:: Article

The Frame of Lagado

By Joshua Calladine-Jones.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Swift.

Two things occur. The first is the publication of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in 1726. The second is my mental collapse in 2012. The corridors in the cardiology ward on that day had the usual smell of disinfectant, the fluorescent lights, figures ambling along underneath them. A vacant wheelchair. A doctor with lightly bearded cheeks, guilty-looking. A thin woman in a plastic anorak. Everyone who went by possessed the same nervous energy. It all seemed to occur as part of a framework of larger meaning, as though, hidden away in one room of the ward, the precise details of my mental confusion could have been demonstrated and explained by some machine. In this exercise, I turn the handles of this secret frame once, then twice, but by some freak of probability, the odds beyond my knowledge, the result is always the same.

The first Professor I saw was in a very large Room, with forty Pupils about him. After Salutation, observing me to look earnestly upon a Frame, which took up the greatest part of both the Length and Breadth of the Room, he said perhaps I might wonder to see him employed in a Project for improving speculative Knowledge by practical and mechanical Operations.

I was in a room, behind a surgical curtain, an NHS specialist manning a computer, her eyes on the screen, wires running to points on my chest, where the hair had been shaved away to tape them down. Because the hair had been removed, my chest had the look of those pictures of woods where landing strips have been cut or those regions of the Amazonian rainforests where deforestation has taken place. From a distance, the damage seems minor, but close enough, the scale of destruction is easier to appreciate.

On that day, I was receiving an electrocardiogram (ECG) test to measure cardiac anomalies using the electrodes taped to my body. But the problem, I was told, was with my mind. For the first time in my direct experience with medical practice, the mind was equated with the heart. The hospital staff, particularly the clinical psychologist, surprised me with this poetic turn. If only this was always the case.

He then led me to the Frame, about the Sides whereof all his Pupils stood in Ranks. It was twenty Foot Square, placed in the middle of the Room.

When Gulliver arrives at the academy of Lagado, he already has a repertoire of traveling experiences behind him. He has lived among the famous Lilliputians, some six inches in height, that I had read bowdlerised depictions of as a little boy. He has encountered the giants of Brobdingnag, holding counsel with their rulers, a frequenter of their court. And he has been shipwrecked numerous times, times numerous enough to suggest absurdly poor fortune or the contrivance of fate against his plans. Enough for the reader to suspect more than simple coincidence.

The Superficies was composed of several bits of Wood, about the bigness of a Dye, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender Wires. These bits of Wood were covered on every Square with Paper pasted on them, and on these Papers were written all the Words of their Language, in their several Moods, Tenses, and Declensions, but without any Order.

I was seventeen years old. In the past eleven days, I had not spoken a single word. After refusing to speak—burning or otherwise destroying anything I wrote down, I was brought to Stepping Hill Hospital, Greater Manchester. It was difficult for the doctors to assert exactly what I was suffering from. Time and again I would linger in the waiting room, seeing the other outpatients, all appearing quite well. I felt quite well myself, but constantly hungry. At one point, I had begun to consume any sheets of paper on which I had written, eating my own words. 

I told the psychiatrist about a theory of numbers I was fixated on, using a pen and paper, remaining mute. Once I had finished explaining and she had already laid out the boxes of medication, her face changed. She had small and kind features, dark hair, and I seem to remember her being in shadow because the lights were always switched off. All these memories take place in the dark. Briefly, she took the boxes away. She asked me if I was interested in numerology, her voice sounding absent, directed elsewhere. Through the square window, I could see the car-park and several leafless elms. 

As I refused to answer, she continued in implications—that many others have found the topic of mysterious number sequences interesting, from movie directors to academics, that in some sense it is a legitimate field of study—until an auxiliary doctor came to the door. The psychiatrist stopped speaking, saddened by this interruption, and I lowered my eyes. They had resorted to suspecting some sort of physical cause, a cause they could perhaps uncover using the ECG test, the auxiliary explained, as I followed him out. The exhaustive notes on the number system I had devised, preserved in a tattered yellow folder, had offered them no clue. 

