Quatrain in Vain

I’ve been itching to weigh in on the Nostradamus controversy. OK, there is no controversy to anyone without boundless credulity but that hasn’t always been the issue, at least not with me. Back when I was addled by youth, I wanted to believe that the predictions were more than the opaque ramblings of some crazy old French guy. Scoff if you must, but Nostradamus touched my heart.

Actually, it wasn’t Nostradamus himself who did the touching. His writings, simultaneously overwrought and and vague, are a painful read. But did he predict the future? Well, if you believe a passage like “In the wake of the storm, one shall reign supreme” specifically points to Napoleon, Hitler, or the last guy to win on “American Idol,” the answer is yes.

I would have written off Nostradamus and his paranormal hooey if it weren’t for the fine 1981 film, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. Not only was this movie on a credibility par with such gems as Chariots of the Gods and The Legend of Boggy Creek, it was hosted by filmdom’s most glorious has-been, Orson Welles.

The first third of the flick, dealing with the life of Nostradamus, is the least watchable. Much if it consists of interminable scenes of Ren Faire background music and some guy wandering around in a rented robe and fake beard. The next part, showing how spot-on his predictions have been, had some nifty archive footage of death and destruction, but where the movie and Orson Welles both shine is the final third. Here the viewer was treated to all kinds of grim predictions for the future.

For a man who looked like he just made four trips to the buffet table and polished off a couple of bottles of Paul Masson, Orson still had plenty of appetite to chew the scenery. Nowhere was that appetite more ravenous as when he warned of the dire shitstorm that awaited us all. His eyes bugged and his jowls quivered as he told us that life was going to start getting real nasty in 1987 and downright apocalyptic by 1991. What lay in store included earthquakes, thermonuclear war, and the resulting wasteland populated by mutant cannibals.

“Sign me up!” was my reaction the first time I saw the flick. I was a piss-poor student at a Z-list university back then and my future prospects were pretty much limited to mediocrity or suicide. Global catastrophe, being a great equalizer, would change all that. The playing field would be level. I wouldn’t have to worry about some Ivy Leaguer giving me attitude, even if circumstance forced me to gnaw human femurs in my irradiated hovel. “Don’t throw stones, Biff. Your last meal came from sucking an infant’s brains out through its fontanel.”

Alas, such events never came to pass. There were to be no mushroom clouds or human entrees, just rent checks due and the inevitable decline that comes from growing old. Nostradamus was relegated to false prophet, a role shared by punk rock, romantic love, and the failed promise of all my hopes and dreams. Thank goodness drugs and alcohol never let me down.

Years went by without even giving Nostradamus a passing thought. Then a few weeks ago, there was new show about him on the History Channel. Maybe the old boy deserved another chance. Besides, I was too hung over to do anything else that afternoon.

I was expecting Armageddon with a 21st-century makeover, but no such luck. A total meltdown of the planet is so Cold War. If civilization is to be brought to its knees these days, it is going to be done piecemeal. Current worse-case scenarios may include a radiological bomb in one city and an anthrax outbreak in another, but there won’t be any ICBMs crisscrossing the globe and reducing it to a cinder. Like it or not, the earth is going to stick around for a while.

So what did the show tell me? Well, I learned more about Nostradamus himself than in the 1981 film, that he was basically a quack who earned his living practicing medicine without finishing school and taking credit for any event that bore any resemblance to one of his murky prophecies. Nice work if you can get it.

He also predicted the JFK assassination, Hitler (this was the History Channel, after all), the obligatory 9/11, and a number of other events most viewers could easily recognize without having to think too hard. No mention was made to Rwanda, Darfur, or Chechnya. It would appear as though Nostradamus and CNN have the same views on what is newsworthy.

Knowing what I do of human history between his day and now, I am of the opinion that Nostradamus’ predictions are hardly worth notice even if he did possess some level of clairvoyance. He was always too fond of bright shiny objects to prophesy anything about developing trends, changing economies, and gradual changes in global power. If it couldn’t fit neatly in a Jerry Bruckheimer film, he didn’t want to know about it.

Sure he could point out that mass destruction is bad, but how about some advice that’s not completely obvious? Should we aggressively pursue renewable energy? Or to compete with our economic rivals in China, should we concentrate instead on renewable organs, dismissing any outcry over prison donors with a conciliatory “Can’t we all just get a lung?”

We’d be no less clueless if he had never existed.