I am a number, I am a free man
There is this TV series from the 1960s called The Prisoner that is often described as “cult television”—my first girlfriend loved it, I hated it. The premise is that Patrick McGoohan, the show’s creator and star, is a British spy who has decided to quit whatever spy organisation he works for because it has become corrupt—before he can jet off to retirement, he is hit with knock-out gas and whisked to a remote village in which he is given a number (No. 6). The village is a prison—hence the show’s title—and any attempt to escape is met with frustration, with a large white plastic ball that smothers the escapee so that he is returned to his room.
It’s a comfortable prison, glorified house arrest really—presumably all the other guests belong in a similar class to McGoohan; too valuable to kill, yet too dangerous to leave on the loose. The show has a vague esoteric sensation to it, and the village-prison itself is Portmeirion—a kind of Welsh folly or novelty village with unusual architecture; it has a few esoteric associations itself, in fact—and is an inspiration to contemporary occultists like Alan Moore. All the prisoners are numbered and refer to each other by number; hence the show’s catchphrase, mouthed by McGoohan, “I am not a number, I am a free man.”
I’m not going to provide an analysis of the show’s esoteric themes or even interpret it, since I can’t stand it and have only ever, a very long time ago, watched a few episodes. This is so: the reality is the opposite to the TV, as it often is—to have a number is to be a free man.
There are periodic complaints that people are anon online—the reason for this to be so is that anons tell the truth more than usual, and the truth hurts; it is bitter, hence anons are perceived to be bitter and evil. To be anon is positive, to be a number is positive. Lord Salisbury subsidised his whole early political career through anon journalism—it is doubtful he would ever have been PM if he had not been anon, and he was a successful and conservative politician. George Orwell was anon—his real name was Eric Arthur Blair; and he was one among dozens and dozens of authors who were the same. The Founding Fathers were anon in The Federalist Papers.
To take the point in a wider perspective: Nietzsche pointed out that all philosophy is just biography—and he was right. Guénon agrees with him: he points out that all modern philosophy is done by named individuals and it is always “their” system—Traditional philosophy or genuine wisdom is all anon, as in the Grimm fairytales. How can you really pursue truth unless you remove your ego from it? Is not reality objective? The germ remains in the fact university essays and academic papers are reviewed anon—again, just with an ID number.
The link between “caped crusaders” and the necessity to put on a mask to get anything done—the idea that the real work occurs “after hours”, or in the bar after the actual event has happened, in the magic night—has been elaborated many times. “The night time is the right time to fight crime”. And, of course, shamanism is itself connected to a play of masks—so that to contact a deity at all you need to be anon (even Aleister Crowley became a number, Brother 666).
To return to The Prisoner: it’s a modern show and so, naturally, it associates being “a free man” with your real name—to be named is to be free, or, put another way, vain and proud. It’s really the opposite, to be free is to be a number—that is your true name, in a way; now, perhaps, that should not be a profane number—just a number in a machine—but a number with a qualitative element; and yet The Prisoner only understands number = bad—as does our society, anon = bad (you should be proud of yourself).
Well, call me by my name.