Every one knew how laborious the usual Method is of attaining to Arts and Sciences; whereas by his Contrivance, the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.

Prior to Jonathan Swift’s depiction of the Engine, the enigmatic frame of Lagado, the reader is told that it exists in an academy beneath the flying island of Laputa, a nation placing the indigenous Balnibarbi at the threat of aerial attack. The Balnibarbi live in general poverty but for their famous academy, where the entirety of public funding is spent. There is a strange equation in the idea of power and knowledge. When aiming for one, either element tends to produce the other. But if anything causes the Balnibarbi to expend such time and energy on follies, it must surely be the hope of power, power towards freedom.

This feels eerily contemporary, to equate poverty, academicism, and the allure of power. Today, Swift is admired more for his wit than his prescience. But the frame itself, the engine, is a device that easily foreshadows the invention of the computer. Through the permutations of code, the mechanisms produce a definite result with minimal effort on the part of their operators. It is also the satirical cousin of another literary-philosophical machine: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s proposed mechanical volvelle, a clockwork device that would generate an alphabet of human thought.

In 1666, Leibniz, twenty-years-old, published a dissertation titled On the Combinatorial Art, proposing that through the configuration of linguistic symbols, knowledge could be formally produced in its representative states. In other words, by using raw language blocks like numbers and letters, all possibilities of thought could be represented in concrete ways in numerous orders and combinations, similar to present-day coding. Using Leibniz’s clockwork volvelle, one idea could supposedly be changed into another. All ideas would be loosely connected, and all possible combinations of ideas could be made.

The Professor then desired me to observe, for he was going to set his Engine at Work. The Pupils at his Command took each of them hold of an Iron Handle, whereof there were fourty fixed round the Edges of the Frame, and giving them a sudden turn, the whole Disposition of the Words was entirely changed.,

The numbers I had fixated on were mostly odd, below 30, and written as whole Arabic numerals. They were presented in an ascending sequence of four in total, later appended with two additional numbers: one at the beginning of the sequence, one at the end. I cannot remember when I began considering them. At first, the epiphanies were very innocent, no more threatening than a sudoku puzzle, always the same numbers. I believed they held some symbolic importance.

(3) 7 9 11 22 (27) 

At secondary school, I had never really shown any real talent with mathematics, or expressed any interest in numerical systems before, other than that general interest most people have at the sublime quality of numbers and the infinite. But in the tattered yellow folder I had almost filled, the sheets of crumpled A4 paper were closer to the hurried lecture notes of a numerologist hoping to apply for a position of academic security.

The numbers had the potential to mean just about anything. A simple addition or subtraction, a basic calculation of no more than a few steps, could associate the numbers with any date, code, amount, and so on. PINs. Birthdays. 9/11. The end of the Mayan calendar. Anything. If a certain numerical figure seemed special, at least one or two of its digits could be interpreted to relate to the sequence.

The method in this is strictly lateral, lacking mathematical sophistication, making it insular and difficult to explain. It seems I suspected this even at the time, becoming increasingly defensive, preempting some imagined betrayal until falling silent. Less than a formula, the numbers were a sort of language of repetitions, a reminder of personal significance on seeing them in the world, even when the connection had to be forced. If, for example, the number I wanted to relate to was 9, it was a straightforward process from 27 (another number in the sequence) by coinciding the digits as quantities in themselves and adding them together. 

27=2&7, 2+7=9 

In this way, the sequence seemed self-contained, because the numbers could relate to each other. There is power in relating, in the hope of security. One number could be added to another, framed together, when there was no real causal connection. And with enough ways to combine the numbers in the sequence, any given figure in the real world could be equated back to them. Everything began to have a certain meaning. Everything could relate. Nothing would have to be alone. 

The actual operation is some kind of delusion of confirmation, where all of the searching is only to verify what I already believed. To look another way at 27, it is possible to get 2 from 11 (another number in the sequence) very easily by deconstructing 11 into the number 1, twice. But this is not enough to reach the desired number, so then the number 7 can enter the sequence. 

