The now sadly rebranded (and effectively defunct) Intelligent Life magazine used to run a regular – and self-explanatory – feature called ‘The Big Question’. In one issue, the big question asked of a number of writers, several of them mathematicians, was ‘What is the best number?’ Reading the article, I was surprised to find that, while the case had been made for 200 million, seventeen and infinity among others, none of those polled had nominated the number two.
Perhaps unfortunate associations with bodily functions precluded it as a choice. It surprised me because the number two, and duality generally, seem so inherent to the way in which we view the world.
Freud’s notions of Id and Ego, and of Eros and Thanatos, sit alongside binary contemporary considerations of ‘good guys’ and ‘evil doers’. Edward Said’s ideas of ‘the other’ suggest that we have a natural inclination towards an us-and-them understanding of geopolitics. And the mainstream understanding of gender still comprises only two designated social categories. According to sociologist Ray Oldenburg, we think of our home and work as the two primary contexts of our lives, with bars, coffee shops and other social meeting places representing third places that help to bind communities together. This was a concept cannily co-opted by advertisers for an iteration of Sony Playstation some years back, suggesting that the newly internet-enabled gaming console represented a third place as well, albeit a virtual one. Given the rise of online gaming in the intervening years, viewed now those adverts lose the abstract oddness that was part of Playstation’s schtick at the time and take on an air of genuine foresight.
An idea that is always popular among A-Level English literature students is that of the virgin-whore dichotomy. This borrowing from feminist discourse is applied with varying degrees of success to the female characters in literature as a means of adding a little academic muscle to otherwise wholly text-centred coursework essays. It has occurred to me that there might be something in this particular idea that appeals specifically to the late-teenaged mind. Aren’t we all, in the later stages of adolescence, drawn toward those things that belie the fiction of the dualities we create to frame the world? Maybe at that age we have a natural predilection for things that speak of palettes of grey, where a year or so ago we would only have seen black and white.
A novella I’ve been working on recently, called Diptych, explores notions of modern isolation within a context of modern duality. The book comprises two thematically parallel stories about right and wrong, the familiar and the foreign, masculinity and femininity, and life and death. In each story, the central character faces a dilemma, with two possible paths lying ahead of them. As the stories progress however, the myth of their own agency is exposed. In the end, both characters scrape through their respective dilemmas, not by choosing the better of two options, but by the duality that influences us all without us ever really realising it: serendipity and dumb luck.