RAY JOHNSON AND
THE NUMBER 13
William S. Wilson
of a number, as with a lucky number, is a form of ikonicity.
I spell "icon" as "ikon" to separate my
uses from the misappropriations that are scattered around us.
In my sense, an ikon is an object that is involved with action-at-a-distance,
perhaps receiving or sending spiritual energy, like an ikon
of a saint. Imagine that numbers exist in a transcendental continuum,
infinite and eternal. In some faiths an entity in the transcendental
continuum, a power like a saint or a number, can act within
the world, through the medium of an ikon. Many people believe
that numbers have the power to act in the world as causes of
events, or as benevolent or malevolent powers.
the letters of the alphabet used to spell "thirteen,"
numerals have no intrinsic size. Anyone writing the number 13
is not representing a physical entity, but is working like an
abstract artist, arbitrarily choosing sizes as well as colors.
Because the shape of a number or a letter is not absolutely
determined, but has "a freedom of form within form,"
a person, especially an artist, can express a whole range of
meanings through size, shape, color, and any other sensory qualities.
The number 13 becomes what we do with it. As we learn about
an invisible world of meanings, we become acquainted with numbers,
and as with human acquaintances, we can feel friendly toward
some numerals, especially if they seem friendly to us. Other
numbers can seem unfriendly, or at least have a reputation for
heartlessness, like 13. Arnold Schoenberg, born September 13,
1874, spelled the name "Aaron" as "Aron"
so that the title of his opera, Moses und Aron, would count
out as 12 letters, not 13. How many people listening to an opera
are going to count the number of letters in the title? Schoenberg,
incidentally, died in 1951 in Brentwood Park, Los Angeles, July
Johnson wrote an essay about Marianne Moore, whose name has
13 letters. He mentions Marilyn Monroe, another person with
the initials M.M., and with 13 letters in her name. Standing
the M.M. on its head to get W.W., he used the name William Wilson,
also 13 letters. But understand that Ray said that he did not
regard the number 13 as unfriendly. He was not superstitious,
but he was aware of superstitions. He wanted to use 13 casually,
unselfconsciously, but he couldn't point toward 13 and say that
it was the same as other numbers, because after all he was pointing
toward 13. What he could do, or attempt to do, was to use 13
aimlessly. His response to our pathlessness was his disciplined
June Paik interviewed Ray Johnson by submitting ten handwritten
questions which I typed and mailed to Ray. He then typed out
those ten questions, but wrote responses to thirteen questions.
He wrote: "13. I wait, not for time to finish my work,
but for time to indicate something one would not have expected
to occur." His drowning on Friday, the 13th of January,
1995, was astonishing. I would not have expected it to occur,
proof that I was not paying attention. Ray certainly had chosen
the date long before, rigging it to coincide with his age, 67,
or 6 + 7 = 13.
people tried to read numerological meanings in area codes, zip
codes and license plate numbers, searching for clues to a malevolent
power. Ray rented a motel room in which to compose himself before
drowning. If he had a choice among rooms in the motel, and chose
room #247; and if he dropped himself into the watery system
at Sag Harbor at precisely 7:15pm, the motive would include
the 13 implied as the sum of the digits. To combine several
images which have a common identity, so that they can be used
to point toward 13, is an example of the movement of the mind
as Ray encouraged continuities among separate images.
his life and in his art, Ray collected or constructed constellations
of images with a common theme so that the mind could move among
them, both setting in motion the images and being set in motion
by them. The parallel is with the movies which have many discontinuous
frames. When the separate frames of a movie begin to move through
the projector, an illusion of continuous movement is experienced.
The celluloid as it is set in motion produces a conscious experience
of motion on the screen, but the only movement is within such
consciousness. Ray often used stationery from the movie projectionist's
union, aware as he was of images projected into the darkness.
