Our Nostradamus Age

Picture of the Kukulcan temple, also known as El Castillo (The Castle), a step pyramid dominating Chichen Itza archaeological
Picture of the Kukulcan temple, also known as El Castillo (The Castle), a step pyramid dominating Chichen Itza archaeological site - a complex built by the Mayan civilization in the Yucatan Peninsula, in the Mexican state of Yucatan, taken on December 2, 2010 as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-16) is being held in the nearby seaside resort of Cancun. AFP PHOTO / CRIS BOURONCLE --- MORE PICTURES IN IMAGE FORUM (Photo credit should read CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images)

We are living through a new Nostradamus age, full of dire tidings. Bloggers and cable specials are connecting Nostradamus's predictions to Hurricane Sandy, the Mayan calendar, and cataclysmic events on December 21, 2012. There are more than three dozen Nostradamus applications for the iPhone alone.

As the winter solstice approaches, commentators decry all of this as superstitious drivel and fear-mongering. In truth, while certain mass media play their part, Nostradamus's words continue to resonate in our day (as they have since the 1500s) because they ease anxieties and provide meaning when the authorities on which we rely -- government, schools, or churches -- seem powerless or unreliable. What Nostradamus's presence says about our era may be disconcerting, but it is neither surprising nor catastrophic.

Michel Nostradamus was born in Provence in 1503 as a notary's son. An itinerant physician and plague doctor, he began selling horoscopes and writing annual almanacs. In 1555, he published the Prophecies, a collection of 942 four-line poems known as quatrains. Contemporaries deemed his verses incomparably enigmatic and dark (he predicted the end of the world for 3797). They also gave these verses credence and made Nostradamus an international celebrity. 

Nostradamus died in 1566, but his posterity proved long lasting.  One reason for this staying power is that, unlike other soothsayers, Nostradamus neither founded a social movement nor attached himself exclusively to any religion or party. His quatrains did not belong to anyone, which meant that they belonged to everyone. This has enabled people to marry his verses with other predictions or even the Mayan calendar.

Having come of age with the printing press, Nostradamus was also an early media entrepreneur. He provided his publishers with droves of predictions that contained few dates but plenty of place names. Written in Old French, his quatrains proved easy to connect to innumerable historical events. Over the centuries, they have made their way into newspapers, radio, movies, and series such as the History Channel's "Countdown to Apocalypse" (whose Nostradamus special premiered in late November).

In one respect, these media have used Nostradamus to dangle images of gloom, all the more so in recent decades. The sheer number of quatrains has made it easy to fashion new scenes of horror and transform the Renaissance doctor into a prophet of doom.  Without any religion, political school, or intellectual current to object to such uses, Nostradamus has become a brand in our mass culture. 

But there are other reasons why the Nostradamus phenomenon (as we may call it) has continued to flourish.  Vivid and cryptic verses such as "Battle, death, defeat: the cross most disgraced" have long captured and named the flux and confusion of the world, expressing what people felt but could or dared not put into words. During the Renaissance, it was famine, disease, and vicious religious wars; today, it is recession, terrorism, and climate change -- an accumulation of threats suggesting the end of all things.

Nostradamus's dark verses dramatize the just and sometimes catastrophic violence of our world and the sorrow that punctuates the human condition. They tell readers that they are fragile being but also draw them into a wondrous universe in which they can connect with broader forces and other people while tapping a vast range of emotions, from awe to bewilderment to terror. Readers can feel the tremors while remaining at a remove.

Some people have accordingly read Nostradamus and uncovered a mesmerizing spectacle about their own world. Others, in contrast, have found depictions of the future. By pinpointing events to come, the quatrains can provide a sense of control during uncertain times. Even if the forecasts are scary, they can help people adjust to new situations and chart a course of action. It is easier to tackle apparently specific threats than it is to battle diffuse perils. It is also more awe-inspiring to contemplate the fragility of human civilization than it is to confront personal troubles on one's own. 

Finally, the quatrains have been used to situate wars or natural disasters within a historical chain of catastrophic events. They restore the span that has been broken asunder by crises and also tell contemporaries that they are living through epochal events rather than mere emergencies. Their pain is real and logical given the magnitude of what is going on. 

And so, alarming as these predictions may be, they have not caused apocalyptic frenzies. Instead, when change seems to come ever faster and the authorities on which we rely appear ineffective, some people are drawn to all-powerful forces, even if these forces are unsettling and leave little room for personal responsibility. Other people use these verses to alleviate uncertainty, infuse their world with meaning, peep into the immensity of time, and gain a sense of history in the making. They may even include Nostradamus within the personal spiritual frameworks that they create on their own. Quatrains that have lasted without institutional support are ideal for such patchworks.

Ultimately, the Nostradamus phenomenon warrants our attention, not because it depicts our future, but because it mirrors present contradictions. In our day, it depicts an era caught between media sensationalism and thirst for meaning, an era that yearns for collective protection as well as individual participation, an era seeking more knowledge as well as relief from too much knowledge.

These free-floating predictions thus help us perceive deep-seated yearnings that hover below the surface, just out of our view. Nostradamus did so during the Renaissance -- and his words continue doing so today. This is why the Mayan calendar will come and go but the quatrains are bound to endure. Living in a Nostradamus age, it turns out, is not the end of the world.