It passes through our minds, it tumbles off our fingers every day. Regardless almost of our race or tongue, it is as close as the date of our birth, the number of our telephone, the house in which we live. Yet how often do we ever think of 9? In numbers, Pythagoras and Plotinus and other worthies have believed, lie the secret of the universe; God and nature move in 40-day rotations, 28-day cycles, passages of 9 months. And in 9 alone is a universe– maybe even a paradise– if only we would stop and look.
Every number has its character, its own distinctive coloring; 5, for instance, is the gray accountant, the user- friendly citizen, the John Major, if you like, of integers, 6 has the springtime bounce of a perky cheerleader, though taken too far, it leads straight to hell(666 is the number of the Beast). And 7 is everybody’s lucky number– we base our lives around 7 seas, 7 heavens and 7 graces (as well, inevitably, as their shadow side, the 7 deadlies). But what of 9? It is, we all know, an odd number (very odd). An early square. It is a 6 on its head, a circle and a line, the highest digit and the last, with something of the darkness that attaches to last things. Yet it has strange magic in it. Multiply any number by 9, and the sum of the digits will also come to 9(7x9=63; 6 3=9). Reverse the digits, and the number you get(36) will also be a multiple of 9. Take any number you choose(4,321) and divide it by9. The remainder you get(1) will be the same remainder you get when you add the digits(4 3 2 1) and divide it by 9. That is why mathematicians check their calculations by casting out nines.
Thus 9 is the source of magic squares, pool table pyramids, and various patterns that reproduce themselves indefinitely. Most of us, however, know it on less formal terms; as a friend to decision making (9 judges on the supreme court) as the key to the heavens (9 planets and 9 muses). Statisticians covet it– since if all of the 9 at bats (in any number of 9-inning games) their batting averages can be computed instantaneously (2 for 9 is .222, 3 for 9 is .333, 4 for 9 is .444, and so on, through that order). And 9 is a priceless aid to shopkeepers, who will keep charging &9.99 or $49.95 till the end of time. In binary terms, 9 is 1001– the number of adventure and romance; in England you dial 999 for emergencies (to reverse, perhaps, the diabolic effect of 666). Yet 9 also has an edge to it, the menace that comes from lying on a fault line: it is the number just before a boxer is knocked out, the cat runs out of lives, the lover slams the door.
Every number, of course, is only what we make of it, and one mans anguished 10- 1 is anothers rosy 2 3 4. In fact, 4 was the divine tetraktys for Pythagoras, and we comfort ourselves still with 4 seasons, 4 directions, 4 elements. Yet in china there are 5 of each– not least, perhaps, because the character 4 is a homonym for the character for death (and even now, in many far eastern hotels, the 4th floor is as rare as the 13th)
Nine is equally two-faced. Christ died at the 9th hour, and Macbeths weird sisters chant eerily, thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, and thrice again to make up nine yet the Egyptians were devoted to enneads (a triple triad). The legends of northern Europe revolve around 9 bards, 9 dragons, 9 stones in a circle. We all know of Dante’s 9 circles of hell, but few remember that they were merely the inversion of 9 he associated with heaven. In the middle ages, indeed, 9 was the first and foremost angelic number. Milton divided his nativity ode into 3 sections of 9 stanzas * each; one 16th century church in Venice has, quite consciously, a nave 9 paces wide and 27 paces long.
All this, you may say, is a mere antique superstition. Yet many lives, even today, still hang in the balance of numbers, the busting contemporary city of Kyoto, in Japan, is divided into 9 auspicious sections. In Beijing, within with an old mans memory, the emperor would ascend the altar of heaven– a perfect circle in side a perfect square– and, his 9 grades of mandarins performing a 9-fold bowing before him, survey the world of 9s.From the center of the topmost tier nine rings of paving-stones radiated out in concentric multiples of nine, explains author Colin Thubron, and fanned down into the lower terraces, nine rows to each, in ever expanding manifolds of nine. To this day, the 37 million citizens Burma are ruled not only by the shadow of a dictator Ne Win, but by his favorite number,9. A devotee of golf (no coincidence), Win governs his life by 9s– he took 45 people with him on a trip to America; he overthrew an upstart civilian government on the 18th day of the 9th month; he gave his party the 9th, 18th, and the 27th slots on the electoral ballots. Yet he finally overstepped the mark when , 4 years ago, he decided on a whim to replace all 25-, 35-, and 75-, bank notes with 45- and 90-kyat notes– thus at a stroke, rendering half the currency in Burma worthless to many Burmese citizens, who kept their savings at home, penniless. the number nine is not just lucky, a western diplomat told the New Yorker. it is a powerful, which has to be conquered, or its a danger to you.
Does any of this have any bearing on us? Even Goethe might not too readily say, nein. For this, let us remember, it is a palindromic year, the first since 1881 ; and those still alive 11 years from now will be will be the first for a millennium– since 1001, in fact, to experience 2 palindromic years. Anyone who doubts the power of 9 need only talk to some one who was 39 or 49, last night, and 40 or 50 today. In short, 9 is not 9 day wonder; it is, for many. the number of heaven itself. So this week as we go about noting the date 9/9, let us spare a thought for the number that will be keeping us company for 9 more years at least. And ponder the reverberations of Emersons pregnant epigraph to nature, the rounded world is fair to see/ nine times folded in mystery.