Ray dated an item the 39th day of the month. He saw a film by
Alfred Hitchcock, whether or not he read the novel by John Buchan:
"The Thirty-Nine Steps." 3 x 13 = 39. Next, 4 X 13
= 52, the number of cards in a deck. Within a deck, the most
versatile is the Ace, because it has two functions, as 1 or
as 13. 1 and/or 13. One, or the other, or both. An Ace is both,
that is, it is one object with two functions, depending on its
position in a structure. Thus the value of an Ace detached from
its deck, in a collage by Johnson, or in a painting by Picasso
or Braque, can't be decided on. As either 1 or 13, it represents
the power of changing identity according to use and context.
Like so much in Ray's life-poem, an Ace does not do what it
does because of what it is; it is what it is because of what
it does (credit to Max Jammer). Ray's attraction to the Ace
combines with his preference for a person, place or "thing"
that has at least two functions, or two identities. His interest
in the penis included an interest in that one structure with
two conditions, detumescent and tumescent. Such a twoness underlies
his fascination with the male urological system, where the penis
is a structure that serves two functions, the ejaculation of
semen and the discharge of urine. Ray was almost as fascinated
with the flow of menstrual blood and of urine in biological
females. I would quote William Butler Yeats often enough: "For
Love has pitched his mansion/ In the place of excrement."
artists think with images such as the double function of the
Ace? Well, in his poem entitled "Aneinander," Paul
Celan writes, "the card-reader slain/ cleaves to/ the ace
of hearts," or: "die Kartenschlägerin klebt/ erschlagen
hinterm/ Herz-As." The title of the poem suggests together,
just as two meanings or uses are together in an Ace, #1 together
with #13. This reference to Paul Celan bears on Ray because
Celan drowned himself in the River Seine. Ray had made mailart
using a newspaper clipping about a drowned corpse pulled from
the Seine wearing cowboy boots. In one of his favorite films,
Jean Renoir's "Boudu Saved from Drowning," a man is
rescued from drowning himself in the Seine, but later he fakes
his literal drowning, trying to rescue himself from metaphorically
drowning in bourgeois proprieties. The River Seine is "the
River Net." Ray's linked images were like a seine, a net.
Such nets of ideas and images, like webs, could catch related
images, as in like attracts like. In 1956 Ray designed a book-jacket
for a mystery written by C. Day Lewis: A Tangled Web.
number 13 was like an art-supply, that is, an image that would
combine with other images in his life-poem, joining a collage
or montage of visual ideas and images. When he saw two objects
that were separate, he looked for a motive and a means to combine
them into one object. 13 is one number constructed with two
arabic numerals, 1 and 3. Squeezing the 1 and 3 together, he
got B. Therefore, in his logic, the capital letter B was a mashed
Ray saw one object that seemed autonomous or self-contained,
he looked for a seam where he could split the object into two
parts. While the number 13 can be divided in an infinite number
of ways, the simple 6 + 7 = 13 usefully opens toward an expression,
"to be at sixes and sevens." The theme of "at
sixes and sevens" reaches into Ray's characteristic mode
of looking. He attended to possible matching between the unmatched,
and to possible unmatching between the matched. We talked more
than once about names with five letters each, Nosey Flynn, James
Joyce, and Greta Garbo. Garbo's initials would led toward his
friend Gloria Graves, and then to the sisters with the palindrome,
Roberta and Wanda Gag. Greta could also reach Gretta, a character
in James Joyce's story, "The Dead," in the book with
the self-exemplifying title, Dubliners. Gretta (6) had been
loved by Michael (7), but was married to Gabriel (7), so that
the story shows a woman and two men at sixes and sevens. Joyce's
book of 13 poems, "Pomes Penyeach," was printed in
a special edition numbered 1-13.
implications of numbers will combine with other images and ideas.
The combinatory power of numbers are so strong that anyone writing
naturalistically, trying to summon no powers or causes that
science can't explain, has to be aware of such implications
in order to avoid them. Look out for chapter 13, for it has
an aura before it has been written. The hotel room can't be
on the 13th floor, and no character can arrive as the thirteenth
guest at a party. In the manned-space program, NASA did not
skip 13 when enumerating the missions to the moon, hence when
Apollo 13 got into trouble, every number around the event was
investigated for links to 13. The problem is that any number
exists within a field of infinite relations with an infinity
of other numbers. A writer who decided that 18 was significant
for Barnett Newman soon found that 2 X 18 = 36, a measurement
Newman used, and then a length of 72 inches also became significant.
