Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Spurious French Connection

Nostradamus has become, over the centuries, nearly synonymous with the word 'prophecy'. His book, Les Propheties (The Prophecies), was written in 1555, yet to this day, whenever some major world event happens, from World War 2 to the Kennedy assassinations (John and Robert) to 9/11, almost inevitably someone will haul out a Nostradamus quatrain and give him credit for predicting it. Occasionally, some prankster will just make up a quatrain and give it to Nostradamus.

Oh, yes, we are going to be poking a couple holes in this one today. I'm not the first, certainly, but taking to task interpretations of a 16th-century French mystic? Hey, it's something to do on a Wednesday.

The most common criticism of following Nostradamus isn't really going to be our focus, but we do need to touch on it- namely, confirmation bias. In The Prophecies, Nostradamus made 942 quatrains worth of long-term predictions. 942 of them. (He actually made several thousand more, in regularly-published 'Almanacs', but nobody really counts those.) And they are all famously vague, explained as Nostradamus wanting to avoid being hit with charges of being a heretic. When something major happens, if you're looking through 942 vague four-line predictions looking for something that sounds like what just happened, odds are you're going to find it whether it's actually there or not. It's like looking for shapes in the clouds. Sure, the cloud looks like a ducky. The cloud probably did not go out to intentionally make a ducky, but it's not about to correct you. This isn't helped by the standards of typesetting at the time; you can't really find any two original copies of The Prophecies that are exactly alike, which means the words may change from copy to copy.)

Which leads into the more substantial of our points: people almost always look at the wrong clouds.

You see, they're called 'quatrains' for a reason: they're four-line poems. Nostradamus was making, on one level, poetry. Poetry requires one to take some significant liberties with the language. A skilled writer, especially one doing poetry, needs to know and use every trick of allusion in the book. Similes. Metaphors. Idioms. Entendres. Nostradamus has been credited with anagrams; specifically, a type of anagram that allows you to change one letter. This is how the name 'Hister' tends to pop up in interpretations, as an anagram of Adolf Hitler.

(Which, again, just to note: Nostradamus is trying to avoid being labeled a heretic in the 1500's... so he anagrams the name of a guy who won't even be born until hundreds of years after everyone in his world is dead. Logic!)

He's not the first historical source of prophecies to rely heavily on vagueness. The Oracle at Delphi traded on much the same thing; the Oracle has a fairly lengthy profile on TV Tropes in 'Prophecy Twist', (scroll down to 'Real Life') which shows off the danger of trying to actually use such vague predictions: the high likelihood of reading the vagueness incorrectly. More than one army, more than one king, went to Delphi, got a vague riddle about some event, and then watched as something completely different happened that the Oracle could possibly also have been talking about, if the Oracle was in fact talking about anything at all and not simply wording things very carefully, in a way that could be regarded as correct no matter what happened. If the interpreter was wrong, well, that's not the Oracle's fault.

Anagrams and idioms in particular rely heavily on the specific language used by the writer. They simply do not translate. And neither, for that matter, do rhymes. You, the person reading this blog, have been reading them in English. Nostradamus was French, and wrote as such, though he also tossed in Greek, Italian, Latin and Provencal. None of which, you'll note, are English. (And one of which, it should be noted, actually uses the word 'Hister' in its language- Latin, as the term for the Danube River, which happens to border Germany, and the people living in the region. Which doesn't entirely stop Nostradamus fans- after all, Hitler came from Austria and grew up along the river- but doesn't it seem a lot more reasonable that Nostradamus was talking about the river?)

This is important when it comes to poetry. Take the Canadian national anthem, O Canada. There is an English version and a French version, but when you translate the French version into English, you'll find two different sets of lyrics. Poetry, translated literally, doesn't look like poetry anymore.

Here is one collection of the quatrains that supplies both the English version and the original. Let's take one of the quatrains, doesn't matter much which one in particular... oh, say, X 46, which is on this page:

In life, fate and death a sordid, unworthy man of gold,
He will not be a new Elector of Saxony:
From Brunswick he will send for a sign of love,
The false seducer delivering it to the people.

First off: go on, figure out what that one's supposed to be predicting if you're so smart.

Secondly, we should use this as a typical example of why Nostradamus likely wasn't going to get anything in North America properly predicted. He frequently states locations, but when he's not naming planets, he's naming places in Europe, North Africa or the Middle East. He is, after all, from France, and it's entirely possible, that he was simply focusing on the future of the region and not the entire world. Even if he was trying for the whole world, he wouldn't know about all of it yet. Which makes it a bit silly for Americans to try and figure out how it affects them. Here you see Saxony and Brunswick, but elsewhere in The Prophecies, he gives- and this is a partial list- Aix, Algiers, Ancona, Angers, Aquitaine, Arles, Avignon, Austria, Barcelona, Bayonne, Blois, Bordeaux, Brussels, Burgundy, Carcassonne, Crete, Egypt, France, Genoa, Ghent, Greece, Italy, Leon, Libya, London, Lyon, Malta, Marseilles, Monaco, Montferrand, Nantes, Naples, Narbonne, Orleans, Persia, Pisa, Poitiers, Ravenna, Reims, Rhodes, Seville, Sicily, Siena, Spain, Switzerland, Syracuse, Thessaly, Toulouse, Tours, Tunis, Turin, Tuscany, Vercelli, Verona, and Vienna. The furthest distant from France I noticed a specific location go is the Ganges, in II 60. Clearly, Nostradamus wasn't much interested in Japan or China or Australia or sub-Saharan Africa or a United States which didn't exist yet and which was barely even known to Europe at the time. Or, for that matter, any place in the Americas whatsoever.

The main point on this quatrain, though, is clearly, the words gold, Saxony, love and people do not rhyme. But let's look at the same quatrain in the original language:

Vie sort mort de L'or vilaine indigne,
Sera de Saxe non nouueau electeur:
De Brunsuic mandra d'amour signe,
Faux le rendant au peuple seducteur.

Even if you can't read French- and certainly I can't- you can tell straightaway, if nothing else, where the rhymes are: indigne and signe, and electeur and seducteur. Again. Poems don't translate. Had Nostradamus taken the time to do English translations on his own, there's every chance he'd have effectively made entirely new quatrains so as to get them to rhyme.

Which means, of course, a whole new slate of words, a whole new slate of literary allusions to interpret in almost whatever way the reader wants, and a whole bunch of new things to give Nostradamus credit for. Whether he deserves it or not.

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