11=1&1, 1+1=2, 2&(7 added from sequence)=27 

By a simple matching exercise using only fellow numbers in the sequence, an illusion of complex associations is made. The initial simple solutions were the ideal crutch for a teenager who had lost all sense of meaning, who had not realised he was terrified of the world ahead of him.

There were obviously gaping flaws with my number system. But that did not matter to me because when using it, everything could relate. It could all make sense. The gaps between my internal fantasies and real-life were joined together, neat and clean. It was a pastime that became the expression of a terrible confusion and fear. A reassuring one, because virtually any number in the sequence could be reached from another with a few hops and bounds.

27-9=18, 18=1&8, 1+8=9, 8-1=7, 18-7=11, 11=1&1, 1+1=2, 2&7=27

It was an exercise in futility, one that led to delusions of significance. Every calculation that implies a connection to the number sequence also proves its distance from any kind of exact identicality. I could have chosen any other four to six numbers of no more than two digits each, repeating the same process to produce any given date, amount, statistic, or code. 

He then commanded six and thirty of the Lads to read the several Lines softly as they appeared upon the Frame; and where they found three or four Words together that might make part of a Sentence, they dictated to the four remaining Boys who were Scribes.

In the process, nothing is actually revealed. The exercise doubles back on itself in an untidy loop, proving only that it is possible to reach illogic through reasoning. If any meaning can be hotwired together using a framework, what fixed value does the meaning actually possess? And could it ever be possible for language or number systems to accurately reflect this? Swift’s scribes perform this exact scavenger hunt.

This Work was repeated three or four Times, and at every turn the Engine was so contrived that the Words shifted into new Places, as the Square bits of Wood moved upside down.

Swift’s writing predates the mental exercises of analytical philosophy, juggling logic in the name of reason. It predates the postmodern crisis of meaning. There is, Swift suggests, an insanity in any kind of excessive search for knowledge that can be essentially reduced to the operation of a machine. For Swift, Knowledge (with a capital K) does not exist. It does not exist in the sense that it is not out there waiting to be found, that its constituent parts are not readymades prepared to be rearranged. The more the search is performed, the more the fragmentary quality of knowledge, of meaning, is revealed. My silence comes as no surprise. It seems I short-circuited that part of my internal belief and was left wordless.

A non-coincidence: the ECG test proved I was not susceptible to dangerous side-effects from the medications the psychiatrist had laid out for me. They were prescribed at once. Within a week, after a confrontation with a short and bald Liverpudlian social worker, I was speaking. The non-dangerous side-effects were doughy and brutal. Restlessness, numbness, blurred vision, sexual dysfunction. To take the edge off the haloperidol, a popular antipsychotic nearing antiquity, it was accompanied by procyclidine, a medicine given to Parkinson’s patients to reduce tremors. 

This was far beyond my fleeting experience of Prozac. Soon it was no longer a question of recovery but escape. At this time I was still living with my mother, a mere teenager in the little house opposite Stockport Grammar School, derailed from my final years of sixth form. Due to the side-effects, each moment was its own imprisonment, an acute awareness of the passage of time. It was several months before I would finally tear up the packets, throw away the pills, and attempt once again to exercise thought without the intervention of some external frame, not the delusion of numbers, not the fuzz of sedating medicines. Nine years have passed since then. I know well that I was disturbed, that I was fixated, but I still cannot admit I was insane. 

Two things occur the incidence of an idea and the transmission of the idea to the page. It is not a new concept that, between this, the interference of symbols confuses the process. Words, numbers, elements of language can be arranged to represent almost any possible imagined or existing thing. At some point, every work, every act, every character, existed on the frame of Lagado (fragments, notions, phrases, some cut away, others set to purpose). And at some point, these separate pieces assume their total shape. 

Here I am stepping out of the frame.

Photo Courtesy of Joshua Calladine-Jones.

Joshua Calladine-Jones is a writer living in the Czech Republic, where he is the literary critic in residence at Prague Writer’s Festival. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Stinging Fly, Entropy, FILLER, Literární, and Snitch. It has also been translated to Czech. He is currently working on a first collection.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 18th, 2021.