- BuyNostradamus: 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’.