What Can Psychics Tell Us about the Present?

A friend wondered aloud why psychics always seemed to be women. It’s not a question I had ever considered, but it made sense once I paused to think about all the psychics I had ever seen in pop culture. They were all women. The archetype for me is the gypsy fortuneteller in “The Wolf Man,” condemning poor Lon Chaney, Jr. to a lifetime curse of moonbeams and a mouthful of bloody canines.

It’s not that men who predict the future don’t appear in mythology, folklore, and modern popular culture. It’s that they predict a different kind of future than psychics. Women psychics are called upon to foretell intensely personal, private dramas: future loves, distant health crises, far off financial success or ruin.

Somehow it has happened that men in the popular imagination who see the future are prophets, who speak of widespread tumult affecting everyone: war, famine, disease. Unlike a female psychic, whose foresight is restricted to the intimate inner lives of her patrons, the male prophet operates in the public sphere, telling the entire nation or world where it is bound.

The anonymous gypsy soothsayer versus the revered Nostradamus, the Delphi Oracle versus the Book of Revelation’s Paul, Dionne Warwick and the Psychic Friends Network versus Edgar Cayce. It’s the same pattern every time.

The Psychic/Prophet dichotomy is essentially a reworking of the socially delimited options traditionally available to women and men in European and American culture. Women are confined to the private realm (the family and household), while men dominate in the public realm (national governance and defense). These narrowly defined roles apply not only to the actual constructive maintenance of the social fabric, but also to the virtual work that psychics and prophets perform.

Something else to consider: judging from my limited experience, psychics often foresee a karmic world in which balance is restored, a redemptive future where a window opens for every door that closes. A job loss leads to an exciting, fulfilling career path. A heartbreak gives way to a true love. Life-threatening illness paves the path toward enlightenment. Prophets, however, warn us with zero-sum propositions, with clear losers and winners, stark differences between right and wrong, where equilibrium is not the outcome but a sense of justice is.

Now here’s a crude essentialist thought: is this difference in vision between a world restored to its communal spirit and a world riven in two the difference between the way women are taught and expected to interact with the world (by nurturing it) and the way men are taught and expected to interact with the world (by dividing it)?

Review of Shyamalan’s “The Happening”

The Happening is possibly the worst movie I’ve seen in years, and I’m just desperate to find some inkling of redeeming value in Shyamalan’s mess. But I can’t. Just a collection of loose thoughts that may help somebody else also trying to justify to themselves their rationale for sitting through this movie:

  • There is the promise — ultimately undelivered — of thematic coherence between the honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder (raised in the opening scene by the science teacher Elliot Moore and underscored in the early part of the movie by the constant vibrating cell phones, an echo of a bee’s buzz). But no link is ever made between CCD and the waves of suicidal compulsions that strike humans on the East Coast. And if a link were made, it might not necessarily work. Are the bees supposed to be a foreshadowing of a human colony collapse? Is the same neurotoxin responsible? Why would plants want to kill bees? Or is CCD the motivation for the plants killing humans? In revenge for killing off the world’s bees? What a mess.
  • Unnecessarily gruesome. I’ve heard this is supposed to be a horror movie as opposed to a suspense thriller. Shyamalan should stick to thrillers. He must think the only difference between horror films and suspense thrillers is the level of goriness. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
  • Zooey Deschanel cannot act. Period. No debating this one. And why are the women so helpless? They can’t even operate a radio without a man’s help. Or is the idea of helpless women supposed to be an homage to the horror genre? It’s ridiculous either way.

OKay, I’m already spending way too much time on this. The film stole 90 minutes of my life the other night, no reason for it to suck up any more.

Pop Apocalypse: Shearwater’s “Rooks”

I’ve always been obsessed with end-of-the-world scenarios, from the original 1968 Planet of the Apes to Cormac McCarthy’s 2007 novel, The Road. I’ve tried to intellectualize my lifelong fascination, even teaching courses on Apocalyptic Literature. But no matter how many fancy words I use in my courses (“a posteriori apocalypticism,” “stigmatized knowledge,” “escalation ladder”), I cannot fully explain why I am drawn to these bleak tales of catastrophe and suffering.

Just yesterday I realized that my obsession with the apocalypse extends beyond literature and film into the realm of music. In fact, I can clearly recall specific periods in my life and the apocalyptic song that was on my life’s soundtrack at the time. Not counting REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” — a predictable contender on any doomsday playlist — here are the songs on my Armageddon song list:

  • In the early nineties it was “The Road to Hell” from Chris Rea’s Road to Hell
  • Later in the nineties it was Leonard Cohen’s “The Future” from the album of the same name (“It’s lonely here / there’s no one left to torture”)
  • In the days and weeks and months after 9/11 it was “The Dead Flag Blues” from Godspeed You! Black Emperor!’s f#a#∞ (“We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine / and the machine is bleeding to death”)
  • And now, the song that prompted this reflection, what I’ve been listening to obsessively, is “Rooks” from Shearwater’s Rook

Shearwater's RookWith the song’s haunting arpeggios and singer Jonathan Meiburg’s resonant falsetto, “Rooks” is at once unnerving and beautiful. The lyrics suggests that the End draws nigh, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Or rather, there’s nothing we want to do about it.

