Alec Nevala-Lee

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Posts Tagged ‘Unknown Worlds

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 3

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By now, it might seem obvious that the best way to approach Nostradamus is to see it as a kind of game, as Anthony Boucher describes it in the June 1942 issue of Unknown Worlds: “A fascinating game, to be sure, with a one-in-a-million chance of hitting an astounding bullseye. But still a game, and a game that has to be played according to the rules. And those rules are, above all things else, even above historical knowledge and ingenuity of interpretation, accuracy and impartiality.” Boucher’s work inspired several spirited rebukes in print from L. Sprague de Camp, who granted the rules of the game but disagreed about its harmlessness. In a book review signed “J. Wellington Wells”—and please do keep an eye on that last name—de Camp noted that Nostradamus was “conjured out of his grave” whenever there was a war:

And wonder of wonders, it always transpires that a considerable portion of his several fat volumes of prophetic quatrains refer to the particular war—out of the twenty-odd major conflicts that have occurred since Dr. Nostradamus’s time—or other disturbance now taking place; and moreover that they prophesy inevitable victory for our side—whichever that happens to be. A wonderful man, Nostradamus.

Their affectionate battle culminated in a nonsense limerick that de Camp published in the December 1942 version of Esquire, claiming that if it was still in print after four hundred years, it would have been proven just as true as any of Nostradamus’s prophecies. Boucher responded in Astounding with the short story “Pelagic Spark,” an early piece of fanfic in which de Camp’s great-grandson uses the “prophecy” to inspire a rebellion in the far future against the sinister Hitler XVI.

This is all just good fun, but not everyone sees it as a game, and Nostradamus—like other forms of vaguely apocalyptic prophecy—tends to return at exactly the point when such impulses become the most dangerous. This was the core of de Camp’s objection, and Boucher himself issued a similar warning:

At this point there enters a sinister economic factor. Books will be published only when there is popular demand for them. The ideal attempt to interpret the as yet unfulfilled quatrains of Nostradamus would be made in an ivory tower when all the world was at peace. But books on Nostradamus sell only in times of terrible crisis, when the public wants no quiet and reasoned analysis, but an impassioned assurance that We are going to lick the blazes out of Them because look, it says so right here. And in times of terrible crisis, rules are apt to get lost.

Boucher observes that one of the best books on the subject, Charles A. Ward’s Oracles of Nostradamus, was reissued with a dust jacket emblazoned with such questions as “Will America Enter the War?” and “Will the British Fleet Be Destroyed?” You still see this sort of thing today, and it isn’t just the books that benefit. In 1981, the producer David L. Wolper released a documentary on the prophecies of Nostradamus, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, that saw subsequent spikes in interest during the Gulf War—a revised version for television was hosted by Charlton Heston—and after the September 11 attacks, when there was a run on the cassette at Blockbuster. And the attention that it periodically inspires reflects the same emotional factors that led to psychohistory, as the host of the original version said to the audience: “Do we really want to know about the future? Maybe so—if we can change it.”

The speaker, of course, was Orson Welles. I had always known that The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was narrated by Welles, but it wasn’t until I watched it recently that I realized that he hosted it onscreen as well, in one of my favorite incarnations of any human being—bearded, gigantic, cigar in hand, vaguely contemptuous of his surroundings and collaborators, but still willing to infuse the proceedings with something of the velvet and gold braid. Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club once described the documentary as “a brain-damaged sequel” to Welles’s lovely F for Fake, which is very generous. The entire project is manifestly ridiculous and exploitative, with uncut footage from the Zapruder film mingling with a xenophobic fantasy of a war of the West against Islam. Yet there are also moments that are oddly transporting, as when Welles turns to the camera and says:

Before continuing, let me warn you now that the predictions of the future are not at all comforting. I might also add that these predictions of the past, these warnings of the future are not the opinions of the producers of the film. They’re certainly not my opinions. They’re interpretations of the quatrains as made by scores of independent scholars of Nostradamus’ work.

