Sunday, November 13, 2011

How to Become a Confidence Man, Quack/Prophet

From Lapham's Quarterly:

Soothsayers have been around as long as recorded history, probably longer—after all, knowing what’s to come has always been accorded more value than knowing what’s already happened. Whether Isaiah shouting from the mountaintop or Jim Cramer shouting from the television screen, there has always been power and notoriety to be gained from prognostication. But considering that most (if not all) of these seers—whatever market expertise or God-given insight they might claim for themselves—are just shooting in the dark, it’s not altogether clear what makes a good prophet. Showmanship and some lucky guesses, to be sure, but beyond that? This is the question that surrounds the strange and enduring popularity of one of the unlikeliest prophets: an ex-doctor from southern France named Nostradamus. 
His name is almost a byword for cataclysm, trotted out over the centuries in the wake of major disasters as evidence that long ago someone had figured out they had been foreordained. Such was the case in the aftermath of September 11, for instance, when Nostradamus most recently reappeared in the spotlight. Today, venture into any bookstore’s occult section, and you’re bound to find multiple translations of The Prophecies, his best-known work, alongside books hotly debating its significance and validity. Or turn on the History Channel, and you might catch repeats of The Nostradamus Effect, a show that explored apocalyptic prophecies throughout history, with episodes bearing titles like “The Third Anti-Christ?” and “Armageddon Battle Plan.” His name and work have permeated our experience of doom and destruction, but the man himself is almost a cipher. Getting any kind of reliable understanding or impression of him takes some work.

Before you even begin, forget the Internet. A Google search of his name would leave you mired in hordes of conspiracy theorists, New Age peddlers, devotees who give him the cloying nickname “Nosty” and credulously recycle the same badly translated lines and outright inventions that people have always cited as “proof” of his foresight. You’ll find apocryphal prophecies, such as the one which warns that “two steel birds will fall from the sky on the Metropolis,” or logical contortionists like Nostradamus “expert” and self-styled prophet John Hogue, who contends that the prophecy beginning “When 1999 is seven months over” can be made a reference to 9/11 if one only reverses “1999” to “9-11-1,” and translates the French sept as “September,” not “seven.” There are literally millions of web pages like this, and the man himself—Michel de Nostredame—is scarcely evident behind all this noise.

The authoritative sources aren’t much better, unfortunately. In its entry for Nostradamus, the current edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica contains at least half a dozen basic factual errors. It gets known dates wrong: the years in which he began his medical practice, moved to the town of Salon, and began publishing The Prophecies, which it mistakenly calls Centuries. It also claims his books were banned by the Roman Catholic Church, which they never were.

He would have wanted it this way. His business was in secrets, and he spent much of his life building a sense of mystery around himself and his writings. He purported to have all the answers but claimed that “the danger of the times” required that “Such secrets should not be bared except in enigmatic sentences.” Dwelling in what he called “cloudy obscurity,” he constantly courted controversy and always had as many detractors as believers. “A certain brainless and lunatic idiot, who is shouting nonsense and publishing his prognostications and fantasies on the streets,” ran 1558’s First Invective of the Lord Hercules the Frenchman Against Monstradamus. That same year, the astrologer Laurent Videl, in his Declaration of the Abuses, Ignorances, and Seditions of Michel Nostradamus, crowed that “if I wanted to recite all the ignorances, errors, and idiocies that you have been putting in your works for the last four or five years, it would need a pretty big book.” This anonymous Latin epigram from the same time perhaps sums him up most succinctly: “Nostra damus cum falsa damus, nam fallere nostrum est:/Et cum falsa damus, nil nisi nostra damus.” “We give our own when we give the false, for it is ours to be false. And when we give the false, we give nothing but our own.” To look at Nostradamus is to give one’s own, and to see what you want to see.
He was born on December 14, 1503, in St. Remy-de-Provence, as Michel de Nostradame. His paternal grandfather had been Jewish but converted to Catholicism and changed his name from Guy Venguessonne to Gassonet, perhaps to eliminate any suggestion of the Hebrew “Ven.” Nostradamus later played up the mystique of his Jewish heritage when he boasted that his “natural instinct” for prophecy had been “inherited from my forebears.” Gassonet later changed his name again to Pierre de Sainte-Marie in 1455, and then once more to Pierre de Nostradame. Michel would later Latinize his surname to Nostradamus in 1550, when he started writing, the alteration then a fashionable way to suggest erudition....MORE
HT: Simoleon Sense