It not so much apathy we seek in the face of the disaster, but obliviousness: “The ambulance men said there’s nowhere to flee for your life / so we stayed inside / and we’ll sleep until the world of man is paralyzed”

Listen to “Rooks” by Shearwater:

Speaking up for Jerry Falwell

Last week I posted a video clip of Jerry Falwell in 1998 delivering a sermon about the potential apocalypse of Y2K. In the clip, Falwell tosses off a weird aside about how he used to teach billy goats to “do what they’re best at.” It was a funny clip, especially out of context. In a similar vein I had prepared another clip, from the same series of sermons. In this clip, Falwell means to be talking about natural disasters, but he goes off on a tangent about boxing:


Again, a funny clip, especially out of context.The first clip has been viewed several thousand times (helped no doubt by its mention on BoingBoing). I was pleased so many people watched the video, but I was unprepared for the kinds of comments people left on YouTube. A few were innocuous, a few were clever, but most were simply hateful. Far more hateful than anything Falwell himself ever said. And that’s saying a great deal, considering Falwell was a close-minded bigot peddling fear and willful ignorance based upon an uninspired and incompetent interpretation of the Bible.But the things you people said. They were just mean. Whereas my clips are examples of ironic juxtaposition (say, a homophobic preacher revealing that he likes to watch big sweaty men “get with it” in the boxing ring), the comments on YouTube were spiteful, vengeful, and punctuated extremely poorly. Most were gleeful that this man had died. And most wished that in death, Falwell was due for worlds of pain, usually involving hellfire, and usually involving defilement by one or more farm animals.

I deleted the offensive comments and closed off the page to any more comments.

I don’t see this as censorship so much as good taste. However poor his grasp of biblical scholarship, however provincial his worldview, Jerry Falwell was, I believe, at heart a decent man. By all accounts he was not a moral hypocrite, as so many other famous televangelists and preachers have turned out to be. So, I say, it’s a case of hate the sin (ignorance, antisemitism, xenophobia, etc.) but love the sinner.

And that’s coming from someone who doesn’t believe in either heaven or hell.

Jerry Falwell on Y2K and Goats

In September 1998, Jerry Falwell delivered a series of sermons about the impending social collapse soon to be delivered to a wicked nation by the “Millennium Bug” — that is, the disaster that never disastered, Y2K.

In the sermons, Falwell likens the Tower of Babel to Y2K, and prophesizes that “God may use Y2K to crush us and prepare us for revival.” And oh, yeah, he talks about goats too.


Oprah on The Road / The Road on Oprah

I’m a voracious reader and my personal and professional lives both revolve around books: I’m always either reading a book, teaching a book, or writing about a book. Sometimes all at the same time for three different books.

In short order this spring I’ve read a string of novels, nonstop, usually starting the newest one only hours after I have just finished the previous one. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons, The Keep by Jennifer Egan, The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, The Confusion by Neal Stephenson, The Known World by Edward P. Jones.

And then, a few weeks ago I read The Road by the elusive Cormac McCarthy. This was before Oprah chose McCarthy’s novel as her latest “Oprah’s Book.” (A most unusual selection for her, and I’m sure a shocking read to Oprah’s followers, who are more accustomed to books about painful family relationships than the post-apocalyptic horrors of cannibalism and barbary found in The Road.) This was also before McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for The Road.

So what happened when I read McCarthy’s novel?

Quite simply, I haven’t been able to read another book since. So dark and disturbing, yet literarily brilliant is the novel, that I’m shaken to the core, unable to pick up anything else to read until something–I don’t know what–in me subsides.

Fall 2006 Courses

For a lack of anything else intelligent to say at this hour, I’m posting descriptions for two of the undergrad courses that I’m teaching next fall:

21st Century American Fiction
(ENGL 429:001)

What innovative directions is American fiction taking in the new millennium? How have novelists and other writers reacted to the dominant events of the past few years: the dot-com bust and ensuing recession; the 9/11 terrorist attacksand the War on Terror; the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its impact at home and abroad; and the ascendancy of the virtual world? In this advanced literature course we will examine the trends, assumptions, and anxieties reflected in an assortment of recent fiction, published by both rising stars and well established writers.


Apocalyptic Thought in American Fiction
(ENGL 202:004)

There is a long history of apocalyptic thought in American fiction, and in this class we will examine the relationship between visions of the end and the social and historical contexts that give rise to those visions. We will consider the literary renderings of both religious apocalyptic scenarios (Doomsday, the Rapture, the Second Coming) and secular apocalyptic scenarios (environmental, biological, nuclear). The final portion of the class will consider the Journey into the Wilderness–a long-standing tradition in apocalyptic literature. We will treat the fiction we read as exactly that: fiction. In other words, we are not studying the apocalypse, but rather, representations of the apocalypse. As such, these representations reveal more about our anxieties and concerns with the present world than about any deeply held belief we hold about the end of the universe.