Disasters Galore

Steven Connor

  • Nostradamus: The Prophecies translated by Richard Sieburth
    Penguin, 351 pp, £20.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 14 310675 3

What is the point of prophets, and of prophecy? Not, it seems, to impart useful advance information about the future. One of the most irritating things about claims made for premonitions and other alleged forms of foresight is that they never seem to contain anything specific enough – the winner of the 4.30 at Lingfield, say, or whether it will be a white Christmas – for anyone to make practical use of them. Prophets’ profit goes only to themselves. But this is to miss the point. For prophecy is not just foresight: the important thing is not the seeing, but the saying of sooth. Divining the future is a faculty, but prophesying is a speech act and almost always a public one. Prophesying is therefore institutional, in the strict sense that it tends to institute or inaugurate religions and systems of belief (‘inauguration’ signals its relation to practices of augury, or the divining of the future). In the message the prophet transmits his larger purpose is to be an anachronic hinge, keeping open the channel between individual human lives and the larger movements of history. The work of the prophet might in fact be seen as essentially phatic, the word coined in 1923 by Malinowski to describe ‘a type of speech in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words’. Indeed, ‘phatic’ is related to the Greek phetes, a ‘speaker’, which is the root of ‘prophet’, and first cousin to the Latin vaticinor (the Vatican is named from its site on the collis vaticanus, which may itself have got its name from the fact that seers and prophets used to congregate there). ‘Fate’ is similarly derived from fatus, the past participle of Latin fari, ‘to speak’.

Prophecy is therefore performative, a speech act that does something in the world, and announces its own action as it does it. If divine prophecy is an act of speech designed to confirm faith, that faith is fundamentally in the fateful force of speaking. So the point of prophecy is not to give you tip-offs about share-price fluctuations but to be able after the event to affirm that they were foreseen. Prophecy throws out a lasso of utterances in which the predicted event is merely the occasion or waystation that allows the speech act to be drawn back in on itself: I tell you now so that you will in future say that, back in the past that this present will be by then, I told you so. Prophecy is only ever retroactively potent, or by the kind of anticipated retrospection that we could call ‘posticipation’, which always means knowing too late what you might have known in advance.

This certainly seems to be the case with the man who may be regarded as the most celebrated of all European prophets, Michel de Nostradame. Perhaps the one prediction that Nostradamus, as he came to be known, makes about which there can be no argument is that ‘after my earthly extinction, my writings shall fare better than during my own lifetime.’ How should one read Nostradamus? The unceasing effort to decipher his verses, as if they were simply locks to be picked, has meant that they have rarely been able to be read in any way that is attentive to them as writing rather than as a cracked oracle. Up to now, the texts of his prophecies have been available to English readers only in editions whose principal purpose is to demonstrate their predictive power, often through quatrain-by-quatrain explication. Now, a vigorous, wry, alert new translation by Richard Sieburth offers English readers the experience of reading them steadily and sequentially, rather than piecemeal, and with the original French on facing pages, making it possible to read the prophecies as acts of writing rather than riddles.

Nostradamus was born in 1503 in Saint-Rémy, the son of a notary, his father’s family including converted Jews of Spanish origin. He enrolled at the University of Avignon in 1519, but left the following year when it shut its doors against an outbreak of plague. For the next nine years, Nostradamus stravaiged across France and Italy, making a living as a herbalist and healer and devoting himself to the study of natural remedies. In 1529, he went to study medicine at the University of Montpellier, where Rabelais was a fellow student, but, unlike Rabelais, he never completed his studies, this time being expelled, seemingly for speaking ill of the doctors. He resumed his life as a travelling apothecary in France and Italy, eventually building up enough of a reputation to be summoned by the authorities in Aix in 1546 to treat victims of the plague. In 1547, he settled in the small Provençal town of Salon, where he would live until his death in 1566.

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