In the sly reading of “my opinions,” you can still hear a trace of Harry Lime, or even of Gregory Arkadin, who invited his guests to drink to the story of the scorpion and the frog. And the entire movie is full of strange echoes of Welles’s career. Footage is repurposed from Waterloo, in which he played Louis XVIII, and it glances at the fall of the Shah of Iran, whose brother-in-law funded Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, which was impounded by the revolutionary government that Nostradamus allegedly foresaw.

Welles later expressed contempt for the whole affair, allegedly telling Merv Griffin that you could get equally useful prophecies by reading at random out of the phone book. Yet it’s worth remembering, as the critic David Thomson notes, that Welles turned all of his talk show interlocutors into versions of the reporter from Citizen Kane, or even into the Hal to his Falstaff, and it’s never clear where the game ended. His presence infuses The Man Who Saw Tomorrow with an unearned loveliness, despite the its many awful aspects, such as the presence of the “psychic” Jeane Dixon. (Dixon’s fame rested on her alleged prediction of the Kennedy assassination, based on a statement—made in Parade magazine in 1960—that the winner of the upcoming presidential election would be “assassinated or die in office though not necessarily in his first term.” Oddly enough, no one seems to remember an equally impressive prediction by the astrologer Joseph F. Goodavage, who wrote in Analog in September 1962: “It is coincidental that each American president in office at the time of these conjunctions [of Jupiter and Saturn in an earth sign] either died or was assassinated before leaving the presidency…John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960 at the time of a Jupiter and Saturn conjunction in Capricorn.”) And it’s hard for me to watch this movie without falling into reveries about Welles, who was like John W. Campbell in so many other ways. Welles may have been the most intriguing cultural figure of the twentieth century, but he never seemed to know what would come next, and his later career was one long improvisation. It might not be too much to hear a certain wistfulness when he speaks of the man who could see tomorrow, much as Campbell’s fascination with psychohistory stood in stark contrast to the confusion of the second half of his life. When The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was released, Welles had finished editing about forty minutes of his unfinished masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind, and for decades after his death, it seemed that it would never be seen. Instead, it’s available today on Netflix. And I don’t think that anybody could have seen that coming.

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 2

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In the early forties, William Anthony Parker White—who used the pen name “Anthony Boucher”—was a successful mystery novelist, a noted Sherlockian, and a member in good standing of the Mañana Literary Society of Los Angeles. On May 12, 1941, he submitted an article to John W. Campbell that he hoped their mutual friend, Robert A. Heinlein, had been “kind enough to mention.” In his cover letter, Boucher wrote:

This is an attempt to interpret Nostradamus in the light of present events and to go even further and take a chance on the immediate future…It is (so far as I know) the only completely honest contemporary interpretation of the prophecies. The film shorts and the popularizers have cheated right and left—misquoted, mistranslated, cut, transposed, amalgamated, and what have you. It’s startling enough without cheating, and a damned sight more impressive.

By “film shorts,” Boucher was presumably referring to such newsreels as “More About Nostradamus,” produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which loosely applied the French seer’s prophecies to the ongoing war in Europe. Boucher, not unreasonably, thought that he could do better. He proposed that the article run under his real name, but Campbell evidently saw his background in mystery fiction as a selling point, and on the cover of the issue in which the piece ran, the editor made the connection clear: “Nostradamus the Prophet…named names and places—and has been proven incredibly accurate. What specific prophecies did he make concerning our time? A famous author of detective stories does a little analyzing of the clues Nostradamus left.”

The result was “On a Limb,” a witty article that appeared in the October 1941 issue of the magazine that was then known as Unknown Worlds. Like Campbell, Boucher evokes “time travel” as one possible explanation for Nostradamus’s alleged gifts, and he has an interesting response to the objection of why no one has been able to take advantage of these prophecies to change events before they happen:

The essence of true prophecy is that it must be disbelieved or misinterpreted. If it can be circumvented, it will be false. Cassandra, whom Apollo blessed with prophecy and cursed with an incredulous public, is the perfect archetype of the prophet. Nostradamus realized this. He had first written his prophecies, we gather, clearly and in sequence. Then, foreseeing the impossible contradiction of this procedure, he cast them into cryptic quatrains, in the damnedest French you ever read, and shuffled them out of all time order. As a result, they can usually be interpreted only after the event. Attempts at reading the future result in such catastrophes as Bouys’s confident proof to Napoleon that Nostradamus promised him victory forever, including a satisfactory invasion of England.

