Who Was Nostradamus?

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Somewhere along the way most of us have encountered a prediction by Nostradamus, and a person claiming that a sentence or two proves the man could tell the future. Most recently the events of September 11, 2001, have rekindled speculation that Nostradamus “saw” the attacks coming. A Google search turns up this quatrain as “proof” of the matter:

In the City of God there will be a great thunder,
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,
while the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb,
The third big war will begin when the big city is burning

But, that’s exactly what Colin Dickey, writing in Lapham’s Quarterly, warns against if you really want to understand the man behind the prophecies. “Before you even begin, forget the Internet,” writes Dickey. “A Google search of his name would leave you mired in hordes of conspiracy theorists, New Age peddlers, devotees who give him the cloying nickname ‘Nosty’ and credulously recycle the same badly translated lines and outright inventions that people have always cited as ‘proof’ of his foresight.” As Dickey examines some of these translations, their absurdity becomes obvious.

So, who was this man whose “name is almost a byword for cataclysm, trotted out over the centuries in the wake of major disasters as evidence that long ago someone had figured out they had been foreordained”? The answer is a fascinating story, much more so than hackneyed translations of the man’s writing. After years of fighting the plague as a pharmacist and doctor–and losing his first wife and two children–Nostradamus turned to writing almanacs, “switching his focus from the plague to Europe’s other source of constant anxiety and speculation: the weather.” This is where he made a name for himself, which allowed him later to publish TheProphecies. But, according to Dickey, his frontline reporting about the plague is his best writing. Still, it’s the “apocalyptic tone” of The Prophecies that has kept his name current all these centuries later. “[A]fter years of futile struggling against the plague,” Dickey writes, “he seemed to have decided that it was far easier to narrate the apocalypse than try to fight it.”

So the man we remember today came to be–his mythical standing, that is–through a sort of exhaustion set upon him by “a disaster [the plague] so total that human civilization seemed to collapse utterly.” Dickey’s profile shows a real human behind the name, while also digging into why we, all these years later, try and make sense of “the garbled and the fragmented” to look for “lucid meaning beneath.” In doing so, the essay shows us as much about ourselves as it does about Nostradamus.

Source: Lapham’s Quarterly

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