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.” Because Joachim knew, as I feel certain my erudite readership also will, that in the genealogy with which the gospel of Matthew commences there are, as it happens, precisely forty-two generations between Abraham, with whom God made the original covenant, and Jesus Christ.
Everyone further knew that there are thirty years in a generation and that 42 x 30 = 1,260, the number of days (meaning of course years) granted to the sackclothed witnesses. Something very big had happened forty-two generations before the birth of Jesus, and something equally stupendous ought to happen in the year 1260, with the completion of the forty-second generation after his birth. Joachim thought that the sackclothed fellows would be some new kind of monks. The Franciscans and the Dominicans, who had appeared on the scene only after Joachim’s death, thought so too. That is why most of Europe was anticipating The End as the days grew shorter toward the close of the year 1260. That is why so many medieval writers (such as Dante in the Vita nuova) divide their compositions in forty-two numbered parts.
How Joachim of Fiore saw things
The definitive trip of all time must surely have been the Exodus out of Egypt. If you have absolutely nothing better to do you can read through the story, calculator in hand, and make note of the number of times the children of Israel set up temporary camp on their way to the Promised Land. But since you now know the “number of completion” you could probably work it out in your head without reading anything.
Not every completion ends with milk and honey, of course. When it comes to prophets, it is best to show them some respect. As Elisha was passing through the village of Bethel, a bunch of bad little children ran after him, mocking him for his bald head. “And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them” (II Kings 2:23). The only trouble with doing stuff like this in the swimming pool is that you are likely to lose count—of laps that is, not of wicked children.
Naughty, naughty boys!
The meaning of all this should be clear: if you regard an important part of good writing to be its alignment with the eternal verities of the cosmos, you must structure its concluding paragraph in precisely forty-two words, not more, not less.