Reflections on the Counting of Sneezes

1. Of course I was already aware of the aesthetic pleasure of countinga, something artistically exploited in David Byrne’s Music for the Knee Plays, for example, or the character of The Count, in Sesame Street. But sometimes, in order to really indulge in the pleasure of a thing, you have to do it.

2. I started counting my sneezes on 12 July 2007b. What started out as a little conceptual art joke, a playful satire of the “blogosphere”, and a mock scream against the futility and emptiness of modern life, turned into something more intriguing.

3. Counting my sneezes, and documenting the time and place of each sneeze, has revealed curious regularities in the way I live my life. For example, it has revealed how much time I spend in the ‘Office/spare bedroom”, in front of a computer. It is interesting to note how much time I spend in this place, and compare it with how little I manage to get done.

4. When choosing something to count, it is important to realize that some things work better than othersc. Sneezes work, but other candidates for counting are demonstrably less rewarding. For example “saying the word fish”, or “cleaning my teeth” are countable, but can be produced almost at will, and so lack much of the joy of incremental documentation. (As well as my delight at the times I’ve sneezed while updating Sneezecount either online or the notebook, thereby generating recursive Sneezecount references.)

5. Although sneezes are sufficiently unpredictable and involuntary, the act of counting them offers an interesting new take on the old theoretical physics line about events being affected by the process of observation. Sneezecount makes each sneeze matter. It is no longer possible just to blow one out and forget about it (see point 7). Now that sneezes had a name, an identity, I was aware of not wanting to sneeze when out of range of the Sneezecount notebook, for fear of forgetting the details. I have found that sneezes in the middle of the night are rare, but during Sneezecount they are made even rarer by the inconvenience of recording the details in the sleepy dark, and so strategies are used to deter the sneeze. Rubbing the side of the nose to “scratch” the itch away is one trick, or simply blowing the nose to shake off the itch before it develops. Similarly, there are no recorded sneezes when I am using the toiletd, not because I have falsified the documentation, but rather because it is possible, usually, to at least postpone a sneeze until a more Sneezecount notebook-friendly activity.

6. Almost immediately I began calculating the sneeze rate, and in particular the ETA of sneeze one thousand. At times I have noticed a desire to increase the rate, and have looked back in satisfaction at a high scoring day, but I would consider artificial sneeze provocation (pepper etc) to be against the spirit of the exercise, and in any case it is practically impossible to will a sneeze out of nowhere. For these reasons therefore, while I conclude that the process of observation does indeed interfere with that which is observed, the effect is to suppress the total number of sneezes during the period of observation.

7. Once I had been counting sneezes for a short time, I became disturbed when I saw someone sneeze, and then not look closely at their watch or mobile phone and take out and write something illegible in a notebook. Witnessing people sneeze and then not record it has come to feel unsettling and wrong, as if they are losing the sneeze, letting it go to waste. Does this mean I am enhancing my life by counting my sneezes?

8. I am certainly enhancing my understanding of sneezing. I am now much more aware of the way in which a sneeze starts with a faint tickle, distinctly in one or other nostril, and will grow, usually culminating in a sneeze, but will sometimes fail and die away. While some might consider the lifecycle of a sneeze analogous to sex, the more resonant analogy would be with an embryo which will either develop into a human life, or desist and fall away, even before the first scan. Counting and documentation, gaining intimacy and understanding through observation and control, intensifies the experience and augments it. There is a parallel here with scientific attempts to quantify and control, but I can also make out a sense in which the careful attention devoted to each sneeze, the loving baptism in the notebook and on the website, is an act of creation. But, looking back over the numbers and times and places and thoughts, I realize that it is not just the sneezes that the act of counting has affected, but myself.

9. Think of each sneeze as a single frame in the time-lapse animation of your life. The film might depict a disproportionate amount of time spent suffering from colds, or scrambling about at the back of dusty cupboards, but the pseudo-random unpredictability of the sneeze makes it a curiously representative filter on a life. So whilst it would not show the three-year-old me in my grandparents’ garden, wearing lederhosen and performing a mock golf swing with a shoehorn in the shape of a golf club, it would show me in my bedroom thirty-six years later staring at the photograph of the evente.

10. Filters like this focus our attention in new and unexpected ways by throwing up patterns and shapes that make us look again and more imaginatively at the thing being filtered. This act of counting, and documenting, not only acts to highlight, intensify and enhance the experiences that accompany a sneeze, but also the events that fall between the sneezes, giving me a more profound understanding, even than I had before, of the simple joy in the passing of time, as recently when I stopped to watch a blackbird in my garden, over the course of five or six minutes, methodically peck away at a large grape until the remaining section was small enough to swallow whole, and then fly away.


a And here already a sleight of hand, in that much of what follows has as much to do with the circumstances of each sneeze – recording the time and place, strength and ambient detail – as the simple incrementation.

b The idea of counting my sneezes occurred to me around the same time as I started having doubts about the rules I was using to “play” the CNPS game popularized by comedian and celebrity Richard Herring. I had reached the fifties in CNPS, and had a nagging sense of dissatisfaction at counting the “new” plates, with their profusion of low fifties numbers. Despite being explicitly allowed in the Herring rules, I felt that, for me, these numbers were not in the spirit of the game. The logic for this was that these numbers, along with their friends like 01, 02 and so on, were representations of the year, and therefore were actually 2001, 2002, etc, and therefore not really in the sequence being counted. I decided to start again, but this time only using genuine 1-999 numbers in registration plates of the classic letter-number-letter-letter-letter form. I decided to start counting sneezes at the same time, thereby setting up an informal “race” between sneezes and consecutive number plates. This turned out to be hopelessly one-sided, sneezes outnumbering spottings of consecutive number plates by approximately eight to one.

c CNPS, though not a pure counting exercise, is nevertheless effective, as the required number plate generally appears unpredictably. (The occurrence of consecutive number plates, or sneezes, can be increased with concerted effort: the noting locations of to-be-spotted number plates – as well as simply “keeping them peeled” – or the willful ingestion of pepper.)

d Beckett scholar James Hannah has drawn my attention to this passage from Molloy:

I can’t help it, gas escapes from my fundament on the least pretext, it’s hard not to mention it now and then, however great my distaste. One day I counted them. Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours, or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it’s not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It’s nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It’s unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should never have mentioned it. Extraordinary how mathematics help you to know yourself.

The subject of Molloy’s counting project was rejected for a number of reasons, not least the one discussed in point 5.

e Sneeze three hundred and fourteen.

Further reading

Notes and Explanations

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