However 72 doubled is 144, but that is also 12 X 12, a significant
number in some systems of mythic thought. Newman did not think
with images of popular superstition, therefore he had to avoid
choice of the 13th day of January exposed his final event to
misunderstandings. The confusion results from not seeing his
perspective. From Ray's point of view, 13 did not have a malevolent
power, and to him, his drowning was not a tragic or evil event,
it was a fulfillment of the governing images of his life and
art. I would say that he wanted 13 simply to take its place
within the order of numbers, to be on the same plane of visibility
and meaning. If he could use 13 unselfconsciously, the problem
was less with 13 than with consciousness.
problem of consciousness is the problem he solved with his drowning,
the act by which he intended to become water-in-water. Walking
on beaches or gazing into the sky, he had been an observer,
even a participant observer, but rarely was he a fully unselfconscious
participant in a field of cosmic forces. In some erotic events
he had been able to submerge mind and body in a field of oceanic
forces. But he was 67 years old. After at least fifty years
of sunlight near the water, his face presented unsightly symptoms
needed to subtract his consciousness from the Cosmos so that
the Universe would no longer be Universe + Ray Johnson. The
principle is clarified by a sentence from Henry Adams: "The
universe that had formed him [Henry Adams] took shape in his
mind as a reflection of his own unity, containing all forces
except himself." Ray restored the unity of the universe
by withdrawing his consciousness, that "rupture in the
order of things." He had for decades meditated on stars
and the sea, trying to matter to the stars, trying to belong
with the water in the sea. William Blake expressed the hope
of such an indweller of the Cosmos: "He became what he
beheld." But that oneness didn't quite happen because of
self-awareness. In the Cosmic Field, Ray was the impossibility
of seamless unity. As Samuel Hoffenstein wrote, "Wherever
I go,/ I go too,/ And spoil everything." Ray's friend May
Wilson had once copied that poem, with a brash error, on a trash-basket
in her son's bedroom.
to his plan to disappear, like a drop of water dropped into
water, Ray did not dissolve or evaporate. His body washed ashore.
But what of his consciousness? Although Norman Solomon and a
few other people phoned me to describe the experiences of a
drowning person, we can't know, yet we can follow some images
of consciousness as a bubble on a stream. A cursory glimpse
into the Internet yields: "We know that water bubble is
born in water, sustained in water and ultimately merges in water.
Similarly, man has come out this bliss, is sustained in bliss
and ultimately merges in bliss" [sic].
evidence links Ray with any particular philosophy or religion
except a generalized Buddhism, but he had studied widely. Whenever
he demonstrated proofs of his life-world, water was his axiomatic
image. With his mind concentrating on water, with the hope that
"he became what he beheld," he acted on his desire
to become water. The logic of water has been worked out in some
religions: "As pure water poured into pure water remains
the same." "Water in water, fire in fire, ether in
ether, no one can distinguish them…" Ray had been summoned
by water long before I met him in 1956.
answered the call for him to come home to water, and so to become
fully immanent. That transcendental continuum I mentioned in
paragraph one, and those ikonicities, were false. Because of
similar false perceptions and conceptions, the number 13 is
a snag, resisting the flowing stream of numerals. It is merely
one example of the distortions of consciousness. Ray had often
been at a place in his spiritual adventures where any consciousness
is false consciousness, distracting from the unity of the Universe.
The only way to overcome the false consciousness of himself,
as well as lies about #13, was to overcome consciousness itself.
The point at which the resistance of consciousness is overcome
is precisely where the sublime begins. For Ray, his sublime
began after he left room #247, when, at 7:15 or was it 7:51?,
on Friday the 13th, he reached his point of no return, for him
his point of resistancelessness. He had at last arrived at the
drowning he had promised himself. He swam like an integer toward
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PHOTOS OF RAY JOHNSON
© William S. Wilson