In Dante’s Inferno fortune tellers are confined to the second lowest level of hell. Their heads have been twisted backwards so they stagger about, “silent and weeping,” bumping into each other for all eternity. In a particularly wicked example of Dante’s sense of poetic justice or contrapasso, these figures who had dared to glimpse the future, to steal a glance of God’s blueprints, are doomed to never again see where they were going. Divination was the stuff of Greeks and heathens, or at best restricted to long-dead mystics like Saint John the Divine or biblical patriarchs like Ezekiel. The Church had come to banish such pagan rituals. There would be no more oracles or soothsayers, no casting of bones, reading of entrails or the flight paths of birds and arrows. Such deeds would be heresy. In place of conjecture, there would be only the Law and, to transgressors, the threat of eternal damnation.
We’ve cast a cold eye over claims of premonition ever since, though the reasons today are more due to postmodern cynicism, an adherence to reason and an awareness of the duplicitous techniques involved than fear of any religious diktat. We can recognise even in a figure as well known as the apothecary Nostradamus the tell-tale signs of charlatanism; ‘shotgunning’ a wide spread of information in the hope that some of it sticks, the so-called Barnum statement of speaking in vague generalities or observations that are so cryptic, universal and malleable that they could potentially apply to anything. Our reasons for scepticism may be philosophical; a refusal to believe that everything is preordained, or more esoteric as in the possibility of infinite divergent possibilities (the multiverse theory) that arise with every choice we make. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” Kierkegaard wrote in his journal. Meaning is often attributed post-mortem in the comprehension of events. Any attempt to reverse this process, risks placing yourself alongside the Mystic Megs or Francis Fukuyamas of this cruel world. We have the benefit of hindsight and can pick and choose, even mould, the pronouncements of the past to fit certain events much as, in the process of Pareidolia, the mind will perceive shapes in clouds, sphinxes on grainy monochrome photographs of Martian soil or backwards messages on a record. The mind wants to see patterns in chaos, links that are not there. It’s how we’ve survived on an evolutionary level; distinguishing the markings of predators in the undergrowth or deciphering different types of sound at night to distinguish intruders. It’s also how we discover in terms of correlations in science and mathematics. With hindsight, we can choose, deliberately or subconsciously, to acknowledge only the predictions which happened to come true, ignoring those that didn’t. As Mark Twain put it, “Prophecy: Two bull’s eyes out of a possible million.”
Yet the human capacity for superstition is hard to shake off however advanced we think we are. We rightfully mock astrology as drivel yet many of us still find ourselves, with some secret degree of shame, drawn to our star signs in the daily rag. And more highbrow examples of what we might call orphic literature are plentiful. There’s the deliberate often remarkably prescient futurist predictions of Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells and Karel Čapek; foretelling, amongst other things, global communication networks, skyscrapers, satellites, lasers, space travel and robotics. Less attention is paid to the skyships, space elevators, invisibility cloaks, antigravity and time machines that sadly have not come to pass, yet at least. There’s the celestial cosmology of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the cyberspace and cybernetics of William Gibson, the dark dystopias of Harlan Ellison and Philip K Dick, the usual candidates Huxley’s Brave New World, Burgess‘ A Clockwork Orange, Orwell’s 1984 and Zamyatin’s often-overlooked We. The best examples of the latter focus not just on particular architectures and technologies of repression but also the resultant grubbiness and daily debasements inflicted on the individual and the effect of power on language, identity, thought. Not just how grim the future is but how dour, how squalid, how violent and how distracted, contented, glib. Yet these works seem, for all their astonishing forethought, the product of following existing threads in terms of technology, politics and sociology. Orwell could write of doublethink and newspeak because he saw the seeds of it daily in the English press, to say nothing of the likes of Pravda. “Keep heading in that direction”, they warn, “and this is where we’ll end up.”
Though they have their fair share of horrors and pertinent insights, the dystopias lack a certain contemporary eeriness now that the original Cold War has evaporated and it’s the invisible free hand of the markets that is wringing our collective neck rather than any totalitarian Man of Steel. Closer to our present concerns, with a sad nod to Fukushima, would be Andrei Tarkovsky’s superlative Stalker (with a script by the Strugatsky brothers adapted from their novel Roadside Picnic). Somehow the film seems to have predicted the Chernobyl disaster seven years before it happened; the military-exclusion area, the deserted already decaying city, the mysterious undisclosed disaster and some malevolent semi-mystical force silently, invisibly at work. Such was its chilling accuracy, the doomed clean-up crew sent to the irradiated sarcophagus were nicknamed ‘stalkers’. The area they were sent to decontaminate and receive their fatal dose of gamma radiation was known as ‘the Zone,’ as in the film. The desperate operation to try and contain the fallout was filmed by the Ukrainian director Vladimir Shevchenko. It would be released under the name Chronicle of Severe Days but the filmmaker would not live to see it. He, like the stalkers he accompanied to the roof of the reactor, had gotten too near and, unprotected and woefully misinformed by the authorities, he was fatally exposed to the radiation. You watch the film scenes in the Zone and you are witnessing the death sentence of each person filmed. In a morbid twist, it is said that Tarkovsky himself died (as well as his wife Larisa who was assistant director and the lead actor Tolya Solonitsyn) due to his filming of Stalker. Within the fictional Zone (made up mainly of derelict hydro-electric stations and functioning chemical plants), they had breathed in toxins from streams polluted with industrial effluent and would all develop the same form of terminal lung cancer. Tarkovsky would die at the age of 54 just after completing his apocalyptic The Sacrifice.
