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Reflections on the puddle of life


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I'm not sure if I've said this before or not, but I'm going to ask anyway: what is it about the number 3? Is it really a 'magic' number? I wonder.

Recently I read this really ace book called The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. If you haven't read it, I can recommend it. Not much happens, but the professor (who has only an 80 minute memory) is, or was, a professor of mathematics and much of the book involves the magic of number theory which, as a non-mathematician, I found quite fascinating. Perfect numbers, imperfect numbers, primes. All really interesting things.

And it reminded me how I've noticed before the curious thing about the number 3. Like it's a memorable number. Or maybe it's rhythmic. I'm not sure. But think about it: so many things come in threes. We remember things in threes. There's:

The Holy Trinity: the father, the son and the holy spirit.
The three jewels of buddhism.
The family: the mother, the father and the child.
Sun, moon and stars.
Mind, body and spirit.
Beginning, middle and end.
Rock, paper, scissors
The executive, the legislature and the judiciary

and that's just what I can think of off the cuff. And then there's poetry. Doesn't a sentence or a line of poetry or prose feel just kind of right when it comes in threes? Or even the spoken word? How about this:

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
in which there are three blackbirds.


The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,

Doesn't it just feel...balanced?

How often do you hear politicians talking about 'education, education, education'? Or even in work 'truth, trust, teamwork' (yes, that's the kind of organisation I work for!).

Or am I just seeing significance where there is none?


  1. Virgil's Avatar
    You have two things going on there Fifth. You have numerology. I can't answer why three was selected there in those circumstances. My hunch is that they just happened that way. You can find as many instances of twos (male, female; physics, metaphysics; life, death; north, south; day, night; light, darkness; good, evil) or instances of fours though perhaps less (four humors; four quadrants, four classical elements, four Gospels), and fives (the five books of the Pentateuch , Muslims pray five times a day, the five points of a pentagram) and so on. And don't forget twelves: twelve inches to a foot, a dozen, a gross is twelve twelves, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles of Christ.

    The other part of your question has to do with aesthetics, and to that I've actually given a lot of thought. I could probably write a lot on this, but let me be succinct. Two in art suggests duality, harmony, and balance. Three can suggests a tension, a progression, or a complexity. Fours or more in written sentences are a list, and a list suggests an abundance and lack of tension. However fours in arrangement create a powerful complexity, since it transcends beginning, middle, and end. Four movements to a symphony, TS Eliot's The Four Quartets, the Four parts of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, the four Gospels. A structure of five has inherent discordant tensions, Joyce used that for his A Portrait of the Artist.

    DH Lawrence strove for twos at all costs. It projected his ideas of male/female duality that was for him inherent in the universe. Virginia Woolf strove for threes to reflect her worldview that I'm not sure I can articulate. Samuel Johnson from the age of Enlightenment strove for twos to reflect balance; so did Alexander Pope.

    A really good prose stylists mixes. There are theories on the rhythms that are created by the twos, threes, and lists. Joseph Conrad is brilliant in mixing twos and threes, even in the very same sentence. Henry James loved mixing too. Next time you're reading check out how a writer uses those rhythms.

    As for me, if you look through my posts, you'll see I tend to favor threes: tension, progression, and complexity! That's my prose. If I were to ever write a novel, I would love to arrange it in fours.
  2. qimissung's Avatar
    Yes, there is something in our culture that favors three. I love to use three when I can.

    Other cultures favor other combinations; I believe the Asian culture favors four.

    Intersting post, and interesting comment, Virgil.
  3. The Comedian's Avatar
    I really enjoyed both this post and Virgil's reply to it. Now that I think of it, I see three as a suggestive number (no, not that kind of suggestive), but one that opens up perspective: two may present duality, but three suggests of multiplicity. . .that somehow the limitations of duality are extended, even beyond a the concept of trinity. But I'm waxing philosophic.

    @ Virgil -- by the author's numerology, are you referring to sentence structure (numbers of phrases, clauses, syntactic elements) or themes, characters, and ideas? This has got me thinkin'. <-- (notice all my trios) :-)
  4. LadyLuck's Avatar
    I've never really thought about it, but now that you mention it
  5. TheFifthElement's Avatar
    Thanks all
    Virgil - interesting thoughts. I'd be very interested in the longer version if you ever get chance to put them fully into words. But yes, I think you're on to something. Thanks for your enlightening comments
  6. Virgil's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by The Comedian
    @ Virgil -- by the author's numerology, are you referring to sentence structure (numbers of phrases, clauses, syntactic elements) or themes, characters, and ideas? This has got me thinkin'. <-- (notice all my trios) :-)
    No, when I said numerology I was referring to the idea that numbers have some mystical/magical significance. The problem with that is that every number seems to have some significance to it.
  7. Virgil's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by TheFifthElement
    Thanks all
    Virgil - interesting thoughts. I'd be very interested in the longer version if you ever get chance to put them fully into words. But yes, I think you're on to something. Thanks for your enlightening comments
    I had started a series of blogs where I had tagged them Writing. I had intended to put out all my various notions of what good writing is. I think I only got to two blogs and then I quit. It was a lot of effort.

    Here are a couple of quotes from Joseph Conrad on how he mixes twos and threes and comes up with his own distinct rhythm. It's very noteworthy and instructive.

    “You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies - which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world - what I want to forget.”
    Notice the threes at the front of that first sentence. The the three phrases of the second sentence: "a taint of death," "a flavor of mortality," and "want to forget" with the two in the middle "hate and detest."

    Here's one where he employs all twos, but look how balanced a sentence that turns out to be:
    “Joy and sorrow in this world pass into each other, mingling their forms and their murmurs in the twilight of life as mysterious as an overshadowed ocean, while the dazzling brightness of supreme hopes lies far off, fascinating and still, on the distant edge of the horizon”
    Notice the threes in the first sentence and the twos in the second:
    “It’s extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. Perhaps it’s just as well; and it may be that it is this very dullness that makes life to the incalculable majority so supportable and so welcome.”
    That last sentence there is magnificent. The threes propel it forward at the beginning while the twos make it come to a soft conclusion.

    And finally here. You can see just how good this is. And by the way, the word repetitions create another set of duple rhythm.

    “It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream--making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams...No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one's existence--that which makes its truth, its meaning--its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone...”
    It's amazing to me how Conrad, for whom English was his third language, is among the very top of English prose stylists of the modern era.

    Let me just say to conclude that I'm a notoriously slow reader, and the reason is that I evaluate almost every sentence as I read for rhythm and sound. It's second nature to me. A great prose stylist like Conrad, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Virginia Woolf, or DH Lawrence overwhelm me. Oh, and let me not forget Ford Maddox Ford since I just recently re-read The Good Soldier and was awed by his prose. I love reading the poetry of prose.