Aronofsky, Japanese Go boards and the magic 216 digits number

Aronofsky is a Jewish film director and  PI, his first movie, was shot in November 1997.

Max Cohen, the main charachter of the film , is an excentric mathematician suffering from continuous head-haches  due to a prolongued eye-exposure  to the sun-light : “When I was a little child my mother told me not to stare into the sun. So, once, when I was six, I did.”

Just to keep in connection with the theme of this blog,  I’ll try to resume a central dialogue between Max Cohen and  Sol Robeson, his friend and old mentor. Sol-whose name means Sun- is searching to explain  the sense in the past people  in Japan they gave to the simple Go board he keeps on the table in the kitchen. Go is a wonderful, complex game, and Sol and Max sometimes play it, or  they just reason about its original philosophical meaning. Here is  a summary of their dialogue.


Sol explains :”The ancient Japanese considered the Go board to be a  Microcosm of the universe. Although when the board is empty, it appears to be simple and ordered,  in fact the possibilities of gameplay are endless. They say that no two Go games have ever been alike. Just like snowflakes. So, the Go Board actually represents an extremely complex  and chaotic universe” . “And that is the truth of our world. It can’t be easily  summed up with maths”.  Sol clearly suggests there is not a basic pattern in the universe: “There will be no order, only cahos”, but Max’s idea is the complete opposite. Max replies saying that as the game goes on the board acquires its own order and moves become foreseeable. He is sure  there’s a pattern, an order hidden behind.   Sol’s answer is lapidary :”This is insanity, Max” . Max’s answer has the same concision:”Or maybe it’s genious”. He has already made up his decision:”If the number’s there,  I’ll find it”.

So Max defines his  philosophical purpose in life:”I’m trying to understand our world. I don’t deal with petty materialists like you”;  he is searching to understand the world he lives inside, the ultimate meaning, the key  giving reasons for life in  universe. More or less,  he says he supposes there is a pattern that allows him to comprehend the order of the universe and he is going to repeat the same thought  in front of Rabbi Cohen , when   about the 216 number he perceives it’s more than God, it’s everything, it’s maths and science and nature…the universe.” I saw the universe’s DNA.” Max is incessanttly repeating the 216 digit number:”It’s a door, Sol, it’s a door”. He is looking for that only key. He has learned  about it from Lenny Meyer, a Jewish guy he meets sometimes: “The Torah is just a long string of numbers. Some say it’s a code sent to us from God”.

Max Cohen –  the name has a secret meaning since Cohen is the Hebrew for priest and in association with Max, the final result  suggests some meaning like  an High Preast, (Ha Cohen Ha Godol in the Aaronic descendance ). Maybe, Max Cohen , as suggested, has to be intended as  Aronofsky’s shadow or alter ego. In an occasion Max meets  Lenny Meyer who starts explaining him that once a year the high priest entered  the most holy of the temple in Jerusalem  to pronounce the sacred name of God expressed in 216 digits . It is immediately after that meeting , that  Max’s search for the numerical code  hidden in the Torah starts, in the hope of discovering  the secrets of the universe: “Something’s going on. It has to do with that number. There’s an answer in that number”.  At the end of the story Max will consider himself as a chosen one, the only man to which God has revealed the secret numbers.   In one of the last memorable scenes  Rabby Cohen will ask him:”Who do you think you are? You are only a vessel from our God. You are carrying a delivery that was meant for us”. No, Maximillian Cohen dissents:”It was given to me”.

That is an epiphany , a plausible reason  for the happiness of the last scene, when, having stopped his previuos research for the number, Max finally looks like having reached peace and quietness.And that is probably also the reason for which Max has burned his important sequence of numbers.

The idea of imagining maths and numbers as the basic  universal law is not new , it goes back to Anassagora and before, but Maths is maybe  only an excuse. The most important thing is God’s name through the 216 digits  together with all the universal concepts behind.

Aronofsky’s suggested idea is probably that in the Torah you can find  a deep mathematical explanation  of the shapes and measures of the  universe, indications about the orbits of the sun ,  a complex and hidden geometry, a numerical code:  remembering the times of his blindeness when as a kid he had stared  into the sun , he says:”At first the brighteness was overwhelming, but I had seen that before.I kept looking, forcing myself not to blink, and then the brightness began to dissolve. My pupils shrunk to pinholes  and everything came into focus and for a moment I understood”.

Knowing that Max is being searched by criminals, Sol cautions him  about the personal risks he will run   when playing with fire , because the matter is not an ordinary one.  And  later Max will say :”The number is nothing,  it’s the syntax between the numbers that matters”, maybe suggesting that the really important metaphysical meaning  is to be found elsewhere, between the cyphers. “It is fair to say that I’m stepping out on a limb. But I am on the edge and that’s where it happens”.

The film is about the fine line that divides science from philosophy, exploring such topics as cosmogony, numerology, naturalism and religion. In the film, PI is written out numerically, but it’s wrong.The first eight decimals are correct but beyond that the number is mistaken. Anyway, Aronofsky uses this fascinating number to explore fundamental questions: is there order into the universe? Is there a God? Is the world around us connected and explicable? Or is it simply a random chaos that defies attempts to make sense of it? These are the sort of questions that independent films generally avoid,  so you have to appreciate  Pi even for this reason.

This is the first part of my considerations about this movie. Another time I want to examinate something more about π , along with the secret reasons for Max’s pursuing in the search of his 216  number. What sort of numbers are those?

So,  with this question in mind, I’ll say everybody goodbye.

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