And in an editor’s note in the June 1942 issue, Campbell drew a clever comparison: “It was customary, then, to publish a scientific discovery in code, in anagram, in horribly confused allegory, or by depositing a sealed description of the discovery with some trusted friend. That way, while the “publication” didn’t do anybody any good, the discoverer was able, later on when it became general knowledge, or was discovered by someone else, to give the key to his code, anagram, or what have you, and prove that the had been the first discoverer.”

The obvious consequence of such obscurity, as Boucher notes, is that Nostradamus is all but useless when it comes to forecasting events in advance. As a result, the second half of the article, which consists of specific prophecies about what the war will bring, takes the author out on “a long and shaky limb.” (“File this copy of Unknown Worlds away carefully,” Boucher writes dryly. “It may make good reading in another year or two.”) And in retrospect, the results are about as accurate as you might expect. Boucher’s most specific prophecy, based on the line “Because of war, the king will abandon his realm,” was that George VI would flee to Canada after the fall of his prime minister, which is about as wrong as it gets. And Boucher’s claim that one phrase—“la matiere du pont”—refers to armaments produced by the DuPont company seems to have been too much even for Campbell, who wrote in a closing note:

The foregoing article on the prophecies of Nostradamus is thoroughly incredible. Nostradamus’ prophecies were thoroughly incredible—in the degree of their accuracy. Somehow it seems easier to believe that a man might successfully predict the movements and broad sweeps of the histories of nations than that one, two, or four centuries before it happens, the individual directly involved can be named…That seems, somehow, beyond the realm of prophecy. That Nostradamus could name…a particular corporation, specifying one of the products of that corporation, seems even more improbable…Anagrams and puns do exist in Nostradamus; to read from his quatrains the names and exact circumstances seems much as though the interpreter were finding in them things the author had not put there.

But what really caught my eye is the italicized section above. At precisely the same time that Campbell was editing Boucher’s article, he was discussing psychohistory with Isaac Asimov, who was about to write in the original story “Foundation”: “A great psychologist such as [Hari] Seldon could unravel human emotions and human reactions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future.” And I strongly suspect that Campbell’s treatment of prediction in Unknown affected its much more famous incarnation in Astounding. As I’ve noted before, in “Foundation,” psychohistory is presented less as a specific method than as a claim about results. We aren’t told the first thing about how it works, and not even the characters seem especially clear on the concept. (As one says blandly to another: “Seldon was the greatest psychologist of our time…It seems reasonable to assume that he used his science to determine the probable course of the history of the immediate future.” And that’s all we get, apart from the flat assertion that Seldon “could easily have worked out the historical trends of the future by simple psychological technique.”) Since the claim had to stand on its own, it had to be plausible in itself—which means that it could only apply to “the broad sweep” of events, and it couldn’t be too specific. As Campbell understood about Nostradamus, a system that was able to generate names and dates seemed to fall outside the realm of credible science. And Nostradamus certainly wasn’t useful in the way that psychohistory was supposed to be. In the June 1942 issue, Boucher granted that most of his earlier prophecies had been wrong, or remained unfulfilled, and he reminded readers of a point that he had made earlier:

Prophecy is of no practical value. Its interest lies solely in its appeal to intellectual curiosity and in its possible use as evidence of some extrasensory power latent in mankind. Interpreting prophecies concerning the past is a task for an abstract scholar. Attempting to apply prophecies to the future is nothing but a game.

But the game wasn’t quite over yet. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about two more players who appeared at slightly different stages. One was L. Sprague de Camp. The other was Orson Welles.

Written by nevalalee

November 1, 2018 at 9:29 am

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