A talk given at the Perne Club, Peterhouse, Cambridge, August 2015
‘Days are where we live…Where can we live but days?’ Philip Larkin wonders. Unlike other divisions of time, like weeks or minutes, days and the ways in which we count them are claim celestial warrant: they take their duration and pattern from the rotation of the earth, just as years derive from the rotation of our earth round the sun.
The device found in 1900 in the 1st-century shipwreck off the Greek island of Antekythera is almost certainly, like the device described in the Peterhouse manuscript Equatorie of the Planetis, a kind of ancient computer, a device for calculating eclipses, and other astronomical events. It is also a picture of our picture of time, meshed and geared as we seem to be into interlocking wheels of different durations. Much of human architecture seems designed to be calendrical or chronometric in this way, from Mayan temples to stone circles like Stonehenge. It has been suggested that Loggan’s engraving of Peterhouse Old Court in 1675, featuring rows of small yew trees ranged down either side of the court, indicates that the whole court acted as a kind of sun-dial.
There is a peculiar fatality in days, or rather those mathematized days we call dates, dates, for example, like today’s, Friday the Thirteenth – congratulations to those who ventured out this evening and watch your step going home. Millennarians and doomsday-sayers cannot resist the temptation to assign a date to the end of all things; there must, it seems, come a day, a dies irae, on which days cease altogether to be. The superstition that you may feel a shiver when someone walks over your grave should have a temporal parallel, and yet we do not hear of people ascribing such an unaccountable frisson to the fact that today may share a date with the day that is fated to be their last. The idea of a deathday seems oddly less concrete than the sense that there will be a particular plot of the earth marked out for our fine and private long home. Even though, as Samuel Beckett sourly remarked, death has not asked us to keep a day free, we will all have, we will all, already and all along, have had a deathday as well as a birthday. Perhaps some of the dread of that is drained by the fact that whatever door of the advent calendar we make our exit through, it will be an old friend, through which we will have passed many times already.
Tonight is not only Friday the Thirteenth, it is also a full moon (sticklers will wish me to point out that it was in fact at its full at 4.11 am this morning). If there is one thing worse than a night when lunatics are on the roads, it’s a night when unlucky lunatics are on the roads, so, let me repeat, go carefully. This felicitous or infelicitous conjuncture has happened twice in the last 16 years, but I will be fortunate to see another, for the next time it happens in 2049, I will, or more cautiously, would be 94. How common are Friday the Thirteenths? I know you have all wondered that. Well, the longest period there can be without a Friday the Thirteenth is fourteen months. There will be at least one in every calendar year, and any year that begins on a Thursday will have three, as will a leap year that begins on a Sunday. In fact Friday the Thirteenths run on a 28 year cycle. Most remarkably, over the last 400 years, the 13th of the month has been more likely to fall on a Friday (688 times over the last 4 centuries) than any other day of the week.
Ah yes, there is consolation indeed in mathematics. The principle here is that patterns of recurrence smooth out some of the power of the oddity, the anomaly, or the unpredictable bifurcation.
The great Petrean in whose name and in whose house we are celebrating tonight, Andrew Perne, affords examples of such unpredictable fluctuations, in the strategic shimmies and stepovers of religious affiliation, like an ecclesiastical Ronaldo, he performed. In 1555, the year after he was appointed master of Peterhouse, he subscribed to the articles of Catholicism, but quickly conformed to the Thirty-Nine articles on Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, having performed a number of religious gyrations in between. For this reason, he became known to his detractors as ‘Old Andrew Turncoat’ and ‘Old Father Palinode’. A new Latin verb, ‘pernare’, meaning to temporise or, in modern political parlance, flip-flop, became current among undergraduates in Cambridge, and it is said that there was a weathervane on St Peter’s Church in Cambridge with the letters AP on both sides, which would stand for ‘A Papist’ or ‘A Protestant’ depending on the prevailing wind. I first encountered the word ‘perne’ in a poem by W.B. Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, which contains the mysterious expression ‘perne in a gyre’. I somehow doubt that Yeats knew anything about Andrew Perne, and ‘perne’ is usually explained as a reference to a Gaelic word meaning a spool or bobbin. So we might charitably say that Andrew Perne was predisposed by his name to a merry-go-round of cyclical reversals.
Perhaps more ambivalence attaches to the subjecting of time to number than space. There seems to be a natural affinity between space and number. Time is what you can never quite get hold of, space is what you cannot help coming up against. Space seems more intrinsically parcelled into discrete units, even if they are not necessarily neatly mathematical. Perhaps we attach so much importance to keeping track of time, keeping time on track, precisely because number belongs to space, while number and time seem inimical to each other. Cycles defend us against the danger that the more time passes, the greater the chance of losing count.
It appears that the dread of Friday 13th – or Friggadeskaidecaphobia, to deck it out in its Sunday best – is rather a recent superstition. The first recorded reference to the superstition is in Henry Sutherland Edwards’s biography of Rossini in 1869, which refers to the composer’s terror of dying on this ill-omened day – though in fact, Italians still do not regard 13 as unlucky – their unlucky day is Friday 17th. Although Friday has been thought an inauspicious day among many professions, perhaps it is thought unlucky because it is the day on which Christ is held to have been crucified, or perhaps, more abstractly, because thirteen seems like a weirdly unassimilated anomaly added to the otherwise satisfyingly plenitudinous 12, blissfully divisible as it is by 2, 3, 4 and 6, as well as 1 and itself.