The more millenarian of mindsets on the interweb have also attributed great significance to the etymology of Chernobyl itself, asserting that it comes from the Ukrainian for ‘wormwood’, a plant (the source of absinthe no less) that appears as a harbinger of the end of the world in that most understated of biblical texts The Book of Revelations; “And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and a third of the waters became Bitter; and many people had died of the waters, because they were made bitter.” It’s a theory perhaps too far into tin-foil hat wearing territory but one intriguing feature of the disaster’s aftermath has been how nature has been reclaiming the area particularly the abandoned city of Prypiat. Trees growing up through cracks on classroom floors. Rusting ferris wheels, cranes, tanks. Deer scuttling through hospital wards. A forest scorched red by radiation but now flourishing with wildlife. This is the world after humanity. Postcards from a possible future.
Another prelude for our times is W.H. Auden’s poem ‘September 1, 1939’. Ostensibly about his despondency at the outbreak of the Second World War “in one of the dives / on Fifty-second Street,” the poem gained a second life following the fall of the Twin Towers. It’s prophetic sentiments and setting were widely discussed and circulated around the globe as an internet meme, encapsulating something of the prevailing mood “uncertain and afraid / as the clever hopes expire,” the “unmentionable odour of death,” the “psychopathic god” and the “blind skyscrapers,”, the pleading “We must love one another or die” later revised to the fatalistic “We must love each other and die”.
Might we see in the ramblings against usury in Ezra Pound’s ‘Canto XLV’ (and his damning assessment of the victory of commerce and materialism over culture in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley) some kind of unhinged Jeremiad predicting what happens when the control of the supply of money falls into private hands (though it’s corporations rather than ancestry or race) and the current economic death-spiral the West seems locked in? If, and it’s an impossible if, we could excise the fetid anti-Semitism from Pound’s verse, would there remain some kind of prophet? Or merely the greatest mind in modernism fallen into fascist lunacy, rambling conspiracy theories about Confucius and the Rothschilds, the reproductive capabilities of Gold and how Bolshevism springs from the Talmud, sprinkled with literary allusions and anecdotes (“as Wyndham Lewis once said…”) on Radio Rome? Was he still in there, the young Pound, in that wild hermit locked in his steel cage under the Pisan sun, like Blake’s fallen Nebuchadnezzar, that shock-haired crone who we’ve come to pity and despise but never really understand? As with W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ and Ayn Rand’s stone tablets of corporate nihilism, we don’t have to agree with or like the messengers to acknowledge that what they saw coming really was on its way, god help us all. In Pound’s case the text may be barely coherent, in Rand’s case barely readable, both seem morally despicable to any half-decent human being. Yet none of these factors would prevent what they predicted from happening. The nihilists on Wall Street and the City of London won long ago. The recent furore over the trader Alessio Rastani’s interview with the BBC was surprising for only one reason; not what he said or the casual sociopathy with which he said it but the incredulity with which it was greeted. That was the truly terrifying thing. People still don’t get it. It had to be a Yes Man, this couldn’t actually be real. Wedded to our disbelief, in fact needing our disbelief, we’d rather shoot the messenger than face the truth. National sovereignty, the welfare state, what flawed democracy we had is finished. We could use all sorts of analogies to describe recent politics since the greatest ever heist from public wealth into private; sleepwalking towards the abyss, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic but Henry Miller said it best in Tropic of Capricorn, “He was like the dodo which buries its head in the sand and whistles out of its ass-hole.” This is a time when the wolves (the investment banks and their fellow kleptomaniac supplicants in government and ratings agencies) are in high ascendancy. Whether we want to believe it or not doesn’t matter, they don’t care. We can try and cling on, in Camus’ old adage, which is what the disbelief effectively was, but as the man said soon there will be nothing left to cling to. And that mad old racist bastard Pound may just have glimpsed it, or would have were he not supping with devils and blaming the weak, as we will no doubt continue to do.
Mortality is the big question, bigger even than money (though it’s tied to it of course). It’s the one question fortune tellers aren’t supposed to answer, though there are online death clocks aplenty that will do that for you, should you be inclined. If you are a god-fearing soul, there are no shortage of deathly portents that could give you some indication the end was nigh. You might meet your own ghostly image or doppelgänger as the poet Shelley claimed to a month before he drowned (it asked him, “How long do you mean to be content?”). Dostoyevsky wrote of a similar …