Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | January 26, 2010

Daniil Kharms and the subitising/counting threshold

I discovered an article (in Russian: Герасимова А., Каррик Н. К вопросу о значении чисел у Хармса: Шесть как естественный пpедел) about the special role of number 6 in the works of Daniil Kharms.  Actually, there is a strong feeling that Kharms was writing about the classical subitising/counting threshold. Two samples: one inEglish translation, another is in original Russian (I cannot find a decent translation of the most mathematical of all Kharms’ works).

Falling Out-Old Women

A certain old woman fell out of a window because she was too curious. She fell and broke into pieces.

Another old woman leaned her head out the window and looked at the one that had broken into pieces, but because she was too curious, she too fell out of the window — fell and broke into pieces.

Then a third old woman fell out of the window, then a fourth, then a fifth.

When the sixth old woman fell out, I became fed up with watching them and went to Maltsevsky Market, where, they say, a certain blind man was presented with a knit shawl.

And another one, from the text  “Я вам хочу pассказать…” :

“заметим что:
1. Две pуки, две ноги, посеpедке сапоги.
2. Уши обладают тем же чем и глаза.
3. Бегать – глагол из-под ног.
4. Щупать – глагол из-под pук.
5. Усы могут быть только у сына.
6. Затылком нельзя pассмотpеть что висит на стене.
17. Обpатите внимание что после шестеpки идет семнадцать”.

(A translation of the  last line: 17. Notice the six is followed by seventeen.)

Does anyone know a decent English translation of “Я вам хочу pассказать…”?

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Responses

  1. And, of course, I have to append the glorious Kharms’ “A sonnet”:

    An amazing thing happened to me today, I suddenly forgot what comes first—7 or 8.

    I went to my neigbors and asked them abou their opinion on this matter.
    Great was their and my amazement, when they suddenly discovered, that they couldn’t recall the counting order. They remembered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, but forgot what comes next.

    We all went to a commercial grocery store, the one that’s on the corner of Znamenskaya and Basseinaya streets to consult a cashier on our predicament. The cashier gave us a sad smile, took a small hammer out of her mouth, and moving her nose slightly back and forth, she said:
    – In my opinion, a seven comes after an eight, only if an eight comes after a seven.

    We thanked the cashier and ran cheerfully out of the store. But there, thinking carefully about cashier’s words, we got sad again because her words were void of any meaning.

    What were we supposed to do? We went to the Summer Garden and started counting trees. But reaching a six in count, we stopped and started arguing: In the opinion of some, a 7 went next; but in opinion of others an 8 did.

    We were arguing for a long time, when by some sheer luck, a child fell off a bench and broke both of his jaws. That distracted us from our argument.

    And then we all went home.

  2. Can you explain a bit more about the meaning and significance of 6 in Kharms’ works? I’m not sure what you mean by the classical counting threshold, and I’d love to know more.

    Also, are you familiar with any literature that deals with the number 0 and or the concept of absence/nothing? It seems that Kharms is also interested in this as well, as a lot of his narratives approach a zero point or center around negation of presence. I’m thinking, for instance, of “The Red Haired Man,” and also of “The Carpenter Kushakov.”

    Thanks!

    • OBERIU was interested in destroying the conventionally signifying powers of language in hopes that, once broken in strategic ways, language would allow a more authentic perception of reality (or realities) to break in. Regarding Kharms’ narratives that systematically self-destruct, I’ve a few words at

      http://claytestament.blogspot.com/2010/02/daniil-kharms-orchestra.html

      Also note, in terms of “Blue Notebook #10,” the similar paradox of Lichtenberg’s.

      The chinar philosopher Yakov Druskin is of interest. I wish more were available in English. Check here:

      http://germspot.blogspot.com/2005/08/yakov-druskin-p1.html

      • Dear Eric, thanks! And do you know a decent English translation of “Я вам хочу pассказать…”?

  3. Six/seven is the classical subitizing/counting threshold, see, for example, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information” by George A. Miller (1956), http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Miller/, and comments in the Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus_or_Minus_Two#CITEREFMiller1956.

    Re number 0/emptiness: Kharms was part of a wider tradition. For example, Nikolai Oleinikov:

    О бублик, созданный руками хлебопека!
    Ты сделан для еды, но назначение твое высоко!
    Ты с виду прост, но тайное твое строение
    Сложней часов, великолепнее растения.
    Тебя пошляк дрожащею рукой разламывает. Он спешит.
    Ему не терпится. Его кольцо твое страшит,
    И дырка знаменитая
    Его томит, как тайна нераскрытая.
    А мы глядим на бублик и его простейшую фигуру,
    Его старинную тысячелетнюю архитектуру
    Мы силимся понять. Мы вспоминаем: что же, что же,
    На что это, в конце концов, похоже,
    Что значат эти искривления, окружность эта, эти пятна?
    Вотще! Значенье бублика нам непонятно.

    Николай Олейников
    1932 г.

  4. Thanks so much for this information.

    Many of the OBERIU members were indeed interested in 0/nothing. Thanks for the Oleinikov recommendation.

    • With thanks to Eric Mader:

      Daniil Kharms
      BLUE NOTEBOOK #10

      Once there lived a red-haired man who lacked eyes and ears. He was also lacking hair, so he was called red-haired only in a general sense.

      He couldn’t speak, as he was lacking a mouth. The same with his nose. Even arms and legs, he just didn’t have any. Nor stomach, nor backside, nor spine. And no intestines. He didn’t have anything! Therefore it is totally unclear who is being discussed.

      It’s better if we don’t talk about him anymore.

  5. And an even more direct link between Kharms’ “A sonnet” and modern cognitive science (notice that Kharms writes, in a poetic form, about what now is known as “mathematics anxiety”):

    Erin A. Maloney, Evan F. Risko, Daniel Ansari, and Jonathan Fugelsang. Mathematics anxiety affects counting but not subitizing during visual enumeration. Cognition 114 no. 2 (February 2010) 293–297. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2009.09.013.

    Abstract

    Individuals with mathematics anxiety have been found to differ from their non-anxious peers on measures of higher-level mathematical processes, but not simple arithmetic. The current paper examines differences between mathematics anxious and non-mathematics anxious individuals in more basic numerical processing using a visual enumeration task. This task allows for the assessment of two systems of basic number processing: subitizing and counting. Mathematics anxious individuals, relative to non-mathematics anxious individuals, showed a deficit in the counting but not in the subitizing range. Furthermore, working memory was found to mediate this group difference. These findings demonstrate that the problems associated with mathematics anxiety exist at a level more basic than would be predicted from the extant literature.

  6. Hi, I found your discussion really interesting: I am currently working on math in OBERIU and I believe you right about subitizing, except I wish I could find more studies or at least Russian-language discussions of the phenomenon from their period or earlier — I don’t find it very satisfactory to say that Kharms guessed it all by himself, although I do admit the possibility. As far as Я вам хочу pассказать, an English translation of it is in my OBERIU anthology, here: http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu/Title/tabid/68/ISBN/0-8101-2293-6/Default.aspx . Whether the translation is decent or not is not for me to judge :)

    • Zhenya, I attended your talk at Pushkin House last night, which was fascinating. I’m an artist/photographer and am inspired to embark on a small project on this concept of number confusion (maths anxiety?) and negation/destruction. I’m most likely going to start with Polaroids. Once I have something I’d like to post a link to this thread.


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