I have to say I do not attach significance to Friday 13th and in principle would have no qualms about booking seat no F13 on a flight departing on Friday 13th. I say in principle, because being rational is a wobbly work in progress rather than a condition into which you graduate in any once-and-for-all way, and aspirant rationalists like me are subject to a sort of superstition to the second degree, by which I mean the fear of their own tendency to superstition. I tend to steer clear of the number 13, not because I am nervous of its power, but because I fear that if something bad does happen to happen in some way associated with 13, the coherence-craving maniac that lives in my brain, and most probably is my brain, will insist on making me attribute it to the power of the unlucky number. I am accordingly profoundly superstitious in the magical precautions I take against the possibility of falling into superstition.
Number and magic are powerfully indissociable. In her travels to a utopian land beyond the North Pole, the lady who is the heroine of Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World asks the wise spirits who dwell in that region about the mysteries of numbers, as argued by cabbalists among others. No, no mystery, they reply. But surely, she persists, 4 must have a special significance, because all numbers are virtually comprehended in it? Is not 6 the mystic number of matrimony? Surely 7 is the number of God, because it neither begets nor is begotten of any other number? No, they insist, no mysteries. Numbers are good for counting and doing sums, that’s it.
Well, we are all crypto-cabbalists still. We cannot help attributing significance to numbers. There is something not only dead but dreadful in the prospect of an infinity of numbers none of them having any more intrinsic significance than any other. In principle, we ought to be able to say that mathematicians are to numerologists as astronomers are to astrologists, or physicists are to psychic researchers. And yet, mathematicians are, if anything, even more drawn to the idea that certain numbers have special characters and potencies.
Indeed, one might say that, in a certain sense, mathematics is a principled kind of resistance to the indifference of numbers. A story told by the mathematician G.H Hardy may bear this out. Hardy had become the patron of a brilliant, self-taught Tamil mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, whom he helped to bring to England, where he was elected Fellow of Trinity. Hardy went to visit Ramanujan when he was dying in hospital in Putney in 1920:
Hardy, always inept about introducing a conversation, said, ‘I thought the number of my taxi-cab was 1729. It seemed to me rather a dull number. To which Ramanujan replied: ‘No Hardy! No Hardy! It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways’ [13 + 123 or 93 + 103]
Our lives are ruled more than ever by anniversaries and recurrences, the fabric of time being pleated together in ever denser origami. It is as though our world of media were determined to replace the great cycles of sacred time characteristic of the world’s religions by an equally intricate pattern of secular recurrences. It is as though nothing has happened until it has happened at least twice. Writers and artists languish in oblivion until jerked into the hot spotlight and a paroxysm of remembrance on their centenaries. Sports fans like me lead lives syncopated by the cycles of the World Cup, Olympics and Ashes series. Every year we have a dinner here for our English students in which the English fellows caper before them performing extracts from works written precisely 1,2,3 or 4 centuries before.
The point of recurrent cycles is, of course, precisely to reassure us that ‘what goes around comes around’. If the arrow of time runs relentlessly away from us, yet all the time carrying us away with it, then a system of recurrent dates allows us the comforting feeling that time pools and spools into pockets of what the information theorists wonderfully call ‘redundancy’, from ‘re-dundare’, to roll or wave back. The sundial that overlooks the Fellows’ Garden, put up to mark the 700th anniversary of the foundation of the College, bears the inscription ut fugit horas crescit honos – as the hours fly away, so honour grows, which promises the same dual directionality.
I am starting to think that I am rather too fond of reminding people that ancient institutions get to be that way by long practice at inventing their pasts. I learned this from a Master of my former institution, Birkbeck College, London. The Master, Tim O’Shea was forever devising new bits of complicated stage business to enliven Graduation Ceremonies, the origins of which would after three years be lost in the mists of time. He moved to become Rector of the University of Edinburgh and I shortly afterwards met an ex-student of mine who was due to graduate there. When I asked her if she was looking forward to it, she said, ‘well there’s some strange stuff that happens. You have to be ceremonially hit about the head by an academic cap made from the breeches of John Knox.’ It seemed that Professor O’Shea was settling in nicely.
For what is the alternative to this comfort blanket of pseudo-recurrence? Philip Larkin ends the poem ‘Days’ with a warning. Solving the question ‘where can we live but days?’ ‘brings the priest and the doctor/In their long coats/Running over the fields’. The best we can do to fend off the Heraclitus who tells us we can never step twice into the same river, is carry on perning in a gyre. So let us summon up the memory of those who have enlarged, annoyed and entertained us this year: Richard Holton, who began the year with a talk on sentiment and moral reasoning, Matthew Kramer speaking about atheism and the Bible, Raymond Tallis urging us to become radicalised in defence of the NHS, Robin Kirkpatrick speaking about Dante and medicine, Griselda Pollock talking about feminism and what may follow it, and, most recently, Susan Bayly discussing the notion of culture in a rapidly-changing world. Following the immaculately periodic principle of reculer pour mieux sauter, let us look forward by looking back, trusting to find our posterity waiting in our pedigree. So I ask you rise and drink now to the Perne Club, and the prospect of many more diurnal courses, and happy returns to this place, if never again exactly to this hour.